Stories from the Muddy

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Dark and Stormy Night

By Naomi Lewis

              I spent two weeks in the wild Mazury Lakes district of northern Poland before I realized I was a city girl.  I couldn’t take one more day of country living in a foreign country.  Monika, my long-time friend, had a beautiful country estate. Everything was comfortable.  I think I was just too far from the airport.  I began to feel stranded at the end of the rainbow. 

Warsaw apartment at Latchorzew
            Monika was gracious enough to let me spend several days in her Warsaw condo while her family enjoyed the rest of their country vacation.  So I was alone one night when a storm of Biblical proportions ripped through Warsaw.  Curtains were suddenly sucked out of rooms to wave at the sky.  Open doors and windows banged until I thought they would be ripped off their hinges.
               The staircase to Monika’s room in the loft on the second floor didn’t have a banister and the wooden stairs were steep.  I had never ventured there with my questionable knees, but with her windows slamming above me, I swallowed hard and climbed hands and feet together.  The climb wasn’t as bad as I reckoned the descent would be.  I came down on my behind.

               The lightning was a fireworks display, lasting hours.  Thunder I didn't mind, but lightning was too much like the judgment of God to be comfortable.  Once I had secured the doors and windows all over the apartment, I looked out to see what was happening in the neighborhood.  The rain was a torrent, reminding me of the endless waters plunging over the cliffs at Niagara Falls, obscuring the houses across the street, only yards away.  I hid from the lightning in an alcove in front of the bathroom where there were no windows.  The apartment was full of sky lights, I prayed would hold.

               In such a conflagration, I thought it would be a miracle if the lights stayed on.  Five minutes later, the power went off.  Not only did the lights go out, but the water system failed.  Faucets only gurgled.  Toilets wouldn’t flush.  I couldn’t wash my hands.  Fortunately, growing up in the desert, I was accustomed to carrying drinking water everywhere I went, more than I needed, much to the amusement of my Polish friends, who mocked me, with “This isn’t the desert.  This isn’t Las Vegas.”  I was trained to be prepared and I was.  I was glad.  I had plenty of drinking water, the necessities bread, soup, cookies and I could cook on the gas stove.

               However, without power, I didn’t have the internet or television to inform me how large an area was affected by the storm.  I wondered if such a storm would create a local emergency.  Was the whole country inundated?  With my imagination spiraling, I wondered if it were a pan-European event.  The storm was so severe I began to believe it was the beginning of an apocalypse and I was a long way from home.  I switched on my transistor radio.  I thought it a good sign that several stations were on the air, presumably playing their usual fare, though I couldn't understand the Polish commentary.

               When the lightning came more sporadically, I ventured out of my retreat in the alcove to look out the windows again.  By then I could see the houses across the street and the woods beyond.  The neighborhood seemed calm.  I saw a lone candle flickering in the window of a house a couple doors down.  I took some comfort in the fact that my house wasn’t the only one out of power.  Being a professional communicator all my working life, I found it frustrating not having information at my fingertips.  I felt the agony of not being able to communicate in the local language or understand the communications that were available.

               As the hours wore on, neighbors ventured out, several with boats on top of their cars.  That made me wonder.  It was the weekend, but did they know something I didn’t?  I didn’t know.  I took some comfort I was in an upstairs apartment in case a dam broke or something else equally devastating.

               With the power out, I thought the phones were dead and didn’t even try to use them.  So when a phone rang, it was a jolt.  As it turned out one of the phones was not electric, and Monika was able to get through.  They had been swimming at the lake and hadn't seen the news, so she couldn't tell me what was happening either, but told me where the candles and matches were.  I had my little flashlight I carried everywhere, so I was okay, and I had extra batteries, but a little general light was comforting.

Across the street after the storm
                When it was time for sleep, I just made myself go to bed.  The lights came back on at 7:30 the next morning after being off fourteen hours.  As it turned out, that storm was not a big event by Polish standards, but it could have been.  I'm a great believer in being prepared for contingencies and if I hadn’t been, that difficult night, I would have been further traumatized.  I thought about how fragile our lives are and how much we depend on the grid.  If the storm had created a crisis, sanitation would have quickly become a problem, electric trains couldn't run, eventually buses would stop when they couldn't pump gas, planes wouldn't fly, and on and on, everything was affected by a lack of electricity.

                The sun came up as big as you please as if nothing had happened, but plenty had gone on in my mind that dark and stormy night.  

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