Poland

Warsaw, December 26, 1988

I was 18 and looking for adventure. My German friends would go cross-country skiing in southern Poland right after Christmas. I had to go. The cold war was still on and I had to go and see this scary place full of communists and secret police. We had a friend in Warsaw who would be our host and guide – a Polish boy who worked in Germany during the summer. He was friendly and down-to-earth. At 17 he had a very entrepreneurial streak. He would come to Germany, work all summer, and stock up on tennis shoes and jeans. Then go back to Warsaw and sell the shoes and jeans, and use money to buy a lot of beer and vodka and fun. Nothing like the communists we’d learned about in school.

We sat on the train for what seemed like days. Finally, I was in Warsaw. The next day we were exploring the old city. We stopped at a little cafe and I had hot chocolate. It was the best I’d ever had. It was like someone in the kitchen took fine milk chocolate and melted it into a cup but forgot to dilute it with water or milk. I loved it because I knew this would be wrong back home. Madonna was playing in the background. Somehow this didn’t seem communist.

We wandered around the center of town. We saw the 14th century squares and the city wall filled with shops. We found a magic shop selling with charms and items of the occult. My Baptist sensibilities were called into question. I saw the charms and potions and as conflicted as I was, it was fascinating. Despite the spiritual consequences my soul may one-day face, I bought some things. I could worry about that another time.

A few days later our friend’s mother drove us to Warsaw’s central train station, “Centralna”. She was an elegant intellectual woman. She looked too young to be the mother of a 17 year old. She drank and smoked and offered us beers. We would be taking the night train to Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains on the border with Czechoslovakia. A week of unsupervised cross country skiing and New Year’s Eve partying. The night before we had a long conversation about communism, Perestroika, martial law, and the future of Poland. She gave me Lech Wałęsa’s book “Solidarity” to read on the train. She said it would help me understand what was happening in the country and the ideology of her hero.

We were standing in the main hall of the train station. I needed to put my gloves in my bag and dig out my Walkman – yep, a mixed tape. I unzipped the top flap of the duffel and on top in bright red and white was the shiny new cover of “Solidarity”. Our hostess, standing next to me in a floor length brown fur coat, glanced down. I was oblivious, digging, and talking to my friends. She knew the security cameras around Centralna were watching. She knew that the smiling security guard or the older woman in the fur hat could be secret police informants. She knew that the book “Solidarity” was banned and she knew there were consequences if I was caught with it. She did something so simple and yet remarkable. She took her hand from her pocket and grabbed the edge of her coat. She flung it out, to swing it away from her leg so she could crouch down. On the way down, her coat surrounded my bag on 3 sides, shielding it from view. She acted as if I’d asked her to help me dig in my duffel. Looking into the bag as naturally as I was, she placed her palm on the cover of the banned book. With a fluid motion she slid it to the side and pushed it down, along the outside, to the bottom of my bag. Retrieving her hand, she didn’t take her eyes off of the clothes on top while she spoke to me under her breath. “That book is forbidden. DO NOT let anyone see you with it.” She stood up and continued the conversation she was having with her son, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Her point hit home all too well. I left the book in the bottom of the bag until we returned to their apartment in Warsaw some days later. I was too afraid to retrieve it.

Less than two years passed and Lech Wałęsa became the first democratically elected President of Poland. I still haven’t read the book, but I understand quite clearly why he wrote it.

That last night in Warsaw, we had dinner at our friend’s grandmother’s apartment. She’d never met an American before and I was like some kind of celebrity. We didn’t speak a common language but we talked with our translators’ help. Before I left she ran into another room and came out with an old coffee table book. The title in giant block letters, “WARZSAWA” and a black silhouette of a famous statue stood out from the grey canvas cover. I said I couldn’t take it but she insisted.

It’s still on my bookshelf and a prized possession. Every time I see it, I think of my time in Poland, of the full-length fur coat, of “Solidarity”, and of 10 days in Poland, over 20 years ago.

Poland

Kerry Cooper

North Hollywood, United States

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Artist's Description

I was an Exchange Student in northern Germany during the 1988-89 school year. I saw a lot of Europe that year including this trip to Poland.

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