In the spring when John Paul II died I visited my aunt and uncle and their daughter Marta in their home on the outskirts of Warsaw, and one evening after dinner I asked them a question that had nagged me for many years: how does one have a good time in Warsaw? Marta replied there was plenty to do. I told her I was not interested in Polish monuments or Soviet concrete or American stores. I wanted to see people moving around and enjoying themselves. My uncle told me I should try a different city, another country. Marta and Aunt Anna decided that what I really needed was a night of karaoke.
Twenty minutes later Marta started the car and opened the front gate. I climbed into the back seat, behind Aunt Anna. We rolled out of the driveway in Marta’s little Italian hatchback with a bent wheel well that made such a loud sound I could barely hear the neighbourhood dogs barking or the tires crunching over the gravel on the way to the main road. On the dark, paved road Marta pressed the gas pedal to the floor and the noise grew louder. Aunt Anna pushed herself harder into her seat, and I looked out the window at the trees going by along the side of the road, and a sign for Moscow pointing east.
At the first intersection Marta turned left onto a well-lit road lined with shoebox-shaped stores with neon signs. A few minutes later, as we drove into the old suburbs of Warsaw, Aunt Anna turned back to me and mouthed something like "Soviet concrete" and smiled and pointed out the window at concrete apartment towers thirty metres high. In the night, they looked like stacks of amber cubes.
At a red light, once we had crossed over the Vistula River, Aunt Anna pointed down a dark street and told me it led to Nowy Swiat, which translates as "New World." It is a famous old street with the finest shopping in the country.
The light turned green. Marta floored the gas pedal and Aunt Anna clenched her teeth and turned around and wedged herself back into her seat. She stayed that way until Marta parked the car in front of a grey three-storey building with an unmarked door beneath a red sign, and we all got out.
Marta opened the door and led us down a flight of stairs into a large, crowded room with photographs of famous singers and actors hung on the red brick walls. People were drinking beer at long wooden tables and a woman in front of a projection screen was singing into a microphone. We found seats at the back next to a young man in a CBGBT-shirt, and a young woman in a Ramones T-shirt. Marta handed me a song list, bound in black faux leather. I flipped through the collection of Polish songs whose lyrics I did not know and finally stopped at the American tunes that I recognized and picked one out. Marta went over to the emcee.
The young man in the CBGB T-shirt asked me where I was from. I told him I was born in Krakow but now lived in Vancouver. He told me I was unlucky because Vancouver was too rainy and too far from New York, and New York was the most interesting city in the world. Then he asked me what I was going to sing. "I Am I Said," I told him, and pointed at a photograph of Neil Diamond hanging on the wall. In the photo Neil wore a big-collared shirt and his hair swooped around his head and out of the frame. The young man did not know who Neil Diamond was, and when I told him that Diamond was born in New York, he looked at me skeptically.
The emcee called my song and I went to the front of the room, took the microphone and waited for the intro to pass. For the first verse I followed the words on the screen even though I knew the lyrics. By the first chorus my nerves had calmed and my voice steadied. I looked out at the crowd and spotted Marta and Aunt Anna and the young man, who looked over at the photo of Neil Diamond, then turned back to the woman in the Ramones T-shirt, and did not look up again until I had stopped singing.
Back at the table I asked the young man what he had thought of the song. He told me that my singing was not the problem. The music and lyrics simply did not translate, and it was too silly to have come from New York, and so was the man in the picture, who looked more like a cartoon character than a singer. I looked over at Marta. She smiled at me, tapped Aunt Anna on the shoulder and stood up, and we left the bar.
This time Aunt Anna climbed into the back and I sat in front. Marta drove us back onto the road, entered a roundabout and followed it all the way around past New World, which was deserted. Then she drove over the bridge and into the old suburbs, where most of the amber cubes had become black, and on this thoroughfare she pushed the accelerator all the way to the floor. The noise grew louder and I turned to look at Aunt Anna, who leaned back against the headrest. We were rushing past the new suburbs with the stores and the neon signs.
As we approached the last intersection before home I saw satellites bobbing on the horizon, but Marta must not have noticed them-she turned right and we were back on the dark road with the sign on it. As I turned back to read the exact distance to Moscow, Marta turned left and guided the car onto the gravel road. She slowed, then waited for the front gate to open, eased into the driveway and shut off the engine, and we sat for a few moments listening to the silence in the car and the neighbours’ dogs barking in the night.