Warsaw Playlist (August 2013)

At the risk of becoming a cliché, I refer to my apartment as a flat, and I listen to jazz. I have been in Europe for a week and a day. Something like a fish to water, I have taken to my life in Warsaw, despite a somewhat challenging first week of apartment hunting, a cat who refused to eat, and record high temperatures that made the spot I left in Athens, Georgia, USA on August 1st seem cool by comparison. I already owned all the jazz recordings I now listen to with enthusiasm. I just never enjoyed them much. The rhythm didn’t fit my life in the US in the way it fits here, where ambient sounds are tweaked and modified enough from my sense of normal and in their own particular ways to leave room in my aural landscape for jazz.

Trams rumble by alongside not inconsequential traffic a few buildings to the north, and to the east, the majority of my windows face a quiet tree-lined street. Leaves rustle differently outside these windows than they did at home. This is true both in my own flat and in the borrowed flat where I stayed during my first week here. They sound almost like rain. At first, I thought they were rain. Like Aspen trees in the wind, these trees and their leaves have a lot more to say than the ones that enveloped my Georgia home. In my flat, they syncopate with standards from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Duke Ellington, with vocals by Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Fats Waller, and with the semi-outliers in the mix, Biréli Lagrène, Sergio Mendez, and Ruben Gonzalez. At night, I turn off all the lights, open the curtains, and watch the tree shadows dance on the south wall of the flat, a visual accompaniment to my soundtrack, and one that transforms the soundtrack into a main stage event.

If I re-read the sentences I’ve just written, I think that this scene sounds too romantic, that I must indeed be a cliché, another one in a long string of US writers who have expatriated to Europe and found more or less what I am now finding. Since I have expatriated before to Indonesia and to parts of Latin American, I can say that my current experience is particular to Europe. This cliché I seem to have become is not who I was when abroad elsewhere. Something particular about the history and culture here and this moment in my life catalyzes  impulses unlike anywhere I have lived before. They were not even catalyzed in this way when I was merely a tourist in Europe some years back. Only now that I have installed myself in Warsaw do I respond in this way. Further, I do so against all prior personal inclinations.

I have never romanticized Europe, nor even particularly yearned to explore it. I certainly have never fancied myself another ex-patriot writer living the dream on the continent. Writing’s something I reluctantly do because I can’t not do it, and other continents have captured my curiosity in ways that Europe, for various reasons, never could. As fascinating, diverse, and wonderful as it may be, Europe has seemed too familiar, the kind of place I would go for a holiday when old and needing comfort. However, I have emigrated to Warsaw because, like many writers who emigrated from the US to France during the post-WWII years, I can afford to live here, and further, because the art scene, according to artists and writers I met while a predoctoral resident artist fellow at the Vermont Studio Center last year and my friends who encouraged me to move here, is dynamic. Here is possibility, both as an atmospheric and a personal note. I am told that those around me sense it, and perhaps need it, as much as, if not more than, I do.

This possibility is, I hope, what saves me from actually being a cliché. Quite probably, it is what saves us all. I may be traveling a seemingly well worn path, but I am not doing so in the service of following or recreating a romantic past or writerly life. Merely to contemplate such an endeavor leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Instead, I am keenly attuned to the intention of embarking on something new. Perhaps this state of mind, more than anything, is what leaves me open to relying on jazz as my soundtrack. Craig Werner, in A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America, quotes Louis Armstrong who said that “jazz is music that’s never played the same way once,” and Werner makes the claim that as a genre, jazz “imagines the transitions” and “distills the deepest meanings of the current moment” including “how it developed from prior ones” and “how it opens up to multiple possibilities to come.” In jazz, Werner finds that nothing is given, and everything is open to question, probing, and reevaluation. Werner’s assessment of jazz—though applied in his case as a framework to explore the history and experience of race in the US through the lens of black music as a site of resistance and revolution—applies aptly to my approach to this time in Warsaw.

Perhaps, then, it is coincidence rather than cliché that I am living someone’s dream of the writerly life on the continent. Whether cliché or coincidence or something altogether different that will reveal itself in time, I truly love what’s going on right now: the laughter I share with the clerk at the market when I answer her question with first , then ja, before finally arriving at tak, the Polish word for yes; the Turkish specialty store, where I discover all kinds of tasty treats and am offered tea by shopkeepers who would love to swap stories about language acquisition, travel, and expatriating for study and work, things they have also done; snippets of conversation about global politics and contemporary Poland shared with my astronomer-landlord who manages to squeeze in handyman work on my flat before he departs for a fast-paced few weeks of travel to a conference in Amsterdam, then a holiday with his family in Scotland, and finally, to an international collaboration in Argentina and Chile to plan the installation of a new telescope in South America; and walks around the city with my art historian friend who tells me about architecture, tragedy, possibility, and parties, all four of which are, on some fundamental level, inextricably linked in Warsaw, links I only intuit now but look forward to exploring in more depth in the weeks and months to come.

The Warsaw Playlist:

Syrenka, symbol of Warsaw
Syrenka, symbol of Warsaw
    • Djangology: Biréli Lagrène, Gipsy Project & Friends
    • Learnin’ the Blues: Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis Again (Remastered)
    • Tres Lindas Cubanas: Ruben Gonzalez, Cuba Mix
    • Caravan: Duke Ellington with Charles Mingus & Max Roach, Money Jungle
    • Willow Weep For Me: Billie Holiday, Live At Storyville
    • My Way: Nina Simone, The Essential Nina Simone Vol. 2
    • Spiral: John Coltrane, Giant Steps
    • Si Tu Savais: Biréli Lagrène, Gypsy Project
    • Ain’t Misbehavin’: Fats Waller & His Rhythm, Greatest Hits     
    • Watermelon Man: Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters
    • Solitude: Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, Jackson Pollock Jazz
    • Crying Time: Ray Charles & The Count Basie Orchestra, Ray Sings, Basie Swings
    • I Won’t Dance: Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis Again (Remastered)
    • Moment’s Notice: John Coltrane, The Art Of John Coltrane
    • Babik: Biréli Lagrène, Gipsy Project & Friends
    • Don’t Be That Way [Live]: Benny Goodman, Live At Carnegie Hall [Disc 1]
    • Easy to Love: Billie Holiday, The Very Best of Cole Porter
    • Freddie Freeloader: Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue
    • Maiden Voyage: Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage
    • Begin the Beguine: Artie Shaw & His Orchestra, The Centennial Collection: Artie Shaw (Remastered)     
    • Countdown: John Coltrane, Giant Steps
    • I Loves You Porgy (Live, 1964 New York): Nina Simone, Four Women: The Complete Nina Simone on Philips Recordings     
    • Je Suis Seul Ce Soir: Biréli Lagrène, Gypsy Project
    • I Cover The Waterfront: Billie Holiday, Live At Storyville
    • Autumn In New York: Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis Again (Remastered)     
    • Stompin’ At The Savoy [Live]: Benny Goodman, Live At Carnegie Hall [Disc 2]
    • He’s Funny That Way: Billie Holiday, Live At Storyville
    • I’m Busted: Ray Charles & The Count Basie Orchestra, Ray Sings, Basie Swings
    • Blue Train: John Coltrane, The Art Of John Coltrane
    • When Day Is Done: Biréli Lagrène, Gipsy Project & Friends
    • Good Morning Heartache: Billie Holiday, Original Decca Masters
    • You Do Something to Me: Ella Fitzgerald, The Very Best of Cole Porter
    • Dolphin Dance: Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage
    • All Blues: Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue
    • One O’Clock Jump [Live]: Benny Goodman, Live At Carnegie Hall [Disc 1]
    • Lime House Blues: Biréli Lagrène, Gypsy Project
    • Don’t Be That Way: Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis Again (Remastered)
    • Mr. P.C.: John Coltrane, Giant Steps
    • Billie’s Blues: Billie Holiday, Live At Storyville
    • My Baby Just Cares For Me: Nina Simone, Stealing Beauty Soundtrack
    • Blue Skies [Live]: Benny Goodman, Live At Carnegie Hall [Disc 2]
    • Mas Que Nada: Sergio Mendes, Mi Historia
    • Too Darn Hot: Ella Fitzgerald, The Very Best of Cole Porter     
    • Ou Es-Tu Mon Amour?: Biréli Lagrène, Gipsy Project & Friends
    • In the Morning: Norah Jones, Feels Like Home
    • The Long and Winding Road: Ray Charles & The Count Basie Orchestra, Ray Sings, Basie Swings
    • So What: Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue     
    • God Bless the Child: Billie Holiday, Billie Holiday: Greatest Hits (Remastered)
    • Teach Me Tonight: Dinah Washington, Dinah Washington Sings Standards
    • Stompin’ at the Savoy:  Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis Again (Remastered)


  1. I’m very interested to know how you feel about Warsaw, Poland, the Polish people. As a 60 year old Polish American , I have developed a new and keen interest in the land of my grandfathers. But what interests me most is what happened to the Polish people during WWII. I’ve become obsessed with learning about it mostly because I do subscribe to the theory that the “past is prologue.” In real ways, the history of WWII Poland has been ignored here in the States. I have many ideas why this might be. . . but chief among them is that we are totally embarrassed at the shabby way we treated such a stalwart ally during WWII. Yesterday, I learned of the “No. 1 Polish Recalcitrant Camp” in northern Scotland after WWII. Recalitrance is not a bad quality, especially if you are in the right. Suffice it to say what was done to Poland during and after WWII by its supposed friends, Britain and the US, and its enemy, the USSR, is an eye opener to anyone who has any decency. Good luck in your new location and I hope you will keep us informed of all your impressions of Poland both good and bad. Cheers.

    1. Dear William,

      I, too, am finding WWII to be a very interesting period in terms of Polish history. You might enjoy this British documentary series. Bloody Foreigners: The Untold Battle of Britain. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptijNcDanVw

      I haven’t watched it yet, but a friend recommended it, and apparently there were some interesting dynamics involving Stalin and the erasure of Polish contributions in WWII.

      Thank you for reading the blog. So glad you’re enjoying it, and I look forward to your on-going feedback.


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