Tag Archives: Warsaw

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!

“You and I Have Memories Longer Than the Road That Stretches Out Ahead.”

It’s long past midnight in Warsaw.  There is a new couple that has moved into the apartment across the street.

For the last two days, it has been sitting empty, with the curtains open and the stark white mattress in the middle of the living-room.  On the first of the new year (today), they have appeared:  He’s tall, with pepper and salt hair; she’s lovely.  And even though I cannot see the details of her face underneath her bangs, I can imagine the high cheekbones and the doll-like roundness that I’ve been seeing in the store window reflections of the last twenty years.

I watch them from my kitchen, while drinking coffee.  I am jet-lagged.

The curtains remain open and the yellow light of a single lamp is getting some assistance from the screen of their TV.  They’re eating dinner that consists of corn on the cob and one bucket of KFC (so very Eastern European, as I have come to learn).  Occasionally, they half turn their faces to each other:

“You want some tea?”

Or,

“For what time, you think, we should set the alarm clock, in the morning?”

I leave them be and wander from one room to another to check on our drying laundry.  The guidebook never promised us domestic amenities, so the discovery of a washing machine in our kitchen came as a complete surprise.  The dryer button is jammed on it though, but considering I have arrived here with my arrested expectations from post-Soviet Russia, circa 1997, I am extremely grateful for the dignified living standards with which this city has accommodated us.

Besides, the absence of a dryer — I find romantic.  I run my hands along the cloths from my and my lover’s body, earlier drenched from running through this cold city, and wonder what it would’ve been like if I were to enter my womanhood in my birth place.  Would I have known the grace of unconditional love and the finally non-tumultuous forcefulness of me?  Would I’ve grown up kind, or would the much harder life of my homeland have taken a toll on my character and aged me, prematurely?  And would I have the privilege of choices that make up my identity now, still generous and grateful for the opportunities I’ve found abroad?

Identity.  In my impression of the world, this word comes from the American ventricle of me.  But after this week’s reunion with my father, who never had the privilege to watch me make the choices that led me to the woman that I am, I am surprised to find myself resemble him so much.  Despite the separation of nearly two decades:  I am my father’s daughter.  Of course, by some self-written rules, it’s presupposed that I have traveled further in my life than father ever did in his.  I’ve been exposed to more world, and in return, it taught me to question twice all prejudices and violations of freedom.  But what a joy it’s been to find that, in my father’s eyes, life is only about truth and grace and justice; and matters of identity, for him, have no affect on any person’s freedoms.

I wander back into the kitchen, sit down into my father’s chair.  Thus far, it’s been the greatest pleasure of my life to watch him eat good food that I have made.  While eating, dad is curious and — here’s that word again — grateful:

“What’s that ingredient?”

And,

“What do you call this bread?”

And I can see him now:  slouching just a little above his meal, in this chair; shaking his head at the meal that he finds to be gourmet, while to us — it is our daily bread.  I have to look away when with childlike amusement he walks his lips along a string of melted cheese:

Here is to more such meals, my most dear love, and to the moments that define a life!  that must define MY life!

The couple in the window across the street has finished their meal.  The table is still cluttered with settings, crumbled paper napkins and a red bucket whose iconography — although recognizable — is somehow different from the red-and-white signs that pollute the American skyline.  The couple is now on the couch:  She’s sitting up and removing pillows from behind her back, then tossing them onto the wooden floor.  He is fetching two smaller ones, in white pillow cases, from the bed.  Together, they recline again and progressively tangle up into each other, like lovers who have passed the times of dire passion and landed in that even-tempered place of loving partnership.

The light of the TV is now the only one illuminating their spartan room.  From where I stand, now drinking a cup of black tea (still, jet lagged), I only see the back of his head and her hand that has ended up near his right shoulder.   Occasionally, he half turns his face toward her, then turns toward the flickering blue light again:

“Are you comfortable, my love?”

Or,

“Would you rather watch the news?”

I walk into my bedroom to fetch my computer.  The yellow light follows me from the kitchen and slowly dissipates as I approach the next doorway.  It, ever so lightly, hits the exposed leg of my sleeping lover.  I think I study him, but instead the mind gives room to memories of similar moments and visions.  And in that suspended history of us, I reach into the drawer.

“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.

“All the Miles That Separate — Disappear Now, When I’m Dreaming of Your Face.”

It’s going to be about opening doors.

It started with our landing in Warsaw…

No, wait.  Scratch that!

It started with our boarding of the trans-Atlantic flight — that carried us to Vienna — and which I nearly missed due to a row of fuck-ups on behalf the domestic airline that took me to D.C.  One thing that I must say (in the domestic airline’s defense) is that the stewart who announced our landing did make a Christmas wish over the radio:  He asked that every soul on that plane allowed those of us, in danger of missing our flights, pass through the doors first.

“Yeah, right!” I thought.  “Like that’s gonna happen!”

My point exactly:  A family of South Koreans flying in first class were the first to get out of their seats and block our way.  And then, a miracle!  They sat.  Back.  Down.  And the entire plane remained seated, and we were given a priority.

Well, I’ll be damned:  Humanity!

I started running, checked the schedule of international departures on the go and followed the arrows to my gate.

“Say what?!  I have to catch a train?!  Fuck me!”

With ten minutes before the plane’s departure, I was still running alongside the moving walkway — and I was actually faster than the mellow well-dressed passengers, much better suited for this spotless place.

“Wien?” a flight attendant with a German accent intercepted me.

“YES!  WHERE?!” I was short of breath and seemingly out of my good manners.

“This way.  We have been waiting for you, m’am.”

Well, I’ll be damned:  What dignity!

A couple of other flight attendants who checked my boarding pass were equally as chill.  Effortlessly, I passed through a pair of sliding doors and entered possibly the biggest aircraft I’ve ever seen.  It was so giant that upon our landing (forgive the shortcut past the 9-hour flight here), TWO sets of exits opened to let us out.  And it was one of those aircrafts that involved stairs leading down to the foreign soil; and then, THREE shuttles — waiting to deliver us to the Passport Check Point.  So old-school!

After the silent man who stamped my visa page, there would be another security check, more doorless doorways and then another boarding, in the same old-school manner.  This time, it would involve ONE shuttle and ONE set of doors.

“Dzien dobry!” the flight attendants cooed at me at the entrance of a seemingly brand new plane.  They all had those gorgeous Polish noses, mellow faces and striking eyes.

Is this a European thing?  By now, I began to wonder.  This dignity, this slower manner that allowed for a well thought-out response:  Was this what other travelers insisted I experienced — by going to Europe?

And it would indeed turn out to be the pattern in this city:  In Warsaw’s every neighborhood, I would be treated with respect albeit some barely noticeable curiosity.  The women here — always so gorgeous, I would gladly subscribe to the world’s conviction that there were no equals to them, anywhere! — would look at me with some off-kilter fascination.  They wouldn’t be unkind at all, but they seemed to know I was one odd bird:  Sort of from around here — but not really.  Someone who understood them but, except for my communication via gentle manners I’d acquired with forgiveness, could barely respond.

Some men would be attracted but never spoke to me.  Most studied me modestly and never interfered.  One young and pretty creature stood aside, dumbfounded, and let me pass him.  A few turned heads — but never spoke up.  And no man would ever disrespect the woman he was with by being demonstrative with his curiosity at me.

Well, I’ll be damned:  Respect!

The doors to my cabdriver’s car (he looked so very much like my father):  Those doors just wouldn’t open.  And I had tried a couple of them.  My father’s kind lookalike, despite being in the midst of shuffling my bags, ran to assist me.  He would attempt to open those doors upon my final stop, as well; but I was too American in my capabilities to wait for him.

The doors leading to the concierge office were impossible to locate.  And only after going down a dodgy alley, with multicolored graffiti and smoking teenagers, did I finally locate the back door.  (The only woman in that group — gorgeous and not easily impressed — squinted her eyes at me.)

I yanked the door.  No luck.  Embarrassed to look back at the hip smokers, by now struck with silence, I buzzed the first key on the intercom.  Thankfully, someone chirped on the other end, and I was allowed to ascend.

The doors to our rented apartment required TWO sets of alarms and THREE sets of keys.  I waved and wiggled the keychain with my electronic pass in front of the red-lit eye for nearly five minutes before an older woman — again, gorgeous, mellow and smiling — quietly demonstrated how to do it.  The old fashioned key, like something out of my childhood’s fairytale, required some maneuvering in the lock.  Finally, I entered the spartan place that would become my home, for this week.

And this story about my random visit of Poland — where, after sixteen years, I would reunite with dad — would continue to be about doors:  The tubular, time-machine like doors of the shower; the heavy doors of every restaurant whose signs I could not decipher; the detailed doors of cozy cafes that would support my jet lag with their coffee; the wooden doors along the narrow cobble streets behind which I secretly wished to live (so that I could be closer — to dad); and the eventual folding doors of that ONE bus meant to bring my old man here —

TOMORROW!

I swear:  I’d conquer so many more doors — and miles — to get to you, today!