Saturday, April 07, 2007

My Vicarious Trip to Poland

When my 21-year-old son, Alex, told me he hoped to spend his spring break in Poland, I immediately felt squeamish. I knew full well why such a trip interested him. He was in the midst of writing his senior thesis play about the Lodz Ghetto and wanted to see it firsthand. But for me, the idea of such a journey conjured up frightening images—bleak Soviet-style architecture under gray skies, a plodding, unfriendly populace who resented American wealth and power, rabid anti-Semites just waiting to pounce on a nice Jewish boy like Alex.

"Why not Cancun?" I said, in a feeble attempt to make light of my concerns. Alex didn't bother to answer, instead offering the merest smile.

"I'm free that week," I ventured, taking another tack. "I could go with you."

Alex acknowledged that gambit with a baleful look before he replied, "I really want to do this trip on my own, Mom."

Though fearful, I admired Alex for his willingness to venture on his own to a such a foreign place. We agreed the trip would make a nice graduation gift, so I offered to let my travel agent handle the arrangements. To my relief, Alex acquiesced and the planning began. Nancy, though a first-class travel agent, didn't really know anything about Poland, let alone Lodz. She'd sent "a few people" to Warsaw, but no one further afield. She said she'd make some calls and get back to me.

While I waited to hear from her, I tried to reassure myself that the trip really was a good idea. After all, I told myself, this was 2007, not 1939. Poland was now part of the European Union. How backward could it be? It was a democracy now, I recalled, and one of the only countries that had actually supported the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq. In retrospect, a big mistake, but given that Poland had even sent some troops to Iraq, how anti-American could the Polish people be?

I was in the midst of this pep talk to myself when Nancy called back. She'd arranged hotels in Warsaw, Lodz, and Krakow, which she promised were well-located (code for safe), decent, and surprisingly inexpensive. So at least Poland would be a bargain. She also had set up tours for Alex in Warsaw and Lodz, plus a driver to take him from Krakow to Auschwitz, which he was determined to visit.

So there it was, we had a plan. Nancy emailed Alex and me the tentative itinerary. As soon as we okayed the schedule, which included train transfers from Warsaw to Lodz and then from Lodz to Krakow via Warsaw, Nancy would use my credit card to reserve everything.

Only the train connections gave me pause. The itinerary called for Alex to take a train from Lodz which would arrive in Warsaw in the late afternoon. He would have only thirty-five minutes from his scheduled arrival in Warsaw to make the connection to another train leaving Warsaw for Krakow. This seemed like precious little time between trains in a country I still pictured as hopelessly retrograde. If the Italians couldn't get their trains to run on time (a fact which I knew from unfortunate personal experience), how could I possibly expect Polish trains to function at all?

I allowed my imagination to run riot. If Alex missed the train to Krakow, he would be forced to take a later train, which would get him to the Krakow railroad station in the middle of the night, rather than the civilized eight pm arrival anticipated by the itinerary. And everyone knows that railroad stations are dangerous places. If my daytime visions of Poland were bad, my late-night fantasies were a thousand times worse. And what if there were no later train? Then Alex would have to wait until morning, meaning he would miss his already-arranged trip to Auschwitz. Needless to say, I immediately emailed Nancy and expressed my doubts about the close timing of the train connections.

Her reply was to the point: "The trains are very efficient there and these times between trains are standard—off one train and onto another!" I had no idea how Nancy had educated herself so quickly about the nature of Polish trains, and the notion of efficient service certainly didn't comport with my idea of Poland as a third-world country, but with her reassurance, I signed off on the itinerary. Little did I know that, although Alex's trip was still a couple of months away, my own vicarious journey was about to begin.


Alex had told me that Lodz is pronounced Woodj in Polish, something he'd learned in the course of doing research about the Lodz Ghetto. That unlikely pronunciation was pretty much all I knew about Lodz, or about the rest of Poland, for that matter. So when I mentioned Alex's trip to my sister, Janet, I was amazed to learn that she'd actually been in Poland during a mostly-Scandinavian cruise that included a stop in the port city of Gdansk.

"What was it like?" I asked, picturing, of course, a gray tableau of abandoned shipyards and cinder block buildings.

"It was pretty," Janet said. Pretty? "The city was basically destroyed during the war," she went on, "and afterwards was rebuilt in the old style. It was quite charming."

Charming? I knew Gdansk was the birthplace of Poland's Solidarity movement but I'd never imagined charming.

Soon after, I was talking to my friend, Barbara, whose daughter Eve has known Alex most of her life. When I told Barbara Alex was going to Poland, she said she herself had been to Krakow many years ago. She described it as a beautiful city, whose old town had been preserved. Even more surprising, she said Eve had a college friend, Marcel, whose family was Polish and who had spent summers between semesters working in Warsaw.

"Marcel told Eve that Warsaw is his his favorite city in the world," Barbara said. Really? In my mind's eye, Poland began to look a bit different, lighter, spots of color brightening the drab mental picture with which I'd begun. Barbara said maybe Eve could ask Marcel to give Alex some tips. I was delighted by the idea of a contact who had spent time in Poland, who liked Poland, who could tell Alex where to go and what to avoid.

I felt glad to have found two people I knew who had links to Poland, however tenuous. Their favorable descriptions made me wonder whether time, democracy, and capitalism had transformed the country into a more tolerant land. After all, Pope John Paul II, himself Polish, had denounced anti-Semitism and had even recognized the State of Israel. Since he was adored by his fellow Poles, his example must have had a profound impact in his native land. At least I hoped so.

As I struggled to come to terms with my nervousness about Alex's impending journey, one thing was clear. My fears were more about me than about Alex. He'd already spent a semester in London and during that time he'd traveled all over Western Europe, staying in hostels and other somewhat seedy locales. I knew he was smart and resourceful. But he'd always traveled with at least one friend. This time, he would be in Eastern Europe and he'd be alone. What if I didn't hear from him? How would I know whether or not he was okay?

Ironically, I myself had traveled alone in Europe when I was Alex's age. During the summer after my junior year of college, I flew to England with only a rucksack and explored the U.K. and the Continent on my own. Though I met up with friends at various stops along the way, I had no set itinerary and often wound up in out-of-the-way places all by myself. There were no cell phones back then and it was far too expensive to call long-distance on a land line. I think I sent my parents a few postcards.

During my travels that summer, I met some terrific people and did some pretty dumb things, like hitching a ride and then staying overnight with total strangers in Leeds, camping near Lake Como in Italy with two guys I'd just met, and visiting the Parisian garret of a Scottish playright who chain smoked Gauloises, coughed consumptively, and said he wanted to show me his manuscript. He did in fact show me his manuscript and I lived to tell the tale. But taking such risks myself was one thing. Regarding Alex, motherhood had turned me into an entirely different kind of animal—a fiercely protective one.

I knew Alex would understandably bristle if I pressured him to call me every day or, worse, to get the kind of cell phone that would enable me to call him. I suspected that this trip represented a rite of passage for him—a journey of self-discovery as well as an exploration of the destruction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. I hoped his trip would be a rite of passage for me as well. I needed to let go and let my son live his own life.

Meanwhile, Polish connections kept popping up. Over dinner with my friends, Gail and Jeremy, Jeremy mentioned that his brother, Adam, an alternative energy investor, lived in a suburb of Warsaw. According to Jeremy, Adam and his wife and son loved living there and, better yet, they loved visitors! A flurry of emails followed and soon Alex had been invited to spend an afternoon in Konstancin, which he later discovered is known as the Beverly Hills of Warsaw.

I was pleased about this development. The visit would offer Alex a close-up glimpse of life in Poland, ex-patriot style. Alex was as excited as I about this opportunity. He agreed with me that the more people he could meet in Poland, the more he'd learn about the place. Although he chafed at my over-protectiveness, he clearly appreciated my efforts on his behalf.

Belatedly, I remembered that another friend, Jeanie, had actually visited Poland two summers earlier on a quest to see property owned by her family before the war. So the next time I saw her, I excitedly broached the subject of Alex's trip.

"You might be interested to know that Alex is going to Poland," I said.

"Really? To Warsaw?"

When I began to explain about Lodz, she stopped me, exclaiming "Lodz! That's where my family's property is." She even pronounced Lodz in the correct Polish manner.

Jeanie was even more thrilled than I about this link and was anxious for Alex to meet some of the Polish people she knew in Lodz and Warsaw. Again, a flurry of emails ensued, and tentative plans were made. In the process, I saw Jeanie's photographs of both Lodz and Warsaw. People in the photos looked normal, the sky was blue, and there were modern cars on the street. I began to feel less nervous and more enthusiastic about Alex's upcoming voyage, and hopeful he'd have the chance experience Poland from a Polish perspective.

Around this time, Alex told me he had heard from Eve's college buddy, Marcel.

"Great!" I said, "Did he give you some suggestions for things to do in Warsaw, and maybe some restaurants?"

"Nope, just a list of bars and clubs to check out."

Strike one for connections. I paused, my head filled once again with visions of Alex alone, this time staggering out of some club in an alley at three am.

"Do you plan to . . .?"

Alex didn't even let me finish the question. "No, Mom," he said, in a long-suffering tone, "I'm not planning to spend my time in bars and clubs."

* * *

Alex's fourth day in Poland found my husband, Eric, and me, along with our friends, Susan and David, on Florida's Tamiami Trail. After driving about an hour South of Miami, we turned onto the Loop Road, an unpaved twenty-mile circuit carved through the Everglades, about as far from Poland as I could imagine being. We drove slowly, stopping often to get out of the car and take a closer look. In natural canals next to the dirt road, alligators rested on fallen logs, others lolled languidly in the surprisingly-clear water, cormorants fished, and anhingas dried their wings.

Eric raised his camera to take a picture of a huge alligator, at least twelve feet long, resting on the opposite bank. As he did so, the reptile slithered off the bank into the water with a speed that astonished and terrified us. No fences protected us here, no theme park simulated the real environment. We were up close and personal, separated only by ten feet of water.

We hightailed it back to the car, laughing, panting, exhilarated. Further along, we came to the Sweetwater bird overlook, an amazing natural habitat filled with blue and white herons, anhingas, ibises, cormorants, even a rare wood stork. I glanced at my watch. Alex would be arriving in Lodz just about now. He had promised to call when he got to his hotel. I checked my cell phone. No signal. I was as unreachable to Alex as he was to me.

A while later, we exited the Loop Road and merged back onto the Tamiami Trail, continuing south toward Everglades City, where we planned to have lunch at the venerable Rod and Gun Club. I checked my cell again, hoping for a message. Still no signal. I endeavored to stay in the here and now of the sun-drenched river of grass stretching endlessly on either side of the highway, but part of me waited in the lobby of a run-down hotel on the main street of a once-thriving Polish textile-manufacturing city, watching for a slim, curly-haired American youth to walk through the door.

I gave up on the signal and put my cell back in my purse, resigned. A moment later, I heard its muffled ring.


"Hi, Mom." As if he were in the next room. "I'm at the hotel. Everything is great. I'm meeting Jeanie's friend Agata in the lobby in about an hour."

We talked a little more. What we said didn't matter. Across the great divide of two continents, Alex had reached me. The connection had been made.

Alex has written a fascinating e-book about his experiences in Poland. If you're interested, you can access it here.


Anonymous said...

Wow! This Poland saga is terrific--both yours and Alex's--and from different, yet connected, points of view. Please keep them coming! Judy

Kim Mosley said...

Beautiful. I liked the fact that you and Eric were in more danger with the alligator than was Alex.

It all reminded me of Josh with his short trip (that kept extending itself) to Beyrouth (Lebanon's spelling). He sent me a picture of a soldier on a roof with a machine gun, and told me that he makes sure people don't photograph the sea (visable in the background of the photograph).

The joys of being a parent.

Anonymous said...

Another great story, Barbara. Having four grown children, I can certainly identify with those feeling of dread and helplessness when one of them is standing on the edge of the nest with wings extended. The good news is soon the grandchildren come along and then you get to experience it all over again. :) Glad your writing these again!


Anonymous said...

I meant to say glad YOU'RE writing these again.


Anonymous said...

Really appreciated your insights and candor, especially regarding all the planning for the trip. I was very impressed with Alex's journal (diary). You might consider a link for those interested.

Alex Kriss said...

I don't think I ever "chafed" at you. Anyway, great entry, wish it were longer!

Alex Kriss said...

Oh, and anyone interested in my travelogue can go download it here: