The other Peace Corps volunteers practiced their Polski with their host families, but Arek, a young college student, had requested a cipka for the summer training session, and soon after finding out he’d be putting up a mężczyzna, all bedraggled and bushy bearded no less, he left me alone in the first floor apartament for days at a time, where I learned to butcher the consonant clusters and noun declensions with no help at all. One scorching July day I clipped some newly laundered koszulki onto the line. Arek’s apartament was on the bottom floor of the ubiquitous Soviet-style building: grey, mundane, with bits crumbling off here and there. I sat on my pupa with Gramatyka Polska w Dialogach and tried my best to pretend that I could ever learn this goddamn język. Outside, a pack of koty meowed in concert, which neither helped nor hurt my studies. Suddenly the meowing stopped. I looked over to the okno. Something dropped passed it. Then something else, not big but mały. I stuck out my głowa and looked up. A sąsiad was up there, 60ish, frazzled grey włosy, crinkled skóra. She held a long link of kielbasa and a small nóż, which she used to slice off wheels. This was what I had seen. Wheels of kielbasa. Down in the tall weeds, the meowing had been replaced by happy-slurpy jedzenie. I looked back up.
“Dzień dobry!” she shouted, waving her kielbasa at me.
“Hi,” I croaked, before returning to the krzesło.
A few more wheels sailed by. Then something else, not so wheelish, not so stały. Something in the flat above me crashed. A squeaky okno pulled shut. A hurried march across the piętro. A drzwi opened and slammed, followed by a quick descent, bare stóp slapping down concrete kroki. Now a lomotanie on the drzwi.
I odpowiedź. The saşiad. Her cheeks mokro. She pushed me into the room and sailed by, pendulous, untethered piersi swinging like church bells beneath her threadbare house sukienka. She thrust herself through the okno, and for a few disheartening moments balanced there, belly on parapet, her cracked stóp, now raised, kicking at the air like an unhappy baby’s. A millisecond before she could tip over the edge and into the pack of koty below, she somehow righted herself and ended up back on her stóp with more grace than anyone could expect.
“Pana koszula! Pana koszula!” She held it up for me to see. A big glob of ketchup squatted on one shoulder, but was already in the process of running down the piers towards the hem. Czerwony and biały, just like the Polish flag.
“Myję! Myję!” She rubbed the two sleeves together, smearing the ketchup even more. “Nie ma problemu! Nie ma problemu!” More tears.
And then she was gone, befouled kosuzla in hand. I stepped over to the okno and looked down. One kot licked ketchup off another’s tail, while another worked on a wheel slathered in the stuff. Ketchup on kielbasa? Even Polska koty were strange. Maybe they didn’t know any better. I decided to ask Arek to pick up some musztarda. I might not be a cipka, but the Peace Corps paid him enough pieniądze to house me. He wouldn’t refuse.