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Falling off the map

(3rd in a series of five–Written in Poland 10 March 2010)

Today we left the safe-haven, poetic retreat and visited a nearby town. Wandered between patches of melting snow and ice and looked up at gables and pastel-colored houses, medieval architecture poking its head around every corner. Visited a farm where they made wine in 1665. Thought of the 17th century and what happened then: Hendrickje Stoffels (see painting) and young Titus, the beloveds of Rembrandt, both of whom died of the plague before him; explorers falling off the map into the New World; the Dutch Golden Age.

This is what I noticed: when I was last in Poland 11 years ago, there were fewer billboards and gas stations. There were more prostitutes along the highway. More children now. No mobile phones then. More cars now, and traffic. When I used to crisscross Poland for stories and interviews with elderly people, I drove too fast on empty roads. I lined up for hours to buy gas. The U.S. embassy sold me gas in Warsaw. Now it’s the gas stations lined up along the road instead of the cars.

But there’s something more, something beyond the youth and the technology and the shopping malls, soft toilet paper, double-paned windows and mod-cons. My student friend said it has to do with a new attitude: “Polish people have always been cynical and negative. Lately people are more positive.” I wonder if this is hope, hope for a future, hope to build something, hope of freedom.

My Poland, the one I traveled to several times a year from 1988-1998, the one I brought vacuum-packed meat and vitamins and bananas and oranges and morphine to, was a poor Poland, downtrodden, beaten into submission by Soviet humiliation. The daily indignity of not having enough toilet paper, waiting in endless lines for everything from bread to deodorant, the unreliability of flows of electricity and water, all served to keep an entire population from hoping.

What I saw today was a third-dimension Poland, one enjoying normalcy. No longer a crisis-state, bent beneath martial law and fear of the secret police, a dread of the shaking ground preceding the oncoming tanks, this Poland revels in daily debates among the different political candidates for the upcoming election—what fun to argue like this! This Poland has opinions about everything, outspoken—of course! With shoulders shrugged high—opinions. I only saw one little old woman wearing army boots today—they used to be walking down every street. And instead of half-empty shop shelves, now the most chique boutiques and department stores line the cobblestoned streets.

Isn’t materialism delightful?

So what I feared all these years in my staying away, was that a cheap, plastic, imitation-America longing would have replaced the sincerity and integrity and deep devotion of the friends I knew here twenty years ago. This afternoon we visited a jazz café-slash-art gallery, owned by friends of the grandfather for 18 years. All these cigarette-smoking, intellectual-looking women sizzled their stares down at us from the walls, appearing as if they knew more than we ever would about the ways of the world. I could see the crowded, blue-with-smoke evenings, intellectual conversations about politics, hear the crooning jazz.

What the grandfather has done this week is open up to us about his life: the jazz café, the architects in the restaurant where we ate, his theories about love of art, the family photos of barbecues and short-sleeved laughter.

I wonder at my own falling-off-the-map reaction to the art here, to the grandfather. For years Poland drew me home, and now I have returned again, a prodigal daughter in search of some soft reconciliation of mind and heart, spirit and soul.

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