It was a large room, actually three rooms with the dividers removed, and the place was packed. People sat in rows of wooden chairs and among the sides of the room and on the tables in the back and finally on the radiators. Still they came and then they stood in the hallway and even down the stairs where it must have been hard to hear and you had to pass them as you left - had to look them in the eye and sort of explain why you were walking out of a symposium on human rights. You did not want to say you were bored.
I mean not bored with human rights as an issue - just bored with talking about human rights. So I was sitting there, listening to the people on the platform talk, watching some people in the audience take notes on that graph paper everyone seems to use here, writing things down in that large, funny script - the "I"s with the lines through them, wondering what they found so interesting.
Up on the platform the talking continued.They were going on about human rights, editors and writers and professors saying nothing new, but taking a long time saying it. There was really no dissent, no one who was against human rights and so I was bored and the truth of the matter is that I had come expecting maybe some trouble - a raid or something. I imagined those bulls in their leather trench coasts and floppy hats running up the stairs and then everyone yelling in a strange language, the women screaming and then everyone being led away - the men stoical, the women no longer crying. They had seen so much - too much.
But it never happened. The cops never came and the women never cried and after a while you had to ask what it had all been about - the whispering that the meeting was to take place, the attempt to keep it out of the press, the secrecy. It seemed like a joke, like an attempt to impress, like an effort to have Poland live up to some sort of antiCommunist expectations, the ones you have from the Cold War, that business about slave states and Godless communism and how you lived in a place called, thank God, the Free Wordl.
So you're on the lookout for the signs that will tell you the kind of place this is. I mean, isn't that what you want to know. How is it different? - how besides the economic system and the lines outside the butcher shops and the fact that the state owns even the newspaper kiosks in the parks. How is it different?
At first you look at the faces of the people but that tells you nothing. And then you notice that there is much criticism of the government and that there are from time to the minor demonstrations and that people are pointed out to you trations and that people are pointed out to you who are noted dissidents and they are of course walking around free, even, would you believe, traveling abroad. You have a discussion with one sit opposite him at a kitchen table, and listen to him talk. He is a heavily bearded man, the beard enormous and wild on a thick, strong face, and he talks about his existence, his protest. But he works and he lives and soon he will marry and, for the moment, he fears no cop. This is not the stuff of drama.
So after a while, you sort of give up looking for the signs that will give away the system. You no longer look behind you or worry about what to say on the phone or get tight when people come up asking you to change money at black market rates or buy Russian caviar at prices they swear would be a bargain at - you guessed it - twice the price. But now, you are relaxed and you remember the words of a Polish diplomat who said he could not wait to return home to where he was free to say what he though. As a diplomet, he would never do that.
And so you scuttle the ideological baggage you came with and you relax and you make a judgement. one night someone mentions Radio Free Europe and there you are with your trendy, liberal thoughts on the subject - so cold war, you say, so heavy, so pre-detente. They look at you with surprise. No, they say, you have it all wrong.They like it. They need it. At times, it is the only way to get the news.
And so now we are at this seminar on human rights and I am asking what it is all about and why we are here and what, after all, was this need for secrecy - this business about how I shouldn't take notes or talk in English lest a foreign correspondent be suspected of being on the premises. I am bored and I don't understand the purpose of the thing and so someone later explains.
Remember Vietnam, he asked, and I said yes. Remember the teach-ins, he asked, and again I said yes, and I thought about them and the endless talk about the war, how no one disagreed and how you almost never learned anything but how you pretended you did and took notes anyway. Yes, I could remember that and I could remember, too, that the important thing was always not what was said - but that it was being said. There I had to stop and there I had to say that I understood his point. It was the same with the seminar, he said. It was being held.
Nothing boring about that.