Mid-year report

Salutations and good afternoon from gray Warsaw, where it’s getting colder–some snow is lingering on the ground. This is part of a picture of the city center I took a couple weeks ago, in December, when my brother and his girlfriend were in town for two weeks for the holidays. Palace of Arts and Culture to the left. It’s not today, but it’s what the sky looks like. Gray.


So I’ve been working on a mid-year report for the Fulbright grant, and in the process of doing so, I compiled some statistics on what, exactly, I’ve been doing with five months of funding to live in Poland. These statistics are for September through January. In that period of time, I have:

Recorded 14 interviews with 18 theater practitioners and scholars
Published or placed 5 articles about Polish theater in 3 venues
Observed 17 rehearsals with 5 different companies
Viewed 30 performances or work showings by 22 different companies
Directed 2 workshops: one for students at a local high school, and one with friends and adult performers (a Parallel Octave poem-recording session, on a Polish poem)

I’ve also collaborated with a local translator on the idioms / Americanisms of two Polish plays he was rendering into English, and we plan to do more work of this nature in 2012.

Those are the main achievements I can report to the Commission, in terms of my progress on the research I said I was coming here to do. However, they also ask you questions about how you acclimatized to the local culture. Those things are less quantifiable, but I know, without thinking about it much, what I’m most proud of: what proves, to me, that I have begun to be less of a tourist here and more of a local.

First and foremost would be my increased confidence with the trains. In 2010, when I left Baltimore and my classes for a week to take a workshop in Wrocław, on my way home, I was so confused by the (admittedly very confusing) Wro. train station that I got on a train going the wrong way: east, deep into the country, instead of west back to Dresden and my flight leaving from Berlin. I was almost to Katowice before I finally got up the courage to ask someone to help me. 24 horrific hours later (including a night spent in the Warsaw train station, and many tearful encounters with Polish rail employees) I was seriously starting to doubt my ability to survive in Poland.

Fast-forward to the present: I have taken a train to or from somewhere almost every week. (If I had kept track of my train voyages, which I hadn’t, I’m pretty sure they would outnumber the 30 performances.) I am able to ask for the ticket I want in Polish, and even–sometimes–to understand if there is a problem with the train, based on the garbled loudspeakers.

The next one would be, believe it or not, socializing. Having friends. There was a point, some time in October of this grant, when I realized if I didn’t go out more I would go crazy. (And not just to the theater!)

I was spoiled in Baltimore, living across the street from the Charles Village Pub, where C., S., my roommates A. and P., and my cohort of poetfriends J., R., C., and L. would text me every time they were there. A vibrant social scene was there for me without my having to do any work for it to exist.

I’d like to think I gave back to that B-more social scene in some ways, too–I am very proud of having hosted the first Interdepartmental Flasker, with friends from the English department, and the winter 2010 after-party for the department party, both of which I remember with considerable hubris. And my beloved Parallel Octave, in its own way, was another recurring social engagement, one that I wrangled and organized. As was the short film we made.

But let’s face it, how much credit can I really take for any of this?  In Baltimore, I walked into a world where Southern hospitality was the name of the game, and where a generous group of graduates of the program were all too willing to say “Come sit on our porch.” If I threw a few parties of my own, it was the least I could do. And I could have gone out with friends every night of the week without having to exert any effort. At all. It’s easy to be sociable when you’re hanging with a group of sociable people. Parallel Octave was something I started because my friend D. told me to. And the flasker was J2 and C’s idea. And so on.

So–here we are in Warsaw, a group of Fulbrighters of much more different backgrounds, ages, and aims than my poet cohort, living further away from one another, and all struggling, in our own ways, with the pressures and stresses of this fellowship. And it took an effort to recreate the social dynamics I missed.

But through a collective effort, socializing continued. We had potluck parties in October, November (Thanksgiving!), and December (Xmas eve-day brunch!)  When I realized my apartment was too small to host, I offered to the group that I would cook for anyone willing to host.  People came through, every time, and opened up their homes to us. Three different Fulbrighters hosted three different parties in those months–parties to which anyone could come, and many, many people did. 

Also under the rubric of “socializing” falls making friends with Polish artists, curators, administrators, translators (I keep meeting more and more translators!), lawyers, teachers, and everything else. I know people now–in Wrocław, in Łódź, in Warsaw–who I consider to be friends and not just people who have let me record them for interviews. A few of them are friends whom I only speak to (mostly) in Polish. Yes, most of them also know quite a bit of English, and our conversations wander between the two languages. But still, it’s more than I could do five months ago.

The last achievement would be the language, which underlies all the rest of this. Sure, I am nowhere near fluent, and I probably never will be, but I can get by, and I feel myself improving. It’s difficult, but I no longer feel that it’s impossible. A lot of this is due to the great language class I had at the University of Warsaw; some of it is due, however, to making those friends mentioned above.

And knowing that I have friends, that I can speak well enough to be understood, and that I no longer have to be afraid of getting horribly lost every time I board a local train, has given me the sense that I can really live here. And the ability to try new things.

Today, for example–this morning, before writing this post–I went to a local gym. “Gym” is too strong a word. It’s a little building with a swimming pool and a small weight/cardio room. I have been intimidated about going in there since I first got here. But I went in, I figured it out, and I did the elliptical for 30 minutes, or a half-King. (Stephen King claims, notably, in “On Writing,” to work out for an hour a day and write two thousand words a day. A 30-minute workout is a half-King.) And in order to do that, I had to communicate with the desk clerk. In Polish.

“Czy mogę kupić jeden bilet normalny dla (word I don’t remember that means name of weight room)?”
(Can I buy a day pass for the weight room?)

There are few sentences in my life that have been harder-won. And even though the guy behind the desk initially didn’t understand my pronounciation, when I repeated it, he got it.

I was talking to another writer/scholar/Fulbrighter friend in the wonderful city of Łódź, a month or so ago, about the relationship of personality to language. As a writerdirectorthingperson, my ability to use language comprises, I would say, I don’t know, 99% of my personality. Maybe more. I don’t really know who I am without it. I told her that I thought all that was left of me, without language, was enthusiasm–the remaining 1% of what makes Dara Dara. But maybe enthusiasm is enough to make you a few friends, to cook a turkey (or two) in Celsius, to figure out a train schedule. Maybe it’s enough to begin to build a life for yourself.

My brother Z. and his girlfriend P. have been gone for a week now.  I miss them. It was so wonderful to have them here, to have someone who really knows you.

The way that my life poured back in, however, proved to me that I really *do* have a life here. In that week, I’ve been busy, very busy–writing grants, writing scripts, conducting interviews, meeting with translators, making plans to hang out with friends, to see multiple shows in the same weekend. I had to remind myself to slow down, that just because I have a life doesn’t mean I have to overdo it. But I have never looked at an overflowing email inbox with so much affection.

In September and October, there were whole days when absolutely nothing happened, when no one contacted me. When no one texted me to come to the Charles Village Pub. And now–well, I have to turn some things down. That makes me happy, because having to turn some things down–having too much going on, rather than too little–is the way I like to live.

All this is to say, I think, that the next months of this grant can, hopefully, be devoted to living rather than worrying about how I’m going to live. I’m trying to give myself a pat on the back. I’m here, I made it. Now I get to be here, and buy all the passes for the weight room I want. I’m looking forward to it. And I can’t wait–it will surprise no one, I am sure, to hear this–to get back to Łódź as soon as possible.