Thursday, June 08, 2006
The market square was alive with the sound of tourists' chatter and multi-lingual conversations. It was a brisk, sunny day in the heart of Warsaw. The medieval town square, destroyed during WWII, had been rebuilt, carefully and lovingly. The new square was a mecca for artists and vendors. My friend stopped to look at some lovely paintings of the city. She and the artist were soon engaged in conversation and she bought two of his works to take home as gifts. A real find! We had already bustled our way through the crowds, stopping at many of the stalls and looking for potential souvenirs, but much of the younger sellers’ merchandise looked mass-made, cheap and counterfeit. I didn’t see anything of merit. I assumed that there was a stamp on my forehead which glowed and pronounced “American. Easy pitch - easy sell.” So I kept moving on. When I joined my friend at the art exhibit in the middle of the square, it was refreshing to see original and well-done work. I was happy that she found the perfect gift but disappointed that nothing was speaking to me.
And then I saw her. She was standing at the far end of the square, somewhat apart from the hustling crowds and hawking vendors. She was alone. There was a small plastic bag at her feet. And she was holding something tiny in her hand. I had to meet this woman. I pushed my way over to her corner of the world and, as I got closer, I saw the doll in her hand. It was a replica of what the Poles call “krakowiaki” – rural dancers in colorful costumes. There were other dolls like that on the shelves of the surrounding stalls, mass produced. This little doll was different. I smiled and held out my hand. She offered the doll to me to examine. I felt as if I had just stepped back in time, into my grandmother’s house.
This woman, in her worn coat and scarf (babushka), was an outsider – just like me, the traveler. I could tell that she came from peasant stock, from the country. She reminded me of my own babcia (grandmother) who, once in America, worked as a seamstress and loved dolls. She collected dolls as she aged, dressing them up in pretty costumes. I always thought that she tried to fill an unmet need from her impoverished childhood in Poland.
The plastic doll had been lovingly dressed in a delicately stitched skirt, blouse and babushka. This was not a cheap copy to sell at inflated prices to the wandering tourists. This was the real thing. The lady had worked on the tiniest details – fine embroidery on the blouse and skirt, a tiny straight pin to hold the scarf onto the dolly’s head, lace on the panties underneath. It was beautifully done.
I inquired how much in Polish. She timidly told me the price. She was selling these dolls at bargain prices but didn’t seem to realize that she could ask for more. I asked how many more were in the bag. She pulled out the remaining two. Three handmade dolls for my three granddaughters. I had found the perfect gift! I paid her beyond her asking price and she pressed my hand. “Pani, dziekujie.” A heartfelt thank-you. She was done for the day. She could leave her solitary post and return home.
It was I who had the most to be thankful for. A passing encounter with a poor stranger awakened memories of my grandmother, great aunts, older cousins - all now gone. Women who learned at an early age that life was not kind. Women who had calloused hands and tired feet. Women who labored in fields and laundries and kitchens. Women who came from the country. Women who were brave enough to travel to America and let new generations reap the benefits of their hard lives.
Dziekujie bardzo. Thank you very much.