Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Vienna: prelude

Tomorrow, I am off, on a brief trip to Vienna. For the next five days Ocean will be focused on the other side of the ocean.


It’s 1966 and I am returning to Poland. I have lived in New York for six years, a diplomat’s brat, a kid picking up ideas and habits off the streets of the city, left alone a good deal of the time, always happy to poke around weird neighborhoods, so different from the ones back home in Warsaw.

But now I am returning for good to the city of my birth. We (my sister, mother, father) all sense that it could be a while before any of us sets foot on “western” soil again. Poland remains a closed country, its western neighbors for the most part refusing to let in those damn commies who just want to escape their own land and deplete western resources.

A train takes us from Cherbourg, where our ship has docked, to Paris. I stand by the window and watch the green Normandy pastures, pelted by rain, beyond my reach now, disappearing before I can touch them. An old man stands next to me, there in that train corridor. He says in French – do you know how to bring yourself luck? Every time you see a white horse, spit on your thumb, touch your palm with it, and pound it with a fist. Comme ca! -- he shows me. At 52, when I see a white horse, I spit on my thumb, touch my palm and pound it with a fist. How else to connect this day with that one?

From Paris, we pick up a car and begin the road journey home.

Our last nights in the western world are in Vienna. I am thirteen. I am determined to find the Spanish Riding School and the White Stallions. I had recently seen the
movie about the horses
at the time of the War. In one scene, the actor Eddie Albert is there, a soldier in an Austrian tavern, singing the ballad "Just Say Auf Weidersehen."

I want to see the real Lipizzaner horses. I want to touch a stallion that was heroically rescued in the last weeks of the Second World War even though, reluctantly, I have to admit that this will not even be the colt of the horse that lived and performed in Vienna more than twenty years ago.

I drag my family to the Hofburg Palace. The luck of the spit! We come just in time to see the stallions rehearse. Oh God, put me into that horse’s saddle, have me take the reigns and control this one lovely piece of life! The stallions can prance on their rear hoofs, front ones in the air, they can do anything you ask them to!

We buy shoes. My mother says – who knows when next we can buy decent shoes. Consumer sales are in a bleak phase back in Warsaw. Store shelves carry colorless items that look like clothes off the back of someone’s grandmother. My Vienna shoes, brown, sturdy, with a brass buckle tightly crossing the front, last me all the way through the first years at the university.

Vienna, my first encounters with this city of solid shoes and white stallions.