Thursday, 24 November 2011

Puppy Love in the Cold War

Once upon a time, my little chickadees, two great powers divided much of the world. These powers were called NATO and the USSR, which is to say the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Both powers were rather worried that one would attack the other, and they both pointed nuclear warheads in each other's direction.

My mother spent her childhood under the shadow of the Bomb, and so did I. My mother's primary school welcomed refugee Germans, and my primary school welcomed refugee Yugoslavs, Romanians, Poles, Hungarians, Vietnamese and others who had managed to escape the confines of life under Communism. A Polish priest, two steps ahead of the SB, appeared in my parish. A Hungarian priest, recently released from captivity, recovered in the Hungarian parish around the corner, down the street.

We thought in terms of "Evil Empire" and "Iron Curtain". My brother bought a single called "Russians," in which Sting hopes "the Russians love their children, too." There were hit songs about nuclear war: "99 Red Balloons" and "Forever Young" were just two of many. It was widely known that the Iron Curtain was difficult to get through, and photos of poor Eastern Germans who had been shot trying to get over the Berlin Wall appeared in Time magazine.

Occasionally, though, people could get temporary visas to visit either side of the Iron Curtain. When I was about six, a Polish couple and one or two of their children came to Canada to visit their brother, my father's friend. They all came to visit my family at the cottage we had rented or borrowed beside Georgian Bay, a famous beauty spot in Ontario. The eldest son of this Polish family was about five years old, spoke absolutely no English and was struck by a passion for little me. Being without guile, he threw his arms around me at once, and seemed glued to my side for the duration of his visit.

I was rather astonished by this, and there exists a photo of my six year old self caught in something between a hug and a headlock smiling weakly at the camera. Small Canadian boys of my acquaintance did not act like that, especially not towards me. However, even at six I knew that inspiring this kind of regard in a boy was what a great many people thought life was all about. So when my admirer went home, I inquired of my mother where that was, and that is how I realized that real people lived behind the Iron Curtain. I had some shy notion of sending him one of my toys, but my mother said people behind the Iron Curtain did not need toys but basic things like soap and medicine. She impressed upon me that they were all tremendously poor and hard to see, and I was unlikely ever to see my admirer again.

All this seemed very unfair, and in those days I was easily discouraged. It did not even occur to me to suggest we send over a nice box of soap and medicine, then. Instead I treasured the fact, so important in the decadent West, that I had once had an admirer, and it was some comfort in the horrible years ahead when that became the primary measure of one's worth in the schoolyard. It was even, I blush to admit, balm to a recent graze to my ego when a Polish parishioner mentioned (yet again) the superior beauty of Polish girls in general. I informed him that I, at any rate, had been up to Polish standards when I was six.

This set a train of thought in motion, and it slowly chugged its way across the maps laid out after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nobody had expected the Wall to fall--on reruns of Star Trek Pavel Chekhov still nattered on about cossacks and Leningrad--but it did, shattering the Iron Curtain between thriving us and impoverished them. And what is more, and possibly even more staggering, is that it is now possible to find almost anybody alive through the internet. So I found my first admirer on Facebook.

Dear me. I fear that like Tosca I live for art and love, and not necessarily in that order. At any rate, it was the work of moments to find my father's friend, to click on the page of the son of his old age, to swiftly scroll down the list of his friends to his presumed cousin and click on his name. And there he was. I recognized him at once, and my heart flipped over. He now lives in Canada.

My mother skyped later with his name, written decades ago in her old phone book, but I had remembered his Christian name and the shape of his surname, so this was only confirmation of what I had discovered already. And I was already feeling embarrassed by my sudden curiosity, since it is perhaps not fitting for married ladies to look up complete strangers, also married, they met briefly when they were six.

However, I think the moral of all this story is that history is astonishing. When I was a child, people were so physically and politically divided that, not only was it unlikely to stay friends with Polish children after their short Western holiday, we were not sure if any of us would make it to the next century. When I was 17, we were watching horror films about the coming nuclear apocalypse, and when I was 19, we were suddenly watching Germans streaming over the shattered Wall to embrace long-lost members of their families. The Cold War was over.

My American father once said that the fact that despite our best efforts World War III never happened is solid evidence that there really is a God who loves us. And as I search my brain for a reason I should have written this post, it occurs to me that it is, after all, American Thanksgiving. So I would like to give thanks for the fall of the Wall and also for the technological miracle that helps people find people in seconds.

By the way, American readers should sign up in the combox below if they want to play "Points" with other American readers. In short, you count up how many times Thanksgiving guests (or hosts) mention your Single status. In the morning, report in tomorrow's combox. Sisters can all get a point each if the mention is collective, e.g. "Why aren't ANY of you girls married off yet? What is with boys today?"


Anne said...

What a beautiful story! Yes, history is astonishing! I just read an article based on Steven Pinker's latest book "The Better Angels of our Nature" making the point that in certain key indicators, the world is getting better and better. Now that I read that, I'm actually beginning to take notice of the ways that history really is advancing, even in a short span of time (though Pinker takes an even longer historical view). Your story is a touching example, and I am glad your childhood friend is okay and flourishing.

Anonymous said...

thank you for sharing this with us..very interesting to see how people who were outside of the Soviet influence, some say "free", had many fears, war and bombs...and that your country was the second-home for many refugees from many countries, including mine... thank you!