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.

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