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.