Thursday, November 29, 2012


Sonia in her garden

September 15, 2012

ZAMOSC, POLAND – It’s a ten-hour train trip from Wroclaw in the west of Poland to Zamosc (ZAH-moshch) in the east, around 600 miles. When my teaching gig in Wroclaw finished at the end of August, I went the distance to visit my friend Sonia, whom I last saw over 40 years ago on my requisite post-college backpacking adventure through Europe.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a friendship enduring for so long a time over such a great distance, but it has – with little thanks to me, I might add, whose correspondence has been waning for years. In a time when Facebook has rendered the word "friend" virtually meaningless, and even true face-to-face friends get buried in your in-box, her view of friendship is about the most admirable thing on earth.

Sonia does not own a computer, and doesn’t want one. I think I know why.

We began our long acquaintance as pen-pals. If you’re under 40 you may never have heard of that term, but it was, in pre-internet days, the way teenagers could escape their little towns and find companions in most exotic places. Organizations like International Pen Friends served as clearing-houses, placing ads in youth magazines and trying to match respondents’ requests. I was studying Russian in high school at the time, and asked for someone from an Eastern Bloc country. Remarkably, given the Cold-War climate of the mid-1960's, the organization I wrote to was placing ads all over Eastern Europe, and Sonia answered one of them. The requests we wrote were forwarded, and the rest is a very long history.

When we met this time, it took a bit of adjusting to the toll of the years, but I’m glad to report that the years have not been unkind to either of us, and we fell happily in sync, reviewing our lives and the lives of our families over four decades. The hurdle of language was the hardest to jump. Our correspondence has been done partly in English and partly in Russian (I’m embarrassed to say I never learned much Polish), but it is one thing to turn out a letter using a dictionary and quite another to try to talk. Fortunately, her son Paul was visiting home from his job in London, and he served admirably as translator. When he was off seeing his friends, we did the best we could, flipping through the dictionary for key words and doing a lot of guessing.

But many of the physical surroundings spoke for themselves. Sonia lives in the five-room house her late father built with his own hands after the War. When I stayed with her family in 1970, they drew water from a well in their back garden, cooked on a wood-burning stove, and used an outhouse. All that is distant memory now. But the spacious garden is quite the same, yielding under Sonia’s skillful tending the staples of the Polish diet – cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, garlic, dill and other herbs, and at this time of year, apples and raspberries, much of which she turns into delectable pickles and preserves.

As with most of her long-time neighbors, her life remains in tune with the rhythms of nature.

Like her house, the town of Zamosc has undergone a makeover. A planned community from the start, it was built from scratch in the sixteenth century by Jan Zamoyski, a Westward-looking baron with a humanist heart, who commissioned an Italian architect to design it. The central square, with its towering courthouse and arched porticoes, is a jewel. The buildings suffered little damage during the War, and I clearly remember from my first visit what pride the residents took in them. Now, with Poland in the European Union, money is flowing in to restore the entire circumference, including the fortress walls long ago demolished by invading armies.

Unlike the buildings, the human beings of Zamosc suffered unspeakable damage, made imaginable for the present generation at the Rotunda, a garrison added to the fortress by the occupying Russians in the early nineteenth century. The Gestapo used its twenty gun-emplacements as holding areas for enemies of the state – Polish resisters, Soviet prisoners, and Jews. Execution and cremation on the causeway swiftly followed. On our visit, Sonia told me that her parents often said that the stench of burning flesh enveloped the town, and even after decades they could not get it out of their nostrils.

Now each of the twenty cells is dedicated to the various groups who died there, with pictures and plaques and sculptures and altars – and flowers, brought by survivors and their descendants, who will never forget.

Beyond the town and its history, both enlightened and tragic, lies Roztocze National Park, also once part of the Zamoyski estate. Sonia and Paul took me on a day’s outing to this magical place – lakes with sandy beaches, hiking trails along a river with cascading rapids, ancient wooden churches and the ruins of sawmills, and a spring of pristine water that people come from all over Poland to bring home in jugs.



August 30, 2012

WROCLAW, POLAND – There’s nothing quite like living on an island, especially one in the heart of a city. You feel isolated but not alone, apart but connected. You’re never more than a few steps from water, and never more than a few steps from the mainland. Add to that the fairy-tale beauty of a Medieval town, and Camelot weather with bracing rain by night and warm sun by day, and it’s as close to paradise as you can get.

That’s just where I’ve been living for the last month, on tiny Sand Island in Wroclaw ("VROT-swof") in southwest Poland, teaching English at the University of Lower Silesia. The island is one of many carved out by the Oder River, which bisects the city and, as a major north-south trade route in the early Middle Ages, was the reason for its foundation.

My apartment is right across the bridge from Ostrow Tumski ("Thumb Island"), a broad peninsula that was once itself an island and has been the seat of Catholic ecclesiastical power since the ninth century. Every morning I awake to the distant chime of monastery bells.

The only pain I’ve felt since getting here is occasionally pinching myself to be sure I’m really awake.

From a place like this it’s hard to hold your interest in American presidential politics; living in the shadow of a thousand years of history tends to make the trivial even moreso. So I’ve largely ignored it all, and it really doesn’t matter anyway; when I return to the States in October, the thoughtless bombast will be just about the same as when I left in July.

The Republican convention stirred some interest here, not for the profoundest of reasons. Last week a local news channel contacted me at the school, seeking an American to compare Mrs. Romney with Mrs. Obama. "I saw Mrs. Romney’s speech," the reporter told me. "I especially liked her red dress." Feeling unqualified to speak on current or putative First Ladies and their fashions, I suggested he find someone else.

Local news is the same wherever you go.

Poles, at least judging from those I’ve met so far, are not particularly interested in American politics. My students, all professionals with a working command of English, told me they admire the two-party system because the ideological positions are more clearly evident than in their parliamentary system with multiple parties and a confusing array of ideas, or lack thereof. If Poland is to improve, they say, it will be in spite of their politicians, not because of them. It’s education, particularly in technology and business, that will open the doors to success and prosperity, and eventually raise the standard of living to parity with the rest of Europe. But that appears to be a long way off. Quality job opportunities are still wanting, wages are low and prices high, the social safety net is fraying. Young people are leaving Poland in droves to seek their fortunes in other countries in the European Union – 200,000 last year, one student told me.

But for a tourist like me, life is fine. The Polish currency, the zloty, is relatively weak against the dollar, and accommodations, food, and transportation are most affordable. The people are almost all unfailingly cheerful, and here in this university town, almost all young adults speak enough English to help you out.

Poland’s look to the West is a two-edged sword. In Wroclaw, as in other major cities, Western (and Far- and Middle-Eastern) capital has built countless shopping malls, those icons of affluence, and they are perpetually filled with shoppers and window-shoppers. It’s an amazing contrast to the conditions I found when I visited Poland years ago under the Communist regime, where the stores were drab and the shelves were bare. But in the glitz of value-pricing and value-meals, values less tangible may be waning.

Before I left, a friend of mine, who emigrated from Wroclaw to the U.S. in the 1970's and occasionally returns to visit his family here, tried to prepare me for the New Poland. "Under Communism," he told me, "the stores were empty but the people were full. Now the stores are full but the people are empty."

I’ve not found that to be exactly true. The churches are still well-attended, couples young and old stroll leisurely through the parks holding hands, friends spend hours in the cafes talking seriously, iPhones disabled. And there are bookstores, lots of them.

How long this will last is impossible to tell.