He calls me three times before I pick up. He doesn’t know my mobile phone number, so he calls my landline. One evening I’m at work, another out with a friend. I recognise the number, but I don’t call him back. What do I have to say to this man? I hardly know him.
When I was a child, I dreamed about the Germans coming.
They come with their guns, and they shout in staccato, get out, get out. I have a hiding place, behind the kitchen cupboard, but they have those scary dogs, and the dogs sniff me out, sniff my fear and drag me out, the soldiers shouting their scary German words. They have heavy boots and they stomp all over and there’s classical music playing; not Chopin, but Wagner. In this fantasy I’m saved by the tank brigade from the TV series, by Janek and Marusia and their dog Szarik. This dog can also smell my fear, but he doesn’t want to tear me to pieces. He’s a friend.
When he calls the third time, I’m making dinner. Although to be honest, calling it dinner is an overstatement; I’m just putting a frozen pizza in the oven. I’ll make some popcorn and watch a movie – that’s my plan for this evening. But his call throws me off balance.
I’ve been dreaming about the Germans coming to my hometown.
They come on a bus, the nostalgia tourists. Their parents used to live here before the war, when it was all German, so they come now, supposedly on a trip to sightsee, but really to survey, and to mourn. They give German chocolate to the kids who hang around the buses in the car park lot, and they say among themselves, what a shame, such ruin, such poverty, such dirt. The kids think that if their country hadn’t won the war, they’d be eating this wondrous German chocolate – which tastes of prosperity and a healthy economy – every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
‘Hi, Dad,’ I say. The word always feels wrong on my tongue, like a sweet that you find at the bottom of your handbag – rolled with bits of tobacco, impossible to unwrap from its paper completely – which you put in your mouth because you crave something sugary, but as you spit out bits of wrapper you know it’s a bad idea.
‘Hi, daughter.’ I never know what to say next. The moment of silence weighs there, like a missed beat in an unrehearsed piece of music, and we know we have to start again.
‘Hi. How are you? How’s the weather there?’
‘The same as there.’ In our rare conversations, it’s always like we are playing the notes of a tune we know, but we are aware that after the well-rehearsed part there comes a point where we have to improvise, and it makes us both nervous. To improvise, you have to trust your fellow musicians. This time it’s not even the lack of trust between us: he sounds scared, and I pick up on that, and his fear scares me.
‘I need you to come and see me,’ he says sotto voce, and I know he’d only ask me that if matters were final. If it were the end of the composition.
I’ve been dreaming about the second coming of the Germans.
A guy I work with tells me this: ‘They came up to the gate when I was working in the garden and the dog started barking so I went up to the fence to see who it was and it was this middle-aged couple who said something in German, but my German is quite rusty, so I asked them, do you speak English, and they said, no, not really, but we managed a word of German here and a word of English there, and they said that it used to be their grandparents’ house and that they spent summers here as children, and they asked me if they could see the house, they were very nice and very polite, and the dog liked them, so I said, sure, please, let me get you a cup of tea or coffee, and we sat in the living room, trying to talk in our broken tongues, and when they thought I wasn’t looking, they lifted the teacups to see the stamp underneath the saucer, and it’s not what you’re thinking, it’s not the swastikas, just regular German porcelain, but yes, yes, sure, the teacups and plates and all the cutlery, it’s all been here since their grandparents’ time, including the piano in the living room, which they touched, but didn’t ask about.’
It’s lung cancer. He stopped smoking ages ago, dropped that irritating habit of all Eastern European intellectuals when he realised that it was the irritating habit of an Eastern European intellectual, but the damage is done, the cells unforgiving. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what he wants. Does he want me to say that everything will be alright?
‘I just want to get my papers in order,’ he says, and I’m grateful for that simple, unsentimental explanation. I tell him I’ll come. When we hang up, I buy the train ticket online. I eat my pizza and watch my movie, but the deafening silence of the farewells we never bade each other suddenly seems to fill my apartment.
As a teenager I dreamed of going there, to see the Germans.
A boy I went to high school with goes there. Before we graduate, as soon as he turns eighteen, his father, whom he’s never known, takes him to live with him in Munich. Only a year of German yoghurt and vitamins in fruit, and the difference is noticeable to all of us. When he comes back to visit, he is suddenly physically bigger than us; his hair looks healthier, his teeth stronger. When we go for ice cream, he exclaims over and over again, everything’s so cheap here, but he doesn’t want to pay for everything, even though to him it’s nothing. He pulls out his wallet, opens it, and shows us a plastic square. On this, he says, shaking it before our eyes, I’ve got all my money. Now that I think of it, I suspect that it was a telephone card and not a bank card, but it impressed us duly. He tells us a story of how he was driving on the motorway. He says, at first I was nervous about the speed and I was just going at a hundred, and everybody else was doing a hundred and twenty or a hundred and thirty, and after a moment, when I looked at the speedometer again, I was doing a hundred and twenty, just like everybody else. The second time he tells the story the cars are going faster, and the third time they just turn into bullets on a motorway. What’s truly astounding is that this futuristic world lies only three hours away. Even though he was good at literature and music, he never got his high school diploma, and instead he becomes a mechanic there, and grows a moustache and a premature paunch.
I grew up in this apartment. My parents got it when they got married and joined the Communist Party, but under communism people’s apartments were not their property; they rented them from the collective. After the transformation, my mother bought it from the city and left it to me in her will. With my first big bonus at work, I turned it into an open-plan space; I remodelled the kitchen and the bathroom, and got rid of all the sad little decorations from a bygone era. I installed a surround sound system, and it’s my place now. I like listening to music here, but tonight the notes bounce off the walls and never disperse the silence.
I’m not the only one dreaming about the Germans coming.
‘In the village,’ my partner’s aunt is telling us, ‘there’s this poor girl,’ poor being an indirect way of saying disabled, maybe with Down’s syndrome, who knows, ‘there’s this poor girl, her mother died and her father is a drunkard, so there’s nobody to take care of her, and the social services, I don’t know where they are. So the girl just walks up and down, up and down the village street, which happens to be the road that runs to the border, there used to be a checkpoint, but now, with open borders in the whole of Europe, it’s just a road, you know. She got hold of a lipstick somewhere, someone must have given it to her, and she smears it all over her lips and her cheeks. And when you ask her, Zuzia, why are you walking up and down, up and down the street like that, with lipstick on your face, she says, I’m waiting for a car to stop, and when you ask her, what kind of car, she says, with German number plates, and when you ask her, and what do you think will happen, when a car with German number plates comes and stops here, she says, the door will open and the man driving the car will say, Zuzia, komm! And when you tell her, but Zuzia, you don’t know any German, she just smiles and says, he will say Zuzia komm and I will go and be his wife. German men like Polish wives, everyone knows that, so Zuzia may not be as stupid as they say after all,’ she finishes with a satisfied smile.
When he left, my mum told me not to talk to anyone about it. It was illegal to go. I remember my confusion: is he a good guy or a bad guy? If he’s good, then why is he doing something illegal? I couldn’t ask anybody. I wasn’t supposed to even think about it. At first, I think, the plan was that he would go there, find a job, and smuggle us over, his Polish wife and child. In the first years when he was there, we would get letters and small packages, which he would hand over to anyone coming home, and which they would hand to us. Packages with cosmetics smelling unrealistically beautiful – like the Garden of Eden – chocolate, coffee, some clothes. The police came twice, asking where he was, and my mum would have to lie to them: I don’t know, he abandoned us. I would smell a bar of soap and cast a spell: when this soap is all gone, he’ll come home, when I use up this shampoo, he’ll be back with us. But then came the tearful phone conversations, my mom saying, over and over, you said you didn’t even like it there. When I woke up to go to school, she’d be sitting at the kitchen table, her eyes puffy and empty, and I’d know she’d cried until morning. After her funeral I said, pesante, I don’t want to have anything to do with you, stop calling me. He cried. And I still don’t know: is he a good guy or a bad guy?
I’ve been dreaming of the Germans coming, over the years.
I’m dating my first German boyfriend, and I’m about to meet his family. I’m being introduced to his granny, who’s a very polite, white-haired, hard-of-hearing lady with arthritic hands and an unsmiling demeanour. She seems to like me, and she offers to show me the family album, with photos of my boyfriend as a baby, then a child, then a teenager. It’s cute, the way she’s proud of him. She shows me the pictures of other members of the family: this is her husband, rest in peace, and this is her brother Otto, wasn’t he handsome. Okay, I don’t say anything and move on to the next photo, of her as a girl on her way to a dance, wearing a flower in her hair. But just to be clear: in the photo I just skipped, Otto is wearing a Wehrmacht uniform. Maybe it’ll be a funny thing to talk about with my boyfriend. Maybe not.
When the Berlin Wall falls and my father is able to travel back, he comes once, but he doesn’t like it. He invites me over, and I go, defiantly, twice. The anger and disappointment, the pain of rejection and the sadness of farewells – never fully exposed, smouldering in me – cut short any attempts he makes at reconciliation. He gets German citizenship, but that’s only the crowning of the years of his transformation: he adopts German habits, looks German, feels German. Only his language never gets too good: he speaks with a heavy Slavonic accent, skipping the articles, mixing up the prepositions, and always adagio. He’s clearly proud of my command of the language, and somehow I hold that against him, too. I despise it when he tells his neighbours, my daughter’s studying to become an interpreter. Language translation is like musical interpretation; language is like music, he asserts. I snap, that is the stupidest thing you’ve said so far, and with satisfaction I see hurt in his eyes. In the years after her death, I see him three times, and every time I lash out at him, my anger flowing in crescendo. I am furious at his German, which stubbornly stays so bad. Maybe it’s because his Polish loses its fluency as he becomes submerged in the foreign tongue. He’s suspended between the two languages, losing one and gaining the other, but in the end it seems like a lose-lose. We never know what to say to each other, or in which language to say it.
I’m still dreaming of the Germans coming.
The one serious fight I have with my second German boyfriend is about the legend of Wanda who didn’t want to marry a German. The legend has it that Wanda chose to drown herself in the cold waters of the Vistula river rather than have a German for a life partner. No legend talks about life partners, my boyfriend says, in legends there are husbands and wives, or kings and queens, and he accuses me of making it up. Apart from this fight, which somehow turns into a nasty, bitter bickering match, we have a peaceful, legato-paced relationship. When we part, it’s because we both decide it’s time. He has gained several kilograms from my cooking, and I have taken my command of German from good to excellent. A win-win, unlike in a war.
For all my birthdays, my father sends me music: first tapes, and then CDs. Penderecki, Szymanowski, Paderewski. I throw them to the bottom of a drawer with unwanted things, and play Queen on my cassette player as loud as I can. ‘I Want to Break Free’, ‘It’s a Hard Life’, ‘I Go Crazy’. For my eighteenth birthday, he sends me a present that I’m sure he can scarcely afford: an antique, German-made imitation of an Amati violin, in beautiful, tightly flamed spruce and finely grained maple. The luminous varnish, the delicate scroll rounds, the slim waist – I touch them with the tips of my fingers, holding back tears. I can hardly believe I’m holding something so fragile, and capable of producing such a radiant, clear voice. The case closes with a finite click, like a little coffin. I put it in the box in which it was delivered by the courier, then place it at the bottom of my wardrobe. The sender of this gift doesn’t know I stopped playing violin years before, not because I no longer loved it, but out of spite. I play ‘Love of My Life’ until a neighbour bangs on the wall.
I’m dreaming about the one German coming.
He went to his first big recital in the West, and when he came back and had to return his passport, the communist authorities said, either you cooperate with us or you’ll never see the inside of a concert hall again. So he said, yes, alright, and the second time he went to have a recital in the West, he stayed. He avoided having to report on his colleagues, and he was proud of that until the end. Artists went by the busload to the West; artists and athletes were the ones who were allowed to go behind the iron curtain, and a lot of them went only once; the buses returned half empty. They had no language and no right to stay there legally, so they relied on the help of church organisations who found them jobs and gave them what they needed to start their new lives in the civilised world. He tells me, you have to understand that what we earned there, behind the curtain, was simply laughable here. Their good monthly salaries as musicians and gymnasts, with which they paid the bills and bought food and clothes and toys for their kids, wouldn’t even buy them a single meal at a cheap restaurant. So when they came here, they came with nothing, and since they were fleeing, they couldn’t pack what they would need. He was one of them: a skinny, moustachioed man with horrible clothes and even worse personal hygiene, surrounded by people who didn’t understand his amazement at the possibility of simply going to a shop and getting everything you need; people who couldn’t even imagine what it’s like to live in a place where the shops have empty shelves. In this disorienting world, which he doesn’t understand and which doesn’t understand him, the Polish church is the only organisation he can trust. At a weekly meeting, the priest says to the men, they need welders, and a couple of them raise hands. The priest says, they need plumbers, and some men say, that’s us. He says, I’m a musician. The priest says, they need mechanics, and his friend, who is a mechanic, says, that’s for us, we’ll take it. His friend works for both of them. During the day, at the garage, when anyone’s looking, he pretends to know what to do, and at night, he entertains his fellow workers by playing the guitar and singing songs they all know by heart. The Germans figure out that he’s no mechanic and fire him. He sweeps floors in the church and learns enough German to give private piano lessons. When the Berlin Wall falls, he goes back, but he doesn’t recognise this Poland. His child doesn’t recognise him. He is a stranger here and there.
Cancer takes away what little language he has. Now he can’t speak at all, so he writes notes. His handwriting is exquisite. ‘Could you please buy more shaving cream, my dear daughter?’ They are all like that: ceremonial, formal, beautiful. There is no time to talk about what’s important, so the notes he writes, and the responses I give him, are banal, but polite, and in their way perfect. We are both frustrated by the curtness imposed by the form of a note, and I discover that after all those years of thinking of things to say, to shout out, to scream in his face, the words are all gone. We end up listening to music, the universal language. The last evenings in the hospital, they let me bring in a CD player, and we listen to Chopin’s scherzos, mazurkas and polonaises. When writing about the time Chopin was composing these, his lover never called him by his name. What an embittering experience that must have been, to turn from an intimate ‘Frederic’ to ‘our invalid’. And yet, the music that was born in his mind survives, and now surges forward, dispersing the hospital smell and transforming the cell of the hospital room into a space of music. These are the pieces Chopin composed in Mallorca, sick, misunderstood, loved but also despised, far away from home, with nowhere to go, alone.
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