August 29, 2007
In the 70's, growing up in Krakow, Poland, I had an English tutor by the name of Basia, short for Barbara. She was a character blonde with a natural laughter and big blue eyes, a snub-nosed native of Warsaw. Basia was married to Rab Shiell, a Scottish scholar and explorer hailing from Edinburgh. All of that exotic enough for a down home 8-year-old to get hooked on a foreign language. Because of that, I am forever indebted to Basia.
My dad bought an apartment two floors above ours from his friend, who emigrated to America. It was an investment for my sister. The apartment was sublet to the university, and the Shiells moved in there as neighbors and tenants of ours, turned teachers and friends. They drove a sandy Land Rover and had an Indiana Jones clout about them that brought color to our Iron Curtain reality. They were a treasure chest for all of us, the neighborhood kids.
During the Shiells' stay in Krakow, Rab taught an Oxford English Proficiency class at the Jagiellonian University. A highly coveted course, leading to a certification, with a legitimate Oxford University seal on it. It was offered to a group of the UJ professors and their high-achiever cronies at a time when the Communist-controlled state agencies frowned upon the languages of "Western decadence". French and English topped the censor's list. Attending a class of an authentic Oxford professor elevated a person to the status of a political hero, a non-conformist visionary, all of which contributed greatly to the mythical qualities of the English course.
This was the world of High-Order Anglo-Saxon wizardry, the Hogwarts of Continued Education; far beyond a reach of a chubby, second-grader. Instead, I changed colors twenty five times when Rab broadly smiled and deliberately enunciated, "H-o-w are y-o-u, today?" when we passed each other vertically on the staircase. "Very well, thank you," I blurted out under my nose by the time Rab reached his apartment at the top 4th floor. I envisioned Rab as an alien knight from the British Isles. Basia was his ethereal Muse with a ripple laughter traveling across a reflective pool of Delphi's oracle.
Being subversive was a skill required to show character in the face of unfavorable political climate that prevailed in Poland. Luckily for my English language interests, Russian was the mandatory foreign tongue in all Polish schools. Boycotting English did not make any sense under the circumstances. Paired with a vivacious tutor, I delved into a language of Basia. All the English I ever learned back then I learned for her. Had Basia taught Zulu, I would be fluent in it today.
On a few occasions, the Shiells traveled to the island of Majorca to visit Rab's friend, poet and writer Robert Graves. Also known in Poland from the BBC TV sequel: 'I, Claudius' and 'Claudius and Messalina' based on his historic novels. One day, Mr. Graves repaid the visit. It was one of the Polish bleak falls. I still see him today in a full length tailored black coat and a Spanish gaucho hat, much like Zorro's. He was peacefully climbing our humble staircase to its penthouse top floor. Paper white, pencil-thick curls finished a classic profile of a Greek nose. Sharp chiseled features made him look like an antique statue, in slow animated motion. The image stuck with me. He was a quiet sensation. I remember my dad having rushed upstairs with our home library's copy of 'The Greek Myths' tucked under his arm. I felt relieved we had one. The opportunity was unlikely to present itself again. Having Robert Graves stay in the apartment was an event equal to Odysseus' homecoming. His signing of our book was Heinrich Schliemann's excavation of Troy.
History likes to repeat itself, sometimes in a reversed order. Last fall, I flew to Poland to be with my 12-year-old daughter. Ola decided to challenge herself with a middle- school experience in her parents' hometown of Krakow. Being bilingual, she immersed herself fully in a seventh grade curriculum, on equal terms with her Polish peers. I admired her determination, and surprised her with a trick or treat appearance on the Halloween night. She had tears in her eyes when recognized me under a witch's hat; and cheered up telling me about the school, her new friends, and how much she was learning. We talked long into the night. Engrossed in each other, we finally succumbed to sleep.
The next day, November 1st was a holiday in Poland, traditional 'All Saints' Day'. We visited, nomen omen, graves of our relatives and friends. Afterwards, the family: my sister and our nieces gathered for dinner at my parents' suburban home. Exhausted from an all day walk in a blustery weather, Ola sidled up to me.
"Mom, I have to study, I have a big test in two days,"
"Greek myths," she preempted me.
"Oh, which ones?" I asked.
"All of them," she replied.
We had no time to spare. That will be quite a trip for both of us, I thought to myself.
And then, it occurred to me: Graves! I bet she doesn't know about the copy inscribed by Robert Graves. I rushed to my dad's glass-door bookshelves, spotted the tome in one move; I opened the book on a title page looking for the signature. It was blank. I hurried to the dining room.
"Dad, what happened to the signed copy of 'The Greek Myths'?"
He came down and looked at the book.
"That's the one," he said.
We hovered over the page like two choppers penetrating unchartered territory. There was no sign of any handwriting, not even a fingerprint.
I moved defiantly, "The signature of Robert Graves. It is priceless now!"
He stared at me genuinely baffled.
"I would bail my hand chopped off, it was there," he mumbled.
"You better think twice before you offer it again," I cracked. Our gaze locked. A pregnant pause followed.
"Did you make it to Basia and Rab's that night? Were they there?" He shrugged it off with a boyish smirk I almost forgot. It was a moment from the past. We both loved the enigma.
"I guess, we would have to ask Graves about it," I sighed. But none of us was in a hurry to volunteer.
I climbed up half a flight of stairs back to the dining room. Ola was eating her grandma's apple pie with a meringue topping, washing it down with a cup of hot tea. Her cousins did the same as we all liked doing on a cold day as long as any of us could remember. The rest of it was a Greek myth.