10 November 2013
I sized up Medzilaborce quicker than an auctioneer auctioning off quarter horses…no sophisticated intuition needed. It was immediately apparent that Tevya was not going to show up singing “If I Were a Rich Man.” There was less joy than in a shtetl surrounded by Cossacks. Men in red jumpsuits, identifying them as municipal workers, were discussing the alignment of new curbstones. An hour and a half later, when I left town, the discussion was still ongoing. By then they were having a late lunch.
I did my best to support the local cultural icon, plunking down 15 Euros (about $20) to tour the Warhol museum. He’s not my favorite, but I was there and who doesn’t like Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Tomato Soup. I avoided Restaurant Andy across the street and walked from the museum around a bend into a three block town…nondescript without style, how unusual. There was a hotel (why? was my question, too). And next door to the hotel was a church, a dirt road, and in back of the church, a squalid array of crumbling concrete box apartment buildings, housing Roma…a Soviet resettlement, no doubt. My camera battery chose that moment to peter out, so any obligation I felt to chronicle poverty, petered out as well.
I went back to the car, put in a charged camera battery for the trip back to Krakow. But I drove around town a bit more, up a hill between the church and the museum to find an 18-building array of commissariat apartment blocks, the uptown array, distinguished by some trees and bushes and painted in different colors.
My thought was that my grandfather, Morris, put Medzilaborce on his a naturalization form as his birthplace, meaning “in the area of”. No disappointment, I did what I set out to do, see the area he came from. I saw the train station, the police station and a “leaving Medzilaborce” sign disappear in the rear view mirror on the way out of town and set the GPS to the hotel address in Krakow and let it figure out where I was and how to get there.
And at that point I realized how vulnerable I was. I hadn’t seen a gas station since Stropkov the day before, I couldn’t read the language (not that there were any signs) and the further away from Medzilaborce I got, the less I knew where I was. At one point the GPS told me to make a right turn, which was a dirt road to nowhere…it couldn’t mean that. But then it commanded me to turn around and take that turn…I stayed on the paved road. Three hours after leaving Medzilaborce, I finally happened on a town with a small plaza and stores. At that point I knew I was in Poland, but it was another hour before I saw a sign to Krakow and another hour-and-a-half before I keyed off the motor near the hotel.
There’s more, but for another time.