The siren blared and we scurried under our desks. I imagined a bomb exploding and the school building crashing down on us, crushing my 6 year-old body. How could this little desk protect me? We were children growing up during the Cold War, and these drills were a regular part of our lives. At home, I asked my father to explain terms like “arms race,” “nuclear reaction,” “Iron Curtain,” and “Communism.” We poured over maps of Eastern Europe for hours as he explained “spheres of influence.” I was afraid of the East, and afraid of the U.S. Believing a nuclear holocaust was imminent; I lie awake late at night, afraid, daydreaming of becoming a multi-lingual diplomat who could persuade the world’s politicians to wage peace, not war.
As a child, I knew of Poland, yet what did I know, really? Although my grade school included many Polish Americans, we preferred not to discuss Poland or what was going on there. We lived in a sea of anxiety which only deepened after Martial Law was imposed in Poland. Then, like drowning men being lifted out of the water and regaining vitality, we felt immeasurable freedom from fear following the events of 1989-1990. The Cold War and its end defined my worldview, and yet I had little concrete knowledge of the Soviet Union or any Eastern European country. For Americans of my generation, Poland represented a mysterious “Other” of which I was just as ignorant as I was curious, and I longed to know more about this country.
In my mid-twenties, I was granted a scholarship from the Kosciuszko Foundation to spend one year in Poland studying Polish language and culture. I entered the country eager to learn about its history under Communism and its current economic transformations. I left the country, however, wondering when the next film by Andrziej Wajda would appear, where I could find more books by Wis?awa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert, and what inspired Stanis?aw Wyspianski’s paintings? I dropped research plans which now seemed irrelevant. What happened to me in between?
What happened was this: I realized that my understanding of Poland had been incredibly narrow and distorted. A country with over a thousand years of history cannot be adequately explained in terms of Communism or Capitalism. I had so much more to learn. And yet, I knew there were limits to my learning. There were some things that I, as an American, would never understand. Cultures are ineffably complex; they are not like apples which we can grasp and consume. They are more like the air – surrounding us, entering us, traveling far beyond us, and yet connecting us to each other. For this I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.