Having turned 60 last month I should start taking stock of my life, making the reasonable assumption that the best is behind me (infantile baby-boomer assertion that “sixty is the new forty” notwithstanding). Yes, I am doing that, but such musings are not to be shared. A byproduct, which may be of some interest to others, is the assessment of the many nations and countries I’ve visited over the decades.
Let me focus on Europe. I am aware that the observations are sketchy, highly personal, and for that reason – untypically for my other contributions – there are no hyperlinks. I’ve been to all sorts of places in Asia, Africa and Australia. In all of them I was a disinterested observer, so emotionally detached as to make an interesting comment impossible.
My first foreign trip was in the summer of 1968. I was about to turn 14 when I traveled by train from my native Belgrade, on my own, to spend the summer with my family’s dear Polish friends, the Kaszynskis, in Lodz, “Poland’s Manchester.” It was an eye-opening experience. Those two months have left me with a rudimentary command of Polish that still includes the ability to pronounce reasonably well those tongue-twisting diphtongs. More importantly, I was able to experience – without being able to define it at that time – the yawning gap between the drab, neo-Stalinist state and the living society. Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginela (“Poland is not dead as yet”), the opening lines of the country’s national anthem, had a literal meaning in everyday life. Nobody liked the regime, and venerable professors as well as humble peasants took the time and effort to explain to me – a mere boy from a foreign country – that the Katyn massacre was in 1940, not 1942 (a key point of political as well as historical significance, as I realized later) and that the heroic Warsaw uprising in the summer of 1944 was crushed by the Germans because the Red Army (a mere ten miles away) let it be so for political reasons.
My hosts were divorced but living in the same small two-bedroom flat – a common East European story. Pani Krzystyna took me to dinner with her mother, a venerable old lady whose apartment was filled with many mementos of the inter-war era: a signed photograph of Marshal Pilsudski, her late husband’s cavalry saber and decorations, fading oil portraits of the long-dead family members, the Russian samovar from Tula (ca. 1880), and a grand piano with its own yellowish lamp above the keyboard. It was an evening filled with the old woman’s reminiscences about those bygone years, colorful and never boring, followed by her firm assertions – unrealistic at the time – that “this” cannot last. I am sorry she did not live to see that day.
Two weeks in a village near Radom with my hosts’ relatives acquainted me with the life of real peasants that I had never experienced in my native Serbia until that time. The final leg of the trip by rail was in a rickety, wooden-seat carriage, with still-visible imperial Russian markings on the faded curtains. The steam engine bore the 1913 German Schwartzkopff bronze plate. Such trivia are never forgotten. The hosts were working a 24-acre field (the ten-hectare limit under the communist regime) of rye and wheat with a pair of sturdy horses – they looked huge to me – and a host of mechanical accessories that would now belong to a museum of agricultural history. They were real people. No showers of course, but at the end of the day they washed their torsos and feet under the pump in the yard. The black-and-white TV was on for the evening news on the only channel available – state-controlled, of course – to a torrent of verbal abuse by all three generations in attendance. Special scorn was reserved for one Mieczyslaw Mecziak (some names remain etched in memory, absurdly), then-interior minister of the “Polish People’s Republic.” Then and there I understood that the same contempt was felt for the powers-that-be in a million other Polish peasant homes. In my adolescent way I grasped that “real socialism” was doomed.
Pan Stanislaw took me from Radom, with my hosts’ daughter Kasia, to Krakow and Zakopane for a week of sight-seeing and hiking. This was the Austro-Hungarian Poland, steeped in its ways even more than the rest, but more picturesque, and the food was more interesting. On a hike in the Tatra mountains, along the Czechoslovak border, I was befriended by a young priest, Romuald, an editor with the Catholic paper Slowo Powszechnie. Amazingly, he – too – took the trouble to spend some hours explaining to a foreign teen Poland’s special mission and the danger of succumbing not only to communism but also to western consumerism – in 1968! This may have been due to the fact that, back then, there were very few foreigners, let alone “Westerners,” in Poland – and Yugoslavia was considered eminently “Western,” not by virtue of its regime but by the ability of its citizens to travel freely everywhere. I am nevertheless grateful to this day to all those lovely people for taking their time to help me, however unwittingly, form my view of the world.
I loved Poland then, and I still do, with a passion. There is a Polish festival going on under my very window on Milwaukee Avenue outside the Copernicus Center, and I love the folk music even if it prevents my elusive jet-lagged sleep. It is a proud, brave nation firmly rooted in the sense of itself. The only problem which I could not sense back then as a teen, but which I fully understand now, is that Fr. Romuald’s “sense of a special mission” is a dangerous collective delusion. Poland expanded west in 1945, having been given historically and ethnically German territories in Silesia and Pomerania as a compensation for the lands lost in the east. It was a great power arrangement, not a Polish accomplishment. Another nasty great power arrangement resulted in three partitions in the 18th century, not to mention the horror of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939. Relying on the United States to uphold the European order in which Poland is an outpost of the Atlanticist “West” now is as flawed a strategy as it was suicidal to trust in the British security guarantee in 1939. Poland should learn to be a regular medium-sized deservedly respected nation, and damn the “mission.”