Polish Men in Love

I love the way thunderstorms roll in to Nowe Miasto, with a prolonged build-up of cloud and darkness, then sprinkles, and all the trees hang still, waiting; the chickens hide themselves and the waddling white ducks seem to be wondering what all the fuss is about. The flies slow down, ever more bewildered at their entrance into the house through screenless windows and then their imprisonment behind glass when you close the windows; you can swat them easily as they dream about the rain. The great drama settles into a cool drizzle that goes on for hours. There’s a low thunder roll, and the horse cart clip-clops by, two soaked men at the reins.

As for me, I am about to roll out, to Poznań. At the last minute, my friend Adam asks me to drop him off at a relative’s house. It turns out to be much farther than I thought, so I if I miss the train, I just won’t go to Poznań today. I’ll go another day. That is the beauty of being free.

I race into the station at Iława, but there is no time to buy a ticket, so I run out to the platform, and there is the train-—it’s doors open, but moving. “To Poznań?” I call up to a man by the nearest door. “Yes, yes, to Poznań,” he calls, as I grab the rail. And I’m off in search of another adventure, another view of Poland.

There are a lot of angry faces in the cities, and Poznań is a bigger city than I remembered, surrounded also with endless look-alike barracks, with a lovely center marred by two monstrous cement block motels plopped down in its eclectic old town square dating to the sixteenth century.

A taxi driver, enthralled by my American accent, tells me with little prompting that the middle class is shrinking and things in Poland were much better under communism. “You can’t make a living.” Yet he charges me almost ten American dollars for a rather short ride.

A police officer in a squad car lifts his hands in exasperation, simply because a hesitant Mercedes is trying to make its way around a narrow corner, where the high-pitched hysterical gasps of two Polish girls on the Rynek cut through all the other voices. Early afternoon, and drunks have already staggered into position on benches, where they will spend their day growling at one another.

Young people are always ready to ignore what was was and accept what is, as they dive into the swimming pool inside what was once a synagogue. You can see the arched ceilings, where once the voices of prayer echoed. I sit in what must have been the balcony for women, below me the sounds of splashing and shouting. The windows are all glass brick now, but still regal in their shape, on all four walls. Everything is blue or beige and smelling of chlorine.

This is the way to make use of an old building that otherwise would have none. I’m reminded of the Orthodox church in St. Petersburg that also hosts water sports.

At the archaeological museum, regional tools and artifacts from the Stone Age are on display, and huts that don’t look so different from the chałupki I see along the road every day.

You can eat at the milk bar Przysmak in Poznań for about two dollars. That buys me a plate of beets, a large medallion of turkey, fresh potatoes, and a large Pepsi in a plastic bottle. Young people with back packs and old people with backaches taking advantage of this culinary bargain.

I met Marek and Paweł as they stood behind a bar in an ugly building on an obscure street in Poznań, and they loved to talk. They looked alike, or rather, behaved alike, as partners of many years often do. They moved in sync, one reaching into the refridgerator case for an EB while the other took my złoty.

“Not very much business tonight,” says Marek.

“Everyone’s gone to Germany for the Love Parade,” laughs Paweł.

“Do you go to Germany often?” I inquire.

“Oh, yes, whenever we can, a vacation, a holiday, a weekend,” says Marek.

“It’s very nice. Berlin, fantastic,” says Paweł.

“And it’s clean and kept up, top quality, not like here,” says Marek.

“Poland is beautiful too, no?” I defend

“Yes, yes, of course, but we are so far behind we’ll never catch up. There’s not enough money in the world.”

“Germany had a head start after the war,” I interject.

“Germany, yes, American money. And look at Switzerland—-all that money from the war, and they don’t want to give a penny of it back,” Paweł half joking, tightening his fists.

“Is it difficult for two men to be together in Poland?” They help me with my Polish: “Gej,” they say in unison.

“Not so difficult,” says Paweł. “Our families know, they are with us. My mother knows and likes him.” He gestures toward his partner.

“My mother knows and likes him,” adds Marek with a similar grin. Thirteen years they have been together.

“And his mother watches out for me,” Paweł says, “and my sister does too. And on holidays we are all together.”

“Do you live together?”

“We are just now buying a little house in the country. We have friends who did it, in a little town. The only problem they had was a tornado that destroyed the house.”

Paweł and Marek are in their middle thirties, perhaps, both with sandy blonde thinning hair. But Marek’s face has the flat-faced Slavic roundness, Paweł the long head and curls of any-country Europe. Paweł is the flirt, with a shy devilish sweetness and a great set of teeth. Marek is the practical one, the minder of business.

“It is quite possible to have a good life here in Poland. But of course, for many it’s a double life. Marriage, children, and on the side a boy,” says Paweł.

“But it is only because they don’t know what they want, in here,” Marek points to his head.

The television above the bar is blaring the news, a commentator rattling on about a pilgrimage to Rome, crowds waving and cheering from St. Paul’s Square. And these two men cannot keep their eyes off the pope.

“And he tells people they should have sex only to have children,” Paweł quips. “Do you see anybody with more than two kids in Poland anymore?”

In Poznań, the question I am most often asked is, “Sprechen zie Deutsch?” This is the land of the German tourist and the occasional bus load of American Polonia.

In the cathedral in Gniezno, a German group surveys and checks, civil and articulate. But one has fantasies about what all this surveying and checking might mean. It is, after all, necessary to come to Poland now to get a full spectrum of German history, since so much of it happened here, bitterly. They did, did, after all, leave behind scores of impressive post offices, schools, and other public buildings–before the horrors of both World Wars. Now, the new Germanization seems entirely a matter of getting those deutsch marks into Polish hands.

I am traveling with no plan, and as I board the rickety bus out of Gniezno at the beginning of a series of unsure connections to Iława, I wonder again why anyone would prefer this to a train.

In Biskupin, inconveniently accessible to all but motorists, there is an exhibition and partial re-creation of a town that thrived here 3000 years ago. Who could have imagined that they made pottery, processed pitch from pine resin, created jewelry and hunting tools. And between their time and the straw-thatched huts of Sugajno and Skarlin, what?

An open-carred narrow-gauge train takes me from Biskupin to Znin. We pass campers by a lake, in a clear plastic tent, sitting around a card table. Outside, grandma is teaching a little boy to wave to the train. And for a moment she looks just like my mother. Where did that love of the outdoors she too developed when she got older come from? Perhaps it will come to me too, that sense of leaving your troubles behind that comes with a night by a lake.

Along the route, it gets cold and windy and starts to rain again. In the fields, the wheat is starting to fall, and it will be hard to harvest, much of it spoiled by being too close to the damp earth. A ring-necked pheasant and his hen bob along the tracks into a field. I remember my uncles worried about fallen wheat, and what monsters I thought they were when they hunted these beautiful birds, which my grandmother plucked, cleaned and stewed, the same as any chicken.

You get a sense in the shabby railroad station in Znin why the trains stopped running in Nowe Miasto. I am waiting alone for the Saturday 5:58 to Inowrocław. Now and then a young traveler walks up to the window, where a friendly-enough woman has to be roused from the back for questions, the answer to which seems mostly to be “no.” She makes a fuss when I hand her a hundred for a sixteen złoty fare.

I am the only person in the “bar,” which serves no beer—-which, in fact, serves little that is on the menu. So I give in and try one of the ubiquitous zapiekanka that people gobble from street vendors behind little service windows facing long lines. The girl behind the counter promises me it will be good. As I feared, it turns out to be half of a large hot dog bun spread with ketchup, with a few onions thrown on for good measure. Where is a milk bar when you need one?

At some point, this waiting room probably wasn’t too bad—-some rural murals on one wall, folksy-looking wooden benches and tables. But the two dusty brown palm trees of plastic, the “security” grates over the windows between me and the empty room next door, perhaps once a waiting room. And none of it painted in thirty years

On the television perched high on a shelf in the corner, a panel discussion on corruption ends with the optimistic outlook that “in a few years perhaps such a program won’t be necessary.” Striking, how mass communication of this sort seems to ignore the obvious question. Namely, how is that supposed to happen? What can you make of a taxi pricing system like the one in Poznań, where it costs one złoty to get from my hotel to Wilson Park and forty-eight to get back? “You have to check the price on the window,” said the driver smugly. “If you want to pay less, you have to make sure it’s a ‘Radio’ taxi.”

You bet I will, but does this make sense to somebody? Certainly not to the poor slobs who are working for one tenth the fare.

On the train, I have a private car—made for forty people. Two young girls get on at the first stop and keep me company. All this—-Znin to Inowrocław to Torun to Iława–for four dollars.

The station at Inowrocław is a mess. The once lovely white and green ceramic walls of its underpass are scribbled with graffiti that has been there far too long but could easily be washed clean. The local train to Torun is even filthier and unmarked. When I asked about the platform at the window—-behind which are computers and clean new work spaces with fashionably dressed women stationed in them—-they act as if it so obvious. “Yes, yes,” brusquely, “platform four.”

For forty-five unexpected minutes in Torun, I catch a chunk of life in Poland, down the street and around a corner, through an underpass to the Motel Marvin. Just a place to have a beer while I kill time waiting for the next connection.

The Motel Marvin is all lit up and inviting, it’s door open, displaying all the trappings of a business well connected to the liquor industry, even beer umbrellas advertising the most popular brands. Behind the bar stands one of those bartenders you want to watch all night because they know exactly what they are doing. No better pleasure than watching a pro at work, this one a young blond woman with a thick braid down her back, in a white blouse that she seems to move within as if it weren’t really touching her anywhere. Twenty złoty for a room for two, front desk open twenty-four hours, a curved bar where a bossy fat man makes jokes with customers. Behind me, two young guys with beers and shots are waiting here for the same train. At another table, a blondynka with two men who can’t stop talking to her. One steps up to the bar; his face is like the face of a circus dwarf in a Fellini movie, but he is full size, his nose flattened as if by countless punches, his mouth curves to a smile and reveals two or three missing teeth. Cold damp air from the open door is all around us, and the bartender serves me a big fat kielbasa with rye bread and draft beer. It couldn’t taste better. Disco music throbs in the air. La-la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la-la. And I want to stay all night and see what happens.

I try to snooze on the train, but the Gothic twins and their loudmouthed boyfriend keep me awake. He is showing off, with all the deep-voiced bravado he can manage. Dobry wieczor, he says, smart-assed to me, good evening, as he opens a window and thows his plastic bottles and trash into the night. The morbidly thin Gothic twins, with their long black Cher-like hair, begin to bore my charming friend, and he charges back to another car like a hot little bull.

I am inspired to expel gas in his direction and say, “Masz!” the way my grandmother did now and then in disgust. “That’s for you!”
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