Via the Chopin Express

Just barely on time,'' Herr Kardasz scowled as I rushed into the warm, smoke-filled room from the dark outdoors. My run from the subway station saved me from punishment: a schilling for every minute past 6:30 p.m. He stood at the door - rotund, balding, thick glasses. His face, as always, seemed about to burst in either anger or mirth. He merely cleared his throat loudly, betraying a favorable mood.

I mumbled my regrets and an embarrassed greeting to all and picked up my stack of programs. The others nodded in reply. I spotted my friend from the Hochschule in the corner and took a seat beside him. ''Na Piotr, wie geht's?'' I began, as I changed my snowy boots for dry shoes. His ready laugh would always chase away the officious gloom of the Konzerthaus. He hesitated this time. ''Mm. Nicht so gut,'' and his effort at joviality forced a shrug of the shoulders.

''Perhaps you have heard,'' he added in English, removing our conversation from the public domain of the coat room. ''There is now military in Warsaw.''

''What do you mean?''

''Military all over Poland. It was the strike. No one can leave now. No one can enter.''

''Is your mother all right?''

''I don't know. It is impossible to know. All telephones are cut. Maybe it's not so bad really.''

Bewildered and ashamed, I stopped asking questions, sensing his reserve and the delicate balance of his composure.

''Also meine Herrschaften . . . ,'' sounded Herr Kardasz. Piotr and I pinned on our ushers' buttons and took our places at the foot of opposite stairwells to the balconies. Tonight the Wiener Symphoniker was playing an all-Beethoven program.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Walesa and the onset of winter's chill brought on memories from another world: the peculiar atmosphere of those months in Vienna two years past, recurring motifs of the Polish emigration, and our somewhat mutual groping for identity in a foreign city.

The first image to appear is the Sudbahnhof train station where I first arrived on a drizzly day in late September. In the waiting room as I searched for telephone numbers and tried to orient myself on old tourist maps, I heard two women talking in tired, bewildered voices. The language was not German. In dull gray dresses and colored kerchiefs, they halted their speech now and again to notice my presence. I remembered the two when I leafed through an American magazine days later. Its correspondent wrote of Polish immigrants escaping ''the political uncertainty in Poland'' and arriving at Vienna's Sudbahnhof on the ''Chopin Express.''

My next encounter was shortly thereafter. On my way to church on a Sunday morning, I was feeling very Viennese and clipped confidently past quiet side streets. Turning the corner, I came upon two men. The thinner, younger of the two spoke first.

''Where is church?'' he uttered in even-syllabic German.

''Which church?'' I answered directly.

Relieved, he handed me a slip with a street name and ''Stanislaus Kirche'' written on it. The names meant nothing to me. I confessed that I too was a foreigner, an American . . . a Slav . . . and asked in Ukrainian if they were perhaps Polish.

''Yes,'' they replied enthusiastically and we exchanged excited sentences. But the problem remained that I couldn't help them.

Some Sundays later, I discovered St. Stanislaus. Students stood by tables selling buttons and newspapers for Solidarnosc. The crowd pressed me inward - into the congregation which had long overflowed the pews into the aisles. Children sat on parents' shoulders. I smelled the smoke on the dusty jacket of the bearded man in front of me and rubbed against the coarse shirt of the young, dark-eyed man to my left. The Lord's Prayer reverberated and I mouthed with the echo, struggling to bring up Polish words from a nonexistent part of my subconscious.

The same numbness overcame me on a December evening at a Polish Christmas service in Stephan's Cathedral. A leaflet provided for non-Poles did not help me join in the singing. Perhaps the disparity of Christmas joy with recent events made it impossible to utter ''Silent Night'' in Polish.

February brought me back to the Sudbahnhof. I had taken a brief trip to Prague on school vacation and on the night-train return was jolted awake at 5 a.m. For two hours they rearranged cars, redirecting them for Budapest, Warsaw, Wien. I looked out the window to the early morning bleakness: faint gray . . . flat fields with stubble poking out of the snow, stiffer still with frost, a barbed fence along the train tracks. My cabin mate, an older, seasoned woman spoke: ''They're adding cars from Warsaw.'' Getting off at the Vienna station, I looked for the sign on the adjacent cars: ''Chopin Express.''

Then days later, American television cried out, ''Let Poland Be Poland.'' The mere title offended any sensitivity to the crisis. How dare my country imposingly flash its glittery version of Utopia and attempt to express the desires of a people and spirit a hemisphere removed.

''In America, everyone smiles, yes? Like you always smile, yes?'' Piotr's friends came to me in search of that America: in a desperate effort to avoid their confusion in Vienna, their loss of identity, in a struggle to deny their loss of homeland. I grew uneasy.

''No. That's not true. No. I can't tell you that.'' I wearied of trying to communicate in bits of English, German, or Ukrainian what they were unwilling to comprehend. Piotr understood. He had understood from the start.

After the last of the Viennese couples claimed their furs from the coat-check women and left the Konzerthaus, we all scurried to grab our coats and parted to catch subways home. ''Good night, Marika. See you tomorrow.'' ''See you.''

''Hey, Piotr . . . trymaysha bra-te,'' I added in Ukrainian. Take care, brother, hoping to have found syllables that would mean something in Polish. He called back ''Ja, OK,'' with a smile of vague recognition.

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