god’s zoo and widely shared misfortune. Cholera jasna! And now even those words I had never been able to pronounce, beginning with prze, for example – przepraszam, excuse me – or, more terrifyingly, with szcz, I’m now somehow able to manage. Quite by chance, I stumble on a word in my little English–Polish/Polish–English dictionary: szczapa, a piece of split wood, or wood cleaved with an axe. And there, on my father’s shelves, in Polish, yep, his Th ucydides. Polish had seemed to me the language of pointless sacrifi ce. On the wall of my bedroom was a photograph, which my father put there, of a handsome boy who died, aged sixteen, fi ghting the
Russians in 1920, and with his haunting eyes, his cadet’s cap at a slight tilt, he was all I could never be. Th at boy, long dead, surveyed my very existence. Once, in anger, I shouted at my father that maybe I, too, should die for Poland and fulfi l his patriotic wishes, at which point he fl ew into a rage such as I’d never seen before or since. Th at boy was my father’s family’s off ering to a country’s martyrology.
Was Poland itself not Christ upon the Cross? Poland, which I was not to visit until I was nine-
teen, was a black cloud hanging over me. Th e irony is that when I fi nally got there it was a place of light. Its poetry I felt mine. Th e cafés were full of people deep in conversation, the women like women I’d never seen before, and in the mornings, as if the above, sexiness and intellect, were miraculously hybridised for the palate, a breakfast (śniadanie) of naleśniki, crepes with savoury cheese on the inside, topped with sour cream and then sprinkled with sugar, Polishness par excellence. Th e truth of the matter is that although I wanted desperately not to be Polish I did not want to be Canadian either, but rather to be what any sane person might choose, Italian. Th is is not such an unusual affl iction except that in my case the culture grew in