Thursday, April 30, 2009

lemon without the lemons

Suddenly, there’s very little time. Exams to hand in, student letters to write, seedlings to plant, house to prepare, hikes to plan – this is just the beginning of a list that I set for myself for the next few days.

I could, of course, do none of it now. I could take things in stride, in a Mediterranean fashion. Spring could be, for me, a time to sit back, to exhale, in a leisurely manner.

I could, in other words, fold my paws and hang back (for the mouse to spring out of the wood pile), like Larry here:


But that’s not me.

I figure – Larry, he can wait. His mice come randomly, year round. Mine do not.

Tomorrow, we leap into May. Madness for me. A wonderful, busy, risky, adventurous, lemon budding madness.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009


The difference between being 56 and 26 is that at 56, I finish a good book and I think – hmm, let me send it to someone who may enjoy it. At 26 I would have thought – a nice addition to my collection. I’ll savor it sometime in the future. (The adding of books to your collection was very very cool.)

At 56, there isn’t much that I want to collect. Living in a very small condo leads me to buy only things that someone can swallow and digest, hopefully within the next week. Sometimes, I imagine that I could purge even more of the nonessentials that I have and that my closets would become almost bare and I would live out of the equivalent of a suitcase. Okay, two suitcases. Winter clothes use up space.

I like small, empty spaces. With sunlight streaming in.

Which, of course, brings me to the matter of the writer's shed. For newcomers to Ocean – Ed has been building a shed for me on his property, where I could spend long stretches of time writing. Last summer we cleared space, and with the help of Amos, the shed went up. Here it is – a simple, airy building.


The shed project was stalled because Ed began to understand (finally) that this particular writer is attached to the concept of running water within the premises she inhabits. It could be that the first years of life, spent in my grandparents’ house in a village in Poland (where there was no electricity, no running water, and certainly no WiFi) really took its toll. And so now Ed is lost in the slow process of imagining how water might be introduced without great cost or effort. Everything is on hold until the creative juices push him forward. I understand that. My own creative impulse is equally unpredictable.

Meanwhile, I noted that the truck farmers working the land next to Ed's are also in the process of putting up a shed. Daughter passes nails to father, father hammers away.


The difference between the farmers’ shed and the writer's shed? Well, of course, there’s the intent behind it: ours is for daydreaming and, when the impulse strikes, writing. Theirs is for storing tools and creating shelter in case of a cloudbreak (I’m guessing here). Still, to me, the overriding difference is this -- theirs will be done much, much faster than ours. Which is a good thing, considering.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Ever since my grandfather gave me a book of Polish songs in 1960 and said to me – sing from it when you’re away, I’ve been inclined to fall back on the advice when I’m not quite ready to pop back into my life in the new country.

But, the truth is, I can’t mope much on a Tuesday. Especially the last teaching day of the semester. Time is tight. Can’t indulge emotions and ephemeral desires.

I bike to work (against a piercing wind and unexpected road closures) and give a fleeting thought to how pretty a lake looks when it’s choppy.


Less pretty are the trees, which still seem to me more bare than not bare. I miss the blooming chestnuts in Lazienki Park. And there’s no point in looking for forget-me-nots. They don’t grow wild here like they do in Poland. They don’t even grow unwild. People here mustn’t like them as much as I do.

One has to make do with Virginia bluebells.


I teach two classes of dedicated Family Law students, go home and collapse.

Monday, April 27, 2009

on the subject of Sundays in Warsaw, continued

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.

nina picture-1

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.





Sunday, April 26, 2009

from Warsaw: Sunday then and now

My second and last day in Warsaw. Sunday in the city where I had so many Sundays a long long time ago. Most often, when I was very young, my father would take his two daughters to the Lazienki Park.

What has changed in life since childhood Sundays? You can’t answer this unless you go back to your childhood home and roll the time in your mind from then to now.

I want to do a longer post (watch out, quick readers!), but it’s late again and I have to be up in a few hours to catch my flight out. On the long flight(s) home, I’ll take out my baby Apple and give you my take on it. With illustrations for those who like them. I’ll publish at the end of the day, when I get back to Madison.

In the meantime, let me post my blow up for the day (the trip?): a photo of Chopin under his statuesque willow. My friend in St Paul wished me my moment with Chopin in the park and I had it. If you like his music, play a Nocturne, sit back and roll into your own past.


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.