I woke up at the airport hotel in Heathrow preposterously early. It was time to go to Warsaw.
I trundled through the endless identical Kafkaesque hallways until I repeated them in the right pattern for the elevator to appear, like a secret in The Legend of Zelda.
Through the terminal and down into the bowels of the underground (shit, maybe this is The Legend of Zelda) to catch the tube to Terminal 2. Standing on the platform and looking up at a scrolling bar telling me the next train was in two hours. Two… uh-oh.
“They’re not serious about that, are they?” “Maybe they mean like dog hours.” “I don’t think that’s a thing.”
An employee appeared and politely yelled at us to switch to the other platform. A train pulled up. Oh thank God. I might make my flight after all. We got on and the train sat there for a half an hour, not moving. Uh-oh.
When the train finally got its shit together and deposited us at Terminal 2, I was a little antsy. My flight was leaving very, very soon. I was going to have a tight turnaround and I needed to check my suitcase so I wouldn’t be dragging it all over Warsaw.
“The luggage drop just closed one minute ago, sir.”
“It’s one minute. Isn’t there some way you could let my bag through?”
“I’ll have to talk to my manager.”
I waited. After a few minutes, the dude flagged me to come over and talk to his manager.
“Sir, do you have your visa for Canada?”
Visa for… what?
“I don’t need a visa for Canada.”
“Yes, they changed the rules recently, you need one.”
“No, I mean I’m not leaving the airport. I just have a layover in Toronto on my way back to Minneapolis.”
“You still need a visa.”
“What are you- To transit through the airport? That’s not true anywhere in the world.”
This went back and forth for several minutes before he decided I was a fool who could not be reached. He looked at his watch.
“Well, it’s 20 minutes past the bag drop deadline, we can’t let your bag on now. You’ll have to carry it on.”
You just spent 19 of those minutes arguing with me about visas- Never mind. I’ve got to hurry to get on this plane.
I scurried over to security and slapped my boarding pass onto the boarding pass scanner. Nothing. The gates wouldn’t open.
Repeated again and again, holding it every which way. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
I scurried over to an airport employee to explain my plight. She tried the scanner. Nothing.
“Sir, you’re going to need a new boarding pass.”
“They just printed this for me at the baggage drop.”
“It looks like their printer is running out of ink.”
I jogged the hundred yards back to the automated kiosks, logged on, and printed out a new boarding pass. Boop, through the scanners and into the security line. Oh shit, my honey.
I’d bought a big jar of exotic honey from the honey shop in Tintagel. It was way over the 3 ounce limit for liquids in carry-on luggage. Shit. My flight was taking off in 20 minutes. I had no choice but to toss the jar in the trash. Sorry bees.
I loaded my bag onto the scanner and hustled through. BZZZZRT. The airport employee took my bag out for further screening. Gaaaaah.
After slowly going through everything in both bags and wiping them down with bomb-detecting wet wipes, and turning on my laptop, iPad, Kindle and phone, the very polite security dude found a tiny tube of sunscreen in the bottom of my laptop bag. Goddammit sun.
London had been going through an unprecedented heat wave, which is hilarious because that meant it was like 80 degrees. England just never gets hot. There were signs all over the place in the underground reminding people to carry water on them at all times to be prepared for the deadly heat and if you see someone fainting, help them off the train so they can be tended to by medical personnel on the platform.
“Just have to run this through one more time.” Ran it through. “Okay, just a third time-” There was no way in hell I was making this flight.
Finally getting out of security, I looked up at the departures board. My flight was leaving in six minutes. Walk time to this gate: 5 minutes. Walk time to this gate: 10 minutes. Walk time to my gate: 20 minutes.
Okay yeah there’s no way I’m getting on this plane. I didn’t even bother to run. I’ll just have to skip my time in Warsaw and see if they can route me back to the US a different way.
Polish LOT Airlines clearly pissed somebody off at Heathrow as their gate is at the end of the world. Down escalators, through underground tunnels, up other escalators, across some kind of bridge, on and on as the minutes ticked away. I finally got to the gate and walked up to the gate agent, ready to tell her I’d missed my flight and needed to be rebooked.
“Are you Mr. Traverse?”
Yes. Yes I am.
“We’ve been holding the plane for you. Can I see your boarding pass?”
Wha? In the US, this plane would have left a half an hour ago. Crazy, what a lucky break. I reached in my back pocket. My newly printed boarding pass was gone. It must have fallen out while I was sort-of hustling through the airport. I am a traveling wunderkind.
“It’s okay,” the woman said, clear in her understanding that I must have never flown before. “We can print you a new one.” Thanks Poland.
At the end of the jetway, the line of people still boarding had backed up to where although I was the last person to board, I wasn’t that fabulous asshole everyone is sitting there waiting for. Perfection.
“Gzbleska kwygrsygle polyczeski-” Okay I’m not going to be understanding any of the announcements on this flight.
Landing in Warsaw, I had four hours until my flight out of town took off. I had two sites I wanted to visit in the city and a friend to meet for lunch. This was going to be my ballsiest layover ever. The immigration officer didn’t ask me a single question, he just stamped my passport. Go Team America. All the ATM machines rejected my card, but I had some dollars on me that I was able to exchange for Zlotys at the counter with the guy who was very good at exchanging Zlotys without interrupting his private cell phone conversation at all.
My bags. I asked around until I found someone who could speak English, who explained there were lockers in front of the airport. Bags in locker, swipe credit card. Please enter your PIN. Balls.
Outside of America, everyone’s credit cards have a PIN number, like a debit card. Ours don’t because our retailers are afraid nobody will buy anything if they have to remember a four-digit number. So we require a signature instead. Using an American card overseas confuses the hell out of everyone since they have to go in the back and find a pen and figure out how to print out a receipt so you can sign it. Normally in stores they can figure this out but automated machines and self-checkout tends not to work at all.
Shit, how am I going to- I looked at the screen. It had a tiny “contactless payment” icon. I pulled out my phone, brought up Apple Pay and BOOP the locker spit out my key. Cool!
The taxi stand guys didn’t speak English at all. I wanted to go to Holy Cross Church, where Chopin’s heart was buried. After Chopin died in Paris, his sister honored his dying wish and had his heart removed, then smuggled it out of the country in a jar of booze, to be buried in this church in Warsaw. None of this was getting through to the taxi guys at all. I was standing beneath the awning of Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport. I pointed at the airport and at my heart. Nothing. I pulled up a photo of the church on my phone and showed it to them. Ahh, yes, yes. Chopin heart. Get in.
Why in the world did I want to see the church where Chopin’s heart is buried? Better make a cup of coffee…
When I was 18 and a freshman in college in Alaska, I took a world music appreciation class that was fantastic right up until the day my teacher was murdered by a lunatic with a hammer. That part’s a story for another blog. But one of the first assignments for the class was to listen to a wildly diverse sampler CD of music from around the globe. One of the pieces on the CD was a piano prelude which I found momentarily striking, but I didn’t give much thought to it the time. I was eager to be done with my schoolwork so I could go wander around in the snow.
That night, I had a dream of unprecedented intensity. I was playing that same piece of music for a crowd gathered in an old-fashioned parlor. I looked around the room and took in the minute details: The way people were dressed, the way the walls were plastered and the odd joints where the walls met the ceiling. I’d never had a dream this detailed before. I’d never had a dream where I was playing the piano before. I don’t play the piano. But in this dream I did, and a lot of people had come to see me play it.
I woke up, completely weirded out by this. What the hell was that? I went back to the library and checked out the CD again to see who that piano piece was by. Frederic Chopin. Who the hell is that? I had probably heard his name in passing before, but it didn’t mean anything to me. I went upstairs in the library and tracked down a book about Chopin. I opened the book to a section of photos in the middle. The first photo I flipped to was a painting of Chopin’s Polish friend Albert Grzymala. He was an exact, utterly perfect dead ringer for my close friend Jeff from high school. I sat down on the floor. Was somebody fucking with me? The match was too perfect to be a coincidence. I tried to imagine some scenario where this was all a prank of some kind. How would that even be possible?
I flipped through more of the pictures in the book. Chopin’s romantic partner was Aurore Dupin, a writer who is more famously known under her pen name, George Sand. Huh. She looks familiar. I flipped the page. There were paintings of Aurore’s two children, Maurice and Solange. They looked just like my brother and sister, Aster and Amber. Huh! This is crazy.
Shit. What does this mean? Was I Chopin in a past life? I looked more than a bit like him, though I don’t think we always look exactly the same from lifetime to lifetime. I was certainly obsessed with music, and had spent my high school years teaching myself to play various instruments and writing songs. His “melancholy,” which is what they euphemistically called depression back then, matched mine. Hmmm.
But, come on. Every asshole who’s heard of reincarnation believes they were somebody famous. This is the biggest cliché in the book. I put the literal book back on the shelf and returned to my life of wandering around in the Alaskan woods at night and tripping balls underneath the northern lights.
A year later I found myself living in Ohio, going to school while I lived with my mom and my brother and sister. I visited a psychic and as we sat down, he tuned into me.
“Huh, what’s wrong with your lungs?” he asked.
There’s nothing wrong with my lungs.
“How much do you smoke?”
I’ve never smoked in my life.
“Really? Your lungs are fucked.”
Huh. Chopin died of tuberculosis.
When I got home I mentioned this to my mom, the psychic and my dream and what I found in that library in Alaska. She was quiet for a minute.
“I was George Sand,” she said.
“I saw a movie about Sand and Chopin years ago and I knew right then that I was there, I was a part of all that.”
It takes a minute to adjust to the idea that your mom was your lover in a past life. It’s weird, but the basic concept of reincarnation is that we switch roles from lifetime to lifetime, so this kind of thing is going to happen. We just don’t think about the weirder implications of this.
I went and bought a book on Chopin and started reading more about his life.
The most striking thing was reading about Chopin living with Sand and her kids at their estate in Nohant. It was a near-exact mirror of the four of us living in that apartment in Ohio. The more I read about Maurice and Solange, their personalities lined up strikingly with my brother and sister. I began to tease Amber and Aster about things that had happened in that life.
“Aster shot your husband!”
“He probably deserved it.”
One day I visited a historical site that had several buildings preserved from the 1800s. Walking into one of them, I was immediately reminded of what I’d seen in that dream. The ways the walls were plastered and the way they were joined to the ceiling was just like what I’d seen in the dream. I’d never seen this anywhere else.
I went back and forth between being convinced of all of this, as the synchronicities piled up, and throwing it all out because it’s such a ridiculous ego massage to believe you were someone famous. But every time I rejected it all, it crept back into my days and into my intuition. It wouldn’t rest.
Eventually I concluded that it seemed likely that this was true, and that one day I would remember the truth one way or another and wouldn’t have to wonder.
Around that same time, my mom bought a CD set of American Tin Pan Alley songwriters from the early 20th century. She was playing one of the CDs one day and said to me “I think you were George Gershwin.”
George who? Whatever, I’m not into that old people music. I didn’t give it another thought.
Flash forward fifteen years and I’m scanning through Google Images for a picture I can use in an article I’m writing for the commune, a humor website I was running with my best friend Jim. I wanted something old timey, late 1800s or early 1900s. I clicked through page after page of photos. Then one of them suddenly caught my eye. It was a photo of two men standing on a balcony somewhere, their hands in their pockets. I enlarged it.
Holy shit. In that moment I knew, suddenly, certainly and inexplicably, that this was a photo of me and my friend Jim in a past life. In that moment it was just crystal clear. Who the hell are these guys? I clicked on the link.
It was a photo of George Gershwin and his brother Ira.
God fucking dammit. What kind of asshole believes they were two famous people? I began to read about George’s life.
Huh. Yeah, a lot of this is lining up. People seemed to have been transplanted from his life right into mine. George lived his life in New York City, I had just been to Manhattan and intensely did not want to leave when the trip was over. George and Ira wrote all their songs together, George writing the music and Ira the words. Jim and I were both songwriters, but I focused much more on the music in what I wrote and Jim the words. We had started writing songs together and had been collaborating on the website for years.
(For the record, Jim does not believe in any of this.)
The more I read about George the more I saw my own strengths and my flaws. He was an insane workaholic. In the movie Rhapsody in Blue based on his life, someone asks him why he’s pushing himself so hard to create, and his response about needing to justify his existence was something I myself had said, word for word, in this life. The strangest thing was seeing specific flaws in George that I don’t think anyone would ever guess about me, the things that are buried deep, deep down. It was very easy to imagine this life as a reaction to that one, an effort to rein in the excesses of that lifetime and seek balance.
Another striking pattern was seeing the similarities between Gershwin’s life and Chopin’s. They’d lived almost exactly the same life. Both became famous for short-form piano works before branching out into larger symphonic works as they got older. Both spent countless nights playing the piano at parties for the wealthy and high society. Neither married, but both had 10-year-long affairs with a wealthy married woman who had kids. Both died of a catastrophic health defect before they were 40, Gershwin of a brain tumor at 38, Chopin of tuberculosis at 39.
I had never in my life believed I would live to see 40. Hmmm.
I found news of a performer in Chicago who had written a one-man stage show about Chopin’s life, which involved acting out dramatic scenes in-between performing Chopin’s piano pieces. After the run of that show ended, his next show was about George Gershwin. Slow your roll, stalker!
There were far more photographs available of Gershwin than there ever were of Chopin, which provided a lot more evidence to examine. Though I generally look more like Chopin than Gershwin, I felt a weird sensation every time I looked at a picture of George. Whenever I see a photo of myself, I have a self-conscious reaction, some variation of “Ugh, yeah that’s not a good photo of me.” Maybe everyone has this to some degree. But looking at photos of Gershwin I felt exactly the same thing. They made me uncomfortable. I’d never experienced this looking at photos of someone else before.
I sent some friends a photo of the Gershwin family in which I felt that George looked strikingly like me. “Do you guys think this looks like me?”
“Looks like you? I thought that WAS you!”
As the years have gone by, the other major players in Gershwin’s life seem to have turned up for their roles in this production. Is it a coincidence that my close friend Jenelle has precisely the same unique personality as Gershwin’s lifelong friend Emily? Or that my relationship with my cousin Sarah growing up was just like the bond between Gershwin and Kay Swift’s daughter Andrea? Huh. So, who did Gershwin’s partner Kay come back as? I bought her biography, and read of a life that, to my great surprise, mirrored my grandma’s almost exactly, in eerie detail. Even down to some extremely uncommon events I’ve never heard of in any other life, that make a very interesting case for our compulsion to repeat our mistakes and have to face the same challenges again and again.
And in photos, especially when they were both older, the resemblance is striking.
The strangest aspect was reading about Gershwin living with Kay and her husband on their estate, the affair an open secret that Kay’s husband grudgingly tolerated. When I was three years old, my grandma aggressively coerced my mom into letting her raise me, so I came to live with my grandparents and my three cousins for the rest of my childhood.
My grandpa, who is awesome and who I love completely, was at the tail end of raising their two daughters and had the parenthood exit ramp and freedom in his sights, so he was understandably not thrilled at the thought of starting over with a three-year-old. I was more aware of this than I think any of the adults realized, which made for a difficult childhood situation on a lot of levels.
Looking at the many repetitions between my grandma and Kay’s life, was this another one of them? Was I the three-year-old George that my grandpa was again tolerating having around?
If so, this was another crazy repeated past-life living circumstance, like Nohant. No wonder I’m single. All my past partners are in my family.
Do I have the musical talent of those two lives in this one? Yes and no. On one hand, I’ve drawn a lot of joy from the music I’ve written in this life, I’m proud of it and I lived for it for many years. But I wouldn’t expect anyone to listen to it and think “Oh yeah that guy was Gershwin and Chopin.” It’s not necessarily on that same level. A lot of what drove the intense depression of my teenage years and 20s was my obsession with creating music and the agonizing gap between the music I knew I was capable of, and what I could actually get down on tape. It was like I was missing some part of myself and I was muddling through painfully without it.
I remembered being much better than this, with creation being as effortless as breathing. But now there was always a block, I couldn’t breathe. I was born into a generally tone-deaf family, my ear was terrible and I’ve had to work at music for decades to cultivate even an average ear, so translating what was in my head was always a nightmare. It never came out right. I intended to go to music school after high school, until my dad dropped the bomb on me that he refused to pay for any of that, so it was regular college for me.
Why would any of this be? I look at Chopin and Gershwin’s identical lives and think about the compulsion we must have from lifetime to lifetime to instinctively repeat what worked for us. To return to what gave us joy before. How many times did I relive that exact life? Just twice? How many more times?
How do you break that pattern? Maybe you choose to be born into a family that can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Maybe you bash your head against a wall for 20 years trying to do what you did successfully before, until you realize this life was meant for something else.
When I look back at those two lives, I’m impressed with the music that came out of them, but also deeply saddened to think of living two entire lifetimes without any spiritual awareness whatsoever. That seems like such a waste to me, so much so that I’d much rather live this lifetime over again than either of those. I wonder if after all those monk lifetimes, being killed over and over, if I chose a couple of “safe” lifetimes where I could explore “the beyond” through music in a way that would attract praise instead of an axe to the chest.
And perhaps that artistic experience was great for what it was, but now it was time to come back into full spiritual awareness. What are the odds I’d have seriously followed a spiritual path if it had to compete with a successful and all-consuming music career again in this life?
More than a few people believe they were Chopin. There’s a channeled website about reincarnation I like, called reincarnationresearch.com, that has Trent Reznor as the reincarnation of Chopin and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys as Gershwin. I like Nine Inch Nails but am not sure I see the connection to Chopin’s life or music. Wilson has a much more interesting claim to having possibly been Gershwin, and I’ve had some really strange synchronicities with Brian Wilson’s life that I may write about at some point, I guess if it ever intersects with travel. It’ll be fun to be able to see this all more clearly one day.
When I first contemplated writing about my visit to Poland, I felt a twinge of dread, thinking that I’d have to get into all of this and open myself up to judgment or flak about believing I was this person or that. But something has shifted for me where I don’t care about that any more. People will react from inside their own experience, and whatever that is, it’s fine. I don’t have anything to defend, I just have my own experiences to share. When I was younger and didn’t really know who I was, it meant something to me to possibly have been this person or that in a past life. It enhanced my sense of self. Now, it’s not really as important as I once thought it was. I am who I am now, regardless of what came before. I’m curious, sure. But finding out I wasn’t either of these guys would be just as exciting to me as finding out that I was. Either answer would mean being that much closer to the truth, and that’s what I find exciting.
It’s a funny dichotomy since our culture is so celebrity obsessed that believing you were someone famous in a past life is like making this claim to personal greatness, but I no longer see either of these men in that light. Their music was beautiful, and they were people. They had a lot of flaws. They did some shitty things that I seem to be repaying the karma for in this lifetime. Whether I was both of them or neither, I’m personally much more impressed by my anonymous monk past lives that resonate with what I’m trying to do now.
I wanted to write about all of this because it’s a part of everyone’s process of discovering who we are, and maybe reading this makes someone feel less alone and more normal in the experiences they’re having. Or it just plants the seed that this is something you really can explore.
And also it explains what the fuck I’m doing in Poland and why I went to Chopin’s grave and snuck into his apartment building when I was in Paris. So yeah, that too.
The taxi pulled away from the Warsaw Chopin Airport and I took this extremely mature photo out the window:
The driver was playing classical music on the radio, which I’ve never heard in a cab before. Cool. Must be how they roll in Poland. We cruised through the parks and into the tall-ish buildings of Warsaw on the 20 minute drive from the airport. Warsaw was completely destroyed in WWII, so nearly all of these buildings had been built since then. I looked at the people and soaked in the vibe of the place. Does this feel like home? It feels comfortable.
We slid through the streets as I took photos of the various buildings. Suddenly, familiar notes drifted up out of the taxi’s radio.
It was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
I laughed out loud. The taxi driver looked at me funny.
Just a little confirmation from Poland. Thanks for that.
Hopping out of the taxi, I shuffled into the church.
In the center of the church there was a tall white pillar with a bust of Chopin on it and a plaque engraved with a few bars of his music. I walked up to the pillar and stood close to it. The feeling was very eerie. Wow, so the heart is in there, somewhere? Is it in the pillar or down in the ground beneath it? Is it still in a jar?
I began to feel my own heart beat heavily, like a booming in a huge cavern. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Oh wow that’s weird. I stood and tuned in. Everything got a bit floaty and I was just this thudding echoing inside a great void. My hands tingled and I came back to my body.
I turned around, and a Chinese tourist was impatiently waiting for me to get the F out of her photo. I laughed at the thought of the potential reincarnational photo opportunity she was missing, before politely getting out of her way.
After a few more minutes soaking up the ambiance of the church I hustled across town to the Chopin Museum, which is right next to the Chopin School. This was all highly surreal. He’s even on the money! Damn Poland, you need to drum up a few more famous people.
Inside the Chopin Museum, I walked the path of his life from birth to death. It was trippy to see letters, paintings and artifacts in person that I’d seen photos of in books years before.
There was a painting of Chopin’s mother that especially struck me, I felt a strong recognition. Was she back as someone I know in this life? I couldn’t place quite who. Across the room I spotted a painting I hadn’t seen before, and immediately said “Oh hey, it’s Jozef.” I walked over to the painting and read the little plaque. It was indeed a man named Jozef Elsner, who was Chopin’s first piano teacher. Maybe I saw him mentioned in a book once? 20 years ago? And I somehow not only recognize him from that but remember his name? Yeaaaah. Hmmmmmm.
My favorite thing in the museum was a bronze casting of Chopin’s hand on display in one of the glass cases. It was highly surreal to look at, as close as you can get to looking at your own body from a past life. Paintings are always so subjective, and only one actual photograph of Chopin exists, from near the end of his life. But this was an exact cast of his hand. It was so small.
Upstairs I got to stand in front of a few of his pianos, which were also smaller than I was expecting. As I was running out of time I walked through the rest of the rooms, images of Chopin and his friends and the places from his life swirling all around me. Once I got to the end I ran downstairs to the lobby, where my Warsaw-based friend Francine was waiting.
“Did you see what you wanted to see?”
I think I did. We walked up the street for a lunch of pierogis in a vegan café and talked about our lives and our upcoming trip to Central Asia.
Ubering back to the airport, I marveled at how I’d managed to fit all of this into my brief layover and still made it back to the airport in time. I scanned my boarding pass at the turnstile. BZZZRT. Oh goddamn you Heathrow baggage drop printer! Much finagling and reprinting and rushing around and a gigantic immigration line later, I was scampering up to the gate.
“We’ve been holding the plane for you.”
Does Poland do this for everybody? I must be getting the Chopin treatment.
I suppose I won’t consider the matter totally settled until I remember more of my past lives for myself, but my experiences in Warsaw did add several more interesting things to my overflowing bucket of synchronicities regarding Chopin’s life. Whatever the truth ends up being, he’s been a part of my life story one way or another at this point and it was very cool to return to the source and experience the place for myself. If I’m ever back in Warsaw with more time, I’d like to drive out of the city to his childhood home and see what that feels like.
Back to this life. Typing away on the plane as we drifted over Europe, I encountered that moment when your work tunnel vision lifts and you realize you’ve been singing “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” out loud along with your headphones and the grandmother from Saskatchewan sitting next to you on the plane is so mortified she might not be able to finish watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I don’t need to travel First Class because I bring the class with me.
Incidentally, if this blog is no good it’s because I wrote most of it on the plane with a stranger’s butt in my face, which I think you can pay for in some cities but LOT Polish Airlines provides it absolutely free.