June 1995. Our Trip to Poland. Part 4

The last part of our travel to Poland I wanted to write about was a voyage to the Copernicus Museum. I didn’t feel that doing nothing except for going to the beach was the best idea of vocation. When we stayed in the University boarding house, I organized different excursions, museum visits, etc. We did some of that in Gdansk, but I wanted to do more. 

I learned that boats are departing from the pier a couple of times a day, which would take us to the Copernicus Museum and decided that we should go. Funny enough, now I barely remember anything about the museum itself. Partially, because the boat was late, so we arrived later than planned and then, we had to hurry back for our return journey. 

The reason for the late arrival was a storm. The waves were rocking the boat, and almost everybody got sea-sick. In our family, Anna was notorious for never getting sea-sick, and the rest of us was the opposite. I remember Anna cheerfully running around the boat while most of the passengers were miserable. 

The reason I want to tell you about this trip is different. We happened to book the tickets for the cruise, which took on board a large group of families where one of the children had Down syndrome. On the way onward, I could not take my eyes off these families.

We ere not living in the Soviet Union anymore, but the way people perceived things was still very much from the Soviet era. And in the Soviet Union, you were not supposed to have a special needs child. People with disabilities, especially with mental or emotional ones, were non-existent. Invisible. There could be nothing worse happen to a mother than having a child with a disability. If we came across such a child on the street or at the playground, we would try to walk away as fast as possible. 

Women, who gave birth to children with Down syndrome, were expected to leave them in the hospital, “in care of the state.” That was the norm. 

A year earlier, my friend gave birth to a child with Down syndrome, and she was fighting fiercely for her right to keep the girl. But even those who supported her would say that she needs to leave her daughter “in care of medical professionals” for at least six months (there were other complications in addition to Down syndrome) and keep visiting her, and “maybe later” take her home. Her daughter died several days after, because of other complications, and my friend was inconsolable. 

But I was to reiterate that the expected behavior was to leave a child with a known disability in the hospital. Nobody would criticize the mother; on the contrary, people would understand and not even mention that she ever had that child. 

We felt for all mothers, who had “to carry their cross” and pitied them a lot. If you had a child with a disability, whom you chose to keep, you would only take her to the playground when there are no other children. You would never go out with her. 

And here, on board of a boat, I saw two dozen families who adored their children with Down syndrome. You might ask – where is the inclusion, why a separate group of special-needs kids, but that was a huge step forward that these kids were even going out. 

I looked at the mothers. I watched a mother cooing over her three or four months old the same way as if that child would be an average healthy baby. I saw her smile and could not take my sight away from her face. That was one of the biggest revelations in my life – she loved him!

I saw bigger kids, smiling, talking to their siblings, and each other. They had nice stylish haircuts and fashionable clothes. I noticed for the first time that each of them had their unique facial expression. I should be ashamed of myself because it all was news for me at that time, but I wanted to write honestly about my feelings because that can explain how bad things ere in the Soviet Union and for many years after it’s collapse.

Twenty-five years later, I can still close my eyes and see their faces and hear their voices.

The biggest takeaway from that cruise was: things can be different!

June 1995. Our Trip to Poland. Part 2

I have no pictures from that trip. None. I didn’t own a camera, and whenever I tried to use other people’s cameras, the pictures would turn out horrible, so I was 200% convinced I will never be able to produce a single decent shot. Taking pictures, processing films was way bigger deal back then, so I never even asked our hosts. Waldek took these two pictures at home, on the next day after our arrival. 

I haven’t seen Dowgerts for five years. We barely heard anything from them except for that unbelievable humanitarian flight in December 1991 (I need to go back and check whether I wrote about it).  

Back in 1990, Waldek was a laid-off pilot. His wife Marysia was a school teacher (and I got to know her because she was a part of the teachers’ delegation to Leningrad in 1989). When I talked to them on the phone before coming, they said, “They have lots of news,” They will tell all about it when I come. The news was revealed to us immediately after they met us at the train station: Marysia was now a school principal, and Waldek was a Mayor of Pruszcz Gdanski! 

Now, they owned a car, and Waldek drove us home (as usual, everybody except Anna got seasick). The apartment was the same, but they were talking about getting a bigger and better one. Their older daughter Anetka was 17, and the next day she took us to Gdansk. She didn’t speak Russian. My kids didn’t speak English, so I had to translate their questions each time they wanted to ask something. And when Anetka took us to the city museum, and the kids had some questions, I had to translate their questions into English to Anetka, she would translate them into Polish to the museum personnel, and then the answers were translated twice πŸ™‚  

She also took us to Mariacka Cathedra, and we climbed all the way to the top. Funny enough, Anna Climbed all the way up by herself but was scared to go down, and Anetka brought her down in her arms. 

We talked a lot. There were so many new things around, Poland has changed a lot since 1990. They showed us videos from the school plays, and it was mindblowing. They had videos with Disney cartoons. They had Legos. They had a huge collection of figurines from KinderSurprises. Anetka was talking about going to study in America. All of that was from a different universe. 

The next morning, we were ready to go to our destination – a vacation house at Krynica Morska.

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

June 1995. Our Trip to Poland. Part 1

Since I am writing my story partially backward, I didn’t write yet how we got to know the Dowgerts family from Pruszcz Gdansky- a small town close to Gdansk. For now, I will say that Boris and I met Dowgerts several years before, and we stayed at their place when we visited Poland in the summer of 1990. Since the www and the internet, in general, were barely emerging, it wasn’t easy to keep track of each other’s lives. The only thing I knew in May 1995 was that they will meet us and will drive us to their vacation home on the Baltic shore. I tried to get an idea of whether there will be warm enough there in mid-June, and they said – yes, it should be fine.
The airfare was expensive, and I decided to take a train to Gdansk. I believe the length of the journey was about 30 hours. The train was leaving in the late morning and arriving in Gdansk at about 6 PM the next day.
The night before our departure Vlad got a high fever, upset stomach, and nausea. And …. I decided we are still going! Yes, I made sure his temperature went down by the time we had to leave, and not just dow, but down without him taking any fever-reducing drugs. He was pretty weak and laid down for most of the first day of travel, but he was fine when we arrived to Gdansk. However, before arrival, there was a night…

I know that what I am going to tell now will sound extremely judgmental, maybe racist, so I will try very hard to stick to the facts.

We were traveling in the sleeping car. The car was almost empty; only one more compartment except ours was occupied. And the car crew was Polish.

Yes, I understand that it is not about nationality; it is about the social norms in a particular society. And I love the Polish part of me, and I love Poland deeply, but by that time I’ve interacted with Poles, male and female, long enough to know about what was considered an appropriate “manly” behavior.
The compartments in the sleeping cars were quite weird from my perspective. In the Soviet sleeping car, each compartment would host four people, two on the bottom bunks, and two on the tops. Here, the were three bunks on one side and none on the other. There were belts to prevent a person who was sleeping on the top from falling. I think that Igor was sleeping on the second bunk, and it would be logical if I would climb on the very top. But I was on the bottom bunk.

And then one of the porters knocked at the door. He said something to the effect that he forgot to give me some toiletries, which he had to provide for the sleeper passengers. I opened the door. He smelled heavily with the cheap perfume. He locked the door and threw his body over me.

I have no idea what he was thinking:). I have two hypotheses. One- that he was sure that I would succumb to his charms, and that no woman can stand them. At least that’s what I could deduce from the fact that he started to kiss me, saying in Polish, that he wants my lips. My other hypothesis is that he thought I would not risk waking up the kids because I would not want to scare them and keep quiet.
Well, it was true – I didn’t want to scare the kids. But, that was not the first rape attempt in my life, and I knew how to stand for myself!

I was turning spinning my head so that he won’t get my lips, I was pushing him away with both hands, and I was (very quietly) screaming at him to get in the hell out of here! He was still trying to talk me into I am not even sure what, saying, “please let me” in Polish, but I kept spinning and keeping whispering-yelling, and I think he finally realized that I would start screaming loudly if he persists. He retreated.

In the morning, he was very official, as if nothing happened. Do I have to say that I didn’t say a word to anybody? Neither to him nor the Dowgerts when they met us at the train station. I think that I told Boris only several weeks after we’ve returned. And you know why? First, because I believed it’s a part of women’s life. Women are getting raped. Because if you are good looking, men would want to rape you. That was a given. And because – yea, because “it was all my fault.” Because I wore a short skirt. Because I was so vivacious and so visibly excited about going to Poland. Because I knew, “how Polish men are,” and still talked friendly with them during the day.

That’s how our two-week trip to Poland started πŸ™‚

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.