Acupuncture of Understanding: The Places of Dialog in Warsaw
I picture every city as a body with cars running through the veins of roads and people rushing through the arteries of streets. Warsaw looks like a butterfly with its wings on both banks of the Vistula River. The city’s body lives the destinies and routes of its inhabitants. The citizens’ conflicts are the body’s aches. But there are points on the city’s body that can cure it. Those are houses, streets or simply patches of space where national, social, religious, or gender alternatives meet and the meeting does not hurt but enriches and elevates. What are those places, how do they work, and who feeds them energy and sense? These questions begot the idea of ‘Acupuncture of Understanding’, that is seeing and feeling the locations of dialog in Warsaw and trying to render the knowledge of their importance. (The article was written for Culture Mirrors residential project. The language style of the characters was left unchanged.)
A ‘Ukrainian’ address in Warsaw is 1 Ludwik Zamenhof Street. Wide streets and portly buildings of Muranów neighborhood will not reveal their tragic history at once; the Warsaw Ghetto was located here in the time of World War II. A wandering tourist is reminded of it by Żonkile pamięci project. The works of Nowolipki artistic union are dedicated to the 76th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto; they have been hung right on the trees opposite the Ukrainian House. The House emerged from the activities of Our Choice Foundation and the need to provide practical and vital information on work legalization and residence to Ukrainians living in Poland. Right behind the door of the House a visitor is welcomed by a huge vytynanka (papercutting) fixed on the wall. Beyond it, there is a usual reception desk and opposite, a bulletin board crowded with notes. Here, Ukrainians offer their services of massage, counseling, and cooking. The Ukrainian House has been operating within these white walls for five years already.
“If a Ukrainian arrives to work and live in Poland, he or she ought to come to the Ukrainian House, says Myroslava Keryk, the head of Our Choice Foundation and the supervisor of the House. We are the center of aid and integration. We have consultants in works legalization, education, and various issues concerning living in Poland. Their consulting is free and people can be sure to get true information here. When a person lives abroad he or she still remains a citizen of Ukraine. Thus, you have two pains in the neck, one for Ukraine and one for Poland. You follow the news and you worry, because you feel touched by what happens both here and there. The Ukrainian House was established 17 years ago. We saw what a trial it is to find a job and get settled in Poland. First we had no premises and we were running our offices in our homes. Besides, there was no open public space in Warsaw for Ukrainians to get together. There was a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in Miodowa Street. There is a room where they serve tea and coffee after Sunday service and one can meet and talk. When we managed to arrange about this place in Zamenhof Street with the City Hall we were so happy; this place is spacious and easily accessible with public transport. The Ukrainian House is an open space in which any national community may hold their events. We are visited by all sorts of people; some come for consulting, some for art shows, and others for the weekly book club. Our events are always bilingual, Ukrainian and Polish. We don’t want to lock up inside ourselves; we want to be a meeting point for Poles and Ukrainians. Poles say they need it; I hear it all the time. I remember that after an event for Ukraine’s Independence Day we had a discussion of Ukrainian and Polish scholars on the relations between the two nations; then a man who often visits us came up to me. He said: “You know I’m one of Kresowiacy (that is a rather anti-Ukrainian group that has ressentiment towards the territory of Eastern Poland that now belongs to Ukraine, Myrolava explains). I want to thank you a lot for the balanced discussion on Polish-Ukrainian relations.” His comment was very heart-warming and important to me because this is what we really do; we show diversity in the views on Ukraine and our common history with Poles. The Ukrainian House is a clean space; our white walls are not all covered with portraits of poets decorated with embroidered rushnyks as one might expect in a nationally-themed place. We fill these walls with Ukrainian senses, not symbols. We are creating this space and each meeting or event shows another facet of Ukraine. Once a woman came to us wishing to hang posters of Veryovka National Ukrainian Choir all over our walls. I love this choir myself but Ukrainian culture has more to offer and we try to show this diversity. Ukrainian patriotism must not be cheesy. I’ve always wanted this place to be warm. It is warm when the house is full of people; during events it hums like a beehive. We can feel our identity here.”
“Lady, please don’t yell at me, I don’t owe you anything,” Ivanna Kiliushnyk speaks into the phone. She is Ukrainian, a doctorand of political science in Warsaw University working for the Ukrainian House; she provides free consulting to everyone who asks for them. Her vice trembles a little after a nervous conversation; a woman from Ukraine has lost her passport and needs to go home urgently. “There are stressful situations like this, but mostly people are thankful for the information the get here. By the Ukrainian tradition they try to give me thank-you chocolates but we do not accept such gifts; we’re trying to fight them as this is not acceptable in Poland and Europe in general. The Ukrainian House is a place of positive air and openness; a Ukrainian or a Pole may come here with an idea of an event or discussion and we’ll be glad to help him or her organize it.
Every Thursday at six in the evening, the gallery of the Ukrainian House hosts Neighborly Book Club. The name of the club is witty as Ukrainians and Poles in Warsaw often live as literal next-door neighbors.
“I love books and I write myself'” says Sasha Ivaniuk, a writer. She is the founder of the club and she has been holding its meetings as a volunteer for two years. “I attended a Polish creative writing course; its alumni sometimes gathered and talked about books. Then I realized that this was the best idea for those who want to write or simply love books. I saw that it wasn’t just about books but rather about people, their thinking and values. After those meeting, I started understanding Poles and their culture better even if we talked about Tolstoy or Shakespeare. When people talk, all their cultural codes surface. Then I thought that a book club is the best kind of intercultural bridge; it helps understand others and tell one’s own story too. We are attended by all sorts of people and the discussions enrich us. We talk about popular and ambitious books, mostly Ukrainian translated into Polish. But on a pretext of literature, a person would talk about his or her own feelings and memories. I remember the discussion around Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time; it was heated; people started sharing their own stories from the Soviet past. Such personal stories give you the feeling that Poles and Ukrainians have a lot to talk about and are eager to hear one another. When we talk about deeper things we build a new level of understanding, and I see more and more Poles being interested and coming over. Poles really want to understand us because there are lots of Ukrainians in Poland but the information on who we really are is scarce. To me, the Ukrainian House in the Ukrainian heart of Warsaw; when I work on projects here I feel like I’m in Ukraine.”
‘Only those who are not loved hate’ is written on a wall round the corner of the Ukrainian House. An archway leading into the courtyard has been turned into a piece of mural art dedicated to L. L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto who was a professional oculist. Portraits of writers and philosophers are captioned with their most famous quotations in two languages, Polish and Esperanto. This spatial and symbolic neighborhood of Zamenhof and the Ukrainian House seems significant to me as the first one aspired to make people of the whole world understand one another and the other one brings Poles and Ukrainians together.
If you cross the bridge from Ujazdów Castle above the motorway, you get to Jazdów Street. It is a shady park lane. There are Finnish-style cabins standing on both sides of it. One of them hosts Rotational House of Culture (Rotacyjny Dom Kultury na Jazdowie), a place to hold art and cultural social project. Children are running around the cabin, screaming. Pamela Bożek may easily be taken for one of them; she is short, her hair is cropped, and with a baseball cap on she looks more like a teen girl than an artist and an activist. She plays with the kids outside while their mothers are busy in crafting handmade notebooks. A dozen women are seated at a long wooden table; some wear kerchiefs, some hijabs; others have piercing jewelry on their faces and greenish hair. Chechens, Poles, and one Ukrainian; this is a company that has gathered for Notesy z Lukowa project workshop.
“Above all you should mind not to cut off your own finger'” says Zali. She cuts through a ream of office paper with a special blade, skillfully. Then, the women at the table will collate the sheets into small booklets, sew them with thread, and fix a cover on each of them. Those will be the notesy. “So far I’m learning to make notesy for myself and try to teach my children too. Those who have a work permit will sold their notesy. I come from Chechnya, been in Poland for three years; we live in Lukow, waiting for the paperwork to come through. I love our spotknaia (meetings) with other women; we relax here and forget about our troubles. It is important that I don’t just waste my time idly; I can make something for myself and learn a thing or two.”
“Are you from Ukraine? You know there are lots of Ukrainians in the place where I work,” Makka speaks. She is slender, her features are thin, and her kerchief slides off her hair time and again so she has to adjust it. She has mastered the binding technique and now she is showing the women how to make their own notebooks; where to pierce a hole with an awl and how to sew the sheets with a thread. “Where do I work? Oh-oh, a sad story! I gather mushrooms. These notesy, we make them at home all the time; those on the windowsill are ours, too. Pamela taught us to make them; we’ve known each other for more than a year. She came to Lukow Ośrodek (Foreigners’ Center) to hold a warsztat (workshop) for the kids; that’s when we met her. I like it a lot; it soothes my nerves. When you get into a work, it will get exciting, no matter what. Every new thing is something you gain. The knowledge you pass to others or get from someone are the most important things. At these meetings we get to know new people, you; these are new emotions and they mean a lot to us.”
Her 12-year-old daughter Havva sits next to her. She speaks Chechen to her mother, Polish to Poles, and Russian to me. “I’m in 6th grade; that’s primary school. When I grow up I want to be a scientist. I like school; they have all classes in Polish; some things I understand, some I don’t. But I have an excellent mark in Polish language. Polish is the easiest language to learn; Chechen is hard.”
“It might sound silly to ask but why does you mother have a chustka on her head and you don’t?” asks Iga, a student. She studies Russian language and literature; she came for the workshop to practice her Russian.
“She’s too young yet; she’s a dziewczina (a girl), replies Makka with motherly strictness. She’ll wear one when she gets married. Us, we don’t talk about marriage in front of children. When a mother sits with grown-up kobiety (women), it’s wrong to talk about such things. Come on show how your work’s being done. Oh-oh. Too hard! But never mind, we’ll fix it. I used to be a kindergarten teacher in Chechnya. There were 44 kids in my class but I liked it. What’s Polish for ‘smart girl’?” she asks Iga.
“You’re a zdolniacha, a smart girl. You know what my first notes looked like? Ooh, if only someone bought it I’d like to meet that person and say thanks.”
“What’s Chechen for ‘thanks’?” I ask Makka.
“Barkl,” I repeat. “Dziekuje“, Makka thanks me in Polish. “Diakuju, ” says Iga in Ukrainian.
“In 2018, I cake to Ośrodek in Lukow and held bookbinding workshops, speaks Pamela Bożek, a painter. I didn’t know much about bookbinding but I had an idea. It was about making something inexpensive, fast, and relatively simple, but pleasant. First I held workshops for children; later I met their mums and we started making notesy together too. We worked for two days and we spent many hours together; I wanted those workshops to be open so that anyone might come and stay for as long as she liked or could, since they all had kids. We had interesting talks and the atmosphere was so warm that it occurred to me to make something useful for the women out of that project. I learned about their difficult situations; how hard it was for them to find jobs when they had legal permits and how hard it was to live not having one. Then, I suggested that we should create a microbrand; we came up with a name for it; it was Notesy z Lukowa (Notebooks from Lukow.) A friend created a logo for us; we made a stamp with it. At the next meeting we were making thicker notebooks and branded them with our logo. After eighteen months of co-operation with Dla Ziemi, an organization that has been providing care for Ośrodek for 10 years, migrant women can now legally sell their notesy. It takes an hour to make a notes. One can buy it for 40 zloty ($10.7); a craftswoman receives 16 zloty ($4.3) for each. We made an agreement with a few coffee shops; they gather brown paper coffee bags for us and we make notebook covers out of them. It’s not about making luxury hardcover notesy. Ours have to be handmade; one can learn this type of binding in 2 or 3 hours. It is important since the project is an open one; you can join it at any time; new ladies come every time learning from those who has been there for long. They don’t even need me now; they can teach one another. Now I go to Lukow as if it were my home for holidays; they feed us every time; I have to try every lady’s food as they all spend time preparing for my visit. This is purely female bonding that makes us stronger and gives us confidence in making things that matter and having support in one another. You know their homes in Ośrodek are so nice and neat; they have nothing to do but clean up and cook. Notesy is a different thing; they are something they can do together when they have time. There’s continuity in it; I care for this project to keep on. The women see that they develop with it. I feel captivated by role exchanging in such participative project; first migrant women were students and now you are and they teach you. This idea dawned on me this morning; a migrant woman must not play the same role all the time, the one of a student who’s taught by others; those women know everything themselves; they know how to live, how to earn money, they have professions, but they found themselves in a situation where they cannot make use of it all. Notesy is female energy that goes above all cultures and restrictions. This project is about relationships between people and bringing two culturally distant worlds closer. There’s no sense in denying our differences, but Notesy give us a chance to talk and the talk goes well.”
“Powszechny is like ‘popular’, that is meant for everyone,” Szymon explains the meaning of a Polish word to me. He is an editor working for Polish television and he attends the meetings of Pisanie Cowtorek (Writing on Tuesdays) literary club that take place in the basement of Teatr Powszechny. That was where we met. The assignment for 20 persons was to write a story out or twelve randomly chosen words. The evening had a gory air to it; among the words that were to make up a story there were ‘head’ and ‘rock drill’, so in each of the stories a head was either cut off or smashed with a rock drill, symbolically or literally. Another literary event, Slam patriotyczny, a poetry battle on patriotic themes, was held in the same place in a few days.
“First I didn’t plan to go but now I felt overflown with sentimental patriotism and I wrote a poem for the battle,” Szymon said. When I asked what patriotism was to him it felt like I asked something embarrassing. “I believe in the idea of state and belonging to certain land, that’s is,” said he after a pause. “Monika, have you written a patriotic poem?” asked he one of the members of the literary club.
“Yes, a sort of a little wypierdol*,” said Monika, a middle-aged woman with cropped hair and assertive voice. Later, she would read her manifest of gender equality and would be given a loud round of applause:
… a mouthful of strong rum
I’m gathering my strength
I raise my clenched fist
I make up new mottos
I spin the theories of liberation
for my Motherland (Note: a word-by-word translation of the Polish original endorsed by the author)
*a derivative from an obscene verb pierdolic
The Culture Mirrors cultural journalism residence project is realized with the support of Culture Bridges program financed by the European Union and implemented by the BRITISH Council in Ukraine in partnership with European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC).