Tuesday, December 12, 2006

from Warsaw: the beasts and the children

We take the morning train back to Warsaw. It is a quiet ride, a pensive time. Outside, the countryside is gentle, the colors -- a hazy gold.

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My sister, who has lived in Warsaw all the years that I have been away, is waiting at the train station. She is protective of my movements here, in the city of my childhood. I know she thinks that I am too trusting, still stuck in the safer world of post-war Poland, when street crime was something we associated with America. Poland was tame then. Adults worried, but children felt safe.

I am stuck, alright, in seeing Warsaw as she was then. She is constant, she is a rock.

In the early afternoon, Ed and I set off for a walk. It is colder now, but the sun is still there, darting out just when I need it most. It is Ed’s first walk through Warsaw.

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My first Warsaw walk took place when I was maybe one, or two. There was still the smell of rubble then. Ed, in New York, was exploring Central Park and exchanging baseball cards. Or, knowing him – reading comic books on the floor of his room. I was staring at candles burning on street corners, commemorating the losses of the past decade.

We walk to Lazienki, the most beautiful urban park in the world. Bias again? No. Really, not.

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It is almost empty – unusual, at any time of the year. On a week-end, there is hardly an alley that is not taken up by the lovers, the children, the old friends walking arm in arm. Every bench is well worn, much used. But on this afternoon, it is too cold to sit. The few of us that are here walk briskly.

Though of course, we are not really alone. My sister has stuffed our pockets with stale bread and nuts for the inhabitants of Lazienki and these lovely creatures run to us, searching our coats, asking for a winter treat.

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bird and Ocean author

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bird and Ed

We are utterly charmed by this. I tell Ed that nothing has changed. I fed these same squirrels and birds when I was five years old. I am feeding them now, still grinning at their brazenness.

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squirrel reaches for a nut

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peacock jumps for bread

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may we please have more?

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and what about me?

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...while others look on

And suddenly the light fades. The trees, towering and bare, no longer throw shadows. We are in the larger shadow of the night.

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evening: empty benches, empty park

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...almost empty

I steer Ed toward the streets and squares that were my childhood paths. Look Ed, this is a planned housing development that went up after the war. With courtyards for children to play in. Nice, isn’t it?

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And here, see this square? Another housing development. People refer to this as Stalinist architecture – but we kind of learned to like it. And it still has appeal to us, in a retro sort of way.

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I was born the year Stalin died. I have read enough since to know that there is nothing pretty about the politics of that era. But my childhood memories are not about politics. They are about neighborhoods and parks and feeding squirrels and getting an ice cream cone under the arcades of these buildings.

It is cold enough to take a pause. I guide Ed to one of the many many bakeries, so familiar, still putting out the pastries that I grew up with. A vanilla babka, a poppyseed cake, and the more ornate tortes that women and men stood in line for. There were shortages then – not enough meat, not enough toilet paper, too few cars, not many washers, no clothes you would be proud to wash or wear. But I never recall a shortage of cakes. Let them eat cakes, there would always be cakes.

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At night, I eat dinner with my family. Poland is, to me, a country with baggage that is over the limit. If airlines charge $50 for too much weight in your bags, then Poland, were she traveling, would owe the equivalent of a small country’s GNP. And my family fits in here. Maybe it is a given that a nation of baggage would have individuals pulling in their share and then some.
But we eat together anyway. The younger ones keep looking forward, the older ones keep looking back, some of us no longer eat meat, some of us grew up without meat in stores, some of us push for organic meat. The wheels of change.

It is so late that I cannot write when I finally come back to the hotel and sit down at my computer. I’m in Warsaw, and incapable of saying a sensible word about her. Even though I feel I must. Someone once wrote that we are the generation of story tellers. Being post-war children, we did not write the history, yet we are burdened now with recording it.

And so I will. I do. But not until the next morning.