Sunday in the city. I will be seeing my friends in the afternoon, but the morning is my own.
I had meant to walk past my early childhood apartment building. It’s actually quite dilapidated – even worse looking now than fifty years ago and it was pretty sad then. (Caveat: for a post-war building in Poland, it was fine. “Sad” is a relative term.) I had walked past it occasionally before – it is so centrally placed! It virtually sits of a tram stop that is definitely at the navel of the city. But it seemed like a fine idea to start from its entryway now, so that I can retrace my childhood Sunday strolls.
But I didn’t do it. I got side tracked by a café/bakery. I think it has the best pastries and coffee cakes (such an American term!) in town and so you could say that food trumped sentimentality.
From the café, I make my way to the parks.
We used to say, my sister and I, that Poles used Sundays for dress up. Americans dressed down on the week-ends, Poles dressed up. “In their Sunday best,” we’d chortle. But the fact is, when we were little, we were no different: out came the dresses, the white anklets, the ribbons for braids and pony tails. We fit in.
Oh, things have changed, of course. I watch Warsaw pick up habits from elsewhere and I understand. We are a global society. Still, on this spring day in the park, there’s not a grunge in sight. People look well. And happy (even as I don’t know if they realize that they are, indeed, exuding happiness).
Example: older women, animated, on a bench in front of the Chopin monument, discussing who would share in a piece of cake.
And young families -- so many young families! It’s what parents did fifty years ago and they’re still doing it now – taking their kid to Lazienki Park. In the more please-the-child America, you think of what activity to do on a weekend that your kid might enjoy. You strive to amuse your child. Not in Poland. Lazienki doesn’t have a playground, It’s a place to stroll and kids learn early that life includes a good deal of strolling.
And here’s another thing I learn about my heritage on this day – I know why I am so sensitive to cold. I was raised like these kids still are – to avoid The Chill. It is seventy degrees outside (an unusual April warm spell). I’m down to short sleeves. And in this way, I do not fit in. Everyone is still in wraps and most every kid is in sweaters, jackets and always, always, with a head covering.
I remember this! If the wind buffed your head around too much, you were more likely to get a head cold. That was the theory then and even though communism fell, the head cold theory held.
In the States, kids would surely protest and start climbing out of their clothes. That’s America for you. In Poland, kids are adored to death, but they are compliant. They know that they are small pegs on the planet. They know that parents rule. Moms whisper sweet, tender pet names, dads issue directives and little ones toddle along, waiting for that kind word, the kiss, the pat of praise.
The adored children catch my eye, of course. But so do the old people. And the young. I think, from the perspective of the social world, it’s lovely to be a teen or young adult in Warsaw.
Young people have the freedom to develop their own love for the city. (And I had that freedom too.) They move independently, they walk the parks in groups or pairs and they discover the world through conversations and escapades with others.
That youthful freedom is enchanting. From strong parental attachment the child morphs into an independence that comes much much earlier to a Polish kid than to an American. (I’m thinking of independence of movement; financially, it is exactly the opposite: American kids break away earlier.)
And for the old person? Oh, there are so many in the park! Groups, pairs of pairs, they’re all here, animated, engaged in life. (I know one older adult who is not so engaged. How sad that these generalizations don’t apply to everyone.)
I watch the people, sure, I love that – listening to their conversations, starved that I am for the publicly held conversations (our cafes in Madison are so damn quiet that if you go there to talk, you worry that someone will say – shhhh!). But I also can’t take my eyes off of the beauty of the vast green spaces, with summer palaces, peacocks, red squirrels, blooming flowers. It is a heady, sensual Sunday morning!
I was equally happy as a kid here. Feeding squirrels and ducks, holding my father’s hand, skipping rope ahead of him. It was, for me, one of the most valued of my many memories of a man who flitted in and out of my life in much the same way as he flitted in and out of the country, the engaged diplomat that he was. (But on this Sunday, when I stopped at his place, our former home, he did not want to take a walk outside. I’m not sure when he was last outdoors.)
And here I am, in 1958, happily feeding a red squirrel. I'm with sturdy shoes and ribbons in my hair.
I leave the park satisfied. I felt it. I remembered.
In the lesser park (next door), I pick up the pace. My friend is to meet me at the hotel soon. I can’t be late. These friends of mine look after me in Warsaw, however I show up at their doorstep – with Ed, with my sister, with both, alone – they’ll take me in any fashion. That I showed up now, on the week-end of their daughter’s wedding doesn’t phase them – it is a cause for celebration, not an interruption at all. That is their way: whatever tumult I bring with me, they are there to provide the peace. (Here they are -- the photo is from the last minutes of our time together)
But in the lesser park, I cannot help it. I pause for a while at the scale. It’s an old one – from 1912 – and it has stood in this spot all through my childhood. This time, too, I allow myself to be weighed.
The woman beams. A hair below sixty! Good! -- she says. Ah. Weight with commentary. But, these are kilos. I have no perspective. I know it’s more than when I weighed myself here last, at the age of seven. I smile at the little sign attesting that the scale has the stamp of approval of the Ministry of Health. I ask her to take a photo and she does. Let me take it from far – to show the whole set up. A sweet, character of a woman. With ideas!
And now it is the wonderfully long Sunday lunch period and I am sitting at the table with my pack from many decades ago: pals, past crushes who later became friends, a spouse or two – all here, friends with whom I studied, kayaked, skied, camped, hiked and of course, strolled.
Of course, in Poland, keeping old friends is old hat. Poland is one of the least internally mobile societies I know. True, my youthful pals don’t see each other that often. When I come, they remark on how rare it is that they get together. But they all know that they can. And if it’s important, like a wedding of a daughter, they do.
And so do I. You do a lot for those you love, if you can. Good friends and family matter.
And in Poland, good men friends are endearingly chivalrous. So that when the sun hides behind a building, and the air feels again more like the early spring that it is, they wrap you in their jackets. Protecting against, of course, The Chill.
We’re not ready to call it quits yet. Someone proposes a stroll and so we head out – to the new Economics headquarters at UW (I was an economist back then), to the new-ish Supreme Court building… (Most people know the front of it:
..Few know that the most beautiful part is behind.)
And eventually, we disperse. We are at various levels of affluence, but no one is hurting for work. One goes off on a fold-up bicycle, one drives off in a Jaguar, two walk back to their apartment, others drive off in vehicles of lesser distinction.
Me, I walk back, lost in thought, trying to ease the churn, so that I can start the process of adjusting to the trip ahead, and to work the next day, and to being an American again.
I’ll leave you with photos from that solo walk. Along the bricks of the fortified wall, Where lovers and friends find peace and quiet.