The emotional memory of that day is much stronger than the memory of the event’s details.
It was 1981 and I was coming home from school on the bus. I was sixteen. Without a word, she presented a card with frayed edges with a handwritten address on it. Someone’s name, UNHCR and a street in the neighbourhood. I couldn’t imagine any office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees being located in that Rome suburb. There was a branch of the Italian Communist Party, a few shops, and the square where my mother wouldn’t let me take the dog out after dark. There was the corner near our home, where youths would gather and sometimes form a tight rank when they saw a girl or a woman coming. Keep your nerve. Keep walking at them. Push if need be. Don’t show them you’re scared. There. Now don’t turn to look at them. Keep walking. You’re almost home. It was also near the beach where, a few years earlier, Pier Paolo Pasolini had been murdered.
My stop was next – near the address the woman wanted – so I motioned her to get off the bus with me. She didn’t speak any Italian. “Do you speak English? Français?” There was no response in her pale blue, almost white, bespectacled eyes.
“Polski,” she finally volunteered.
“So you speak Russian! Togda vi govorite po ruski!” I said. My Russian-born, Armenian grandmother had taught me Russian.
She shook her head. “Nie.“
I found that odd. I knew all Poles spoke Russian. Everybody in the Eastern Bloc learnt it at school in those days.
I walked her to the address on her card and, as I’d suspected, there was no UNHCR office there. I asked a few passers-by, but no one knew anything. I tried to explain to the woman that such offices normally closed early in the afternoon, and it was already three o’clock. Again, the calm, blank, hard stare. I tapped on my watch. “Tomorrow,” I said. “Domani. Demain. Zavtra.”
She shook her head earnestly and launched into what sounded like a protest, incomprehensible to me. She then also tapped on her watch and I gathered from the few Polish words I was able to understand thanks to my Russian that she had to be back in central Rome by six to return to Poland. Why? Did she have a train or a coach to catch? Was she with a group of fellow nationals? I tried to ask, but her face had resumed its impenetrable expression.
I found a phone box and rang home to tell my grandmother I wouldn’t be back for my customary, late, after-school meal. Then I called my mother at her office. “But the UNHCR is in the centre!” she immediately said. “How did she get that address? Besides, they’re probably closed by now.”
She quickly looked up their address and number and I called them. There was no reply.
While waiting for me to finish talking to my mother, the woman took a sandwich out of her bag and started eating it. I remembered I hadn’t had lunch. School finished at 1.15 p.m. and we lived a train and two bus rides away, so I wouldn’t get home until nearly three. The only thing left was to try our luck at the UNHCR in central Rome anyway. “Come, I’ll take you there,” I said, waving at her to follow me.
We got on the bus to the station, then took the local train to Rome, to the Pyramid stop. There were delays on the way. All my attempts at communicating with the woman hit a wall. I couldn’t understand what she was telling me. She kept repeating one word in particular. I was tired and hungry. I had homework to do. Above all, I was frustrated. “Look, I’m trying to help you,” I snapped in Russian. “I really want to help you – can’t you see I’m trying hard? – but I don’t speak Polish and you’re refusing to speak Russian. Please help me, meet me halfway, so that I can help you!”
The woman’s face softened slightly, and she suddenly put her hand on my cheek and gave it a gentle pat. She repeated the word in Polish, then said it in Russian. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to cry. I thanked her in Russian. I wish I could now remember what that word was.
By the time we reached the city, it was too late to go to the UNHCR. She gestured to me to get back on the train and go home. I realised that she would be leaving for Poland in the next hour, that she’d perhaps missed her one chance to stay in Italy and not return to the Eastern Bloc. We said goodbye. On the train home, I wondered who the woman was. Did she have a family? Or nobody to go back to, which is why she wanted to stay in Rome? Who had given her the wrong address for the UNHCR? Why did she want to defect? What had happened to her in Poland? And what had the Soviets done to her or her loved ones that she should have apparently vowed never to speak Russian again?
It was dinner time when I finally reached home. My mother was back, and there was sadness in the air as the three of us sat around the kitchen table. My own grandmother had left the USSR in 1933. She had told us on countless occasions about the fear, the oppression. When, in the mid-1950s, letters from her mother and sister had suddenly stopped coming, there was no way of discovering what had happened to them. No amount of begging at the Soviet Consulate helped her obtain information, and, of course, she wasn’t allow to travel to the USSR. The Soviet Union had left scars on my family, too. And for all my grandmother’s passionate attempts to distinguish Soviet from Russian, the language was still the same.
When, in the early 2000s, I began teaching English as a Foreign Language, I had many Polish students. I always wondered if, by the magical turn of coincidence, any of them knew the Polish woman on the bus in Rome, or perhaps were even related to her. I wondered if, after Lech Wałęsa had set in motion the crumbling of the Eastern Bloc, she had managed to leave Poland, or if she had still wanted to.
I wish I’d asked her her name.