Monday, June 20, 2011

Poland. Leipzig. Turkey. Travel. Food. Love. And ... New Jersey.

Leaving Poland, Summer, 1989. A Letter Written to Friends, Stored, and Re-Read in 2005

Right before leaving Poland, I got sick. The disease was sudden and ugly. I was covered with pus-filled sores. I had so much to do before leaving. I had to abort my list. The disease set the agenda for me: ten days on my back, sleeping or staring.

When Nancy came by to pick up her bird, for which I had been pet-sitting, she fixed me with a look. She came back a couple of hours later, her baby on her hip. "Let's go," she announced, "I'm taking you to a doctor." It was a national holiday. Everything was closed. She had "zalatwicz-ed" an appointment for me with the colleague of a friend.

As she was driving me home, I expressed a lack of confidence in the doctor I saw. In spite of her being busy with a move to a new apartment, and in spite of the potential danger I posed to her baby, she drove me to another doctor after nightfall.

Alicja, in spite of possible contagion, washed my sheets, brought me homemade soup, and sat with me every night. She also gave me difficult-to-acquire medicines. Anita visited often and made me laugh. Tenia whizzed in and out with cartons of yogurt. My next-door neighbors arranged meetings for me with two more doctors, one of whom visited a couple of times, never asking for payment. Witek fetched some powdered medicine for me from the pharmacy, mixing it up in water and encouraging me to drink it. During his visit, the sores in my mouth and throat that had been bothering me very much popped and never returned.

Poles and Polish-Americans in Poland treated me with a care and attention I had never received in the U.S. when sick. Does Poland's self-declared status as a crucified nation make its citizens mindful of the vulnerable pocket in our souls?

A completely unexpected wave of sentiment and respect for Poland possessed me. For the past year, I had been one of them, these people I watched from my tram window, my ticket in my pocket. I, too, had jostled in line, had, with the focus of a barracuda, stalked shops; I had been blindsided by purse-wielding buffalo in my desperate attempts to score a seat on the trams. I had drunk tap water that Scientific American had deemed unfit even for industrial use; I had mouthed cynicism but secretly hoarded hope that something like the seventeenth-century miracle at Bright Mountain might happen again, and all the bogeymen in Poland might be made to leave with the waving of the Madonna's smoke-darkened icon. I had marched and chanted lunatic, swashbuckling slogans like, "Wilno is ours!" and, "We want Afghanistan to happen here!" I had had no patience for Poles because I felt I was one of them, and it was my toes they were squashing, goddamnit.

Seventy-two hours before I left, I realized that I wasn't one of them, after at all. There was a very good reason why I could float past the security guard at the American consulate, my flat New Jersey accent key to an entry that the crowds fidgeting or fighting outside – the women all tricked up, the peasants in their Sunday clothes, their suits with potato-digging hands at the ends of the sleeves – might never possess. I was about to be lifted out of this punishing reality as if by divine helicopter, and they would stay, those I observed from my tram window, the "stare babki," old grandmothers, to take up their posts in the lines outside meat shops, the pale children, the proud, always well-groomed women to alcoholic husbands, the young men to making fists, painting placards and shouting; all of them to the vocation of heroism, which is a required course in Poland. They may pass or fail, but none can opt not to take the class.

I would appear by magic in America, a country which I envisioned increasingly as a brightly lit supermarket, where various cuts of meat lay in sterile plastic, which I could calmly approach, inspect, select, pay for, and take home, without standing in a chaotic, serpentine line, a line whose length reminded me that there are only so many cuts of meat on display, and that that number is always smaller than the number of people on line, and if the woman in front of me got hers, I won't get mine. There would be no thwack, thwack of cleaver into messy flesh and firm wood below, no smell, no flies, to remind me that sirloin is not born in Styrofoam. Or sometimes I envisioned America as a dizzying smorgasbord of freedoms and opportunities, and a drunken, giddy sense of not knowing which to exercise first.

Already I began to miss Poland, where I had seen teenage boys drop their backpacks and stand at teary-eyed attention after one of them had struck up the national anthem; where I knew I need never feel hungry because I was always within a few feet of someone, even a total stranger, who, given any prodding at all, would feed me; where, in the middle of a snowstorm, on a remote country road, I could be picked up by a jolly man who, when asked what he did for a living, would merely smile and say, "Listen. This is Poland. Anything is possible."

In America it would not be necessary to "zalatwicz" or "kombinowacz" anything. (The delicate barter of favors, connections, promises; the acquisition of what's necessary through clever daredevilry and complete flouting of how it's supposed to be.) If I got sick, I could call a doctor and make an appointment; my next-door neighbor's heart would be immaterial. If I got sores on my mouth, I could apply the appropriate balm, prescribed by an MD, dispensed from a tube, rather than wait for Witek to show up.

My train left Krakow at 10:22 p.m. Alicja, Tenia, Jim, Gosia, and Steve saw me off. Alicja gave me flowers. Steve handed me a bunch of cattails, an atypically sentimental – for him – parting gift. Tenia, who has lived in the Middle East – her father, an exile, had taken jobs around the world, and around the world, he would ask people if they knew where Poland was, and no matter how they responded, he would pull a map out of his breast pocket and show them – Tenia gave me a silk veil from Arabia. Then she said one of the most moving things I've ever heard in my life.

I've always wanted to feel as if I was combating the darkness. I've only ever taken jobs that really meant something to me. Poland was hard; I was parsimonious in applying any meaning to what I was doing there. Tenia knew this. As the train began to pull away, we were still holding each other. "If you ever wonder why you came to Poland," she began, and then choked up, and couldn't continue. The train was not patient.

"Tell me!" I demanded, my hands tearing away from her body.

"It was to meet me," she shouted, "because you've made a tremendous difference in my life."

I waved and waved, as the goofy neon "Krakow" sign grew smaller and smaller. Suddenly I knew what to do: the Nepali goodbye, and hello. Two hands pressed together. "Namaste," I said, to the figures no longer visible on the distant platform, to the sooty city of Krakow, to the whole heavy Polish karma, which I couldn't take on and would love to shake off. "Namaste," "I salute the divinity within you." Our Lady of Czestochowa would like it.


The Romanian border guard was plump, sweaty, prickle-faced; his teeth protruded from his mouth at a forty-degree angle. "Hey, Yankee," he said. "Do you know why Mexicans call you 'Gringos'? Because when the evil Yankee soldier came to beat up the Mexicans and kill their cattle, he was wearing green. So, they yelled at him, 'Green! Go!'" We laughed. My laughter was something of a charity operation, an airlift donation. Suddenly his face grew grim. "What are you reading? We'll have to take a look at that." It was the Arts and Leisure supplement to the New York Times. I offered it to him. "Hey, thanks," he said, suddenly humble. "I could use it to improve my English."

Romania looked beautiful and primitive; there were earthen houses daubed with white and ocher earth, as in Nepal; a woman leading a water buffalo, peasants who stopped work to wave at the passing train as if it were the first they'd seen, as if it were chugging through a Brueghel painting. Then a scarring vision of the Apocalypse: a valley devoid of trees or human forms, dozens of smokestacks vomiting opaque orange smoke into a sky dyed orange, sewers of orange sludge foaming under the train.

No sooner had the train stopped in a station than it was besieged by Romanians of all ages, in modern urban, rural peasant, and Gypsy attire, to beg, buy, and barter. I was reminded – in Poland, when lights suddenly flicked off, when there was nothing in the shops, someone would always manage to say, "At least we are not in Romania," and thus developed an image in the mind of the hearer of Romania as the worst of Poland, and then several circles of Soviet hell drearier. "Do you have anything, anything at all?" the Romanians pleaded in Polish, over and over. "To buy? To sell? To give? We have nothing." A Polish train is rich for them. Some of the throng, unable to say anything in Polish, merely mimed putting food to their lips. Polish hands and arms reached out of windows; hands extended from shrugging shoulders scattered candy to children. A beautiful Gypsy woman (I've maybe never seen any other kind) bought some coffee from a young Pole in a suit. He had that "I'm determined not to get cheated here" look on his face. He was a bit altar-boyish, in the sense that he was studiously missing something of life. The train began to move. The Pole counted his new wad of bills. Not enough. He hollered; handed the short bills back to the Gypsy, demanded his coffee. The Gypsy woman grabbed her bills. She now had both: the money
and the coffee. The Pole, trapped on a moving train, spluttered outrage. The Gypsy just smiled that slick, "I've got you" smile at which she might have had some practice. Then, as the train gained speed, she ran, stretched, and handed the Pole, captive in the train, but fleeing, freed from Romania, which she might never leave, his coffee. I think she would have come out of it more than the Pole if she had kept both, or if she had given both away. She'd still have that smile.

In Sofia, Bulgaria I wondered fecklessly for two hours, trying to decipher a way to get south to Turkey. I had only thirty hours on my transit visa. Finally, I heard, "
Prosze pani, czym moge sluzyc?" "Please, ma'am, how may I help you?" I turned around to see a shirtless, bronzed and blonde Polish boy and his slightly less Adonis-like companion. They chaperoned me around Sofia for a few hours, helping me to find other Poles with whom I could change money at an advantageous rate, buying my train ticket, and packing me off with seven buns, a can of meat, three bottles of peach juice, an actual peach, and some tomatoes. When I tried to pay them back with a can of Bulgarian halvah, they snuck it back into my pack when I wasn't looking.

Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989

That train only went as far as Burgas, where I would have to await a morning bus. Hotel rooms for Americans, even the rat-holes, rent at fifty bucks a night, minimum. In a park, I put my pack down on a bench, put my head on that, and fell asleep. Around one I was awoken by a mobile beer hall, a crew of Germans drinking cheap vodka straight from the bottle. I leaned in and asked, "Does anyone speak English?"

"Yes!" piped a bright-eyed girl.

They were East Germans, and had that sorrow about them that young East Germans have. They have none of the bravado and drama of young Poles, whose history has given them a recently handy mythology to plug into.

As Bright-Eyes and I chatted, chuckles arose from a distant bench. Finally, and one could feel that he was resisting it but had to give in to temptation, the source of the chuckles joined us. A face emerged, that of a young man. He was dark; well, no, the night was dark; was it that he was sad? But he announced himself through chuckles. Somehow, he was older than his years, or Brontesque; something about him was not what an American would expect in a nineteen-year-old guy. As we talked, I slowly awoke into the conversation. He was from Leipzig, where East Germans had been staging massive street protests that were being broadcast all over the world. He had participated in those protests. He had been making history. He had a German accent.

Though I struggle against it, I, or my gut, associates German accents with "
drag nach osten" and "kulturkampf," with churches in Poland with no stained glass – "All smashed by the Germans" – with older friends whose forearms bear their Auschwitz tattoos, with masks of childlike helplessness and horror on my older relatives' faces. But in this young man's mouth a German accent was not an expression of power. He seemed so earthy – in that his mood and his ambition seemed on a level with the earth.

We traded barbed one-liners; almost anything can be a double entendre when such two get going. Never mind the triple and quadruple entendres. Hadn't
his country invaded mine? Or was that not East Germany, but the Third Reich, an entity that was incinerated by firebombs on Dresden long before he, or even his parents, was born? And was it my country his invaded after all? Or Poland, while I was born in America of an immigrant father, unable to speak my father's code lingo, Polish, till this past year of study? And hadn't my president called his country part of an "Evil Empire"? Not my president; so alienated by Reagan, I spent his two terms outside of the US.

I and the boy from Leipzig, whose name I never got, made each other laugh in spite of ourselves. Around five I lay back down on "my" bench to "rest my eyes," thinking, "I'll have to get that Leipzig guy's address… but wait. I promised myself – after
that Polish man, no more men. Yeah, well, this guy from Leipzig, he'd just be a friend … " Before I knew it the bright-eyed girl was shoving a bus ticket into my hand, and a rising sun was shoving itself under my eyelids. "I got this for you. You slept too long to stand in line. We have to go this minute. Bye!"

Auf wiedersehen!" I said, regretting that I wouldn't have more chances to test out my German.

I took the Bulgarian bus as far south as buses go, then stuck out my thumb in dry, rolling, Biblical-looking hills, with low, spiny, deep green bushes scattered on them. Boys and girls drove sheep; old men rode donkeys. I stood for more than an hour when two very chic French tourists, looking like Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, picked me up and drove me within a tantalizing nine kilometers of the border. It was a hot, uphill climb the rest of the way. The heat, sun, and incline drove me to larceny. I skipped off the road and picked four pears from a tree "protected" by homemade barbed wire made of carefully braided thorn branches. Finally, I did the truly unthinkable. I flagged down a taxi. Thank God no one I knew was there to witness my abandonment of divine commandments and proletarian ideals.

I couldn't believe my eyes at the border. We are so trained on movies, I thought, "This can't be real; there's no majestic, tear-inducing music swelling with each step I take towards this pitiful sight." Dozens of families, maybe a hundred or more, clotted at the border, choking it with all their possessions: mattresses, lamps, kids, stoves, pots, pans, piled so high atop ramshackle trucks I had to strain my bench-sleeping neck and squint against sun to take it all in. These were Turks, or maybe just non-Christian Bulgarians, depending on whom you asked. Bulgaria had decided to kick out its Turks, or, again, its "Turks," folks whose ancestors had lived in Bulgaria for five hundred years.

I sat on a table, told to wait by the border guards. After an hour of this I stuck out my thumb. "
Autostop" – "I'm hitchhiking," I informed passing cars. The third driver pointed to his back seat. I jumped in and pleaded with the border guard. Because of glasnost or perestroika or being overwhelmed by the massed refugees, he let me go. I slept as Peter the Hungarian, who spoke no English, drove the 275 kilometers to Istanbul.

Turkish driving is like nothing I've ever seen. It's a patchwork of all the worst of driving styles elsewhere: New-York-cabbie-cutthroat-drive-or-die-aggression, Northern-California-laid-back-go-ahead-and-cross-I've-only-got-a-million-cars-behind-me-and-this-is-a-six-lane-highway-stoner noblesse oblige, small-town-stop-in-the-middle-of-the-freeway-and-lean-out-your-window-and-converse-with-your-cousin-or-scrape-up-some-roadkill-for-dinner redneck unconsciousness, with a dash of Praise-God-This-Is-A-Car!!! But-last-week-we-had-only-donkey-carts!-Wait-till-the-village-sees-this! Third World creative experimentation with the new. Peter the Hungarian drove with the cool control of an Indy Five Hundred champ, even when a car full of Turks veered in front of him on rush-hour freeway, gesticulating wildly, shouting in Hungarian, "Pull over! Pull over! You've got to try our new hotel!"

Turkish Fruit Stand OMG!!!

When we passed our first Turkish fruit stand, I wanted to rip the wheel right out of Peter's hands. I was coming from Soviet-era Poland. The land where lard, flour, and potatoes, in various forms, make up a goodly percentage of the calories one is likely to encounter in any given day.

Peaches! Big as grapefruits! Pink and yellow, orange and glowing as sunset! Mountains of watermelons, the one on top cut open to reveal firm, magenta flesh! Grapes!
Several kinds! If you think I am using too many exclamation points, talk to me after you spend a year in Soviet-Era Poland and then pass a Turkish fruit stand in high summer! And here are five more - !!!!! Apples! Fresh figs! I didn't even know you could eat fresh figs! Honeydew! Oranges! Limes! What a cosmic tease! I couldn't understand how Peter, how anyone, could whiz right by them without stopping to rape, pillage, plunder, slurp and spray saliva and fruit juices as spectacularly as a fountain, feel the peaches, just feel them, bury one's face down to the last watermelon seed, or at least to fall down prostrate in spluttered prayers of gratitude and wonderment. With each fruit stand we passed, I was sure it was the last one, an impossible to reproduce miracle. Surely these were what inspired the Crusades. Indeed, my first foray alone in Istanbul was to a fruit stand, where I learned, to my shock, that the Turkish words for "watermelon" and "cherry" are almost identical to the Polish. Was this the best echo of 1683, when Poles changed history, halted jihad, and defeated the Turks at Vienna? They appropriated Turkish tents and fashions … did they take fruits, and their names, as well? Apparently, not enough.

Peter's plan was to camp outside the city, but he drove me into downtown Istanbul, and, with the help of maps, took me to the exact street address I wanted. Such are the good people in this world.

I stayed with Haldun and Hale Bingol, two former students, and their parents. I could never say enough to honor the hospitality they showed me, or even the simple graciousness that pervaded their conduct of their lives. They were endlessly generous and warm, giving me more than I ever thought to ask for. Haldun chauffeured me around, showing me sights I would have never seen otherwise, like the view of the Bosphorus at night, its two magnificent bridges, tour boats looking like wedding cakes gliding up and down, dour, shadowy and huge Soviet navy vessels, wee fishing boats determinedly putt-putting along, the seven hills of Istanbul sprinkled with multicolored lights, the full moon rising in a vast, flat, black sky, and a very handsome Turk, maybe thirty or thirty-five, manning his portable coffee stand, his immaculate white shirt and tight jeans and deep dimples lit by a pressure lamp, as he makes and serves tiny cups of coffee to whomever comes by between midnight and six a.m., his shift.

I've loved many places, and tried to honor love: Nepal, most breathtaking; Burma: most polite people living under a horrific dictatorship; England, most polite people not living under a horrific dictatorship. My best praise for Turkey: I quickly wished something I'd never wished before, in my fast-forward, no looking back life; I wished I could be granted another youth, so I could throw it away here. Fall in love with the wrong, dark, hairy men; become addicted to fruit, and like some absinthe fiend, waste in a garret writing unhinged poetry muddled by too much fructose. Oh, for time just to get lost in Istanbul. Finally, after a year in Krakow, where, as often as not, the sound of a horse's hooves clip-clopping on cobblestones woke me from sleep, I was in a city, the kind where you feel the need to walk fast and think fast. It was hot; it was crowded; there were more races of people than I could make sense of, all in their own costumes: Persians, Africans, Saudis, Europeans, in chadors or Dutch wax or kaffiyehs or pink and lime halter tops and baggy shorts. There were ancient, rancid alleyways manned by deeply creased men on stools who made being an old man on a stool look the weighty vocation indeed; alleyways swept by the kind of eternal Madonnas who could, if asked in the right words, give you eyewitness accounts of the down-home in all of human history – how good Jesus was at hide and seek; how Suleiman liked his eggs. There were chrome and glass. There was the call of the muezzin.

The men carried themselves with a sexual energy in their shoulders and hips and a pride. Once, I had to cross a street. I stood behind a Turkish man, who, I was sure, had not seen me. I was waiting to cross, utterly befuddled by the traffic, and whatever three-dimensional system of hieroglyphs that directed its flow, sure crossing on my own initiative would require me to first draft my last will and testament, thinking all those things one thinks while standing, certainly invisible, behind a very handsome Turkish man. Suddenly, without turning around, he said, in English, and very gently, "Come on." We crossed. After a few words, we went our ways …

Wasn't I talking about a peach? No, no, the Blue Mosque. The space inside did something completely different to my spirit than the interior of a Christian church. It was not a superior sensation, nor inferior, just different. God there was not a pinprick of light at the end of a tunnel, but an omnipresent companion. At the mosque there were little children selling water, a plump, veiled woman repeating, "Mash Allah," as she gave out candied almonds. The cautious, slender French tourist took one or two; the veiled-in-black woman in the dark corner, deep in prayer, slid the entire tray's contents to somewhere deep in her veil, and handed it back empty. Oh, I loved Istanbul.

I was there! I was there!


I went south, to Bodrum, a blinding, white beach resort, took a boat to clear, turquoise waters, dove into a school of fish. I went north and took a walk through the countryside, where peasants plied me with food, offers of shelter, watermelons. I took a night bus, where I was ungracious to my seat companion, a nursing mother. She responded to my international signals of snotty impatience with her engagement with life in "my" space with silent humility and an all-night-long tenderness toward me, as if I were one of her own, though she was younger than I.

I'm back in the states now, looking for work. Applied for a dream job with Amnesty International. It's not what you know, but who. Can the night bus Madonna, the Turkish man who gets American women across the street, vouch for me? More realistically, I've sent in my application to do substitute teaching.

In Romania, someone had walked up to me and asked, "
Czy Pani jest Polka?" "Tak," I replied, without thinking. "Are you Polish?" "Yes." It wasn't until moments later that I realized what I had said.

Remember Katyn!

Right now I'm at my sister's house. As it happens, a Polish man has been working on her driveway. He did all the things I had come to loathe in Poland. He immediately brought up the past, the epic suffering. Was I aware, he had to ascertain, of the Katyn Massacre? Now, mind, I had just met this gentleman, and he was pouring crack-filler in a suburban New Jersey driveway. What had the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish army officers to do with that, or any aspect of life in 1989 New Jersey? Who cares? He was obedient, regardless of temporary circumstances, to the command to recite the litany of betrayed heroism. He exercised the "We're at a formal ball" dramaturgy of phrases, gestures, that keep a Poland of knights and aristocrats alive, at least as an alternative universe to the one that involves paving driveways and applications to substitute teach. He commented that since my sister and I were preparing his lunch, it would be a fine one. "Two womens. Good meal!" The sexism! And yet I couldn't get enough of this. To his call of "Katyn Massacre," I provided the response, "The Battle of Grunwald!" till we had run through the whole history of heroically bleeding Poles. He made me feel cozy, at home, among all these Americans who could never understand.

In my loneliness and confusion, I stumbled upon the teacher I've been seeking. My niece Amanda was lying on the couch. I was wondering how a two-month-old fills her day. No pen or paper, no passport, no big questions, how does she avoid getting bored? And she just lay there, laughing and smiling, frowning and knitting her brow, reaching out her hands and feet, opening her hands, spreading her toes, over and over. She was so ready, so sure and eager. Over and over, reaching out, ready for what life had in store, no agenda, just reaching out, bravely.
Comments Added, 2005
"I see you had chicken pox while you were away," said my sister, a nurse, fingering a scar near my scalp line. It was chicken pox. Chicken Pox! Why didn't any of the Polish doctors know? What could have been more obvious? I wax so romantic here about Poland, but what is romantic about a country whose doctors can't diagnose chicken pox? Sheesh!

And Poland today? I've been back since '89. They've embraced materialism with a vengeance, and hard-core Republican attitudes, as well. Beggars are spat upon. Neon signs are screwed into Krakow's ancient stones. A Google search of the words "
stare babki" takes you to porn sites.

And yet…what I saw in '89 – the heroism of kids facing down water cannons and brutal police – the supportive social network that defied Soviet atomization – was all real. I insist. At the risk of sounding like Dorothy just back from Oz.

…Who was Steve and why did he give me cattails?

…If this letter is not proof that the Vatican erred when demoting St. Christopher, I don't know what is. How did I ever survive traveling like this, tempting fate with every item on my itinerary, hopping from one serendipitous encounter to another, without my constant prayers to Christopher, the allegedly mythical, Christ-carrying Patron Saint of Travelers?

The nice things I say about Turks here, if said today, after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, would be heard by some, inevitably, only as examples of a strained political correctness. But, again, as with Poland, it
is all true. The Turks really were that nice to me.

Would I even contemplate going to Turkey today? What are the travelers' advisories? I just found them at "Security will be extremely tight … Americans should avoid demonstrations… " On a lighter note, the US State Department has issued a "Driver Safety Briefing." It says, "never let emotions affect what you do," and the "local driver" in Turkey is likely to take "some unexpected action." I back my State Department on this matter one hundred percent.

…Finally, Amanda. She's sixteen now. If she gave any sign that there was any chance that she'd even contemplate a trip like this – the excessively romantic, threadbare locales with inadequate medical facilities; the hitchhiking! – I'd do everything I could to help my sister have her daughter Amanda committed to a convent school with tightly secured dorms and a rigorous academic program that trains students in skills that guarantee long-term employment.
St. Christopher. Patron of Travelers. My Main Man. 

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Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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