Greetings from Poznan

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It doesn’t take long for Time to reclaim memory. Sharp edges blur. Colors fade and run together. Maybe one day all that will remain of my two years in Poznan, Poland will be that which anyone can experience while passing through: the vibrant beauty of the Old City. It’s been nearly five years since I’ve moved on and so much is already gone.

I’m not a sentimental person. I don’t paste things in scrapbooks. Most of my souvenirs are mental. I learned to let go of the tangible long ago. Sometimes, I try to salvage the effluvia, solidify the little details that made up daily life. The things for which there are no corresponding trinkets to purchase. Postcards from real life. Greetings from Poznan.

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Which trams did we take from our apartment into the Old City? For the first time in my life, I had to learn how to use public transport. There was a good fruit and vegetable stand at the tram stop, but what did the other little stands sell? I remember my smart aleck responses in Polish for surly cashiers or for people who cut in line. I have kept the habit of counting my change and double checking receipts, even though it’s been a lot less necessary since I’ve left.

Food. My husband and I would take the tram thirty minutes to the superb Piotr i Paweł supermarket. We went in search of freshly made gołąbki (stuffed cabbage) for him and placki ziemniaczane (potato pancakes) for me, and pierogi for the both of us. Neither of us had expected Polish food to be so good. Both of us were relieved that, in spite of our lack of restraint, we didn’t get fat.

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We lived in one of those Soviet era neighborhoods that one finds on the outskirts of cities in this part of Europe. Blocks of identical apartments as far as the eye can see. Our apartment was on the sixteenth floor. From our window we watched thunderstorms, backyard New Year’s fireworks displays that rivaled any town’s, and the leaden gloom of November.  November was the most difficult month. That murk seeped into the pores and settled into the bones. Every step, every gesture was exhausting.

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Our favorite pub was Proletaryat. This little bar in the old city is like a quirky museum of Communism. Busts and portraits of Lenin adorned the walls, along with retro signs and other memorabilia. 1980′s Polish New Wave music played in the background. I was amazed by my friends’ ability to feel nostalgic for such an oppressive time. “It was hard, but it made us stronger,” my friend Ania said as she bobbed her head to the upbeat music. No table was complete without a bottle of vodka and plates of thick bread slathered with smalec, lard cooked with spices, and, thankfully, pickles for vegetarians like myself. If you want to drink a lot of vodka without getting sick, you need to eat these things, our Polish friends advised.  I discovered that I had a favorite vodka - Żołądkowa Gorzka z miodem – vodka with honey and special herbs for the stomach.

After the bar closed, we waited in the street, shivering, for the night bus. These hulking, rattling Soviet-era vehicles had plastic or metal seats which were easy to hose down. We’d learned, almost the hard way, to never sit in front of an intoxicated person. Once, we had narrowly missed being puked on by a young man who had sat down behind us. Following my intuition, I nudged my husband out of the seat. We stood next to the middle doors. Seconds later, the young man erupted. Everyone on the bus jumped up and headed for the doors. The bus headed downhill, and the truly impressive quantity of vomit oozed towards us like molten magma. We reached the next stop just in time.

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What else? Every city in Poland has its own reputation. People from Poznan are said to be stingy. Are they, really? If so, I’ve forgotten. What date is Poznan’s special holiday? It’s in November and there’s a special pastry. I think it has poppy seeds in it. Is it St. Martin’s Day? There’s a parade through the city. And there’s another day of remembrance for an uprising. Is it in the spring or autumn? I regret that this, too, is gone.

History is so important to Poles. Never forget, but move on.

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34 thoughts on “Greetings from Poznan

  1. Oh how I know that “murk [that] seeped into the pores and settled into the bones.” There is something about the architectural legacy of the Soviets that seems to permeate the atmosphere around it for miles…Very evocative piece.

    • I’ve heard that Chisinau is all Soviet-era architecture. There’s a strange charm to the grim uniformity and the apartments themselves can be very nicely renovated, but it’s not an environment that I’d like to live in again.

    • Thanks! Actually, I didn’t have the opportunity try anything typically Romanian, except for a fish dish in a restaurant in Brasov and it was really good. I actually don’t remember what I ate in Romania. We were driving so much I think I just ate bread and cheese from the supermarket. As for languages, I’m fluent in French and can speak very little Polish and am currently learning Slovak.

      • Indeed we have a lot of fish meals. I was curious especially if you ever tried our stuffed cabages. Polish people, Greeks, Russians, Romanians…think the own individually the brand as a traditionaly food:) I can guarantee they taste different.

        • I’m sure they are different from country to country, but I don’t eat meat, so I won’t be able to try them. I did try a family recipe when I was a child and it was one of my favorite foods.

  2. This reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s writing – she has an interesting take on time and memory. If you don’t know it already, try her memoir – “Why be happy when you could be normal”, I think you would enjoy it.

  3. “Effluvia”

    I get so excited when a writer uses a word I’ve never heard of. And I have a decent vocabulary! I had to Google that one. :-)

  4. Another beauty! I eat those frozen pierogi, are ‘authentic’ pierogi that much better? It seems like one of those food items that’s just kinda okay no matter how you prepare it. Also, you were very kind for not pointing out that I spelled ‘gaffe’ wrong in my last comment. What a gaffe.

    • Er, yeah, I thought it best to just let your gaffe slide. I eat frozen pierogi, too, and they are nearly as good as the fresh ones. I could live on pierogi. Bizarrely, my great-grandmother’s last name was Pierog, which is the singular form of pierogi!

  5. Pierogi-one of my favorite foods of all-I really liked this piece a lot-your imagery is very vivid -the photos are icing on the cake. And I especially liked the last line-”never forget but move on” I think that sums up the Polish people and their history quite well-or certainly it does my mother’s people.

    • Exactly. I admire their resilience. In the two years that I was there, I never once heard anyone whining about the past. They talk about it, but there’s no self-pity. One of my cousins is still upset about Napoleon’s betrayal, but I think he might be joking. I hope.

  6. Although it’s been five years and most memories are lost, you do have glorious photos and stories. Every time I read a post of yours, I make another entry on my travelling wishlist.

  7. I am not an expert in this area, but in my experience, I find that, in many ways, we become what our memories make us for they represent the outcomes of decisions made, journeys taken. When I look back, I recall events, conversations, people, with the filter of the present, after time has “reclaimed” the nuances of that past moment. Your first three sentences are powerful – gave me goosebumps.

    “It doesn’t take long for Time to reclaim memory. Sharp edges blur. Colors fade and run together.”

    • Interesting theory and I agree with it. Why do we remember some tiny details, while others vanish? I can remember some details from when I was too young to even speak, and yet some other, major things are gone.

  8. “I don’t paste things in scrapbooks. Most of my souvenirs are mental. I learned to let go of the tangible long ago.” I’m impressed. Cause I always feel the need to collect the pieces (even tangible) of every single experience I made. Maybe because I think that in the years the memory sometimes fade away .. But, still, your writing and your beautiful photos are so much tangible and real! Have a great day!Cris

    • Hi Cris – I used to feel like I needed to collect everything, too. But when I started to move around the world, I realized how heavy (and unnecessary) it was. That’s when I decided to write the memories down. You have a wonderful day, too. Julie

  9. Your writing is spot on; the words describe the place so well and it goes perfectly with the photos.
    Is that you and your husband in the last picture?

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