Wednesday, December 15, 2010

from Warsaw: correspondence

A return to Warsaw for me, has three essential parts to it: seeing family, spending time with friends whom I have known for some forty years, and getting a pulse on my Polishness again. It’s very basic, really – this need of ours to come to terms with our adult life by poking around in places where we spent our formative years. For me, everything happens to be concentrated in Warsaw.

And today was most certainly a day for family matters.

[Our arrival in Warsaw the previous day was not without adventure, but it seems now so long ago that I’ll gloss over it – especially since I had inadvertently drained my camera battery and so I have no props to help you along. I’ll say this – there are parts to it that are best forgotten – like the search for a taxi after leaving the train station, and there are parts that stand out as quite memorable in a good way – like the chaotic but delicious supper at U Kucharzy, or the settling in and unpacking (finally) at the wonderful art deco hotel, the Rialto.]

Family. Most anyone can come up with stories about quirky family members and the kind, benevolent ones, and those who are both quirky and benevolent. But family stories are not good blog material, even for a story blogger like me. I can say this much about my own extended family. First of all, it’s not really very extended even as it is also extremely dispersed. I have one sister, two nephews and then some cousins whom I never see. And a mother on the western tail end of the United States and a father on the eastern tail end of Europe. And one more notable thing: since I was a very little kid, my family has suffered many necessary and unnecessary separations. We have become quite used to living in this way. Call it adaptation, call it what you will. We live too far to easily manage crossing each others paths. But we managed this time. And so this trip stands out as bringing together three of my father’s four grandchildren, and both of his two daughters, all at one time, under one roof. Very remarkable, considering that none of us (besides my dad) lives in Poland anymore.

A subset of us had breakfast together at a café that I like, even as it is principally a bakery of extravagant sweets. We stayed with the yeasty cheese roll and the poppyseed cake.


Fortified, my daughter and I took off on a day long hike through Warsaw. We walked a little through my childhood park (Ujazdowski) even though it was the absolutely hands down coldest day of the year (if not decade)...


...and we walked past the Square of the Three Crosses, and onto Nowy Swiat and Krakowkie Przedmiescie – to those who know Warsaw, you’ll know the circuit. To others – oh, just follow along (with the help pf photos)...




Some hours later (and chilled to the bone) we are in the Old Town.



Here, too, we find a Christmas Market. Stands with familiar folk art. And with Polish foods. We settle for grilled smoked cheese with cranberries thinking that any warm food would have to feel remedial on a bitter cold day like this. That there are others who choose to stroll here today says much about the hearty Polish stock. Or about the need to ignore the elements when they act up in this way. Or about the use of shawls, hats and furs to keep warm.


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Which reminds me of one more food stop we made. To buy doughnuts -- with orange rind glaze and rose petal jam inside. Very popular here and expertly made at Blikle.



Throughout the day, we poke around stores with crafts and foods and all things that I would label as being very Polish. Sometimes in conventional, sometimes in unconventional presentations.

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In one store of artisanal, regional, seasonal, natural (or some subset of the above) I found something I hadn’t seen since my childhood: syrup made of young pine buds and sugar. My grandmother made this concoction each spring and I could never forget the taste – even as my daughter now asks – what do you do with it? In tea, I drank it in tea. On cold, cold winter days.


The snow continues to fall. Lightly, yes, that, but without interruption. My girl wants to stop for lunch at a "milk bar." She’s read about them and she’s curious. I’m only half into this plan. As I tell her – sometimes we like to move beyond certain markers of our youth and for me, moving away from milk bars would count as a good thing.

In the post war years, these places were packed with people who needed a cheap and filling meal. You chose your dishes, paid for them, retrieved them from the ladies who plated your order and found a place to quickly eat. Milk bars were (and are) alcohol free and for the most part vegetarian. Meat was a scarse commodity in the post war years. Milk bars made you feel okay about the meatless food you were eating – pierogi, blintzes, soups – all with plenty of salt, or sugar and starch and of course, cream. Cream felt rich and decadent in lean times.


The food was (and continues to be) very very cheap. A filling dinner will cost you maybe a few small coins (the municipalities subsidize these places and indeed, milk bars are often frequented by the aged or the down and out, as well as by students, and really, most anyone who can’t worry about spending more for a midday meal). In years where my mother was too preoccupied to attend to cooking, she would tell us to pick up dinner at the local milk bar.


But, my girl’s enthusiastic and so we head for one of the few remaining milk bars in Warsaw. We buy the usual – the soup that is as Polish as they come – sorrel soup, with a hard boiled egg for good measure. The pierogi are the old standby – sauerkraut and mushroom. The other pierogi are a tad sweet, but still, not unusual – cheese and blueberries.


She says  -- delicious! I say bleh... In theory only. It's heavy food that I grew to resist in my teen years. It became clear then that if I were to stay within a fresh and honest framework (I have loved the fresh and honest from obscenely early ages) I would need to learn to cook. Or leave the country. In the end I did both.

In the evening, my sister, her sons, my daughter and I came to my father’s apartment which was also our home for all those tumultuous adolescent years. My father likes to recall stories from his political past and this time he had a captive and often captivated audience.



... We then went out to a supper at a neighborhood place that has become my father’s favorite – for the food to a small extent. For the music and the liveliness of the place even more. The roving musicians played Polish songs and it doesn’t take much to get a Pole to join in.

So you could say it was a very jovial evening. Even if later, as we moved ever so slowly to escort my dad home, I thought the sadder thoughts that one has when one thinks of distant family separated by an ocean and by decades of living apart.

The snow keeps falling, slowly, shyly almost, my nephews and sister go off to catch the subway home, and my daughter and I retreated to the hotel. There, I read a letter my father gave me. I was the author of it and I had written it to my mother. She was then in Warsaw and I had, at the age of 21, just moved to go to grad school in Chicago. The letter was long – I was a solid letter writer – and it struck me that it had certain similarities to my story telling here, on Ocean.

It’s good to find continuity in this way – whether real or imagined. You can lean back and say to yourself – yep, it all makes sense. Because for a fleeting second, it does.