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This report is taken from PN Review 107, Volume 22 Number 3, January - February 1996.

Letter from Poland Eleanor Margolies

Once, on a train to Riga, a persuasive gold-toothed James Dean look-alike persuaded me to swap bunks with his girlfriend. When the carriage conductress shook me awake at 3 am for being in the wrong bunk, my unconscious argued back, cobbling together the Russian words from poems learnt by heart, poems about waving birch trees and the melancholy national soul. I'm sure I speak Russian better in my sleep: maybe all the languages we have ever picked up are still sleeping behind the gatekeepers of the consciousness.

This summer, I fell asleep somewhere after the border on the Berlin-Warsaw line. If only I had been dreaming in Polish, I would have woken up fluent, and tough as old boots, but I had to look for the words, to struggle with the raspy syllables, saying to an unsympathetic guard, 'Someone from me obtained what should be here.' I showed my money-belt, which had been slashed open. Bought specially for this journey, since I was to be a traveller, rather than a resident, the money-belt had become the mark of a dumb tourist. Later I was comforted by my host in Warsaw, Magda, who told me it doesn't just happen to tourists: in the eighties, a friend had his shoes unlaced and removed while he dozed on a crowded train. It was not an impressive return to Poland, but an appropriate start to a trip that seemed to be about language, authenticity and irony.

This failure to ...

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