Friday, January 16, 2009

Poland, the Sea, the Swans, and Me

I walked down to the see the other day.

I had been planning to do this for a long time. "It's winter," I told myself. "I have never seen the sea in winter." What does it do when it's surrounded by snow? And when the snow is falling, where do the flakes go? Do they abandon their selves right away and become immediately part of the sea? or do they float for a moment, holding onto their last shreds of iciness?

On the days when I wanted to walk to the beach, I told myself, "This is my chance. The sea, the winter. I have to see it. " On the days when I didn't go, which was all of them, I told myself, "It's the sea. Sand, water. The sky will be gray. The sea will be gray. What's to look at?"

But then I did go.

In the winter, the beach had become the territory of the swans. Earlier we had had cormorants, and of course there were always the gulls. But now the huge birds--twenty of them, at least, a mixture of the old, pure white, and the young, mostly brown--formed a large cluster extending from the water out across the beach.

Two of the birds, at least waist high to me, stood guarding the entrance. We watched each other for a while, them making small movements toward me, me standing very still, petitioning to enter. I must have passed because when I finally did walk by them onto the beach, the looked away disinterestedly.

I made it a point after that to visit the sea and the swans. Because when I am there, there is me and the water, quietly moving along the shore, and there are the swans. And the other sea-watchers with their dogs, who come to bid good morning. And I am not alone.

One afternoon, I saw a man standing at the edge of the water, feeding the swans from his hand. The birds were grouped all around him and not just swans but ducks and gulls as well. They fought over the food at his feet, squawking and nipping at each other. And in the midst of all this sat his huge, black St. Bernard. And the swans were not scared, and the dog was not scared, and the man stood letting the birds pluck at his clothes and snatch the food from his hand.

A few mornings later, I went for a run along the water's edge. As I passed the swans, one leader and then another and another stood up from the water and began their slow waddle toward me. The whole group came sauntering casually after me. Swans, white and brown, rising from their stations in the shallow water to crane their necks toward me, walking slowly, a hint of suspicion in their eyes. Why had they chosen me? It was not the two middle-aged women, strolling arm in arm that they approached. I was their choice.

I did not wait to see what the birds would do when they reached me, but still I was not afraid. We were here, all together. The swans, the sea, the gulls and ducks, the middle-aged women, the St. Bernard, and me. All together in this mix of a beach. That seems to be one of the points of Poland. Maybe it is some leftover Communist mentality or maybe it comes from living so long in a state of need. For years, the food was rationed and the stores were empty. Who cares about money where there's nothing to buy? And this puts people more or less on the same plane. All of us are in need and so we help each other.

And now, still, the professor at the university bids good morning to the cleaning lady, calling her Pani Dorota. The teenage boys on the tram with their hoods pulled up spring out of their seats for the woman with the cane. And when the child on the tram shouts and screams with laughter, we all smile toward her, and then toward each other.

The St. Bernard stands among the swans and, I suppose, so do I.