I was in the back of the car, perched on a pile of bedding and blankets. My parents were sitting in front, glancing about anxiously. We were crossing the border.

We had left Poland a couple days before. Our visa to Holland was good for a vacation visit of a few weeks, but my parents–although I didn’t know it yet at the time–were planning to overstay it. They actively opposed the Communist government in Poland, and this was causing us more and more problems. So off we went, with a little bit of money in our pocket, our black cocker spaniel at my mother’s feet on the passenger side, and our green VW bug packed to the brim with our possessions. Funny thing is, at the time our Volkswagen seemed like a giant car compared to the little Fiats many Poles were driving.

And here we were, crossing from East Germany into the West, and it was scary. Our car was so overloaded that it crawled along, and we feared that it would overheat and die at the border crossing, which would have gotten us in serious trouble. It didn’t help that there were guard towers at the side of the road with armed soldiers inside of them. Our baggage was thoroughly searched, and then–with a huge sigh of relief–we were through.

Europe has come such a long way since then. I still remember how excited we were when Poland became a member nation of the European Union. Now it really felt like we would be a part of Europe, and hopefully wouldn’t go back to being one of Russia’s satellites. It was also a moment of pride for us when Donald Tusk, an ex-Prime Minister of Poland, was chosen to be President of the European Council.

The internal borders of Europe are now a different place. There is free movement between countries. The younger generation of Poland can live in Spain or Scotland if they so choose (and if they can find a job there). My uncle now lives and works in London. I would not want to go back to the severe restrictions of the past.

Yet the tragic events in Paris this week have sparked a conversation about precisely that. Some countries are discussing the possibility of changing the rules of the Schengen Treaty–which established freedom of movement in the European Union–and bringing back border checkpoints. I’ve also heard American journalists express surprise over the lack of border searches between, say, France and Belgium. I’m not sure those reporters understand how the concept of the EU is supposed to work. Europe is trying to be a united community–although this process has come with many problems–so what they are suggesting would be a bit like having checkpoints between American states. Sure, it might make things safer if we were searched when entering California from Oregon, but I suspect it would also change the way the people in different states view each other.

So will the terrorist attacks in France lead to a tightening of controls in Europe, much like the 9/11 attacks did in America? I would be sad to see this happen, especially if the European continent regressed to being a more divided place. Let’s hope we can find less drastic solutions to the terrorism question.

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Here’s how a workplace conversation went for me a few months ago:

“Hey, what’s that? Oh…a book about the Warsaw Ghetto?”

“Um…yeah. You know, just a little light summer reading.”

“Why? Is it because you broke up with your boyfriend? Are you depressed?”

Lately, I’ve been on a reading binge about the history of my native country, Poland. I was only eleven when I left, so I’ve never examined Polish history with adult eyes. Yes, that means reading about World War II and the Holocaust. Yes, these are dark subjects. But life can be dark. Part of understanding myself is understanding where I come from, and my psyche comes from the sick and twisted European continent of the twentieth century, with its totalitarian regimes and its spilled blood. There’s no getting away from that.

However, I find myself becoming self-conscious about how everyone else might view me as I lug around these stories of doom. Will they indeed think I’m depressed? Crazy? Emotionally unstable? Now I only pull my books out of my backpack when the lunchroom is relatively empty, and I don’t spot anyone I know nearby. To my dismay, I’ve realized that I would be a lot less embarrassed if I was caught reading a cheesy romance novel, because at least that would be considered normal. A romance novel wouldn’t get me suspicious looks.

Or worse. On a recent train ride to work, I was reading Architects of Annihilation by Gotz Aly, a truly chilling work which examines how Nazi technocrats decided that killing millions of people was justified, based on perfectly “rational” economic policy. The cover design of the book includes a swastika–and this prompted the guy across from me to lean in and enthusiastically explain to me how much he admired Hitler. I literally wanted to crawl under my seat. He finished his tribute with: “And you know what I really love about him? His brutality. He knew that sometimes you have to resolve things in an ugly way, man.”

At this point, his girlfriend hastily shushed him and pulled him off the train. The girlfriend was comical in her own right. She was clearly mortified that he was saying all these things in public, yet had no problem being with a guy who gets a hard-on from the Fuhrer’s brutality in the first place. All of a sudden, the fact that Charles Manson is getting married was no longer such a mystery to me.

Anyway, I’ve come up with a solution to help me continue my history studies with minimum trouble. I’m going to make a fake cover to wrap my library books in, preferably one with a picture of a buff Fabio on it. That way, everyone can breathe easy and assume that I’m having happy fantasies about my future boyfriend. And with not a single serious thought in my head, as it should be.

Ah, the scent of children’s tears and crushed dreams is in the air–must be time to go back to school.

I remember how much I dreaded this time of year when I was little. I knew I could look forward to spending my days getting mocked by my old Communist teacher, who hated my family for not being Communist, and attacked by my Catholic schoolmates, who hated my family for not being Catholic. After long, blissful months of drawing, reading and flying off on imaginary adventures, I had to slouch back into the building where everything I was and liked would get stomped on as “weird” and “stupid”.

Later on, my school experiences in places other than my mind-stifling Polish hometown were much better, so much so that I would look forward to September. Positive teachers and welcoming classrooms made all the difference. So this year, I’m wishing all the kids going back to school a place which expands their imagination and desire for knowledge rather than squashing it. A place which is considerate of students with different religious and political beliefs. And may the butterflies they feel be ones of excitement, not of anxiety and fear. School should not be a scary destination.

It looks like my native country of Poland is just as politically divided right now as my adopted home country of the United States.  In last week’s EU parliamentary elections, the two main rival parties received the exact same number of seats–19.

The party which is the “winner” of the election–with only 32.8% of the popular vote–is Platforma Obywatelska (PO) or Civic Platform, a center right party.  And this may be the one time that I will be excited about the right winning an election.  Because PO is–there is no other way to put it–the sane party.  They are right wing in a very moderate sense–perhaps this is what the Republicans in America used to be like, or wish they could be like again.  They are interested in free markets, open to Poland being a part of the European community and the economic benefits that can bring to the country.  They have previously come out in favor of privatization and deregulation, but have been in charge for the last few years and privatization has only happened on a small scale.  They don’t seem to be interested in dismantling society.

On the other hand, there is the opposition.  Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS)–the Law and Justice party.  It’s a bit unclear to me if they would be considered left or right by American standards.  What they are, more than anything else, is religious.  PiS followers are fervent Catholics.  They are nostalgic people of the sort which wants to wind the clock back to a better time in the past, in this case possibly back to the Middle Ages, when the Church was safely in charge and the priest was the ultimate authority figure.  Hence their opposition to Poland’s involvement in the EU–they don’t want Polish culture to be influenced by all that Western moral decadence, with its pesky feminism and pride parades.  This would also be why some Catholic right talking heads have actually expressed support for Putin’s expanding influence.  Sure, Russia may endanger Polish sovereignty, but at least it doesn’t have gay rights.  The spiritual scene in Poland has become a lot more diverse since the fall of the Iron Curtain, with Buddhists and pagans popping up, and PiS followers are not big fans of that.  While we’re at it, they would also prefer it if women would step back into the kitchen where they belong, thank you very much.  This would mean no rights to abortion or contraceptives, and a proposed tax rebate for each successive child, to encourage Poles to continue following the Catholic big family model.  There is definitely a populist streak to the PiS platform–they are in favor of welfare programs and at one point made promises of a large-scale guaranteed housing project for Polish families.  This is where your average American observer might get confused.  PiS essentially combines social conservative values with some progressive safety net ideas.

Funny thing is, the Civic Platform party isn’t that terribly liberal about social issues either.  But they are closer to the middle, which has caused them to be accused by Law and Justice of being depraved and sinful heathens, ready to take Poland over the brink into heresy, which is enough to recommend PO to me.  And I guess there’s the similarity–whether in Poland or America, elections aren’t about voting for the party you love, they’re about picking the less crazy option of the two.

When you go on a journey, you discover that the world is full of dangerous people.  My life has been no different.  I’ve come far and faced off against many villains.

For example, when I was a child, I was told that evil American capitalists wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on me.  But then I moved to a different land and found out that it was, in fact, evil Russian Communists who wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on me.  That was confusing, but then things got even more complicated.

When I lived by the northern European seas, abortion and gay rights were considered good things, and anybody who opposed them was strange.  But when I lived in the American desert, I learned that abortion and homosexuality were sins, and anybody who supported them was immoral.  Now I live by the Pacific Ocean, and once again it’s those who are too religious and too traditional that are suspect.  I’m having a hard time keeping track of all this.  Maybe it would be easier for me to tell the good guys and the bad guys apart if I had stayed in one place and didn’t move around so much.

What makes it even harder is that so many people wear magical disguises and are not what they seem.  For instance, those who aren’t Christian aren’t really American, even though they pretend to be.  Just like those who aren’t Catholic aren’t really Polish.  Ah, but hold on–it’s not enough to know that someone is wearing the Christian label.  If they are liberal, they aren’t really Christian.  You see how tricky this gets.

Now I feel as if I’m living in a cursed time, because everyone is starting to look like an enemy.  The conservatives aren’t true patriots and neither are the progressives.  I’m supposed to be on the watch for thieves who will steal my money through taxes and robbers who will steal my work by paying me too little for it.  There are hawks who want to attack everyone and doves who want us to get attacked.  Gun nuts want to shoot me, but then again I hear that those who favor gun restrictions want to see me defenseless and shot.

So how do I move forward on my way when I’m surrounded by dragons?  Could it be?  Is it possible that I’m the only one who’s right and everybody else is wrong?  After all, many wise men and women around me are making this claim–that they are the only ones who hold the key to true knowledge.

Believing that those who think differently from you are monsters to be fought is one way to journey through this world.  I find the travelling lighter and easier when I don’t carry all that heavy weaponry with me, though.  The dragons are imaginary anyway–they’re just imperfect human beings, a lot like me–and our battles are unnecessary.

Watching Russia Today is like doing the Soviet time warp.  The pro-Russian propaganda takes me right back to my Eastern bloc childhood.  I feel like I should be wearing my blue school uniform and clutching my ration cards when I watch RT.  Even the vocabulary of the news anchors is the same–they still talk about Western imperialism.  When America invades Iraq, it’s an example of imperialism–and I agree with that!  But when Russia invades the Crimea, they’re “liberating” that region of the world.  Hmmmm.  Sounds like somebody’s recycling old Don Rumsfeld sayings.

Not all old memories are getting recycled.  I’m not hearing anything about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat–they’re not in fashion anymore.  When I was a Commieland kid, the bourgeoisie was maligned for being a tool of the capitalists.  Now it’s turned into the squeezed middle class, and RT is defending it.  You gotta keep up with the changes.

But some things stay the same.  In the 80s, when my parents and their friends protested against the Communist government, the official news channels labelled the protesters as a violent and criminal fringe element, and threw in allegations of heavy drug use and orgies.  According to RT, the protesters in Kiev were also part of a violent fascist fringe.  I’ve heard that song before.  On the other hand, the people marching against austerity in Western Europe are always “peaceful”.  It’s a thin line between a peaceful civil resistance movement and crazy neo-Nazis, I guess.

Another classic move in the Cold War time warp dance?  Promises of a wonderful economy.  Russia is going to bring vast economic improvements to the Crimea, RT says.  Once upon a time, we heard the same sales pitch in Poland.  That one ended with bread lines around the block.

Now, I’m by no means claiming that American news media don’t do their share of propagandizing as well.  In fact, Russia Today doesn’t just remind me of Communism–it also reminds me of Fox News.  Maybe Putin’s dream was to be able to run his own version of Fox.  If so, he succeeded.

A few days after the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion, we were watching a news report about it on Polish TV.  The news anchor pointed to a black and white picture of Chernobyl.  It was a picture of the plant before it had exploded.

“You see, ladies and gentlemen, nothing happened.  Everything’s fine.”

There were political reasons for Eastern bloc television to cover up the accident.  It had happened in the Soviet Union, and our Russian big brothers were supposed to be perfect.  Nothing was ever supposed to go wrong in their Communist paradise.  Also, May Day was coming up, and the government wanted everyone out on the streets for the May Day parade.  The last thing they needed was people hiding in their homes, scared of radiation.

But we knew they were lying to us.  There was word of mouth information being spread by friends who had visited Russia and knew the real story.  Also, we had a farm and we saw the way the animals behaved.  The birds in the trees, which had been waking us up each morning with their early spring noise, fell silent.  The dog cowered in his doghouse and the chickens wouldn’t leave their coop, unwilling to come outside even to be fed.  We knew something bad was going on, but there wasn’t much we could do to protect ourselves.  We’ve been lucky, though–we haven’t experienced serious health effects due to our little brush with radioactivity.

Fast forward to now.  Another nuclear plant has had an accident–this time in Japan.  And again, I feel like I’m not getting the real story.  The media here in America isn’t doing anything as blatantly silly as showing us pre-tsunami pictures of Fukushima.  But the news about the continuing leakage of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean is painfully underreported.  I’m reading about the contaminated ocean currents reaching the California and Oregon coasts, and yet we’ve been spending more time on the Duck Dynasty bullshit.  What are we choosing to focus on?

I live on the West Coast, so the radiation is once again moving in my direction.  Maybe I’ve built up some kind of green glowing immunity by now, but still.  When I moved to this country, I expected more open communication in my news media.  Am I being given the Chernobyl act all over again?