“Their empathy is sincere, but superficial,” writes Ryszard Kapuściński, in his last book, Travels with Herodotus. “If asked which of the countries they have visited they like best, they are embarrassed — they do not know how to answer. Which one? In a certain sense — all of them.” Known internationally as “Journalist of the Century,” Kapuściński grew up in Poland under the communist regime. When he set out, he’d expected to stay close to home in nearby Czechoslovakia: he ended up in India. Kapuściński writes knowingly if not altogether disapprovingly of a kind of traveler to whom certain tropes apply, like “love it and leave it,” “veni vidi vici,” “been there, done that,” and “forward, march.” The Virgil to Kapuściński’s perplexing world, Herodotus shows him the way around. And Herodotus is the one to do it, the father of history and travel writing — of globalism, really.
A couple of years ago, Polo and I were walking toward the old square in Poznań, in west-central Poland. This was a year before former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk became the President of the European Council by unanimous vote. The only other president since the office was formalized in 2009 was a Belgian from the European club’s innermost sanctum, and Tusk’s appointment, the Economist wrote, “cap[ped] Poland’s journey to Europe’s core.” Certainly it telegraphed the country’s reinvention to the rest of the world.
Walking around with Polo, I was awestruck by the building activity, an amount of construction I had not seen since before the bubble burst in central Florida, my native home. Polo flung his hand at a half-built glass building. “In a month, that will be finished. It is all so fast in Poland.” And I’d spun around. “But. Is it booming?” I was genuinely surprised, and he said: “What’s the matter with you. You’re supposed to be cultivated.”
Polo was a ballet dancer who studied with the celebrated choreographer Maurice Béjart. He was doing something else then — to my mind it was unclear what, but something that warranted a pied-à-terre in Poznań. He called himself a “visionary”; I thought he was a spy. He has brown, smiling and downturned eyes like James Franco, and we’d lapsed into half-hearted friendship after meeting in Paris one night several summers ago. His mysterious work was keeping him from Paris, where I was living, so I’d gone to Poland for a few days to try to catch a glimpse of what is being billed “the New Eastern Europe.”
I knew so little about it. Cursory reading included a two-year-old article by Anne Applebaum on the state of modern Poland, and “nowadays,” she writes, “one often hears Poles describe their country as northern, not eastern European: they identify with northern sobriety and austerity, not southern profligacy or eastern backwardness.” I started saying NÉE. The New Eastern Europe, formerly of the Eastern Bloc, now of the European Union. “[Poland] did not join the euro, and so does not have to bail out Greece,” she impresses. “It did not launch a spending spree after the financial crisis, and so is not about to default. At the same time, Poland became the biggest beneficiary of EU largesse: new roads, railways, parks, museums and even utilities built with EU money. Last summer, I drove to Gdańsk on a motorway so new it didn’t yet show up on my GPS.”
“Poles don’t trust banks,” Polo was saying, “— they keep their money at home.”
“Under the mattress, so to speak?”
He looked at me. “Not so.to.speak. It saved them.” With a rocketing real GDP growth rate, Poland, he suggested, was faring better than many other EU nations, by far. We paused in front of a marble sculpture of cherubim with instruments — the angels seemed to be partying with gusto. “That mistrust, that’s got to be a Soviet hangover, no?” Beyond the square were dour gray blocks, but in the pre-communism centre the old mixed-use buildings were painted in bright colors and fanciful murals and trimmed with ornamentation, and Polo nodded. He noted other effects — how Polish is a language of whispers, like the scht in borscht, “Because you knew you couldn’t talk.”
Borscht and pierogis sounded wonderful, but he directed us to a sushi restaurant where we made our lunch selections from wasen boats that sailed in miniature in a moat encircling the bar.
“Arrêtez!” Polo would call; I’d grab a wooden deck. “No — that one. With the eel.”
A Polish woman and her nonPolish companion chatted behind us. October had seen the death of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former Polish prime minister who was Eastern Europe’s first democratically-elected PM after communism. Between mouthfuls of nigiri, incidentally a couple weeks before Nelson Mandela’s own death, this Pole told this nonPole that Mazowiecki was “Poland’s Mandela.” Who knows if she was being hyperbolic (the same lady claimed she could eat nigiri for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) or facile in the way we sometimes hear ourselves explain ourselves and our tribe to an outsider, but that was how it was. Catching boats and sound bites, trying.
“You must not wear it,” Polo said that night. “It’s a sweater and we are going salsa dancing. Amie nécessaire, wear the black one.” Both dresses were black. “The black one who is not really a sweater, then.” He was impatient, so I changed into the second, slinky frock, and by 10:30 p.m. we were walking into a Cuban dance club that was celebrating its third anniversary, though the Cuban émigrés who own it have lived in Poland for decades. “Fuck,” Polo murmured. “Everybody’s playing the game.”
Most people were kitted out in fatigues, some in the form of skintight minidresses, and red-starred berets and fedoras; dozens appeared in thick black frames in the mode of Fidel Castro. They were toting decommissioned machine guns.
“Marco?” he joked, and rubbed his hands together.
“But good we’re wearing black,” Polo said. He pointed to a man in a plum gingham dress shirt and overwrought rocker bluejeans. “Worse to be that guy.”
On the walls, plasma televisions looped broadcasts of Che speeches. Polish women with nightclub-straightened-hair and brick-red lips and men with fauxhawks or buzzes were drinking Cuba libres, mojitos, and daiquiris, and cooly pulsing. “¡Victoria!” Dominick exclaimed, walking toward us with a raised glass. He was a British English professor friend of Polo’s; by his tongue victoria sounded like the queen. (Note that I’d recently learned the mazurka, a Polish folk dance in triple meter, in the alcoves along the Seine by Notre-Dame, but have no idea how to salsa. I started taking notes instead.) Oliver from Spain explained that Inez, one of the owner’s daughters, told him he should wear whatever. “So I don’t look to be El Comandante, like that one,” he said enviously.
“Yes, he’s looking well,” Dominick said of the very passable Fidel. “They’re all looking bloody well.”
Above the dance floor a half-moon of disco ball revolved slowly, somehow menacing and Foucaultian. A bartender streaked black makeup beneath his eyes; red bulls charged each other on the doors of small-scale fridges; and neon script blinked “A MEJOR FIESTA SOLO EN CUBA LIBRE.”
“You should have come as a pig,” Polo told Dominick.
“No one would get the joke.”
Passing a party-sized, camouflage cake with a marzipan handgun, grenade, tank, and military beret sculpted on it, we moved into a back room set up in the style of a military camp, with a thatched hut, leaf netting, and military-issue trunk surrounded by cots. Polo, Dominick and I took one and the event photographer handed Dominick an AK-47.
“So where’s the switch from automatic to semi-automatic shot?”
Polo demonstrated, joking, “It’s like Chicago.” The ballerina who knew his way around this gun removed the magazine — “Who do you work for?” I hissed — and clicked components of the Kalashnikov into place. “It’s fine,” he said dryly. “But it’s a real one, baby. You see?”
I asked the event photographer to take our picture with my iPhone, and with the seriousness of a Leica user, he did. The phone came back five minutes later: “I took about twenty.” Polo burst with laughter. “You send to your mother!” he said. “Do it. Say, Mama, there’s no problem in Poland!”
About that time, a cabal of Fidels and a man in vintage Russian navy regalia descended on the campground. The man, Dominick translated, said he bought the uniform in an antique shop by the seaside. One of the Fidels knocked into the silk fronds of a fake palm tree, and grumbled.
“What’d he say?” I asked.
“He said, The jungle is alive.”
On the trunk, Polo’s Żywiec beer stood with an orange cocktail napkin around its neck like an Hermès scarf. He picked it up to make room for a map of Cuba a Fidel had brought to the table. That excited the other Fidels a lot; they unfolded the baby blue and green map, yelled, and jabbed fingers and knives at outposts of the island. They were pointing at the inlet on the southwestern coast.
“Now what are they saying?
“They are just kidding. They’re saying, Let’s go here, as if the idea just occurred to them out of boredom.” They were pointing to the Bay of Pigs and I watched Dominick’s smirking face reconfigure with interest.
“What are they saying?”
It turned out that more than one of the brothers believed Castro designed Kennedy’s death as punishment for the Bay of Pigs attempt. The day before had been the anniversary of the November 22 assassination, and a half-century later, it wasn’t only Americans who were preoccupied with it. It’s hard to say why. Maybe because the young, beautiful president wasn’t supposed die, and when he did, it seemed to crack the system that ordained which nations could win and which could lose. Former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had just appeared on RTL (French Radio) to revisit a car ride with President Ford in 1976. “The Warren Commission didn’t do a great job,” the American had reportedly confided in the Frenchman. And Giscard d’Estaing said Ford told him, “It wasn’t a lone assassin — it was a plot. We knew for sure that it was a plot, but we didn’t find out who was behind it.”
Polo brought over a paper plate of sliced bread, sausage and mustard and said there was pea soup, “soldier food,” and another Fidel, the sixth or seventh, appeared with an unlit roll of tobacco in his mouth.
“Figaro!” The others yelled. “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!”
I looked to Dominick, but he just shrugged. Figaro saluted his brethren and, biting the cigar, bent down to turn an old crank siren at his feet. The wail blended into the son cubano bongos and guitars and the meaningful voice of a female vocalist, whose afro we could see through the doorway, on-stage above everyone’s heads.
At the bar we ordered another round, lazily twirling sepia lanterns that hung over the counter. They were papered with family photographs from Cuba: one with a closeup of hands playing dominos; one with tobacco earring in the field — Dominick pointed at a dark little boy crouching on the sidewalk. “This is me,” he joked. “That was my first car. It was a 1950s Ford. I stole it.”
It was midnight. I was three mojitos in, reading the revolutionary slogans framed boldly on the club’s walls: Huve Batista, Cuba No Esta Sola, Viva Cuba. On the dance floor, the ruffled hemlines of little black dresses spun off shiny legs, fedoras tipped in appreciation, and it was hot there, but you understand it was cold. Poland had seeped into our Little Havana.
I pressed a hand to Polo’s cheek. “Zut! You’re freezing! Take your rabbits.” He meant the rabbit fur mittens I’d bought on the street last night. “You want tea?” I couldn’t have tea at a Latin dancehall. “You can. You can have.” I meant shouldn’t, but Polo conversed in Polish with the bartender, then turned to me: “They are preparing the tea. You want my vest?” He draped it over my shoulders. When Dominick came back he looked down at me sitting on the banquette, taking sugar, rattling a delicate forest-green cup and saucer.
The silver disco ball threw smithereens of green, blue, and red light at us. Everybody said the Latin dancehall was The Place to Go in Poznań. We’d gone around to others, including an unprecedented gay nightclub, but there was something going on there, at once cheap and deep, like an ironic salute. (“¡Patria o Muerte, venceremos!” ) I began to believe everyone knew exactly what they were doing.
“Every time I go out in Poland, I’m fascinated,” Polo had remarked earlier. “They make me laugh, the Polish: they drink so incredible much but they always stay standing. Look — watch!” A drunken man managed the few yards up the inclined street to a lamppost. He collected himself for a minute, then continued on, slowly uphill but zig-zagging back and forth between the left and right shoulders. “He won’t allow himself to sit down,” Polo said admiringly, “he will stay standing.” He pointed, “And her, she won’t fall in those heels. They are experts!”
I was wondering if a man in a CHE GUEVARA-lettered tee just happened to have had that look in his closet, or what, when Polo walked over with a slice of the cake. “Here. It’s a piece of the grenade,” he said, lifting a forkful to my mouth. It tasted of banana.
I shot the last of the tea like vodka or rum. “D’accord, we can go to another place,” Polo said. It sounded like something a footloose expat would say: urbane, entitled, where there once might have been a sense of amazement, but some Polish women were shouting in the corner. I wasn’t mishearing. At least I prefer to believe I wasn’t. “Viva la Evolución!” they were saying, “Viva la Evolución! Viva la Evolución!” Fiercely, and over and over.