Sunday, September 21, 2014

Chapter 20

1970s in Poland are times of a great rift in the youth culture. Two camps form  and quickly become locked in a bitter, often violent struggle: the Hippies and the Gits ("Git-people" - "git" being a prison slang for "good").  The Hippies are a Western import: dressing and behaving like their counterparts in Western Europe or US, but within the confines of a police state, so no sit-ins, peace rallies, or giant rock concerts. They are apolitical pacifists dabbling in Buddhism, preoccupied with music and getting high. All these pursuits are alien and treated with disdain, even hostility by the rest of the Polish society - massively catholic, in which other religions are tolerated but also looked upon as somewhat inferior, like an errant cousin. Having had countless wars and uprisings in her history - heroic but mostly futile - Poland views pacifists as cowards, traitors, or mentally retarded. As for the drugs, they are extremely difficult to find, except for the household chemicals, like glue or paint thinners. Getting "high" thus generally means getting drunk.

Gits are a strange subculture, largely homegrown, although one suspects that identical currents are at work in other societies in Eastern Europe, leading to the formation of gang-like groups with similar "ideologies". Like the Hippies, the Gits are non-conformists, but their rejection of the society's norms manifests itself in aggression, physical violence, vandalism, heavy drinking, and glorification of the criminal (people and behavior). The biggest respect in those groups is shown to the most aggressive and reckless, and those who served time in prison. Gits do not have any particular "dress code", but they do have visible marks of their belonging to the subculture: small dots tattooed on their faces, necks, and hands, and signifying their status and role in the local groups. Thus, the reckless among them would have a dot between their eyes, the mark of a "świr" ("wacko"); those who are good at stealing would have a dot between their thumb and forefinger; those who served time would be marked by a dot near the corner of their left eye.

Hippies fear and detest Gits. Gits hate Hippies. At least that's the norm and ideological dictate. In reality, it a bit more complex. Belonging to one subculture or the other is often driven not by one's deeply held beliefs, but by landing in its orbit by other reasons, for example, by not being admitted to a gymnasium (dominated by Hippies) but going instead to a vocational high school (dominated by Gits). On a personal level one would therefore occasionally run into "sensitive" Gits, who think more like hippies, or "militant" Hippies, who would fit quite well in the other milieu.

My high school is most definitely in the Hippie camp. We wear bell-bottom jeans, long hair, lots of beads, peace signs dangling from our necks on leather strips. The few of us with curly hear grow something resembling afro - an object of envy. My hair is light brown and does not curl, but has a tendency to twist in unfortunate directions, like handfuls of straw sticking out of an otherwise neat pile. I love it and hate it at the same time. Why can't it be like the gorgeous mane of Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin?

Having no access to drugs and very limited access to alcohol, we seek "higher level of consciousness" by listening to music. Since Western LPs are not available in Poland (and we could not afford them anyway), this is music recorded from radio stations or the few LPs in private possession, and then copied hundreds of times. Our "anthem" is "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin, which also happens to be one of our favorite bands. Soon we discover others: Pink Floyd looms especially large (I drift away into other worlds listening to "Echoes" while lying on the floor in my dark room. It is such bliss I wish I would die, so that I would never have to experience any less blissful state...) Then, there is King Crimson, Carlos Santana, Yes, Genesis, Tangerine Dream, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Jimmie Hendrix.... Interestingly, the Gits also have their "anthem" and, ironically, it is an American song, "House of the Rising Sun", although most of them are likely unaware that it would be a disgrace to their chauvinism. Sung in "grypsera" (Polish prison slang) it tells a story of a young man dying in a prison cell, and so it tugs at the heart of many a Git, who sees himself ending up in prison sooner or later.

An interesting feature of the Polish society at this time in its history is that it is truly a tossed salad of different social groups, forced to live close together (at least in big cities) due to housing shortage and being assigned apartments in big "ant hills". One apartment building will have a doctor living next to a cop, next to a factory worker, next to a university professor, next to a cobbler, next to an army officer, and so on. Obviously, it has both Hippies and Gits in dangerous proximity. It helps that most Gits tend to be shy and cowardly when sober and away from their group, but this cannot be relied upon, as I learn the hard way one night.

I am walking home through my subdivision after a lengthy rehearsal at the theater and my path crosses that of "Krasnal" ("Gnome") a well known Git and bully, with a taste for terrorizing younger kids, robbing them of pocket change or snacks and making them cry. He is three years older than I but only a bit taller, hence his nickname. I am a bit tipsy and cocky, having had a beer or a gulp of wine at the rehearsal, so when he starts challenging me, blocking my path, I agree to fight him. (Not that I have much of a choice, except perhaps acting very submissively, but I would not even consider that option.) Trouble is, I do not have any fighting experience whatsoever, while he probably has been in more than one brawl. He quickly positions me where the street light shines in my face (with him remaining in the shadow) and punches me in the face with his fist. It hurts like hell, and I feel something wet (snot? blood?) flowing down to my lips. I move back a step, so he cannot reach me again, and then the other part of the "fight or flight" response kicks in, so I run like crazy toward my house (path to which he unblocked for me by circling around.)

Before he can react and give chase I cover the 100 or so yards to the entrance, jump three stairs at a time, and reach our apartment door in seconds. I'm safe. I'm bleeding from my nose, and that's the extend of physical damage, but my ego is badly bruised. I watch from my dark room as Krasnal walks around the house like a cartoon bull, head lowered, almost with visible jets of angry breath shooting from his nostrils - expecting what? That I will reappear and resume the unequal fight? I'm not an idiot, and yet it pains me enormously that I cannot face him and beat him to a bloody pulp, to teach him a lesson. This asshole so deserves it. I promise myself to start learning martial arts.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Chapter 19

My high school years are filled with solitary terror, like sailing alone in a small boat across a stormy sea. Like most teenagers I want to be unique and special - preferably in a grandiose sort of way, like a leader of an uprising - but I am tormented by doubts that I have what it takes to be unique and special. I am especially fearful of ending up like the people in my parent's generation: mere cogs in the socialist meat grinder, which turns individuals into a "mass" or "class" to be molded into some sort of "new humanity", devoid of the selfish, materialistic impulses of people in capitalist societies.

I see people in mind-numbing, life-long jobs, coming home to their families cramped into tiny apartments in non-descriptive housing projects aptly named "ant hills" - sometimes 3 generations occupying 400-600 square feet of a concrete cube along a corridor on the nth floor of a huge box containing hundreds of such cubes. Their lives are terribly mundane, proscribed, predictable, and dull.  Their dreams are reduced by all this oppressive dullness to desiring material things that are so unattainable as to seem worthy lifetime goals: a concrete cube of one's own (if still living with parents or in-laws at the age of thirty - a common predicament); a car (the tiny, unreliable Fiat produced by a state-owned factory, with a waiting list of several years);  a furniture set; a front-loaded washer.

The prospect of ending up like that scares the living daylight out of me, but I have very little evidence that my life will be different. It is depressing. All around me I see people resigned to their fates, convinced that this is normal, the only way to live.  Scary thing is, they may be right. I feel like a caged animal, with the painful consciousness that I was born in a cage and will die in a cage. I dull my anxiety with alcohol and chain smoking. Obtaining alcohol at the age of sixteen can be a difficult task, but not insurmountable. Some of us are starting to get facial hair, which makes us look older. I do not have that advantage, but with my recently discovered acting abilities I can emulate the confidence of an adult; strangely, it works most of the times, but I am probably giving myself too much credit. The laws against selling alcohol to minors are just another of many examples of laws that are rarely enforced and widely ignored; if anything, it is the personal conscience of an occasional store clerk that sometimes sends me out the door empty-handed.  I quickly learn which ones to avoid.

The same with cigarettes. Our brands of choice are, not surprisingly, the cheapest ones: "Sport" and "Extra Strong".  The former are especially vile; it is impossible to tell whether they contain tobacco or any other shredded plant.  The suspicion that this is not tobacco becomes stronger every time one finds a large wood splinter in one of them  (not uncommon). The jokers say that "Sport" is made at the end of every shift, from what falls on the floor all day long and ends up in the janitor's dustbin; the pieces of wood are splinters from that factory floor. There may be some truth to that, but the popularity of that brand would overwhelm even the most frequent sweeping. Perhaps my Grandma is right and they use carrot greens instead.

By the time I'm eighteen I smoke a pack a day. Everybody smokes.  Our high school restrooms are so filled with cigarette smoke during recess, one can hardly see. One day I am standing at the urinal, cigarette hanging from my lips, so focused on the act of peeing that I do not notice that the restroom becomes eerily quiet. I feel a light tap on my shoulder and, without looking back, I hand over my cigarette with, "Have a drag, but don't wet it with your spit." When I turn around, zipping up my fly, I find myself face to face with the vice principal holding my smoldering cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. Luckily, he is amused rather than angered by my confusion and utter surprise, so he just wags his finger at me sternly and confiscates my almost-full pack. The rest of the school will learn of this encounter in no time at all and I will hear the story repeated ad nauseam, but no more serious consequences follow.

There are two things I do not know at that time (among many others): that I suffer from depression, and that alcohol, while appearing to temporarily help,  makes that worse. One night I meet with a friend, from the now defunct amateur theater, in a local cafe. We order a bottle of Coca Cola and two glasses. We pour the Coke into the glasses and I top it off with cheap vodka I am hiding in my backpack, making sure that the waitress does not see that. We keep drinking that way, ordering two more Cokes and giggling at the confused expression of the waitress, who can't quite figure out why we appear to be getting drunk on a common soft drink.

We still have some of the vodka left when I decide I had enough.  Alcohol does not agree with me and I vomit violently on my way home. It makes me feel a bit better and I do get home. My parents are watching TV behind closed doors and my sister is reading in bed.  I go to my room and decide to put in motion the plan I hatched just weeks ago - killing myself.

In a country as inebriated as Poland in the 1970s deaths from alcohol poisoning are not uncommon. Newspapers and television give grim reports of people dying after ingesting methanol - usually moonshine that is not properly distilled - or simply drinking too much ethanol (the "good" stuff). The latter reports often include the blood level of alcohol of the deceased. From that I learn that the percentages are rather tiny - less then half a percent is likely to cause death. I am obviously unable to drink enough alcohol to achieve lethal level, but what if I were to put alcohol directly into my blood? Much smaller amounts would be required. I want to die but I'm scared of pain, so this seems like an easy, almost pleasant way to go.

I calculate the amount of alcohol to be added to the bloodstream of an average person, and it turns out that one medium syringe would be enough. I fill a syringe I stole from my stepmother (a nurse) with the leftover vodka, and give myself an injection in the vein of my forearm. (I will later be complimented by a nurse in the ER for having found the vein on my first try, without any prior experience whatsoever.) The vodka burns my vein like hell, so I manage to squeeze in only half of the planned amount, but I figure I probably overestimated, so I lie down and prepare to die.

It occurs to me that, having written no suicide note,  I should at least let my sister know what's about to happen. I stagger into her room and drunkenly explain the situation, showing her the half-filled syringe.  I just want her to know, is all. She, of course, freaks out and tells my parents.  Ambulance is called and I'm taken to the ER, drifting in and out of consciousness. My life is not in any danger - I am just very, very drunk.

The ER nurse has me drink cup after cup of warm tap water, until I vomit. She administers that treatment three or four times until I puke back only the clear water - nothing else left in my stomach. (I will use that technique of "stomach flushing" in later years for food and alcohol poisoning. It's simple and effective.) I am given an appointment with a psychologist and sent home with my parents. I am not disappointed to still be alive, but I am a bit angry at myself for causing such a turmoil for what turned out to be a silly, drunken gesture.  I resolve to never do that again; either I will make sure that I die at the end, or not try at all - it's just too embarrassing.  Also, killing oneself is much harder than it appears in books an movies.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Chapter 18

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". That oft-quoted opening line from Charles Dickens' famous novel, "A Tale of Two Cities", seems custom-made for my high-school years. These four years will bring me happiness, despair, love, friendship, hopelessness, booze, freedom, death wish, theater, cigarettes, literature... Among other things.

Two talented seniors start a "theater club" and I sign up within a couple of weeks. Our "play" is a series of scenes cobbled together from various poems, mostly comedic, like "Żona Wacia" ("Wacio's Wife") by Gałczyński - a bitingly satirical look at the "torments" experienced by talentless  writers with oversized egos. The two founders of the club keep the best acting parts for themselves, of course, relegating the new recruits like myself to supporting roles, but I do not resent it too much. I discover that I like being on stage, but I also discover the paralyzing qualities of stage fright. I am not yet ready to carry significant burden in a play.

In my sophomore year I hear of auditions to an amateur theater troupe forming in a nearby Dom Kultury (House of Culture) - a neighborhood venue with the mission of bringing culture to the masses. That "culture" takes various forms, from reading clubs, to discussion groups, to yoga classes, to theater, to locally produced exhibits. The "audition" consists of meeting with the theater director - a young, charismatic guy with serious acting ambitions, by the name of Adam - and telling him that I am interested and able to attend rehearsals twice a week.

The play Adam picks up for his first foray into directing is "The Physicists" by the Swiss dramatist, Friedrich Duerenmatt - an over-ambitious project for a troupe consisting mostly of high school and college students, eager  but with little or no acting experience. Mercifully, Adam decided to cut out some big monologues, leaving only those delivered by himself, in the role of Albert Einstein. I am assigned the role of Johann Wilhelm Moebius (the much abridged version).

After three months of twice-a-week rehearsals, some of which are cancelled, and some with only half  the actors showing up, we have our premiere - the first of only two shows to be performed. I am both pleased and frightened that the auditorium is nearly full, albeit filled mostly with the friends and relations of the actors, the biggest group of those being Adam's friends and relations. Needless to say, some of us forget our lines and have to "improvise", or add unrehearsed "Easter eggs". (I flash the Polish version of the "fuck you" sign behind the back of the head nurse, eliciting a roar of laughter from the audience. Certainly not in the script.) It does not help that we are a bit tipsy, after my friend and I decide to use beer as prop for the "soup" the patients/physicists are eating on stage.

I do not remember much from the play, except feeling very exhilarated and at the same time very frightened by being on stage. By all objective measures it would have been a disaster, if not for Adam, who carries out his role exceedingly well; thanks to his extensive editing this role is now absolutely central and most developed, and that really saves us.  I am in awe of his performance, and the audience appears pleased as well, giving us quite an ovation. Most importantly, my girlfriend Gosia and her family are there, and that pleases me enormously, albeit with an undertone of resentment that it was Adam, not I, who stole the spotlight.

Post script: 
While writing this story I decided to check and see what happened to Adam's acting ambitions. I remember he had plans to enroll in the theater academy in Warsaw (PWST). I never knew whether he was admitted to this highly selective college, as we lost contact soon after the two stagings, but I do recall seeing him say a sentence or two in a very minor role in a Polish film a couple of years later. Since I still remember his rather unique last name,  I google him. It turns out he made quite a name for himself, as a... restaurateur, achieving status of a fairly controversial "celebrity" - possibly a better alternative to being a third-rate, supporting actor, but quite surprising nonetheless. He's gotten much older, so I would not have recognized him but for his characteristic hand gestures, which he still uses.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Chapter 17

I am spending the rest of the summer working, to earn money for my growing smoking habit and other necessities. My father finds me this job through one of his strange connections in the semi-legal world of small-time entrepreneurs and street peddlers. This time it is an owner of an ice cream shop on Bazar Różyckiego -  a sprawling, walled-in area in the run-down section of Warsaw, with hundreds of stalls hawking wares that the state-run industry cannot provide, or those it does provide but can't keep on the shelves. (Selling this latter type of merchandise is considered speculation, branded as anti-social and punished, although with half-heartedness that becomes the modus operandi of the Polish state in that decade.)

As travel restrictions loosen up - especially within the Eastern Block - the Bazar (bazaar) becomes the main conduit for bringing merchandise from abroad: children's shoes from East Germany; pepper and spices from Romania; caviar from the Soviet Union; cheap sheepskin furs from Turkey; salami from Hungary. That in addition to plentiful wares produced in private homes and tiny workshops all over Poland, from clothing to shoes, to herbal remedies, to foodstuff, to household hardware, to toys, to religious kitsch. This enclave of free-market economy is tolerated by the communist authorities because it partially fills an important hole that the centrally-planned economy is unable to fill: the seemingly insatiable appetite for consumer goods, which keeps the shelves of the official stores bare, and the lanes of the Bazar teeming with crowds.

The ice cream store is not a stall but a small shed divided into two sections:  ice cream is dispensed from an Italian-made gelato machine at the front of the store, and it is produced in the back, where I work. According to state regulations that ice cream is supposed to be made from a powder (supplied by a state-owned factory), but that is too expensive and provided in quantities not sufficient to make a viable business out of it. We keep a bag of that powder for state inspectors, but each morning I go into the stalls to purchase dozens of eggs and vats of milk. I then combine those ingredients with bags of sugar and vials of vanilla flavor, pour the mix into the machine - and voila! In an hour of so the vanilla ice cream is ready for consumption.

The work is not well paid, but it is easy and relatively stress-free (if not for the specter of a state inspector's raid, but I figure it is not my headache).  There are two of us working here: myself, and a middle-aged woman selling the waffle cones of ice cream.  The owner shows up in the morning to give me a shopping list and money for the daily supplies, and then disappears in pursuit of other business opportunities.  That is, until he discovers that I make a good drinking buddy. From that point on he shows up twice a week in the afternoon and sends me to the monopolowy (liquor store) for his drink of choice: Krupnik, a mixture of vodka and honey.

I'm under age , but he introduces me to the store manager as his employee, and I will have no problem purchasing alcohol for us. Actually, it is not that unusual for children to be sent to a liquor store to buy alcohol for their parents, but I'm at an age when I can drink this stuff myself, so under normal circumstances I would be asked for an ID. I do have a school ID that I doctored in order to be able to see movies rated for 18-year-old, but in a liquor store I would be expected to show a state-issued ID confirming my adulthood.

I am a good listener and don't say much myself, so Sylwek (we're now on first-name basis) can dazzle me with stories of his drunken escapades and of blowing sums of money  I can't quite imagine.  At his wedding, rather than have new dishes put on the same plates, he orders the waitstaff to remove the table linens, together with china, silverware, and glassware, put it in trash, and then set the table anew for the next course. He dots on his wife and his twin sons with expensive presents and vacations in exotic places. He buys absurdly expensive, Italian bunk beds for his sons' bedroom, and then, after an argument with his wife over the color scheme in that bedroom, smashes them to pieces with a sledgehammer.

I take these stories with a big grain of salt, until one day he brings me an article he clipped from the biggest daily newspaper in Warsaw - "Życie Warszawy" ("Life of Warsaw"). It describes a drunken brawl he caused in a fancy hotel restaurant with a business rival of his, and the mayhem that ensued when he tried to evade two bouncers intent on ejecting him from the establishment.  At some point in the melee, with tables overturned and chairs being hurled across the dining room, he managed to jump behind the cocktail bar, from where he yelled triumphantly, "Bar taken!", and began throwing bottles of expensive liquor at his pursuers.

To appreciate the rich hilarity of this account one has to keep in mind that these two words, "Bar... taken",  have special meaning and are well known to every educated Pole. They appear at the end of volume one of the much-beloved XIXth century novel "With Fire and Sword" ("Ogniem i Mieczem") by Henryk Sienkiewicz , referring to the news that the Polish defenses of a  fortress in the town of Bar in Ukraine succumbed to the masses of  revolting Cossacks led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky (Chmielnicki) and aided by the Crimean Tatars. That XVIIth century revolt was a turning point for the powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, starting a downward spiral that resulted in the loss of independence for Poland a hundred years later.

My boss is probably completely unaware of that, but his drunken exploits are much more than funny vignettes from a life of an immature 30-something with too much money to burn.  Projected against the rich cultural and historical background of Poland, they are ironic contemporary appendices to that background, illustrating the sad truth that it was the extreme individualism and obstinacy of Polish gentry (szlachta), more than anything else, that led to the demise of Poland. (With alcohol serving as lubricant for these two destructive traits.)

For my part I am usually too drunk after these sessions to make astute observations of this sort. I am so drunk I serve a woman ice cream on a 20-zloty bill she just handed me. I am so drunk I don't know how I manage to navigate the multiple transfers required to get home after work - all the while drifting in and out of consciousness, and fighting a powerful urge to puke. I do wonder occasionally what the other tram and bus passengers think of a 17-year old so hopelessly inebriated, but I discover that I don't really care. Nobody ever says a word, especially not my parents, who happen to be out of town on vacation and know nothing of it.  I just wish my hangovers would not be as bad. I don't know it yet, but my body reacts to alcohol as if it were a poison. (Which it is, of course. In a sense.)

Chapter 16

I'm 17 and it will be my last trip to a summer camp. At 18 one is considered an adult - able to buy alcohol, cigarettes, have sex. Of course, most of us have had relatively easy access to the first two vices for a couple of years now, but not so at a summer camp, under the watchful eyes of the counselors.  (Although, to be fair, some of them do not mind bumming a cigarette or two off their 16-year-old charges, or making a side trip with a few trusted ones to a local brewery; although they will stop you after a pint or two.)

I'm very much looking forward to it. These camps have become much better in recent years, partly due to our ages: those 15 and older are separated from the younger kids and go to different camps. No longer in school buildings vacant for the summer, but in camping cabins or large, military-style tents. These accommodations may be a notch less comfortable, but it feels more like vacation and not a weird extension of school. We also have considerably more freedom: to swim whenever we want; to go into town on our own; to have summer heartbreaks. These are co-ed camps, and although girls are separated from boys every night, there are plenty of opportunities to make out during the day, as long as it does not go beyond holding hands or kissing. No camp director wants to have a girl knocked up on his watch.

There is another reason I'm so fond of these camps now - I discovered the secret to popularity. It is writing. High school Polish classes combined with my voracious reading have boosted my confidence in my writing abilities, to the point where I try writing short stories and poems. Strangely, that turns out to be a very valuable skill at a summer camp. I start by writing short, funny stories featuring other campers, and reading them at night to a small audience of whoever can squeeze into our cabin. Every day they demand another installment.

I write a script for hosting the camp's talent show, and volunteer to play the host. After that I am a celebrity. Two pretty girls ask me to write a dedication in their journals. After I couple of hours I  produce two short poems. The next day there is a line of girls outside our cabin, each wanting a poem. I'm in a flow, so each gets one. I don't consider these poems good enough to preserve for myself, but I manage to commit one to memory:

A teraz idź i rzuć się w trawę,
taką pachnącą, taką świeżą.
Niechaj się wszystkie polne myszy,
ze swoich smutków Tobie zwierzą.

Posłuchaj ich, a potem zaśnij,
pchnij myśl w tę otchłań gorejącą,
i niech się stoczy księżyc jasny,
by Ci pogłaskać twarz gorącą.

My translation into English, without bothering with rhymes:

Now go and throw yourself onto the grass,
so fragrant and fresh,
and may all the field mice,
confess their sorrows to you.

Listen to them and then fall asleep,
push your thought into that smoldering abyss,
and may the bright moon tumble down,
to stroke your feverish face.

Come to think of it - not too terrible for a 16-year-old. Alas, I have no idea how to exchange that currency into kisses or even holding hands with girls. Perhaps I'm too deep into playing the part of a lone artiste  communing daily with muses; girls want down-to-earth guys who will pay attention to them, make them feel pretty, and smart, and special, and not some navel-gazing poet fretting over the right rhyme.

My last summer camp is an opportunity to switch tactics, and I enlist the help of Bogdan - a 17-year old so obsessed with girls as to be completely oblivious to anything else. He is everything I am not: good-looking, dark-haired (for some reason women seem to prefer dark hair in men), with a hint of a mustache, athletic, bold, and so desperate for making out that he will stop at nothing. His drive is contentious and I agree to do things I normally would be too scared to do, like sneaking into the girls' tent at night.

He sweet-talked some girl into letting him into her cot at night, but he doesn't want to go alone, and so I tag along, like a teenage Sancho Panza. It's way past the curfew when we crawl out of our tent, dash along the camp's perimeter to the girls' section, and crawl into one of their tents. It is as big as ours, with at least a dozen girls sleeping inside. It's almost completely dark, with only a faint moonlight seeping through the canopy, but Bogdan, with a dog-like sense, has no trouble finding his paramour. Some girls stir and wake up, asking what's going on. We shush them and they go back to sleep.

I find myself, purely by chance, sitting at the head of a cot occupied by a pretty girl who caught my attention during the day. Her name is Hania and she has a small dimple on her chin and bit of a gap between her front teeth - a combination that makes her look different and cute. Of course, I can't see her face, but I recognize her voice. She is half -awake and in that dazed state she embraces me and we kiss. It is a long and lovely kiss, although Hania likes turning her head from side to side, making it difficult for me to keep our lips in contact. Perhaps this is to prevent me from probing her mouth with my tongue - not that I would know how to do that and what for.

Despite being nearly intoxicated with the smell and warmth of Hania's body, and focusing all my attention on her lips, some animal instinct alerts me to a faint shuffling noise outside the tent, and I dive under Hania's cot, just a second before a beam of flashlight sweeps inside the tent, and a counselor's voice asks, "Are you girls OK?" The girls stir and I hear Hania's voice right above my head, faking sleepiness. "Yeah... I was sleeping.... What's going on?"  "Nothing. I thought I heard something, so I wanted to check. Good night."

The beam of light leaves the tent and Bogdan whispers that it is time for us to get the hell out of here. The nosy counselor will continue checking other tents and will eventually get to ours, where he will likely discover our absence. When he does, we better be as far from the girls' tent as possible. Getting caught drunk would not be as bad as this.

Sneaking back into our own tent is nearly impossible, with the flashlight-equipped counselor on the prowl , so we choose to jump the fence instead and walk to the beach. If our absence is reported, we can (truthfully) say that we went to see the sunrise. This in case they torture us.

It is a cloudless night, with stars and moon illuminating the world enough for us to cover the mile to the sea. I'm shivering, partly because of the nighttime chill, but mostly because I realize how close I got to getting caught and thrown out of the camp in disgrace.  When the sun comes up a couple of hours later, it is spectacular, but I'm too tired and shaken to appreciate it.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Chapter 15

1970s are a peculiar decade. It starts with massive strikes and demonstrations in December, in the seaside cities of northern Poland, prompted by price increases of meat products and other foods.  These protests initially barely register in the state-controlled media, but those with access to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America pass on the news about the unrest to the rest of Poland. The workers' revolt is brutally put down by combined forces of police (milicja) and army, leaving dozens dead.

The five of us (father, stepmother, my sister, my baby half-sister, and I) are spending two weeks in the mountains. Perhaps pure coincidence, or perhaps my father knew that the unrest began to spread to other cities of Poland, including Warsaw, and wanted to get us out of harms way. (And avoid being dragged into it himself.) One day the evening news brings some obscure references to the "tragic happenings in the North", and a speech by the newly installed Secretary of the communist party, Edward Gierek. That, at least, is a positive, even exciting, development; nobody will miss his gnome-like predecessor, Władysław Gomułka, whose long, impenetrable speeches could put any insomniac to sleep. (In all of human history no one holds a candle to the communists when it comes to excruciatingly long talks completely devoid of substance.)

I half-register the winds of change, unable to ignore the TV news my father watches religiously, but I feel  that this is just window dressing - the communists are still firmly in power, Soviet Union is still the puppet master, so who cares which puppet pops onto the scene. Comrade Gierek promises reforms and higher living standards, but promises are cheap, and what else is he supposed to say - "You will learn to dance to our tune, or else"?

I am preoccupied with the beauty of the mountains in wintertime. Deep, white snow is everywhere, nighttime temperatures  close to 0 degrees F. Our host's son and I go to into the mountains to cut a Christmas tree. We walk for an hour in snow that is sometimes waist-deep, but find the right tree, cut it down, and drag it back home. I'm drenched in sweat and exhausted beyond belief.

That night they slaughter a calf for the Christmas feast. I watch from the second story window as they drag a young bull out of the barn. It  is visibly terrified. It has a rope tied around its neck, by which one of the men is dragging it, while the other is holding its tail. The man in front ties the rope to a post and then picks up an ax. The calf is pulling on the rope with all its might, trying to break free, but it is hopeless. It is a young animal, not a baby, more of a teenager, and thus bigger than a pig and with a thicker skull, so it takes multiple blows with the blunt end to bring it to its knees. At this point I stop watching, my eyes welled with tears of sorrow for the young bull, and anger for the brutes killing it. The next night, when I step into the kitchen, there is meat everywhere: cut, ground, fried, cooked. The bull's absurdly long penis is hanging on the wall as a conversation piece, and the boys are tossing its testicles across the room. I'm offered a plate of freshly-made kaszanka (blood sausage), but refuse to eat it, violent images from the night before still filling my head.

There is a bit of mystery surrounding our stay with this particular family. I know this woman from Warsaw - I saw her visit our apartment and converse with our father behind closed doors. She comes to the capital to sell stuff on the street: smoked cheese, knitted wool sweaters, leather slippers - things made in those highlands. For some reason these small-time peddlers are harassed by police, stopped, arrested, their merchandise confiscated.  My father is an officer in the unit charged with "economic crimes", so that is his purview. Perhaps they are running some sort of protection racket, with some cops from his unit arresting the poor merchants, and my father benevolently releasing them. In exchange for what - money?Undying gratitude? Lifetime supply of cheese? Free vacations in the mountains? Or, perhaps, he is just moved by their plight and helps them out of the goodness of his heart, doing his small part in making life in "workers' paradise" a bit less punishing and absurd. That latter explanation is what I choose to believe.

When I return to school after winter vacations (fifth grade), Warsaw is abuzz with stories about the uprising in December, and its aftermath. Gossip circulates about Gomułka losing his marbles after being removed from power and shouting, "My folk, oh my folk, what have I done to you?" I regal selected classmates with stories I overheard from my father talking on the phone or to our stepmother: of street fights, tanks crushing people, cracked heads, tear gas, live ammunition used against unarmed workers.  (Yes, every now and then I give in to the temptation of embellishing or inventing some of those stories, if the originals don't seem moving enough.)

By the time I am in high school, comrade Gierek seems to be making good on his promises. There is noticeable awakening in the political and economic life of Poland. More foreign films are being shown in movie theaters, even films previously banned by the censors. Plays with subversive messages, like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", are staged in prominent theaters, with tickets sold out weeks in advance. World literature is being translated at a fast clip, with the Latin American authors quickly becoming my favorites: Cortazar, Fuentes, Garcia-Marquez,  Carpentier, Vargas Llosa. There are more western-made goods in stores, including American cigarettes, which are absurdly expensive but so much better then the lung-shredding Polish brands with names like "Sport" (who the hell came up with that??) or "Extra Strong" - both very popular and cheap.

One can now buy things one previously could only find in books: Pepsi and Coca Cola, grapes, pineapples, corn flakes, spray deodorants. The state-run industry appears to be waking up from its slumber and producing more consumer-oriented goods, many licensed from the West: cars (licensed from Italian Fiat), tape and cassette players (licensed from Germany's Grundig), new buses (licensed from French Berliot), cosmetics, washing machines, refrigerators. Most of those are still very difficult to obtain; cars are not only obscenely expensive, with a tiny Fiat 126p running into multiples of annual salary of a worker, but have long waiting lists. (By long I mean years...) But at least they can be had - with a lot of patience, money, and right connections.

Those with access to hard currency are especially lucky. There is now a chain of state-owned stores called "Pewex", which sell Western consumer goods for any Western currency. Initially, one has to have a foreign passport to get in, but eventually that rule gets rescinded, and anybody with dollars, francs, or pounds sterling is welcome to purchase. Thanks to a booming black market of currency exchange, that means anybody in Poland.

Like any other entrepreneurial activity, this market threatens the state monopoly and is therefore fought vigorously, with the men engaged in it (they are almost exclusively men) vilified, harassed, arrested, their profits confiscated. Yet it persists, because the demand for it and the profits are enormous. The "official" exchange rate is artificially low, and so the street entrepreneurs can offer a much higher rate to the sellers, and then turn around and sell at a huge markup to the insatiable Poles hungry for Western goods or a way to protect their savings from inflation.

Our teenage hearts are aching for music and jeans. It's a time of creative explosion in "symphonic rock", and we can't get enough of it. We trade tapes of recorded radio programs - sometimes playing full new albums of bands like Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Yes - and crowd apartments of the few friends who can inexplicably afford the original LPs. (The only vinyl record of Western music I will ever own will be "Wind and Wuthering" by Genesis - still one of my favorite albums.)

Jeans are another lustful desire with the power to drive us mad. Those among us who can afford a pair of Levi's, Lee's, or Wranglers, are teenage aristocracy.  We envy them the way Russian proletariat must have envied the lives of the tsar, the princes, and the rich industrialists in 1917 - with the only difference being that we wouldn't kill out of that envy. There are Polish-made jeans, but those are a poor substitute; not even knockoffs of the real thing - their color is the wrong kind of blue, and they will never fade, no matter how long you wear them.

Thankfully, I have a grandmother who knows her way with a sewing machine. She also loves me dearly and will do whatever crazy fashion project I throw at her, like the bell-bottom pants that will become the object of envy for my classmates without costing me a fortune I don't have.

Chapter 14

More choices await me - now a proud licealist - at the start of the school year. What should be my concentration? Again, I am presented with three choices: History and Literature, Math and Physics, or Biology and Chemistry? I won't even consider the second one; I am naturally drawn to the first, but I reason that the future belongs to the third, so it seems like the more "practical" option, and that's what I pick . (Unfortunately, that kind of deeply flawed sense of what's "practical" is to become the bane of my existence.)

What do I select as the Western language to study - English or German? English, of course! Sorry, English classes are already full. Students get to choose in alphabetical order, and since your last name starts with W, you are out of luck... Damn - I so wanted to learn English!

That little setback aside, there is so much to love about my school! The building is old, with crumbling plaster and peeling paint, but it has character.  It has a real assembly hall on the top floor, with wooden floor, a stage, and a heavy curtain - even a large balcony outside. Graffiti in foot-long, black letters proclaims outside, "Michal Drewnowski, break both hands and a leg!", and will be there when I graduate four years later, with nobody bothering to paint it over. (The school lore has it that a jilted girlfriend of said Michal painted this curse; since he already had one leg broken in a ski accident, she had the good sense to wish this only for his still intact limbs.)

Above all, I am smitten with my fellow students. Not so much my classmates, but the nine-graders in the Math-and-Physics class. A friend from the elementary school introduces me to that bunch, and they are the coolest, smartest, wittiest people I have ever met. Good looking, too. And well-off (some of them).  I know I do not belong in that crowd, but I hang around them like a groupie. There is this girl, Iza - flat-chested, with dark, braided hair, olive skin, and permanently chaffed lips - she looks like a squaw from a western movie, and so I fall madly in love.

Me among my fellow ninth graders

Trouble is, I fall deeply, madly in love with every girl I find attractive, if she so much as smiles at me once. Thankfully, I am too shy to go beyond daydreaming about them, and so there is no chance that we will develop a relationship that I would then need to maintain or break. It is all very safe and innocent, until one day, at the beginning of the second semester, a girl walks into our class. She is transferring from the math-phys concentration to our class. Since there is an empty chair at the desk where I sit, she is told to sit next to me.

Her name is Gosia (diminutive of Małgorzata). She is pretty, petite, with thick, dark-brown hair. Two small breasts raise the front of her blouse just enough to announce their presence. She appears apprehensive and vulnerable, in need of protection, and I can provide that protection. I will take her hand and guide her safely through the many dangers of high school life and life in general.

The first occasion to earn my mantle as the knight protector of this fair maiden is offered to me on a plate just a couple of weeks later. Gosia reports feeling sick and the teacher excuses her for the rest of the day, but requests that someone accompanies her home. What better choice than her desk mate! I don't think Gosia is particularly thrilled with that choice, as it will prove quite embarrassing, but she is too miserable to protest. She has enough presence of mind to ask me to keep at least a 5-yard distance between us as we walk the two miles to her home, because every 100 yards or so she is stopped by a powerful urge to puke.

I would like to comfort her, but my every attempt to come closer, maybe put an arm around her, is met with a stern, "Stay away!". Her experience of this walk must be close to what Jesus felt, dragging his cross among the jeering onlookers.

Gosia stays home the rest of the week, recuperating,  and asks me to bring her homework and news from school, which I'm very happy to do. On my second visit she is still in bed, but sitting up in her pajamas. We gossip about our classmates and teachers, and I notice a small shape under her left arm. Without thinking twice, I ask, "What's that, a hot water bottle?", and give it a firm squeeze, only to realize with horror that I'm squeezing her right breast. I try to cover my embarrassment with an awkward laugh, but my reddening face betrays my true feelings. Strangely, that moment of awkwardness brings us closer and we start hanging out more and more. I have my girlfriend now.

Gosia and I at a party

Monday, February 10, 2014

Chapter 13

I'm in eight grade now - the end of elementary school. These are good times. The teachers go easy on us, treating us more like equals, pals even. Many of us ignore the requirement to dress in school uniforms, with the school emblem on a sleeve, and change our shoes for the hated juniorki - ugly canvas footwear supposedly with orthopedic benefits. Even the locker room ladies give us a pass, looking the other way as we sneak past in our tennis shoes.

We are the cool kids now. The age difference between us and those first- and second graders is so enormous (seven years!), that we don't even acknowledge their existence. They, in turn, ignore us as well, keeping to themselves at a safe distance. This is a chasm that's impossible to breach. The kids closer to our age - 6th and 7th graders - look at us with awe and jealousy, salivating at the thought that it will be their turn next year to be the masters of that particular universe.

It is also a terrible time, full of anxiety and doubt. At the age of fourteen I am expected to make a choice that will likely determine the rest of my life. There is no question that I will have to continue with my schooling - only complete losers or peasant kids stop at the elementary school - but which path to choose? There are three: vocational school, technical high school, and liceum. The first two options are seen by many as failure - that's where the academically weak kids go.  After two or four years in those secondary schools you end up a working stiff at some factory, perhaps clawing your way to a managerial position later on - if you join the communist party and make the right friends.

Kids with brains, or those who want to please their parents, choose liceum - the more prestigious the better. Ironically, that is the choice that severely limits your options afterwards; a diploma from that type of school is virtually worthless - you can't get a decent job with that, unless as a paper pusher in some office, with a pitiful salary. It only makes sense for those who plan to go to a university - and that's most parents' dream. Which is strange in a country that pays coal miners and some factory workers much better than doctors or university professors.  And yet, a university degree is a cherished prize that parents will push their kids to aim for, sometimes paying tutors or bribing admissions officials.

That choice, however, means that I will have to stay in my parent's apartment for eight more years, sharing the bed with Maciek and suffering whatever other indignities those cramped living conditions are bound to beget. This prospect is as scary to me as going to a two-year vocational school, where I will be turned into a semi-skilled laborer. I'm leaning toward the technical high school, but those have pretty strong math curricula, and math is my Achilles heel... Besides, all my friends are going to one liceum or another - some to the prestigious "16", to which I have no illusion of being admitted.

I am a mediocre student. My grades in math and physics are weak C's. Only thanks to Polish and Russian, where I get easy A's, my grade average climbs to a respectable level. I'm worried that I will flunk the math portion of the entrance exam; the only one from among my peers to be so humiliated. This prospect gives me nightmares, but I feel I have no choice but to submit my application to a liceum. I choose the "1" - a school that bears this number due to some mysteries of system-wide planning, and definitely not because of its rank among other schools in Warsaw. In fact, it is reputed to have lower academic standards and, most importantly, is easier to get into. It is a school for those less talented, less hardworking, less ambitious - should be a perfect fit. In fact, I do get in. I have never been so happy in my life.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chapter 12

My grandfather was right, of course.  It weren't feelings of friendship toward Polish people that drove the Red Army to "liberate" Poland, and it wasn't about liberation at all; it was a calculated move by Stalin to expand the Soviet empire westward. He (Stalin) must have long expected this outcome - rubber-stamped by the Western powers in the Jalta accord - because whenever an occasion arose to weaken Poland, he grabbed it. Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east mere 15 days after the German invasion on September 1, 1939. Thousands of Polish POWs taken during that invasion -  mostly army officers, but also landowners, priests, and intellectuals - were summarily murdered in the Katyń forest. Years later, when Polish resistance fighters took to the streets of Warsaw to liberate the capital right before the expected arrival of Soviet troops, the Red Army halted its offensive at the other bank of the Vistula river, patiently waiting for the Germans to come back in force and level the city. The fewer of those feisty, young, Polish patriots, the easier it will be to subdue the "Soviet-liberated" country.

It wasn't until much later when I pondered how my Grandpa knew these things. How everybody in Poland seemed to know these things. This clearly wasn't the officially sanctioned version of history. References to Katyń* or to Soviet complicity in the tragic end of the Warsaw Uprising were nowhere to be found, except in the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, and books smuggled from Western Europe - both suppressed and dismissed as anti-Polish propaganda of the "old regime". I doubt that Dziadzio Miecio had access to either, but the oral versions persisted: in discussions at the dinner table, in prayers and songs at church services ("Before your altars we beg you, oh Lord, return our free fatherland to us."), in occasional graffiti ("We will avenge Katyń") painted at significant risk and hastily erased the next day.

Now we are back at Jurek's home, where his much older sister prepared a simple dinner for us: potatoes with skwarki (fried bacon bits) and white borscht. She's a small, wiry woman of indeterminate age (probably over 80). She looks old and frail, and, like with all old people in villages, her body is permanently bent at the waist at almost 90-degree angle (the truest meaning of "back-breaking labor"), but seems to have a lot of energy left. When she walks - with a cane - she walks briskly, and likes to giggle and drink vodka like a young gal.

"Tell him your secret", her brother tells her with signs of amusement in half of his damaged face.
"What secret?"
"Why, what keeps you going all these years."
"Oh, that. That's no secret. I tell everybody it's  kerosene. I hold my nose and take a big spoonful of it every morning. It has to be pure, though."
Jurek laughs. "That's true. She's been doing that for years. Just don't smoke when she's near, or you will both go boom! Even the Grim Reaper stays away."

It is Friday and on Saturday there will be a big dance party at the local fire station.  All people in the village seem excited about that, although with an underlying worry, especially among the older generations.  This is the only fire station for several surrounding villages, so there will be an influx of "outsiders", and that's asking for trouble.  It is hard to believe how tribal these villagers are. To me they all look, talk, and behave the same, but to them a person from another village is like an alien - difficult to understand and threatening.

Lots of cheap wine will be consumed - vodka being more expensive - and this will lead to boasting and quarrels. Over girls, mostly. Planks from fences will be torn out and broken on the backs or heads of young, drunken men by other young, drunken men. A few ribs will be cracked and front teeth knocked out (to be replaced by golden ones, for those who can afford them; teeth, not ribs, of course). I'm too young and from too far away a planet to be viewed as competition by any of these young studs vying for female attention, so together with other kids I can safely watch the dance party from afar (there is an entrance fee I can't afford), until I get bored and go to sleep in Jurek's house, missing the smell of dry hay.

*The mass graves in the Katyń forest and the evidence of massacre were uncovered by Wehrmacht after the attack on the Soviet Union in Plan Barbarossa. They were dismissed by Soviets as Nazi lies. Whenever Katyń was mentioned in the official history, the Germans were accused of this atrocity, but the preference was to avoid this topic altogether, as it was clearly difficult to explain how the German troops could have operated so far east so early in the war.  It wasn't until 1990's when the Soviets finally admitted having perpetrated this crime.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Chapter 11

One summer - I am 12 or 13 years old - I agree to accompany my grandfather (Dziadzio Miecio) to his village, 10 or so kilometers from Regów Stary. Just for a day or two, but we end up staying almost a week. It is similar and yet different. There is no river, or any body of water. Not even a pond.  There is, however, a big sand pit, and it is great fun to slide down the steep banks of that pit in a small avalanche of golden sand.  There is also a substantial wooded area (a forest?)  right by the village.

At first I am uneasy in the completely new place, with people I don't know, but they are kind and welcoming, especially Grandpa's younger brother, Jurek, who runs the farm. His face is crooked, due to the fact that the lids of his left eye are permanently shut - perhaps sewn together? - over an empty socket. It looks as if someone  pressed on that eye with enough strength to push it into his skull, and that emptiness behind is now pulling on the skin of his cheeks, rising the left corner of his mouth in a permanent expression of incredulity.

He seems a better farmer than my Grandma's brother. The farm  buildings are well maintained, leaving an impression if not exactly of prosperity, then at least of good work ethic. His two horses are a sight to behold: big, well fed, and well cared-for specimens with shiny coats and long, brushed manes.  They are far cry from that old, white mare in Regów, whose back looks like a worn sofa that collapsed after one too many fat person sat on it.

Uncle Jurek - as I am supposed to call him - seems a bit less prone to drinking in excess than what I'm used to seeing in those villages, where vodka tends to flow freely.  Perhaps that's the secret behind his well kept farm.  I like him more and more, until, one day,  I'm sitting with him, my Grandpa, and another farmer in front of his house. The men are drinking vodka, eating bread with smoked pork fat (słonina), while I'm filling my belly with oranżada - a very sweet, carbonated beverage with artificial orange flavor.  Jurek's small dog is hanging around, hoping for a morsel of that fat to be dropped on the ground.

The dog is a mutt with quite a bit of Chihuahua in him, and Uncle Jurek is adamant that this dog is purebred. so the two men start teasing him about it. "If he's  a Chihuahua, how come he has a tail? Chihuahuas don't have no tail!" After a bit of back-and-forth over this Jurek grabs the dog with his big hand, goes to the barn to fetch an ax, places the dog's tail on a tree stump, and chops it off, leaving about an inch.  The dog runs away, yelping in pain and terror, and does not show up for two days.  "Now he's a damn Chihuahua alright!", laugh the men,  pouring another round.

I'm so angry at Grandpa then when an opportunity arises to rattle his chains, I grab them with both hands. The three of us: Uncle Jurek, Dziadzio Miecio and I are coming back from the forest, where we cut into pieces a large tree that had just been felled by the local forester. We're riding, unhurriedly, on a lorry piled high with branches and pieces of tree trunk,  pulled by Jurek's pair of horses. The men are shooting the breeze when suddenly their conversation veers onto the Russkis and how they are keeping the Polish nation enslaved. I see my opening.

"Say what you might about the Soviet Union, but the fact remains they they liberated us. Without them, we would probably all have been exterminated by the Germans."
This is like jabbing a stick into a mound of fire ants.
"What kind of bullshit is this? Is that the kind of crap they teach you at school?? Shame! Don't they teach you about the Warsaw Uprising?".
I push the stick deeper.
"What about it? The uprising was just a suicidal gesture that accomplished nothing while sacrificing thousands of young people."
"You don't know shit! Our young people were being slaughtered while the Red Army stood on the other side of the Vistula, giving the Germans time to finish us off!"
"There were not enough Soviet soldiers to attack. The Uprising was simply badly timed."

I see my grandfather's face turning crimson, veins on his neck and forehead bulging, spit flying as he speaks.
"You dumbass! I can't believe this! Don't you know any better? Do you believe everything they tell you?"
And so it goes for a few more minutes, temperature rising, until I find myself flying through the air, with a great pile of branches and tree trunks tumbling right behind. One of the wheels hit a hole in the road, tipping the overloaded lorry over.  Thankfully, no bones or necks are broken, and the conversation is over. Not a moment too soon - I so enjoyed the ease of pushing my Grandpa's buttons, that I almost started believing this crap myself. It will take us till sunset to load the wood back in sulky silence and bring it home.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Chapter 10

Every summer I spend three weeks at a camp organized by my father's employer - the Ministry of Internal Affairs. My Dad is a cop, hence his access to this perk. It is widely believed that those camps are the best, since, presumably, the kids of the Politburo are sent to them. I'm not sure whether this is true, but I like believing it, as it makes the idea of going to a camp a bit less depressing - at least it is a camp for the "elite". (My uneasiness at my father being a supporting cog in the inner machinery of the communist regime will come much later.)

What makes these camps an unattractive proposition is that they feel so much like  school. In fact, we are housed in elementary schools in small towns far away from Warsaw. Our camp counselors are often local teachers looking for a bit of extra income during summer vacations.  There are no classes and no homework, but unlike school, you don't get to go home in the afternoon; you stay in a classroom, from which desks were removed and replaced with military-style cots.

For the first couple of summers I dread those camps. I feel anxious and lonely, scared of the big kids, and hating the forced routines of doing everything by the clock: waking up, morning assembly, meals, showers (once a week), evening assembly, going to sleep.  In my letters I beg my parents to visit me, which they do,  up until I am eleven or twelve and stop asking for these visits.  In fact, as our life at home fills with more and more tension, I'm starting to accept them at first, and then actually liking those weeks away from home.

The routines are still abhorrent, but at least they are predictable and consistent. I don't  need to fear that they will change at someone's whim, earning me punishment for not catching that change in time. The bullies are a constant low-level worry, but I learn to stay under their radar by keeping largely to myself, or hanging out with one or two kids I trust.  I'm far from popular, but that suits me just fine. Most importantly, I lack any of the stigmata that  makes one a likely target of verbal or physical cruelty: I am not chubby or small for my age; I do not stutter; I do not have a limp or scoliosis; I do not have a weird last name (like that girl, Hanna Kielbasa); I do not wear glasses.  I am perfectly average, with almost no distinguishing characteristics, and that makes me all but invisible to both potential enemies and potential friends. This will change  in my teens, but for now I am comfortable in my invisibility.

Te camp life is pretty boring. I fantasize about some day  going to a Boy Scouts camp, where they sleep in tents they pitched themselves, keep night watch, build their own fireplace, raid another troop's camp to steal their banner, and have all kinds of other cool adventures. I do belong to a Boy Scouts troop at my school, but these camps are much more expensive than the heavily subsidized camps of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I could tell  my father wasn't too thrilled about buying me that Boy Scout uniform and all the accoutrements to go with it, so I won't even breach the subject.

I like going on trips,  They are usually short: in the morning or in the afternoon we march a few miles to the forest or to the river and are usually allowed to spread out and do whatever we want. Except playing in the river, which has to be done in short bouts, in small groups, and under a supervision of a guy with a whistle.  Oh, how I hate that whistle. Being used to playing in the Vistula river as much as I want I can't stand being told that I have only 5 minutes, or can't go anywhere deeper than my knees.  This is deeply humiliating, so I simply do not partake and go wander around instead. I find a small field filled with forget-me-not's, so dense that they form a blue carpet. I look for wild blueberries. I look for edible mushrooms, which I will slice and thread on a piece of string to hang by the window, so that the sun will dry them up  - they will smell heavenly. I weave small wreaths out of dandelions or short whips out of tall grass. I lay down and look at the clouds above or at the small insects going about their lives in the grass underneath.  I whittle small boats out of long pieces of soft, pine bark. I am not bored. I think. I daydream. I am at peace.

Being around other kids is more hassle than it is worth, and sometimes gets me into trouble. One day I am wandering around the schoolyard with a book in my hand, when two boys ask me whether I want to see some naked girls. I hesitate - I don't want them to think I'm scared, but I also think this is pretty bad stuff, so I am scared.  They do not wait for my answer, but they do make me stand by the wall, so that one of them can climb on my shoulders and peek through the small window of the girls' shower. He's is immediately spotted and a burst of high-pitched shrieks erupts behind the window.

The boys take flight. I slowly walk away, reasoning that a) it is better to act innocent than be implicated by fleeing the scene of a crime, b) I am, in fact, innocent.  A couple of teachers round the corner running fast, and seeing how I'm the only person in the vicinity of the shower window, they grab me and drag me to the camp director. An interrogation ensues, with me maintaining my innocence, and them questioning my presence so close to the place of transgression. I am a really bad liar, so it is probably quite helpful that I can very truthfully deny ever peeking in that window, because the director lets me go. From that experience I learn that in circumstances when one's innocence is not obvious, the instinct to flee should not be suppressed.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chapter 9

Not more than once a month my granduncle catches a chicken, puts its neck on a wood chopping block, and cuts its head off with an ax. Because the chicken is thrashing wildly, he releases it, so as not to be splashed with blood. The chicken runs for a few seconds, blood gushing out of the place where its head used to be, and then collapses.  The family will enjoy chicken soup with homemade kluski.

Other than that, and the small fish we catch in the river, no meat is consumed during summer months, despite the extra energy needed for all the field work at harvest time. We have refrigerators in the city, but this invention has not reached the countryside yet. Besides, one would need a few of those just to store the meat from one pig. Chickens are in their egg-laying period, so not many are available for turning into meals.  (The male chickens are at a clear disadvantage here, but their numbers are limited.)

Fall and winter are when almost all the butchering happens.  I had a bout of jaundice, thanks to a teenager who ran me over with his bicycle, damaging my liver; I have been released from the hospital and can't go to school yet, so my grandma takes me along on her trip to Regów Stary to buy some meat and sausage.  That meat and sausage are still inside a large and very much alive swine, so we have to wait a few days, but when the day arrives I'm allowed to watch.

My granduncle bestrides the pig. With another farmer holding the animal firmly by its leathery tail, he places a crushing blow to its skull with the blunt end of an ax. The animal's front legs fold and it kneels down squealing, at which point a large, broad knife is plunged into its neck from the side.  Blood gushes out and collects in a metal basin placed underneath. It won't be wasted - it will be used to make kaszanka, a kind of sausage made of buckwheat, ground liver, and blood.  I will watch my cousin stir the blood in the basin with his bare hand - red, steaming liquid reaching above his wrist - to  prevent clotting.

I'm repulsed and horrified, but also very curious, so I will watch this to the end.  A shiver runs through the pig's body and then the creature is still. It is hoisted by its hind legs with a rope and pulley. Boiling hot water is poured over its body, and the skin is shaved with a sharp knife to remove bristles and dirt.  The belly is sliced open, and colorful, glistening innards spill out. Most will be consumed, or used up. (The intestines will become sausage casings, for example.) Only very few parts will be thrown away or given to dogs:  skull, bones, testicles, penis, anus...

The disemboweled carcass will hang in the stall overnight, then be carved up into quarters. The remaining pigs seem subdued, skittish. I wonder if the fear of death was passed on to them from their butchered cousin. Or if they mourn him. I feel sorry that the pig's life ended in such violence, but I do not like pigs that much, and I can appreciate that there was no cruelty, nobody seemed to enjoy the killing itself. It was just another farm chore, like harvesting wheat or nailing shoes to the hooves of horses.

Yet I will look at my village cousins differently from that day on. I ask myself whether slaughtering pigs, and sheep, and calves makes one capable of killing fellow humans. The answer I seem to find in my own mind is "yes", so I'm a bit more fearful. I imagine that this ax may be wedged in my skull one day, so I need to be  careful with what I say and do. Ironically, a few years later I'm teasing one of those cousins (Witek) about something. As he gets more and more angry I flee, laughing, from the wood-chopping place by the barn, where we have been talking. From the corner of my eye I see an ax flying by, a few inches from my head.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Chapter 8

The problem with sleeping in the barn is that it is pitch black at night. You almost lose you sense of left and right, up and down. It feels like floating in space. Only by touching the rug underneath or the hay to the side can you regain a bit of grounding in reality. We have a flashlight with us - using a kerosene lantern is a big no-no, with all the flammable hay and straw around - but we have to use it sparingly, so that the batteries don't die just as one of us needs to go pee in the middle of the night.

With no  man-made lights around, the sky is stunning. There are so many stars up there on a cloudless night, the sky appears to have more points of light than points of darkness.  As if someone took a black canvas and sprinkled it with white paint... Again, and again, and again - and then stopped, before the canvas became completely white. It is eerily quiet, except for some village dogs running a barking competition.

I know that there are a lot of spiders and other crawlies in that hay, plus probably an entire nation of mice, but I can't see or feel them, so they don't bother me as much as those pesky flies. I fall into a deep sleep, until the dawn a few hours later starts a cacophony of animal voices: roosters crowing, geese honking, cows mooing, sheep bleating, pigs oinking. It is as loud as a busy city street and gets louder every minute until the humans get up and start distributing feed. Then there is the much less noisy concerto of slurping, chewing, pecking, ripping, grinding...  By that time I'm awake enough to slide down the hay and go wait for breakfast.

Breakfast is usually hot milk with zacierki (fresh pasta dough rubbed between palms, so that small, oval pieces fall into the boiling milk), or lane kluski (liquid batter of eggs and flour poured  slowly into the milk). Sometimes it is a thick slice of bread with butter and farmer's cheese, or with thick cream and sugar, or with lard and salt.

After breakfast we take the cows to pasture. Armed with twigs we steer them toward the dirt road and some grassy patch beyond,  but these cows know the routine  and require very little guidance. I watch their backsides as they go unhurriedly, with gait of ballerina quality, on legs covered with encrusted dung, swinging their tails at the flies that follow them.

We bring them back in the afternoon to be milked. They know their  route home as well, so they do not give us any trouble, what with the big sacks of milk between their hind legs making their movements a bit more difficult than before.  We do sometimes hoot at them, or swat them with our twigs,  but it is just a childish show of "who's the boss", completely unnecessary. They are the gentlest, most stoic of animals, completely focused on the job of moving chewed grass through their multiple stomachs.

If the pasture is close to the river, we go swimming or fishing.The water is murky, with big floats of yellow foam on the surface - I have been told that the foam comes from the chemical plant upriver - but it is impossible to resist on a hot day.  We keep to the shallows, because none of us really knows how to swim, and there are dangerous whirlpools in the deeper currents, which can pull even a grownup under. We are afraid of a body of a drowned person touching our bodies; that would be freaky. Judging by  our fear of that happening, there may be more dead bodies in that river than fish.

Our fishing rod is a long stick cut out of jasmine; bobber is a wine cork with a goose feather threaded through it; fishing line is a length of plastic twine meticulously unwrapped from scouring pads bought at the hardware store in Gniewoszów. Only the hook is proper, and we put wiggly, slimy earthworms on it. Or, white maggots taken from the outhouse pit. (Those are the best, I am told, but I do not have the stomach for getting them out of the liquid shit. I much rather dig for the earthworms, although I do feel sorry for having to thread the hook through them, when they so obviously do not like it.)

The best we can hope for is a common roach or two. More often we catch the more plentiful raffe - small fish with a large, spiny sail of a top fin, which they unfurl when threatened. Those we throw back in, or give to the cats to eat, which they are usually too skittish to do. I heard there is pike to be had in this river, but I have never seen one, so I think this is just a tall tale.

One day there is a strong pull on my line. The bobber goes under and stays there as I fight what must be a monster of a fish. As always, the biggest fear is that the lousy line will snap, freeing the fish with the hook in its mouth, before I am able to see what I got.  After a minute (which feels like an hour) I pull out a strange mutant - a dark brown thing not like fish but like a wet kitten, with a big head and small whiskers on both sides of that head. I'm afraid to touch it as it thrashes wildly on the sand, but the boys around me are excited, patting me on the back and saying, "Yay, city boy, you caught ye'self a catfish!" So it is a fish, after all.

We take it home and my great-grandpa looks at me with a mixture of disbelief and pride,  muttering under his droopy mustache, "Well, well, a real catfish you got here..." This thing, less than ten inches long,  will be cleaned and fried tonight,  but I will refuse to eat it, feeling sad for that rare, almost mythical creature.  A terrible thought is gnawing at me: what if I caught the last one of its species?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Chapter 7

It is summer, so I'll be accompanying my grandmother to her village.  She goes there every year - the only one of three sisters who had left the farm. Perhaps out of the obligation to her aging parents, or to help her younger brother establish his footing in farming. Or simply because, having no job in the city, she has nothing better to do.

It is only 100 kilometers, as the crow flies, from Warsaw, but it is quite a trek, requiring at least half a day. First we take a tram to the train station, which is quite a distance from the tramway stop. After two hours on the train we arrive in the city of Dęblin, where we carry our heavy suitcases a mile or so to the bus station. There we wait for the bus to the town of Gniewoszów. May be an hour or more of waiting, but there is a tiny kiosk right by the station, selling newspapers, cigarettes, candy, soap, batteries, postcards, etc. It is where my grandma's sister work, and, if we're lucky, it will be her shift, so she will let me sit inside, watch her interact with customers, and even pass on to her packs of cigarettes from the shelf behind. It is a great way to kill time. I think I want to have my own store when I grow up.

From Gniewoszów, a tiny town that used to be a Jewish shtetl before the war, we have to walk a few miles to Regów Stary, the village where Babcia Bronia grew up.  It's a scenic walk, along a dirt road with giant puddles after a rain, bordered by willow trees and fields on the one side, and a tall, grassy dike on the other.  The village - and other around it - lies on the floodplain of the Vistula river, and the extensive system of dikes, two or three meters high in most places and several meters wide at the base, is the only thing that stands between the river, swollen with melted snow in springtime, and the hundreds of farms eking out meager existence along its banks.

Soviet-style collectivization never took hold in Poland. Perhaps because, by the time Poland became a Soviet satellite after the war, it was already pretty clear what a disaster that had been in the Soviet Union itself, resulting in terrible famines that took the lives of millions of peasants, while failing to make Soviet agriculture efficient enough to feed the rapidly industrializing state.  Perhaps because Poles were reluctant to embrace the ideals of communism, so the newly setup puppet government felt is had to strike a delicate balance between appeasing Stalin and avoiding popular uprising, what with many resistance groups refusing to disarm after the war and making trouble in forests and villages.

There were, of course, attempts at promoting collectivization through the establishment of PGRs (State Agrarian Enterprise, modeled after the Soviet kolchoz) on lands bought or confiscated from individual farmers, and the promotion of farming cooperatives, which farmers could join voluntarily, receiving subsidies and preferential treatment from the state. Those efforts met with indifference or hostility in Polish countryside, where land ownership was something Polish peasantry dreamed of for centuries, having had to work the fields belonging to aristocratic landowners. The communists knew that the best way of winning the staunchly religious and conservative peasants to their side was through land reform - breaking the back of the patriotic and anti-communist Polish gentry by carving their land holdings and handing parcels of 12-20 acres to the peasants. That was their trump card and they played it well. Interestingly, they did not touch the lands belonging to the catholic church - allegedly on Stalin's insistence...

As usual, we find the fenced-in area with farm buildings (house, barn, stables, pigsty, chicken coop) completely deserted, with everybody working the fields. The house is locked with a latch held by a piece of wood - not to prevent theft, since there is nothing to steal, but to keep the animals out - so we can leave our heavy luggage and go in search of them.

The family we're visiting has seven members: my great-grandparents, their son (my grandma's much younger brother), his wife, and their three kids: two boys - one slightly older, the other slightly younger than me - and the much younger girl. They share a log house; in the US it would be called a cabin: two square rooms, each with a wood-burning oven, separated by a tiny mud room and a pantry behind it. There is no plumbing or electricity - the latter will be added several years later, while plumbing will wait till a new, brick house is built in the 1980s.

My great-grandfather built that house himself, with notched logs locking into one another in the corners. Hemp fibers mixed with clay have been used to fill the cracks. Rough plaster, painted very pale aquamarine blue, covers the walls on the inside.  The room my great-grand-parents occupy is very sparsely furnished: one bed with a straw-filled mattress; small wooden table; three chairs; large commode. There are two metal buckets: one with water, one with food waste (to be fed to the pigs).

There is no room for us to sleep there - Granny and I will sleep in the barn, on top of the pile of hay taller than a grown man. I'm actually relieved no to have to sleep in that house. It's the flies that bother me. They are so many, you can't chase them away. They keep landing on my face and arms, drinking my sweat. Their tiny feet seem itchy somehow. You have to watch your spoon while eating, lest you will swallow one of them caught in your soup.

Next day I will go to war with the flies.  Armed with a folded newspaper I will swat at them every time they try to sit on the walls or the furniture. They are not easy to kill - many manage to fly away before the newspaper finds them - but I quickly perfect my technique and pretty soon their squashed bodies start covering the floor.  I'm no longer satisfied killing singles - I pump my fist only when I get two or three at a time, a feat that becomes more difficult as their numbers dwindle. Soon there is only one or two left flying. I'm proud of myself, although I know how futile this is; once people start opening the doors, the flies will again fill the room.

My great-grandmother is not too happy with my handiwork, seeing the walls covered with bloody splotches, and dead flies covering the floor. I make a mental note to limit myself to killing only those on the furniture, where their blood and guts are less visible. And sweep the floor.

One summer we bring a can of Azotox - spray insecticide produced, incidentally, in the large chemical plant up the river. This stuff robs me of the pleasure of hunting and killing the flies, but it is remarkably effective. We close the windows and door and spray it liberally in the air. A few minutes later all the flies are dead, littering the floor, but no splotches. I ask about spraying this in the pigsty, where the dense carpet of flies covers every inch of the walls and ceiling, but receive a firm no; my great-grandparents are concerned about this poison harming their animals.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Chapter 6

Our home life gradually deteriorates. It has never felt like heaven, with some dreaded chores awaiting me daily - the cleanup of our mound being just one of them - but it is slowly becoming something resembling purgatory, with some forays into hell. To begin with, "my" tiny room is not fully mine - it's also my father's storage room, where he keeps stuff he does not want prominently displayed in the "big room"; his "library", where a large cabinet holds rows of books, all neatly wrapped in butcher paper, so that it is impossible to tell which is which; his dressing room, where one of the two chairs is permanently taken by the suit and shirt he wears to work.

[Due to its somewhat sensitive nature, the rest of this chapter is available by request only.]

Chapter 5

September 1st is the first day of school. A strange choice, since it is also the anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland. But, it had always been that day and apparently no war can change that. I'll be attending third grade in the sparkling-new elementary school right in front of our house. The school is the result of the "Thousand Schools for the Millennium" - communist party directive to celebrate the thousand years of Polish statehood (long interruptions included) by building a thousand new schools all over Poland.

My school's official name is "Ernesto (Che) Guevara" and a giant photo of the bearded Cuban revolutionary adores the first floor hallway. A couple of years later, when Fidel Castro visits Poland, he makes a brief stop at our school. I'm snatched from the hallway by one of the teachers and shoved into a small assembly room, where, with a couple dozen other pupils, I am to meet Fidel. Thankfully, it's not a long wait. Here comes a bearded fellow - older, plumper, and less good looking than Che, I notice - in military uniform, with a small entourage including an interpreter. Through this interpreter he tells us a few funny stories, of which I recall only one:

"I am being driven to an important meeting in a cavalcade of official cars, when I spot a group of boys playing volleyball in a field at the side of the road. You have to know that I love volleyball, so I tell my driver to stop the car and he does so immediately. I'm his boss, you see. I jump out and ask the boys whether I can join them. Fine, they say, and so we play together for a few moments. Meanwhile, all my security guards are in panic mode, because such a thing never happened before. A leader of a country does not go play volleyball with some random boys. They beg me to go back to the car. They are all very nervous and I feel sorry for them, so I go back".

It's all friendly banter like this. I find Fidel charming. He seems relaxed, funny, approachable. Says that being here with us is a welcome break from all his official duties in Poland. He would like to stay longer, because he is more himself around children - still a kid at heart. Of course, I have no idea that he is a dictator and even if I knew, I wouldn't quite know what that meant. He invites us all to visit Cuba. I think that it would be great, but it will probably never happen, because getting there must be very expensive. More than forty years later, I still haven't been to Cuba, but it is not the expense that's keeping me away.

After Fidel is whisked away, the school day is already over and I find the lunch room closed. I will go home hungry. Another thing I did not know about Fidel is that he will develop a penchant for rambling speeches that last for hours. In that sense we're lucky that this entire visit took less than an hour. The next day I find out from a fellow student that it was pork chop in horseradish sauce for lunch, and that makes me kind of grateful to Fidel for giving me an excuse not to eat that. These lunches are provided by the school, but parents have to pay for them. Mostly they are quite good, home-style meals prepared by two cooks on site, but I dread the meat days. I am not a vegetarian, I can handle ground meat in breaded cutlets, but I cannot swallow meat that has fatty tissue and gristle, and these pork chops are mostly that. I am prone to gagging when my mouth comes in contact with this kind of meat. Alas, you cannot simply leave that on your plate; you have to carry your plate back to the kitchen window before you are allowed to leave the lunch room, and there you have to pass by the chief cook, who inspects your plate. The chief cook is a large, morose woman who never smiles and accepts no excuses for not finishing the meal your parents paid their hard earned money for. If she is in good mood, she will let you pass with a spoonful of mashed potatoes on your plate, nothing more, so I sometimes resort to hiding my meat under those potatoes. Of course, she is too clever and experienced for that lousy trick, so it only works when there is a larger group of kids coming back with their plates - her hawkish eyes darting between multiple plates, she may miss me sneaking by with a suspiciously large mound of potatoes. On other occasions I'm reduced to pleading with her, showing her the gristle from which I meticulously removed the smallest meat fibers. She will carefully inspect that tangle of cartilage with my fork and, with a grunt, she may let me through. Another trick is to hide the gristle in your mouth, but for some mysterious reason she's usually able to spot kids carrying such payloads and have them spit those out (and then eat them in front of her). With my gagging reflex I won't even attempt that trick.

I like my school. It is airy, with big hallways, lots of windows, and a large, paved patio in the middle, where we can spend the long recess in the warmer months. It is also a progressive school, so corporal punishment is nearly nonexistent, except in the music room. Of course, the teachers can drag you from your desk by your ear and deposit you in the hallway for misbehavior - where you run the risk of being spotted by the roaming principal and getting into real trouble - but that's the extent of physicality most teachers allow themselves. The music teacher, Mr. Dejmek, does not bother with putting his students in the hallway, yelling at them, or writing notes to parents. He gives them two simple options: "Auntie" or "Uncle". The former is a wooden ruler, and the latter, a violin bow. You stretch your hand out, palm up, and the implement you have chosen cuts through the air with a swish, depositing a red welt on your palm. Woe to those weak characters who withdraw their palm at the last moment, for they will have to go through that again and again, until the punishment is administered thoroughly.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Chapter 4

The intrepid explorer pushes farther and farther into the jungle, swinging his machete left and right to carve a narrow footpath in the thick underbrush. His journey is slow and full of peril, with venomous snakes coiled under the roots, ready to sink their fangs into his shins; with tarantulas the size of a grown man's hand jumping onto his back from the trees above; with merciless thorns scratching his arms and legs, drawing blood. Stinging sweat flows into his eyes; he is thirsty and exhausted, but he pushes on, because his Dad told him to clear the thistles from the mound next to the house. The "explorer" is eight years old and his "machete" is a large kitchen knife, but the thistles are real and they are enormous, some taller than he is. This dull job is best handled as a jungle adventure.

We - my sister, myself, my father, and his new wife - have just moved to a comfortable apartment in a newly built subdivision called Zatrasie in the northwestern district of Warsaw known as Żoliborz. Żoliborz is a "polonized" spelling of the French "joli bord", meaning "beautiful embankment", apparently coined by an officer in Bonaparte's army upon seeing the area. It is, indeed, one the prettiest parts of Warsaw. It had been settled relatively recently (200 years?) and thus retained quite a bit of its earlier, bucolic charm. There is an abundance of greenery, including several large parks. A subdivision next to ours was actually built in an old orchard, so springtime there is fabulous, with all the remaining fruit trees blooming and filling the air with flowery fragrance. At the northern edge of Zatrasie there is a pasture with cows grazing, and a clump of trees with some houses of the former village still remaining and occupied.

We have a second floor apartment in a five-story, nondescript box of a building. It's a typical socialist development aimed at quickly and cheaply solving the housing shortage; those subdivisions are growing all over Warsaw, but they barely make a dent, with waiting periods for an apartment now reaching a decade and growing. These houses are still being built by hand, although with cement blocks several times bigger than a typical, kiln-fired brick. Later, the building industry will come up with a quicker, more efficient way of building the apartment complexes, with prefabricated walls (complete with windows) brought to the building site and assembled with a crane. Ironically, this seems to slow down the building industry to a crawl, extending the waiting periods to practically... forever. And the houses, when built, are shoddily constructed, full of cracks and misaligned parts. One of the mysteries of central planning and state-controlled economy. These houses would not withstand even a mild earthquake - thank god Poland lies far from any faults.

Our apartment: three rooms, long, narrow hallway, narrow kitchen, and a square bathroom with a toilet and a bathtub. 540 square feet. It all seems almost too good to be true, especially since my sister and I are getting our own rooms! (Only for a short period, as it will quickly turn out). Up until now we did not have our own beds, usually sleeping with one or more of the adults, and now our very own rooms! Our apartment is quite typical - heck, identical to other apartments in this building and in many of the new buildings in Warsaw. How identical? There is a theater play, later made into a movie, much beloved in the Soviet Union: a drunken, young Muscovite is put on a plane, lands in Leningrad, takes a taxi to his address, goes to "his" apartment, opens the door with his key (even that fits!), and promptly goes to sleep... Only that it is an apartment belonging to someone else in a completely different city! It's a fictional and quite funny story, but we all have heard of guests wandering hopelessly in the maze of identical high-rises with puzzling numbering system, trying to find a party they had been invited to. Those stories are definitely not fictional.

Our apartment has one unique feature, making it an object of envy of many a neighbor: a mound on the side of the building. You can walk right onto it from our main room, down four concrete steps. It's a pile of building debris, covered with a layer of poor quality dirt, on which various weeds, mostly thistle, have taken root. The flat top is merely 15 by 20 feet, but there are the slopes on two sides - they increase the overall area tremendously - and this is all ours. Of course, it has to be cleaned up, topsoil brought in, and planted with trees, shrubs, and flowers. It will be our little garden - right outside our windows! Very few people are that lucky. (Luck probably had little to do with it, as in the case of my Grandpa's "dzialka", but more about that later.)

Trouble is, our father hates physical exertion of any kind, so all that cleanup will be my job and, unfortunately, the jungle fantasies of the early days quickly give way to the mindless drudgery of it all, made worse by my father's lengthy and detailed directions. He tries to avoid physical work, I hate directions. Utter misery. I'm beginning to despise that mound.

Chapter 3

Babcia (Granny) Bronia and Dziadzio (Gramps) Miecio don't like one another very much. I sense a real antipathy there, especially coming from Grandma. She does not seem to find a nice word for her husband, only snapping at him angrily. Not that he is a terribly likable character. They both come from small villages, a few kilometers apart, in the Kielce region in southeastern Poland. They are the oldest among their siblings, and since it is the youngest who will inherit the farms, the older siblings have to scatter. The idea being, I suppose, that the kids staying on the farm will take care of the parents, and since they are younger, there is less of a chance that the parents will outlive them. That's your social security, agrarian style. In fact, it is a bit more complicated, since all the siblings have a stake in the farm, and those who stay will eventually have to purchase the shares from their older brothers and sisters.

My grandparents move to Warsaw, where my grandfather finds work as a simple laborer, and eventually gets apprenticed as an electrician. My grandmother stays home with the kids: one son, two daughters. She has no money for trams or for shoes for that matter, so she walks to her errands barefoot. That does not seem terribly out of place in the 1930's capital of Poland, where there is always an inflow of migrants from the endemically poor countryside. My grandmother is young and strong, significantly taller and, perhaps, stronger than my diminutive grandfather. She is lively and open-minded, forever regretting that she was able to get only to the fifth grade of the elementary school in the nearby town of Gniewoszów. She did not mind the daily long walks to the school - several miles each way; barefoot, of course, except in winter - but her father decided that all a peasant daughter needed was to read and write, and five grades were more than enough for that. There was plenty of work at the farm.

Farm life is tough. Girls have to take care of their younger siblings while their parents work the fields. There are cows to milk, geese to pluck, pigs to feed, meals to cook, linen to weave, floors to sweep. Work is endless and hard. Clothes get very dirty, so women take them to the river to wash. There is no detergent - the clothes soak in a caustic mixture of water and wood ash. (The best comes from a cherry tree, I am told). Washing those clothes makes your hands bleed, but the linens come out white.

This is a nearly self-sufficient way of life. Almost everything is made in the village, or the nearby town, even clothes themselves. There is no cotton, so you grow flax in a patch of perpetually moist soil. You harvest that flax by pulling the stalks out of the ground by hand, so that nothing is wasted. You dry the stalks and tie them into bundles. You soak the bundles in a pond under heavy stones. You dry them again. You pound them in a wooden, hand-powered tool to separate and soften the fibers. You comb the fibers to get rid of the short, useless ones. You spin the long fibers into yarns. You weave the yarns into a fabric. It will make tough but comfortable clothing. Unfortunately, it starts falling apart after several washings with the cherry-tree ash.

My grandmother's hands tell a story of her life. They are larger than many a man's hands, full of calluses and cracks and old scars, with stone-hard nails that are prone to driving large splinters of wood into the soft flesh underneath. Scrubbing the wooden floor with a brush and rags is the most frequent source of these splinters. My grandmother has to pull them out with pliers, sometimes asking me for help. I feel close to fainting whenever I pull out an inch-long splinter, with blood gushing afterwards, but I'm the man, I have to take this on. Plus, I'll do anything for my grandmother.

I'm not very fond of my grandfather - Dziadzio Miecio - but sometimes I feel sorry for all the anger and disdain directed at him. Those are fleeting moments, though, as he is difficult to like. He is simple and simple-minded - he speaks rarely, but when he does, his utterances are hard to parse; they don't seem to make a lot of sense. He also hasn't quite shaken off his village dialect, which makes him sound uneducated and very provincial. His only interest in life is his "działka" - a tiny parcel of fenced-in dirt on an old, drained swamp between apartment complexes. It is a 20-minute walk from his apartment and it is his own tiny paradise. It is perhaps 1,200 feet square, surrounded by hundreds of other such parcels. The swamp had been parceled-out by the city of Warsaw and given to the members of the working class through a byzantine system of awards, bribes, and nepotism. (My grandfather works for the city repairing street lights - that probably explains how his lucky number came up...)

These little parcels are a source of enormous pride for their owners, and enormous envy for many other families. Some of them, including Dziadzio Miecio, spend all their free time there, from spring till fall, including their vacations. That 20-minute walk is all it takes to transfer him from a cramped apartment where he gets no respect, to his very own Garden of Eden, where there is a cherry tree, an apricot tree, gooseberry bushes, red, white, and black currants, wild strawberries, peonies, roses, cucumbers, tomatoes, dill, chives, onions - everything but potatoes and rye. There is a little wooden hut (altanka) he had built, with a table and a metal bed. He can take a nap there, or have his friends come over and drain a bottle of vodka, each shot chased down with pieces of dark bread, słonina (bacon, but without the meat layers), and thick slices of his own tomatoes, which can grow as large as a child's head and taste like heaven.

My grandfather, having come from peasant stock, knows how to make things grow. His little garden is one of the lushest, at least among his closest neighbors. Some of the plot owners go for flowers or ornamental bushes. He, true to his roots, tries to grow everything. (Occasionally he even hides live chickens in his hut, although that is against the bylaws of the gardens.) Part of his success has its source in a big, metal drum behind the altanka - there he stores liquefied cow manure purchased from a farmer who visits the gardens twice a year, with a horse-drawn cistern full of that "black gold", which he sells by bucketfuls.

This little garden, his refuge, will be my grandfather's undoing, but that's many years away.  Now, in his gruff way, he tries to entice us kids to come over, have some fresh fruits or veggies, like baby kohlrabi, or sweet peas, or the incredibly hot radishes, but we know there is price to pay. We'll have to listen to him mumble under his breath about having to do all this gardening himself, with no one helping, people just want to come and partake, take what they did not grow. Suddenly, the sweetest white currants start tasting sour. I feel guilty, so I ask how I can help, but he just shrugs and says, "Oh, just keep stuffin' ye'self. That's all you lads are good for anyway."