Before we go to Poland, memories of ways my life has brushed up against its people…
In 6th grade everyone brought dishes from our cultural background to share. I had never seen a beet. A taste of Adam’s borscht and I had to run to throw up in the girl’s bathroom.
‘Pollack’ jokes, before blonde jokes were a thing (and usurped much of their content). We had no cultural context for them.
Ricki went to our church, she lived for a long time down the trailer park but for a little while with us. After I had left home. She would sit, a tiny lady with big smokey glasses in the big maroon chair, wearing her powder-blue flowered dressing gown. She would smoke and do paint-by-numbers and talk about everyday things. I loved her laugh. She owned a polka bar in Chicago she told me once, in the basement of a tenement and all was well until the mob approached her with a sharing-of-space and acting-as-a-front deal she couldn’t refuse. She didn’t, she sold up when she could. Moved away, far away, right away to Tucson Arizona. I never knew if I believed her, sometimes I wonder if I remember it right at all. But I always imagine with pleasure a smokey neon-lit polka bar and Ricki presiding over it all in polyester. Better than a trailer and a son-in-law who scared me with his unfocused eyes and unfocused words and whip thin body and scars and the oxygen tank and the anger he trailed though his 30s.
Mrs Ross, Auschwitz’s numbers tattooed across her arm. Manny used to do handy work for her, and often we just went for chat and latkes and fish cooked in ways I had never encountered before. Sweet and salty and tomatoed. Almost blind, her house lay shrouded in low light to protect the fragility of her eyes in all their enormity. Peering around I would drink in a European house of fringe and velvet and wallpaper. A house like none I had been in before. She fit the house, with high necked ruffled blouses and a touch of lipstick always, her hair coiffed though everyday it seemed wispier. A contrast to heavy jewelry. Clip on earrings. She would grasp my arm with her tiny hands and cast up her eyes to the dim ceiling and say Poland! Oh, how beautiful it was! The drives and the summers and the trees and the parties … I remember so little. Too little. No town name, no markers for me to find, to share these loved memories with her. Only Auschwitz, the murder of everyone she knew, but she never talked about that. Only about her work translating for others after the liberation, into Russian and a more broken English. I remember my surprise at her scorn for English arrogance and preference for the Russians, and I remember her trouble adjusting to America. Oh, Poland she would say. I loved her, loved her enthusiasms, loved her expansive gestures and exaggerated sayings and sighs. Oh Poland, I can hear her saying. The most beautiful place on earth. The most beautiful place to be young.
She never went back.
An old coworker in Glasgow, beautiful, blonde and so smiling, so kind. Until we started talking about Arabs. Her ex-boyfriend with such white teeth, such a pretty face, such frightening eyes and all he wanted to be was a police officer. My discomfort drinking his round of pints. He hated more than Arabs.
A more recent coworker, also lovely and smiling. She always had a warm hello, a meaningful how are you. She blamed more recent immigrants than herself for problems with the NHS and felt they should be denied health care, felt happiness when Cameron was elected, leaned to the right in all matters. So it surprised me to look over her daughter’s first communion pictures after months of updates on the trip back to Poland, the dress, the party — only then staring in surprise did I discover her daughter’s father was West Indian. She knew I would be surprised too, and that I would have to unpick some of my own assumptions.
Stanislaw Lem, so rarely found in used bookshops by my father, and carried home as treasure. My universe expanded with him. Bruno Schulz, my own treasure, inspiration for one of my novel’s chapters that I love the most. Stuart Dybek newly discovered, Chicago’s working class Catholic mix of Polish and Mexican and crystalline prose. Others that I am now discovering.
I am looking forward to visiting this place, and we are off today.