Saturday, April 25, 2009

from Warsaw: home?

In my life, I will probably never again have this confluence of meteorological and seasonal facts, all working so well to create a visually stunning day in my city of birth. Indeed, I muttered to myself early in the morning – Warsaw, I’m sorry I was fickle: I’m sorry I briefly expounded the virtues of Krakow. You are the fairest! You are! (Which is the way I used to feel when I lived here. I've come around again.)

But really, it’s not just the weather and the spring blossoms. The city has been getting a facelift (thank-you, EU support for infrastructure! America, come visit Poland to experience what an infusion of infrastructure funds can do to a city!) and it shows. True, so many people are still poor, life here is pretty tough for most, but you can suffer amidst great beauty, because Warsaw is buffed and sparkling!


I spent the morning walking. Endless walking through the new old town (for those who do not know this – few structures are authentically old, since the Germans did a pretty good job leveling the city during the war; Warsaw rebuilt herself according to her past; Warsaw is the glorious story of the beaten down soul rising again), down to the river and up again.

It's way past my midnight, but let me put up just a few photos for you, to give you an idea of this city that's always looking at rubble and imagining how best to transform it into something fresh.

In my childhood, this was a common scene. It's rare now. But, some patched buildings had to fail and this, I suspect is one of them.

New! Not here a year ago.

Reading about literary icons: we have many and places where they lived are well marked.

The buildings around my UW: that would be Uniwesytet Warszawski

Only Rome has more nuns out and about. Okay, maybe Krakow has more.

Going down toward the river (or biking up from it).

Mariensztat: the first planned post-war residential community; note woman with chicken!

Classic view of the old town.

tending to his horse

With the highlander moustache: waiting for a wedding

Syrenka: she stands as a symbol of Warsaw

And because it’s Saturday, I discover a small market of Polish foods. At the side, there is a stand with Polish scarves and folk costumes for kids. Fifty years ago, I proudly owned one. We all did. Little girls in glittery vests and flowered wreaths and ribbons in our hair. Giddy with pride.





And I retrace my steps, all 594,245,895 of them, back toward the hotel.


In the afternoon, I hike again to the Old Town for the wedding that brought me here this week-end -- a civil ceremony at the Palace of Weddings. I’d only been to one Polish wedding before this (my sister’s). In the years that my friends got married – all within a few years of each other – I was too poor to travel back. And so this was the trip that would put to rest all pangs of sadness for not being here before.

What stands out now? Well, first and foremost, it was a beautiful wedding ceremony.


And, because no one moves in this country unless they emigrate out of the country (and only one or two of my high school and university friends did that), they were all there today.

I wont post much by way of photos or stories. Most of my Polish friends do not read Ocean, but those who do have mixed feelings about it. Here's why: they knew me before I wrote so much, so openly (I was a closeted writer in those years) and I think the image hasn’t yet sunk in. Maybe it never will.

Back in Madison, my friend Chip said recently (on the occasion of his wife’s entry into blogging) that when you start to blog, or write, and publish stories about your life, the following will happen: some friends will accept this about you, some will be indifferent, and some will run an hide, perhaps never to be seen again.

Ethnographic blogging, autobiographical writing – these are antithetical to the psyche of my generation of Poles. And the generation before them. And the generation before them. Etc. Putting forth ideas publicly, ideas and chapters that are written from the very best material in the world – your own life, in a forthright manner no less (even as my American friends accuse me – rightly! – of not being transparent at all!) is completely befuddling to people who have spent centuries writing in allusions and metaphors. There is a distrust of the voice gone public that cannot be erased in my time. It says a lot about my confused cultural heritage that I can write as freely as I do and not worry too much about whether writing a column, an autobiography, or a blog are good or worthwhile enterprises. I simply can’t imagine not writing. The worry stops there.

But, I’ll say this much – I am amazed and gratified to see that time, over all, has eased the edges and made gentle people of so many. Our children are grown (I’m the youngest of the set and predictably have the youngest children, but hey, mine are out and running as well!) and so the greatest challenges are behind us. It makes us a rather mellowed out bunch.

After the wedding, I sat with one friend for a long time at an outdoor café. The sun was so warm that I let my shoulders go bare. It was hard to remember that really, these people were no longer part of my daily world. That in all honesty, I am more American than I am Polish. That my family is there, in the States, not here, in Warsaw. It was hard to stay focused on this – I am not back for good, I don’t live here, this is not my life.

For those few hours at the café, this was my life.

I walked back through the Old Town…


…picking up tulips for my evening visit, passing the Palace of Culture along the way (Stalin's gift to Warsaw; once the second tallest building in Europe -- now either an eyesore or a dignified historical landmark, depending on your level of anger).


In the evening at my old home, at the place where I lived during my high school and university years, I sit back and talk again for many hours. We are not lighthearted with each other anymore, my dad and I. Life has not been light or boring for him. He’ll call himself lucky, but I wonder sometimes if he wishes he’d been just a tiny bit more lucky.

He serves me little quail eggs and flaczki (tripe).


Did you cook this?
No, not this time. The woman that comes here to help – she likes to cook the traditional dishes. But you know, next time you come, I’ll make it myself!

We exchange doubts about either of us being alive for there to be a next time. This is how we talk. There’s a lot of Polish character in it and I think -- maybe I'm not so completely American yet.

As Barbara, his steadfast partner for years and years, brings Polish pickles for me to try, I think – Ed would appreciate this, he, who loved so much New York pickles in his childhood, purchased on Sunday outings with his dad. The best! – he never fails to tell me. Except that I do believe that Poland has the world’s best pickles. Ed is just plain wrong in the matter of pickles.