Impressions from a journey to a planet I used to call home
I have been treading on leaves all day until I am autumn tired.
God knows all the color and form of leaves I have trodden on and mired.
Perhaps I have put forth too much strength and been too fierce from fear.
I have safely trodden underfoot the leaves of another year.
They spoke to the fugitive in my heart as if it were leaf to leaf.
They tapped at my eyelids and touched my lips with an invitation to grief.
But it was no reason I had to go because they had to go.
Now up my knee to keep on top of another year of snow.
– Robert Frost
It’s October 1997 and I’m sitting next to my sister eating walnuts from a tree I remember being planted. It is now four stories high. Its fruit is moist, cream-white and very sweet. I can’t stop reaching into the wooden bowl for one morsel after another. The walnut tree is the only thing which is bigger than I remember. Everything else has shrunk. Including my sister and her world as well. We used to be able to talk for hours about everything under the sun and compare experiences. Now the sun shines only on her grand children and local politics. Granted, my grand nephews and nieces are adorable and it is fascinating to watch the birth pains of capitalism and democracy in Poland, but there are Bosnia, Korea, and the Middle East, not to mention overpopulation, hunger, and the greenhouse effect; a larger reality which affects our lives. I occasionally feel impatient and restless, trapped in this small world. Perhaps in the larger world the issues are too many, and the reality is too large and too complex. Perhaps what she is unwittingly doing is paring it down to a manageable size. She was always solid, much better grounded in the immediate world than I. Opposite to her I may be labeled a drifter. Never sure who I am or where I belong. So who am I to judge?
The wind is frightful. In a frenzy it whips up leaves and tosses them like helpless birds against the steel heavens. It is much colder than I’ve expected. I find myself all bundled up in my sisters clothing, wandering along the small side streets, up to my ankles in red and yellow leaves. There is a photo studio on this street in a converted garage. It’s been there ever since I can remember. The layer of dust on the display in the front window must date back at least 25 years. I’m lost in time. Everything seems to be familiar and, yet, it is different. I remember a photo session in this studio when I was about ten. I was wearing a striped vest, my hair was braided and tied with pale green ribbons. I walk on and on and …suddenly I don’t know where I am. The street is no longer recognizable. There is a row of apartment buildings, several stories high. They all look the same. City buses bearing cryptic numbers go by one after another. I begin to walk faster, passing corners of more and more streets with strange names. I want to go back to the street where there is the photo studio from my past. Where is that street? Does it really exist or is it only in my head? How to get there, to my past? How to get there and hold it and look at it for a while? From there I will know my way back. Back to what, the present or the past?
My sister says she never leaves home without the map. She says the city has grown too big for her.
My sister hired an engineer and four men to drain the basement or our old home and pour cement around the outer walls to prevent further flooding during the winter and spring. Pan Mietek Z. the engineer, spreads out his plans on the kitchen table to explain to her how the cement will be tilted five centimeters to guide the rain water away from the house into the metal drain, which will, in turn, lead to the gutter. He is about sixty, a healthy, robust man who seems to know all about drains and the behavior of large quantities of water. This is the first time I meet the Polish entrepreneur – he has his team of workers and signs the contract with my sister to perform the job after she has approved his plans and cost estimates. This is capitalism taking root, I think to myself.
We leave the house together, Pan Mietek and I. He tells me he’s going back to his day job, his real job. He works for the city’s planning commission. What he does for my sister is called chaltura or fucha, meaning a side gig, that he does to earn extra money. He does it, however, on time paid for by the public funds.
We board the bus together. Earlier, at home, my sister has made the necessary introductions, so that Pan Mietek knows I am only passing through. The impermanence of my presence, the fact that we may not meet again, prompts him into a hurried intimacy. To the rhythm of the rocking bus he reminisces about his childhood in Vilnus (city in Lithuania with a large Polish population before the WWII), where in 1939 the Soviet NKWD (predecessor of KGB) forced his family, under the threat of exile to Siberia, to pick up their belongings and move west, to Poland. His eyes become dreamy as he describes his family’s Vilnus apartment: 200 square meters, all ours. Even the maid’s quarters, he says. The salon, formal dining room, the furniture, Chippendale, you know, the grand piano and the paintings – we had to leave it all behind! We were sharing one train car with three other families which were relocating too. There simply wasn’t enough room. As he speaks these words, with such deeply moving sadness, I realize that when it was all happening he must have been about eight years old, at best. It is a myth, not his life, he is remembering and mourning after.
There is a moment of awkward silence and I try to make small talk about the former Soviet Union becoming more and more open: “My daughter, who studies Political Science in the US, is now in the city of Voronezh, south of Moscow, on the student exchange.”
“Oh, Voronezh!” he says. “It also used to be a Polish city.”
Given the opportunity he would certainly be ready to reanimate Polish imperial ambitions from the seventeenth century, when for a brief while its boundaries reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
I was born and grew up in Saska Kepa, the small and old section of Warsaw which always had a reputation for snobbery. Everyone knew everyone else. People talked of who they were and what they owned before the war and the Soviet “liberation.” Those of my generation, the after the war generation, who lived in this section of the city and went to the same local grammar school and high school, inherited just a touch of that snobbery, the feeling of belonging to a select group. Even after being absent for many years I still have a feeling that all those from my youth live right around the corner, just outside of my home, on the next block. When I wander the streets I look into the faces of the passing men and women in search of something familiar. I am looking for a sign of recognition, for a trace of myself, for a proof of my own, former existence. I am searching for a connection between the unfathomable, elusive past and the present.
The day is fading and street lamps mark their territories of light diffused in the gray mist. In its soft yellow circle a large, heavyset man leans over an open trunk of the car. His gaze lingers. He stands up, looks at me intently. His hair is gray but the transition of his forehead into the thick white tuft on the top of his head, his bushy black eyebrows, all are familiar. Our eyes meet and I feel that we have done it before. We’ve looked at each other, directly, just like that, without pretense, somewhere, in a different time. Suddenly a cold panic sets in my body. The man has no name! I cannot name him, he is a blank space in my past, the past that is already doubtful and highly unstable! And I cannot bear it. I turn my head and quickly leave his circle of light.
We finally have an October day that gives credence to the legend of the Polish Autumn which is Golden. We are traveling down the stretch of divided highway which, I am told, is one of the more modern roads in the country, leading to the city of Czestochowa. In Czestochowa at the Saint Roch’s Cemetery our parents and grandparents are buried. It is the second part of October and a lot of people, including us, are getting an early start for the Wszystkich Swietych (All Saints’ Day) which falls on November 1. We are carrying with us rakes, brooms, a bucket, cleaning rags etc. to do the customary, yearly clean-up of the family grave.
The sun is low and its light casts a soft, warm glow upon the flat lands and gently rolling hills. It becomes apparent why the majority of the paintings I saw in the galleries and the antique furniture shops of Warsaw are autumn landscapes rendered in earth colors. They combine the natural beauty of the season along with the peacefulness and the pleasant numbness of the moment before falling into the deep, winter sleep. We pass orchards where the boughs of trees are still weighted with ruddy apples (must be some very late variety), side roads lined with tall, swaying poplars, and, characteristic to the Polish landscape, roadside willows, whose thin branches spring straight up from the stout trunks. They make me think of the pointed spikes on the heads of some “heavy metal” youths, most likely friends of my son.
My sister’s car is a Polish Fiat, the smallest but also the most popular model in these parts. Occasionally it gives me the feeling of traveling in a cardboard box mounted for protection over a scooter. Especially when, to the left, a stream of three and four axle trucks is passing at 110 km. per hour, moving goods from Germany, Italy or Austria through Poland to Lithuania, Ukraine, Belorussia, and beyond, to Mother Russia – capitalism at its best – open borders, freedom of commerce. The never ending stream of televisions, cameras, microwaves, CD players, radios, electric toothbrushes, that the starved populations to the east long for, on the left, and on the right a farmer with a harrow and a team slowly moving up and down the empty field. Some distance behind him a doubled over figure of a woman. She picks up something from the softened dirt and places it in a swath of dirty cloth tied around her waist. “These must be potatoes left over from the harvest,” says my sister. “Here nothing goes to waste.”
Along the wooded sections of the road there are women selling fresh, wild mushrooms which they display in baskets stacked one upon the other, not more than a yard or two from the river of cars and trucks roaring by. You may reasonably expect someone to cross all lanes of traffic at any moment, to stop at the roadside and examine the mushrooms.
These portions of the highway cutting through the woods are exceptionally beautiful for the crowns of beeches set aflame by the season, the glowing, golden larches, and clusters of rowans with leaves still green but arms full of ruby berries. The New England autumn is legendary but this landscape and the bundled up women talking, breathing white clouds, stomping their feet for warmth, and the baskets of green, yellow and brown mushrooms unknown in New England, are undeniably more a part of my experience, blended into my grain.
Several hundred yards down the same road, close to the gas station, I see other women by the roadside. They are standing in groups of two or three and are usually young and dressed in fitted black leather or plastic passing-for-leather jackets, high boots and very short shorts. The latter were already known in the Seventies as “hot pants,” either on the account of the temperature of their contents or the hot flashes they were designed to provoke in the male part of the population, but most likely both. In order to afford themselves a degree of safety from the hazards of working in the areas of heavy traffic, similarly to the road building or maintenance crews, the women favor protective colors for their “hot pants” neon orange and glow-in-the-dark green. They are also breathing white clouds and stomping their feet for warmth. “These ladies are engaged in international trade,” my sister feels obligated to explain. “Some are Polish, but majority are Ukrainian, Russian, and Rumanian. The truck drivers, whom they service, are also from the international set: Germans, Turks, Poles, and Russians. The contribution of this industry to our balance of payments is still unclear,” she says.
We buy white and lilac mums and votive candles in purple jars at the stand in front of the gate to Saint Roch’s. The gate is a massive, two winged archway made of wrought iron. From the street the world beyond it is a phantom world, bathed in the Byzantine sunlight filtered through the yellow leaves of chestnuts and hazels. People carrying wreaths or armfuls of flowers move slowly, in a ghost-like manner, among the gray walls of tombs, black marble obelisks and statues. Unprotected candles flicker from a distance.
Affected by this atmosphere, we cease talking and quietly carry the flowers and our cleaning gear to our family grave site. It doesn’t take long for the two of us to rake and sweep, and wash the grime off the marble slab and the name plates. We arrange the mums in the stone urn and light the candles. The hour is still early, so my sister takes me for a walk among the graves, looking for familiar names, perhaps distant relatives or long gone friends of our parents. In the shade of the chapel, on its northern flank, there is a leaning, weathered, cross, covered with small bouquets, single flowers as well as elaborate wreathes. “Here is a symbolic grave of those lost by this town in the January 1863 uprising,” my sister says. I am moved by the anonymity of this symbol erected more than a hundred years ago and the omnipotence of death diminished by the mourning still fresh. A few moments later I realize that this side of the chapel is entirely devoted to the symbolic gestures which this nation seems to have been wallowing in for a century. The two most recent additions to the symbolic grave collection at Saint Roch’s are: one for Father Popieluszko, (a victim of the communist secret police, whose remains are really at his parish in Warsaw, but whose symbolic grave can be found, according to my sister, at every larger town cemetery in Poland) and one for: “All the Unborn” which with a jarring note brings in Polish politics (abortion vs. Catholic Church) to intrude onto our private ritual of remembrance.
I often think of Franz Kafka. Had he, King of the Absurd, been alive today he surely would have claimed the vast territories east of Prague for his realm. Time after time I encounter here the situations which are all at once: surreal, nightmarish, grotesque, anxiety producing, yet, tinged with ironic humor. It is a Kafkaesque reality!
The work around our house is showing progress. Pan Mietek, the engineer, has inspected the site and was satisfied. He had already left for his “real job.” Now, it is my sister’s turn. Under the pretext of taking Ziuta out (Ziuta is a brilliant mutt which picked up my sister some months ago at the post office) she wants to make her own assessment of the progress without undermining the authority of Pan Mietek who, after all, is a man and the boss. Early this morning the last section of the cement was poured and now Pan Stasio (one of the workers) is digging in one end of the ditch for a drain pipe while carefree Ziuta is peeing in the other. There is a sound of metal striking against metal. It turns out to be Pan Stasio’s shovel hitting a buried piece of something. He squats and begins to move the dirt around the object with his bare hands. He motions for the foreman, Pan Wisniewski, to take a look.
“Mrs. Schweiger,” Pan Wisniewski calls out to my sister. “There is some sort of old pipe running through here.” My sister looks at him with an expression of utmost concentration, as if trying to remember a crucial detail.
“As far as I know there has never been a pipe running to or from the garbage dumpster,” she finally says. “Well, let me take a look at it anyway.”
My sister is a tall and a substantial (physically speaking) woman of sixty SOMETHING, with a head of unruly, gray hair which made some (most of them were men) compare her to the Medusa. Despite her efforts to play it down, she has a commanding presence. If she were a ship she would definitely be an aircraft carrier. She sails slow and with dignity. The two men step aside as she takes charge. While holding Ziuta’s leash in one hand, she brushes more dirt aside with the other and exposes still more of the rusted metal. The pipe is about six inches wide and almost two feet long. At one end it gradually begins to narrow into a cone. At this point my sister hands Ziuta’s leash to Pan Wisniewski: “ Would you be so kind and tie the dog to the front door. I don’t think we should let it pee on this artillery shell,” she says. The workmen instinctively step back and a hush falls over our yard. My sister carefully continues to move the dirt away from the unexploded shell.
After a few tense minutes she says: “ No need to panic! In this state it’s harmless.” She pats the shell gently on its back as if it were a dog. “It has no fuse and, see here, trotyl (trinitrotoluene or TNT) is coming out through its rusted head but still … it has to be removed so that you may continue, gentlemen,” she adds. I know she is genuinely concerned – “gentlemen” get paid by the hour.
I take Ziuta inside and phone the police. The man on the other end of the line asks me what type of a shell is it. I have no idea and feel very inadequate next to my sister’s expertise in the field of weaponry and explosives. Again I am calculating years and juggling dates in my head: the war ended in 1945, she is almost seventy now, so during the war she must have been… about seventeen! What a memory! But then again, this sort of experience probably stays with one for a lifetime. I feel a bit vindicated because it all has happened before my time and also because I’m able to give the man on the phone our address, so that he may “send someone,” as he puts it.
We wait 45 minutes and no one shows up. My sister looks suspiciously at me.
“What have you told them?” she asks.
“What could I tell them? The facts: we found an unexploded shell in our yard and would they please come pick it up.”
Sometimes I think you do come from a different planet, she says. “If you’d ever want to come and live here again you’ll need to take a survival course. Come on!” I follow her obediently inside. I am, after all, the younger sister and the naive one. As I close the door behind me I see the workmen relaxing on the pile of pipe sections smoking cigarettes.
“We have a bomb here, in our yard, and there are small children and animals!” my sister cries into the receiver. “No, I can’t keep them off the site! I don’t get around as good as I used to. I’m almost seventy. Please, please send policemen before, God forbid, some misfortune falls upon us,!” In wavering, high pitched voice she gives him our address.
“They record all the incoming calls,” she says later. “There is a shortage of both men and cars so they go to emergencies first. If anything had happened here because they did not respond quickly enough they’d be in deep shit,” she instructs me. “Now we have the right to file a citizen’s complaint. It’s not like it used to be”
Within 15 minutes two policemen arrive. The older and better-looking one introduces himself to my sister as Inspector Rydzyk and kisses her hand. “So, where is the patient ?” he inquires jokingly. My sister points him to the ditch. He examines the shell and says: “There’s nothing to fear. It has no fuse and most of the trotyl (trinitrotoluene or TNT) has already spilled out. “He has some dirt on his fingers. A Would you happen to have a hanky?” he turns with this question to Pan Wisniewski. The foreman pulls out of his pocket a dirty, plaid handkerchief the size of a blanket. Inspector Rydzyk delicately picks it up by the corner. “This really is a job for a bomb squad,” he explains while cleaning the dirt from under his fingernails with the corner of Pan Wisniewski’s hanky, “but like all of us, they, too, have a transportation problem. Their response time is on an average about two weeks.”
“This is out of the question,” says my sister. “As you can see we are in the middle of… something and besides, you yourself, Inspector, have said that this thing, there, is harmless. Couldn’t you, sort of, take it with you and deliver it to the bomb squad?”
Inspector Rydzyk ponders the peacefully resting shell for a while and finally says: “ I suppose we could. Frank,” he calls out to a young man remaining behind the wheel, A clear all the gear from the trunk onto the back seat. We got to take this baby home.”
“Madam,” he says to my sister, “we will need some old rags.” My sister gives him a questioning look. “ I don’t think we should have it rolling about in the trunk during the ride,” he explains.
With those rags, Frank builds in the trunk of their Volkswagen something in the shape of a nest. In order not to dirty his hands again Inspector Rydzyk covers the shell with Pan Wisniewski’s hanky, lifts it out and carries it delicately, like an enormous egg, to the awaiting nest. For a moment before they start the engine I consider running and hiding behind the corner of our house, but I realize it is too late now. I should have done it when Inspector Rydzyk covered the shell with the hanky. Besides, it would have been awkward; no one else had moved.
In the evening I turn on the TV waiting for a bit of news about a police car exploding somewhere in the mid city. There is none. I guess I am a little stunned because it all doesn’t make sense to me, but come to think of it, it all fits perfectly well into the Kafka’s framework.
This is a planet I used to call home. It is small and, although, time here is racing forward to meet its future, some of this future is either the present or already the past, elsewhere. Thin silver threads, sticky with sentiment like spider webs, hold me, and the inexplicable need to verify one’s past, to make it more tangible- not just a phantom or a shadow- I know, will bring me here again. But I’m already corrupted by constant stimulation, infected with convenience and tainted with impatience. I’ve been gone too long to go back and, yet, not long enough to erase completely this awkward otherness I’ve come to live with. Otherness I’ve come to cherish and cultivate, so that no matter where I find myself, here or there, I will always be from another planet.