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 ┼╗oliborz. ┼╗oliborz 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.

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