After years of taking care of each other, our personal and professional goals, my wife and I have finally decided to start a family. At thirty-eight, we’re excited and scared alike. I lie awake at night wondering if I’ll be a good father. The impending parenthood has made me acutely aware of changes taking place all around me. In Los Angeles, where we live in Mar Vista, a neighborhood adjacent to Venice, the process of gentrification is underway at an alarming speed, or so it seems. Young couples pushing strollers are replacing elderly Asian and Hispanic immigrants. Mid-century bungalows are being torn down to make room for condominiums. Is Kraków, Poland, where I was born and raised, changing as quickly as I am, too? In an interview he gave in 1984, J.M. Coetzee expressed his belief that “people can only be in love with one landscape in their lifetime. One can appreciate and enjoy many geographies, but there is only one that one feels in one’s bones.” His Karoo. My Kraków. A mutt like me is more than happy to perform his variegated identity for anyone interested in listening, though I can’t help but wonder what it would mean to raise my child the way I was raised and how historically and geographically impossible that feels. Maybe that’s why I turn every visit to Kraków into a scavenging hunt and truly leave no stone unturned, so that I could finally let it go.
A lot has changed since my last visit to Kraków’s UNESCO-certified historic center, which lay dormant for much of my childhood, even though I was born in a hospital not far from it, and its easternmost district, Nowa Huta, where I grew up. For one, it was winter then. I spent most of my time indoors. I gained weight. But the snow has since melted, and so have my uncertain footprints. Yet I needed no map to get here, unless you count the one in my imagination. This is not a stretch. Like a paper map, imagination creases and tears, too. It has its horizon; its East, West, North, and South. Blotches of color designate its valleys and peaks, even the lazy river full of stones I liked to skip as a child. Sometimes, my imagination refuses to be folded up and put away between the past and the present. It wants me to remember what it cannot remember itself. I’m thinking of that now, as the red-hot digits of the taximeter tick on by. This journey is horizontal, from A to B, yet I feel I’m moving up and down instead, roller-coasting in a rusted cart, strapped in by time rather than by a friendly hand.
The rain’s stopped. The rubble of the tumultuous past has been cleared away, the streets tidied up, though the clouds look no less menacing than they did thirty years ago. The air smells of exhaust and freshly-cut grass. Taking deep breaths, I think of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. When Gombrowicz arrived in Berlin after twenty-three years in Argentina, he smelled death in the air—that is, the smell of Berlin reminded him of Poland. It was a sign that he’d come full circle as a man and writer. He never crossed into Poland, despite being very close and having received signals that such a visit wouldn’t be entirely out of the question. He himself, however, didn’t lift a finger to see his old country, not to mention his family. What was he afraid of—the confrontation between his memories and reality? After all, his entire philosophy was based on his ideas about displacement and identity vis-à-vis a world that no longer existed, which is why he clung to childhood and immaturity. How else could one possibly come to terms with the destruction and disappearance of his other half? He became an outsider with an insider’s intimate knowledge of the country’s customs and shortcomings, which he ridiculed endlessly. But I don’t think he was as much about cleansing the country and its people as his own memories of it all. He was an orphan whom his native Poland made ill, but he had no choice than to keep returning to it in his writing, even if each return meant that more blood would be spilled.
Nowa Huta, or New Steel Mill in Polish, has a complicated pedigree. Founded in 1949 as an independent city for the purpose of housing workers employed by the newly built steel mill, it was incorporated into Kraków within two years. The relationship has been strained ever since. To inhabitants of Kraków, many of whom saw and continue to see it as the bastion of high-brow culture and academicism, having a mostly working-class district on its eastern flank was viewed as an affront, a conspiracy by the communists bent on diluting the city’s conservative values. I know people who’ve lived their entire lives in Kraków and have never set foot in Nowa Huta, even though it takes only twenty minutes by tram or bus to get there from the Old Town. Clearly, the smoke stacks—many now defunct, since the Lenin Steelworks hemorrhaged its workers during the political and economic reforms of the 1990s—don’t belong in the same picture as the old churches and tourist-filled cafes.
The district’s history has become a kitschy souvenir.
Yet there is this other part of Nowa Huta that hardly gets mentioned. Nowhere else will one find so many parks and playgrounds. While apartment blocks dominate the landscape, there are also plenty of open spaces and boulevards. Those who built this place or worked at the mill still live here, but the place has also seen an influx of young families, for whom the draw is not the utopian-sounding names of the individual neighborhoods—“Sunny” or “Colorful” or “The September of 1939 Heroes”—but the lower cost of living, and access to many schools and daycare centers. Over two hundred thousand people live in Nowa Huta, making it Kraków’s most populous district.
The district’s history has become a kitschy souvenir. People too young to remember the Lenin statue that adorned its main square, or events connected with Solidarity and Poland’s transformation to democracy, buy and wear t-shirts that feature the statue as well as other slogans and images—among them “I love NH,” with a bright red heart in place of the verb—meant to commemorate the struggle for freedom in Nowa Huta and revise the overall reputation of the district. The images, skillfully designed by artists, have become ubiquitous around the city, not unlike the iconic image of Che Guevara—alongside Bob Marley’s—on college campuses in the States. It’s a small victory for the district, to be remembered as one of the places where the wheels of Communism fell off.
My wife and I own the same Nowa Huta t-shirt. It’s black, with a white-and-red image on the front, which not only creates a sharp contrast with the rest of the shirt but also calls to mind the Polish flag. The image depicts a confrontation between riot police—in helmets, wielding shields and nightsticks—and an angry crowd of protesters, all in the shadow of the Lenin statue towering over the scene. Whoever is wearing it may or may not know much about the events, or may only care about being hip and trendy, but the shirt nonetheless speaks volumes about the owner’s desire to identify with a particular time, if not a particular place. In my case, the shirt reminds me of where I come from; I wear it for myself, mostly, as its message doesn’t register with my American friends, who have no way of knowing what “Nowa Huta,” which is spelled in large letters above the image, means or is. It also reminds me of that evening long ago, when I walked a girl home, and saw with my own eyes history in the making.
This was in the fall of 1989. Darkness shrouded our route, adding to an aura of impenetrable gloom that hung over the city waiting for its first snowfall. The buildings’s dark windows seemed bent on swallowing us whole. After she disappeared behind the wood-paneled front door, which was very fashionable at the time, I hurried home. Although the communists had already relinquished power in Poland, street protests were still common, and my parents didn’t want me to loiter anywhere. At the time we lived in an apartment near the district’s main square adorned with the two-story-tall statue of Lenin wearing an unbuttoned coat, whose tails flared open, immortalized in mid-stride, with his hands clasped behind his back. Approaching the square, I noticed the streets and sidewalks littered with broken bottles and loose cobbles. The place was deserted, eerily so. People wanted Lenin gone so much that they threw things at the statue, including canisters of paint that now glistened in the faint moonlight, but he was still standing, all seven tons of him. Meanwhile, things only kept getting better, politically speaking, for people in our district, and soon enough even Lenin was gone, having been dismantled and removed on December 10, 1989. I’ve heard that he marches on in Sweden, where a businessman, with too much money and time on his hands, brought it in 1992.
It’s easier to sow discord and keep reopening old wounds than to advocate for dialogue and cooperation. The designers and printers of those NH t-shirts understand this all too well.
Yet the bed of roses, which has since been planted in place of the statue, can only go so far in erasing what may be gone physically but lives on in memory. The reason for that, in part, is Poland’s well-known attachment to its own historical misfortunes. So it’s perhaps for the better that the current generation of twenty-somethings reserves no such reverence for the past the way even my generation did, for while being constantly reminded of one nation’s collective history goes a long way in building one’s character and identity, it can also lead to the development of feelings of inferiority, a sure handicap in the world of globalization. Boosting the nation’s morale and calling Poles the chosen martyrs of the world notwithstanding, there is no shortage of demagogues in Poland, who prey on the country’s distrust of its former nemeses, mainly Germany and Russia, as means to achieve their own goals. It’s easier to sow discord and keep reopening old wounds than to advocate for dialogue and cooperation. The designers and printers of those NH t-shirts understand this all too well.
The second the cab crosses the unofficial border between the district and the rest of the city, I sit up and ask the cabbie to take the long way. He doesn’t say anything. Looking out the smudged window, the way we look for something that’s about to appear on the horizon, I tell him to go through the Central Square—which, to the locals’ dismay, has been renamed as Ronald Reagan Central Square—the heart of the old Nowa Huta, from which the district grew and expanded over the decades. The square and its surrounding neighborhoods are examples of social realism in architecture, projecting grandeur and social accessibility in a mix that’s both imposing and somewhat bland. The square is anchored by five boulevards, one of which ends at the gates of the steel mill, which itself sits at the top of a hill. I tell the driver to go that way, and he glances at me in the rearview mirror, then at the meter, before uttering a mumbled “as you wish.”
While the mill used to employ tens of thousands of people from all over the city and the surrounding towns, it is no longer the economic engine of the region. What interests me more, in any case, is the man-made lake, or a spillway of sorts, and the aquatics complex where I learned how to swim, both of which sit just off to the left of the road, a little more than half way between the Central Square and the main gates of the mill. This lake, framed by a walking path, has always been popular with anglers and families. It’s Nowa Huta’s Central Park. The island in the middle, sitting slightly closer to one bank than the other, is the centerpiece of the thing itself. Overgrown with tall willows, and other trees, whose names I don’t know, it provides a sanctuary for the resident swans. Does anyone live on the island? I used to ask my parents when I was a little boy. Back then one could rent a kayak or a rowboat and get very close to solving the mystery, but I never did. I wonder if that’s why the lake remains the one and only place in Nowa Huta that I never fail to visit on my annual trips, as if it were some kind of invisible anchor, or the source from which my life has sprung.
I relied on the baggage of Polish history and culture to shape and sharpen my identity, especially vis-à-vis the continuous onslaught of American pop culture (“where do the people whose laughter we hear in sitcoms sit?”) and typical teenage showing-off.
Tradition—I think that’s the word I’m looking for. Identity, too, perhaps, or even historical consciousness. When I come to the lake first thing in the morning, I think of its placid surface as a mirror reflecting not just the tall trees growing around it but also the people and their experiences. The retirees playing chess or cards—what an iconic image!—would they wager their past for a chance at an opportunity to live a different life? They seem tied to their stools as much as to this place.
When I first came to the U.S., I was surprised by how little my high school peers knew about their country’s own history and that of the world, including neighboring Mexico and Canada. They would ask me if I’d heard of pizza or knew how to play basketball. With my pride wounded, I’d come back at them with a short lecture about Poland’s illustrious history and contributions to arts and sciences. Copernicus? Kościuszko? None of them rang the bell. How about John Paul II? Marie Skłodowska-Curie? No luck there either. I was outraged that my American friends knew so little about the world, my world in particular, yet proceeded to quiz me about various trivialities and then cap our conversation with a offhanded retelling of yet another Polish joke.
It took me years to understand that those teens, and even their parents, many of whom exemplified the same kind of affable ignorance, lived in the moment, while I relied on the baggage of Polish history and culture to shape and sharpen my identity, especially vis-à-vis the continuous onslaught of American pop culture (“where do the people whose laughter we hear in sitcoms sit?”) and typical teenage showing-off. I envied their being freed from taboos, at least on the surface, for even when they talked about the mistreatment of African Americans and other minorities, including the purging of Native Americans, they always saw their glass as half full rather than as half empty.
Come to think of it, my time with the girl I walked home that autumn day in 1989 was no less poetic, though it ended rather quickly: soon thereafter she dumped me for another boy and it was his turn to walk her home after swim practice. Less than five years later, I arrived in Southern California with a bag of clothes that included three pairs of shorts that were too short to wear in public and a winter coat that would never again see the light of day. I hung a Polish flag on the wall and wrote “I wanna go home” on it with a permanent marker. As an undergraduate, I studied—what else?—history. Soon after graduation, the Polish flag, which I had carried with me from one apartment to the next, was put away in a storage box, where it remains.
My parents’s apartment hasn’t changed much, though now that all the kids have moved out, it feels slightly bigger, or emptier. The TV is on in one of the other rooms—I can hear bits and pieces of the dubbed dialogue. It’s an American-made show, I think, but couldn’t really say what it’s about—a murder mystery perhaps, an episode of CSI Miami.
Telling my parents about D. and Los Angeles, I often say “back home,” and eventually catch myself wondering if that’s inappropriate. In a way, my idea of home has long been decided: it’s wherever D. and I live. Yet I can’t deny that after a week, roughly the time it takes me to get over the jetlag, Kraków also feels like home because my family and friends treat me as if I’d never left.
This feeling of being torn between two places isn’t exclusive to immigrants. In her essay “On Going Home,” Joan Didion feels equally conflicted between her allegiance to her new, married life, and the world of her childhood and parents and their much less worldly concerns, most of which revolve around the small town gossip of who’s been caught drunk-driving or who’s ended up in a mental institution. Even though she had a good childhood, she tells us that for a long time after leaving home “[…] some nameless anxiety colored the emotional charges between me and the place that I came from.” With each day she spends at her parents’ place, Didion begins to find her present life in Los Angeles more remote, as if her past were pulling her into a hide-and-seek game. She ends up driving around her childhood town, taking stock of what the time has done to the place. Or is she simply restless? Sometimes, when I fall into one of my melancholic states, I think of simultaneously driving the PCH and catching one of Kraków’s trams, and somehow still getting to where I need to be on time.
So how did it get here? I simply had no choice—my desire to feed the other half of my identity is stronger than I am. My wish to assuage the cries, whispers, and pleas I hear within me goes against Claudio Magris, who, writing in Microcosms, says that “each identity is an aggregate and there is little sense in dismantling it so as to reach the supposed indivisible atom.” But it’s precisely the madness of my inchoate internal compass reading that keeps sending me out on the road; the visits, even those only imagined, allow me to come to terms with the elsewhere in me. The scaffolding we erect about ourselves to keep the burden of the other within us from disrupting our carefully-designed lives can only be penetrated by physical contact, which is also the moment when we discover that everything we’ve been imagining actually has its own, very real place under the sun.
Will my daughter care about where I came from? Will she want to see Kraków and maintain relationships with her Poland-based relatives? I hope so, though I’m equally passionate about not projecting my hyphenated identity onto her. Let her discover her genealogy on her own. I’m still sorting and sieving through mine.