Suckling Pig

Just an ordinary day in Nowe Miasto Lubawskie at the turn of the millennium. My landlord Adam is up early, stuffing his bicycle into his car trunk. The sun is shining through the window and the Venetian blinds swing in the breeze. The horsedrawn wagons clip-clop their way down Narutowicza; cars whiz past them. A lawn mower buzzes in the distance. Pani Irena’s children are building their house two doors down, and the hammering continues as a roof takes shape.

Adam is awake, shuffling to the bathroom, his dark curly hair fallen onto his forehead bilejak, any which way, as Pani W., our favorite wine merchant and all-around town gossip, says, so that it looks like he has bangs. Sometimes he looks handsome, even debonair, but the impression never lasts. He putters at his desk, serious and self-important, scurrying out the door to his white Honda, little dashes to the garage, puttering with his bicycle. His morning routines begin to seem at once admirable and ludicrous. But he does what he likes. “Stubborn Polack,” my mother would have called him.

In the garden, radishes and green onions and lettuce are ready to pick, the potato bugs have to be smashed. The string beans are ready for a first picking and they make for a delicious lunch. The walnut tree has some sort of blight, but the nuts are forming anyway. The tomatoes are stunted in the dry clay, but the wild strawberries are coming through.

“The retirement age for women in Poland is sixty, for men sixty-five,” Adam says, lingering a few minutes in the kitchen to chat, “And women live longer. It’s discrimination.” He tells me that tomorrow he and his ex-wife will take their son to the hospital in Olsztyn for an operation to normalize his concave chest, a hereditary condition Adam also has, to a lesser degree. “Do you want to come along?” he says smiling dumbly, with no sense of what is appropriate and what isn’t.

“Maybe not,” I tell him.

The phone rings, and Ryszard calls me from the newspaper office for another joy ride, this time to Zwiniarz, where, he says, I can see another interesting war memorial. “Be ready in five minutes.”

Through Grodziczno we fly, as if on our way to a fire. We stop long enough to admire the shrines and rectory frescoes created by the artist-priest Henryk Piotrowski. “O Mario, modl się za nami,” it says on his little kaplicka to the Virgin. Yes, pray for us, Mary, as we fly down the curved roads toward trees with trunks you could wrap a car around, through Montowo, Truszewo, and on to Swiniarć, where Ryszard and fellow journalist Grażyna stop to argue with a farmer–fireman-distributor over newspaper sales. Unable to translate what they are going on about with this guy, I satisfy myself by watching the man’s dirty ducks and chickens waddle and peck in the driveway. Oh, and I can see the burden of being a rooster—to strut and rule and never let on that you are simply a hungry bird.

In the woods near Żwiniarz, there is a stone tablet lying flat on the ground. It says, “Ofiarom wojny 1935-1945 społeczeństwo gminy Grodziczno.” It’s a monument to Poles murdered by the Russians at the end of the war when Germans held out here, along with their Polish conscripts. Grażyna clears weeds from the site, makes a wreath out of wildflowers and crowns herself with it.

“Beautiful, no?” Ryszard says of her crown, “ but getting a little gray.”

Grażyna scoffs, “See how he talks to me.”

“Well, don’t worry, from time to time the heavens are also gray,” I assure her.

“But not prematurely!” Ryszard counters.

As we pull away, Ryszard says, “They were buried here, before there was a forest. It’s a fact that the trees are taller where the bodies were buried. Look for yourself.” And the trees around the marker are indeed taller.

In town, they stop to talk to the priest about newspaper sales, and he validates Ryszard’s theory that the Germans used the church tower as a lookout. Three men sit on a bench in front of the general store, passing the time, gray and dusty.

More stops, more checking in stores, each one with its cluster of worn men outside drinking beer. In Ostaszewo, four men sit talking, one with his pant leg raised, and his leg appears to have been mutilated somehow, but it looks so pale and hairless that I cannot tell if it is real or prosthetic.

“There’s a town called Mexico over there,” says Ryszard.

“Matches the one called Ameryka on the way to Olsztyn,” says Grażyna.

Next we stop at a kaplica to St. Hubert, the patron of hunters, near Mroczno. Above the glassed saint’s image is nailed a rack of deer horns.

The last stop is dinner at the new zajazd that has opened on the main drag in Nowe Miasto. They have four sleeping rooms too, says Grażyna, at twenty dollars a night for a double. “If Adam throws me out, I have someplace to stay now,” I confide.

Ryszard smacks his lips over another hunk of golonki, pig hocks, slurping down great gobs of fat in the fresh clean ceramic-floored dining room, while music blasts from the second floor “in honor of all men named John,” still celebrating St. John’s Eve.

On the patio, a seductive, stylish young girl sits with her gangly, badly groomed boyfriend.

“When my friend from America came to Poland,” I casually observe, “he said he thought Polish gals were so much better looking than Polish guys. I think I see what he means in those two. She is so sophisticated and he looks like he’s just up from the field. Why is that?”

“Women care about how they look. Men don’t.” Grażyna, with her hair braided neatly at the back of her head, offers a concise explanation.

The band upstairs belts out “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” then “Sto Lat,” a hundred years, the “Happy Birthday” of Poland, for all the men upstairs celebrating the feast of St. John, their Name Day.

Ryszard has, as is his habit, detached from the conversation, glancing in every direction except at the person speaking to him. Sometimes I think his impatience with my inability to express myself efficiently prompts him and Grażyna to withdraw into their own articulate world. And have I mentioned the potbelly he is developing and the annoying pimple on the end of his nose that cries out for a good dermatologist?

“Delicious, but too much,” says Ryszard, as he finishes the last piece of fat on his plate. Always eat what’s put in front of you. Clean up your plate. That’s what a good Polish boy learns.

Pointing upstairs to the noise, Ryszard declaims an old Polish proverb: “Go where you hear singing. There you will find good hearts.”

At nine-thirty, I have settled in for the night when the phone rings. “Big doings in Brodnice,” Ryszard sings, “a medieval festival.”

“At this hour?”

“I’ll be there in five minutes,” he commands.

I’m up for it and off we go, first to pick up Anna, an artist upstairs in the town cultural center who moonlights downstairs as a journalist for the newspaper. A soft-spoken, brown-haired woman in her thirties, she hops into the car.

Ryszard rattles off details of how fantastic this reenactment of life in the Middle Ages will be. “Why are you hollering so?” Anna asks gently, and we speed off.

“He thinks I’ll understand Polish better if he shouts,” I shout into the back seat. Her laughter makes Ryszard blush.

It’s quite a spectacle the town puts on, at the foot of a Teutonic ruin that has been converted into a museum. Hundreds have turned out and the grounds around the town’s castle ruins have been turned into a stage, where dozens of locals dressed in suits of armor and peasant frocks stand ready to act out their version of history. But we are sitting under an umbrella, it’s cold, and the glorification of witch-burning and swordplay, even with a cast of hundreds, gets tedious quickly.

When it’s over, the crowd seems proud to have endured the rain, the waiting, and the electrical outages. There is little concern for comfort, only that we endure. “Made it,” as my cousins and I said often when we were children jumping a creek or fence.

We adjourn to the handsome and suave museum director’s office, in which he is answering calls on his cell phone and his desk phone, sometimes at the same time. “But he has taken the time to invite us for coffee,” Ryszard gushes.

“Perhaps you could pour,” the director says to Anna. Then adds for the rest of our benefit, “Women are better at that sort of thing.” Then for my benefit, “It’s probably sexist of me to say that.”

“Yes, it probably is,” I laugh and offer him cream and sugar.

On the way home, we pull over and trot to separate spots in the woods to take a pee.

School’s out, and that’s another reason for aanother bash, today at the Norwid lyceum, the high school where Adam’s ex-wife is Pani Dyrektorka. I assume this will be a dry affair, but it will be interesting to see how people here raise money for a worthy cause, in this case for new computers. I throw down a cold shot of vodka to warm up.

The lyceum is just down the street, across from the cemetery, a short walk from the house. When I arrive, a few minutes after six, Alina’s voice is already trilling over the microphone from a forlorn little outdoor stage to a crowd that could best be described as thin. Ryszard and Grażyna are already on the job, sitting on the sidelines; she is taking notes and he heads for the beer cart. Soon all three of us are summoned to the table of “special guests” who, I assume, are being buttered up for the big hit. The crowd is growing, and the honorees break off chunks of bread from two enormous loaves brought over to the table. We then walk around the crowd and invite others to break from our pieces.

A local choral group called Byle Babki (which translates literally into “Any Grandmother”) in matching red tunics warbles joylessly through half a dozen songs, but I am mesmerized by them, these determined faces ignoring the restlessness of the audience, slogging their way through the program as planned.

Soon Pani Dyrektorka is mingling with the crowd in her silky floral dress, wearing a colorful crepe paper wreath in her blonde hair and carrying a basket for money, and the stage is given over to Pani Marlena, who, it seems, was born to emcee this event. A vivacious short-haired, thirty-something blondynka in a white peasant blouse and striped skirt, she flounces around the stage with a wand, getting the crowd warmed up for an auction. “I’ll tell you something about her some time,” Ryszard says to me under his breath, as if he were privy to some scandalous sexual proclivity. We belt out the school song to the tune of “Hej Sokoly.” “Hej! Hej! Hej! Norwidzie!” The crowd grows, person after person, until the tables are full.

The first item on the auction block is a painting, a scene along the Drwęca in pastel. “That’s painted from one of my photographs,” Ryszard says proudly. The bidding starts at ten złoty, about two-and-a-half dollars. I call it out and after a little competition, “The painting is yours for forty sloty,” Marlena hollars my way.

Next, Pani Marlena holds up a two-foot round white doily. “Handmade, and the bidding starts at forty.”

My hand shoots up.

“Fifty złoty!” she calls out.

“Forty, someone corrects her.”

“I saw five fingers, I thought you said fifty!” she yells.

“Then fifty it is!” I shout. Twelve dollars. There is no stopping me on this one. A bidder on the other side of the crowd pushes me to sixty-five and the doily is mine! Alina rushes over smiling, and into the basket goes the money, toward a goal of fifteen thousand.

It’s time for me to stop. I don’t want the crowd to think the American is a rich showoff. There are more paintings and other works of art, some that get no bids at all. But then comes the pièce de résistance! Rolled to the foot of the stage on a silver cart is an entire roast suckling pig. It goes for three hundred złoty. The bidder rolls it into the crowd. Three little girls crowd around for a closer look, and the carving begins. To keep the momentum going, the tail is auctioned off separately.

It seems grotesque, all this laughter and music around the scorched flesh of a small animal, its mouth frozen open, its eyes burned shut. But pieces of the meat are brought to the tables and I grab a hunk of bread and dig in with the rest.

There is more singing, the men now moved to one table, the women to another. We lock arms and sing “Szla dzieweczka do laseczka” and “Pije Kuba do Jakuba.”

The emcee is flirting with Father Piotr like crazy, and he plays along. Soon he is on stage as spokesperson for all the men present and being teased by Pani Lila Karczyńska, who is being honored as the eldest of the teachers present.

“This is my first time in this role,” the thirty-something Father says, full of energy in a tight little red T-shirt that emphasizes his premature potbelly.

“Your first time?” says Marlena. “What is this about your first time?” she teases, swinging from side to side and holding her skirt like a little girl.

The crowd is eating it up, and Father plays it for all it’s worth, waving his arms in encouragement while the men shout out another song, our arms locked now in sex-defined solidarity.

A three-piece band takes the stage and injects new energy with rock and roll tunes, in Polish and mostly unfamiliar to me. Father Piotr and Marlena leap to the dance floor/parking lot where they initiate great jumping and carrying on, then they lock arms facing in opposite directions and spin each other around at the center of a hand-clasping circle of encouragement. Marlena grabs her wand and leads the line of people around the floor. The sky darkens. The dancers are irresistible, and soon Pani Karczynska takes my hand and we are among them.

“I saw that you wanted to dance,” she winks to me as we return to the table for more beer, kiełbasa, and bread.

Then, five men are selected for the balloon contest. “I’ll be watching you,” I hollar to Ryszard as I’m dragged to the stage and handed a balloon. “What if I don’t know what they are saying?” I call out helplessly.

Soon, five grown men are standing on stage with balloons between their knees. “Who will be the first to pop his balloon?” Marlena calls to the crowd, which begins shouting out favorites. “The American,” I hear. “They think you are going to do it,” Ryszard hollers to the stage.

“The winner gets a kiss from lovely Alina,” says Marlena.

My balloon pops almost at the word go, but still not fast enough to avoid a tie. Alina embraces us winners, but I get to go with her to the dance floor for a samba.

“Adam just doesn’t know what he has,” I confide to Ryszard when the dance is done, but he doesn’t buy it.

“Maybe so, but it was never ever a good match.”

Then, the auction resumes, and to the gasps of the crowd a second roast suckling pig is rolled out, the bidding begins, driven again to three hundred by Marlena’s magic wand. Again the little girls stare at the wretched animal’s dead face, and Alina, with her basket ready, tactfully instructs one of the girls not to put her finger in the pig’s mouth.

Soon even Ryszard is reluctantly, then enthusiastically dancing, and one song after another finds me spinning around the parking lot with Grażyna, Alina, and women whose names I do not know but who want to know my story, why I am here in this small town in the middle of Poland seaching for my family.

“Why are you here? Isn’t that remarkable. Almost a hundred years it’s been. Amazing.”

More beer flows, and soon we are dancing under the stars, a festival joyous and uninhibited. The trees, the walls of the venerable old buildings of the lyceum form a cool backdrop for this summer scene, and we all believe we have every reason to be happy.

Then Marlena calls five men to the stage for “the egg game.” Promptly, five women are brought to the foot of the stage to stand at their feet and look admiringly up at them as they drop a hardboiled egg down their pants. The women must then reach up their pantlegs and find the eggs. This leads to much hilarity as the women boldly feel their way around their men’s pants. The whole game is made even more amusing by the fact that jaja, eggs, is slang for testicles. Only in this mother-run country would such hardworking, durable men refer to their pride and joy as eggs.

After another round of beer, a teacher passes through the crowd selling hard-boiled eggs from a basket. The same ones the men had down their pants? But who can’t use a hardboiled egg? So I give her ten złoty. Later, Marlena announces that the egg sales have gone well—someone even paid a record ten złoty for a single egg!

Two tipsy men call me over to the end of the table where they sit tipping their beers. Somehow, they look like any pair of guys in the United States who are about to say something challenging like, “Who the hell are you?” But they’re not hostile; they’re so curious they cannot control themselves.

“Where are you from? Where do you live? How long will you stay here? It’s fantastic that you are here!” One flings his arm around my shoulder and says in English, “Please to meet you,” then smiles proudly. “I like America.” He has been there, he tells me, and has many friends and relatives who have also gone, some to stay and some to make money and bring it home.

“Bryszkiewski? Bryszkiewski? I know a Marek Bryszkiewski in Kurzętnik,” says one man. At first I think he is onto another branch in the family tree, but this is Jan Bryszkiewski’s son I have yet to meet. Again, it seems my grandmother’s line here ended, for everywhere I look, every phone directory, there are no others in all of Poland. But this quest for family doesn’t seem important tonight, for I have found more family, more affection in Nowe Miasto than I could ever have dreamed.

The suckling pigs have been reduced to a small heap of bones. What happened to the skulls, I don’t want to know.

Ryszard and Grażyna do not want the evening to end, so off we go to the “drink bar” on Third of May Street, and they persuade two young women friends to come with us.

“Hey America!” booms a voice in English from the next table. “How are you?” It is my pal from the fundraiser, and he must tell me again with broad smiles and much hand-gripping how happy he is to see an American in Nowe Miasto.

After a round of beers, the barkeep starts turning chairs over onto tables. It is as late as I’ve ever been out in Nowe Miasto, two in the morning, and everything is silent as I stagger down the sidewalk. But the cool windless night air is like perfume and sends a rush of oxygen to my brain. A big rig roars by and breaks the silence, past the lyceum and the cemetery, while the town sleeps.

The next day, I see Alina and Adam’s mother walking. Then Alina is downstairs, talking to Adam, but she calls to me, “Let’s have some tea and talk.” I have rarely seen the two of them together, Adam and his estranged wife, and I always try to steer clear, but they have spent a few civil minutes together, they have solved a problem, talked about their son, and now it’s time for tea. They call their son in the hospital, passing Adam’s trusty cell phone back and forth with reassurances for him, and then they are finished and turn to me.

“And we reached our goal of fifteen thousand last night,” Alina says.

Deleted chapter from A Polish Son in the Motherland

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