James Warren Boyd
James Warren Boyd’s creative nonfiction has been published in literary journals Memoir, Transfer, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Tusculum Review, and the online Amarillo Bay and Diverse Voices Quarterly. As a writer/performer, he has been featured in the Gay and Lesbian International Storytelling Festival, The San Francisco Theater Festival, and “Gay Writes!” at The Marsh. Boyd, who has a master’s degrees in English and Communication Studies, is a writing center coordinator and lecturer at San Francisco State University and an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco.
It’s remarkable the lengths to which you’ll go to have your mouth think it’s home. When my then boyfriend Jeffrey came to visit me in Poland, he observed, “I never realized how important food is to your identity here.” No doubt he was commenting on the inordinate amount of time my Peace Corps friends and I spent talking about where in our towns (or other volunteers’ towns) we had found certain essential cooking ingredients we needed to prepare favorite comfort foods, swapping adaptations of familiar recipes made with ingredients available at our local Polish markets, physically altering available ingredients (like chopping up candy bars to make chocolate chips for cookies), and bragging about care packages from home filled familiar food mixes. Our pilgrimages to American fast food restaurants whenever we visited a major European city were embarrassingly crass, but infinitely satisfying. As an expat, you get gastronomic itches which need to be scratched.
Late one sunny weekend morning I walked to my friend Magda’s house. Magda is an amazing cook who, like me, enjoys talking about cooking as much as doing it. Inside on snowy nights or out in her garden on sunny days we would flip through cook books and magazines, reading aloud to one another a particularly enticing recipe. One such lazy Sunday together, while in her kitchen waiting for water to boil for tea, she asked if I wanted any bread to go with our simple brunch. I lamented that what I really wanted was toast.
“I can turn the oven on,” she suggested.
“No, I appreciate it. I mean real toast…from a toaster. I’ve tried it in the oven. It’s not the same.”
In fact, so disappointed had I been with the uneven, dry results of oven toasting that I had resigned myself to another year and a half of going native and eating bread right off the loaf which is quite good because Polish bread even from—or perhaps especially from—a neighborhood store is so fresh you have to eat it in a few days or it will spoil. In fact, you can ask for half a loaf of bread and the clerk will cut a golden brown loaf in two for you.
“Do you want to use a toaster?” she asked, “I think I have one.”
I looked at her as if she had disclosed she had a spare villa for my use in the south of France. “You have a toaster?” I sputtered. “Where did you get a toaster? I’ve never seen one here.”
“A friend I worked with at the hotel in London gave it to us for a wedding present,” she said nonchalantly. “Now let’s see, I think I put it back here,” opening a brown wood corner cabinet and digging inside. After a bit of clanging, she stood and placed the toaster on the cabinet. “Here it is.”
“I can’t believe you have a toaster,” I said, stroking the gleaming white appliance lovingly.
Magda giggled at my swooning,” My goodness,” she said, “if I had known you were this into toasters I would have pulled it out sooner.”
“Can we...tttt … try it?” I said, stuttering with near fetishistic anticipation, examining the plug to discover that it indeed would fit into a Polish electrical outlet.
“Of course,” she said, “but don’t put any in for me. I like mine just sliced.”
I picked up the toaster, set it on the honey-tiled countertop, and plugged it in, noticing the writing on the side. “It says her name is Melisa,” I said, fingering the dainty red script lovingly.
“So it does,” she answered peering over my shoulder. “Nice to meet you Melisa” nodding towards the toaster and going back to fuss with our tea.
I cut off two slices of bread and gingerly pushed down the lever, scared I might break this delicate treasure. As I sat watching the red glow and felt the heat from Melisa on my face, Magda poured our tea and asked, “Perhaps you two would like some time alone?”
Little did she know how many mornings of pleasure Melisa would provide. I began to scour Radom for sliced bread, testing various available varieties, leading to my ultimate discovery that it was best to find a store that had a slicing machine and would cut a traditional Polish loaf, a chewy, medium-bodied bread far preferable to the soft, bland variety that came pre-sliced and square shaped. My hunger for toast began to be no longer confined to mornings, and I shopped for toppings to feed my insatiable toast desire. Soon my tiny room refrigerator was packed almost exclusively to with items devoted Melisa-inspired snacks for every time of day: delicious Polish jams in every flavor for morning, soft cheeses which would melt upon contact for the afternoon, peanut butter for late night interludes.
One day while I was sharing with Magda about my newest Polish jam find (and let me say, I can’t believe Magda never once said something like, “Darling, you really need to stop obsessing about toast and get out more”) when she suggested that I try this sort-of cottage cheese with chives on my toast. Now, it would take too long for to explain the different varieties of Polish products in the cottage cheese/farmers cheese family alone. Poland is a dairy lover's dream. Dairy products in Poland are a far better example of the Saphir Whorf hypothesis than the classic (and inaccurate) “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” example. (Go on. Google it. You know you want to.) Magda was referring to "serek wiejski ze szczpiokiem," which is a thicker version of cottage cheese than we have here, though not quite as stiff as farmer’s cheese. Magda wrote this down for me so I could show it to the corner shop girl (my Polish was and is pathetic). Magda, as usual, was right. Soon serek wiejski ze szczpiokiem began to replace sliced cheese as my afternoon toast ritual. I began to practice saying “serek wiejski ze szczpiokiem,” and got rather good at it since I had to order it in the shop several times a week. Unfortunately, the only way I could pronounce “szczpiokiem” was to swallow hard at the end of the second syllable. I noticed that my favorite corner shop girl began to swallow along with me every time I requested my delicacy.
I began to share all of my Melisa-inspired discoveries with other volunteers. One of the things which was wonderful about being placed by Peace Corps in the town in which my group trained for the first three months—before the volunteer diaspora which happened at the end of summer when we were all scattered around the country in our assigned towns—was that I frequently had visitors who had come to visit their host families. Typically I would ask them over for brunch, and then they would stay through the afternoon during which we would catch up, play cards, and weather permitting, go for a walk. When I first got Melisa, I would inquire, soft-selling at first to increase the drama, “Would you like to have toast with our eggs?”
“No,” they would typically respond, “We would have to go down the hall, who knows if the rack will be there, and it doesn’t turn out great anyway.”
I should add at this point that though I had a small fridge and a hot-plate in my room, the kitchen with an oven for the dorm floor was down the hall. The ovens were constantly in use, and there were not enough racks for the ovens, so you would have to “steal” a rack from another floor. I eventually went to the oven store and bought my own racks which I kept in my room.
“Well, I bought my own racks, but I have a toaster now,” I would reply in my best breezy tone.
“You what?! You mean, like a REAL toaster?”
And so would begin the explanation of my acquisition of Melisa, followed by my friends’ rapt observation of her receiving the white bread into her slots, and her envelopment of each slice within her red-glowing coils, until her climatic thrust of the transformed slices. I loved watching my guests taking that first crunchy bite slathered in butter and jam, closing their eyes momentarily and tilting their heads back slightly as they chewed, gazing at me rapturously while they swallowed, and then looking tenderly, lovingly at the remaining slice in their hand, murmuring “ah, toast…”
Soon word of Melisa began to spread. Volunteers in other towns would request her by name. I began to suspect that I was receiving invitations because of Melisa; weekend propositions began ending with a studied, suspiciously casual, “Oh, and do bring Melisa.” Finally, I began to receive requests for outcalls. Could I loan her out for a party or a long weekend? While I usually granted these requests, with a strict verbal contract about specific pick up and return dates, I longed for Melisa when she was away. I worried for her safety, imagining rough grubby hands, thrusting slice after slice inside her, throwing her dirty in the corner when they were done, carelessly pushing her down into an unprotected bag for the trip back to me. I would inspect her upon her return, open her bottom to shake out the crumbs, and gently wipe her clean.
Then one morning, I placed my bread inside Melisa, and…nothing. No red coils, no delicious toasty smells…nothing. Melisa remained cold and irresponsive as my raw limp bread sat in her slots. I felt instantly to blame. It was my fault. I had asked too much of her: the wild brunches, the incessant train travel, the servicing of gangs of sliced-bread wielding strangers. I had done this to her.
Fortunately, in 90s Poland, just about anything could be repaired; they hadn’t yet caught on to America’s wasteful embrace of planned obsolescence. The trick was finding the right store, since small stores seemed to specialize in one specific thing—like the horse hair brush store (I kid you not)—or a multiplicity of seemingly random things, like the school supplies, wigs, and flower shop. Saint Magda kindly directed me to a household supplies, plastics, and appliance repair store not far from the college where we both taught. On a Saturday morning, I packed Melisa gingerly into a bag and walked her to the store. I was familiar with its merchandise; I had seen identical stock of cheap, primary-colored plastics which burst from its shelves and onto the sidewalk at several other stores. But my goal was the repair shop in the back.
A middle-aged woman, whose hair was died a shade of red occurring in nature only in rusty purple autumnal leaves, came from the back of the store to the counter. Though she wasn’t smiling, her affect was pleasant by Polish standards. I took a deep breath, girding myself for a conversation completely in Polish with no bilingual Poles to rely upon, something which didn’t occur often.
“Dzień dobry Panu Good day, sir,” she said.
“Dzień dobry Pani Good day, madam,” I replied.
“Proszę How may I help you?”
I began the way I began nearly every conversation with a stranger in Polish. “I’m sorry. My Poland is terrible.”
“No, your Polish is good.” Poles generally say this to Americans, no matter how atrocious their conversational Polish is, mostly I think because they so appreciate their effort.
“This is my toaster,” I began tentatively.
“I’m listening, “she said, raising her eyebrows slightly.
I stood there staring at Melisa. I hadn’t thought this through. I had no piece of paper with Magda’s magic writing to help me. I had done no research, had not brought a phrase book or a dictionary. What was I thinking? I realized hadn’t the slightest idea how to say, “The problem appears to be that when you press the lever down, the heating element inside no longer engages. Can you fix it?”
“I’m listening,” she repeated patiently.
“In my toaster....” I began.
“Yes?” she encouraged.
What were the words for “heat coils?” “push down?” “lever?” I used the only words I knew. “In my toaster is not campfire,” I said awkwardly and then looked at her. I should note that while the simple definition of “ognisko”—the only word for fire or heat I could think of in the pressure of the moment—is “campfire,” the word most often refers to a bonfire Poles make, usually on summer nights, to cook kielbasa on sticks while they hang out and drink beer.
“Pardon me, what? I don’t understand,”
“In my toaster is not campfire,” I repeated. “Not campfire, not campfire!” I said pushing the lever up and down. She crinkled her brow. I grabbed the end of the cord. “Ma’am do you have….” I said, thrusting Melisa’s plug in and out of an invisible outlet.
She reached under the counter and pulled out a power strip. “Here you are”,” she said, pushing the power strip towards me.
“Attention! Please watch ma’am,” I requested as I plugged Melissa’s chord into the power strip with dramatic flair. “Normally,” I said pressing down the toaster lever, “campfire,” fluttering my fingers above the toster and raising my eyebrows in excitement. “Now…no campfire,” I said, stopping the finger fluttering, pressing the lever up and down, and looking at her with sad, boyfriend break-up eyes.
She crinkled her brow even more; it was her turn to be silent in thought while she pondered Melisa’s predicament. Suddenly, her face transformed into excitement. “I understand,” she exclaimed and smiled. “No campfire,” she said while pressing Melisa’s lever up and down.
“Yes, yes!” I replied, equally excited.
She got a receipt book, wrote me a ticket and told me to come back the following week.
A week later I returned and was greeted by a middle-aged man, whom I assumed was the woman’s husband.
“Excuse me, the lady is?” I asked.
He considered me and my request for a moment, before answering, "Just a moment,” and disappearing to the back. No doubt tipped off by her husband that an American with a possible developmental disability was asking for her, the woman emerged from the back with Melisa.
“Good Afternoon, sir,” she said cheerfully, “Here is your toaster.”
She placed Melisa on the counter and slid her towards me. She put her hands on her hips, looked me in the eyes, smiled, and with great satisfaction exclaimed, “Ogniesko!”
I thanked the woman profusely, paid her, and waved goodbye to her and her husband who had emerged from the back to see off the village idiot. I whistled as I ambled home with Melisa, catching looks from some locals unaccustomed to seeing a man taking his toaster walk.
I unlocked my faculty dorm door, and placed Melisa on the cutting board where she lived. I stroked the top of her gleaming white body, restored to new brilliance by the kind plastic-housewares-providing, appliance-repairing couple after they had fixed my campfire problem. I vowed to take better care of her. No more traveling. No more pimping out.
Melisa was home to stay.