When we first arrived in Poland, it was evening. Our director picked us up in Warsaw and then we took the very long and torturous ride 7 hours back to the city where we would be living, Poznan.
The thing is, Warsaw is technically only about a 3-hour-drive from Poznan. But back in 2001, the roads were mostly 2-lanes and big lorries and lots of small cars that it didn’t matter how rich or important you were (no, we were not rich nor important), it was going to take you 7 hours to drive approximately 195 miles.
And so we arrived to our first “home” in Poland around 3 in the morning.
I remember it very clearly. We drove down a very dark street and went through a very dark tunnel and emerged into a very bumpy parking area.
Huge gray walls surrounded us on all sides.
On the building closest to us a large spray of art was decorating the walls with the very colorful language “F (you can spell the rest) the Police!”
We took it all in.
We were 25 years old and full of great spirits of adventure. In fact, we probably thought—Awesome! We live in the ghetto. Can’t get any better than this.
Again—25. No kids. Full of adventure.
We grabbed all of our luggage and followed our director to a broken door that we entered through. If we thought the outside was scary-the inside was just as uniquely dangerous.
We tried to find the lights.
Finally successful in our search for light, we began the trek up the stairs to our first apartment—4 flights up. We had to stop and hit the lights at every level because they kept going out on us.
And then we came to our door.
Our door was just as run down as the rest of the building, so we didn’t hold out too much hope for the other side.
When we entered, though, it was lovely.
It was old. It was about 100 years old (the building). But the inside of our new home “flat-mieszkanie-apartment” was pleasantly warm and inviting.
I am not sure that the decorations had changed since the days of Communism.
Our phone was large and stationary and orange. And it didn’t ring. It went “Grrrrr. Grrrrrr. Grrrrr,” when someone would call. The first time we heard it, we had no idea where the noise was coming from or if we should be concerned. But eventually we followed the noise to the large orange box that turned out to be a telephone.
Again—even the smallest things, like phones, were adventures!
And, four flights up we had a piano in our flat. A piano! We later asked our landlord how he got a piano up four flights of stairs into our flat (you would have to see our stairwell to know that it was not possible to get the piano up that way—picture Ross from Friends and his “Pivot!” couch. Well, this was even more of an impossibility). He said that they had to take out the windows and then pull it up. Four flights.
And then we had huge curtains that hung from the floor to the ceiling. And behind them were hidden bookcases. I was informed that “banned” reading materials used to make their homes on the bookshelves behind what appeared were merely curtains for the windows.
I felt as if I had traveled back in time. Except—we were there 12 years after the Wall had actually fallen.
We heard stories—so many stories. But I’ll share more of those another day of what it was like to live through the times of Communism.
Our respect for Poland and the people of Poland intensified a hundred-million fold.
Standing in line for hours, as a child, to simply receive a pair of shoes that may or may not fit…It was something inconceivable to me. And yet, it took place merely a decade before.
One friend told us that it didn’t matter what was being distributed. If there was a line, you dropped what you were doing and stood in it because, even if you did not need it or could not use it, you could use it for bartering or trading with someone that might.
One of my most vivid memories of stories told was when our director told us that during the Christmas season everyone would wait for the announcement on the radio that brought the great news…No, not of the Savior’s birth! That was already known—but the news that the boat was making its way with fresh citrus to arrive in time for Christmas. Oranges. Fresh oranges. And how precious that cargo was.
From the moment I arrived in Poland, I realized that my spirit would not only learn to become humbled or more content…But I realized that I had a lot to learn about appreciating everything. Even the smallest of items. Like an orange.
A funny story we were told, and of course it was shared jovially with us, was that during one season toilet paper became scarce. And so they said you could always tell who had or had not according to their gait.
And, of course, we all laughed as stories were being shared. But I knew that every story told came with the history that at the time of the actual event, it probably wasn’t funny.
It made me appreciate the country even more.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Moving to any country as a foreigner is very difficult. And so we were not always whistling joyful tunes in Poland. Often times we were also stumbling around with angry pouts because it was so hard sometimes to even accomplish the simplest of things.
But that’s part of adventure, right?
The neighborhood where we lived didn’t have a grocery store nearby. Only small skleps (stores, except I added the s at the end…I English-ized sklep ;)). Our shopping took place like this: meat store for warm meat. (Dear Lord, please keep us healthy after eating said meat) Bakery for fresh goods. Little spozywczy for other necessities and butter and yogurt. The store, however, was so small that it was impossible to maneuver through safely. I am not a large woman and yet I would always manage to hit a yogurt or a jar of pickles or something and knock it down. And, of course, get charged for it. Forget the fact that the yogurts were stacked 12 high and to even take the top yogurt had the “Jenga” effect…Would it topple? Would it not? Every time I went shopping I wondered how successfully I would pull items from the shelves.
More often than not, I was not successful.
But it was even at these small stores where I was able to witness the beauty of simplicity.
You see, like oranges, chocolates were also special during the days when the Wall separated the East from the West. And it was on one of my many shopping trips that I saw a little babcia (grandma), probably in her 80s, buying a simple chocolate bar.
And then she asked the shopkeeper to wrap it for her.
You have to understand that the neighborhood we lived in was not under any circumstances a wealthy neighborhood. People lived very simply and had very, very little.
And to watch this precious babcia buy a candy bar, I knew came at a great expense to her. After all, we are only 12 years after the fall of the Wall. That is not a long time, folks.
And the shopkeeper was so happy to help her.
She took the candy bar and found some wrapping paper and took her time wrapping it as if it were the most priceless item to be found.
And the babcia put her treasure in her little, worn handbag and pulled out her coin purse, dumped the coins in her hand, and the shopkeeper counted out the coins owed.
The babcia left with her treasure and a huge smile on her face.
I left shopping that day with a warm heart and an even greater appreciation for simple joys.
Yes, when we arrived in Poland, in the dark, through the daunting tunnel, into the pot holes and dirt lot with the graphic writing on the walls, I had no idea that it would be in this same dirty neighborhood that I would see such beauty.
And that beauty is called contentment.
And that beauty is called simplicity.
And that beauty made up for the lack of anything we thought we may or may not be missing.
And that, my friends, was one of the most profound lessons I have learned in my life.
Our first neighborhood in Poland…
No, we didn’t take a photo in front of the “decorative” poetic wall
Believe it or not, at one time we actually had 5 people in a little Maluch-
4 of the 5 were guys! I was the only gal stuck in there.
More coal living…Except I didn’t have to shovel this coal.
It was brought down to the basements and then was shoveled throughout the day
so that the apartments in the building would have hot water and warm radiators.
Don’t worry, I’ll come back with more experiences at a later date. There is still so much to share.