Img_1670 This is sort of an experiment.  I am at the end of my first day in Warsaw and my head is tumbling with impressions and I thought I would share them in a manner less rehearsed and less premeditated than is customary here at This Blog Sits At.   (This is another way of saying, "here’s the data, you sort it out.")  I am drinking and, thanks to another guy at the bar, smoking, so this is  discourse that is both alcohol and nicotine assisted (aka diminished).  (Blame Russell and Twitter.)

Warsaw.  As a naive North American, I am inclined to put Poles and Ruassians in the same category, but day 1 tells me how naive this is.  Many of the Russians I interviewed for this project seemed to suffer a condition of astonishment at the trick history had played on them.  They were, it seemed to me, as if waiting for the next foot to fall, with the possibility that footfalls were over and that it was all cat’s feet after this, small directions, hard to appreciate really, with an adaptive strategy (read critical path) that nows look like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny course corrections over the course of a life time.  Ok, the less critical path.  We Americans take this for granted.  This is what it is to have seen the latest Old Christine or Spiderman…and thousands of little clues we take from this, that and the other thing.  Ah, ok, we say, so it’s this…until the next this, that, or the other thing.  Poles get this.  They flourish in a world that forsakes  directions from on high and marching orders below. 

The Polish, at least the three of them I talked today (and since when has an anthropologist refused the opportunity to make this slender part to speak for every single person in the whole) are all about tiny adjustments as driven by, and this was the surprising part, an active curosity, and optimism, a pleasure in the change.  As North Americans we are well fed on Saturday Night Live "wild and crazy guy" stereotypes that would make the Polish the latest guests to a party that has moved uptown.  We couldn’t be more wrong.  There is more here than imagined by our philosophy.  Sorry. 

To understand this world, we want to think more in terms of Conrad and Malinowksi, those Poles (novelist and anthropologist, respectively) who effortlessly mastered English prose and other cultures (not respectively).  I’m tryng to think of the Conrad that opens with a magnificent evocation of time and place.  It’s not Heart of Darkness.  He talks about a port.  And you’re there.  It’s a little like Hardy talking about the heath, opening pages so powerful you read remaining pages out of gratitude, and the certain knowledge that the fun is over.  It was the opening.  Poland is about the opening pages.   Not investing, necessary, but getting the opening engagement so perfectly that any number of things are possible. 

I wonder if that’s Poland now.  I did an interview with a woman who had adorned the interview in everyway imaginable.  She had added a guite stirring white blondness to her hair, she had contacts that gave her eyes a striking blueness, her coat had a black fur ruff, her shirt was a fetching pink, her pants were covered with slogans and speech (I didn’t try to read every word but, you know, hey), her shoes too were pink.  And she was, it turned out, gilding the lily.  Quite beautiful, actually more beautiful without.  But as I talked to her I came to think of all of these aesthetic gestures as a SETI search for life out there.  Try everything, because it’s hard to know what might work.  Broadcast on every frequency, because you are not afraid that some, perhaps all, signal(s) might return.  We will work this out  as Sahlins used to say, on the cushion.  We have some play.  We’ll play with the play. 

This is a statement of one’s absolute confidence in one’s powers of adaptation and assimilation.  What’s out there?  Send it here.  Don’t protect me.  Don’t, for God’s sake, manage me.  This is why this managed economy and culture must have seemed like such an outrageous imposition.  Russians, like they have a clue!  Managing the world for us, please! 

And this may be why they were first out of the Soviet box.  The conventional notion, I know, is that Stalin, to get Poland in place, was obliged to give farmers and small enterpreneurs the right to keep some, more, of the value they created than was allowed in other parts of his gulag.  So a talent for capital accumulation and management was there, and not snuffed out.  But I wonder if there isn’t a talent for dynamism was there first.   Why is the world so very comforting with our stereotypes in place and so much more  interesting when we give them up?  No, it’s not rhetorical.  I’m asking.  Or as we say in New York City, "I’m asking here!"

And the low point of the day.  I stood at the station where 300,000 Jews, all of them, as nearly as I could tell, from this very neighborhood, borded a train and were transported to camps.  This is not a place you want to be, a human forced to bear witness to the horror of which his species is capable. 
And it’s not the place you want to be if you are even a little empathic and you can imagine what you clothes smelled like as you were brought aboard.  You are overdressed!  But of course you are, because your body is now a means of transport.  Pack what you can, wear what you must.   The capitivity starts here, in the heat coming up. What else?  What more?  Apparently, the Nazis kept up the fiction of  "relocation" until the very last.  You are talking, terrified but talking, you are managing your emotions and those of your mother, your father, your children, everyone is pitching in, everyone is freaking out. It’s not so bad.  It’ll be okay. 

4 thoughts on “Warsaw

  1. Carol Gee

    Thanks for the visit to Poland and the Poles. A little booze and cigarettes were not bad additions to this “experimental” post.
    Your time abroad has enriched your readers, and – I’ll bet – you, too.

  2. debbie millman

    hi grant–i was in warsaw the year before last and you described the experience so heartbreakingly accurate. thanks for a great post.

    p.s. SMOKING?????

  3. Peter

    Grant, very interesting post.

    I think there’s a social energy and a confidence that comes to a people who overthrow an oppressor and take charge of their own national destiny. I saw this first in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, a country which achieved majority rule and legal Independence in 1980 after 90 years of struggle against white-minority rule. This national confidence may appear even when, as arguably happened in Poland’s case, the successful overthrow of colonialism is initiated in the metropole, and not in the colonies.

    For the last half of the 1980s, the Government of the Soviet Union (under Gorbachev and his team of reformers) was significantly more liberal than most of the USSR’s client regimes in Eastern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, for example, the communist government in the last years before its downfall in 1989 tried to ban radio broadcasts and newspapers from the USSR!! As so often with colonialism (eg, Britain in India, France in Algeria, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique), freedom comes to the colonies only after a change of regime in the mother country.

    So the pizazz you witnessed may have its roots in centuries-old Polish national character, or it may be due to more recent events. As with most cultural effects, probably both these causes (and others) are at work.

  4. Tom Guarriello

    Transmitting on all frequencies, just in case…very nice. The train station…just enough horror to be disturbing. Looking forward to dinner when you get home…should be fascinating.

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