WARSAW -- Twenty year ago, in June 1979, I stood with thousands of Poles in Victory Square for an outdoor Mass. And while it is easy to say now that we all had then a premonition of momentous turnings, there was undeniably that day an awed, conspiratorial feeling of aired aspirations and a forged alliance, of power having irreversibly shifted.
Ten years later the Berlin Wall came down. Now, outside Warsaw, Carrefour was going up."There are only foreign concerns," my friend Jan complained as we drove to his house outside the city. "French, Germans, Swedes. Poles don't have the money to start up such stores, so all the capital leaves the country."
We stopped at Ikea. It anchored a new mall surrounded by a vast parking lot. Jan drove around for a few minutes before parking, as if disconcerted by the vast choice of spaces. In a modern cafeteria, I grabbed a bowl of chlodnik -- the cold beet soup that is to Poland what gazpacho is to Spain -- and a plate of Swedish meatballs. Eurolunch.
"Shopping has become a popular pastime," Jan's wife, Zosia, said. "People who have never been abroad sometimes come to the malls just to look. They see a hairdresser, and they think it's wonderful. Imagine -- buying groceries and then getting your hair done. And it's educational. They see the restrooms are clean and proper and they think: We could do this at home."
I awoke the next day to gray and rain. It had rained, I remembered, the day I had left Poland in 1982, and my wife's aunt had told me then: "The angels over Warsaw are crying at your departure."
I stuffed an umbrella into my bookbag -- my trusty Polish torba, bearing scuff marks from around the world, now returned to its native land.
Yet it is always risky returning to a place where you once lived, especially when the place has also grown up. Warsaw in the early '80s, like most of Eastern Europe, was stuck in a time warp which, admittedly, gave it some of its charm. Hand-kissing. Chimney-sweeping. Peasants driving horse-drawn wagons. Now it was careening into the millennium. The Palace of Culture, that grim tower planted by the Soviets in the heart of the city, was pasted with advertising, like a battleship strung with party streamers. The old reading rooms -- where bemedaled pensioners once passed their days over glasses of tea -- were now busy newsstands overflowing with glossy computer magazines.
McDonald's stared across Jerozolimskie Boulevard at Burger King, while down the street the former Communist Party Headquarters housed the Warsaw Stock Exchange. Off of Krakowskie Przedmiescie hunkered a pub.
Nowy Swiat, the fashionable shopping street, had actually become fashionable.
And some of the new gloss had a jarring effect. The new terrace cafe in the courtyard of St. Anne's Church, off Castle Square, demeaned the whole structure with a sign atop the tower proclaiming, "Terrace Caf." In the Old Town, the garish sign of Dunkin' Donuts defiled the muted tones of Piwna Street (to say nothing of its product, a crude interloper in the land of paczki, ethereally infused with rose petal jam).
The young women were stylish as always, as were, now, some of the men (they couldn't all be foreign consultants). Trenches had replaced the drab green Army jackets, and ties brightened the streetscape in materials other than polyester. De rigueur now was a briefcase, or, for students, the sagging backpack slung over one shoulder. I was the only male with an aged leather torba.
Osrodek Jezyka Angielskiego (English Language College) still loomed -- solitary and free of endorsements -- over the northeast corner of Plac Zbawiciela. I climbed the circular staircase to the third floor -- exactly as I had for 2 1/2 years when I worked there are a teacher -- and opened the door to the Teachers' Room.
Most of the faces were familiar; the intentions as well. "Tom, sit down and have some tea." And then that witty, quick-tongued barrage, partly a product of group dynamics, partly a result of their just being Polish. (I was also in the always more electrifying Smoker's Room.) Miss Wolyniuk had died, I was sorry, though not surprised to hear (she'd been in her 70s when I was there) and Mr. Romanowicz had been dismissed, apparently for ignoring the textbook and regaling his students with stories in Polish. (
One of the teachers over in the nonsmokers' room was feeling ill, and I was enlisted as a substitute. The class was small; the students were finishing high school or already in college. They wore that bored look of adolescence that in my time had not yet become a generic import. I told them I had taught in this school 18 years earlier and realized some of them hadn't been born then. The Poland I knew -- bread lines, ration cards, secret police -- was something they studied in history class. And where once I could attract attention simply by the circumstance of my birth, these students ran into Americans all the time. I suddenly saw myself not only as old but common. They sat waiting for the bell and wondering where in the world I got that silly torba.
Paulina was different. She met me downtown a few days later, a bright undergraduate in a short tartan skirt and damp brown shoes. She had e-mailed me about a year before, out of the blue, saying she had read my book about Poland while living in Canada and now wanted to translate it.
We took a bus to the suburb of Ursus and then dodged puddles in a downpour on our way to her apartment. It was small and basic, on the third floor overlooking a sodden cafe.
I asked her about the persistent difficulties. My wife's cousins, with whom I was now staying, had daily intrigues with the workmen making repairs in their kitchen. "It's still not easy," Jurek had told me. "There's no standard."
"But it's funny," said Paulina, with the imperturbability of youth. "I tell stories about the funny things that happen to me."
Her boyfriend arrived, a pleasant young man in denim, and her best friend Olga, bearing a box of paczki from the elegant Blikle shop on Nowy Swiat. We polished them off after Paulina's tasty chicken and rice.
That evening Jurek and his wife, Monika, took me on a tour of Warsaw's newest monuments. It seemed a very Varsovian thing to do. First stop, near the Old Town, was the monument to the Martyrs of Soviet Aggression. The statue consisted of a lone railway carriage standing on tracks, its cargo a crush of tilted crosses. Scattered among the Christian crosses were a few Orthodox ones as well as -- we saw on closer inspection -- the occasional Star of David and Muslim crescent.
A short drive away was the Warsaw Uprising Monument -- gaunt, outsize, Modigliani-esque figures, including one lowering himself into the semblance of a sewer. In the northern district of Zoliborz stood the equestrian statue to Haller's Army, Gen. Haller having been instrumental in the establishment of an independent Poland after the First World War. Back downtown again we parked and walked to the grand marble monument to the Battle of Monte Cassino.
My wife's mother, who had worked for the resistance, spent several postwar years in the notorious Rakowiecka prison. Hania still has the bar of soap, painstakingly carved and painted with a scene from Little Red Riding Hood, that her mother made for her during her incarceration.
We got back in the car and drove home through a quieted city. Warsaw, for all its new cosmopolitanism, still closed down early. . Varsovians, one heard, were all working overtime, scheming, becoming rich. And the moneyed class had not yet produced a leisure one. At night, after the daytime brio of traffic and cell phones, the purposeful hum of meetings and appointments, memories of war reclaimed the city.