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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

The Extra Place

Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Poland
Personal Essay


I am talking with Kasia, a woman I met a couple of years ago. Kasia works for a Western firm, at a salary lower than that of an expatriate but still quite generous by Polish standards. She's a bit younger than I am, slender, with finely etched features, blue-gray eyes. There's a quiet voice, a certain reserve in her manner: what I think of as the "Polish aristocrat" look. We are in her office, drinking tea. She is amazed at the number of Americans, ex-Peace Corps and others, who have returned to Poland after a brief stay in the United States.

"But the same thing happened to me, years ago," she says thoughtfully. "I thought that the West would be wonderful, and then I lived there for a year; I started thinking about Poland, and something inside me wanted to come back. And you know, when I came back it seemed that Poland was perfect." She looks at me. "But now I think it is time for me to leave again."

"Is it because you've changed, or Poland has changed?"

"I think both." She pauses, glances out the window. Across the street, the renovations on the Sezam department store are under way, and the new McDonald's next to it is doing a brisk business.

"I will tell you about something that happened a few months ago. It was Wigilia—Christmas Eve—and my husband and I were in our apartment. We heard someone at the door. Not our apartment door, but the door to the outside, downstairs."

"On the domophon," I say. The existence of an intercom system in a building is a definite plus in security-conscious Warsaw.

"Yes, on the domophon. I asked who it was. We were not expecting anyone at just that time, but my husband's family—his mother, his brother and wife and children—were coming over later for dinner. My daughter was putting the plates on the table, and my husband was helping me with the dinner. I remember when I heard the domophon, I said to him: 'This is your mother, I know it, and she will be coming in the kitchen and telling me how to fix the dinner.'

"But it was a man, a stranger. He was a refugee from Yugoslavia, he said, and he was looking for someplace where he could spend the night. He had no money; he had no place to go. He didn't know anyone in Warsaw. Before I could say anything, my husband told him that we were sorry. We couldn't help him."

"That seems the reasonable thing to do," I tell her. "After all, you didn't know who it was."

She shakes her head. "You know, we have a tradition here, on Christmas, to set an extra place for the stranger who might come. I looked at our table and I remembered the extra place. I wanted to ask the man in, and I told my husband, 'Let him in, it's Christmas.'

"'No,' he said, 'how do we know that this person does not have two others behind him with guns?'

"'Marek,' I said, 'it's Christmas! There is the extra place!' But he still said no. So we quarreled a little bit—yes, I quarreled with my husband on Christmas. I was angry, but I knew that he was right. And we didn't open the door.

"So I am thinking now that maybe I do not want to live in Poland for a while. I know that the old system was bad, but I think now that we are losing our soul, and that the problem we have in Poland is not just the inflation that people complain about. It is something else, and I don't know what to call it. But we are losing ... a part of ourselves."

She pauses. "I don't want to live in this country if we are so afraid that we do not even open our door on Christmas to a stranger. If we are so busy that we forget what it means, the extra place."

We sit for a moment, not speaking. What can I tell her? I remember last winter; I was living in an American city, in the Northeast, where an elderly woman locked herself out of her house and froze to death on her neighbor's porch. The neighbor was afraid to answer the knock on the door. I think about the millions of dollars in aid, the hundreds of advisors sent here to help the Poles change their system, and I wonder if we ever thought to warn them of the losses that come with the gains, of the extra places that are only empty plates.  

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