Searching for Chopin

Julie Vassilatos:

The feast before me covered the whole table with extra leaves put in, for just the two of us. It occupied half of the tiny room. My immediate impression, after gauging the magnificence of the star roast, was mild panic. How was I to eat all of this? For after seven weeks in Poland I knew that, as a guest, my chief responsibility was to eat most of what I saw before me.

My weeks with Pani Maria hadn’t prepared me for this. Typically my birdlike host with the long gray hair tied up in lovely old fashioned buns and braids kept to a modest regimen. She was a scholar who led a quiet life. Her small home was minimally appointed and her kitchen was scarcely big enough to accommodate two. We never shared meals, and I rarely saw her eat. I knew she had provided this feast solely through sacrificial extravagance.

I was confronted with this spectacular hospitality on the last evening of my trip. I had been engaged in dissertation research at a Polish university library, which in some moment of madness several months earlier I had decided was a good idea. And now, at the end of the trip, it was safe to say that every day for seven weeks I had been living in a state of bafflement that had shape shifted into other perils. It was the late ’90s and I had no internet access, no cell phone, and a very bad guidebook that steered me wrong on just about every issue. Indeed, the guidebook was serenely unaware of the currency reform then imposed, whereby 5 zeroes were being removed from every bill. Two types of currency were in circulation, old and new, and I was unable to cope with the combo platter of trying to do math on the fly for some but not all of the cash in my hand. When I needed to buy something, I would hold out a sweaty handful of bills and change, and let the vendor choose the proper amount of cash.

I learned not to heed that guidebook, or at least to engage in a severe critical dialogue with it. A great surprise of Warsaw that flew in the face of the guidebook’s utterances was the profusion of beautifully dressed women who carried off gorgeous colors, cuts, and fabrics with flair, and, I am positive, also shaved their legs. Nothing at all like the hairy-legged, brown-scratchy-wool-clad peasant I was led by the guidebooks to expect, and sternly admonished to emulate, which I did easily and with pleasure since that is my own personal style. “Warsaw,” my host said to me with no little pride when I was raving one day about the beautiful clothes and fabrics worn by everyone I saw,  “is more fashionable than Paris.” 

The book also warned me never to eat dairy products (on account of encephalitis) or any fresh produce without cooking it (toxins in the soil). So when my host brought me shining, tiny fresh strawberries from her friend’s garden plot, that she had picked herself, I was aghast that she might actually expect me to eat them right then and there. They loomed larger and more menacing as the hours, and then days, passed. I fretted over what to do with them. Finally I boiled them. Pani Maria happened into the kitchen just as I dropped them into a bubbling pot. “I always prepare them this way! Mmmm!” I lied straight into her arched-eyebrow face, knowing she knew I was lying, and knowing she had no idea why.

The guidebook also didn’t explain Polish pronunciation. So all those times I was politely attempting to say “please”, “thank you”, and a general polite greeting and parting (all the same word)—really almost the only thing I said at all in Poland—I was actually saying “piglet” because of a subtle vowel mispronunciation. 

Warsaw was a puzzle and an enigma, and I was absolutely on my own to solve it.

In my weeks as a renter in Pani Maria’s home, I would use my evenings and weekends running off to concerts in churches, and she would shake her head, clucking under her breath at my extravagance. No, she would not be joining me this evening. No, by no means was I to buy her a ticket.

That was another surprising thing about Warsaw—the abundance of live music. Handbills and posters, new every week, announced choirs and chamber music, touring teens, professionals, soloists; it was all too much for me to take in. Most performances were extremely cheap by American standards, just a few dollars. And the caliber of performance was extremely high. In luminous venues the pews were packed with all kinds of listeners, and the church would be filled to standing room only. Rapt audiences hung on every note, and thunderous applause at concerts’ end would generate not merely a short encore but a spirited replaying of about half the original performance. I had never seen such mutual affection between audience and musicians before, and haven’t since. 

Warsaw was a city obsessed with music, and obsessed with its favorite son, Chopin. Warsaw’s version of free summer concerts in a city park was different than in other cities. In Warsaw, an enormous truck and a crane deposited a gleaming grand piano next to a reflecting pool, in the shade of a monumental sculpture of the man himself, in a landscape filled with a profusion of red roses and loose wandering peacocks. Every week of summer since 1959 in Łazienki Park has seen piano recitals by a changing roster of Poland’s current masters of Chopin, playing Chopin, under summer skies of a pristine cerulean blue. I too became obsessed.

I was directed to these concerts by Pani Maria. They required a long rather harrowing bus ride to reach—harrowing due to the large uniformed men who would periodically board, grab some poor fool by the collar, haul him off the bus, and commence to beat him with a wooden club, who knows why—but it was an easy ride from her house to the park, and the park’s practically supernatural beauty almost made up for the worry that I might be the next poor fool on the bus.

Once I got there in time for the end of the last piece. Once they were just hoisting the piano into the air to slide it into the truck. Once, hard pounding rain seemed to have kept the truck from coming at all, though I waited faithfully. Always this concert danced tauntingly in my mind, drawing me along a weekly wild goose chase. No matter. I acted like I had intended to get there three hours before, or just at the close of the concert. But even without Chopin the park itself was a magical space. For beyond the manicured rose garden with its stone benches and symmetry lay shadowy acres of moss-covered old-growth trees, curving paths drawing me deeper into the shadows. Green light filtered through impossible depths of branches. Here I half expected to find trolls, or a talking horse, or Baba Yaga’s hut scrabbling away on its chicken legs.

The place was a desperately needed respite from my weekday routine. My work was to find, request, and translate passages from creaking ancient tomes in Latin and late medieval Dutch. The librarians, sweet as they were, tried so hard to find a common language with me, a forsaken looking American girl. Polish? Forget it. No Russian either: the second language of everyone in Warsaw but me. French, German, Italian? Nope, nope, nope. I smiled and silently handed them titles of texts on slips of paper, they went and fetched. “Piglet,” I would say, and then spend hours handling that day’s stack of vellum-bound volumes. This involved a great deal of staring at my books, taking notes, and filling out requests to photocopy. It was solitary work that did not require me to interact with anyone, or anything, much. All the while I hoped against hope never to need to make a phone call, buy coffee, or use a toilet—three things which, on account of needing to speak to people, handle money, and/or try to understand opaque bathroom technology, posed a nearly insurmountable challenge.

The toilets! Pani Maria had sneered: “They are Russian.” And added: “So is my laundry machine. Do not use it. It is very bad, hard to operate.” How could a toilet be hard to operate? How? Every single one was different: some had buttons, some had strings, others had no discernible moving parts at all. Trying to make a phone call in this pre-cell-phone age was a vexing exercise in failure, whether in public or at Pani Maria’s house. She rejoiced whenever her phone rang and it was my “Mr. Peter,” whom she seemed to regard as fondly as I did. And buying anything. For this I had to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers. Like a little lost orphan child I would wander into the same beautiful bakery every day and choose, mutely pointing, among artful pastries in glass cases. The shop girls would talk to me, I would do the nod-shake-head-shrug-shoulder-wince-eyebrows-half-weak-smile-foreigner face. Mute, lost, orphan. At the register I would hold out my hands full of sweaty coins, hoping they wouldn’t take me too badly.

Those pastries–what they meant to me. When you are dislocated, mute, confused, and lonely, such things leave the realm of meaningless pleasantries and become more of a spiritual anchor. A pastry shop, being a generally familiar and understood thing, spanned for a few minutes every day the cultural confusion I lived in, if only just a little: a bridge from the known to the funhouse mirror that was my life in Warsaw. It was my ritual, my habit, my life-preserver. Almost like meeting a good friend for coffee at your favorite place, except without the friend, and I never could figure out how to order coffee. And while this little shop was my favorite, that may have owed more to its being the only one I passed on my unchanging route to the library. I’m sure the counter girls—my best friends in Poland after Pani Maria—tittered amongst themselves about the speechless and oddly ignorant young woman who dressed like a crude peasant and always ordered the exact same thing. That pastry kept me walking out of Pani Maria’s door every day for my inevitably befuddling hours at the library with the patient, gentle, friendly, mildly annoyed librarians.

Suffice to say it was the longest seven weeks of my life.

And in all of this, I was alone, well and truly alone. For some weeks I found no one to speak English with. There was no social media. There was no friendly interaction with shopkeepers, the flower seller, the old newspaper man at the kiosk. There was only my daily quiet routine: stop at bakery, walk to library, page through volumes, translate, go home.

And here is where Warsaw went from a baffling place to something of an existential nightmare.

I’m the sort of social creature whose stability in the cosmos depends on all the small connections made via chit chat and coffee dates. All my life I’ve taken pains to stretch out a net woven of a thousand such interactions with my fellow humans in order not to plunge into the empty abyss I knew was below, a blank void where there is no other company but my own. I’m not talking about avoiding simple solitude. I’m talking about avoiding, at all costs, the confrontation with my own blank, stark, emptiness.

But in Poland that taut net disappeared in a puff of vapor, that finely-honed avoidance disintegrated into dust. I tumbled down into the dark.

And there I was. Sitting down there in the bottom of the abyss. That place I’d sought consciously to avoid my whole life. It was dark, and echoey, and isolated. But when my eyes adjusted to the light, I also found out it was fine down there. No place I wanted to stay—but astonishingly, no place I needed to fear.

As the weeks unfolded and I rattled around down in my new hangout, slowly I found a few expat Americans, slowly I made friends with locals who spoke English. I traveled, I researched. I bought an ice cream cone—to hell with brain spores. I spent all my money without ever figuring out how to order a coffee.

On my last day in Warsaw I so looked forward to no longer being in a constant state of surprise and befuddlement. I packed my few belongings, went back to the library to handle the last few texts, pick up my last photocopies, and thank the librarians with an apologetic smile and a sincere round of heartfelt “piglet”s. When I returned home, Pani Maria met me at the door and led me by the hand into her living room, where the feast awaited. I was overcome by her generosity. This was the finest meal I’d seen in Poland—traditional, beautifully prepared dishes like beets in sour cream, tiny potatoes, sauteed Brussels sprouts, green beans, noodle kugel, a lovely crusty bread and that roast, that giant roast. She sliced us each a small portion, and when we finished that she would eat no more, motioning with open palms and a warm smile that the rest was for me. “Eat. Eat.” She eyed me with that joyful, hopeful look of someone who has given quite a gift, the best they can do, and is watching eagerly to see if it is received with as much pleasure as it was given. We said little. Mostly I ate, and she watched. Lucky for both of us I had a peculiar capacity to hold food, and I was able to keep eating well into fourths of everything. I think by that round I had done the best I could do, with the best she could give.

Unexpected generosity in an unexpectedly befuddling place—this was Warsaw to me, start to finish. Its enigmatic beauty draws me back in my imagination. I fantasize about returning, bringing Mr. Peter some day, to show him the peacocks and chase after concerts and share earthy Polish food and Pani Maria’s loving hospitality. Of course we will have no trouble with toilets or phone calls or cafes, and this time I will bring my best dresses and shave my legs. This time I will not be surprised by the generosity of strangers, music, and the city itself; I will accept it graciously and without fear. And without question, we will find Chopin.

BIO: Julie Vassilatos is a Chicago writer, mom, and public education activist without a PhD. 

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