Monday, October 31, 2016


To sleep at 1:30, up at 3:45 for a cab at 4. For the first time since I can remember (ever?), I did not wake up without the aid of my alarm.

I was a tad nervous about relying on a cab without having a cell phone to back me up (or a hotel clerk to do it for me). I never do cabs unless there is absolutely no possibility of using public transportation. At that hour, there wasn't another way. I checked all the stove burners, shrugged at the linen napkins spread everywhere (I washed them, but they did not dry on time), locked up the apartment (with a smile at the pleasure of returning soon to it) and went downstairs.

Warsaw is quiet at this hour, but it is not without life. A man walks his dog, a car speeds toward the river and yes, there's my cab, waiting for me.


At night, the ride to the airport lasts exactly 18 minutes (ha! match that, Paris!). My driver listens to the news where talk of changes in taxation dominates (Polish politics are brutally divisive right now so I avoid commenting on what I'm hearing) and then he turns down the volume and his curiosity takes over.
Where are you going, Germany?
No, Amsterdam actually.
I would have let it go at that, but it feels dishonest. As a stopover. Then to the U.S.
I have a friend who moved there a dozen years ago, he tells me. On the sly. The wife joined him by coming in through Mexico! Their second daughter was born there so she is a citizen. But they're doing ok -- construction jobs, house cleaning -- that kind of thing.
We talk a little about the weather there, the weather here and as I get ready to leave (it really is a short ride!) he says -- you know, despite your living over there (cat's out of the bag), you speak perfect Polish! No accent at all. A hesitation sometimes, but really I couldn't tell!

Well now, how things have changed! When I used to go to Poland just once a year, my American accent was spreading into every corner of my speech. But writing to Pani Karolina daily and coming to Poland so often now has changed that in conversation, I am back on track!

The first flight is on time (ah, it's going to be a cloudy day again in Warsaw)...


... and indeed, I land in misty Amsterdam early. (So pretty to see the countryside lightly covered over with a gauzy blanket of fog!)


I'm tempted by the huge displays of various tulip bulbs in stores (it's Holland after all!) but I hold back. I want to be done with gardening for the year. I need a pause.

My first unhealthy breakfast of this trip (at the airport)...


... then off I go and 9 hours later, I am in Minneapolis, and finally -- Madison.

Exactly halfway between the airport and the farmette stands Snowdrop's home. Would you be able to go by without stopping to say hello? I certainly couldn't do it. The reward? A surprised and  exuberant little girl who seems to have grown in leaps and bounds in the last week!

farmette life-9.jpg

farmette life-13.jpg

It's incredible that the day started at Tamka (the street of my Warsaw apartment) and ended with Snowdrop. Two distant worlds, joined in one day.

Ed and I drive up to the farmette. I see that the trees and flowers have all entered into their late fall stage. Except for one plant -- but that's tomorrow's story!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

last day

The apartment is filled with flowers. Purple and pink -- as if some intuition lead my friends to bring the colors that best suit the white and minty green of my apartment.

The flowers will have to be disposed of (or passed on to my sister!) tomorrow, but today, they decorate the place beautifully. Positioned mostly on an old restored chest of drawers, they stand just below the framed pictures of my farmette garden -- thereby tying together my worlds that are otherwise so disparate and far apart.


I eat a light breakfast -- copious amounts of Polish raspberries and what are called American cranberries, but are in fact in the U.S. referred to simply as blueberries.


Frost hasn't come to Poland yet this year (except in the mountains) and so the berries keep being delivered to the markets, but you can tell that the weather is on the cusp of turning. Where will it turn to this winter? Will it be wet? Full of snow? I'll be here for a bit in December. I'll find out.

I meet up for an early coffee with my treasured friend and we have just a short while to talk about all that's on our minds right now. This is the time to worry about those who we worry about and to reaffirm what's good in this world.


She then goes off to plant crocuses in her garden and I go back to thoroughly clean the apartment until I am satisfied that it looks the way I want it to look when I return in December...


... and then I wait for Barbara and Shmuel, so that we can do our one big walk through Warsaw together.

During our walk, we cover a lot of ground! My friends are so curious, so full of questions that it makes my heart sing.

I show off a broad palate of Warsaw life as I knew it growing up here. In other words, I take them first to the neighborhood of my childhood (and adolescence).

Come, peer inside this bakery!


And look how those lamp posts soar on Constitution Square!  And the apartment buildings -- they are a great example of Socialist Realism architecture. Finished in 1952 -- a year before I was born. I always lived no more than three blocks from the square's center. Except for now...


When I was very young, this strong person towered above me... Like this:


When I was older, I wondered: is this woman a professional woman who is also is taking care of her child, or is she a laborer, caring his notebook and pencil -- a symbol for the need to educate our young?


And where do you think I would take my friends now? What favorite spot would I save for our last hours together in Poland?

If you've been reading Ocean for any length of time, you'll know I want to take them to the parks.

First then, the "lesser park" (but only because the grandness of the second park is so great that it overshadows all other parks on this planet).  Here's where you would find me with Snowdrop on any (and perhaps every) day of the year if we lived in Warsaw.


(Mostly empty benches now, but there is this threat of rain. I pick up a few fallen chestnuts. My heart surges with memories of doing just this on golden autumn days of childhood.)


Next, we walk to Lazienki Park.  I know I've build it up. My friends understand that I love this place so very much. So I start gently: the entrance takes us to the emptier upper tiers... (You see?? This IS a good time to be in Poland! The colors are sublime!)


As we begin the descent to the lower park, we encounter the red squirrels. My pals! Are you related to the ones that I fed as a child?


(A side step into the autumn gardens before the Old Orangerie)


And then we sweep down toward the belly of the park along the avenues that demonstrate that yes, the rain may be just seconds away, but that's no excuse: Walk! We have this park... walk through it and be part of the great landscape that generations before you have created here!


The rains come down now. I mean, they really come down. Does this stop me from admiring the heavenly chestnuts and oaks, sweeping over the lake that runs to the back of the Lazienki Palace? No.


But I'm feeling like a good guide would find a way to have her troops take cover. So we go into the palace, which was once the bath house for the royalty (that had it all too good around here).


A delightful and very informed resident guide shows me the painting that was the favorite of the king: the washerwoman. I dont know how he knows that it was the favorite, but I don't ask. He seems so certain.

Barbara chimes in -- it seems that the one above should be your favorite! Ah yes, the cheepers. Here you have both pictures:


Looking out the palace windows, it appears that the skies should be clearing. I mean, don't you think?


Well, they have their own agenda. But it's a beautiful walk nonetheless!


Though this next photo reminds me that it is time for me to set my attentions toward home.


Just a few more minutes!

In the higher sections of the park, we walk over to the Chopin Statue. This monument was blasted by the Germans in 1940, but the sketches of the head surfaced after the war and by 1959, the entire piece was fully reconstructed. I was there for the inaugural Chopin concert on a cool but lovely May Sunday. I was just barely six.

I take a selfie on a self timer today.


We walk back into the heart of the city and we search for a place to eat. I lead them to the Hala Koszykowa -- an old market place recently opened as a place of many eateries and the occasional upscale shop...


It is crazy busy today so in the end, we walk back to the Constitution Square, where we'd seen the ever popular Aioli Restaurant, where some of us have salmon over chickpeas.


But perhaps my last photo would be one of those that I took on a self timer. I find it to be full of exuberance. And that's accurate.

It surely is a good closing statement of my days here.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

and now comes the time...

You can tell when I am moving toward the end of a trip by the length of my posts: they suddenly grow shorter. It's not that the last day or two are less important -- quite the contrary. But I have less time. Suddenly, I am pressed to at least touch all that I wanted to touch in the course of my return to Poland.

And, toward the end of my trip, there is typically that gathering of friends that makes me believe that there is indeed great camaraderie and good will in this world, if only you persevere and give it time.

Time. Such a weird concept. Maybe two hundred years from now they'll laugh at our preoccupation with it. The way we rush through life, the way we don't just linger and let our worries roll off and fizzle...

My worries today were simple: that I should have one last meeting with Pani Karolina and not be late for it. That I, with the help of my sister, should manage to prepare a dinner party for twelve (without having to cook much at all!). That my American friends should have a good day, even though I could not spend much of it with them and finally, that we could all gather -- my American friends, my Polish friends, my sister -- and just exhale.

Breakfast first.


Then a run to a pastry store in the neighborhood. Just on the other side of the two bridges.


What to buy, oh what to buy??


Okay, I got it: sour cherry yogurt cakes, Polish cheesecakes, Polish apple cakes and one straddling plum cake.


Up my street again...


Down cobbled blocks...


And onto Nowy Swiat -- the artery that my friends are getting to know really well!


Here's where I have my meeting with my fantastic architect, Pani Karolina. And then she goes off and I go off, but not until after we drink our coffee and discuss future projects.

And after? Am I on schedule? Have the skies cleared?

It rains, but just briefly. And it doesn't matter. My sister and  I take the subway across the river, all the way to the big (and I mean big) supermarket. And yes, I'm on schedule!

(I know this spot well: we're right by the train station from which I have taken many a train to go to my grandparents' village.)


There's much running around of this kind for the rest of the afternoon. But that's okay, I'll finally be opening my Warsaw home to the world of my friends here.

Finally, by late afternoon, everything is ready.


And everyone is here at last...


And then I put away my camera and enjoy being in the thick of a group of warm-hearted and wonderful people.

And now it's after midnight and I am still tidying and reflecting and writing and of course, you could say - this is why you are tired! And yes, you'd be right. But I wouldn't have dropped one single bit of this day.  Not one bit.

Friday, October 28, 2016

true story

My American friends came to Poland for many reasons, but perhaps the real impetus for the trip was Shmuel's great desire to see the village of Przedecz, where his father grew up until, in 1936, at the age of 21, he emigrated to Palestine (most every one else who stayed behind perished at the hands of the Nazis).

I offered to take Shmuel and Barbara to Przedecz -- a two hour drive west of Warsaw -- but I worried about the trip. Traffic on that route is horrendous. We'd have to rent a car. All this and for what? I know from Google maps that Przedecz looked like any other provincial village in Poland: a place where nearly everyone is poor and living in drab post war housing. Where in this will Shmuel find what he is looking for?

I shared my worries with my Polish friends and at once one of them volunteered to go there with us.

And so on a gray day, with a steady threat of rain, right after my breakfast...


... my Polish friend drove up and we climbed into her car and set out.

At first, I thought that, by some weird twist of fate, we hit the highways twisting around L.A. instead of Warsaw. Since when do we have such terrible congestion here??

Elka, my Polish friend, is unperturbed. Weaving between endless trucks and no fewer cars? No problem! (She did remind me that this is the beginning of a very difficult -- travel wise -- weekend in Poland, as the country is getting ready to observe All Saints' Day next Tuesday and everyone is on the road. In other words, I picked a lousy time to be doing a long distance trip.)

Finally, we pull into Przedecz. Where to now?

Shmuel has an address where his grandparents most likely lived. I was wrong to think it would be gone: an old house, a clearly old old house is still standing there, stuck in this block, right off the square.


We're brave. We knock on doors at the given address.


Undaunted, we go inside.


We follow an entryway to the courtyard. My, but everything looks old here!


It's so odd -- Przedecz hasn't many prewar houses left standing, but this one -- this home that likely was Shmuel's father's home (and now is the home to the granddaughter of the man who moved in just at the end the war) is still here. So is the stable -- now used as a carpenter's workshop. We learn from two workmen that the owners have a coffin making business here.


Emboldened, I ask the older men gossiping outside the grocery store about the people who live there now.

It's the big woman. The granddaughter.
And is the grandfather still alive?
Oh yes. Over in the yellow house. 

Do you know anything about the family who lived there before the war?
No... we're from the village outside here. Lady, that was 60 years ago!

Well, maybe a tad more, but okay. My worst fears realized: no one knows anything. Shmuel will go home home disappointed.

(Village square)


We walk over to the "yellow house."  No one answers the knock.

And then to the old castle grounds. I'm thinking -- maybe it will bring Shmuel some solace to learn of the history of some of the buildings that were here at his family's time.


There is a notice board and I translate a little of the history of the castle: fortified, fighting off invasions, burned, reconstructed, eventually occupied by the Germans...

Just across the street, there is a small building with a buggy outside and a plaque by the door.


We walk there now. It's the Regional Museum of Przedecz. Locked.

Wait, there is a sign that says it's open until the end of October (we're in!) until 4 p.m. (yes!).

Except that it's locked.

I find the old stairs that lead upstairs. Someone is living here. Where am I?? (I later learn that the building is divided into several rooms for rent. The one that now houses the museum, had been used by a fellow who couldn't pay his rent. So they shut off his electricity. There still is no light in the museum.)

On the museum door, there is a posting which includes a phone number. Elka dials it on her phone. Adam, the apprentice curator, picks up, then, learning that there is actually a potential visitor to the museum (a rare event), rushes over with the key.

Inside, there are the artifacts of daily life in Przedecz.


Well now, this is better! An ethnography of the village!

We're just getting it started, says the very young and enthusiastic Adam (I translate). We still have to get the electricity running again!

(Adam and Elka, in discussion.)


Adam is terribly curious what brings us to Przedecz. We learn later that Shmuel and Barbara are the first foreign guests he's had here. When I explain, he asks -- what was Shmuel's father's last name?

When he hears it, he frowns. I'm sure I've seen it somewhere. (Mind you, if Adam is even 30, I'd be surprised.)

He opens an old cupboard and digs out a book that clips together faded sheets of paper. I mean, really faded and crumbling sheets of paper.

This is a compilation of people -- Jews, Christians, anybody -- who applied for a personal i.d. before the war. It's not well organized and many (most?) of the pages are missing.



What's a personal i.d.? -- Shmuel asks.

Ha! The same i.d. I had to apply for when I reclaimed my Polish citizenship! Every Pole has one.

There are maybe 100 crumbling sheets of paper with attached photos in the folder. Adam flips through them. He's so sure he remembers the name.

100 sheets of paper.... So few? How many had actually filed papers here in those decades? Thousands?  2000 people lived in Przedecz just before the war. 800 Jews. What are the chances that we can find anything at all?

As we approach the end of the stack, I just want this to be over! We had never expected a specific reference to Shmuel's family. But, Adam had raised our hopes. And now we're going to be disappointed.

And then ... there it is!


What are the chances? Of the many many members of Shmuel's family, only his father's papers remain.


It just stopped us cold. It's as if this man, this young man had stepped into the room and shared his story with us:

[This is from my own summary of all that I learned today and from Shmuel's account of his conversations with his father, which he has given me permission to share]: I applied for an ID in the year 1934. All was okay. I experienced discrimination, but yes, all was okay. I loved my childhood in Poland. When I do the dishes, I still sing the Polish songs that I remember  from those years. But I had to leave.

We walk out into the damp, chilly day. Adam wants to show us the castle and he wants us to hear the corrected history of its last few centuries.

With his special key, he leads us up to the tower -- this is the part that remains intact. 600 years and it survived everything! Out of one window, you can see the gray house where Shmuel's family lived.


In this high old tower, we linger. And we talk.

Adam has a deep fascination with history, even as he has decided to pursue a certification in fire control. (In other words, he wants to be a fire fighter.) I ask him how long his family has lived in his town.
I traced our roots here to the 17th century!
Shmuel asks (via my interpretation) -- Did they teach you in school about the history of what happened here? [After all, Przedecz was one third Jewish before the war and zero percent Jewish thereafter.]

Oh yes, we spent many days on it!
Of course, not all of it...
I ask -- what part do you think was missing?

He tells us that not everyone is happy to talk about the past.

We know this story too well, of course. At a time of war, of fear -- some perform heroic acts, others do the opposite. It's no different here, in Przedecz. The Jews were forced by the Germans to live in a village ghetto and eventually they were gathered and held hostage under horrific conditions. After -- labor camps, death camps... Some Poles took great personal risks to help the Jews who managed to escape, others assisted the Gestapo, ostensibly to protect their own skin. I imagine those are the people who do not want to remember what happened then.

We say good bye. Adam is an extraordinary young man and it is really thanks to him that this story continues to be written, discussed, remembered.


Elka leads the way to the place where there was once a Jewish cemetery. Early on, the Germans who occupied Przedecz, ripped out the tombstones from the ground and threw them into the lake. Adam told us that a half dozen had been hidden and preserved, but at the moment, there is nothing here but a commemorative plaque, put there by a family member of a Jewish person who wanted to honor all those who were buried here.

It's raining now. My American friends live in New Mexico and they have 310 of sunshine there each year, but in Poland, they've had mostly rain. I tell them -- this isn't a visit that asks for sunshine. Those who lived here endured rain in October. We are mourning them now...

In our stroll through this village, talk inevitably turns to what it was like to live here (in Przedecz, in Warsaw) under communism. Elka and I share memories and they are not dissimilar -- I've known her since my high school years. In trying to put things into context, she comes forth with an old saying we had -- In the camp of Eastern Europe, ours -- Poland -- was the happiest barrack.

So true. We were happy kids, turning into adults. I feared my boyfriend didn't love me and that I was too much of a tomboy, but I loved my childhood. Just as Shmuel's father loved his.

In Warsaw, Elka goes off to attend to a car problem and my friends and I search out supper. I take them to Zorza. We eat cabbage stuffed with buckwheat and mushrooms.


Day is done
Gone the sun
But the spirit stays strong.