An Exile from America Returns for the Holidays
NICE PEOPLE IN A CRUEL COUNTRY
I guess we’re just not the high flyers we once were. In 1969, when was 19, I traveled around the world on Pan Am. The line was a sort of national flagship — service was excellent on the sleek fleet glittering with confidence. But as I jot these notes, in December 1991, I am waiting at Fiumicino Airport in Rome for a different American carrier — to take me home for Christmas. Over the years one has come to dread flights on American carriers: crowded as buses, service by often aging (rights, rights!) and naturally impatient personnel, late flights. European acquaintances pity our carriers, telling horror stories of what happened on those dirty American planes. We are eight hours late leaving Rome.
It had been quite a December: While grinding out the fourth chapter of my dissertation, I was called in to translate at the Synod of European Bishops. Meeting the Holy Father, I told him was serving as translator from German into Russian. Sadly mindful of the Orthodox boycott, he asked with a wry smile, “Kto slucha?” (“Who’s listening?”). Meeting Poland’s Cardinal Glemp at the Synod, I was able to apologize for the unconscionably rude treatment he had received in the U.S. at the hands of some of my “fellow Americans.” So the extra eight hours at Fiumicino gave me a chance to write the Christmas cards that had fallen victim to dissertation and Synod. Going home. My first Christmas home in five years.
When asked where I’m from, I often say I’m a refugee from New York. The New York of my childhood was Polish gothic towers, the onion domes of Orthodoxy, and the tablet shaped windows of synagogues, not so different from the world of my ancestors, though for the most part without mud and trees. That city still exists in many ways, fed by ongoing immigration, but I left it many years ago, first for the wild west (New Jersey, to be exact) and eventually for points more wooded. I confess that I view America from a unique angle: I am an American of Polish descent, conscious of history, aware of ongoing public slurs against Polish people in the contemporary U.S., slurs spread worldwide along with American culture. I cannot honestly write of the U.S. without writing of this. We were very naïve then, when I was a child, presuming that we could leave the Polish immigrant ghetto in Brooklyn and just “assimilate”: We knew nothing yet of a nation of well-organized pressure groups, often ethnically based, lobbying for funds, fighting for “image,” that most important credential in sophisticated, communications-oriented America. “Lookin’ good.”
For one raised in New York, Manhattan at Christmas remains incomparable. Except for the demeaning electronics shops on Fifth Avenue (if it’s any consolation, there’s a Burger King on the Champs Elysee), the Midtown still has its old magic. The streets seem a bit thin on the kind of European working-class people with whom I was raised; other representatives of American life now dominate the scene: stockbrokers and their wives from Colorado (who love New York) and young people from Uptown doing remarkably gymnastic dances for donations. New York may have changed since my childhood, but New York is New York, and I confess I love it too (at least to visit). Yet somehow I found another, somehow more congenial home in Rome. Chi sa?
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