Urban Landscape with Student Party

It is early evening, and Michelle and I are crossing the traffic circle where Nowotki Street intersects Źródłowa and Strykowska, on our way to a party hosted by Violetta Chląd, one of the fourth-year students. Classes are done for the year, the weather is warm and clear, and the American literature exam is still two weeks away, so I’m in a mellow mood. Besides, Jacek Szymański says Violetta throws a good party. We have brought the last of the Russian champagne purchased in November for $1.80 a bottle, and six red roses purchased from a sidewalk vendor for twenty cents each.

In the field adjacent to the circle, in the lengthening shadow of a smoke-smudged factory wall, stands a horse-drawn hay rick. A farmer and his family are loading grass they cut, to judge from the unevenness of the stubble, with hand scythes, commonly used implements even in 1990. Using wood-toothed haying rakes and a wooden haying fork, they gather the ragged rows of sweet grass into small piles, which are pitched one after the other onto the rick. The adolescent son rakes, his father pitches, and his mother, in a printed cotton skirt and a dark, dirty sweater, stands atop the rick, treading each forkful onto the cart, building gradually up and out, so the top of the load overhangs the cart. Periodically the farmer borrows his son’s rake to trim overhanging shag, gather it in another small pile, and toss it up to his wife. When not drawing the wagon from one stack to another, the horse grazes absentmindedly on stubble. A Dalmatian chases insects kicked up by the raking. Though the grass has been curing for a couple of days, all this raking and tossing fills the air with the country smell of fresh-cut hay. The long, low light of late afternoon washes the scene in the warmth peculiar to that time of day, and for a second I think I’ve wandered into some nineteenth century landscape… or one of those village scenes, painted just last year in the style of the Old Masters, sold in Łódź art galleries for $20.

Near village of Nowy Świat

In fact, many components in this scene could easily have come from a Constable painting. The rake handle is not the smooth lathed dowel found on American garden tools, not any machine-made form at all, but the stripped trunk of some young pine, full of knots and bumps, hand-polished with grease and dirt and sweat to a soft yellow. The fork is hand-crafted. The wagon, all wooden and ramshackle, must be a century old… except for the automobile tires which have replaced the Old Masters’ heavy wooden wheels. This too is common in Poland: in the Stary Rynek of more elegant cities like Warsaw and Kraków, you often see horse-drawn carriages for hire to western tourists, their drivers spiffed, their carriages spit shined, their horses dressed and groomed, the way it’s done in Vienna or New York. Then you notice those four balding automobile tires and think to yourself, as you often do in Poland, “Well, that’s the general idea…”

Every component of this scene is in fact quite familiar to me, fragments of various half- remembered landscapes brought into jarring juxtaposition in the middle of Poland’s second largest city. The horse I have seen before, and perhaps the wagon as well, filled with turnips and cabbage in early fall, loaded with coal in late October, hauling paving stones up Źródłowa earlier this spring. The owner lives in Bałuty, north and east of my flat, a very old section of Łódź. He lives in a one-story wooden building on Ulica Sporna, a house with green shutters, no paint, a tar roof, and red geraniums in the windows. He gets his water from a backyard well, which is something else you often see in Poland: weathered wooden single-family dwellings still without municipal water service hunkering atavistically among the blocks of encroaching six- and seven-story high-rises. “The buildings will be demolished next year anyway,” conventional wisdom goes, “so why bother with city water?” And next year comes and next year goes in this country always in some stage of incompletion, and the wooden buildings remain, with their well and sewage trench running to a gutter in the street. Where this man farms, I can’t imagine, unless it’s well out of the city; excepting a few parks and a section of those small family garden plots found in all European cities, Bałuty is all flats and shops built on ghetto rubble. Maybe this is why he cuts hay in the field beside the traffic circle in the middle of Łódź.

I have seen haying before, of course, along the ditches of rural Minnesota roads and on ranches in the Dakotas, and haying is familiar to me from Hamlin Garland’s descriptions of nineteenth-century haying in A Son of the Middle Border, and Donald Hall’s description of early twentieth-century haying in String too Short to Be Saved, and Verlin Klinkenborg’s fascinating account of later twentieth-century haying in Making Hay. Lately I’ve seen Polish haying in front of my flat, where every afternoon a man has come to scythe a swath of lawn and carry a wicker basket full of clippings to his garden patch across the street.

This spring I observed through the windows of passing trains the gathering of first-cutting hay in the Polish countryside, as last fall I watched the final cutting: the interplay of man and animal (seldom man and machine), the simple wooden contrivances (often broken and often mended) commended by neo-agrarians like Wendell Berry. The potato-shaped, earth-encrusted men and women. The long, ragged lines of raked grass. The careful mounds of gathered hay running the length of a narrow field, shoulder high to a short man. The hand-bound sheaves of grain, shocked as in a Currier and Ives print. The patient horses and the wooden carts come to gather grain and grass. The hay stacks themselves, pitched around a central pole pointing twelve, fifteen feet into the air, rounded loaves of matted vegetation like loaves of brown chleb, or the huts of some South Sea Islanders, or the stacks Monet painted again and again for sale to the wives of new-made Chicago millionaires.

Sienkiewicza Park, Łódź

No Pole, I am sure, gives a second’s thought to the curious scene in front of University Church at the traffic circle: horse and rick, cars and trucks, the farmer and his family, Dalmatian, trams 6 and 17 and 23 clattering north and south, buses 57 and 51 and 80 east and west. The gray cement walls and dirty glass windows of six-story apartments at Nowotki, the shops, the street venders, the University dormitories looming obscurely in the background.

I too am quick to transcend the moment, intent as I am on Violetta’s party, and on the larger student celebration, Juvenalia, held annually between the end of classes and the beginning of exams: three days of party to cap a semester of parties before three weeks of serious studenting. Previously festivities were underwritten by the Party’s Youth Club, but the Party is not as flush this year as of old, so students must provide for themselves. Still, every lounge on every floor of every dorm is booked for one “occasion” or another, streets are awash with beer and vodka, and students in wild costumes prowl the alleys. The dorm quadrangle rings with jazz, blues, and rock-n-roll. “You should have been here yesterday,” somebody tells me; “Janusz is in a band, and he was playing blues.”

Violetta’s party is deluxe by Polish standards. Of course she and her friends have prepared several trays of kanapki: slabs of brown chleb covered with thin slices of cheese, boiled egg, cucumber, kiełbasa, lettuce, tomato, pickle. She has stocked the standard Pepsi Cola, Polish vodka and Bulgarian red wine. But somewhere in Łódź this spring of 1990 she has found wines from Hungary, France, and West Germany. And American gin. And three different kinds of Polish beer, including Żywiec beer, Poland’s best, brewed in the south, not easily found in Łódź. Her Panasonic boombox plays up-to-date Western music, mostly disco, including Top Forty tunes like “Lambada” and “La Bamba,” and Tina Turner, who is very hot in Poland right now. Music ricochets off plaster walls and ceiling, Sławek Wiesławski’s tripped-out dachshund skitters around the room, and the students dance, dance, dance: jitterbug, versions of the bump, tamed down lambada. Their dancing is excellent, certainly to the standards Band Stand of the 1950s and early ’60s, when Dick Clark transformed dozens of South and West Philadelphia high school juniors into American teen stars.

In fact, this affair strikes me as a very American kind of party. Conversation drifts from one Western cocktail topic to another. One student wants to know the relative prestige of Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Another inquires about the status of Bellow, Roth, Vonnegut and Updike, the four contemporary American authors most taught at the Institute of English Philology. (Although their thesis year is upon them, these students have yet to enter the ’80s, or even the ’70s in working familiarity with U.S. writers. I suggest Kerouac, Kesey, and Bly among the older males, then tick off a list of women writers from Ursula LeGuin and Annie Dillard to Leslie Silko and Toni Morrison. They have not heard of a one.)

Inevitably talk turns to politics, to the New Poland, to the recent railroad strike in the northwest, to Lech Wałęsa’s as yet unannounced run for the presidency. “He does not speak very good Polish,” I am told. Speaking good Polish is apparently an important skill in anyone aspiring to the Polish presidency, although nobody has ever complained about the Polish of current President General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic intellectual, speaks very good Polish, and most of these students, like most of their teachers, support the Prime Minister. But I have come to sense a genuine class distinction between student-teacher intellectuals on the one hand and shipyard workers on the other, so I play the devil’s advocate.

“Never trust an intellectual to get the job done,” I advise. “Look at recent American presidents—while some have hired intellectuals to work for them, effective presidents have not themselves been intellectuals.”

“What would a Western leader think, talking to Wałęsa? This fat, rumpled worker…”

“What do you think fat, rumpled Helmut Kohl would think of fat, rumpled Lech Wałęsa? He is respected. Westerners see Wałęsa as the man who took direct action in a moment of crisis.”

“But he has no ideas, no plans…”

“How many boxes of bananas did the intellectuals bring into this country?” Michelle asks, shifting the focus of conversation from laborers to peddlers, a class despised by students and laborers alike. “Not a single banana, I can promise you that.”

“Bananas are not what New Poland is all about.”

“Bananas are exactly what New Poland is all about,” she responds. “I watched the New Poland being born, and I saw very plainly what people want: consumer goods on an open market. When the country opened up, that was the first thing Poles went for. You had peddlers hawking bananas on every street corner. Every trash can in Łódź was filled to overflowing with banana peels.”

“Bananas contain everything necessary to sustain human life,” Ewa Bednarowicz observes; “I personally have lived on nothing but bananas for days.”

“In Western democracies, people vote against intellectuals every time,” I continue; “even in France, and especially in America and Britain. I don’t know but that they’re right. Poland doesn’t need ideas, Poland needs…”

“…to Just Do It,” Ewa Ziołańska interjects as she dances by, echoing the slogan that has become something of an Institute motto ever since I wore a Nike T-shirt to American Culture lectures.

The soundtrack of The Blues Brothers blasts from the tape deck. “Hash Music!” somebody shouts. “The Rolling Stones! Janis Joplin! The Doors! This is the greatest music ever made!”

Violetta swirls sensuously by, eyes glittering, hips swaying, a kind of manic intensity to her being, a bacchante, a maenad, the spirit of the wind.

“I have seven different recordings of ‘Minnie the Moocher,’” Sławek tells me, apropos of nothing in particular.

“Leonard Cohen visited Poland several years ago,” somebody else says. “He was not well known, but people understood that he was popular in the West, so his concerts became a very big thing. The price of tickets rose from maybe 500 złotych to 10,000, which at that time was astronomical. You could not buy them. Only Party members and their fat wives attended the concerts. They did not know the songs, and they could not understand English, of course, but this was the right place to be. They applauded like crazy. I know a man who wrote his magister thesis on Cohen, and he could not even get into a concert.

“Then Cohen was interviewed for three hours on the radio by somebody who had never listened to his music, who knew nothing about him. Cohen was polite, but the man kept asking questions like ‘What do you think of Britain’s economic sanctions against Poland because of martial law?’ He didn’t even realize that Cohen was Canadian. It was very embarrassing.”

In spring 1990, Cohen bootlegs sell on Polish streets for about a dollar.

Sławek waits for a break in the music, moves to the center of the room calling for attention. “Please do not give the dog any more vodka,” he requests; “he’s had enough already. Thank you.”

Student group, Poznań, summer 1991

My hostess invites me to dance, but I beg off. “I’m not a good dancer,” I apologize. “Americans like to do only what they can do well, and you are all much better dancers than I. This is why my Polish has remained so bad, I guess: I am too embarrassed to practice.”

“The Japanese are like that,” she muses. “An Italian… an Italian will learn a few words and phrases and fumble along, always making mistakes, ignoring grammar, but somehow managing to make himself understood. The Japanese and the Americans are always so cautious. And the British…!”

I tell my story about the wife of the Poznań consul who mispronounced the Polish word for “pollution” into the Polish word for “wet dream,” complaining at great length about the “terrible wet dream problem in Poland.”

“How could you grow up in America and not know how to dance?” Violetta demands.

“I led a sheltered youth,” I tell her. “My father is a Lutheran minister. Instead of dancing to rock-n-roll, I played Beethoven and Mozart on the piano. Dancing did not interest me until the high sixties. And by then, dancing was not… a necessary preliminary.”

“That’s a good story,” she says dismissively.

We finish our wine, make our excuses, leave before midnight, before this party has even cranked up. Some couples have disappeared into dorm rooms, and reappeared from dorm rooms. One reveler has stripped to her slip. Violetta is dancing the lambada. Outside of Dom Studencki 2 somebody sings Bob Dylan songs. The accent needs work, but he has a good nasal whine on the refrain: “Hey, Meeester Tamboureeeen Mon…”

We should have been around last night: Janusz was playing blues.

Juvenalia has spilled onto Nowotki, watched by three-man patrols of jealous milicja (newly re-baptized into policja by the simple expedient of painting a po over the mi on their automobiles). A number 6 tram grinds toward me, but it is a ghost headed somewhere for cleaning or repair. Service ended an hour ago. We walk home, thinking that we have seen our students, finally, at their best, in a setting that gives free reign to their mad Slavic souls and the strengths of their character: improvisation, intensity, animation, emotion. How easily they wear the West, how kinetic they make it seem, how much like the sixties (a good time, which, I have come to understand, was not at all the West). If these people control the fate of the New Poland, the country will not only survive, it will flourish.

On the wall of an old factory not far from the dorms, I notice a bit of graffiti: a caricature of General Jaruzelski, the man who imposed martial law on Poland, the man in the black glasses, the President, the man also caricatured on Orange Alternative posters over the caption “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Here the General looks out a window beside a pot of geraniums, above the phrase “Love Me Tender.”

When we cross the traffic circle, the horse, the cart, the farmer, and his Dalmatian are long gone.

Graffiti, Łódź, spring 1990