• Shelby Ostergaard

There's a Storm Coming

“Here in Germany they’ve been elected, in France, in Norway, in the UK, in Denmark”, Palau tells me. We’re at his house, a squat in Breda, Germany. We’ve just eaten a meal of freegan food -- food taken from the garbage outside of a grocery store -- which had included a mountain of artichokes. Although all three of the people in the squat spoke near flawless English, none knew what an artichoke was. When I named the vegetable in English, they laughed and laughed.

Palau was listing off all of the countries in the EU in the summer of 2015 where, as he put it, “fucking Nazi parties” were getting elected. All of the twenty-somethings in this squat like to refer things as fucking Nazi shit. I have to hold my shoulders steady to keep from cringing away from how it sounds with a German accent.

“I’m not saying there is going to be a fourth Reich,” Palau says, finishing his monologue. I don’t think there will be. This time, I think it will be all of Europe.” He leans back in his chair, and takes a bite of the pasta we’ve made. Then he nods, seeming satisfied.

There is a storm coming, these young Germans are convinced. Darkness is descending, coming from those people over there, to the right. A few days before our dinner a young white man opened fire on a congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina. A few months before, in Denmark, I saw a city plastered with bright orange advertisements with big blocky letters. I can only understand one word - Islam. I’m getting tired of earnest-eyed Europeans asking me about the election in my country. No one with an accent believes me when I answer that I’m not worried, because he isn’t going to win. I know my own country and I know what the polls and the political scientists all say.

The man who took me from Germany to Poland had me speak on the phone to his wife. It was Father’s Day in Poland, so we called his wife and his son. I couldn’t understand most of the conversation, but they seemed happy enough to talk to one another and she seemed amused to say hello to me.

Wrocław is a city on a river. It’s muted and filled with faded old world colors, until you turn a corner and see large, colorful sculptures bursting from in between buildings or on top of shop signs. And then there are the dwarves.

There are 163 small dwarf figurines scattered throughout Wrocław. Walking, you’ll see a small figure leaning up on stairs, or crouching. There will be a little man smoking a pipe and another one tugging on a metallic rope. They’re neither devious nor saccharine -- these are clearly dwarves not imps, fairies, or goblins. Each tiny figurine seems sturdy, concerned not with trickery but with the practicalities of either working hard or having a good time. Most of the people that I meet in Wroclaw are like this; whatever they say, whatever the stunning art looks like, there is a part of my foreign brain thinking about how all of this was built in darkness.

I meet the young man, who I think was named Peter, at the place I’m staying. A large room, filled with beds. I’m past the point of trying to make each new bed I stay in homey and have just dumped my backpack with all it’s rumpled contents at at the foot. If I’m in bed and not sleeping, I lean against it, letting the waist straps curl around me. He’s sitting on his own much neater bed and is actually from Wroclaw but staying here while he’s between apartments. He suggests that we go down to a nearby park where the locals watch movies on summer nights like this one. I obviously won’t understand a word of the movie, but he thinks I’ll like seeing something most tourists wouldn’t. Idly I agree and off we go.

“Communism….I think people are trying to erase it from Poland’s history. But there were some things that were good under communism. The cinema, the theater. And people are forgetting,” Peter is telling me an hour later. We’re sitting on a blanket in a park that seems to be covered in Polish teens -- they’re all smoking, laughing, or drinking. They somehow all look like kids in my high school I would have found intimidatingly cool.

“And capitalism,” he continues, wrinkling his nose now, “capitalism is about what you have. It’s to have instead of to be.”

He’s drunk and I think he wouldn’t be saying these things otherwise. These things about souls. Everyone else I have asked about communism talks in terms of stuff. How little of it there was. No food on the shelves, no clothes in the stores.

The man who drove me to Wroclaw talked to me about the cars. His father wanted to buy a car and he saved his money for ten years. And then, when he finally had the money, he went to the Party for permission was told the price of the car went up. Then, after he’d me the new price, he was told he was on a waiting list. He waited and waited for that luxury.

Peter isn’t talking to me about sad stories that he’s heard. He’s telling me about the cinema, he says because the cinema is about what you are. Under oppression, you have to be more creative, more artistic, in order to say what you are. With capitalism, it’s about what you have. Or so he is telling me, his sentences running into one another.

Later, he tries to kiss me, mashing his mouth against mine harshly. I pull my head back, smile, and tell him that I don’t want that. His thought process makes sense to me but I can tell that mine does not to him. He tries again and I dodge again and we sit there awkwardly for a few minutes until I take my leave.

There is a square in Wroclaw where the buildings were so curiously flat it looked like someone had sliced the fronts off. A man there is selling wooden masks so elegantly detailed that they catch my breath when I see them. He is old, leaning over the masks he’s lovingly displayed on a wire rac; and smiling toothlessly at anyone who stops by. I try to subtly take a photo of one of his masks and his face turned dark and he flapped his arms, chasing me away. I trip over a dwarf as a leave, standing on the ground, smiling and proffering a sunflower to passerby.

There’s something I want from this old man, from Peter, from the man who drove me here, from the busker who played me Stand By Me. Something more than the small favors that travelers constantly have to ask for -- the rides and pictures and directions and reminders of home. I want to know what it was like here, before the bursts of color, the large sculptures, the small dwarves.

It’s more than that really though. I want them to tell me that if it happens, if there is a seismic shift in the way that not just my world, but the world as I know it functions, that it will be okay. That if I become an adult and raise children in a country that actively embarasses me they won’t turn into citizens of that place. Our human noise won’t change. I want to know that if it happens we’ll all still care and write and want to place a hundred and sixty three whimsical dwarves around our city. I want these Polish people, who get so excited when I tell them I’m from Chicago to reassure me. But I don’t need them to, not yet, because it’s the summer of 2015 and I roll my eyes every time someone asks me about next year’s election.

None of them can. Of course not. Many weren’t even there and many don’t speak the only language that I can. In the square, I sit by the fountain, looking at the masks I won’t pay for. People wander in and out of a McDonalds across the street from the church, built into an old building and serving both American french fries and Polish spiced chicken nuggets. The busker sings to me, giving me advice from across the ocean about what to do if the moon is only light by which we see. It’s a song I’ll ask everyone I can to play for me that summer.

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