By A Woman Who Left in 1989
by Danusha Goska
Scientific Researchers report that humans develop love for that for which they sacrifice. This data has been replicated by a Fox, who once told a Little Prince, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” Do I love Poland because I have sacrificed for it? I gave years of my life to this country, researching, living on nothing, trying, through my published writing, to right old wrongs. In any case, I am in danger of falling in love with Krakow and never wanting to leave. In fact, right now I do not want to leave.
I have to leave, though, and I’m already feeling the wrench that I will feel a month from now, in August, 2011, when, bereft of Krakow, I’m walking down the street in Paterson, NJ. Paterson: a city that could never figure out what Krakow knows in its bones: how to, through force of will, turn catastrophe into poetry, joie de vivre and class.
I walk, and travel, much. You can feel the vibrations of a place through your feet. I never felt San Francisco. I’m sure Armistead Maupin did. Intellectually, I recognized its beauty: the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Tamalpais, the Bay, all of which I saw from my bedroom window. I recognized their beauty; I never felt it; it never penetrated me. I spent my time in that Berkeley bedroom with the spectacular view in feverish study of Poland, a flat, doomed, chilly country far, far away.
I can’t get over how at home I feel here in Krakow. The American daughter of Old Country immigrants, I’ve visited Krakow on four previous trips. I’m surprised to discover how much those brief and scattered visits matter, how they add up to genuine soul stuff: I have loved here. I have stayed up all night here. I have written here—the genesis of two books was first sketched in Krakow. I have been sick and been ministered to by caring friends here. Peggy Kurpinski from Kalamazoo, Michigan, got me drunk here. Arno Lowi, Canadian son of a Plaszow Concentration Camp survivor, talked to me all night about Polish-Jewish relations here. Laurence Skopitz, a Rabbi from Rochester, New York, once made me laugh in Krakow.
I’m floored by how content I feel doing my old walk around the błonia, a big grassy field made special by its 12th century birth; a nobleman wanted blessing before a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so he gave the field to some nuns, who never gave it back. I’m floored by how content I feel right now, sitting at a borrowed computer in a college dormitory in Krakow, typing about Krakow. This contentment, this feeling of reuniting with an old, geographic and architectural friend, has, several times, brought me to tears I struggle not to let fall. It was the worst Sunday at mass. If I tried to put down on this screen how happy and connected and at home I felt at a Sunday mass spoken in Polish in a small, out-of-the-way, medieval church, I’d have to dig up words we just don’t use any more in modern American English, words and sentiments and stances.
I feel this city’s vibrations through my feet and they excite me. I crave to consume this city, to swallow it whole and digest it delicately, bit by bit. I want to sit each citizen down across a table, switch on the voice recorder, and interrogate them, question by question. Did you chant “Sowiecki do domu!”—“Soviets Go Home!”—beside me in 1989, or were you the one who glared at us from your tram windows, displaying your annoyance at the inconvenience history, in the form of thousands of suddenly marching bodies, can cause to commuter timetables? During that riot, were you the kind, efficient angel, disguised as a teenaged Polish girl, who met us in the courtyard of the fourteenth-century Collegium Maius, and held rags soaked in vinegar under our noses, and advised us not to touch our eyes, after we’d been tear gassed by Zomo—the Soviet-era paramilitary-police?
Were you like a horse out of the gate when communism, like a million tiny leashes tethering your ambition, your intellect, your libido, your dreams, dropped? Or were you someone who retreated into a bottle from the pressures of competition? Do you miss having Krakow all to yourself? Does capitalism’s advance feel like cultural rape? Do the tourists who actually applaud the hejnał annoy you? Applaud the hejnał! As if that tune were not played from the spires of St. Mary’s church every hour on the hour, four times, to four directions, ever since invading Tatar arrow pierced defending Polish throat?
Krakow is a mess. Graffiti is everywhere. One Krakovian blamed the British. Always sound policy. The signage—billboards, placards, and neon—McDonald’s, Benetton, Harry Potter—“Buy one get one free!” “15 % off!”—Words I never thought I’d see in Polish, Comrade! This capitalist signage is random, ubiquitous, hideous. Ulica Szewska, once one of my favorite streets in the world, now sprawls like a corpse—suffocated by ugliness. Zoning Board? We don’t need no stinking zoning board. Krakow is the splatter chart of a collision between capitalist gaucherie and communist decay, Catholic smells, bells, and spells and young bodies in love, the Middle Ages and the Holocaust and suburban sprawl and make-it-up-as-we-go-along. A rooster crows next to a BMW. Eventually Krakovians will get it that this signage offends the eye—that what Krakow really has to offer are its stones, not the tacky, nouveau riche ads atop the stones.
Most writers, I think, struggling to explain today’s Krakow v. Communist Krakow, would invoke the word “palimpsest.” I think that’s mostly because literary types like the word “palimpsest.” If the word for an ancient scroll that has been reused and shows traces of the former text beneath the surface writing were a more blunt, humble, monosyllable like “Fred,” for example, palimpsests would be invoked less often. But Krakow is not a palimpsest. It is reincarnated. I saw this attempt to explain reincarnation in the film “Little Buddha:” a broken tea cup. That the teacup is broken does not mean that its contents have ceased to exist.
When I, the American-born daughter of a Polish father, came to spend the year of 1988-89 studying in Poland, I wanted to leave the first day. I couldn’t have hated Poles and Poland more. Everyone was beyond rude—they were demented, Kafkaesque. Krakow was clearly broken and its spirit contents spilled messily. I walked to the rynek, the main square, to talk over my decision with Adam Mickiewicz, national poet, at the foot of his bronze statue.
When I arrived at Mickiewicz’s statue, though, there was a demonstration by the Konfederacja Polski Niepodleglej—the Confederation of Independent Poland. A man was delivering a stirring speech. The crowd chanted “Soviets go home” and “Wilno is ours!” a crazily irredentist slogan. I joined in. I had no desire to retake Wilno from the Lithuanians. I just wanted to shout about how sucky life in Poland was.
I stayed the year. It was that demonstration, that I joined the first day, that kept me around. The disgust that made me want permanently to quit Poland after one day there—even though I’d turned my life inside out in order to arrange the year-long visit—and my staying because of the fifteen or so people at the KPN demonstration—was a microcosm of the macrocosm that would rewrite history. Poland was as sick of Poland as I was. Poland wanted to quit Poland. Poland stuck it out because of those people in the streets determined to kick the Soviets the hell out.
Getting food took up a good part of any day. My apartment refrigerator was tiny and inefficient and stocking up was not an option. Some days all you could find was yogurt, others, bread, others, smalec—lard. Pedestrians body-slammed each other. A friend was visibly pregnant. When she began to show, people stopped crashing into her. We thus concluded that the sidewalk bumper-car routine was at least partly conscious, an expression of aggression and desperate efforts to make contact.
I made small errors in the Polish I spoke to clerks. They snapped my head off. How dare I worsen Poland’s crucifixion by violating her hallowed tongue? Everyone knows you are supposed to use the genitive case, not the nominative, if the noun is the direct object in a negative sentence, especially on Tuesday!
Before that year in Poland, I had lived in remote villages in Africa and Asia, the kind of pre-modern settlements where sixty percent of children die before age five. Everyday life in Poland in 88-89 was actually uglier because more hopeless, and made hopeless by man, not God or weather or mosquitoes. Not just man—man’s best laid plan, communism. We had our brighter future and it sucked.
Today, in 2011, I make small errors in the Polish I speak to clerks and the sun shines on their faces. “Pani mowi bardzo dobrze po polsku!” “You speak Polish very well!”
Krakow smells different. Who can put an aroma on the page? Krakow 1988-89 smelled different from Krakow today. I used to wake from sleep to the clip clop of horse’s hooves and the squeak of wagon wheels on cobblestones. Whoosh—whoosh—whoosh—the sound of a scythe slicing down the lawn around the apartment building, big, male muscles freeing the heady, rank smell of cut grass. Now there are four lanes of heavy traffic. Weed-whackers and leaf blowers manage the landscaping. Petroleum, not coal, fills the nose.
No one has pressured me to drink alcohol or overeat. No one has blown cigarette smoke in my face. In 1988-89, we could not walk anywhere in Krakow without flashers. In the błonia, university buildings, on trams: men exposing themselves, publicly masturbating. It was all so pathetic. I’d never seen a flasher any place else. In 2011 I have not seen one.
Back in 1988, we had a Polish language teacher who would arrive in class, sit at the front of the room, and recite lists of nouns. That was language class. The joke about workers in the Soviet system: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” All well and good—malingering as romantic stance. But we, the students, got screwed, Polish didn’t get taught, and, as Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be.” Poles didn’t just pretend to be passive aggressive malingerers; they became passive aggressive malingerers. My teacher in 2011, Pani Kasia Sowa, is the first Polish language teacher I’ve ever had who has made me feel that I could actually learn Polish. She is competent. The Poles I’m meeting now: professional, stable, capable—make the word “competent” shimmer with magic.
I can’t afford anything. I’ve never been so happy not to afford anything. In 1988 I was offered a furnished, one-bedroom apartment, in a nice neighborhood, for twenty dollars a month. Food and even luxury items like leather coats and amber jewelry cost so little it was laughable even to take the time to tot up the numbers. We ate like pigs. It was an Olympic sport: Belgium waffles slathered with full cream for one cent. Strawberries and cream, champagne: when you could find them, you had them for pennies. Changing dollars for złoty was an experience out of a film noir. I remember a street corner, a tall, blond man in a trench coat, and an aristocratic air; he could hardly bring himself to touch the bills that brought him sustenance. “This is such dirty business.” Now you change money next to a supermarket—that sells Polish granola, Polish chocolate, Polish weight-loss supplements—and no one is the lesser for touching banknotes.
I keep remembering a night from the old days. I urged my boyfriend, who was born in Chicago but who spoke perfect Polish, to take me to the restaurant in the basement of the medieval tower in the main square. He was hesitant. I exerted my stock of feminine wiles. He caved in. He spoke Polish to the waiters there, as we ate strawberries and cream and drank warm mead and cold champagne. Men at nearby tables began to toss grosze coins—the smallest denomination—onto our table. My boyfriend explained that they were Poles, angry at him for selling out Poland for American money. We left. Today the square is full of tourists. No one is throwing grosze coins at them.
I first learned of my people’s tragic fate through thin, red-white-and-blue “Par Avion” air mail. My mother kept in touch with her family in Slovakia.
“We can’t send them this or that. They can’t do this or that. We can’t visit—not yet.”
“Why, why, why?”
“The Germans did this. The Russians did that. And nothing we do can change any of it.”
When you are a little American kid, it weighs you down, it makes you different, to have relatives like that. Americans could, in those expansive days, have or do anything. Our family? An alternate reality.
And that alternate reality is now gone. I just keep repeating this over and over again when I look at young Polish people—they don’t remember communism. And when I look at Polish people my age—they don’t remember World War II.
One of the great parts of getting old is that you realize that you don’t have to answer all the questions, or, maybe, frankly, any of the questions. Kids today will not have to answer why Mommy can’t go back to the country she was born in, or why we can’t send Uncle John that American product he liked so much the one time he tried it. My burning childhood questions have evaporated.
I remember the painful disconnect between me and my American siblings, growing up in the world where “everything is possible and nothing matters,” and my Bohunk parents, from the world where “Nothing is possible and everything matters.”
My parents worked so damn hard—my mother often two full-time manual labor jobs in one day—and were so poor, and so limited in their choices. We American kids looked at them and thought what dummies our parents were. My brothers sometimes worked with my father, caddying at a hundred-year-old country club. They were troubled by how rich American men treated my father. It wasn’t till I was older, and American academia did me the favor of slamming every door in my face, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how well I met their demands, that I realized my parents’ heroism, and their logic.
America is flooding Poland now: glass and steel, shopping malls, advertising, and the internet porn, of every species, that drowns us all. Will young Polish kids conclude, or be brainwashed into thinking, that everything is possible and nothing matters, and that their ancestors, who sacrificed so much for a steady food supply for their families, or the right to speak Polish or raise a Polish flag, were a bunch of clowns? Or heroes impossible to emulate? Or so distant as to be worthy to be forgotten?
I hope these themes play some role in Polish kids’ questions, and if they don’t, that’s great. I’m just glad I got the chance to ride some of this wave.