29 Źródłowa was a middle-range Polish flat, beige cement walls on the outside, beige cement on the inside, not as modern and airy as the suburban residences some Poles have managed to construct for themselves around the perimeters of Łódź, not as high-ceilinged elegant as flats in surviving pre-war urban bloks, but larger and quieter than the apartments most Poles wait decades to acquire and more comfortable by far than the dorm rooms assigned to some foreign faculty and most visitors. It was “the Fulbright flat,” maintained by the University for Fulbrighters and British Council appointees, inhabited by my predecessors and my successors. Michelle and I assumed a proprietary attitude to which we were not entirely entitled, buying furniture and kitchen utensils (we stopped short of repainting the walls). I still remember 29 Źródłowa as home, residence for two of my fifty years on this planet, an important address on my list of addresses: 911 Delaware Road, 555 Delaware Road, 540 LeHann Circle, 930 N. Fountain, 700A East State Street, 245 Briargate, 2724 N. North Street, R.R. 1 Minneota, 29 Źródłowa, R.R. 2 Granite Falls.
The flat was on the first floor of a three-story building built after the war on a triangular plot of ground in a quiet part of Łódź, on the edge of the former ghetto. It fronted on a dead-end alley, entrance to which was restricted to residents. On one side was the Military Hospital; on another was a larger, higher and less attractive blok of flats; on the third side ran Źródłowa itself, a quiet and spacious boulevard leading from Strykowska past a public park (once the private estate of some long-forgotten industrialist; a flight of neglected cement stairs led from his crumbling fountain to the site of his long-gone mansion), past the bed of a dried up river, to the terminus of bus 57. Our living room window looked out on the hospital, on the hospital balcony, where patients and visitors came to smoke cigarettes at all hours of the day and night, on the small parking lot beside the hospital, where I parked my Skoda that second year in Poland. The window of my study looked out across a well-tended rose garden at the tan wall of the adjacent blok, where most afternoons of the fall and spring a young girl from upstairs played skip-rope games with her friends. We called her the “Good Morning Girl,” after her greeting to us Americans, which was the same morning, afternoon, and night, and probably the only English she knew. The kitchen window of our flat overlooked Źródłowa to the gardens beyond, eighty or a hundred contiguous plots, 30 by 50 feet, surrounded by a gate and hedge, privately owned, cultivated each weekend (and many weekdays) of the year by urbanites desperate for the country.
The outside walls of the brick and cement building were thick enough for Michelle to sit in the window bays on a long winter afternoon while blowing soulfully on a tenor saxophone (made in Elkhart, Indiana) we bought for $100 in a Kraków second-hand store. The iron bars which protected our first-floor flat from intruders also enhanced radio reception, and by holding my boombox close to the window I could, very late at night and sometimes just barely, pick up baseball, football, or NCAA tournament basketball games on AFN out of Berlin—the sounds of fairytale America left lightyears away. Those thick walls, the first-floor location, and drafty windows made the flat a chilly home, even in the summers, and especially in October, before the government turned our heat on for the winter. Michelle and I spent whole days sequestered behind the closed door of the kitchen, warmed by the lighted stove, eating, reading, drinking, playing a few games of rummy before scampering to the bedroom, ducking under multiple blankets, and shivering ourselves to sleep. Heat improved the place considerably (as it arrived late, it lasted long, so as October was overcold, May was overwarm), but even closing inside doors and drawing the thick tapestry cloth drapes could not cut drafts, which I tamed finally by stuffing rolls of newspaper into the cracks above and below windows, then covering the seams with duct tape. It didn’t help that the outside pane on the living room window was broken—it was broken when we arrived in September 1989, and it remained broken until we departed in August of 1991, a low priority item, apparently, on a long list of Things That Need Fixing in Łódź.
Still, I am thankful for those tall double windows, opening to the inside and painted bright white enamel (it was the multiple layers of paint, I think, which prevented them from shutting tightly): opened in the late spring, with the drapes thrown aside and the breeze drifting through white lace undercurtains, they admitted the sounds and smells of Old World Łódź, and hinted at the elegance of older European flats, the ones with huge rooms, elaborate plaster ceilings, parquet floors, oriental rugs, and antique cupboards, wardrobes, dining tables.
Our flat consisted of four rooms plus a bathroom, all opening off an entrance foyer which itself contained a closet and a bookshelf and might legitimately have been considered a fifth room. On the top shelf of the closet—buried beneath the cardboard boxes, string, tape, and wrapping paper we scavenged at every opportunity, I tucked a plastic travelers’ checks wallet with the $5,000 in U.S. currency ($100s, $50s, $20s, and, for gratuities, fifty dollars in $1s) we brought in September 1989. The closet was probably the first place a thief would have looked… if ever a thief had had opportunity to ransack the flat, which no thief ever did. In the closet we stored the electrical vacuum cleaner. In the closet I hung my denim Dylan jacket with the USNA patch on the right shoulder and the Sgt. Pepper patch on the breast pocket; then the brown cloth winter coat I bought in Warsaw for $4; then the suede coat I found in a Cepelia for $60; and finally the dark blue USNA pea jacket Steve gave me, which, with a black Russian fur hat, comprised my Hunt for Red October outfit.
The smallest room I claimed as a study; it contained a sofabed, a desk, and two sets of shelves. The shelves I filled with artifacts for use in American Culture lectures: a Sears catalog, two Southwest State catalogs containing fall and winter 1989-90 course listings, an Information Please Almanac, several Dr. Seuss books, two styrofoam Big Mac containers, a whiffle ball and bat, a genuine horsehide baseball, and a stack of Minnesota Twins plastic Coke cups with pictures of Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek. On the desk I set the manual typewriter I was lucky enough to find in a second-hand shop for $50 in October of 1989, and a stack of letters from home to the left, teaching materials and syllabuses to the right. The walls I papered with pictures of son, daughter, and friends. A large map of “Illinois Authors” and a calendar-poster promoting the Minnesota State University System constituted necessary ties to the States. This room was our guest bedroom, in which slept Ken and Robyn Luebbering, Wolfgang Drexelbauer, Norb Blei, Gabriele Jones, daughter Kristin, and Michelle and I while vacating the main bedroom for visiting parents. I’d give a great deal of money right now to be back in this room, pecking away on a letter to Steve or Kristin, on a lecture or syllabus, on a paper or talk for Poznań, Wrocław, Warsaw, Salzburg, München, York (England), Rach im Hochgebirge (Austria), or sunny Szeged (Hungary).
The bedroom was spacious, a good fifteen feet square, although the bed itself was a narrow double or wide single which sagged slightly in the middle. The room was furnished with a small bureau and two large wardrobes, both blonde wood or particle board. Otherwise it was mostly space, taken up initially by the trunk in which we brought our electronic equipment and audio and video tapes, later by two Soviet three-speed bicycles (heavy as steel tanks, they will endure to Judgment Day), a child’s rocking horse I bought in Central for $20 one otherwise unmemorable afternoon, and after March 1990, by a large birch desk I bought for $80 in a Cepelia on Piotrkowska. Michelle had long wanted a desk of her own, but even used furniture was scarce in Poland. I bought the desk as soon as I saw it, having no idea, really, how to get it home. Bus and tram were out of the question, although Poles are not too embarrassed to haul automobile fenders, television sets, and large children’s rocking horses on a tram. Łukasz Salski volunteered his Syrena, but the desk would have crushed it, I’m sure. Owners of larger vehicles were wisely silent. Folks around the Institute thought I could hire a “taxi truck,” but nobody had any idea how to get hold of one. I wasted the better part of an hour guestimating the time it would take for Michelle and me to carry the thing, perhaps 200 yards at a leg, up Piotrkowska (or some back street) and down Nowotki, knowing this would never work, realizing that even if it did, Michelle would be most uncomfortable with the stir it created.
Finally, in response to the obvious question directly posed—“Where to find a truck in Łódź, in this moment of street markets all over the city?”—the obvious solution presented itself, and betaking myself to Supersam Magda I approached a peddler who appeared to have just sold out of flour, or bread, or whatever he’d been selling. Would he, I asked in very broken Polish, take me and his truck to Cepelia, pick up this desk, and haul me and it to 29 Źródłowa? The $10 I gave him was probably more than he’d cleared all day, even after he paid the traffic ticket he received for illegally driving, at my instruction, several blocks up Piotrkowska to Nowotki. Within half an hour we were unloading said desk in front of a very pleased Michelle, and he had a good story to tell friends and family.
The bathroom was spacious and relatively clean: tiled floor and some tiles around the sink (a previous tenant, probably true Brit, had applied decals of violets and ducks and swans to the yellow tiles around the mirror; I never took the time to remove them), large white bathtub, clotheslines for indoor drying, hot water heater, trash basket, and cabinet for towels, sheets, soap and toilet paper if you had any. Michelle rearranged and reinforced the clothlines to support a shower enclosure made of two American shower curtains clothespinned together, and we added a large metal pail used mainly for a laundry basket, but also to store drinking and cooking water whenever water service to the flat was shut off, which was about every third month. I saw enough flats around Łódź, around Poland, to appreciate the size of this bathroom: in post-war flats, the bathroom is basically a toilet: back in and you can exit forward, but enter face first and you’ll have to back out. Ewa Bednarowicz claims (and her assertion is both corroborated by considerable other testimony) that most modern Polish girls lose their virginity in the bathroom, it being the only private place in flats or dorms. Accomplishing this in most Polish flats must require real agility, and can’t do much for the experience. Ours would have been positively luxurious, maybe even kinky fun . . . although no virginity was lost there, to my knowledge, during our stay in Poland.
The kitchen was small and inadequate, except perhaps for someone accustomed to New York or Los Angeles efficiency apartments. It measured five feet by twelve feet, with a low counter running length-wise along the long, exterior wall, and the sink, the garbage pail, the oven, and the refrigerator taking up the other long wall. At the far end was a clothes washer (ours was the only Fulbright flat in Poland to come with a clothes washer), which connected to the water faucet and drained into the sink when in use. At the near end stood a small table, useful only for preparing food: the room was far too small for chairs.
The sink was metal and often-painted, Midwest farmhouse circa 1920. There was no trap in the drain, and the sliding wood doors on cabinet underneath, painted moldy cream, had long ago rotted around the bottom. A plastic rack above the sink served for air-drying dishes. The sink was the most deficient feature of the flat, and we used it two or three times a day. The gas stove was perhaps 20 years old, its oven caked with years of grease. The refrigerator was small but modern, and even contained a tiny freezer compartment: American college dorm, 1983. A storage cabinet above the clothes washer had ripped loose before we came, its presence marked by a few mollybolt holes in the wall. Storage shelves, limited to the area below the window wall counters, were rendered largely inaccessible by the narrowness of the kitchen and the presence of the table and washer, so Michelle and I bought a new unpainted birch cabinet which we set atop the counter next to the window. In it we stored popular food items, glasses and dishes (more of which we also purchased, heavy dinner plates hand-painted in a floral pattern, imported from Vietnam), leaving the lower cabinets for bulk food items and for pots and pans. Eating utensils we kept in a tray set literally on the windowsill, next to the cookbook and a jar (later a “Kuwaiti [evaporated] Milk” tin) which held the cooking utensils.
In this less than an ideal kitchen, Michelle and I learned to cook. This had not been our intent before entering Poland: looking at the generous exchange rate and knowing our hectic lives in America, I’d dismissed the problem of eating rather airily: “We’ll just eat out,” I told a number of people before we left. When we heard that Sara Sanders and Steve Nagle on the night of their arrival in Warsaw dined on roast duck, delivered with all the trimmings to their hotel room, for $1 apiece, Michelle and I were ready for ten months of fine dining. “Łódź has to be even cheaper than Warsaw,” I told Michelle, “and they ate in a four-star hotel. When I worked that summer in Neuwied, Germany, I used to reward myself on Saturdays I worked overtime with a steak dinner at the best restaurant in town. Steak, fries, salad, desert was 4 marks, one thin buck, served by a waiter with a white towel draped over his arm. Man, those were the days.”
We ate in one restaurant, I believe, our first week in Łódź, a two-bit greasy dive of an East Bloc joint which was the only place still serving food at 7:30 p.m. on September 28, 1989, haunted by drunks and pan-handlers. The food was fatty pork and cold potatoes, the dishes were dirty, the service was almost self-serve. The following evening we tried the Grand Hotel (four stars) dining room at 5:00, but the entire facility, a waiter indicated, had been booked for some “occasion” (a word for “party” does not exist in Polish). We poked our noses into the dining room of another hotel, but left without dinner. Don Morrill had once mentioned a lovely little restaurant “on the outskirts of Łódź,” directions to which I still believe he left intentionally vague. We discovered the little Esperanto Café long after we learned to cook, about the time we finally figured out that Poles take their big meal early in the afternoon.
Even when we found them, even when open, even in Poland’s second largest city, restaurants were not offering much to eat that fall of 1989. I remember dining one Sunday with Krzysztof Andrzejczak in a restaurant at Żelazowa Wola, site of Chopin’s villa, now a lovely museum and a major tourist attraction. The waiter pointed to two items on a long list of entrées and said, “We have this and this, the pork and the chicken [naturally]: and we have only one serving of chicken.” To Michelle’s dismay, Kris ordered the chicken; to her further dismay, when it arrived, he declared it badly prepared and returned it to the kitchen uneaten.
We ate a lot of toast and jam, and more than once were reduced to making a meal on “frytki” (greasy French fries) and “zapiekanki” (tomato sauce, cheese and mushrooms on an elongated slab of bread, warmed—not quite baked—in a dirty toaster oven) at a train or bus station. We saw stands advertising fish, but they were permanently closed. For the record, the first hamburgers in Łódź were sold from a small window at number 56 Piotrkowska street. It opened in the spring of 1990.
It became quickly apparent that we would not simply “take our meals out,” that we had better stock our little refrigerator and pack our little cupboards and learn to fix something with which to repay those colleagues generous enough to host us at dinner during our first few weeks in Łódź.
Much of our food came from the American Embassy commissary, to which Fulbrighters were given access during 1989-90, owing to shortages on the Polish market. Michelle and I made almost weekly trips to Warsaw to shop, visit with Elizabeth Corwin, take a beer and some TV at the Eagle Club, and catch up on newspaper reading (for the record, English language newspapers, three days to a week old, arrived at Łódź newsstands in the fall of 1990, about the time five minutes of CNN headline news began appearing on Polish television). We were temperate, I think, in our use of commissary and check-cashing privileges (how else to get money into Poland?), unlike some Fulbright colleagues and many of the embassy personnel. Mostly we bought sugar, rice, tomato paste, wine and beer, spices, scouring pads, cleansers, paper napkins, spaghetti, and such characteristically American luxuries as brown sugar, chocolate chips, cheddar cheese, salad dressing, Oreo cookies, maple syrup, breakfast cereal, popcorn. For meat, vegetables, and cheese we relied on the local economy, especially a little 10×10 grocery on Nowotki run by two older women. This Little Old Ladies’ Store managed to stock lettuce, carrots, onions, potatoes, apples and bananas, butter, kraut, eggs, flour, other fruits and vegetables in season, and fresh chicken through the difficult winter of 1989-90.
Chicken was our specialty: in our grease-coated oven, in a grease-coated pan we roasted a chicken every fourth day, inviting guests if guests were to be had, indulging ourselves if there were none. One chicken made one meal, with a wing and a breast left over for lunch. The bones I boiled for soup: a little rice, carrots, a few onions, spices as available. Other evenings we did spaghetti (grinding our own beef in those early days) with salad and Wishbone Italian dressing. Some evenings we ate pancakes; others, omelets. Michelle learned to make lasagna noodles from eggs and flour, and thus her own lasagna. In the same deep pan we used for roasting chicken, I baked apple pies, using real butter for the crust. Of course there was always Polish sausage, and roast pork (a favorite of our British colleagues, although once a large and especially promising roast proved to be mostly bone, much to my embarrassment and our guests’ disappointment). Sometimes we ate bacon or ham, although good Polish ham proved to be something of a luxury in Poland, being mostly for export.
I have very fond memories of cooking in that little kitchen, of time spent preparing and eating food, of the luxury of having the time to spend preparing and cooking food. Of the anticipation of a good meal with good friends, and good wine and good talk, of the luxury of having plenty of time to entertain good friends with good food. The kitchen, and the dinner table in the living room, were part of the magic of Poland. And for all the eggs, cheese, and meat, my cholesterol level was lower when I returned from Poland than when I left the U.S.
Even during the October chills, the living room was the center of our flat, of our home life in Poland. The outside wall was hung with Jan Filipski paintings of old Bałuty, dangling on strings from curtain tracks. On another wall hung the landscape Michelle and I bought instead of a Christmas tree (which we could not find) in December of 1989, something under which to place our small gifts to each other. Below it was the green sofa-bed with a bad leg. Against the Źródłowa wall a shelf filled with books, and the dining room table, on which sat the short-wave radio which in 1991, brought hourly reports from Voice of America and BBC on the war in the Gulf. Along the fourth wall, a phone stand, a table supporting the Polish television and the American TV-VCR (with the Embassy’s voltage converter) and a cabinet containing audio and video tapes. A raggy black-and-white needle-punched carpet covered a stained parquet floor. Early in my first year I considered buying a new, large, colorful, machine-made but still all-wool oriental rug I saw in Central for $100, but discarded the idea as too gorgeous for a one-year stay. By the time we’d elected a second year in Poland, the carpet’s price had risen 300% and its size diminished by 50%. Had I foreseen the inflation of antique prices over two years, and my car ownership second year, and relaxed export restrictions and inspections, I would have bought half a dozen oriental rugs, and refurnished the living room in antiques from the Komis on Piotrkowska… another notion I toyed with in the fall of 1989, when antiques could be had for a song but could not, of course, be exported. Hindsight is so 20-20.
I remember our living room for the guests and dinners, of course, and for the tremendous party we threw to celebrate Kristin’s visit, a party to end all parties, Brie cheese and Diet Pepsi courtesy the New Poland, champagne and caviar courtesy the Old Russia, sound system by Sony, couples into and out of the bedroom, people from all over the world, me ducking out for fresh air around 2:00 a.m., returning 2:15 with a City of Łódź flag liberated from the hospital, Kristin astonished at “a whole new you, dad, I never knew existed.”
But I remember the living room mostly for long hours spent there with Michelle, watching a videotape, listening to an audiotape, reading books, playing double solitaire, working crossword puzzles, studying the almanac, listening to the radio, or dialing away at the telephone lines to Gabriele in Berlin. Or waiting for the phone to ring. Or discussing what we might do with a long, chilly winter evening. At such moments I was a child again, with enormous stretches of time to kill, and nothing much to kill them with. Łódź was in that regard a genuine sabbatical rest.
During our stay, everything in our flat broke at least once. Water was a constant problem: every other month, it seemed, a water main would break, and blue-uniformed workers would pry up the paving stones of the sidewalk on Źródłowa, shovel out the sand beneath, drop in a new section of pipe. The city would park a truck of drinking water beside the job site, from which inhabitants of effected flats would fill jugs, buckets, pots and pans. The first repair caught us short of containers, but we wised up, bought the galvanized bucket-clothes basket, and had no problem during ensuing repairs.
The gas water heater went twice; once it was fixed, the second time it was replaced. We heated water on the stove, and took baths instead of showers. The clothes washer went once, due clearly to a previous tenant’s abuse. The repairman fished from its rubber hoses and mangled pump a variety of articles, none of them ours, one a warped comb that had penetrated right through a weak hose. The doorbell ceased to work and was never repaired. The screen of the Polish black-and-white television set went blank early in 1990. I reported its demise to officials at the Institute, indicating that I personally didn’t much need a television, although a subsequent Fulbright might want one. In fall of 1989, Polish TV offered little beyond stale travel films, flat soccer games, and “talking heads” shows. By fall of 1990 Polish television had become more interesting, but the University had already sprung for a water heater and a refrigerator, and I didn’t want to be greedy. The refrigerator broke late in the spring of 1990, a failed compressor, probably overworked from being next to the stove. When we left Łódź for the summer, it was still dead as a brick, but Tom Bednarowicz promised to monitor the situation. A replacement arrived, finally, in September after Tom told University officials, “The Americans are coming back next week, and they’re going to be awfully pissed if there’s no refrigerator in their flat when they return.”
The phone died winter of our second year: no dial tone on out-going calls, no buzz on in-coming calls, no nothing. We reported its demise immediately and were put on a list of people awaiting phone repair. Estimates in January were a month to six weeks, since we ranked behind important facilities like hospitals, hotels, and government bureaus (probably ahead of most individual Poles, except those who dropped a few bucks on the list-makers), but we waited, finally, three months for the phone’s resuscitation. Crises domestic and foreign disappeared as if by magic: we were genuinely inaccessible except by mail, which was running about two weeks for an airmail letter between Łódź and the States, a month total for question and reply. At least we no longer sat around waiting for the telephone to ring.
I was naturally impatient with the delay, until one afternoon while walking along Kościuszki Street I happened upon an open manhole in which a man was working on telephone repair. Beside him was a cable probably a foot in diameter, spun of thousands of tiny colored telephone wires, which he was checking, one at a time, connecting one after the other to a strand he held in his left hand, then dialing up some number on a phone beside him, waiting for a reaction, breaking the connection and trying another wire, and then another wire. I don’t know just what he was trying to do, but I understood why re-establishing phone service to 29 Źródłowa could take forever. I also understood how enormously difficult it was going to be to build a modern telecommunications network, the foundation of modern commerce, in Poland.
In retrospect, the dead phone becomes less irritating than it was at the time, a kind of emblem for our comfortable isolation. For years in my office at Bradley Polytech hung a poster of a man walking through the woods with his daughter, captioned simply, “Take Time.” It hung right over my desk with the Dylan poster, the Easy Rider poster, and the photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jack Kennedy. Of course I believed in the idea of taking time, as I believed in King and Kennedy, and Steve, Kris and I took time, whenever I could, for walks in the woods at Jubilee Park. But I never really took time in the hustling seventies, and I certainly never took time during the scrambling eighties. Lost time with my children is the great regret of my life.
In Poland, finally, of necessity, I took time. Time to walk the mile and a half to the Institute. Time to wander through street markets, to explore the alleys and parks of Łódź, to ride the rails and drive the Polish back roads to cities and towns and hamlets I never knew existed. Time to queue, time to think. Time to become involved, as I had been in the late sixties and early seventies, in the lives of my students. Time to cook my own dinner, to talk civilly and at length to friends. Time to play solitaire and read books and listen to tapes with Michelle. Time to do not much of anything. Time to take things “easy, easy.”
Taking time is really the core of any return to the past, and taking time is at the heart of nostalgia. It’s more than merely finding hours and weeks to remember and return, although return and memory do require time enough; it’s a matter of shucking the time-driven sense of urgency we picked up somewhere in our early teens. Our loss of innocence came precisely at that moment when we became aware of time’s iron grip on our lives; prerequisite to any return to innocence, however temporary, is some loosening of the reigns, a willed stilling of the false clock that ticks out our days.
Learning in Poland to take time probably added a decade to my life and five pounds of sugar to my disposition.
Taking time was, finally, what 29 Źródłowa meant to me, why it so easily became for me, why it will always remain for me, Home.