The Cold War Love Story of a Would-Be Travel Writer/Almost-Spy

Thomas Swick's Tough Choices in 1978 Warsaw

In the fall of 1978 I left a promising career in journalism—in the wake of Watergate, every career in journalism was promising—and moved to Poland. The explanation I gave everyone was that I had fallen in love with a Polish woman. Aside from being true, it was more understandable, and respectable, than the other reason: I wanted to be a travel writer.

I had spent a year in France, acquiring what I thought of as skills but very little in the way of material. The country was too familiar, even back then, already somewhat over-described. Poland, hidden behind the Iron Curtain, offered the tantalizing gift of the unknown.

I flew to Paris and boarded a train to Warsaw, for the full sensory experience of entering the Soviet sphere. At the station, Hania hugged me and told me her mother was dying. I was taken to the hospital to meet the woman I had hoped would become my mother-in-law. Three days later Halina Matraś was buried in Powązki Cemetery.

Adam, Hania’s ex-boyfriend, stopped by the apartment with condolences. He was a well-built, handsome man with a dark goatee. He pulled me into the bedroom and opened a Polish-English dictionary. After searching for a few seconds, he indicated the word for “love” (kochać). Next he moved to “P” and showed me “pomagać” (help). Then, looking me in the eye, he pointed in the direction of the living room, where Hania sat. I had just gotten my first lesson in Polish gallantry.

This was not how I had pictured our new life beginning, but in retrospect it was a fitting start, a visit to a hospital followed by one to a cemetery. I was given a sense of the shadows that hover at the edges of all life but seem somehow to intrude with more frequency into the Polish edition. I had read that the first business to open in Warsaw after the war had been a flower shop, and thought it touching—this triumph of the romantic over the practical—until I realized that the flowers were needed to adorn all the fresh graves.

I got a six-month work visa and a job teaching at the venerable English Language College on Plac Zbawiciela. It was assumed that, because I spoke the language, I could teach it. “Just walk in the door,” the director said to me, “and you’ll be fine.”

Since we didn’t have a telephone, we’d often just appear at someone’s door, where we were always invited in, given a meal, or at least tea and cake.

I did and I wasn’t. The lesson that day was on the conditional, and the drill moved back and forth among the three variations. “If it rains, I will…” “If it rained, I would…” “If it had rained, I would have…” It’s easy and obvious when you’re sitting at a keyboard, but it gets confusing when you’re standing in front of a roomful of students for the first time in your life, in a city you’ve just moved to in a country behind a curtain. Adding to my disorientation were the faces of the females, who were of an attractiveness one didn’t yet associate with Eastern Europe. Interesting how, in four decades, the stern, stout woman in a babushka has been completely supplanted by the stern, lithe supermodel. And how the conditional has also pretty much disappeared. “If he catches that pass,” the lazy announcer says seconds after the ball slips through the receiver’s fingers, “it’s a touchdown.”

I taught on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and on my free days I explored the city, quickly discovering there wasn’t much to explore. There were no neighborhoods to speak of; there were districts—Żoliborz (where we lived), Muranów, Mokotów, Wola, Ochota—to which Varsovians attributed individual qualities but that appeared to me as mostly indistinguishable collections of drab apartment blocks. The two with true character sat on the other side of the Vistula River: Praga, the shadowy working-class quarter, and Saska Kępa, whose leafy streets and pre-war villas attracted foreign embassy personnel.

There was little in the way of street life. Crowds filled the major shopping boulevards—Marszałkowska and Jerozolimskie—but they were purposeful, not spirited, their individual members unengaged in anything beyond their dogged pursuits. And, except for the young women who had gone abroad and enhanced their wardrobes, like Hania, they were as dowdy as the mannequins in the state department store windows.

The British Council occupied a four-story building on Aleje Jerozolimskie. The second-floor library overlooked the Central Station, a modernist structure already showing its age, and the Palace of Culture, a gift from the Soviets that towered over the city in brute, dulled, gloating majesty. When Hania told me the popular assessment of it, that it was “small but in good taste,” I felt immediately drawn to Poles, as one always is to people whose sense of humor matches one’s own.

The library was the ideal place to read, as I did one particularly gloomy afternoon, Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism. “With the abolition of private property, then,” Wilde wrote, “we shall have true, beautiful, healthy individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” I wished I could have taken him on a stroll down Marszałkowska Street.

There were more uplifting works. Reading A House for Mr. Biswas in Warsaw, my introduction to V.S. Naipaul, I became the reverse of Graham Greene, who used to take Trollope on his trips to the tropics. Except that, instead of retreating back into the familiar in a foreign place, I was escaping one alien world for another, one that in raw, damp, autumnal Poland appeared immensely attractive.

I was a spoiled American, seeing for the first time how much of the world lives.

The other book that captivated me was A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. I must have been attracted by the title (the perfect title for what, I soon discovered, was the perfect travel book) and the cover, which carried a charming illustration of the young vagabond gazing at a large, low-lying sun. I had never heard of the author but I was immediately intoxicated by his sentences that, in a robustly baroque style, married youthful enthusiasm with rigorous learning—a combination made possible by the fact that he wrote this account of his walk in the 1930s from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople decades after completing the trek. In fact, the book had been published just one year earlier, in 1977. Also appealing was the fact that he was writing about a part of the world most travel writers ignored and that I now found myself in: Northern Europe. He made it seem romantic, even exotic, which, in the years preceding World War II, it probably was.

Admittedly, the tawdriness of the Soviet Bloc had a certain exoticism, though probably more so if you didn’t have to live in it day after day. There was a dreary grandness to Warsaw that gnawed at one (or me): the too-wide boulevards, the wind-swept squares, the lugubrious ministries that made up in bulk what they lacked in height. The city looked as you would expect an Eastern European capital to look—especially one that had been mostly leveled by war—which was like a Washington badly in need of a paint job. I now understood why Hania hadn’t taken to D.C. the weekend we visited; why its famous monuments had smacked to her of socialist realism. Because so many of them had been forced on her and her compatriots, she bristled at concrete—even marble—representations of the high-flown.

Though there were clearly two Polands: There was the public one, of puddled sidewalks and drafty post offices and lusterless shops, and there was the private one. I felt privileged to have entry into this Poland through Hania, who could get on a tram and go see most of the people she had ever known in her life—a prospect that to an American adult seemed, even if you discounted the means of transportation, almost miraculous. Since we didn’t have a telephone, we’d often just appear at someone’s door, where we were always invited in, given a meal, or at least tea and cake. I spoke French with most of the aunts—feisty anti-Communist Catholics—while getting a crash course in Polish manners.

A man removed his hat as soon as he entered a building. In the vestibules of most people’s apartments, one took off one’s shoes and stepped into an oversized pair of immemorial slippers. For greetings and farewells, one started with the females, and always the oldest, working one’s way down chronologically. Older men, and some younger traditionalists, kissed women’s hands, a gesture that seemed, especially when performed in front of an antique mirror or a pre-war portrait, a small act of rebellion. There are no comrades in a world of kissed hands. At meals, one kept both hands atop the table. (Hania had always found the unseen American hand at mealtimes suspicious.) On the street, a man walked on a woman’s left side. On buses and trams, if you were lucky enough to find a seat, you immediately relinquished it to any elderly person who appeared in the vicinity. At school, students never addressed teachers with their hands in their pockets. As a rule, all men kept their hands out of their pockets. Poles (Slavs? Europeans?) wanted to see what your hands were up to.

It was the home life that, for me, made Warsaw livable. Going to our local spożywczy, poorly stocked and rudely staffed, I would think back fondly to childhood trips with my mother to our friendly neighborhood grocer. I was a spoiled American, seeing for the first time how much of the world lives. Years later I would read a biography of Ryszard Kapuściński and be struck by the fact that, while he had been in Africa reporting on the ravages of European colonialism, I had been in his country nearly as traumatized by the degradations of Soviet socialism. Returning home, we would each find ourselves in Eden. But his, from my privileged perspective, appeared grim and harsh (and winter hadn’t yet arrived), its people stuck in a muted half-life.

It was the interior world that Poles, and fortunate foreigners, valued. And it was so sacrosanct, the apartment door was such a barricade, that I rarely saw our neighbors.

Yet even on the streets there were occasional rewards. People possess an aesthetic quality that, for the traveler, can have an uplifting effect, something I first discovered in Poland. France is so gorgeous, most of its towns are so charming, that they would stand out even if there were no people in them. In fact, there is a saying (which I don’t subscribe to) that the country would be wonderful if only it could be emptied of its inhabitants. Much of Warsaw, by contrast, was unattractive, but on the saddest street, the loneliest bus, you could see the prettiest face. And for a moment, nothing else mattered. In my career I’ve found myself in places much uglier than Soviet Bloc Warsaw, cities of real poverty and despair (Kapuściński’s world), and had it all redeemed, or at least made bearable, by a pair of dancing eyes, a guileless smile, an effortless grace. And of course the beauty is even greater for the squalor that surrounds it.

But it was the interior world that Poles, and fortunate foreigners, valued. And it was so sacrosanct, the apartment door was such a barricade, that I rarely saw our neighbors. So I was surprised, coming home one evening in October, to find people talking excitedly on the stairwell. Inside, Hania told me that there was a rumor that the new pope was Polish. The idea seemed so inconceivable that she could not yet accept it as fact. But that evening, watching the news on television, we learned that the archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, had been elected to succeed Pope John Paul I. Hania took great pleasure in watching the anchorman as he struggled to hide his nationalist pride and stay not only neutral and objective but also, as an employee of the state-run news service in an officially atheistic country, vaguely dismissive, or at least unimpressed. The next day at school I walked into my classes and saw students beaming above copies of Życie Warszawy that, I knew, would not be discarded. The immense pride and delight were obvious, but there was also a sense that life as they had known it was about to change

*

One weekend a friend of Hania’s visited from England. Graham was a professor she had met at a conference and then befriended, visiting his wife and children in Birmingham. We rendezvoused with him in Łazienki, the most beautiful of Warsaw’s numerous parks.

Graham, I was happy to see, was old enough to be our father. He had bad teeth and a large nose that supported thick glasses. He was funny and easy-going and enjoyed a special rapport with Hania. She opened the present he had brought her, a small toiletries bag, and then opened the bag, slightly disappointed to find nothing inside. Sometimes, I was told, Graham hid a banana inside gifts. The sight of Hania searching like a child for a scarce fruit touched me deeply.

A week after he left, Graham sent a letter to Hania. In it, he advised her to come to some decision regarding our relationship, as it wasn’t fair to string me along. I sensed that his hope was that she would end it. Hania had told me that once, after drinking, he had tried to kiss her; she had laughed it off as the harmless product of a midlife crisis, and they had remained friends. (My admiration grew for her understanding of the human, or at least male, condition.) I suspected that, not being able to have her himself, Graham didn’t want anyone else to either, especially an American. He was after all a British academic.

But his summation of our situation hit me hard, for it reminded me that I was at the mercy of a verdict.

Teaching helped keep my mind off my personal life; I had not only challenging students but interesting colleagues. We rarely talked shop, and almost never touched on trivial subjects. Sports and pop culture, so dominant in the States, kept a refreshingly low profile in Poland. The lack of junk food extended to the mental diet. TV was boring but it wasn’t puerile; bookstores carried classics instead of romances; movies, from directors like Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi, delved into history and questions of morality. This didn’t produce a humorless people—because of the despised system, there was always a fresh crop of political jokes—but it made them impatient with, or simply uninterested in, the insignificant.

I often prepared for my classes in the library of the U.S. Embassy, which was a short walk from the English Language College. I would enter the side entrance on Piękna (Beautiful) Street, greet the Marine at his post, and then walk in through the open door. Anyone could do the same; there was no security check or request for ID. Most Poles avoided the place though, not wanting to be seen (by whom one never knew) on the grounds of the American embassy. Those who spoke or studied English tended to go to the British Council, for it had been situated, sensibly, far from the British embassy, and so carried no official governmental affiliation. It was simply, on the surface, an institute of English (just as the Alliance Française was one of French). Of course it had a small role in the coming global domination of English, though nothing compared to that which the Internet would play, but it was free of the stench of propaganda that clung to the library of a Western embassy. I always wondered if our foreign service officers understood this, and simply didn’t care, or if we needed some help in the art of persuasion.

The sun, which we rarely saw, was now setting in midafternoon. The light was like that at the bottom of an aquarium. It made Poles’ love for their hamstrung country all the more impressive, though most, even if they remembered the pre-war democracy, had never experienced a sunny Advent.

A few days after Christmas a storm arrived that would stamp the season as “the winter of the century.” Temperatures dropped to well below freezing and brought with them a torrent of blizzards.

I sat at the window and watched with dread as wind-whipped snow obliterated everything, including the belief that I was in a European capital. All I could see was a howling white emptiness.

On a snowy, blustery New Year’s Eve we headed out to a party at the apartment of one of Hania’s university friends. I had never seen so many smiles on buses. True to their forebears, Poles were exulting in the storm, at least the young ones were. Their monotone life had been turned into an adventure. A fellow teacher told me later of the Polish philosopher who wrote that Poles can be happy only in those situations when they have no reason to be.

There was a dreary grandness to Warsaw that gnawed at one: the too-wide boulevards, the wind-swept squares, the lugubrious ministries that made up in bulk what they lacked in height.

I of course had not envisioned any of this that autumn day in London when I first met Hania. And for all my discomfort—physical and psychological—I didn’t regret coming; I was grateful for the new experiences. Someday, I thought to myself, you’ll look back at this and write.

Toward the end of January we made a nervous trip to Krucza Street to ask for an extension of my visa. The man who had gifted me the original was still there, a chunky functionary in a thick woolen sweater and curly blond hair. He didn’t look happy to see me.

Returning a few days later, we learned that my request had been denied. Hania wasn’t too worried; when refused favors from the authorities you waited a bit, she told me, and tried again. You might find your man in a better mood, or chance upon someone new.

On my second try, we found our shaggy, sweatered blond man. This time, too, I received a denial.

We went to dinner with friends, a Fulbright couple, at the Budapeszt Crystal, the best of the city’s few ethnic restaurants. Each one represented a Communist country, and while this could have meant great Chinese and Cuban food, it didn’t. Those countries were too distant and exotic for faithful recreations of their cuisines, and few Varsovians dined at Szanghaj or Hawana. Hungary, by contrast, was not only in the neighborhood, it was one of the few countries there that Poland had historically close ties with. (It helped, I always thought, that they no longer shared a border; the Germans and Russians were both despised—for obvious reasons—while the Czechs were mildly ridiculed.) Many Poles traveled to Budapest (the city) to celebrate New Year’s, and a perennial at parties, along with vodka, was Egri Bikaver, the Hungarian red wine known as “bull’s blood.” For my part, I liked Hungarian food because it took a lot of the bland things northern Europeans ate and spiced them up. But I wondered why, given the bias toward Communist cuisines, a city like Bologna wasn’t represented. I could have gone for some spaghetti in meat sauce.

Over flame-heated bowls of goulash, we told Peter and Jeanne that I might soon have to leave the country.

On our third trip to Krucza Street, with three days left on my visa, Hania was kept downstairs while our man escorted me upstairs. This was new; she had always stayed with me to serve as interpreter. I was led into an office where a hefty man sat behind an empty desk. He summarized my situation, in heavily accented English, and then said, “If you help us, we can help you.”

I had not been expecting this, a scene from a movie. I asked him to explain what he meant.

He said that I was in a unique position, having contacts with Poles and contacts with foreigners. He said that all I had to do was come to his office once a week and tell him what these people were saying. He noted that it was not that different from the journalism I had been doing in the States. I found the comparison insulting, but reading years later of Kapuściński’s cooperation with the authorities, which helped earn him those long stints abroad, I finally understood my apparatchik’s thinking.

I told him I was only interested in teaching, work I had been doing for less than a year. I felt a little sheepish claiming the profession as my new passion, when my passion sat downstairs. The man knew all about Hania, and clearly hoped that I would do anything, including work as an informer (a word that was never mentioned), in order to be with her. If I accepted his offer, he said, my visa would be extended indefinitely. But I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone, including Hania, of my new avocation. This was the flaw in the proposition, even for people who, unlike me, felt no political or patriotic allegiance. In order to remain with your beloved you had to betray your beloved.

After several minutes, I told the man what I had felt from the start, that I wasn’t interested in his offer. He showed no emotion—I’m sure he’d heard my answer before—and said there was nothing then that he could do about my visa.

I had received my verdict, just not from Hania.

I walked down the stairs and found her waiting. I didn’t say a word, fearing repercussions if anyone heard me reveal what had just happened. I led her outside and walked until the noxious building fell out of sight. Then, finally, I told her why I looked so shaken.

She was not impressed; friends of hers had had the same interview when requesting their passports to go abroad. She jokingly asked what the salary would be.

Three days later, at the Central Station, Hania saw me off on the night train to Budapest, where I would get one to Bucharest, and then one to Sofia, and then one to Athens, thinking all the while of Warsaw.

Thomas Swick
Thomas Swick
Thomas Swick is the author of three books, the most recent being The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. His work has appeared in six editions of The Best American Travel Writing.





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