Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Lost & Found

May 18, 2005 (Rzepnik)

The weather is mud. The less said about that, the better. But I feel like complaining. The weather is mud. A constant gray downpour and everything sliding out of itself.

We finally set out for Wislok Wielki, though, Sarah and Nasim and I, at mid-day today. We had chocolate to fortify us, and Irish music to go with the rain. En route, we passed through the village called "Lower Will," and passed the turn off to "Higher Will." We passed several old collective farms, or "PGR's." It's strange to be driving through the countryside and suddenly come upon the kind of gray concrete apartment blocks -- housing for the farm workers -- one sees in the cities. Some of these are still inhabited, as the people living there have nowhere else to go, even if there's no longer work for them here. The farm buildings themselves -- also gray concrete monoliths, with rusting metal window frames and broken windows -- stand abandoned, usually on the opposite side of the road. Lukasz tells me that the communists didn't try to turn all the farmland in Poland into collectives, as they did in other "satellite" countries, because attachment to the land here was too fierce. It was only in those villages, like Wislok Wielki, that were "purged" of all their inhabitants, that collective farms were established. And Lukasz tells me they were doomed to fail. People were brought into these villages, to work the collective farms, from other parts of Poland. He says these were people who'd never owned land of their own, who were "the dregs of society," layabouts and thieves and drunks. I love the stories and histories Lukasz tells me, but Sarah says I should talk to other people, too, because Lukasz's versions are Lukasz's versions.

Wislok Wielki is situated on the river Wislok, near Poland's border with the Slovak republic, in the Beskid Niski, the lower Carpathian mountains, on the northeast edge of Jasliski Park Krajobrazowy, the Jasliski "landscape" park. It's about an hour's drive from Rzepnik, and I was surprised at how quickly we seemed to arrive. Maybe because it doesn't seem so far away to me as it once did. Only a few years ago -- six years ago now -- I could hardly believe it existed. Before that, I had been convinced it was a vanished place, no longer on any map -- if it had ever been on any map, if it had ever really existed at all. And arriving in Wislok Wielki still feels to me like arriving in another world.

There's this beautiful kind of emptiness -- at least, I find it beautiful. Sarah says that knowing so many people once lived here and were forcibly "removed," most of their houses long gone and the fields gone back to meadow, would make it too difficult for her to live here. Haunted and sad, yes. But I find it peaceful, beautiful, even in the rain. Mist hung along the hillsides and in the valleys, like shreds of veil; the pine trees growing so thick and so dark they looked almost black; bright yellow flowers -- marsh marigolds --blooming along the riverbanks; the river flowing swiftly, glassy green-brown. The village where my father's mother was born.

We drove over the bridge, past the old collective farm buildings -- firewood cut and stacked along the wall of one of the enormous concrete barns, so someone must still be using these facilities -- and past the green Wislok Wielki sign. We stopped first at the priest's house, next to the old wooden church, but there was no answer when we rang.

So we drove straight into town to the town's one shop, where we used the restroom and bought Nasim an ice cream. The shop is always dim inside -- I suppose they're saving electricity, even on rainy days like this -- and there were a few men drinking beer at a little table when we walked in, as usual. The last time we were here, a kind of cafe bar was being added onto the building, but that side of the building was closed, and looks as if it's only opened for special occasions. Sarah asked the proprietors some questions, and they told her there was to be a mass at 6 p.m., so the priest would be at home later ...

Then we drove toward Anna's house, just across the road from the village's one bus stop. Sarah and I met Anna Opryszko the first time we ever came to Wislok Wielki, and she seemed already ancient then. Last year when we were here, we figured Anna must have died when we saw the for sale sign on her house. But today there was a tiny female figure standing out on the second floor balcony. She was wearing slacks and a headscarf and her face, from that distance, could have been the face of a young or middle-aged woman -- dark skin, sharp blue eyes. "Is that Anna?" Sarah asked. "In slacks?" I asked in reply. So we got out of the car and Sarah called, "Pani Anna?" And the man who'd been cutting the grass in the yard stopped swinging his scythe as we approached, set it carefully aside when he saw Nasim. And Anna came down and, yes, she remembered Sarah -- she's adored Sarah from the first time she met her, six years ago now, when Sarah was breast-feeding Nasim in the car while Lukasz and the priest and I talked to the oldest woman in Wislok Wielki, Anna having been, then, I suppose, the second oldest woman -- but no, she shook her head when she looked at me, she didn't remember me at all. Of course, Sarah can speak Polish to her, and I can't; and Sarah says Anna is terribly lonely, just needs someone to talk to, and Sarah gives her lots and lots of attention.

Which is at least partly why, from the first time we met her, I've wondered if Anna's claims to remember my grandmother's family and where they lived are, in fact, true. Or if she's only humoring us so that we'll stick around a little longer ... ? Nasim, knowing I don't understand Polish and maybe sensing my frustration at not being able to catch what was being said, whispered in my ear, "She keeps saying the same thing." Maybe just an addled, lonely old woman. She asked if we wanted to see the Bakisae family lands; she directed us first down an unfamiliar side road, pointing out plots of land and even one old wooden house, still standing, places we'd never seen before, saying that one family member lived here, and another there, and oh they owned a lot of land, my grandmother's father was a kind of "chief" of the village. I was getting skeptical, then, until she led us back to that same field we've visited a half-dozen times, the first place she told us was my grandmother's family's land, a big open meadow next to the river, where we've had our ritual picnic each of my three previous visits to Wislok. Maybe I'm just choosing to believe it's" our land," because I'm already in love with it; but maybe it's true. Standing there in the road, I had the strongest sense that my grandmother had been there, in that meadow, that it had been her meadow, and she wanted it back. And no sooner had that last thought crossed my mind, than Anna turned to me, gestured toward the meadow, said something that Sarah translated as, "She says you should buy the land." It's not privately owned now, which means it's owned by the government, which means one could try to reclaim it, if one could figure out how that's done. But all I could do, at that moment, was turn again to face the meadow and the hillside that rises behind it -- "That's your hill, too," Anna said -- and hope that no one saw that I was crying, though no one would have minded, I know.

Then we drove Anna, as always, to the church, climbed up to the cemetery so she could kneel at her husband's grave and sob. He's been dead since 1995, which seems not that long ago to me, but Sarah says it must seem like an eternity to Anna, who seems so alone. Her husband was taken away during the war, she's told us, and forced to work in Germany; when he came back after the year, he was "removed" with other Lemks, and imprisoned for five years. Anna's keening reminded me of the way my godfather, my great-uncle Paul, keens sometimes, saying, "Oh honey, life is hard, life is hard." Sarah held her for a few minutes. Nasim and I walked on; Nasim was marveling at all the snails on the path; I was noticing how many small graves, children's graves, were in the cemetery. Thinking that we've lost count, again and again, of how many children my grandmother buried. I also noticed that Anna had a key on a cord worn around her neck, and remembered my father telling me that his grandmother, Justyna, wore such a key, and never took it off. He suspected it opened the trunk where she hid her "hootch." I asked him once if his stepfather had been an alcoholic, and he looked at me and shook his head and said, "Oh honey, it was the only way they could get through a day."

After we dropped Anna off, we went back to the priest's house and tried again. This time, the priest -- sporting a two-day beard, a cardigan and rubber slippers -- came around from the side of the house said, Dzproszem, and motioned for us to follow him. Not into the house, as it turned out, but up the hill, in the rain, to the church. He remembered who we were; he's been in touch with Lukasz's father, saying he had some picture he wanted me to see -- a poster that Michal would give me later, of a painting of the Madonna and Child from the Wislok church, with a bullet hole in the center. So we hurried to keep up with him.

Poor Sarah, trying to translate while the priest talked non-stop and I wanted to know every word he said. And Nasim, though she surely must have been bored by then, just kept reading the book she'd found in the backseat of the car. The priest was showing us the church, how he'd recently had the original wooden facade restored, so it would look like it had looked fifty years ago, before the wood had been removed and replaced by some kind of aluminum siding. (To "modernize" or erase the past, or both?) The interior walls, also wood, have been painted and repainted, I'd guess, over the 150 years the church has stood on this small, steep hill. The wooden domes are orthodox, eastern; the white bell tower in front of the church seems more catholic, and more recent. The whole effect is somewhat confused ... eastern and western icons, etc.. -- and even the priest is confused. White ribbons hung like streamers from one point in the ceiling -- a point at the top bar of a set of bars on a window in a painting of the Virgin Mother surrounded by the apostles, Mary with one hand on the head of a bizarre-looking statue with a man's face, woman's breasts, a dog's body -- and attached to different points on the walls, giving a May Pole (i.e. distinctly pagan) effect. The only explanation the priest offered was that the local schoolchildren had made the ribbons ...

A woman came into the church at that point, needing the priest for something, so he left us alone there for a while. When he came back, again talking almost non-stop, he led Sarah and I up a ladder into a loft, which he's made into a kind of museum. On one wall hung traditional garments brought back by some Lemks -- my grandmother's tribe --who'd gone to Ukraine during the purges. On the other side of the loft, there were the few documents of village business he'd been able to preserve -- things he'd found in the attic. He told us that when the communists had come into power after the war, they'd burned almost all the local records. One document he'd preserved was a reprimand of a local Jewish man, Fisela Wrobla, who'd been selling alcohol illegally. A word that looked like a Polish equivalent of "prohibition" was written at the bottom of the document. The priest laughed and said "Al Capone!"

I was surprised to hear there had been Jewish families in Wislok. The priest shrugged -- "Here as everywhere in Poland." So Gypsies, Jews, Lemks and Ukrainians had lived together in Wislok, along with a few -- "not many" -- ethnic Poles, who followed the pope, then as now, the Roman Catholic church. As best I could understand, since there was only one church in this village, everyone worshipped here together, thus the mix of iconography. The priest told us that, between the two world wars, the Lemki -- who were the majority here, I think -- were shifting from Greek Catholic ("Orthodox") to Ukrainian Orthodox, changing faith. I assume this coincided with the Ukrainian separatist movement Lukasz has told me about, when Ukrainian fighters in the mountains recruited Lemks, who spoke a Ukrainian dialect, to their cause. It was after that rebellion was put down that the purges began.

There were 4,500 people living here before WWII and "Operation Wisla" in 1945 -- the forced removals -- mostly Lemks and Gypsies and Jews and Ukrainians, and the few "ethnic" Poles; and now there are 250, including five of the "old families" who returned after Stalin's death. The whole history of the place seems complicated and dark; there's much that's simply not known, and may never be known. It seems to me the whole village was "disappeared," much like my disappearing grandmother. Disappearances inside of disappearances inside of vanishings ...

The priest wants to put me in touch with some other Americans who've been to Wislok recently, searching for their "roots." I get the distinct sense that he thinks, together, we might be able to reconstruct some of the history of this village. There's also a priest in a Slovakian village who might know more, and there's a Lemk community in the nearby town of Comancze, which wasn't purged, and an old woman in the next village ...

But this was enough for one afternoon. My feet, in my thin, wet boots, were numb from the cold, and I could tell that Sarah was exhausted, and Nasim, bless her, was finally getting a little restless. It was twilight by the time we left the church, and Wislok Wielki, and started the long drive back to Rzepnik.



May 19-20, 2005 1:15 a.m. (Rzepnik)

Maybe a story of disappearances, what's disappeared, and who, and do I have a right to call anyone back, to try to call anything into existence again? My grandmother disappearing, disappearing all her life, then her life disappearing, too. This whole country disappearing behind the iron curtain before I was born. The whole village of Wislok Wielki "disappeared" just after the war, Operation Wisla. Even the priest doesn't know where they went, the thousands of houses that stood there, gone. And how people seem to look at me here, now I've come, as if I've appeared from some future or some past and maybe they're glad I have, maybe I have work to do. But it may be written on water, too, the story I'm trying to tell. May disappear as it's being told, as it's being written, seems to go on and on like a river, and a river never turns back. Now I can hear all the streams moving swiftly, some night bird calling, invisible.

Sarah and I took part in a crazy reading in Krosno this evening, in the new "salon artysteka" of the public library. A beautiful room full of beautiful sculptures, reached by passing through the usual dismal passageways, always a surprise, these interiors, which I think of as metaphors for the inner life, how the inner life has been protected here. But the discussion after the reading degenerated into some kind of battle about local arts-politics, and it went on and on until I thought my head was going to explode. It terrifies me now when I hear people talk about "patriotism," about "national identity." Don't they remember the Nazis? I thought there was something on the brink of real madness, real insanity, in that room. What was that gorgeous 94-year-old woman trying to say about going to heaven? What was Michal trying to say about toilet brushes? What was anyone? And why didn't Wacek or Jan put a stop to it? Afterwards a bunch of us went to a cafe on the main square, sat downstairs in the cellar, eating and drinking and smoking and talking, laughing about it all, until the rooms around that room where we sat went dark, and we knew it was time to go.



May 20-21, 2005 12:30 a.m. (Rzepnik)

Last night, after what had seemed like an eternity of rain and mud, the sky cleared and the temperature dropped.

Sarah lit a fire in the big room, so it was warm when we all fell asleep.

This morning, I woke to hear Sarah and Lukasz talking, Lukasz packaging seeds somewhere in the vicinity of my bed. I rolled over and went back to sleep. He was gone when I finally got up, and Sarah was having a much-needed, much-deserved lie-in. So I made my coffee quietly.

After she got up, we had a whole morning and afternoon to ourselves here in Rzepnik, blessedly peaceful. Sarah made us the most delicious slow-cooked porridge for breakfast. There was time to talk and listen to music and time for me to take a nice vigorous invigorating walk up the hill. The sun even peeked out from time to time, so we ate our lunch on the bench outside, in front of the house.

Later, we went to see The House -- the house Sarah and Lukasz are building on a hillside just down the road, in a spot overlooking forest and valley, facing a big dip of a meadow, like a bow full of wildflowers. How to describe this? How to describe anything? It's A House. Sarah and I climbed the gravel road up the hill and there it was. Lukasz salvaged the wood from an old Jewish Inn; thick rough beams he's caulking by hand with moss and a mixture of mud and sawdust. The local carpenter they've hired -- "You're born to do something," he says, "You have to do what you love, then you'll do it well" -- was putting in the wooden frames around windows. He proudly showed us the beautiful front door he'd made, embedded with brass studs, a magical door. A magical house with a peaked red roof, like a Chinese pagoda. Everything will be made by hand, and with love.

Early evening, after Sarah and I returned from a trip to Krosno, we picked Lukasz up at The House to bring him home for dinner. We agreed he looked incredibly handsome. And when we came home, and were unloading the groceries and getting the front door open, we told him so. And he told us we both looked incredibly beautiful, too. None of us knew why this was true. I said maybe it was because we were all so happy that it wasn't raining. And then Lukasz turned, with a Lukasz look in his eyes, and said, "The world is strangely transparent!" And Sarah and I cracked up.

But he was right. I went into the house and decided to immediately take the wet laundry out to the clothesline in the meadow. And when I opened the door, I called to Sarah, "Come and look at this light!" It was suddenly golden, transparent, every tree lit up; the church on the other side of the meadow gleaming behind the scaffolding. I ran up toward the high end of the meadow with the laundry in my arms, saying, "Look, look!" Sarah was laughing behind me, "Yes the laundry line is the place to be right now." It hangs between some trees at the edge of a little ridge, a stream running just below. And this strange, transparent golden light was filtering through everything. I could almost hear it, it sounded like chimes. I hung up my pyjamas and my pyjamas glowed. I hung up Lukasz's socks and Sarah's underwear, too, and thought all our garments were becoming magical. In the morning everything will smell like sunlight and fresh air and the green meadow. And then we'll get to put that light, the whole meadow, onto our bodies. How will we not be even more beautiful then?

I was so happy that I took a big hot bubble bath, burning a stick of incense and reading Sappho while I soaked. Then I was so happy that I did some of the washing up at the kitchen sink, while Sarah prepared some beautiful salads. We cleared everything off of the table but the flowers and the food, opened the good bottle of wine we'd picked up in Krosno, and celebrated being here, on this strange earth, at this kitchen table, together. I love knowing that I will know these people for the rest of my life. I love knowing that, in a few minutes, I'm going to tiptoe in to my bed in the big room, next to my friends' bed, next to the fire. Lukasz said he's going to dream about cutting the grass. Sarah and I may both dream of the horses we'll be riding tomorrow, across our beloved Carpathian meadows.


May 21, 2005 1:30 p.m. (Pole Surowniczna -- "a sacred place" for Sarah)

Yesterday, the sun came out long enough for me to take a walk up the hill in Rzepnik. I looked down one muddy lane, curving into the woods, wildflowers blooming in the grass, and I thought of my father; I suddenly felt his presence there. He comes back to me sometimes like this; I can feel the weight of his voice in the air; I feel I can feel -- more than hear -- him speaking to me. This was the first time in more than a year.

This morning Sarah and I drove to Lipowiec, to the stables owned by Lukasz's friend, Pan Kusnierz. Sarah chose a short-legged, stout, sturdy looking horse called "Professor," because she hadn't ridden in 20 years, but I wanted a view, so I insisted on the long-legged Fanaberia. Too late when I realized that, of course, "Western" saddles aren't used in Poland, even on trail rides, so we would be riding "English." Too late to confess I'd never been in an English saddle in my life, until I'd mounted the horse. And Fanaberia -- whose name means something like "flighty" -- keeps wanting to dip her head for water, grass, a passing low branch. And the first time we all broke into a trot, I thought I'd fly right off of her back. Sarah called out instructions about holding on with my knees, rising in the saddle in rhythm with the horse's gait. And what should have taken days or weeks or months to learn suddenly felt as natural to me as walking with my own feet on the earth, as flying, if I happened to be a bird. Or a little bit of both.

Between heaven and earth. All morning we've ridden across high meadows full of wildflowers, over the mountains, through Jaslisko, Posada Jasliska, to Polany Surowiczne, laughing Magda on her long-legged horse in the lead, the drunken Polish guy -- who was already one-eyed, red-faced drunk when we arrived at the stables before 10 a.m. -- bringing up the rear of our little entourage, though he keeps wanting to gallop his horse. "It's a horse, not a machine," Magda tells him, and shakes her head.

So at mid-day we've come to Pole Surowniczna, gathered around the bonfire; the bottle of vodka and a single shot glass are being passed around; kielbasa is roasting over the flames. Across the pasture, we can see the wooden lodge where Sarah and Lukasz were stranded by a rainstorm for several days on their very first "date." Our horses are rolling around in the mud, cooling off. The "last cowboy in Poland" has tuned his guitar and is singing a song about whisky and beer. I've said "no thanks" to "drippings" on bread, but yes to a shot of vodka, so as not to be "unsocial," as Pan Kusnierz said, and I've stuck two pieces of Kielbasa on the end of my skewer and am waiting for them to get crisp.

I've been thinking again how impossible this is, how magical, that I'm here at all. I've been thinking about Pawel, the Bulgarian man I met in Basel ten years ago, the first person I ever talked to who'd ever actually been to the Carpathians. And he'd only passed through, on a train in the middle of a thunderstorm late at night. He told me he didn't believe in ghosts, but that the landscape seemed truly haunted to him. And maybe it is. Full of ghosts and absences. On the road to the stables this morning, little chapels where Lemk houses once stood.

Everything disappears. Nothing disappears.


May 21-22, 2005; 1:30 a.m. (Rzepnik)

Riding back in magic light, at a high trot across the high meadows, gold beneath us -- the golden fields -- and gold above. The whole gold-green world.

Thinking this: did she ever exist? There is no record of my grandmother's birth or baptism, or of any of her marriages. No record of immigration. No record of her death or where she was buried, or what name she was buried with. Did she ever even exist? How completely a woman, her whole story, her whole history was erased.

And thinking this: how I had to come back here, to the Carpathians, to catch up with my own soul. How I felt it fly back into my body here, after a season of grief, last spring. How I'd been terrified of losing some love I'd never really had. How I'd mistaken that terror for love, brutality for strength. How close I came myself to allowing myself to be erased.

Today, I peed in a patch of marsh marigolds and then washed my hands in the river, so clear and cold it stung.

And after we'd led the horses, bareback, back into their stalls, Pan Kusnierz -- we could be related, the name is like "Kushner" when said out loud -- stared at me hard and nodded his head, saying, yes, we should go to the Kermesz in Olchowiec. Saying the mass would be sung in Ukrainian; saying, "Your grandmother prayed this way."

This is the way my grandmother prayed.

I stood in the back of the old wooden church, next to Justyna and Marya. Squares of gold and green and red and blue light shone through the stained glass windows, fell across the Madonna and Child. A simple painting; perfect squares. From the front of the little church, near the altar, deep sweet voices rose. Singly, in chorus, then singly again, and the voice of the priest from behind the altar which makes him invisible also rose. Dark notes; the human voice. Not "angelic" but full of earth. Sarah says the sound is "horizontal," the notes coming straight at your body. More solemn than holy. More holy than sacrosanct. The priest shaking the rope of golden bells.

I stepped outside and climbed the hillside, green, of graves to the very top. The child's grave in the topmost corner there; no stone, just a plain wooden cross. And paper narcissus everywhere; white paper narcissus on long, slender stems growing in bunches, wild, like clouds.

Down in the meadow, around the bonfire, sparks flying up against the full moon, I stood among friends, a conversation going on in four languages -- English, Polish, German, French -- and only four of us standing there.

And then in the room where the dancing finally began, the Lemks from L'vov with their gold and their silver teeth were singing and clapping and stomping their feet. Gabriel said to me, "You see, it's the old people who know how to have a good time."

Sarah danced in a crowd of the young and I sat on a bench against the wall with the gypsy mother, just to be near her, just because I was glad she was there. This year, she was wearing a sheer yellow scarf on her head, a glittering emerald green vest, a black skirt with gold threads woven in, a white apron embroidered with flowers, even gold socks. She's as astoundingly beautiful as ever; her face is brown; her eyes are blue. She muttered to me -- in what language? -- I nodded my head and said "tak" and she shrugged, then laughed and lit a cigarette. I gave her the little ashtray that Andrew gave me, that I've carried for years in my purse, because I wanted to give her something and she loved how it clicked when it opened and closed.

We drove back to Rzepnik at midnight, moonlight on everything, silver milk. How the world shines and shines in its mystery. How I'll never be lost again.


May 22, 2005 (Sunday, Rzepnik)

Mud is the price we pay for these flowers.

In spite of the warm bath with salts I took before going to bed, in spite of the fact that I somehow miraculously wasn't sore after all day on horseback and my baptism-by-fire of learning to ride English (or would that be "Polish?") in the first fifteen minutes on Fanaberia (and why did I choose a horse whose name means "Flighty" anyway?), and the shots of vodka at the mid-day bonfire and the beer I spilt half of at the Kermesz, I wasn't able to sleep much and woke almost as soon as the sunlight came streaming into the seed room this morning, a Sunday morning in the Carpathians so beautiful that it was breaking my heart to be leaving even before I had my coffee.

So I had my coffee outside on the bench while Sarah and Lukasz came to -- which involved Lemki music played loud enough that I could hear it, too, which added to the heartache. And then everyone was arriving for mass at the church across the meadow, the tone-deaf bells were clanging and Sarah was saying, "Stay one more day," and I was packing and feeling like singing and crying at the same time.

And there was Kaszyk in his Sunday best at the end of the driveway, waving hello. "Dobre," I said, and got into the car. And then we were flying to Krosno.

And at the bus station, Lukasz ran to buy my ticket and Sarah and I ran to the shop for a roll. And standing in line at the till, I grabbed Sarah and said, "I love you," but what I meant was, "Thank you," but what I meant was, "I love you." And an old lady cut in front of us to buy some vegetables. And then we were chasing my bus to Krakow across the parking lot. And then standing there kissing, the three of us, and then waving and blowing kisses as the bus pulled out of the parking lot.

It was a long, hot, lurching ride to Krakow, then I panicked a little, finding the train to J-S, a train I'd never taken before, to the station nearest Maczki, where Jozef would be picking me up. And the train was packed, but I found a seat in a compartment with a lot of young people -- better that one than the compartment occupied only by one man sprawled out across half the seats, who looked -- and smelled -- as if he'd been sleeping there for days -- and two of my seatmates, who spoke some English, assured me that I was on the right train. And when we stopped at Jaworzno Szcakowa -- I was crying over my book -- they let me know this was the place and helped me get my suitcase down from the rack.

But the quai at Jaworzno Szcakowa was mostly deserted, no sign of Jozef, and it turned out to be one of those stations that doesn't look like the end of the world, but like 20 years after the end of the world. Grim and deserted and where was Jozef and was this the right place, after all, and where was a telephone, at least? Finally, after dragging my bags downstairs into a tunnel and back up again into the street, I found a man who spoke no English but was able to point me toward the "kasa" -- a dark room where a middle-aged woman sat behind a ticket window and two men with bruised and battered faces -- one had a black eye so black and blue it was swollen shut -- were staggering around, finally settling on one of the benches. Lukasz told me that the unemployment rate in Poland is "officially" at least 20%, and actually much higher, as anyone with a garden is considered a "farmer" and not counted among the unemployed, so what a lot of these guys seem to do is drink and fight and drink some more and while I'm sympathetic I wasn't relishing spending the night there with them on the bench. And my phone card didn't work in the pay phone and my cell phone battery was dead and the woman at the ticket window couldn't understand a word I said. So I did what any Woloch woman would do: I got Dramatic. I wept. And the woman at the counter relented and let me slip my cell phone adaptor through the ticket window and plugged it in so I could make a call. Which didn't go through. But a few minutes later a young woman walked into the station and the pani at the counter asked her to please speak to me in English and this woman called Jozef's cell phone from her cell phone and found out he was stuck at a railroad crossing waiting for a very long train to pass and he would be here any minute. And then he was.

So I spent a lovely evening in the garden of the house at Mazcki, with Cecylia and Jozef and Karolina's grandmother and two of Cecylia and Jozef's friends, their friend Ewa doing all the translating, and eating and drinking and admiring the flowers.

In the morning, Jozef will put me on a train in Sosnowiecz and I should be in Warsaw by noon, which is going to seem restful, I think, after all the excitement of the past week.


May 23-25, 2005 (Warsaw)

Last days in Warsaw, at least for a while.

Monday evening, I took bus #117 to visit Irena. We were moving down ulica Madeleinskiego when the bus lurched to a stop. Blue lights flashing, police. A body in the street covered with a black plastic sheet. No one else even flinched, it seemed to me. Sixty years ago, there were makeshift graves on the sidewalks, in public gardens, in alleyways. The horror of what we get used to, I guess. The bus lurched forward again.

Irena made dinner -- a salad and spinach with eggs from a chicken she "knows very well." We talked and talked and talked and drank white wine and I missed the bus back. So she put me into a taxi, telling the sullen driver to take good care of her friend.

On Tuesday, I wrote in "my" cafe --"Do you have enough light?" "Is the music too loud?" I ran into Zofia in the hallway, coming out of the elevator, and she gasped. Later, she brought me another pair of earrings before she went out.

I stood in the kitchen talking to Krzstyof, who told me more about Operation Wisla, the secret assassinations, who would have wanted my grandmother dead? He suggests I find someone to help me do research and Richard agrees and I think I have. We talked about psychological torture, the kinds of tactics the Soviets used -- moving mountain people to the plains, and those from the plains to the mountains, in order to break their bonds with the land, in order to invert the ancient hierarchies, making the weakest among them the "chiefs," setting people against one another so they'd never rise up together against their oppressors. Die in misery. And many have.

On Wednesday evening, Irena took me to Aurora -- a club owned by some of her friends who also publish philosophy books. Really, it's a compound of clubs and cafes, all in industrial-type temporary buildings in an open courtyard that will be a subway station some day, as soon as the road authority gets around to building it. ("But that's at least 10 years away," Anna shrugged.) It reminded me of downtown L.A. We ate in "the garden," which means at a long wooden table outside, in the open space. Then Irena and I had a drink in another of the clubs, where flamenco was being played. She carries her little dog Mishka everywhere she goes, sets her down, lifts her up with one hand. Everyone thinks the dog is adorable, wants to pet her, but Mishka growls.


May 26, 2005 (Warsaw)

Who would have wanted her dead, and why?

Evil exists and it often prevails. The bullies, the tyrants, the murderers win. That's what I've been learning all this past year that I didn't want to know.

Thursday: Corpus Christi. A quiet, quiet day because it's a holy day all over Poland. "Body of Christ." The few people out in the streets carry bouquets of flowers and are dressed in their Sunday best. All the shops and cafes and businesses are closed. The streets are empty and hushed. I notice a shrine has been erected on the sidewalk on ulica Poznanska. I'm on my way to Sergio for a final massage, "something special" involving honey that will take two hours. Later, walking home, I'll hear the priest's voice chanting, echoing; see the procession moving away down a side street. I think I was in Krakow last year on this holiday; I remember watching such a procession from the window of my hotel room there.

"Do you feel like a queen yet?" Sergio asked. "Do you feel like Cleopatra?" And I had to laugh and say that I did. He was lifting the honey from my skin with the palms of his cupped hands -- "to bring up the blood, get the toxins out." And it left my skin feeling like silk. Quite a feat, given the Carpathian rash that's been plaguing me for a week.

Krzyszytof arrived while I was sitting on the stoop outside of Richard's building, trying to write down some of the things that the three of us had been talking about a few days before. He brought me a cd of Polish music. We went upstairs and opened the white wine and sat on stools in the kitchen and talked, Richard perched on the edge of the counter. An intense conversation that continued over dinner at the Mexican place -- one of the few places open; American-owned, of course. We talked about politics and history and justice and love and power. I was feeling a little tipsy. I've been feeling a little overwhelmed.

There are times when I understand completely -- or almost completely, because there's so much I haven't been told, so much that I don't know -- why my mother always says that her father never wanted to go back to Poland, kissed the earth of America. And not because the restaurants never close. But because the sense of its terrible history is so close to the surface here. I keep thinking about that body in the street I saw from the bus. And what I read in one of Richard's books, about the makeshift graves for soldiers all over the sidewalks of Warsaw during the war.

After dinner, we walked through the warm spring night to the park near the American embassy, to see the exhibition displayed on the fence. Posters of heroes and heroines of the Polish resistance, the underground, imprisoned or murdered after the war. But why, why, why I kept asking Krzys and Richard; these were people who'd fought the Nazis, the Germans, and the Nazi's had lost? Because new tyrants came into power. Because these were people who loved freedom, who were dangerous and brave. Knew how to hide in the woods, how to make bombs, were willing to fight for what they believed. Some were killed in prison. Some were released after Stalin's death, "showing signs of mental illness." Some were assassinated in America by agents of the KGB. I said I thought these posters should be on billboards, looking down at us in the streets.

In 1949, in Detroit, who might have wanted my grandmother dead? Or why might she have wanted to kill herself? I've always thought it was just her hard life, the children lost, her poor choice of husbands -- the last "the Russian," all we know of him -- but now I'm not so sure.

We walked back to ulica Piekna. I kissed Krzysztof goodbye. I wouldn't want any life but this life. And I want her story told.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

To the Carpathians...

May 15, 2005 (Sunday)

Last night -- my last evening in Warsaw before heading south and east for a while -- I sat on the floor in Richard's flat, in a circle of students and teachers and friends who'd come to hear me read some poems, and to eat and drink and talk. And I tired to explain what I'm doing here, why I've come back to Poland again and again.

I keep thinking about what might have been different if this city hadn't been bombed into rubble, if it hadn't been rebuilt under communism to look more like a prison than a place where people gathered to live; if you could do some kind of time-lapse projection, how it looked then and how it might have evolved had those disasters never occurred, how might Warsaw look now?

This morning the classical station woke me very gently: music and light; Richard stepping quietly from the room. And I washed, had my coffee, and packed. Then we walked to the station; I got on the train.

In Krakow, Sarah appeared on the quai, as she always appears, wearing something bright, striding toward me, looking a little surprised, as if she's found someone she thought was lost. We drank coffee, we shopped and talked, we flew through the streets -- filled with tourists now, bright umbrellas over the tables of sidewalk cafes, little girls in communion dresses slipping down the narrow streets off the market square. We ate at the first place I ever ate in Krakow, the cafeteria called "Chimera;" had big plates of salads and spinach tort and aubergine and thick slices of bread.

In the evening, we had a wild mini-bus ride from Krakow to Krosno, the two of us dozing side by side because keeping our eyes open would have made the trip too terrifying. When I opened my eyes again, it was dusk. Sarah said she'd thought she'd heard me saying, "Oh, god," in my sleep, but I think it was her. Mist rising up from the fields, from the road.

Lukaz and Nasim met us with the car at the Krosno bus station, full of stories of their Sunday. Lukasz had had to spend the whole day judging a local beauty pageant for 14-year olds, interviewing them about ecology, listening to what they had to say about recycling. "It was HORRIBLE," he proclaimed, "It was so ABSURD." We laughed and Nasim joined in, because she likes being in on the jokes, whether she understands them or not.

Stopped at a garage for coffee and chocolate, then drove the dark, muddy roads to Rzepnik. There are some tulips blooming in front of the house and some night bird has just called from the blackness. No stars.

So I've had my wine, I'll have my bath. My bed's been made and Nasim's gone to sleep, her rabbit back in its cage in her room. So here I am again, whatever this means: the Carpathians.


May 16, 2005 (Monday)

"What you've just eaten," Lukasz announced -- after I'd salted the thin brown broth, broken the clump of noodles with my spoon until they were soft; after I'd eaten it all and dipped my bread -- "was soup made from an organic rabbit."

"No," I said, "I don't eat rabbits!" (Nasim's pet bunny was right in the next room.)

Sarah laughed and corrected me: "No, you don't LIKE to eat rabbits. But you already have." She was standing over the woodstove, cooking up something else for herself: vegetables and noodles and 'chips.' "Something spicy and strange," she said, "You can write about it in your blog." I tried some of that, too.

"I didn't tell you before," Lukasz said, "because I didn't want to alarm you." He knew I wouldn't have eaten it. I'd seen the raw joint in the pot all day but thought I was safe with broth. He brought the meat to the table later, sat there gnawing the rabbit's haunch. What the hell, I had lemon cake, too, which Nasim had insisted be baked for me. And a glass of our "Rzepnik blend:" Lukas's homemade wine mixed with the wine from Bulgaria; the one too sweet, the other too sour. From the only three glasses, we drank.


May 17, 2005 (Tuesday)

The first time I stirred this morning, I could have sworn the sun was shining. I closed my eyes again and rolled over. An hour later, I really woke, finally.

My bed is in "the big room" of the Rzepnik house, but I still think of it as "the seed room," because that's what it was a few springs ago, when Lukasz used the space to dry and sort wildflower seeds, and my bed was in the far corner, away from the door. This year the room is full of the wooden frames of the windows for the new house that's being built, on a hillside a few minutes away; and my bed and Sarah's and Lukasz's bed are side by side, separated by a low table that holds the candles by which I read at night, after they're asleep -- after I've sat in a kitchen chair in the doorway at the front of the house, under the eaves, just out of the rain, writing in my journal and having my last cigarette of the day.

Their bed was already empty, of course, when I woke. And the house was quiet. And it was pouring outside.

Nasim had gone to school, Lukasz had gone off on errands, and Sarah was in the kitchen, at the table, a scarf wrapped around her neck, grading the English compositions of her Polish students. I could tell by the warmth that the woodstove was going, and I waved to Sarah on my way to the bathroom, knowing she'd have coffee on the stove by the time I emerged again. Maybe it's the wood fire, maybe it's the little espresso pot, but coffee made in this kitchen tastes better to me than coffee anywhere else on earth. I took my mug and headed back toward the seed room. But Sarah burst into peals of laughter just then, and she knows I can't resist. I had to go back and find out what it was about. Something to do with badgers that I can't really explain here, something about the king of the badgers ...

I opened the curtain over Sarah's desk in the seed room. It hasn't stopped raining in forever -- so says Sarah, so says Lukasz -- and outside everything looked green green green and drenched drenched drenched. I remembered once, from this same window, watching birds play on the tin roof of the bus stop shelter, which is just at the end of the Luczaj's driveway. It looked to me as if the birds were using the roof as a water slide, sliding down the little gullies to the edge of the roof and then, whoop, lifting off into flight. This morning I think it was too wet even for the birds.

I was on my second cup of coffee when Lukasz came home, dripping, loudly bemoaning "this Carpathian rain." "The potatoes are all going to rot because of this rain," he said. "Potatoes HATE this rain!"

But some time around mid-morning, the rain stopped. I stepped out the door and the air smelled freshly-washed, felt soft, so I decided to go for a walk before the rain started again. A nice misty walk, I thought. But it turned out to be a sparkly walk, instead. By the time I was five minutes up the road, walking uphill, the sun had come out and everything was glittering: a breeze blowing drops of rain from the trees overhead in little crystal showers into the puddles, almost invisible drops of shine plink-plinking and splashing back up again; streams running glassy and brown and so hard that they made a sound like waterfalls; dandelions and buttercups poking out of the high grass at the side of the road. I walked all the way up to the next bus stop, where the road levels out, and then beyond, where the road becomes a dirt road again. From the top of the hill, I could look out over the fields and the woods, see smoke rising from the chimneys of the farmhouses in the valley. A bird -- what is that bird with the broad blue stripe mid-wing? -- flew right past my head. That made me so stupidly happy that I did a little dance, right there in the middle of the road. Then I raced all the way back down the hill.

Sarah practiced her violin while I stretched, then she got lunch going -- curry and cous-cous and salad, no rabbits. Nasim got off the bus in front of the house at 12:30, though we hadn't expected her until 2 p.m., as she usually stays after school for a special "dancing class" on Tuesdays. But she "just didn't feel like it" today. I asked her about the teacher, and the dances, and whether she got to wear a tutu when they performed. She looked at me as if Id lost my mind, but she's always very patient with adults. "No," she said, "we just wear something that suits. Like, when we did the dance about the cows, we just wore black trousers and white shirts. And all the girls -- well, there's only one boy -- put their hair up like this" -- and she pulled her pigtails into two small loops at the back of her head -- "so they look like cow's ears. Well, not really like cow's ears." I told her I understood, and asked her if she'd do the dance for me, but she explained that, "You need a lot of children for that. Ten children is best." And I wished my grandnieces and grandnephew and nieces and nephews were here to dance.

Sarah and I left for Sanoc right after lunch; she was seeing clients at her office there in the afternoon, and I was going to find a nice cafe to sit in and write. The sun continued to shine, so everyone was out in the streets in town, eating ice cream --us, too. And I found a sweet little place to write for a while, a sidewalk table at a cafe attached to a "decor" boutique. And when it clouded over and got too cold to be outside, I went back to the place where Sarah and I had planned to meet, and discovered a lovely back room there, furnished with antiques, and that's where I was when Sarah found me. "You look happy," she said.

We drove from Sanoc to Krosno in the early eveing and went to see Wacek in his apartment above the pizzeria that's run by his son-in-law. Pizza was brought upstairs to us, and drinks, and we spent a couple of hours hanging out and talking -- exhausting for Sarah, who has to translate everything -- mostly about poetry.

Then we drove home to Rzepnik, and now I'm back in my chair by the front door, listening to the streams running and the frogs singing, loud and green tonight. And Lukasz is inside cooking a worm, but says I can't write about it unless I try some.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

In Warsaw

10 MAY 2005 (Tuesday)


The blind accordion player -- a rather dashing figure, in his black beret and dark glasses -- has packed up for the day. I've just seen him crossing the street in front of Hortex, the old ice cream cafe around the corner from Richard's flat, where I've taken a window table and ordered a cappuccino. It's a breezy, sunny day outside, cool for May, but bright. A half hour ago, I heard the accordionist playing softly -- something slow and melancholy and lovely -- as I walked past the spot where he'd set up, in front of a massive gray-brown building, the ground floor taken up with various shops. I stopped at a kind of take-out window to buy some fruit; the woman behind the glass partition, in a faded flowered apron like the aprons my teta's used to wear, joined me in a pantomime of gestures. I pointed to the bananas, the pears, held up a finger for "just one," and the woman held up one finger in imitation, and repeated the English word "one," and gave me a gap-toothed smile. In the ten years I've been coming here, Warsaw has changed in some surprising ways -- I couldn't, for instance, have gotten a cappuccino for love nor money in this neighborhood ten years ago -- but it still seems full of ghosts.

Sometimes an old woman walks past this window, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. Is it only the wind, or soot in her eyes, or is she crying? This seems to me somehow like the kind of city in which one could cry openly, at any moment.

I arrived yesterday on a Wizzair flight from Paris/Beauvais. It struck me when the plane landed: Warsaw is almost as gray as I've ever seen it, even in May, as if it's made all of ash and poured concrete, but there are splashes of color now. The plane that brought me here was painted fuschia; the shuttle buses on the runway were a bright lime-green. There were even some signs in English. So different from the first time I came here, arrived in Warszawa Centralna and literally didn't know which way to turn to leave the station.

On the shuttle from the plane to the gate, an overly-talkative Asian woman -- she'd been smiling at everyone all day, chatting with whoever would speak English with her -- was having her photograph taken with a little Polish boy. She was wearing pink suede boots. This woman who'd been on my nerves all day -- she'd even smiled at me, as if recognizing someone she knew, as if surprised and pleased -- suddenly seemed a kind of emblem of how Warsaw is now.

And I realized that one of the reasons Poland fascinated and mystified me as a child was that it really had, in some way, ceased to exist. The "old country" my older relations spoke of in whispers had, in fact, been erased -- or at least sealed off, made into a kind of prison for the Poles who lived within its borders. That's why it seems like a miracle to be here now. And maybe why some kind of drabness clings to it still, a kind of shadow of all those years.

Krzysztof Krzysztof (yes, his real name) met me at the gate and we took a cab to Richard's flat. He's Richard's new best friend; a 25-year-old sculptor and the son of a sculptor. He delivered me to Richard and Richard sent him off to catch his train to the country, which was leaving at 8 p.m., with a sandwich he'd packed for him. I took a good, long hot bath, read the note taped to the bathroom mirror about kindness and happiness. This is Richard's world: people take care of one another without fanfare, without hovering, without any ulterior motives about control. The kind of world in which I prefer to live.

Richard had made an appointment for me, as usual, to have a massage with Sergio, the Russian sailor. So I walked the few blocks down Poznanska, climbed the stairs to the flat Sergio shares with his mother, got on the table in the back room. His antique swords were hanging on the walls; 1950's American rock-n-roll playing on the radio while Sergio kneaded my back, cracked my spine, positioned and re-positioned me on the table until I could barely move on my own.

Later in the evening, Zofia came downstairs from the flat she shares with her mother above Richard's flat, as glamorous as ever in her bangles and spangles, that Cleopatra eyeliner only she could pull off, her hair pulled back severely so that all the angles of her face -- tragic, beautiful, ruined and not ruined -- are shown off to most effect. I'm hoping to age like that, though Zofia's glamour is an old world glamour that's probably taken a life time to achieve. No, I thought, looking at her: not old-world glamour but the glamour of a lost world. She's insisted on lending me a warmer coat than the one I brought with me from Paris, but it hangs on me like a grown woman's coat on a little girl, as if I don't have the stature or the posture to wear it properly.

Zofia and Richard and I walked down ulica Piekna to a little cafe. No tango, alas, but there will be other opportunities; there are opportunities for tango in Warsaw almost every night of the week. So I had a salad, a glass of wine, and Richard and Zofia had coffee. Zofia doesn't speak English and I don't speak Polish and so our common language is French, and so my French gets more of a workout here than it does in Paris. But Zofia's French is spoken with the dark, trilling r's of an eastern European accent. And sometimes I don't understand and sometimes I get confused about where I am, which language I should be speaking. I tried speaking French with the waitress and she stared at me blankly and, for a minute, I couldn't understand why she couldn't understand.

And now my cappucino's come and I know I can sit here for hours, if I want, staring out at the gray streetscape framed by the white lace curtains of Hortex, the pretty blonde waitress discretely guarding my privacy and my solitude, because she can see that I'm writing, or trying to write.

I never know what I'm doing here, exactly, but here I am.



11 MAY (Wednesday)

Yesterday, in the early evening, Richard sat across from me in the Czech restaurant just off Constitution Place -- "Which constitution," I asked, "when?" -- telling me about food shortages during the 1980's, during martial law, created by the Soviets to punish the Poles for their rebellion. "Everyone looked so white in the winter," he said, "Everyone's face was so pale, because of lack of vitamins." People were living on potatoes and cabbage, then, and what they grew in their little summer gardens and could preserve for the cold months. And then one day, he told me, he went home and looked in the mirror and saw his own face and saw that he looked just like the people he saw everywhere. And is it my imagination or do I see that pallor, still, on so many of the faces I see? Then, "Look!" Richard said. A group of young musicians in bright costumes was passing in front of the window; the girls in bright embroidered blouses and skirts; the boys in long cream-colored coats. "Beautiful," I agreed. And then our salads came, overflowing their bowls.

I'd spent the day writing in a cafe, taking a break in the late afternoon to go to see an exhibition of "kitsch" with Richard -- some of the art clearly made with ironic intent; some of it simply assemblages of the kinds of stuff my teta's used to decorate their houses with.
The middle-aged Polish "guardians" of the gallery -- what do they think of this stuff, of the giant posters of sex kittens and the socialist-realist portraits of Stalin and Reagan? -- asked us to write something about the exhibition in the book before we left, and we gladly obliged.

Last night, we went to tango night at the Artists' Club, Zofia's gold high heels in the bag Richard carried as we ran for the tram. A dim, smoky room on an upper floor, where couples danced around a sculpture of a nude woman kneeling on a kitchen chair ("So kitsch," Zofia despaired) and an old artist -- this is their club, after all -- obviously drunk, stumbled in and tried to chat up the young girls. Two men were dancing together, too, in the most dignified way, one teaching the other the steps. And Zofia filled me in on the local gossip as we watched, and we laughed and misunderstood one another's French.

Today, again, I spent the day writing in a cafe, then met Irena in the evening at Bacio for wine and a light supper. She had the magical chihuahua with her, as always -- her furry little Mishka, who sat quietly on her own chair next to her mistress while we talked. Irena's French is much better than her English, and much better than my French, so we spoke in a combination of languages, confusing the pregnant waitress, who addressed us sometimes in Polish and sometimes in English. It surprises me, how many people in Poland speak English now (suddenly?), and it surprised Irena that we could hear so many different languages being spoken around us in the restaurant -- Polish, English, German (which, I'm sorry, startles and frightens me, given the history of this place).

Irena told me about the writing project that will take her to Crimea next year -- a new book about where those people go when they get off the bus in the middle of nowhere and disappear into the countryside. And she offered me the use of her Warsaw apartment while she's away, because she wants me to write the book I want to write, and believes I need to write it in Poland. "But really, Cecilia," she whispered across the table, "I think your real place is in the Carpathians." And then she told me that maybe it sounded crazy, but she thought I should try to buy land there. And I told her, in fact, I'd already been thinking of that, but how? And then the "why" of it suddenly occurred to me: that maybe I want to own that land in Wislok Wielke because it was taken away from my grandmother? All the hair on my arms stood up. And I told Irena that I felt my grandmother had been lost, and had been calling to me all these years. But how to find her, how to tell her story, reconstruct from what I know and don't know the life of a woman who died before I was born? I don't know if I can do it. "But you can, Cecilia," Irena said, "You've already begun."

I walked with her down Marzalkowska to her tram stop, Mishka tucked under her arm. As she turned to cross the street, as we were kissing each other goodbye, she asked me if I knew the way home? And I laughed and said, Yes, but did SHE know the way home? After all, she'd told me she still needed a map to find her way around Warsaw. And she laughed and said, "Yes!" And then, suddenly serious, she stopped and said, "But the question is, really, do we know where 'home' really is?" She was standing there in the darkness, touching her hand to her chest, my friend.


14 MAY (Saturday)

I've found a new cafe around the corner from Richard's flat -- actually it's in the front section of the same huge building that contains Richard's and Zofia's flats. It's run by a dark-eyed, pixie-ish Italian woman, who speaks excellent English, as does her young Polish staff. There's a beautiful, quiet backroom that I've had all to myself every afternoon since Thursday, when I discovered it; a big leather sofa and a table on which to spread out my stuff. They bring me lattes and ask me if they need to turn the music down. The mirror on the opposite wall reflects the big window behind me, which is shaded by a big chestnut tree. Yesterday I came early and wanted something like breakfast. My latte was accompanied by a family-size bowl of sliced fresh fruit, and a "croissant' that turned out to be filled with raisins and cream.

Thursday afternoon I took a break for a few hours and went with Richard to the Tadeusz Kantor exhibition. In the evening we went to a tango "milonga" in a lovely circular salon inside the Palac Kultury. The Palac Kutury is the truly hideous structure that's come to define Warsaw's skyline. It was a "gift" (the Poles laugh) from Stalin after the war, completed in 1955. It kind of looks like a huge, overwrought, absurd wedding cake,surrounded by those frightening and immense "socialist-realist" statues, and I think it was considered an eyesore and an abomination for many years. Maybe it still is. But the Poles have made it their own. Now there are cinemas within its walls, a gymnasium, these tango nights in the circular salon. I met the lovely Luiza there, who's one of Richard's young English students and a tango instructor. She has this idea for combining a poetry reading with a tango milonga, and of course I'm game.

The Palac Kuultury was the first thing I saw, the first time I came to Warsaw and emerged from Centralna Station, ten years ago. I keep thinking about how much has changed here in those ten years, and how much is still the same. I noticed that the old woman selling flowers under the archway that leads from Ulica Piekna ("Pretty Street") to the Marzalkowski -- the big avenue that runs into Constitution Place --was wearing bright orange lipstick the other day, and smiling. She looked quite the coquette, in her babushka, smoking a cigarette, all those tulips in buckets at her feet. Warsaw definitely seems less grim these days, and less dangerous than it did just a few years ago, when I was robbed on the bus from the airport to the train station by one of those "Russian mafia" gangs. Richard tells me there's now a police officer on that bus, and the police on foot in the streets have also made a big difference in lowering the rate of petty crime. Still, everyone has three or four locks on their doors; and most of the facades are a sooty gray.

Ten years ago, when I first met Richard -- he was standing on the platform at Centralna when my train from Berlin pulled in: a tall, thin, striking man with a dancer's erect and graceful posture, a shaved head, a bouquet of flowers in his hands -- he was living in a two-room flat on ulica Chlodna, the street that had run through the old Warsaw ghetto. That spring -- my second time in Poland -- I was with a poet friend from the U.S., Dorraine. Dorraine had arranged for an old friend of hers, Christopher, to show us around Warsaw. Christopher was an actor who'd been a television star in Poland as a child, had then spent several decades in California pursuing an acting career -- that's where he and Dorraine met -- and then returned to Warsaw after the fall of communism. Richard was Christopher's friend, an American artist who'd slipped into Poland at the beginning of martial law and never left. When I asked him why, he told me it was because he thought that Poland, in the early 1980's, was where the most exciting art in the world was being made. So he'd stayed through the food shortages, the demonstrations, the curfews, the whole revolution -- although at first he knew no one, spoke no Polish.

Funny, that I've since lost touch with Dorraine, and Richard has lost touch with Christopher, but our friendship, our connection, has held fast. For a number of years, when I returned to Warsaw, I stayed in Richard's flat on ulica Chlodna. And I always felt comfortable there, and at home, in spite of the fact that the flat was in one of those monstrous soviet "blocs," frightening even to enter -- I'd feel like I felt entering the prison where I once led poetry workshops, each door slamming and re-locking behind me as I made my way inside the labyrinth. The flat was two, small narrow rooms, and the room I slept in had a window that looked out on a deserted square. It was desolate out there, bleak and probably dangerous, but Richard's flat was a haven -- as, I've found, the interiors of so many Polish apartments are, as if the inner life is secret, sacred, protected, but also there to be shared, and very generously shared. Richard's generosity always makes me want to be a better person myself. During the food shortages, he gave away his ration coupons. Since the first time we met, I've always had an open invitation to stay with him in Warsaw. When I arrive, he's always put in a store of coffee, purchased my weekly tram ticket in advance, laid out a map and directions to all the places I need to go, organized a poetry reading for me and invited his many artist and dancer friends.

A few years ago, Richard moved into the flat in Zofia's building on ulica Piekna. It's huge, high-ceilinged, old-world, light-filled, and the big front room is "mine" while I'm there. The wood parquet floors are worn and there's almost no furniture, and that suits my aesthetic just fine. Richard goes about his business -- he tutors privately and also teaches English to Polish business executives --- and I go about mine, though always with the sense that I'm being looked after from a little distance. As if I have a guardian angel. And I suppose I do.

On Friday evening, Richard and Zofia and I went to a milango on the "plac" near ulica Chlodna, his old neighborhood. I was amazed at how the place had been transformed -- it's a big, gleaming plaza now, surrounded by office towers, restaurants and cafes. I remembered the first time I crossed ulica Chlodna with Richard, and he told me that the tram tracks I was stepping over were the same tracks that ran through the Warsaw ghetto and that, during the war, the trams had their windows painted black so no one could see out, no one could see in, as the trams passed through the ghetto.

I'd spent most of the day Friday, again, working at this cafe, then had taken a walk in the early evening to the park at the end of ulica Piekna. The flowerbeds were full of creamy pink tulips; the play area was full of children; couples strolled hand in hand along the paths and over the little footbridge, or sat together in the shade on the benches. I noticed that more of these couples were middle-aged or elderly than young. One old man, alone, simply stood in the middle of one of the wide paths, looking around and smiling. He had big leather mittens on his hands, in spite of the warmth. I wondered why. I wondered if he was old enough to remember this city being bombed into rubble by the Germans. Probably so. But that generation is dying out slowly, as generations do, and I wonder if the rest of us forget too easily. I've been reading Bruno Bettleheim's essays about evil and thuggery, about the degradation of the soul, the self, that leads to an acceptance of evil, about the necessity of fighting to hold a moral center.

This is the weekend of the "Juvenalia" in Poland -- a celebration of and for and by the young, and so university students are everywhere in the streets, in a festive mood, and the weather is cooperating -- the sun is shining, it's breezy and bright. Richard and I were walking back from the train station earlier this afternoon when a parade came rolling down Marzalkowska, young people standing on makeshift floats, waving their arms in the air and singing, "Let the sun shine, let the sunshine in." I was crying by the time we walked into the Bulgarian wine shop. But no one seemed to be at all surprised or bothered by that, and I couldn't have explained why I was crying, anyway.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Where Was I?

May 7, 2005

Someone has suggested that maybe I add an "itinerary" link to my blog so that those who need to know will know where I can be found. Now why didn't I think of that myself?

Last time I blogged, I think, was just before I relinquished the laptop once again to the service center, packed my things and left the apartment on rue des Guillemites and took the EuroStar to London for a long weekend. Spring had just come on like gangbusters -- every cafe terrace in Paris packed with people drinking and flirting and smiling, and I'd gotten my hair done and gotten the surprise kiss worth a thousand beauty treatments and, well, no wonder I've been in a blur, a fog of blossoms ...

The weather stayed gorgeous most of the weekend in London, too, and Jill and I took long walks across the heath, hung out in her latest (her last, she swears) "dream house" in Hampstead, went to an amazing exhibit of photos by Lee Miller at the National Portrait Gallery, then had lunch in the rooftop restaurant, then walked out into Trafalgar Square and the middle of a big May Day anti-fascism rally ... Also had a long, delicious Indian dinner with Bob at the Bombay Bicycle Cafe, a lively political discussion, lots of laughing, catching up with what's happened in one another's lives in the past year ... And I also had a chance to see Milica before I left, at a pub near her office in Camden Town, and to hear about the work she's doing in eastern Europe and the Caucasus, working with "vulnerable populations" -- especially gypsies -- to help them learn to use the media to counter racism and hate crime. I told her about the book I've been reading called Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity, and she told me about a website called BlueEyed that addresses the same core issue: what do we do about the bully mentality of those who seek, and too often gain, domination over others? More about "the dark book" soon ... But read it now, if that title strikes the kind of chord with you that it struck with me.

London looks prettier and more prosperous than I've ever seen it, but even a short trip in the underground leaves one sooty and ready for "the disgusting hour," as Michele Q. so famously called it, or at least a good long soak in the bathtub ...

Back in Paris on Tuesday evening, I settled in for a few days chez Adrian in the third arrondissment, a slightly different rhythm from the Marais but a lively, wonderful neighborhood. Once I finally retrieved the laptop, I was determined to tackle the backlog of work. But after a frustrating and not-all-that-productive morning and afternoon on Saturday, I decided to at least get out of the apartment to do some errands. And I walked out of Adrian's door, turned onto the rue de Bretagne and found myself in the midst of the weekend market ... Within five minutes I was feeling light as a feather, struck dumb with that pure happiness about being in Paris that comes over me when I'm here. I bought cheese for Poland at the fromagerie, and wine, and some DVD's of French films (with subtitles, so that I can keep up with my language "studies") from a sidewalk vendor who advised me to go "little by little," and come back every weekend for some new films.

Then I walked down rue Vielle du Temple to the Marais, all the way down to rue de Rivoli -- I sometimes feel as if I need turn signals to negotiate the sidewalks here, but a simple "pardon, pardon" always works just fine. I got to the cell phone store just before it closed, got my mobile phone set up for Poland, breezed past Franck Provost and waved to Michael, strolled to the tabac at Chatelet and bought their last three packs of American Spirits, the same drunk clochard always out in front, begging for change from passersby. And walking back down Rivoli, I saw those pink shoes again -- the pair I've stared at a hundred times in the past few months. When I'd passed by that shop with Christine last week, she'd asked why I hadn't bought them yet. And my horoscope that morning had asked the same thing: Why haven't you bought those shoes? So I went in, only to find they no longer had my size. The sales girl looked at me askance and said, "You don't have to think so much." She called their other store a few blocks away and sent me flying in that direction. Yes, they had my size. Yes, I adore them, yes, I'll take them, I said. Little pink satin strappy things that will be perfect for dancing this summer, I think.

Later, I met Sonia and Shakil and Christine for dinner at the Grizzli -- great wine and food and a rowdy tri-lingual conversation, then hand-made ice cream. Walking home at midnight, I thought again of how lucky I am to be here, to be living this life, still feeling ridiculously happy, the streets and cafes still bustling ...

It's been said before and there's probably no way to say it better or more emphatically, but the sense of a shared life here, the sense of vitality and community one feels just walking in the streets, is what makes Paris so different from any city in America. This is what Jenny H. (she looks gorgeous in cyberspace!) was trying to tell me on Wednesday night -- really Thursday morning at about 2 a.m. -- while we sat at a little table in L'Etoile Manquante sipping vin chaud, facing the sidewalk still full of pedestrians, a couple of friends waving to us as they passed. This is what we lack in America, where we've given up sidewalks and one another's company for cars and stripmalls, where we've made ourselves lonely and politically impotent because we have no sense of how we're all in this together. Of course I agreed with Jenny whole-heartedly, though I keep wishing it were different, that I could see some light at the end of the tunnel ...

We'd had dinner earlier with her parents, who were in Paris as part of their first trip outside the U.S. So I finally got to meet Jenny's mom, who's an old high school friend of my old friend Betty, which is how I met Jenny in the first place, almost ten years ago now. I think her parents have been flabbergasted for years about their daughter's adventuresome spirit, her desire to live abroad and make photographs and poems. But seeing her here, in her element, speaking perfect French and flirting with the waiter, patiently translating the entire menu for her dad, sparkling in the way only Jenny can sparkle ... Well, her mom grinned across the table and said, "Can you believe that's my kid?" She's come a long way from the Pennsylvania suburb she called, at thirteen, "a stagnant pool of desperation." I think they understand her better, now and I think they'll be back to visit her here. They even encouraged her to visit Poland with me. Jenny said, "Only Cecilia could get my parents to TELL me to go to Poland."

So tomorrow, Monday, I'll fly to Warsaw. Richard has written me that someone named Viktor will meet me at the airport; that Sergio will give me a massage; that another friend will bake the Camembert with raspberries; that we'll have a poetry salon in his flat one evening. And he's set up some school visits for me there, and I hope there'll be some tango, too -- yes, the pink shoes will do perfectly.