I forgot that Poland wasn’t a country until Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Their tumultuous history of being pushed and pulled by Russia and Germany and Austria-Hungary has made them participants in every war during the past three centuries. In Warsaw it’s easy to see that; Polish culture is somewhat like American because of how it borrows and incorporates. Only in the past 20 years has Poland become free enough to resolve to be a great European country. And it’s on the right path: Warsaw’s rebuilding has made it that much more Polish. Everyone here feels it, they know it, and they show an interesting resolve to make it happen. But they still have a long way to go…
The woman at my hostel suggested I walk to the Palac Na Wyspie, south, in the park. It was a traditional 18th century palace and it looked original, as though it hadn’t been destroyed by the Germans. And there on the side of the pond I saw her sitting on the centuries-old stone, her red hair falling over her shoulders on this chill gray Poland spring day. When she looked up at me, it was like I had come across a doe in the woods. I walked forward, circled back, and asked what she was reading, a man I had never heard of. I offered her chocolate. She accepted, and I sat.
She doesn’t study per se, she’s in high school; she’s seventeen. But that’s okay because I only wanted someone to talk to. Katie was reading for school, she’s very well read, Hemingway, Kesey, Joyce, Bulgakov. “Some of my friends don’t even know who Truman Capote is!” she lamented, “They don’t like art.” I told her I’m from New York; she has a friend going there to model. “She must be very beautiful,” I said. She shrugged. She asked me what I think of Warsaw. Poor Warsaw, with its divided and conquered history. “It used to be the Paris of the North,” she said, and at that I smiled because I’ve been to Bucharest which is Little Paris, and Buenos Aires which is the Paris of the South, and Kansas City which is the Paris of the Plains, and I felt even sorrier for Warsaw, fifty years old, with its UNESCO World Heritage City Center practically given out of pity for “an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century,” and their pride in Chopin, who was born here but lived the second half of his life in Paris. When you step outside of its Disneyland Old Town, which does make you feel warm and fuzzy but also a little suspicious, it’s easy to see why Katie called it “scruffy.” Soviet Realism is the dominant architectural style. Most citizens are resentful of the huge Culture and Science building, Stalin’s gift, and yet their biggest building is something you have to see, just to get an idea of the irony this city’s denizens can appreciate. Yet despite all the war-torn history, the people are sweet, like go out of their way to talk to you and help you (if they know English), and there are bohemian areas.
The palace looked original; Katie said the Germans lived in such buildings during wartime. She wants to be a doctor and was sad she’s lost most of her English. It started to rain. I suggested we leave but she was enjoying herself, she said she likes the rain. She showed me her notebook for me to write my blog address in, it said on the cover, Keep Calm and Carry On. She said, “It helps me right now.”
“What happened right now?”
“Guy stuff.” I pressed. “What do they want?”
“They only want one thing,” I said.
“I know. But it’s not nice that once I was falling in love he left because I wouldn’t have sex with him.”
Sex is too big to take for granted when you’re so young. An attraction, a glimpse, a smile, it’s all so large, it must be cherished and nurtured because in a lack of experience who knows when love can happen again.
“Katie, you’re a beautiful girl. I’m sure there will be other guys. It’s just that when a young man doesn’t get everything he wants from one woman, he sacrifices it because he thinks he can get more from another. Don’t worry, he wasn’t worth your time anyway.”
The rain made millions of concentric circles in the pond, looking like bubbles rising from boiling water. A doughty female mallard was so near us I could’ve held its brown feathers, that purple slip on its rear, its webbed orange feet that stood slightly one on the other. I think I made Katie feel better. We stood to leave. It was coming down. The fronts of my pants were wet as we walked the sandy path through the leafless trees. I suggested we sit somewhere for a beer, maybe. Katie doesn’t like beer or drinking culture; it’s for rednecks. “You’re too intelligent to like getting drunk,” I said.
“I get drunk sometimes,” she said, which surprised me, but it was probably because the group was getting drunk that she felt she needed to; she had said she tends to be extroverted in such situations, in order to get attention, but she’s different when alone, quiet, meditative, like me. She pushed her damp hair off her fair freckled forehead, “Damp. But when it rains it feels so right.” I didn’t understand what she said at first, because I hadn’t expected her to be so poetic or maybe because of her accent, and I laughed at how new it sounded and at her, and then she laughed– oh how she laughed!– like the ringing unfettered bells of youth, without care or concern, and with the simple knowledge that all is right and new and clean, all because of the rain.
At the main street I turned left for my bus and she went right, up the bridge. It was nice that the last thing she said to me was good luck. I stood and waited and on the bus a nice woman told me I could take this bus all the way to Topiel, my stop, because I’d gotten on buses before hoping they’d go the right way only to take a detour, which isn’t so bad when you’re new to a city and you want to see things most people don’t see, such as buildings pockmarked with bulletholes.
After dinner I sat in the hostel kitchen. It started to clear up, so the clouds carried a tincture of orange, and didn’t look like cellulite, as Fungi had said they sometimes do, but more like silly string. The setting sun illuminated them and the sky was somewhere between gray and baby blue. It was like one of those nights in late summer after a thunderstorm, when there are still a couple of hours of daylight left and an immeasurable ennui sets in during which there’s nothing to do but pray for night to fall and morning to come. And that is one of the saddest things in the world, as sad as heartbreak, when you want the day to be over, because it couldn’t make up its mind and was rainy one minute and sunny the next and then you can’t make up your mind because the weather ruined your plans one minute and changed your mood the next. So you wind up playing a game of cards or watching a movie you don’t really want to watch or getting drunk, or trying to get drunk but being too alone or too poor, or not resolved enough because the weather wasn’t resolved enough– it was supposed to be rainy and now it’s just sunny puddles and you can only wait for them to dry because no matter how resolved you are there’s still a long way to go until morning comes.