A Fine Example of Rococo Art
This is from a chapter for the original version of Gravity From Above that was never written about my journey in search of European Puppetry that would eventually become the beginning of my Gravity From Above project. This is the fourth part of a long chapter on Poland that initially has little to do with puppetry and everything to do with history and travel. It’s worth a read. More to come!
Poznan and Warsaw, Poland
April 4– 8, 2005
An example of Communist Era apartments in Warsaw
The next morning, Wednesday the 6th of April, I heaved my packs back on and made by way over to the glowny. As I stood there waiting for the train from Berlin to Warsaw I watched my fellow passengers. The Poles really were funny sometimes. On the streets they were as polite a people as I’ve ever come across. Pedestrians would really wait at traffic lights. They could not be caught jaywalking. But here at the train station, they were walking directly across very live railroad tracks. They would jump down from the platform, a distance higher than their knees, and then walk directly over the raised tracks, not simply at the low spots designed to be crossed. Then they would help each other back up the steep platform on the other side all the while talking and commiserating. All of this was performed not only directly in the presence of train personnel but by them as well.
The train to Warsaw arrived on time and took me the short journey from Poznan to Warszawa Centralna Glowny right around noon. I looked about for my friend Marta Czanik. I had called Marta from Poznan and we had arranged to meet each other here in the large hall of Warsaw Central Station. Marta worked as the Polish equivalent to being a legal aid. Fortunately the train had arrived at lunchtime, but I also knew that since she was working she might be late. Meanwhile I surveyed the glowny. It was a large gray cement room, with a bit of a dingy feel to it, like Grand Central Station as a Greyhound bus terminal. There were slow moving lines of people waiting at the information and ticket windows. Everything seemed to have a green tint to it, not bright green or forest green, but a murky watery filter that was not caused by any actual coloration in the design. The cloudy sky seeping in through the windows was heavy, humid. Twenty minutes passed. I was beginning to wonder if I should call Marta. I was also wondering if I would recognize her.
Marta and I had only met once back in Alaska when she was billeted in my house for a couple of days in early1999 along with another member of the cheery Up With People platoon that was decamping in our small town on its way to the rest of the world. This is a regular phenomenon in our tiny Alaskan town. We put up anyone passing through in our private homes: visiting regional high school basketball teams, an African children’s choir and, in one unusual case, members of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra who played two nights here on the same tour that they would find themselves at Carnegie Hall. I have no idea how that happened, but I jumped at the chance to house three world class Russian musicians in my humble abode. And apart from the great pleasure their music gave us, I felt particularly proud of the fact that they relished my home-cured salmon eggs as though I conjured up the caviar of the gods. Ironically few Alaskans actually consume salmon eggs. They seem content to simply ship them off to the Japanese.
Marta came with Up With People, an optimistic spin-off of Garner Ted Armstrong’s Moral Re-Armament Movement from the 1960s. I had actually gone to an Up With People recruitment meeting when I was 14 years old. They had come to our high school in 1969 and put on their contemporary glee club folkie minstrel show for the student body. I’m assuming they billed themselves as a positive alternative to the drug culture just springing up at the time on high school campuses across the land. They sang infectious pop jingles like the eponymous ‘Up with People’ and ‘What Color is God’s Skin’. Later in the Seventies Christian groups would also put on Jimmy Owens’ very similar styled prophetic musical variety shows across the land. Marta seemed to know nothing about any religious background to Up With People, and in fact they appeared to have become simply a group with a somewhat universalized positive message. I had volunteered to put up a couple of people from the organization just to see what they were like now. And so Marta showed up along with an American guy. Marta had developed a cold so I let her just rest at my place for the two days they were in town. We had a couple of interesting conversations and I let her hear my one record by Nieman, a Polish fusion jazz favorite, which she never forgot. We stayed loosely in touch and I had promised I would eventually come to Poland. Six years had passed and now I was here.
I think her hair was lighter when she was traveling with Up With People. When she did finally arrive, about twenty minutes late and apologizing profusely for the delay, it took me a second to recognize her. It was very good to see her again and after my time in Poznan I felt it would be quite helpful to finally get a guide through Polish culture. After the apologies were finished, this took a while as Poles are very serious about hospitality and any perceived breech needs to be looked after immediately. She took us to a waiting cab and graciously paid for my trip to the apartment where I would be staying. Along the way she told me never to hail a cab from the street, they are all crooks, and will charge a foreigner much more than is right. She eventually gave me a number to call if I needed a taxi. “You have to always call them,” she said, instructing me as the best way to be assured of getting an honest cabby. The cab took us through town, down past the Wisla River along a three-lane boulevard surrounded by usual communist gray buildings. To my surprise we arrived at a chic post-communist restaurant near a small sports stadium. We enjoyed a solid Polish lunch with a childhood favorite glumpky, stuffed cabbage, and caught up on our lives. Marta still recalled sitting alone in my strange house while listening to Nieman and drinking tea as one of her favorite moments from her tour through the States. She also wondered how she ended up at my house. “I asked for anyone from Eastern Europe.” I said. She was the only one. When the meal was finished Marta called another taxi and it drove us a few long Polish blocks to a true communist era apartment complex.
Marta had planned to take me upstairs, open the door for me, give me the keys, and return for me later in the evening after work. I could take a bus into town if I wanted and return before six o’clock when she would come back with her boyfriend Darek and take me home for dinner. The plan was simplicity itself. Marta had thought of everything. There was only one small problem standing in the way. This is Poland.
I did promise one more fine instance of the baroque aspect of Poland before concluding this chapter. Welcome to that moment. This is it. Although in truth this example shades far beyond the baroque into the rococo. Feel free to skip ahead if this gets too involuted for you. I won’t be upset. But in the interest of fairness, and since I will be praising the Poles to the skies not too far down the line, you should really follow me on this one. No experience I had whilst passing through the land of my DNA quite sums up the cozy involution like this little illustration does.
First of all you should know something about the apartment. A long time New York friend, Pole and artist Elka Krajewska, offered to let me stay in her apartment when in Warsaw. This was a welcome proposal. I wasn’t exactly roving across the continent with a thick wallet. There was only one little issue: Marta needed to contact Pani Krajewska, Elka’s mother, to get the keys since she didn’t speak a word of English. Marta duly contacted her in plenty of time. Pani Krajewska gave her the keys and said that there was a slight issue with the key and the door that it had to be opened only in a certain way. So far so simple… She took Marta up to the apartment and put the key in the lock and said that you really have to turn the lock once to the right. Well I think it was to the right. I’m sitting here in Alaska trying to remember which way it went and I can’t quite remember. Here’s where the problem begins. Now ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could go wrong here. Well let’s see you turn the key the wrong way or you turn it one too many times. And it seems clear to me that in such a case if the door doesn’t open you turn it back and try it again. How hard could this be? It looked straightforward to Marta too. She thanked Elka’s mother and eventually went to pick me up and to show me how to gain entrance properly.
So we climbed up at least five floors, it was hard to tell since every half-flight of stairs had more apartments on it, before Marta put the key in and turned it. The white door opened easily revealing another door immediately on the other side of the lintel and frame. This strange double door indicated a bit of fear about crime in the apartments. I’ve never seen such an arrangement except in certain bank vaults in certain caper films. And this outer door really didn’t look like it would provide much security. A man with a crowbar could probably jam his way through it in a couple of minutes. In point of fact it looked as if someone had done just that as the hollow metal door had a serious bend in it across the top. The white painted metal door behind this flimsy door looked much more solid. What a pity too. Marta took the next key out put it in the door to the apartment and turned it.
It didn’t open.
Did I mention that these were skeleton keys? You stick one in, turn it and you can feel if you’ve engaged or disengaged the fastening mechanism. Or if you need to wiggle it just a little more to connect with the lock. Marta turned the key back and tried it again. She wiggled the key. And she turned it. Again. Again. Maybe with just a little more finesse, this way, again and now that way again and then again and perhaps again. About five or ten minutes. I politely asked if I could give it a try. Reluctantly Marta finally let me try it. New observation – no Pole really ever wants to admit defeat. My mother called this trait Polish stubbornness; a variation on the same trait that is activated in times of crisis as dogged heroism.
And so I moved in towards the door and stuck the skeleton key in the keyhole and turned it carefully. I could feel the key turn and touch something. The door was too far from the jamb. I tried holding the door tightly with my one good hand, my left, and then with my other hand, the extremely sensitive right, delicately with a touchy twinge, turned the key slowly. Something clicked. The door had responded with joy. It had acknowledged its master! It was now snugly fit against the frame. We were still locked out of course. But how comforting to know that it had responded to the key. And so I turned it back the opposite way slowly knowing that this (!) was the locked position. I continued fidgeting with the key. It took me five minutes to find that position again. My moment of triumph oozed from my hands. Sticking the key into this hole I could feel my essence vanishing into this vast crevasse of unilluminated inscrutability. After fifteen or twenty minutes I surrendered the game… back to Marta.
Marta bravely tried everything she could think of ten times over. She had been due back from lunch some time ago, and while I was fiddling with the lock she had called her boyfriend Darek. He was on his way over. Marta was feeling bad because it had all seemed so simple. She saw Mrs. Krajewska do it. The door had worked. And she dreaded the possibility of having to call Elka’s mother again to tell her that the door wasn’t opening. So she continued on an on trying to work the lock. What made it really frustrating is that you could feel something moving around in there like you were chasing it but never quite catching it. It baited you with shards of hope only to dash them again in the keyhole’s abyss. The natural lighting in that corner was also a little too shadowy to actually see the keyhole clearly so the hall light had to be turned on. And the only problem with that is that after a couple of minutes the hall light, like most good little Euro-hall-lights would switch itself off to save electricity. Normally this is a continental feature I love. But not this time. Every few minutes someone had to hit the switch again or else surrender to the kingdom of shadows.
As I stood there watching Marta hopelessly spin the key in the hole I kept wishing that Jeff Cobb, Millay’s husband back in Berlin, were here to help out. He has the skills of a master locksmith. He would have known what to do. And I had just seen him a couple of days ago, so close yet way too far away. Then again when I asked him why he hadn’t tried to get locksmith work in Berlin he looked dismayed and said “Boy, I’d like to, but the locks here are really strange.” He explained how they twisted and turned and bolted in bizarre, positively un-American ways. Now that I was thinking about it, he mentioned something about the skeleton keys implying a serious touch of apprehension. And here I was staring down the keyhole of a Polish lock.
At last Marta’s cell phone rang as Darek was approaching by car. We went down the long stairway to meet him. Darek was a tall medical student with a shaved head who firmly clasped my hand and smiled through his glasses as if to say: Sometimes things get crazy. Marta felt a little better now that he had arrived. Although she had already confessed that she didn’t think he could do anything either. We marched back up towards our blissful fissure. Heroically Darek manned the lock for another twenty minutes or more. There were moments of hope. Moments of despair. Moments when owning a shotgun seemed like it might be the best part of valor. All to no avail.
Finally Marta and Darek’s fulltime occupations claimed their attention much too loudly to be ignored. Also their deeply ingrained sense of Polish hospitality was taking a serious bruising. So they took me over to their apartment near the heart of Warsaw. We would continue with round two of this contest later in the evening after work, after dinner. I was not particularly put out by all of this. I assumed that I was just an observer in things I could not understand. Besides Darek and Marta had graciously offered a place on their couch if the lock would not relent. After they left for their respective jobs, I rested for a little while in their apartment. I watched a bit more of the Pope’s memorial coverage on television; here existed neither the German stations nor CNN, so that, indeed, was it. Period. I wandered out to a couple of little grocery stores that seemed very familiar to me from the years when I lived in Greenpoint Brooklyn back in the Eighties. I purchased a few edible goods, in the hope that I would be in Elka’s apartment later that evening. Later Marta and Darek came home. After a wonderful home cooked Polish meal, Marta and I dropped Darek off at the laboratories and then we drove back to the dreaded door.
Part two: Now we come to the crux of our rococo tale. Marta had reason for a fair degree of hope and unease together. Pani Krajewska was coming over. She might know a way to work the lock. And she might not really approve of Marta’s having turned the lock the wrong way. Marta was just waiting for a brick to hit her. We trudged up the interminable stairs. The light suddenly cut off and we were ascending in pure darkness. Before we could find the nearest switch the light came on again. We could hear a couple of animated people talking above us. As we arrived at the top landing, Elka’s mother, a capable older woman who worked as a clothing designer for theatrical productions at a national theatre, was sitting there doing precisely what we had been doing hours ago. Marta introduced me; she was kind, but turned her attention back to Marta to grill her about exactly what she had done earlier. At last it came out that she had turned the key twice, maybe, Marta was hedging her bets a little. Pani K. rolled her eyes. She didn’t blow up but she did say something like I told you so. All of this was occurring as another player was taking the field. A man with gray combed-back hair in a pale blue and white bathrobe was working the lock while lackadaisically chatting with Elka’s mother. He was giving a running commentary on the emotional state of the abyss. He would not be the last. The lights went out. I pressed them on. It was unspoken but from now on this was my new job.
Now he worked the lock suavely for maybe twenty-five minutes. All the while smiling and massaging the hole like pro. Then Pani Krajewska took a new turn with renewed vigor and unrequited enthusiasm. Marta of course demonstrated how she had turned the locks. The suave Pole in the bathrobe and slippers seemed to be taking it all in with sagely bemused rapt attention. He then stepped up to the plate once again with a renewed philosophical understanding of the dilemma. Twenty or so more minutes passed. The light went out with regularity until I did the American thing and jammed a coin into it to keep it on perpetually. It was, I suppose, my small unrecognized attempt at showing a better way.
And I suppose every American reading this right now is saying the exact same thing to themselves: “Why don’t you just get the damned phone book and call AAAA1 Locksmiths!!??!!??” And it just goes to show you how ignorant my brethren are of foreign affairs! Do you really think Poland has locksmiths on call like that? Really? Do you? They don’t. In fact that thought had been percolating in my mind since minute five of this shindig. I mean I’m watching a legal aid, a costume designer at a national theatre, a doctoral candidate and a man in a bathrobe all endlessly twisting this key in an infernal crack in an obviously communist door and I’m saying to myself: “These are intelligent people!” Well I really couldn’t fully vouch for the I.Q. of the friendly aquaphile, but you get the point. “Why can’t they do the obvious thing and just call someone who has some understanding of locks?” At last I can bear no more and ask Marta about such a possibility. Then she explains that it isn’t that simple. Locks have to be repaired by the company that runs the building, who certainly won’t be in their office until morning. “But” I ask, “What do people do when they get locked out of their house or car?” There was no answer to such a question. Evidently my framework was a tad wide of the mark.
Genius question number two: “Is there a superintendent for the building?” Marta relays the question to Mrs. K. This produced a long series of Polish dialogues in very concerned tones. Just then another next door neighbor arrives. Several minutes pass explaining to her (!) the quandary. The woman makes a few suggestions of her own. The suave bathrobe is not relinquishing his position though. Pani Krajewska has decided to find the man who roughly corresponds to the building super. She goes downstairs to find him. Our distinguished next door neighbor in slippers is more or less just turning the key aimlessly by this point looking back to us and making lighthearted remarks in the bonhomie of the moment. The other next door neighbor goes to her apartment to leave off her sacks and bags. Marta has now moved beyond desperation and is settling in for the long haul. Her mind is racing through the possibilities like a safecracker spinning combinations. I’m just taking this spectacle in as an amazing illustration of the rococo principle. If cooking facilities or a food trolley shows up soon, I certainly won’t be surprised.
At last comes the sound from below us of Elka’s mother along with the workers’ hero who makes the repairs on the building. He is taking it all casually, authoritatively, assuring her that we will get through that door. Greetings are freely distributed all round as the stout short graying man in his fifties strides onto the landing. The smirking robed gentleman bows off to play his part of the chorus. Meanwhile the guru of the locks moves precipitously towards the chasm. He takes the key out of the lock. He studies it. Then the contest begins. We hold our breaths waiting for the victory that must now surely come. A minute passes. Two. Three. And it becomes clear that our great hero will have a long struggle ahead of him before conquering the beast. The chorus resumes its Polish tones and counterpoint.
Meanwhile further questioning on my part has produced a new vein of exploration. Maybe there is a card left by some enterprising soul, very much like an American locksmith would leave, down near the door? Marta isn’t sure but she says it’s worth a look. We descend the stairs again into the void. Sure enough there are a few possibilities. Marta is actually looking for the number of the company that maintains the building. She finds a number that might work, but there is too much cement directly above us for a cellphone call to get through. We agonize our way up towards the cavity yet again.
All the while our trusty superintendent is pinning the keyhole in a half nelson, rotating around the crevice like a clock, spelunking the deepest recesses of the shaft. His shoulders are hunched. He’s listening for sounds deep within the door. Methinks a stethoscope would’ve been handily abused. All the while Pani K. and the bathrobe are giving a play by play, while the other neighbor finds her telephone book. Marta calls the apartment manager’s number to find a prerecorded message. That was taken for granted. Marta has finally decided to enter the American process. She takes the woman’s phone book and decides to make a call to someplace that might, I emphasize only might, provide help with keys and locks. Just as she dials the number there is a sudden change. The lock clicks. The guru of the locks has done it! The door is open.
I seriously doubt that the fall of communism in Poland was accompanied any more heartfelt waves of relief, or emotional demonstrations of joy, than I experienced in that company at that moment on the 6th day of April in the year 2005. Our bathrobed gent reached out his hand to firmly clasp the hand of the man, that apotheosis of Slavic destiny, who had had his masterful way with the brutal Soviet era security device. Pani Krajewska in an elevated mood made her way in Elka’s apartment to inspect the situation. Marta smiled at me as if to say ‘I can’t believe it’. Yet in the unbidden ecstasy of the event there was also a tinge of sorrow to the scene. It’s almost as if the purpose of our fellowship has been broken just as it was getting started. No one had even brought food yet. But there it was, the open door, an entrance leading to… a rather unremarkable empty space.
Now that should be it. And I promise not to take you on any more baroque Polish journeys during the course of this chapter. This should suffice to give you a sample of the Polish comedy contained within the epic. As I said that should be it, but we weren’t quite finished.
After many lugubrious farewells to the woman next door and the suave bathrobed gray haired man the lock guru attempted to explain to us the mystery of mysteries. He gave Pani Krajewska, Marta and myself a primer on proper technique for turning the nightmarish mechanism. Marta translated. With the door remaining open he demonstrated his technique so that we could watch the bolt. He turned it once to the right (I think). It would open then. Then he said this is what happens if you turn it again. The door rebolts itself. Then he did an extremely complicated maneuver that I didn’t understand while I was watching and then said that’s the proper seven step procedure for opening the door again after you accidentally rotated the key twice. I determined there and then that I wouldn’t lock that door again. I would simply use the outer door while making sure this one was closed. I had no intention on earth of spending another four hours trying to get the lock to turn properly. The lock guru then left to great praises and heartfelt gratitude. Then Elka’s mother demonstrated the same procedure to me to make sure I had been watching. She had a bit of trouble with it. No one had had the temerity to attempt to try it with the door actually closed. And no one was mentioning the need for a new lock either. (A personal plea: Elka please do the American thing and simply have the lock replaced.) I thanked Pani Krajewska for all of her help and she left the stage in a flourish of words to Marta.
Finally Marta turned to me and said that maybe it was better if I didn’t lock the inside door again. I told her that I was already convinced of the wisdom of such a course. I descended the stairs yet one more time with Marta to retrieve my bags, which were in her car. We hadn’t fully believed that we might actually gain entrance, so there had been no point in hauling them up if we were going to have to drag them back down. I had already done that once that day. I carried my load up the long flights of stairs. The key to the outer door gave me no problems at all. I glared at the vile inner door as I passed it. I locked it from the inside effortlessly, naturally testing it several times to make sure I could get out. I put my bags down and surveyed the apartment. I looked out over the Wisla River in the dark. At last I had arrived in Warsaw. And thus endeth my first rococo adventure with a Pole lock.
More coming soon!
December 18th 2020
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