Tag Archives: Eastern Europe

Sleep-Less, in Warsaw

The pigeons of Warsaw are singing blues lullabies, at night.

Were I not on a week-long hangover, from my tightly wound nerves and a lack of sleep, I may have not even noticed them.  But on the first night of getting here, I’ve first slept through all of daylight — sore from soaring the skies above the Atlantic — and then risen to an unfamiliar (to my now native but still adopted land) sound.  The murmur resembled the noises of a submarine submerging into water; or, of a bored babe blowing bubbles through a straw into a half-full glass of milk he had no intention of drinking up:  Quick pops of air, my little darling, with your tender, mumbled giggles, in between.

Even the local insomniacs have given up on their daytime nightmares that chronically keep them awake.  They’ve all gone off to sleep, by now.  In this old city, murmuring with blues, I seem to be alone; and I pull through my groggy, swollen stupor — of changed time zone and altitudes in the last twenty four hours, of overcome little tragedies (“the circumstances”, as other people call them) in order to get here — and through the anticipation of a major turnaround in my life.  Here, I have come to meet my father.  Here, according the story, lies my redemption.  (You know, THE story.  Everyone has one.  Not necessarily a fairytale, and nothing particularly dignified — but something that we lug around, to make us special. Or, different, at least.  “The story.”)

But still:  The sound.  Not a single soul seems to be awake to explain its origin, right now.  And after a lifetime of aloneness, loneliness is not in the repertory of my moods (let alone of my fears).  So, yes, the sound:  Is it coming from the pipes of the town square fountain, waking up in the midst of its winter-long hibernation?  Or is it authored by a stray mama-cat — with twice the thickness of her fur, being a much wilder thing in this part of the world — and she is purring her recent litter to sleep, somewhere on the raspberry, tilted rooftop of the apartment building across the street?

And then from the hibernating memories of my childhood’s self (what’s the use to remember, when all I do — is move beyond “the circumstances”?  toward “the story”?), I connect the dots:  If the memory serves me right, this sound comes from a choir of feathery creatures flocking the buildings’ gutters and windowsills, resting on phone poles (they are too clumsy for the tight ropes of phone lines, and they leave those for the little guys, the sparrows).  And they are murmuring the town to sleep.  The air is quieter in this part of the world.  The streets are narrower and filled with lesser aggression.  So, their songs — and the other tunes of nature — are easier to hear.  And so they happen:  These little harmonies of cohabitation, the peaceful melodies of nonviolent living.  Quite exceptional for the new century of ours!

Not a footstep can be heard along the cobblestone roads:  The town has been hushed down by the song.  There is always an hour, one at sunrise and a couple at the end of each day, when the surfaces of these streets look clad in blue — a shade that has been coming through in photographs of my father’s face.  While cradling a cooling cup of coffee against my breast bone, I break down the color by the palettes, while peeking through the tule curtains, which aren’t a common practice in my adopted land, except in immigrant neighborhoods.  For, on the other side of the Atlantic, every thing and body is in love with white spaces.  Still, the ways of life here do not appear strange to me; and all the memories I’ve forcefully filed away are gently slipping out to the forefront, to the bluesy murmurs of Warsaw’s pigeons.  I know I’ve seen these colors in my childhood.  I know I’ve heard these sounds.

The windows are sweated from the inside, but they’re not frost painted yet.  (That — I do remember well:  my tracing the magical cold patterns with my chubby fingers, while waiting up for Father Frost’s arrival, on New Year’s Eve.)  The streets below look narrow and ancient; and even though they are of a more recent generation, no older than five decades, the cobble stones breathe with tales of one old civilization (and of its “story”).  Never again will these streets be evened out by another nation’s ideologues with unthinkable experiments in mind!  The gracious land of Poland is resting now; and tonight, despite the turmoil in my head (reflections of my immigrant life competing with the memories of my original self), this land appears sleeping, submerging into fluid of some peaceful bliss that’s well-deserved, good lord!  Good land!

In about an hour — after this shade of blue is dissipated by sunlight — the town will begin its waking with the sounds of women’s heels upon the cobble stones, shiny in the morning with black ice.  A few antique cars, going one way, then parking and unloading fresh produce to a couple of delicatessens, will follow.

Food hunting takes some time and expertise, around here:  You cannot swing by a giant, windowless supermarket and get all of your needs fulfilled at once, while losing track of time in a hypnosis of excess.  No.  You must take your time to learn your neighborhood by walking and match a specific store to each food category.  Liquor and fruit — a reasonable pairing — is sold out of narrow closets, crammed in between first floor apartments.  Milk and meats are paired together, but never fish:  Fish is sold a few blocks down, on a larger, two-way street (which must be easier for deliveries, I dare to theorize).  At each store, you twirl the packages and wrappings in your hands.  They come from neighboring countries, each speaking in a different language:  the little oddities that feed one’s curiosity despite one’s being jaded by age.  The banality of your basic needs somehow dissipates when curiosity of hunting is rewaken; and you aren’t embarrassed for asking questions.

There is seemingly never more than half a dozen of each product in stock; so, you’re doomed to settle on variety; and if the local stores run out of your preferred produce — you wait until the sound of the antique cars the next morning.  (Here, waiting no longer proposes a burdensome occurrence; because the town’s time has slowed down, according to my clock.  And there is suddenly an endless list of missing objectives, as I adopt the natives’ strolling pace along these peaceful, old streets, until the blue of sunset, at the end of each day, and sometimes past it.)

The three women cashiers at the liquor store across the street are always visibly amused at my crippled Polish.

“Tak, tak, tak,” they smile and nod, and hand each other their guesses of what I’m pointing at.

“No, no,” I panic.  “Apple… not a pear…  Um…  Yabloko?  Yeah?”  (I throw in some Russian, what the hell!)

Sometimes, I juggle English, when my original tongue fails.  They smile and give each other teasing looks.  I do not worry though:  They look like grandmothers, completely free of evil thoughts toward other people’s children.

This one, behind the liquor counter, looks mighty — like the type I’d call in case of a prognosis of some feminine disease, or just to share a round of shots for no reason than to avoid thinking of “the story” (“the circumstances”, as other people call them).  She looks like she can laugh for hours, her giant breasts vibrating with resonance of her chesty, smoker’s register.

“Mozh?” she forcefully tilts her head toward my male companion who’s at the moment pleasantly negotiating with the other two women — in the produce corner of this closet space — that after all, we won’t be needing any onions.

“But, thank you.  Um…  Dzieku-ya?  Yeah?”  (He’s a lot more willing than I am!  His “story” must be lighter.)

I shrug, roll up my eyes to reconsider, press my lips together into a sheepish smile (this mighty broad is a Catholic, judging by the amber cross around her sweaty neck), and then I shrug again.  What’s Polish for:  “It’s complicated”?  She gives me a preview of the silver crown in the right top corner of her mouth and lifts her thumb.  She approves — of him, or of my progressive sexual practices, from my adopted (but not native) land.  Her nails are filthy, and I love her!

The woman stocking the shelves at a larger deli down the street has also picked me for a foreigner.  No matter which tongue I utilize with her — I might as well be speaking in Chinese.  Her face communicates her single, stubborn point of view:  If Looks Could Kill…  I feel no residue of my self-protective aggression.  (I’m suddenly so tired of “the story”.)  But one thing I have learned with these unwilling types, resentful toward tourists — as demonstrated by the apathetic shrug of a gray-haired, handsome cabby, earlier this week, who turned down a handsome fare to the airport by refusing to communicate in any other language but his native:  They aren’t obliged to speak to me in Russian anymore.  I cannot blame them:  It’s a new world, indeed!  To each — his or her own politics of forgiveness.

“Yeah?”

The resentful woman still doesn’t get me.  I let her be, in dissonance with me.  I let them be.

The young barista with a boyish haircut at a packed coffee shop pretends to not understand my “pleases”, “yeses”, “thank yous”.  (A little cunty, if you ask me, she shoots down all of my attempts for grace.  But nothing I can do about that.  I let her be.)  While waiting for my order, a stunning couple gets my attention; and I forget about the slightly patronizing smile of the child behind the register, who’s probably spitting in my coffee.  The woman in the coupling is wearing an African headdress, and he — is gloriously giant.  I hear them murmuring in Polish to a nervous woman tourist:  When did the world get smaller?  And, more importantly, how much longer — until it becomes kinder, juster, too?

Still sleepless, I keep studying my street, through the tulle curtains:

An amber store is lazily glistening with all possible shades of yellow, some silver and glass.  The arch doorway of the watch repair store right next to it looks like a replica from an old fairytale:  I try to cast the face of the kind and fragile watchmaker who tinkers with the hands of time, inside; but all that comes to mind — is the one of my father, illuminated by the shades of blue.

His face — is kindness incarnated.  Mercy defined and grace continuously — stubbornly — resurrected, despite “the story”.  My father’s hands, affected now by age and years of living past “the circumstances”, have been the ones in charge of my chronology.  Like a magician, from ten time zones away, he has been gently tapping the wheels of my clock with pads of his aging fingers, to slow down the loss of our minutes.

If only our “story” would have some mercy!  And from the ends of now smaller world, we have been rushing to each other:  If only there’d be time enough!

“In the Name of Justice. In the Name of Fun. In the Name of the Father. In the Name of the Son.”

A native couple is cooing by the window.

Polish has always echoed of my native tongue, but with more softened corners of our consonants.  And even if it flies out in a loud form — like from the disgruntled clerk at Warsaw’s Central Station who hollered at the group of passengers that included my old man (that bitch whose Soviet-inspired perm I could’ve easily clawed out if it weren’t for the plexiglass between us!) — this language still flows and gurgles the prettiest, for my ears.  Within this week, Polish has become my path to lullabies; and now, I wish to learn it, so that I could always murmur its fairytales to my own sleepy firstborn.

Case in point:  The lovebirds with whom I’m sharing this train car for the duration of the 7-hour ride from Gdansk to Warsaw — are quite quickly putting me to sleep after our first ten minutes together.  Although I’m certain that the last three days of restless sleep that came from my fear of closing my eyes (so that I wouldn’t stop memorizing my father’s face, after a decade of our living in opposite hemispheres) have something to do with it, too.  But during this entire trip through Eastern Europe, I have been thoroughly calmed into surrender by the trustworthy national temperament of the Poles.  No other peoples I have ever encountered possess this much gentleness and grace (the Soviet-trained witch at the bus station who dared threatening my father’s dignity — is obviously excluded from this statement).

It is as if after centuries of oppression by every egomaniac who found this lovely country as the perfect place to start a war or their conquest of the world — after unthinkable tragedies the human race thought up and then imposed on these kind people — the good gods of this land have finally decided to protect them from all strife, until the next apocalypse that ends our civilization all together.  As far as the Poles go, I think that they have suffered enough to possibly reach their nation’s limits of paid dues.

It must be why for days and miles (oops, sorry:  kilometers) by now, I haven’t seen an unattractive native.  The kiddos are doll-like, with their giant eyes and smooth foreheads inside the halos of colorful scarves and fur-trimmed hoods of coats:  The beauty of their future generation must be the reward for all that suffering.  The women are mesmerizing with their luminous faces (without make-up, in most cases) and those Slavic cheekbones carved out of marble by Michelangelo himself (for surely, that guy must be god’s personal architect, these days).  The leftovers of the kitschy Soviet fashion are still occasionally noticeable on Warsaw’s streets:  in leopard colored fur coats and hair beehives set into unmovable mounts with sparkly hairspray, a tooth comb a curling iron.  And then, there are those women who suffer from the universal ailment of unhappy marriages and miserable living standards (those women age so fast!).  Also, a few have fallen victim to the mass fad of perpetual smoking (although the young are still not showing the consequences of it).  But for the most part, in their beauty, these women — are exceptional!

As for the Polish men, thus far I’ve found them wonderfully well-mannered, educated and non-aggressive.  Like this specimen still cooing at his lovely in my train car:  Incredibly gentle to the point of being effeminate, he keeps telling her the history of every local sight and landscape that we have passed behind our giant windows.  At one point, he gets up, adjusts his tweed jacket (while being childlike and a little nerdy in his gestures); and then reveals two homemade sandwiches (oops, sorry:  buterbrods) out of his shiny brown leather attache case.  When he starts talking on his cellphone to confirm the schedule of their connecting train, he sounds exceedingly polite and almost bitchy.  She giggles and looks at him sheepishly when he cuts off the customer service rep with his blade-like sarcasm.  He looks back at her, now encouraged and twice the man, and pats the top of her knee.

These lovebirds have been cooing at each other ever since I’ve entered the railroad car.  Between the two of them, she does most of the listening:  With a blissful expression on her face whose only stunning characteristic lies in the constellation of her beauty marks, occasionally she slips in a timid compliment in between his never ending sentences, while he continues lecturing.  He could be easily be an assistant professor or some brilliant history students at the top of his class.  (Um.  Sorry:  faculte.)  And when he delights her with his intellect, she breaks out into a ready laughter, too loud for her demure character.

Of course, were I to have my drathers, I would be sleeping in the dark and in utter silence.  But one:  It is the Eve of the New Year, after all (and the Poles are huge on celebrations — which must have something to do with their generosity, I suspect).  Two:  These kids are perfectly delightful.  But even though they can’t remind me of my younger self (for I have never had a young romance), I always stand defenseless in the name of kindness, if not love.

Besides, I have been softened by the events of this week’s trip.  The best, the smartest and the kindest man of my life — my father — has just departed from the coast of Gdansk:

The man to teach me my self-worth despite our sixteen-year long communication by phone and telepathically shared heartbeat.  The one to always offer help and not keep tabs on my mistakes or moments of helplessness.

The first to show me that power lies in kindness and that in my forgiveness — happens love.

The parent from whom I have inherited my sense of justice and the pursuit of harmony, my reason, generosity, compassion; and the very essence of my spirit — has offered me the best week of my life.

And our reunion just so happened to unfold — on Poland’s graceful land.

“Wait in Line, ‘Till Your Time. Ticking Clock. Everyone: STOP!”

Okay.  I cannot do the electronic check-in for my overseas flight.  I find that hard to believe.  But then again, it’s been at least sixteen years since I have left the country, so what do I know?

Fine, then.  Okay.

Get to the airport.  That’s pretty easy.  It’s a day after Christmas, and I ask my driver if he thinks a lot of people are going back to work this morning.

“Most should,” he says.  “But then, again, a lot of people are still off.”  He pauses.  “Of course, I’m always surprised when there is any traffic, on a day like this.”  Another pause:  “But that’s LA for ya!”

There is a layer of pink feather clouds, hanging above LAX.  It’s pretty, in an exhausted sort of way.  A few silver jets sparkle in the sky as they ascend diagonally.  What an ambition of the human spirit!  A civilization is a succession of wills.

I get out at the curb within the first meter of my terminal’s ground.  A giant Lincoln town car attempts to cut me off.

“Just run me ova’, why don’t cha?” I mouth out to its driver with a bluetooth in his ear.  Be it the black, floor-long winter coat or the tightly wound nerves (and both are quite suitable for the Eastern European winter), I suddenly feel every bit like the New Yorker I once was before defecting to this coast.

He sees me, doesn’t as much as wave.

A giant line of exhausted passengers outside — kids in silly Christmas sweaters and adults with wrinkly faces — who are waiting in front of the terminal’s sliding doors is just a small preview of the havoc I’m about to endure inside.  I do not really know on what grounds I’ve previously assumed that just because United has its own terminal, the flow of today’s events would be well practiced and smooth.

The lines inside are hideous.  I find the international portion of the airport and read its awning, “International One Hour Cut-Off.”  Someone’s ought to proofread this company’s syntax.

Breathe.  I still have almost two hours.

I walk over to the Self Check-In Machines.  One carry-on, a winter coat and a laptop.  To lug one’s baggage through life is a hideous choice.  Forgiveness, no matter how hard, is lighter.

“These are for passengers with only one carry-on,” a short woman on a walkie-talkie grumbles and then proceeds her way.

“Yes,” I watch her get back to the talkie.  “I am.  Indeed.  Just that.  M’am.”  She is no longer interested.

“TAP HERE TO BEGIN.”

I do.

“ENTER CONFIRMATION OR E-TICKET NUMBER.”

I find a six-digit combination in my printout.  That should do the trick.

“NO NUMBER FOUND IN THE SYSTEM.”

Okay.  I try another number.   Another random combination on the paper.

“NO NUMBER FOUND IN THE SYSTEM.”

You’ve GOT to be kidding!

Okay, okay, okay.  Stay chill.

With the most mellow smile that I can manage at this hour of sunrise, I approach the first visible uniformed personnel.  And in the background, I suddenly can hear a few hollering infants and some foreign tongues.

I wait my turn, approach the woman.  Explain the situation.

“You have to call?” she tells me in her thick Asian accent.

“Excuse me?”  (Okay.  Be kind.  It’s wiser, lighter.)

“You have to call — the company?”

Oh, fuck it.  I assume my place in line.  The young man in front of me is calm and utterly consumed by his iPad.  On his cart, I see a guitar with a lime-green bandana around the handle and one piece of carry-on.  Like me, he has forgiven.  A couple of hippies with mounts of luggage on their cart are making out ahead.  An Asian couple is demurely standing by and holding the handle of a tiny bag, not deserving to be called “a suitcase”.

“And don’t forget the tag?” the Asian attendant hands me two tongues of paper.  Apparently, she only responds with questions.

“Thanks for your help,” I say.  Mmm-hmm.  I’m glad she’s saved the day with these.

I’ve got less than thirty minutes to make it through this line.  We’re moving slowly.  The grumbling woman with a walkie-talkie reappears.  I notice that underneath her United blazer, she’s wearing a summer dress.  She, right away, begins to create order.

“Sir!  You cannot stand here!” she is demonstrative when speaking to a smartly suited Indian man who, just like me, is carrying no luggage.

“My flight leaves in an hour,” he sings in a way that’s expected from his heritage.  “And your ticket machines are broken!”

Okay!  So, it was NOT just me!  I glance at the now baffled Asian attendant.  It feels a little better to know I’m not a solitary idiot, afraid to ask for help.

“Somebody’s GOT to help us!” the Indian businessman continues singing, as if echoing my thoughts.  “Somebody’s got to do their job!”

“I’m doing mine just fine, sir!” the walkie-talkie woman grumbles and listens into her gargling apparatus.  “Anyone — to Mexico?” she hollers in a moment.

A few timid hands appear above our heads.  Their owners are ushered into the line behind the Indian man.

My check-in finally happens, and it happens exactly an hour before my scheduled flight.  Ivy — the mellow attendant who takes orders from the walkie-talkie woman in a summer dress, before she serves me — has done her job quite quickly (although she does appear to have typed a whole of a dissertation in order to issue my boarding passes.)

And in the next hour, I do remember Ivy gratefully when our entire gate is transferred to another one, where we, again, proceed our wait.  When, finally, we begin boarding:

“As you may have noticed,” a voice comes over the speakers, “we’re experiencing mechanical difficulties.  We’ve dealt with three different mechanics and shall be in the air as soon as we are done with our paperwork.”

Okay.  Stay positive.  Stay grateful and stay kind.  

I have about fifteen minutes to catch my connecting flight.