In Warsaw

grun the end of dinner

The End of Dinner, Jules-Alexandre Grün, 1913. Public domain.

In our new Spring issue, we published the short story “The Beautiful Salmon” by Joanna Kavenna. It features one of the most disastrous-sounding dinner parties I’ve ever read about in fiction, which is a meaningful distinction; it is also very funny at times and slightly surreal and imbued with a kind of offbeat philosophical bent. “People often talk about learning experiences and, in the days after the salmon-based fiasco, I wondered about this,” the narrator says, at the end of the story. And it’s a good question: What do we learn from an experience like this? Anything at all? “The Beautiful Salmon” made me think of dinner parties I’d attended or hosted—ones that had gone well and ones that had gone quite poorly and ones that had gone just fine, so that they mostly escaped my memory except for the specific dish or the offhand comment that has stuck with me for years. The significance of these moments, when we’re sharing meals with an group of people, often with a certain sense of occasion, have a particular type of comedy and drama that is often hard to distill or decipher. And so I asked some writers we admire to write short essays on dinner parties they remembered, often long after the dishes were removed from the sink.

Sophie Haigney, web editor

Irresolute, no, shivering, I was waiting—lingering—outside the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which I had not yet seen beyond the entrance hall and the large auditorium, in which I’d just attended an event honoring the Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson, who had died a few months before. (The only real names in this story are the names of the dead.) The event, conducted in Polish and Swedish, was unintelligible to me, but my understanding was not a priority: it was one of the few invitations I’d received since moving to Warsaw two months before, and I accepted all of them, catholic in my pursuit of a real life. So far I had only an apartment, a rhythm of groceries and laundry, early mornings at a desk, and daily trips by tram to a cold classroom for language lessons. Technically, we hadn’t yet passed from autumn to winter, but it was as cold as any winter in New York. Lingering there, hoping to catch sight of someone I’d already met, specifically the woman who had invited me, I was wearing a blue wool coat, several years old and oversize in such a way that I looked tubular. But its bright, almost azure hue might draw attention in the swirl of black.

In the middle of this event, a string quartet had performed several songs—études by Chopin, I learned from the program—and I’d realized that for me, and perhaps for no one else in the audience, the music and the words were exactly the same. Both signified nothing except sound. And, still lingering, now concluding that I should probably just walk to the tram stop and give up on the idea of any continuation of the evening, I thought that this, the event, but also my daily life in a country in which I spoke approximately five hundred words of the language, was the closest I’d ever get to actually remembering childhood before language, when people must have talked all the time around me without my comprehending words as words.

Then Anna, the host, was touching my elbow, laughing at something someone else was saying, and then, in English, her usual (I would learn) tumble of thoughts, including thanks for coming, wasn’t it lovely, so moving, and finally that precious if terrifying prospect: invitation to a dinner, not far away, at the apartment of someone I should meet. He appeared as if from thin air, like Mephistopheles, to introduce himself—Michał—and bow slightly over our clasped hands, a courtly gesture I felt the urge to imitate. American poet, Anna said somewhere nearby, repeating it in Polish, amerykańską poetką, to identify—perhaps to justify—me.

Very casual, this dinner, Anna had said somewhere in the rush, while typing the address into my phone. Still, I stopped at a Carrefour Express for a bottle of wine, hoping a gift would alleviate the feeling of being a party crasher, like the narrator at the beginning of Susan Sontag’s novel In America, the opening scene of which takes place at a dinner party at an unnamed hotel in Warsaw that I would later recognize as the Hotel Bristol, but not yet. Sontag’s narrator, an actual party crasher, also does not speak Polish, though she’s much less troubled by both of those facts than I was.

The apartment door opened onto a long hall lined by art—actual art, not prints—and then my cylindrical coat was taken by someone hired to take a coat and disappeared, and then I was ushered by someone hired to usher through a large doorway to the right into a large room, holding still more art. Someone hired to pass trays of food offered me a demitasse of gazpacho, a word I did recognize. Someone hired to pass drinks handed me a cocktail after saying some words I didn’t recognize. It had gin, I thought, and rosemary. I stuffed the supermarket wine deeper inside my oversize bag. It would be worse to produce that bottle than to come empty-handed. I did the gazpacho like a shot, in order to place it on another tray as soon as possible, and I set my bag beside, or slightly behind, a potted plant, something large and leafy I couldn’t name—the inability to name things becoming my central characteristic—just in time, as Anna found me again and pulled me into a group. American poet, again, amerykańską poetką. She explained that I didn’t have Polish—this is how the Poles always talked about languages when speaking English: as things that one could possess—but, she turned to me, you have French, of course? I did not—my Americanness—and graciously, swiftly, she covered her surprise.

The group included an English writer, unembarrassed by his lack of Polish, perhaps because he was English, perhaps because he had French and Italian to draw on; a famous Polish writer and editor, and democratic hero, because of his past imprisonments, who spoke Polish and German; and the Polish writer, perennial name on the Ladbrokes Nobel list, Adam Zagajewski, who spoke gently in all of his languages, which I believe included Polish, English, German, and French, but perhaps Italian as well. Surnames ending in ski or ska, I’d just learned in my elementary Polish class, indicated (a perhaps distant) Russian origin, and were declined not as nouns but as adjectives, a fact that flashed through my mind as we were introduced, so that the first thing I said to him—that I admired his poetry—emerged a beat late, as if I hadn’t remembered who he was and what he’d done.

Kind as it was of Anna to call me a poet, I didn’t yet feel able to claim the title. At that point, I’d published two or three poems in journals that hardly anyone in America had heard of and certainly no one in Poland. My book? I answered. That’s why I’m here, to write it. The sentence sounded like a lie, which is how it felt, too. And, though that did not clarify anything for anyone, even me, they nodded. So, the English writer said, Latin American? The famous writer and editor disappeared, and the apartment’s owner, Michał, appeared to usher us to the table, a long table like those I’d seen in films, where, by accident or some courteous pity, I ended up between the English writer and Adam, who sat next to Michał and across from Anna.

The conversation flowed in and out of Polish and French, with some English interludes when someone would turn and offer me a slice of it. They were talking about Józef Czapski now; did I know Czapski? I didn’t. Oh, I should, I must, but he wasn’t much translated into English, sadly, though when—the optimism didn’t belong to me—I had Polish, I must read Czapski, who was also a great painter, a great man, not in the way of Great Men but in the way of true genius, and kindness, too. Adam had met him in Paris, I think he said, when Czapski was very old and Adam young—like you, he said, a young poet.

It is several years since this dinner, and I remember best the taste of persimmons soaked in muscadet, and the kindness of a famous man to someone who would admit to being young, but only hesitantly to being a poet. I remember, too, suddenly understanding the term old world, I a creature of the new, because it seemed I had stepped into a scene I’d only ever read about, in which people spoke in several languages about art and history and music and politics, too, unavoidably. And so the transatlantic travel I had recently done telescoped, in the shimmer of my wineglass, into the farthest journey of my life, from a childhood of lonesome reading in rural Ohio to this room that occupied the present and also the past, and which, apparently, would be my future, at least for a little while. This did not seem like an arrival, however, nor did it seem like a triumph. Embarrassment suffused me, at everything I hadn’t read, and everything I didn’t have: books, languages, knowledge. But then, again—and perhaps it was the excellent wine that definitely did not originate in a supermarket, which I was drinking too fast, from nerves—I thought of being a child, of that sense, when learning to read, of everything I didn’t know as something to be chased and caught, back when I was shameless. That had been the real beginning of my life, though I had no words for it then, only the feeling of unbounded possibility, and at that dinner table, something like that feeling pierced my humiliation, and it came to me how lucky I was to have the chance at such humiliation, and the glimpse of knowledge yet to be caught, still to be chased, and although I still don’t have perfect French or perfect Polish, far from it, I have read some Józef Czapski, and I can attest that he is as much as I was promised. “You can hope,” Sontag’s narrator says at her dinner party, “that you have found yourself among largehearted people, passion is a beautiful thing, and so is understanding, the coming to understand something, which is a passion, which is a journey, too.” And so I had.


Elisa Gonzalez is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Her debut collection of poetry is Grand Tour

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