Saturday, July 4, 2009
Is it the 4th of July?
Celebrating the 4th of July in Warsaw is a little bit like celebrating Christmas in Tokyo. Not much holiday action going on around you. No bunting, no mylar stars and glittering flags in storefront displays. The American Ambassador has a gathering. Other expat groups have picnics or parties. And, if you're lucky, you get invited to a genuine backyard barbeque. I've celebrated a lot of holidays in Poland but this one is the weirdest. You walk out the door in the morning and life is going on just like it does every other day. Horns honking, taxis weaving in and out of rush hour traffic. The metro is full, the bus isn't running a holiday schedule. All of my friends are going to work. Offices are going full tilt and meetings have been scheduled. Just another day. "Um, that day isn't good for me," I explained to Tad, who works for PriceWaterhouse, which has a significant Polish presence. He doesn't get it at first, when I tell him I have holiday plans. No disrespect, mind you. But the American Independence Day just doesn't register on the European radar. There will be no fireworks tonight. Granted, it is much different now than in the 1982 when, as I remember, there were anti-American goings on that day. It's hard to believe there was a time when our two countries were not allies, not even officially on speaking terms. Which is not to say the Poles haven't always felt friendly toward Americans, especially given that so many of them emigrated to the States. But it was also true that the U.S. was viewed with a good deal of wariness and suspicion, even outright anger, given the historical memory of the Yalta decision to give Stalin control over Poland after World War II. Why celebrate American independence when we had, in their view, given theirs away. There were no fireworks in 1982 either. The expats now living in Konstancin, a lovely suburb of Warsaw, have big homes with big backyards, patios and barbeque grills. There will be brats and burgers, homemade potato salad, corn on the cob, cherry pie and ice cream this afternoon. Lemonade and beer. A friendly game of croquet on the lawn, maybe some badminton, and softball over at the International School field. Rumors of sparklers and Roman candles circulate. But no big parade. My hometown in Colorado is so famous for its big 4th of July Parade it was a featured event in the American Bicentennial Celebration in 1976. I spent every single Independence Day of my childhood sitting on the curb with my cousins, chasing after Tootsie Rolls and bubble gum tossed by rodeo queens and clowns, admiring the serpentine drills performed by skilled horseback clubs and screwing up my nose at the abundance of 'souvenirs,' as my aunts called them, left by the hundreds of horses and cattle. Even today, a herd of longhorns led the parade and old friends sat on blankets they set out days ago, some sleeping out overnight saving favorite spots in the shade. I miss that. In fact, over the years, we've never really developed another tradition. If I can't do that, what else is there? My aunts are all gone, and my mom, makers of the world's best fried chicken and baked beans, potato salad, cole slaw and red jello. My dad's signature contribution, black cherry lemonade, is long gone. My cousins are all grown and we've scattered from coast to coast, and beyond. We won't be sneaking over to plant cherry bombs on the grammar school playground in the afternoon or taking naps before spreading out yet another blanket to watch the fireworks from Mumper Hill. Every year I get a burst of enthusiasm in late May and decide that this will be the year I invite the Anderson clan over for a reunion picnic on the 4th of July. And every year, I don't follow through. Some traditions belong to memory. It seems fitting to celebrate Independence Day in a place where independence is new again and cherished. What a difference! In that sense, barbeques aside, every day is independence day.