Two Cheers for Gloom

Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating the world of travel

10.26.09 | 11:17 AM ET

PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia (iStockPhoto)

I arrived in Philadelphia the same day as a nor’easter. Cold rain, wind, grayness at noon. The streets that I had hoped to stroll were pointy gauntlets of dripping umbrellas.

Weather is a bigger deal for tourists than it is for locals. Not only are you less prepared, you’re more exposed. And if you’ve just flown in from the subtropics, you’re rudely reminded that not all the world is bathed in sunshine.

I took refuge in bookstores. (The lower the temperature, the greater the literacy.) At The Book Trader in Olde City, someone had placed a Phillies batting helmet atop a bust of Benjamin Franklin.

On Chestnut Street my cell phone rang. It was my friend Agnieszka telling me that Adam Michnik was speaking that evening at the University of Pennsylvania. Suddenly the weather moved from nasty to fortuitous. I could walk the palm-lined streets of Fort Lauderdale for years and never get a call that one of the leading figures of Poland was appearing in town.

Lech Walesa was the heart of Solidarity; Adam Michnik was the brains—or at least the best-known of an impressive group of opposition intellectuals. I never met him when I lived in Warsaw (a famously overcast city); I was teaching English and, after martial law was declared in 1981, he was in prison. Since then he had become the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, the most prominent newspaper in Poland. Yet what interested me most about his career was that he had started out as the secretary of Antoni Słonimski, a sort of Polish E. B. White but with a better sense of humor.

I headed to Sansom Street to meet a friend for lunch at Giwa. Theresa had recently moved to Philadelphia from Austin, Texas, and over bibimbap told of her happiness with her decision. “Everything’s informal,” she said of her former home. “You go into places and there are picnic tables. I like bars with dark wood.”

Brightness, I had already decided, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I noted that she had moved from a city that many people complain has lost its charm to one that seems to get better with age.

At a little past 6, Agnieszka walked into the lobby of the Sheraton University City accompanied by Adam Michnik. She introduced us, and we went in for his talk. It was sponsored by the German Historical Institute and its theme was the decline of the West as seen from Eastern Europe.

“When you speak at an American university,” Michnik remarked, “you are obliged to criticize the United States.” He added that this wasn’t his intent, coming as he did from “the most pro-American country in Europe, perhaps the world.” He defended the United States, and by extension the West, for its continuing commitment to democracy in the face of numerous and well-armed opponents.

Dinner followed, after which we drove through the rain to Agnieszka’s house for whisky and cigarettes. (Michnik did condemn the heartless injustice the U.S. shows toward smokers.) Around 1:30 the subject moved, finally, from politics to Słonimski.

“One day he was at a cafe,” Michnik said, “struggling with his overcoat. A woman came over to give him assistance. He thanked her and said: ‘In the conflict between man and his overcoat, one must always side with man.’”

The quip could not have been born in a balmy climate.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

3 Comments for Two Cheers for Gloom

Greenhousecarol 10.27.09 | 5:59 AM ET

I just loved this article - and I re-read it. Images to savour. Thanks.

Christy 10.27.09 | 9:41 PM ET

coming from a fan of sunshine and brightness this article almost has me convinced that a little gloom and a few clouds aren’t so bad after all…! i like the part about the bookstores and literacy. it is so true. nothing better when it is cold, snowy or rainy to head to a bookstore and let yourself get a little lost….! great article!

sarah 10.29.09 | 10:11 AM ET

I love this piece. Reads very subtly, but it’s full of observation.

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