Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Moja droga (Part 1)

Maybe she had asked the question before; maybe she'd forgotten my rambling answer. I vaguely remember, perhaps, that we'd had this conversation sitting, no less, at a coffee shop in Warsaw. Or during a previous trip to San Francisco, undoubtedly over coffee. But while visiting my friend Jola a few weeks ago, she asked a question, perhaps again, that many others have asked throughout my seemingly bizarre life: why do I know Polish? Such a question demands more than "because I like it" or "because I studied it." These are my typical, smart-alecky answers. Both, though, are far from the truth. Let me try to get a little closer.

While growing up in Reagan's America–a time I, before having a similar conversation with someone who had lived through the nuclear disaster training of the 1950s, used to describe hyperbolically as "the height of the Cold War"–I never quite believed the Soviets were the bad guys. Despite my love of Cold War espionage films and TV, I had always assumed that the Soviets were no more evil than we Americans. I never gave much weight to the the good-guy/bad-guy mythology. Although I do remember a time when, because of the sophisticated rhetoric used by the media and politicians, I thought there were neither car accidents nor divorces in the Soviet Union. The way they were described, it was as if Camazotz had come vividly to life on the other side of the world.

On top of an already initially critical view of the US vs. them narrative, I loved Russian music, Soviet composers. Throughout elementary and high school, I studied piano; the last three years of high school I was in band and began studying music on my own. The first two years of college I was a music major, focusing on piano performance. Of course, there were the standards: Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky. But also the new guys: Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Kabalevsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. And then there was Khachaturian, whose Toccata in E-flat minor was one of my go-to pieces for competition.

Music and an interest in Russian/Soviet culture led to an important decision as a student: to find a program where I could study the language. During my last years as an undergraduate, I moved away from performance altogether and toward studies rooted in language and culture, literature and the humanities. I would complete a BA with a minor in Soviet Studies the year that the Soviet Union dissolved. Even history, it seemed, was bent on making a mockery of my life.

Alongside these developments was a growing idealism that I remember from as early as fifth grade. I wanted to travel the world, to study different cultures, to get as far away from the poverty of East Texas as I could. I toyed with a few ways to make that happen and decided that the Peace Corps would be my route. Since I was ten, I had wanted to join. Before my last year of college, I sent in my application. Because the Soviet sphere was opening up, there were plenty of opportunities throughout Central and Eastern Europe. My Russian/Soviet studies helped with my application, even more, thank goodness, than growing up on a farm. When I was accepted by the Peace Corps, my assignment was Poland. And irony of ironies: my host family during my in-country Peace Corps training lived on a farm.

And that, dear reader, dear Jola, is how I managed to find myself in Poland studying Polish. Why–and how–I stayed with it is another story.

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