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Bozena Barton: Leaving Behind Tanks In The Streets

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?"

This week, he hears from Cal State L.A. graduate student Bozena Barton. She is completing her Master's degree in speech language pathology and lives in South Pasadena with two cats and her husband Chris, an editor at the L.A. Times.*

CHAPTER ONE

"My family lived in Słupsk, Poland. That was me, my older sister, my mom and my dad and grandmother.

"Słupsk [pronounced, "Swoopsk*"] is in the north, pretty close to the sea. The nearest large city is Gdańsk, which is where the Solidarity movement started that toppled Polish communism.

"As a kid, I wouldn't have known what was happening in Gdańsk for two reasons: One, I was six-years-old when my mother and I left the country. And two, our television showed only two channels. One was communist propaganda and the other was American Westerns with subtitles.

"I do remember that in Słupsk in the late '80s, I was absolutely terrified. Around eight-o'clock at night when I was about to go to bed I heard these really loud rumbling sounds. I looked outside and there were marching soldiers and tanks rolling down the street heading to the center of town.

"We were all pretty certain that a war was going to break out. There was a curfew, there was a lot of strife and turmoil, and it was a very unsafe place.

"My parents were of the generation that believed America to be the land of opportunity, of milk and honey. At that time, pretty much everybody believed that because Poland under communism was a rough place to live.

"My parents were both professionals and in any other circumstance should have made a decent living. But because of the economic situation, even though they had good incomes, nothing was available to purchase in stores -- the shelves were empty. And we couldn't get housing, because housing was given to high-ranking government officials from the Communist Party. So we had to live with my grandparents in a WWI brownstone.

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"Eventually, my parents decided that they wanted to move to America. At the time, a family couldn't just leave. So my dad had to apply for a work visa to come to the States by himself and he hoped to send for us once he got settled.

"A few years passed before he was granted a visa. He had a distant cousin in New York who sent for him with the promise of a job. So my dad left.

"Once his U.S. work visa expired, he applied for an extended visa. And later he'd apply for immigrant status and permanent residency. But at this point, he was just starting the process. He had no intention of coming back to Poland. The trick was getting the rest of us out of the country.

"My mom tried to apply for a visa to leave Poland. But the government realized that with my dad already in the States we most likely weren't planning on returning, so they told my mother that we could leave -- but she could only take one daughter. So she chose me.

She left my sister in Poland with our grandmother -- who we were living with already. And we wouldn't see her again until 1983 when she was finally allowed to leave Poland and join us in the U.S.

"Our visa only applied to certain countries in Europe -- not to the States. So we weren't going to reunite with my dad, at least not at that time.

"Most of our extended family -- all my aunts and uncles and cousins -- lived in Sweden. We spent our summers there and were accustomed to traveling across the Baltic Sea, and decided to live with my aunt on the small island of Tjorn off the Western coast of Sweden. We stayed for about a year in the home of my aunt and uncle -- she had married a Swedish man, a professor who spoke to me in English and taught me my first words of my new language. I loved living near their apple orchards and gardens next to the beaches of the Swedish coast.

Bozena Barton in Warsaw with her father. Photo courtesy Bozena Barton

CHAPTER TWO

"My mom wasn't having success with the paperwork to get us to the States. She connected with a pro-immigrant organization that helped people trying to immigrate from Communist countries. And they eventually helped got us out of Sweden and into Austria.

"Why Austria? I'm still not sure. We didn't know anyone in Austria. We didn't speak the language. I later learned that Austria was a well-known entry-way for immigrants struggling to leave the Eastern Bloc, but without further help from the immigrant organization my mom was pretty much lost; she was really struggling. My dad did what he could from America to help, but the paperwork stalled and we found ourselves in limbo.

"At first, my mom and I were living in a less than ideal situation. We were staying in a very run-down hostel, in a large room full of bunk beds lining the walls. There weren't any other women or children in the rooms and there wasn't much supervision or monitoring. We lasted there for about a week because my mom was frightened, and we moved into a shabby hotel near the St. Charles Church.

"We spent most of our days there. My mom would sit in the back pew crying and praying, hoping for something better to happen.

"On one of those days, there was a large service where a high-level priest was being ordained. As it happens, my mom knew just enough English to gather that a very important church official was in attendance. She somehow managed to get to him at the end of the service and explain our situation as best as she could and ask for his help.

"The official told us to get our bags and that we were going to go live in a monastery in a little town outside of Vienna where the church government of Austria was centered.

"That night they drove us to a little hillside town. This was probably the best part of my entire immigrant's journey because we ended up living in a beautiful old monastery surrounded by a large park and farm, where the monks tended animals for milk, eggs, and wool.

"I loved animals and spent all my days playing with the herd of sheep and the chickens. I was in paradise.

"We stayed there for about six months. And with the priests' help, we were able to secure a visa to come to America.

Mom, pregnant in Poland with Bozena and walking with her daughter Katherine. Photo courtesy Bozena Barton

CHAPTER THREE

"We had an uneventful flight from Austria to New York City -- where all good Polish immigrants first arrive.

"I don't know if I clearly understood what was happening during our trip; I just knew I was a daddy's girl, and hadn't seen him in over two years so I was eager to see him.

"We got off the plane and it was very emotional. My dad gave me a little stuffed dog that I kept for twenty years as a little souvenir of my arrival.

"We stayed for a few weeks in New Jersey. I remember thinking New Jersey was very ugly and that I didn't want to be there. In a few months, we moved to Plainfield.

"My dad did his best to adjust to America. He moved here with a work permit as an electrical engineer, but out of necessity became a car mechanic. It took him several years to learn enough English to reapply for his electrical engineering license and work his way up to being hired as an engineer at a reputable firm.

"My mom had a very difficult time adapting to life in America. In Poland, she was a professor of Polish literature -- a skill that's not in high demand overseas. She struggled with depression for many years as a result of our move to the U.S.

"In the midst of that, my aunt from Tjorn came out to visit us. She met a friend who flew her out for a week's vacation to Phoenix.

"My aunt came back starry-eyed. 'Oh it's beautiful!' I think this was wintertime in New Jersey so the Southwest must have seemed like a tropical paradise. She said, 'It's sunny and there are swimming pools everywhere and there's a huge house for you to live in if you move to Phoenix.'

"Off we went. My parents and sister still live in Phoenix to this day. But I disliked it from the moment we arrived. For me, it was no wonderland, no paradise, just a dusty, hot suburbia that I couldn't wait to escape.

"When I was twenty-two, I moved up to Flagstaff and started going to college and ended up living there for nearly a decade.

"During my early 20s I morphed into a free spirited hippie. I followed the Grateful Dead. I lived for a few months in a school bus in the middle of the desert with no electricity. This was before Burning Man, but all my friends lived in homemade houses, yurts or straw-bail houses, held musical festivals in the desert and lived like nomads. Something about the land and light in Northern Arizona transformed me and Flagstaff is still very near and dear to my heart and I'll always consider it home.

"After nearly a decade in that small town I'd exhausted the local dating pool and I signed up for the Village Voice's online personals thinking, 'I'll have an adventure.' I'll meet somebody from another city and see if it goes anywhere and maybe I'll move and maybe I won't. I'm open to being anywhere in the country.'

"Well, L.A. was not on that list. When I said 'Open to anywhere,' it didn't even occur to me that L.A. would ever be a possibility. I mean, San Francisco, maybe. Portland, maybe. But I certainly never thought, 'Los Angeles.'

"But Chris did not put 'L.A.' in his profile. He put, 'Eagle Rock.' I hadn't heard of Eagle Rock. I thought, 'Oh, Eagle Rock. That sounds like somewhere in the mountains of central California.'

"I had no idea that was in L.A. until I started writing to Chris. And of course Chris is a great writer. The minute I realized where he was living, I thought, 'Oh no. What have I done!'

"But at that point, Chris had worked his charms on me and I stopped caring really that he was in Los Angeles.

CHAPTER FOUR

"For our first date, we decided to meet in-between Los Angeles and Flagstaff -- which is romantic Needles, California.

"I don't know if you've had the pleasure of driving through Needles? There's a casino and a truck stop. And a whole lot of dust.

"Our relationship continued to progress and a few months later I wanted to see Chris in his native L.A. habitat.

"And I must admit I was less than impressed with the place. I thought it looked like an uglier, gridlocked version of Phoenix. But then Chris took me to interesting places like Griffith Observatory, mountains in Angeles Crest where I could go hiking. He took me to parks and fun restaurants like Netty's in Silver Lake. And I went to his house -- in that place called Eagle Rock. We ended up living in that house together for eight years.

"Once I graduated, I moved here from Flagstaff. We made a deal that I would come out here for a year. My degree in medical anthropology would hopefully land me a job in a non-profit for women's health and reproductive education.

"I thought, okay, I'll accomplish this goal of getting a job, we'll live here for a year, and then we'll move to a different city that we both really like. But life happens and plans change.

"The women's health career path didn't pan out and every time we've tried to leave Los Angeles, something else has happened that kept us here. Last year I was accepted to a graduate program in San Jose and we were sure this would be our last summer here. And then at the last minute, I was also accepted into a school in L.A. Once we sat down and really talked about it, it made more sense to stay here.

"I don't want to come across like I dislike this city. I've really come around and Los Angeles has opened up for me in ways I'd never expected. That's especially true since we moved to South Pasadena where tree-lined streets, farmer's markets, walking, biking and riding the metro remind me of life in Europe and that pockets of this enormous metropolis really can feel like home.

"I still don't see us living here for an extended period of time. But as an adult I've realized that some sacrifices are necessary to reach greater goals . But I'm happy to say that L.A. has pleasantly surprised me over the years."

--Bozena Barton
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)


Top Photo: Bozena Barton at the Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland during her honeymoon trip in 2007. Photo courtesy Bozena Barton

*updated

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com.

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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