It’s a strange way to grow up, belonging everywhere and nowhere at once. I grew up with a Polish mother and Hungarian father. My parents and my sisters are the only family I have in America. During my childhood, my summers were spent in my parents’ small towns. The rest of the year was spent in Chicago, or Mountain Grove, or Columbia, or Springfield.
This means I’m good at adapting. I’m able to feel a kinship and live comfortably in just about any town, city, community. It also means that I never quite feel at home. I simultaneously feel that I belong everywhere, and that I can’t ever build a sense of belonging anywhere. Contradictory, perhaps, but that’s what it means to be human.
In May, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work on my master’s project.
Besides Chicago, Washington is the closest I’ve ever felt to belonging somewhere in the States — appropriate, perhaps, since it’s the nation’s capital. It’s an international city. There are loads of residents who are similar to me, cultural mutts. When you go to a bar, you’re guaranteed to run into interesting people. Young people move to D.C. because they are passionate, because they are ambitious.
Now, the year is nearly over. I’ll graduate in less than a month. And I’m on the job hunt. I’m looking everywhere, all over the country. I’m looking back in Europe too. I must. Journalism is a tough industry, and there are only a few jobs in Washington. So maybe I’ll move away. Maybe I won’t. I’ve never done well with uncertainty, and it gives me nightmares.
Maybe that’s why I feel a sense of belonging in Washington. It’s a city of transience. People come, people leave. It’s dynamic, in flux. Quite like me.
I have no clue where I’ll be in a month. So for now, I’ll try to remember the little things that matter the most, like the view from my back porch in Capitol Hill on a late summer evening.
Budapest is better than Paris, I think.
It’s a city of two million people (Budapest, not Paris), which is about one-fifth of Hungary’s total population. It spreads out across the Danube, because it was originally two cities: the rolling hills of Buda, once belonging to the Romans, and the flat land of Pest, too sandy to be arable before the markets hit its shore.
You can see the layers of the city in its buildings, in its architecture. Many bits of the city were built in the nineteenth century, some older. You can see gothic, baroque, neo-classical buildings lining the streets, often right next to each other. Look closely, you can see bullet holes in walls.
A big part of Budapest was bombed during the Second World War (damn Americans!), and when the Communists rebuilt, their buildings were stale and ugly, big slabs of concrete with uniform windows. Every socialist building looks like a prison (damn Russians!). And those older buildings, the ones build in green and yellow stucco in the style of unique Hungarian architecture that you can’t find in ye-old-fancy-ass Paris or even central Europe, like ye-uber-trendy-Berlin, they sometimes go unwashed. You see the original color kept up on the bottom floor, but look up, and the greens and yellows and pinks and reds have turned into black, black, black, thanks to the smoky fumes of industry and lack of funds for upkeep.
But the parts that aren’t meticulously cleaned for tourists — well, that’s what makes Budapest the most interesting. It’s honest, organic. Layers of history right on top of each other. How many stories about Hungarian people do the buildings tell on their own, just standing there? Well over two million, I’m sure.
(This isn’t to say that I don’t like Paris, by the way. I like Paris very much. I just don’t like the center of Paris, which is mostly filled with tourists making the peace sign and stupid faces into selfie sticks (I assume, as the selfie stick was invented after I visited in 2012), and pickpockets, and French millionaires dressed in Chanel stepping over beggars, and people who incessantly follow you around as if you’re playing tag, trying to sell you a mini-Eiffel Tower as a souvenir for five euros a pop.)
Art museums are some of my favorite places. I like staring at pieces of art that tell a story about a certain time and place in history, and I like filling in the blanks with my own ideas.
In Kansas City, I’m always within twenty minutes of the Nelson-Atkins. That museum’s gallery of American paintings is something else. So much Thomas Hart Benton and George Caleb Bingham, those capturers of the middle-American spirit. They were Missourians, so it’s appropriate that those paintings of small-town Missouri politicians soliciting local shop owners in suspenders are gathered in the state’s museums. And it’s great! I love those paintings, I love those stories.
But I don’t identify with them. They tell me nothing about my own history or even my own culture. First-generation American, watching other museum-goers muse over their great-great-great grandparents. So what, I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life? I still don’t recognize Missouri as my Home-with-a-capital-“H.” Those paintings are foreign to me, to my place in time, to my history, to my family.
I prefer going to art museums in Eastern Europe, like the National Hungarian Art Gallery I visited in the Buda hills of Budapest. The photos of those peasants — tending to sheep and picking flowers in the fields — that’s my history. I come from some of world’s the poorest people. When my grandfather was a child, his parents were too destitute to care for him. So, he went to live with his uncle. His uncle gave him chores, and one of them was to let the cows out during freezing morning hours. Nagypapa (Grandfather) couldn’t afford shoes as a little kid. So he’d go out barefoot in the frosted fields. And he’d step in cow shit to keep his feet warm.
My dad told me this story on the car ride back to Izsak from Budapest, and I crinkled my nose in disgust. Visceral reaction: “ew, ew, ew.” But that’s where I come from. The child of immigrants. Poorest of the poor. Half-Hungarian, half-Polish. One hundred percent Eastern European. Adopted, engulfed, eaten up by the States. That’s temporary, I hope.
But the art I saw in that National Hungarian Gallery, of the peasants in the countryside from the turn of the century — sure, maybe that’s the first time I saw those paintings. But that’s my story. Those are my great-great-(great)-grandparents. And I felt a familiarity with those subjects, you know?
The first time I took an Uber, I tried to get into the wrong car.
I was in Arlington, Va., and after a midnight soak in a friend’s rooftop hot tub on a freezing February night, I had to get back to my budget hotel in D.C. My friend sent me a code for a free Uber ride, but I was apprehensive. Could I trust the Uber driver to not kidnap, kill, cut me into tiny pieces and/or stuff me into his trunk? That apprehensiveness grew when when I tried to open the door of a car that was parked in front of my friend’s apartment.
The door was locked. I knocked on the window.
“Uber?” I asked, waving my phone. The confused driver stared at me, and then shook his head.
I tried to ignore the fact that I had essentially turned a stereotype on its head–instead of a large black man trying to rob a small white woman, I was the small white woman who appeared to be jacking a large black man’s car–and I called my Uber driver.
“You’re parked around the corner?”
I got back to my hotel in one piece.
Two days later, I almost missed my flight back to Kansas City.
I sat in the back of an Uber, waiting as we stood still in traffic for five full minutes.
“Is it always this bad in D.C. on a Friday evening?” I asked my driver.
“Oh, that’s the President’s motorcade driving past,” he said.
By the time I visited Atlanta a month later for a computer-assisted reporting conference, I was an Uber convert. An Uber proselytizer, really. I was sharing a cheap hotel room with three other grad students, and we were shamelessly cutting costs at every corner.
“We can share the cost of one Uber ride, which’ll be $3 each,” I told them. So, we took Uber everywhere.
We probably had ten drivers total. Not one of them was white, and two of them were women.
I asked one of the women how she started working for Uber.
“Well, I came to Atlanta to help out my daughter,” she said. “She’s thirty, but she acts like she’s sixteen years old or something. She burned through all her money. So I moved from Alabama to help her out.”
“Do you like Atlanta?” I asked.
The woman laughed. “Nope, not really.”
“Do you like Atlanta?” was a question I asked often, and more often than not, the Uber drivers said yes.
I soon learned that several of these drivers had recently moved to Atlanta from other states in the South–Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.
Our first morning in Atlanta, our driver could not sing the city’s praises enough. “I moved here two years ago, and I love it,” he said. “Ladies, you would love it too. You’re just what Atlanta needs–four, young, smart, pretty single ladies out on the town!”
He wore a metallic patterned shirt, and his energy at 7 a.m. was more effective as a strong cup of coffee.
“Is that your real eye color, or are you wearing contacts?” he asked me.
“I mean, I’m wearing contacts, but they’re not colored…”
“Well, girl, you have got beautiful eyes.”
Funny, the most romantic thing ever said to me was by a gay Uber driver.
He loved that we were new to Atlanta, and he loved pointing everything out. “And that’s the Hard Rock Cafe,” he said, his voice authoritative, as if we couldn’t read the giant neon sign that read: “Hard Rock Cafe.”
“That’s a trolley car–they’re just testing it out. See that man in the yellow vest? That’s a cop. They’re everywhere, but they’re friendly. They’re here so tourists will feel safe and come back,” he said. “Homeless people might ask you for money, but if you say no, they won’t harass you. It’s because they know the cops don’t mess around. Oh! See that other guy in yellow? Another cop.”
One of our Uber drivers, it turned out, was a retired cop and Atlanta native.
I couldn’t help myself.
“I’m a journalist from Missouri, and I’ve been covering some stuff about Ferguson and its aftermath,” I said. “What do you think about the police department here in Atlanta? Do you see similar issues?”
“It’s not as bad here. In this city, a lot of the cops are black. A lot of the people are black,” he said. “I tell you what, and this is just my opinion, but I truly believe it. If the racial makeup of police forces reflected the racial makeup of their cities, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”
On our final morning in Atlanta, our last Uber driver had another solution to my questions about Ferguson and race (oops–we’ll blame it on the reporter in me; nobody’s perfect).
“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. We need rules and regulations, but we need family values too. You know what would solve the world’s problems? If parents taught their kids compassion!” he said.
“But how does that translate to legislation?” I asked.
“Those lawmakers need to legislate compassion!” the driver said, half-laughing, half-serious. “Nothing is just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It should go deeper than that. My political philosophy, I get that from Star Wars. Yoda said, ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'”
Hear that, world? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.
September 1, 1939: Seventy-five years ago today, when my grandparents were twelve years old, Adolf Hitler invaded their country.
My grandparents lived in a village near Lwow in the eastern part of Poland. Dziadziu (my grandpa) had been in love with Babcia (my grandma) since kindergarden, and, according to stories from my mother, his preferred courting technique was throwing rocks and frogs at her. This method of romance somehow worked, obviously, but I digress. The Nazi invasion rudely interrupted their childhoods.
Dziadziu was too young join the army, but by the time when he was 15, German soldiers began forcing him to help them with odd jobs like unloading Nazi train wagons.
Much of the violence inflicted on the Poles in the eastern part of the country was actually imposed by militant Ukranian nationalists with the support of the Nazis. One of Babcia’s sisters had a mother-in-law who was killed by the massacres imposed by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists when they burned down her house. She was not the only one. An estimated 70,000 Polish women, children and unarmed men were killed in an ethnic cleansing campaign in 1943 led by Ukrainian Stepan Bandera.
After the war, Poland’s borders were redrawn and my grandparents’ families were forced to leave their home. They left almost everything they owned in their village, stuffed their livestock into train wagons, and actually sat on top of the trains into their uncertain futures. My great-grandfather packed up his belongings into his own wagon. I’ve never met him, but I can’t help but picture him as Tevye singing “Anatevka” at Fiddler on the Roof’s end, pulling a wagon filled with a pot, a pan, a hat, a broom. They had no idea where they were going; authorities dictated where they would stop.
My grandparents’ families stuck together, and they were kicked off the train at a town called Olesno in Silesia, the western part of Poland that was occupied by Germany only a few months before. Ethnic Germans had heard horror stories of incoming Soviet soldiers, killing men and raping women, and most had run away from the area before my grandparents arrived. So, Polish women arriving from Lwow camped out in ditches as men scoured the area for abandoned homes.
Babcia first lived in a nice brick house, but as it happens, the German family who had run away later returned and reclaimed their house. That’s how my grandparents’ families ended up living together with a few other elderly couples in a large house on the border a tiny village called Lasowice Wielkie. My grandparents married in November 1948 and continued to live in the meadow house. This is also where my mother was born in the 1960s, and where she lived for the first twenty-some years of her life.
Since I’ve come to grad school, I’ve been asked “where are you from?” almost as many times as “Wait–did you say your name is Tasha?” The question always gives me pause. I’ve lived in many towns and cities, but one of the two places with any consistency in my life is this house in Lasowice Wielkie (the other is my Hungarian grandparents’ home in Izsak–more on this in another post, I’m sure). It’s strange to think that this place that signifies stability in my life also signifies uncertainty and usurping for the generation just before my mother’s.
I come from a family of displaced peoples, people who became refugees in their own land, products of violence from ethnic tension that has dominated Eastern Europe for the better part of known history. If you’ve been paying attention to the news beyond U.S. borders, you may have noticed that echoes of history are becoming louder and louder. If you haven’t heard, it’s time to start listening.
What have I been up to this month?
Good question. As with any response that could easily be said in a few words, I think I’ll start with a quote from the one and only bell hooks:
“When we’re talking about race or class or gender, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is…it has power in everyday life.”
My writing dips into several different areas in culture; one of those areas is fashion. Fashion is fascinating because it actually does dictate a part of everyone’s life, even if that part is merely throwing on a work uniform as part of a morning routine. Essentially, fashion is a conflict between “high culture” (think Prada, Chanel) that considers itself art and the “lower” culture, aka the cheap designs that make it to the Misses section in Walmart. Historical movements are marked by fashion trends—the shapeless flapper dresses of the 1920s, indicating a rebellion from traditional femininity, for example. Fashion is class, race, gender, and cultural differences (or similarities) seamed together and torn apart in material form.
Plus, styling outfits can be pretty fun, you know, on a non-theoretical level. Go figure.
I’m not totally embracing or even endorsing the fashion industry; manufacturing is cruel (outsourcing, exploitation, factory collapses), as are the body expectations for women (you’re either tall, thin, and white, or the exotic Other). But connections between these material and economic relations and cultural representation—or, probably more appropriate, the disconnect between them—are all the more reason to check yourself if you roll your eyes at the word fashion.
So what have I been up to? I’ve been covering Kansas City Fashion Week, in my newest project as a contributor for the New York-based website, The Style Line. KCFW was held March 13-16 in KC’s own historic Union Station, and it featured designers from across the country. Some collections erred on the side of boring, but most runway shows were legitimately a ball to watch.
On Saturday’s shows, I sat next to a designer from New York. She asked my permission to editorialize out loud, and I happily let her. “Oh that is good. See that patterned skirt? That’s so tough, to match the pattern where the skirt is seamed, and the designer totally pulled it off… Is that a pin holding that dress together? Hello, have a fitting before the show… Ohmygod, yes, from now on every runway show needs to start with capoeira,” she said at the beginning of L.O.D.’s Brazilian-inspired showcase of yellows and greens. I didn’t bother to correct her use of capoeira; I was drawn in by her commentary, and even added my own knowledgable remarks. “Well… her hair looks good, so…”
My favorite collection was designed by Andrea Marie Long, partly because of my obsession with checkered patterns, and partly because the Cossack headbands made me imagine that I was watching Fiddler on the Roof circa 2014 (a very, very good thing). Plus, her capes were stunning. I can only imagine the skill it takes to design and craft them.
The best part about Kansas City Fashion Week, though, was the impressive community effort that it took to produce the event. The models, hair stylists, makeup artists, media, sponsors, and general public were all local. I saw people in the audience dressed as though they expected Anna Wintour to show up, and I saw others who seemed to think that Kohl’s is haute couture. Again: I saw fashion as represented by different cultures and classes, but all from the Kansas City community.
It’s a long time since I’ve experienced such a strong sense of creativity and community in one place, and I was thrilled. Well done, Kansas City Fashion Week.
For more of my KCFW coverage, visit The Style Line’s Tumblr.