All posts tagged: Dispatch

Dr. Hope


dr. hope 

Białystok, Poland

Nine hours to Białystok from Berlin, to a city teetering on the Polish border. The train noses through fields of yellow flowers, which to me are eternal reminders of Europe in spring, but which are actually new additions, planted in recent decades for the rapeseed harvest. On the way to Warsaw, we sit in a car with a classical musician, our age, with a confident nose and sculpted, striking eyebrows. “She looks like Anna Karenina,” we whisper. She tells us about witches in Podlachia, because we are going to Podlachia. Past Warsaw, on a hotter train, portly men in cheap suits flank the compartment, carrying the odor of polyester, sweat, spirits.

I’ve brought us east to find traces of that universal language, Esperanto, created by a man from Bialystok named L.L. Zamenhof, a Jewish man, born here when this land was Russian Empire. Legend says he went to the city market as a child, eavesdropped on Yiddish, Russian, German, concluded that division by language was the great tragedy of mankind. What if we all spoke the same tongue? Wouldn’t pogrom and war fall away? He gathered 28 Latin letters, prefixes and suffixes, and he tried to share this with the world, and they called him Dr. Hope.

In Białystok, we stay on the Kozłowa in a high-rise with an ample balcony that reminds me of apartment blocks in St. Petersburg. We are north of the city, past a roundabout sheltering a prewar house, blanched and boarded up. Downtown, buses and cars jostle through sweaty intersections and at the edge of a park, a war memorial tilts over the street, reminding us what happened here. The war, which ended decades ago on this day, was not kind to Bialystok (seventy percent gone) or to Zamenhof: he died of a broken heart during the first war, they say, and during the second, Treblinka came for his daughters. One other child survived by pretending at death in a cemetery.

My friend claims that speaking Esperanto must feel pleasantly empty, unburdened of colonial projects, but I do not think this can be true anymore: the language is too old and it has become freighted with some missed, misplaced promise, even though few have spoken it.

They are proud of Zamenhof, here, at the center that bears his name, a white building straining over a sidewalk, past a maze of inset canal and knotted trees. Here, historian Agnieszka, her hair nearly magenta, points crisp and efficient at the holograms they have arranged to tell the story of Zamenhof and his city (they have few artifacts left, for obvious reasons). Klezmer music floats after us, a cliché and yet it shivers me. This side of Europe, the eastern side, has always held sway over me, maybe because of my mother’s Ashkenazi forebears or just because I’m drawn to sad stories.

Białystok’s Esperantists—those who speak the language—are also proud. These last speakers gather in the basement of the city’s last synagogue. We find them behind a door marked with a green star, Esperantists from France and Holland and from Białystok too, some of them sleeping on the floor and cooking in the pocket of a kitchen, some of them learning the language the way I learned German at an adult education center years ago. The Esperantists cry out “Saluton!” and tell us to pull up a chair.

But not everyone is proud. I hear that some in the city government didn’t want to celebrate Zamenhof on the centennial of his death in 2017, because they said he wasn’t important enough, or because, so run the rumors, his promise-tinged, pre-war ideals were dangerous. And now, just the year before, skinheads had come to a church, a priest had shouted nationalism from his pulpit. These counterideals are seeping up everywhere in this continent, bubbling through the world.

When we leave the synagogue, the sky still holds light. At this time of year, this corner of Europe—Berlin, Stettin, Danzig, Białystok, Pomerania, forests and frozen coasts—keeps the sun late, ten o’clock dusk washing the platzes, the chestnuts, the black spray paint, the steeples, the umbrellas and the outdoor benches, shivering on the knife-edge of hopeful and sad. We settle in on the edge of Kosciuszko, where as a child Zamenhof hatched his idea, and we order beer. The waiter points at us. “Beginning of tourist season!” he declares. Tourists come here to find ghosts of their families, on the edge of nations. They come to find out what was once here, what is here now, and what will be here someday, a question that is hopeful and terrifying. There are skeletons in Poland’s closets, a journalist tells me, but no one will face them.

Esperanto here is both smaller and bigger than I expected. It’s just a hobby, says the president of the Esperanto club, just some statues and a handful of linguistic nerds, and yet he admits that after the centennial controversy more new Esperantists came to the center than ever before. Just a hobby, but pull on the thread and what will you find? And I wonder, what will our actions, our passions and enthusiasms, mean more than a century on? Who will imitate us? Why will people come to our houses, what might they know when they cross our lintels, what might they forget or what might they hope? We drink our beer and the sky cups the sun, refusing to let it set. 


Emily B. Cataneo is a writer and journalist from New England. Her fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Indiana Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and Lightspeed, and she’s written nonfiction for Slate, NPR, the Baffler, Atlas Obscura, and more. She holds an MFA in fiction from North Carolina State University and she’s the cofounder of the Redbud Writing Project, a creative writing organization based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Find out more about her at or follow her on Twitter @emilycataneo.

Dr. Hope

Balconies, Anachronisms, Lamentations


View from the author's balcony

Athens, Greece


Here in Ann Arbor, unable to travel, I am missing the Greek balcony, a private and public space: it’s neither in nor out but something in between. Poet Alicia E. Stallings, who lives in Athens, notes on Twitter: “Very Athenian neighbor quarrel tonight: we fired up the grill in the yard to pretend like it was a Friday, but it turns out lady upstairs had just done her laundry. Words were had.” (It was indeed Friday, but what is Friday anymore, anyway?) When I write her about this, laughing, she adds that the woman also menacingly suggests she might water her plants while Alicia’s husband works on his laptop below.

In the early weeks of quarantine, from balconies in Athens, friends filmed videos of their neighbors clapping for health care workers. On Easter, when Athens is often eerily quiet, as many Athenians return to their home villages, say, or travel to an island, the quarantined city’s balconies shone bright with candles.

Balconies, Anachronisms, Lamentations



Oplatek with Mary and Jesus_Verticle.jpg

Denver, Colorado

At the second hospital in as many days, my father starts seeing crows. He points at the nurses’ station with his chin, speaks in perfect Polish, the kind I haven’t heard him speak in decades. His brain lights up momentarily with the speed and language of the young man he was when he first came to America, before Multiple Sclerosis and age started robbing his body. My father tells me to look, look, look. Tells me the roof is so thin, that the small one is looking for its nest. I can tell by his eyes he really sees it. He’s hallucinating, I say. I’m startled, then startled a second time when the nurse and doctor don’t think much of it. They tell me it’s ICU psychosis, the lack of sleep and all the beeping.


Home Below Sea Level



Broad Channel, Queens, New York

I grew up on an island called Broad Channel in southern Queens that was at or below sea level, depending on the tide. My dad’s house was one that was high and dry. We lived on Cross Bay Boulevard, the main street which ran down the spine of our croissant-shaped island. The boulevard only flooded during hurricanes or nor’easters that came on the full or the new moon. In some of the lower streets in the town, kids would show up late to school because they had to wait for the tide to go out before they could step out of their homes. Often, the high tide water flooded their blocks.

Home Below Sea Level



Image of household objects

The United States

a rotor spins in concentric circles
the epicenter a DC street at dusk
even a military helicopter’s incessant droning
can’t wake this country to its circumstance




leahy dispatch


Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

To sing of what I fear,
shaking my body,
has an integrative power.

Sometimes something is
so funny even my legs laugh.

I do not know
the frequency of god,
but I adore
the frequency of laughter.

Not all frequencies are free.

I’ve learned this the hard way
from people who would profit
from what makes others shake.

Who teaches us to fear?
Who teaches us to laugh?

I would show you aspen
winnowing the wind
so that you would always
ken beauty from quake.

But it is not mine to always.

It is mine to some,
to often,
to rarely,
to mostly,

if I’m lucky,
to mostly   love


A Walk Inside the Epicenter


Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, NY
Jackson Heights, Queens

By the time you read this, more of my neighbors will be dead.

And yet, on this sunny spring day that belies the grim headlines, I need to go for a walk, that most mundane of human activities. I need to pretend that life is normal. To forget that just a short distance from my apartment stands Elmhurst Hospital, the epicenter of the coronavirus within New York City, itself America’s epicenter.

A Walk Inside the Epicenter

Perfectly Spaced


Image of two girls dancing

They jog past my window. A clump of three white-haired men, a tight pyramid formation, the front two shoulder to shoulder, the third right on their heels. And I’ll be honest, my first thought is not charitable. “Fucking men,” I think, taking a swig of my coffee. “They never think the rules apply to them. Do they think they’re invincible?”

Perfectly Spaced

Going Home


A photograph of a graffitied window

The road to Amsterdam

Our plan was always to go home to Amsterdam at the end of March. By then, we will have been on the road for 200 days. But now home is the new coronavirus epicenter. The projections are that the Netherlands will follow the pattern set by Italy. With only so many hospital beds, respirators and medical staff, Dutch doctors will have to triage. They will treat the younger patients with a higher chance of survival. The others are on their own.

We have no good choices. Staying on the road presents its own dangers. Hotels are vectors for infection. So are restaurants and public transportation for so long as they stay open. We could hunker down in an AirBnB. But who will tell us when the lockdown begins or ends?

Going Home