I’m back in France. Nothing’s changed.
I arrived excited this time, anxious, determined to approach this as a French person would—to shove my way through this country with my nose held high and my brows furrowed low. I would be just as bastardly and unaffected as the rest of them, and just as fabulous, too.
I stepped off the plane at CDG with a plan: I would swap my cheery Swiss-inspired French for the more precise, insistent Parisian French. Instead of a sing-song, alpine “Bonjour!” I’d use my freshly-honed, disarmingly curt, Parisian “bonjour.” The Parisian version is more staccato, and seems to have a slight raise on the jour, rendering the word partly-inquisitive, partly-restrained. Totally French.
But at passport check, my new French stinkeye was faltering. Something about the inherent awkwardness of approaching a stranger in a glass box and offering him, bleary-eyed, a document with my sad mug on it as a bid for entry into his country always leads me to recede back into my American openness and smiley innocence—two qualities, incidentally, that the French view not as affability, but as stupidity. In American culture, awkward situations are often met with an elbowing “hey, we’re uncomfortable, but at least we’re uncomfortable together, right? heh heh.” Not so for the French. The douanier met my smiling “merci, bonne journée, et vive la France!” with a glare of regret for having stamped me into the country.
From this point on, I tried to keep my curiosity and amusement in check. I emerged into the arrivals hall looking simultaneously grouchy and indifferent. Now if I could just maintain this look for the next year.
I’ve been to Charles De Gaulle airport more times than I’d like to count. Yet finding the CDG railway station is always a hassle. I know exactly where it is, too (the ground floor of terminal 2A). I know all the landmarks; there is a Paul patisserie on the 4th floor, as well as a cosigne de baggages called Baggages du Monde. The guichets are on the 2nd floor, and you go down an escalator to access the train (usually at the last minute, to spare yourself the arctic blast and cigarette haze of a Parisian platform).
And yet, every time, there is a problem. The sign that says “rail station” with an arrow pointing down, is pointing down (indicating, one would think, “downstairs”) where there is no elevator, escalator, or staircase. As if you are supposed to teleport to the floor below, or as if this is a platform 9 ¾ deal, and the train station is exactly where you’re standing, but you’re too Muggle (or too un-French) to see it.
I once managed to find an escalator that supposedly led to the rail station (the escalator, incidentally, was nowhere near the “escalator to rail station” sign). I began to go down the escalator when a French maintenance worker stopped me, yelling “attention, travaux!” Sure enough, at the bottom of the escalator, there was a single orange cone and some caution tape indicating a mini construction zone, which one was somehow supposed to see and heed before boarding the escalator that was otherwise open for business at the top.
And so, the seeking-train-station dance continues: I walk in circles, or spirals, or zigzags, passing through terminal after terminal, each insisting that the rail station is here, look down! And I do ultimately find it . . . with minutes to spare. I squeeze myself and my luggage past unrelenting French people that clog up the station, groups of high school kids looking like models sprawled out on the floor, using their luggage like living room furniture. (Who can blame them? There are hardly enough seats in the station for a Smartcar-load of passengers, let alone dozens of TGV-trains full.) I reach the grey, stinking platform just in time to hear the SNCF tone chime, “DO DO DO DO—le TGV ‘neuf mille huit cent quatre-vingt quinze’ depart avec un retard de quarante minutes.”
Train’s late again. I say “phew” and “damn” in nearly the same breath, and begin to vulture around the station, trying to snag one of the four seats offered to the four hundred delayed passengers. Usually by the time I find a seat and have just settled in to its unforgiving plastic, I notice people scrambling to the platform door as a barely-audible announcement is made: “DO DO DO DO—le TGV ‘neuf mille huit cent quatre-vingt quinze’ arrive en gare.” Uh, what happened to the 40-minute delay?
Again, the gathering of luggage, the jostling, desperate push through the Frenchies, the teens, the tourists, the worried crowds gulping down their cigarettes in the icy chill, and onto the train, where I heave and hoist my bags, not because I want to look strong and independent and heroically un-jetlagged, but because no one in this city would dare help a lady, nor a man, nor anyone that’s beyond reach of one’s own nose (which, in the case of the French, can be quite large).
I don’t know what keeps bringing me back to this country. Let’s call it a case of terminal masochism in a girl seeking love and approval from that which is too indifferent to give it to her. Tant pis.
On March 10, 2010, I rang in Frédéric Chopin’s 200th birthday at UC Berkeley by surprising my Polish class with gingerbread and monopolizing the chalkboard with the mammoth message: “Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji urodzin Chopina!” My excitement provoked a few bemused smirks, but otherwise no one seemed impressed that the musical hero of Poland has remained relevant for two centuries.
But considering his music’s precarious role throughout Poland’s history, it’s a wonder that Chopin’s legacy remains. As a political exile in France after 1830, Chopin crafted musical collections including dozens of “mazurkas” and “polonaises” to commemorate the Polish culture that, for decades, had been stifled by wars, failed uprisings, and foreign occupations. Due to its inherent “Polishness,” his music repeatedly faced the same threats of erasure endured by the nation itself. Public performances of his works were censured under tsarist rule in the 19th century. In the 20th century, his music was banned under Nazi occupation. It is no wonder, then, that in a finally free and independent Poland, the Polish people cherish his enduring legacy as a hallmark of Polish resilience. Nor is it any wonder that in 2010, Chopin’s name would carry more celebrity in his homeland than it did when he left Warsaw 180 years before.
I hadn’t planned to end up in Warsaw for the Chopin bicentenary celebrations, but it’s a welcome twist of fate that I did. I have always been a classical music fan but have been particularly devoted to Chopin’s music for the past several years. So I nearly squealed with delight when I landed at Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport (yes, this is really its name) and found the city wallpapered with announcements for nonstop concerts, festivals, and tours in celebration of “His Year.”
Without allowing time even to overcome jet lag, I went to work. I wore my shoes to the heel running around town snapping photos of all the Chopin posters I could find. In broken Polish, I asked shop owners and the random passersby to capture me posing precariously next to his name, or holding my hand at just the right angle so that his head would appear to be floating on my palm. I snacked on Chopin chocolates while sitting on Chopin musical benches, which, at the press of a button, would play 30 second clips of his compositions. I watched presidential campaign commercials on loop, not in interest of the historic election, but because the ads were often scored by Chopin etudes and preludes. When given the choice of city transit cards, I chose the commemorative Chopin design. I toured the Chopin museum, joined a busload of French tourists and made my pilgrimage to his birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, then was nearly kicked out for sitting at the piano while a Portuguese man snapped photos of me pretending to be Freddie. I treated the Chopin kiosk on Nowy Swiat like my own personal church. I would sit in the only chair in the corner, hands folded piously in my lap as I watched Chopin videos play for hours. They broadcasted everything in there, from a music video re-enacting the destruction of Chopin’s piano to Latin dancers tangoing across Chopin airport to a waltz remix. I bought books and CDs knowing all proceeds went to the Chopin Institute, and traipsed around Warsaw with armfuls of brochures and tourist maps with names like “Chopin’s Warsaw” or “In Chopin’s Footsteps.” And I walked in his footsteps, let me tell you. I saw his sister’s apartment, his university, his heart in the Holy Cross church. On SundaysI would attend the Chopin concerts at Lazienki Park with eager dedication. There, I would lie on the grass and close my eyes and half-expect to see visions of wiry hair and a crooked nose. I felt like a child on Halloween, running from neighborhood to neighborhood collecting as many treats as I could and gobbling them up in quick succession.
But within three weeks, the queasiness set in. It began when I saw a tourist in a gift shop unwrap a Chopin truffle, sniff it, then put it back on the shelf for someone else to buy. It was then that I thought Varsovians might not be as stoked on Chopin as all the publicity made them out to be. Maybe Chopin is for them what Pier 39 is to San Franciscans, or Times Square is to New Yorkers. Maybe what began as a crest of Polish culture has become as ubiquitous and unoriginal as an “I ♥ NY” t-shirt. No matter how remarkable a historical icon is, if you are bombarded by it, and if you see it tainted by ravenous tourists, it begins to lose its appeal. And maybe it was the same with Chopin.
My own Chopin binge had left me feeling a bit perverse. I once saw a poster that was nothing more than a sketch of an eyeball and I knew instantly that it was Chopin’s eyeball. I don’t know that I would recognize my own mother’s eyeball, yet there I was, snapping a photo of Chopin’s graphite eye to add to my collection.
For my last few days in Warsaw, I decided to take it easy on the Chopinafilia. I resisted the urge to photograph every concert poster I saw. I didn’t obsessively replay the musical benches and I stopped admiring my Chopin transit card before going to bed at night. Instead of following his two hundred year old footsteps in my now-tattered shoes, I spent time visiting non-Chopin museums, attending film festivals instead of music festivals, strolling through Lazienki Park on weekdays rather than concert weekends, and glumly preparing myself to say good-bye to what had quickly become my new home.
I spent my last night in Warsaw sharing hot fudge sundaes with my roommates at Wedel Chocolate Shop in the city center. Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” came on the café radio, prompting two Polish women in a booth next to ours to chat about an upcoming Chopin festival that would last 31 days and feature over 2,000 performers. Overhearing this, I smiled to myself, realizing at once that I could finally understand words like “twothousand” and “performers” and “fantastic!” and that I could welcome Chopin back into my diet. Chopin’s year was not just for tourists. On the contrary, it provoked in the locals the same thrill that I had experienced when stammering out grammatically atrocious requests for concert tickets at the beginning of my stay. Perhaps the Varsovians I passed in the street had been speaking about Chopin’s year this whole time, it just took me six weeks to understand.
After taking one last stroll around Centrum, my roommates and I approached the tram platform for our final ride back to our apartment. To their confusion, I didn’t board the tram, but opted for the hour-long walk home instead. It was late, and I had a flight the next morning, but this was my last night in Warsaw in 2010, His Year. Marszalkowska Street was lined with fresh Chopin posters advertising the next wave of concerts and exhibits in his memory, and I couldn’t leave Warsaw without relishing the scene.
Yes, plastering his face all over the city might be overkill. But even after these centuries, even after partitions and wars that took Poland off the map, even after this city was systematically destroyed then systematically rebuilt, Chopin’s music still echoes in its parks and halls. His heart still rests in Warsaw. And these days, back home in my Chopinless town, I wonder if mine does too.