silkroadwithdetour

One year onwards / a sign of life

Monday, 29th of June

As I write this, I am sitting on the sofa in the living room of a young Indian couple in the South of Delhi. Above me the fan is making endless circles. I got up late today – I slept eleven hours. I needed it. Save the few days that separate me from my 27th birthday, I have been travelling for a full year now. And finally, after much anticipation and many lone wanderings, I have made it to India. For the first time on this travel I feel I have reached a destination.

I flew in from Dubai, where I’d spent two days, passing by after I arrived by ferry from Bandar Abbas, Iran’s main port city at the Persian Gulf. The ferry trip was surreal, as is Dubai, albeit in another way. So I arrived in the middle of the night – in my heart I felt joy, my excitement was paired with a strange tranquillity, as if only for a moment I was where I belonged; for as long as I remember, the idea that one day I must go to India had been rooted in my mind – call it a dream – and now I’m here.

It’s five in the morning when the bus takes me from the airport straight to Kashmere Gate in Old Delhi. Along the way Mama India unfolds in all her nakedness and complexity, saying: Look at me. I am what I am. You will not understand me, but you will love me. For I am life as it is, naked, hard, mysterious and wonderful.

She withdraws, not to disappear, but to be silent and await my response, and then I realize I just turned my gaze inside. I imagine that she will surprise me with her kaleidoscope eyes, and I will not know her. I will try cutting through the canvas screen, like the first man ever to watch a film, once he convinced himself the images are not real. Now he wants to know where they came from, he is looking for their deeper reality. But there is no film – this is it, this is reality, and the depth one will discover does not exist inside it or below it, but outside.. in the reflection in one’s own eye.

I am what I seem – except I’m not.

The lush line of trees and greenery along the road contrasts with the Middle-Eastern desert landscapes I’d seen for the past months. Everything here is abundant, and it is in this colourful chaos that the nature of the world is to be grasped.

Further down, having entered the city, colonial-style buildings stand proudly, a stones-throw from haphazardly built shams. Homeless sleep on pieces of cardboard, some alone, some in clusters.  Rickshaw drivers have draped themselves across their vehicles, one foot on the wheel, the other leg dangling about, the back on the leather seat and their head hanging backwards. Stray dogs roam around, a donkey chews on a vegetable.

The impressions follow each other quickly. It is just after dawn, but the streets are already crowded with people. This must be the first essence of India: so many people.

People toiling, children begging, not knowing anything else of life – we tend to think of poverty as not having the means to fulfil one’s aspirations, the worst part of it being that one is stuck in that situation. Yet here, it is not simply an unfortunate circumstance in life – it’s an almost existential condition of being dispossessed.

I look at all these scenes quickly passing by. It’s the mayhem one has always imagined; but where did this imagination come from? Such imagination is ’empty’ – a presentiment of the mind, not a detailed picture. But in a strange way one has the feeling of ‘recognizing’ something one has never seen before. And I wonder if it is not the same for all ultimate wisdom and the ultimate love. All that is required is to keep believing it exists, and that one day we may reach it.

Vienna, center of Europe

The kiss and the smile

Thus with leaving Krakow my ‘sentimental journey’ ends. The hello-goodbye which led me past people and places dear to me was to be a prelude to the travel, but I underestimated the effect it would have on me. The unfulfilled desires and flashbacks of a past life, visions and attractions of a possible life, the intensity of summer days left me physically and emotionally exhausted. I enjoyed a fair deal of it, but in the end it reminds me of the fact that I had reasons why I set out travelling, and in that thought, a bit of old pain is laid bare.

In Vienna, I tell myself, I must regain my energy. The last week had seen two statements of intent: I quit smoking, that is, insofar as I did; I had my hair cut short, and what’s more, my sideburns.

“What about your sideburns?” had said Maciek, who accompanied me to the barber.
“What about them?”
“Aren’t you gonna cut them?”
No, why? Should I?”
“Yes, you should.”
“Why?”
“They don’t fit you.”
“They’re stuck on proper, as far as I’m concerned.”
“You look like you’re from the nineteenth century.”
“So what? I mean really? I’ve had them for three years. Nobody’s ever told me that.”
“I’m telling you now.”
“Forget it, I’m not doing it.”
“…”
“You really think I should?”
“Yes. Bye bye!”

Hence. But it’s good!

*

Now as I arrive to Vienna there’s the third: I decide to quit drinking for 3 months, weeks – 10 days, that’s what I mean.

I don’t know a soul in Vienna, so for the first time in my life I stay with a couch-surfing host: Lavinie, a Swiss girl who studies musicology. I’m not the most lively person these days but she puts up with me alright and we watch some French films with Luis de Funes and Fernandel, Black cat White cat by Kusturica. We visit the Belvedere, where some of my favorite painters have works on display: Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka. Its collection is excellent and the free soup and massage in the aquarium that are included in the 12,50 ticket price constitute a fair deal.
Lavinie and I argue over whether the woman from Klimt’s the Kiss wants to be kissed or not.
“It looks like she’s turning away.” Lavinie says.
“What do you mean? He’s kissing her cheek, moving from lips to neck. Nothing more intimate.”
“What about her hands? Isn’t she trying to remove his from her shoulder?”
“What’s wrong with you? She’s holding it! His fingers lined against her jaw, see? Most tenderly! And look, her other hand around his neck. She surrenders completely!” Lavinie starts to laugh, she sees it now. “Alright, alright.”

A week passes uneventful. I eat well, spend all days walking around, making turns at every best corner. Apart from Lavinie I don’t talk to anyone, except a girl who waits at the coffeehouse I keep coming back to because she’s there and because they have a computer I can write on. She smiles friendly but there is something reserved in her expression that intrigues me; her smile somehow, very subtly, conveys a bit of pain, only visible to those who dare to imagine below the surface.

She’s called Mimi. One afternoon after she finishes her shift we go for a walk together and I get to learn about her. She’s half-Senegalese – for her Vienna is a cold place, where she struggles to survive and suffers spiritually. I think I understand it all too well, but then I wonder if I do – what if there really is something in the blood? But no, I do – it’s just that I don’t have that other home to miss. So the warmth I find in friendship and the wings in laughter. I tell her she looks like she laughs too little. “Me? You don’t look like. With your sad eyes!” she retorts.
Alright, alright, I say. For a second I cannot believe I said it, but then again I find I’m not convinced.
Later, after we continue talking and things get lighter, she suddenly comes back to it: “Why did you ask me that?” she asks in a tone of voice which is open and intimate. “It came to my mind. Yeah, sorry, what a thing to say. What do I know?” I say, by way of apologizing without much sense of guilt, as if I am no longer the same person as an hour ago. She looks at me for a few seconds, then says: “But you were right.” I look back at her and then away, and say nothing.
When we say goodbye under the viaduct of the overground she squeezes my hand and as I cross the street with my head turned her way I see her smile at me, generous and beautiful.

Happy and sad! Man we are lonely, and why!?

 

*

The end of the European empires

If there is one city that can be called the heart of Europe, it is Vienna. For one, it lies at the geographical center of the continent: located between Prague and Budapest, it is as far to Berlin as it is to Belgrade; as far to Paris as it is to Rome; as far to London as to Istanbul and, with a little liberty, as far to Madrid as to Moscow.

But its geographical position aside, Vienna is the symbol of Europe as it once was: the continent of modern empires. In the course of the four centuries that separate the discovery of the New World and the First World War, European nations basically colonized the enitre world with the exception of China, Russia and Japan and the territories belonging to the Ottomans.

The first colonizers were the Portuguese and the Spanish, who conquered all of what became Latin America, and the Portuguese further established trading posts in the Far East such as Goa and Macao. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Iberian power faded when Dutch, British and French embarked on creating their empires. The Dutch and British took over trading posts in Asia and established new ones in South Africa at Cape of Good Hope. Britain and France conducted skirmishes over the territories of North America, till European settlers there declared independence. While fighting amongst themselves during the days of Napoleon Britain and France temporarily lost much of their colonial power; and as more and more of the Spanish territories in Latin America moved towards their independence, the settlers in the United States moved westwards, murdering great numbers of the indigenous population. A few decades later, when the Northern and Southern states were fighting a civil war over the abolition of slavery, Britain and France had neatly divided most of Africa, where the enslaved had come from, between them, using pen and paper rather than muskets and canons.

What once had been trading posts towards the end of the century had become administrative centers of colonial rule. The Netherlands controlled Indonesia, Great-Britain India (and Ireland), the French what they called Indochina, continental South-East Asia. Last to join in the fun was Belgium, whose king Leopold set his mind to colonizing Congo in 1885, holding it as private property. His officials were so brutal and the exploitation of land and people so ruthless that in 1908 under increased international diplomatic pressure Leopold was forced to cede governance of the territory to the Belgian state. (The blind spots of morality really blow the mind – the white man’s burden and all that)

As both Italy and Germany had become unified nation-states in the mid-19th century, this was a time when Europe was advancing to another great war like a schizophrenic somnambulist – with Belgium becoming the first country to be invaded.

[more to follow!]

Kraków, wspomnienie

Two: Memory

Soon I would find this cathartic feeling was more a moment of mercy than anything else, shown to me as the anticipation of leaving the city mirrored the euphoria I had felt when I first arrived. My soul was weary, receptive, my heart warmed by memories that were now born in the no-man’s land between present to past. My mind for a moment was wide open. It was a reminder of life’s disposition to renew itself.

Not only did the surreal bliss not last; no less true as it was, it hardly left a trace. Later I remembered that I had experienced it, but as from a distance – I could not quite invoke that same feeling in myself. To my mind the episode of Krakow was not really closed off. Surely, I was no longer there, and I soon found myself in a new and different situation when with a close friend I moved to Antwerp. The idea was to share a flat and conspire to write. However first I needed to arrange basic income for myself. I stumbled upon this night bar, which was notorious in Antwerp till it was closed down by police nine months later.
A year had passed. Work was irregular but just sufficient to survive. I took up studies again, finishing as quickly as I could. A second year passed.
Much of the time I was still confused, but not as confused as I had been. Something was moving.


[more to follow. sometime]

Kraków miasto moje

One: History

Tuesday 12th of August

On the train between Poland’s capital and its old city of kings I stand in the corridor facing the opened window. The air strikes my face in violent blows, and as I watch the sun go down over the fields of Mazovia I try to get to grips with my spirits, which are at the same time excited and tempered. Excited, because I have awaited the moment of coming back to Kraków – my beloved Kraków! – for nearly three years; tempered, because I have something to resolve.

I first visited Krakow with my father when I was seventeen. Its atmosphere, full of wonder, captivated me from the moment we arrived. A vast dignity radiated from the city – it appeared a place where one could be human, while its uncomplicated beauty invited the kind of admiration that uplifts. And then, of course, there were the girls promenading, many of them gorgeous.

At the time I was still living with my father in our hometown, but I think even then the idea that one day I should live there someday took root in my mind. Or maybe it was later, when I was studying in Utrecht, I don’t remember. But I know that in September of 2009, I had just turned twenty-one, I went. I found a one-room apartment to rent, no more than twenty-square meters in total, just outside the Old Town. I had no plan and no business, though I arranged a subscription at the University which granted me both access to the university (classes for international students) and a stipend, with no more obligation than filling in a few forms at the end of the academic year.

The first two weeks I walked around in a mild euphoria, which resonated with the softness of the beginning autumn. For the first time in my life I felt free. My mind was filled with promises of life, but not of another life – it was my own, it took place before my eyes, in a steady stream, the here-and-now tangled up with dreamlike images that saw me shiver inside. It was the life I had imagined in my youthful vision. My new situation suited me so well, and what was immediately present seemed only the beginning of something that would naturally unfold. (How wonderfully naive I was, and how happy!)

After a while, then, the first euphoria of course settled down and as I started getting to know people and places and acquiring routines, life got back some of its ‘normality’, but it was still without much worry and full of good things. I had time on my hands and some money and I just lived the days as they came to me. After a few months, weeks even, my past life seemed like some other life to me that I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to get back to.

On Thursdays I would go to university and attend courses in Polish history, culture, cinema and literature, and a seminar of contemporary philosophy, taught on Fridays by a charismatic professor. But for the most part I was free, taking endless strolls around the old town, the Jewish quarter and beyond, visiting the cafes and bars, reading, writing notes, meeting people.

Winter came and was harsh, unlike the winters I was used to in the moderate sea-climate of the Netherlands. It lasted for a long time. Looking back at it I’m baffled by how poorly I took care of myself. At the very least I should have gotten proper boots, warm woolen socks and a decent coat, as I had none. But I didn’t buy any of those. (Unbelievably, it didn’t occur to me). Instead, I walked around as always, warmed myself in the cafes, ate irregularly, till one morning I woke up with a heavy pain in my chest. It hurt so much I could hardly get up. Once I sat up straight it was alright, but I had trouble breathing. That is, I could get enough air alright, but something was wrong. I couldn’t fill my right lung. The harder I tried, the worse it got. I thought it was a collapsed lung, but in the hospital I was diagnosed with asthma. I told them it was not possible. The doctor replied calmly: “It is not uncommon in this region. Some people develop it. The air here in winter is very cold and dry, and with the pollution.. It is a kind of allergic reaction, nothing more.” I got medication, which I stopped taking after a month of so. In hindsight I was lucky not to have caught pneumonia.

*

Spring came and everything flourished. I especially loved the spring rain that freshened the air, otherwise thick with pollution, the particles almost sensible like heavily carbonated water. One morning I got up early, having slept over at a friend’s place; I went out, walking home, but when I reached Grodzka, which leads from Wawel to the Main Market Square, I suddenly turned right where I had to go left, for no apparent reason. It drizzled softly. On the park lane I figured I would drink tea at Cafe Philo, which is open day and night. When I got there however it was closed. But there she sat, at the doorstep, flanked by two male friends. Big eyes, soft and brown, her hair moist and curly from the raindrops. The thought of falling in love flashed inside me and echoed till it proved, like all true intuition, prophetic.

That was the first of May. Many nights we lay close and listened to the rain. In March I had moved to a flat next to the Castle. I lived into a flat with a couple of Polish people, most of whom studied at the art academy, and a French girl who was as crazy as she was creative. Our lives didn’t mix much in the sense that we didn’t spend much time together in the flat, but there was a sense of camaraderie. The flat was shabby and poorly maintained and we had to improvise a lot, but needed nothing more. Some days there would be this shared, general relaxation that I think emanated from the fact that everybody was in a special (and good) time of their lives. And our place, quite unique and wonderfully located, was the haven for this fragmented conspiracy without a cause.

Life was like a song.

*

As summer approached I began to grow restless. Even though I was in love, my mind filled up again with thoughts about ‘another’ life. But these thoughts were not beautiful visions, neither romantic nor concrete – they were vague images, confused questions. As the season progressed, my confusion fermented, intensified. (It was stronger than my love.)

I did not understand what was happening, nor why it happened. The ‘best’ I managed was to somehow convince myself – not being used to being in a relationship –  that I could not make choices freely while being with someone else, and that, above anything else, I wanted to be ‘free.’ Of course that conviction was a sign of delusion, otherwise I would have seen how little sense it made. In all the senses I could imagine I was free. The other side of this freedom – and the root of my disquiet – was that I had no ground beneath my feet.  I had no structure in my days – I had nothing to do! – to provide me with a sense of foundation. Estranged as I had grown (over many years, I should say here) from my own more complex and painful feelings, and, like so many people in this world, tragically unaware of this, I sought for answers outside my own being. A change of place in the form of a trip to Berlin for two weeks brought no relief.

Emotionally stuck, I ended my relationship with Gosia. Which left me in the same state of confusion, spiritually torn and with an incomprehensible sense of guilt.

During the Indian Summer in September I went to Paris and from there to Holland, and when I returned to Krakow a month later I found my disquiet had further deepened. I realized the problem was structural, rooted inside myself. During my time away I decided to leave the city, but not right away. Wishing to disprove the painful truth, I had some hopes it might change. Besides, I had no clue where to go next. I did not want to go back to Holland.

Back in Krakow things didn’t change. Surely, not all days were agony. I found joy in new or deepening friendships; I moved to another place on the corner of Ulica Smolensk and Aleja Krasińskiego, which was a pleasant change; I set myself to writing a film script for my friend from Paris, which I finished more or less but which never ripened or materialized.

But often I’d feel low, lonely. My mind was a whirlpool from which I sought to pull myself out in desperation, but couldn’t find a way. There remained this sense of lostness which I could neither escape nor endure. Worst of all, I projected my hopes and desires on another girl, whom I’d known for some time – but it turned out disastrous; it drove me mad and then left me with the embarrassment and pain of unrequited love.

*

Finally, my last days in Krakow were much like the first. As the moment of leaving drew closer, my heavy-heartedness, which had slowly begun to ease throughout December, now completely disappeared. I had nothing to lose and nothing to gain – I was free again. Now when I walked through the city, I looked with a tender gaze. The city, which had become indifferent when I was lost – if only it had become hostile! – seemed more personal and friendly, like a mentor who knows what distance to keep to allow his pupil to discover the truth of his teaching through life itself.

For a few wonderful moments it all felt surreal, such had been the intensity of my longings which now no longer pained me; and remembering all different tidings, good and bad, it was as if the circle were closed and there remained nothing to be redeemed of.

The end of Eastern Europe

Friday, August 8th

In Warsaw I stay with Zyga, who is, together with Wacek and Wojtek, one of three musketeers. Years ago when they were studying they lived together in Cracow, having no money and improvising their way through the seasons; now they all are in a different place, doing something ‘for the moment’ while anticipating the next moves. There is a fourth musketeer, Maciek, who, in keeping with tradition, is away, or anyway never appears on the scene when I’m there.

Zyga receives me warmly and the first morning takes care to answer all the questions he asks me himself. ˝Are you hungry? You are!” He serves me eggs and bread. ”Chcesz kawę? Chcesz.˝ As we sit over coffee we talk about Warsaw and what it is the center of: Polands rapid transformation to a ‘western’ nation with a capitalist economy.

I’ve only visited Warsaw twice before, briefly, but one doesn’t have to know it as a city to see that this transformation is in the air. It is a global phenomenon with different local colors: here it shows in the presence of franchises, the advertisements (a strange phenomenon in its wake are the kebab sellers); it is sensible in the pace of the city, the pace of a place where people’s business increasingly is making money; it is audible in the music that comes out of the clubs, which often does not display good taste, and it is subtly mirrored in the poses of some of the younger people.

Zyga talks about it with disdain. “Poland is one big aspiration.” He points outside to the construction site next to the flat where he lives in Praga-Południe. “That’s all they think of. Building flats, roads, malls, making money. More and more.”

On one level it is understandable: Poland longs to be a regarded as an important country in Europe – which it is, and which it has always been, even when it was not. Being modern essentially means adhering to the principles of a global system which relinquishes power to corporations and deforms and destructs local culture; and Western Europe is the epicentre of it.

In many ways Poland is an exemplary case. During communism, everyday life was made difficult by the authorities; anything different would count as an improvement, and the blessings of the new system therefore are hardly a virtue of it. Yet the embrace of the new system as a great pool of opportunities is not so much warm as it is, rather, blind. It is blind because the process Poland is in has only one single direction, and at that it is quite far progressed. It is difficult to alter and it certainly cannot be halted.
“It happens even in Armenia,” He just came back from a travel there; his flatmate Grevorg, who is from Yerevan, confirms.

The idea that possesses many Poles is that now is a time of opportunity and progress. This idea however is as one-sided and illusionary as the American Dream – it is not really in line with reality. First of all, Polish society finds itself in the midst of the process of divided into a part that makes money and a part that doesn’t – Polska A and Polska B. Naturally, the part of the nation which remains poor is the countryside, especially in the east, and the elderly. Moreover, in between rich and poor is a large group of people that can hardly get by, even when they work full-time jobs. For some it is a little easier than for others, and some even do get by without too much of a hassle – but essentially they belong to the same class, created by the new system.

Class division exists everywhere. It is so much a logical consequence of this system and in that way we take it for granted, even though our feelings regarding it are all but neutral. But what Zyga and I feel equally strongly about is more of a cultural issue and more delicate in a way. At least as much as how money is divided, it matters what people we become. It is given that Western Europe is to a large extent culturally colonized by America. But American culture is much more foreign to Eastern Europe than to the West. Even if Poland is one of the most ‘western’ of all Slavic nations, being closer to France than to Russia in a way, it is still invariably Slavic. And the Slavic soul has a specific quality to it, which sets it apart from the West and the (Meditteranean) South.

Soul is a concept by which we measure our deformation as people. Or, inversely, by which we measure our longing for home, our strive for purity. When in a body more and more foreign cells infiltrate and start to grow like a cancer, eating away the local cells, something happens to the soul. The transformation not only manifests itself in what is visible, but even more in what is lost.

A certain memory can not only symbolize or explain much of a life’s story, the very essence of life can be contained in it. It is the same with the soul: its essence is no more than the sense of essence itself, and it manifests in many little things and in subtle ways. But when a memory, when this sense is lost, so are the roots. It becomes increasingly harder to relate to who we were, to trace who we have become. Herein lies the essential difference between change and deformation..

To borrow a line from Mulisch: we change, but that what changes does not change.

“If you want to see the real Poland, so to say, you must go to the countryside. If you want to know how it was up till not so long ago, go to the Ukraine,” says Zyga. He speaks in a tone of voice which demonstrates natural balance, but the fact that he doesn’t sound bitter does not mean that there is never any pain. We conclude our conversation stating the depressing expectation that in twenty years there will be no more Eastern Europe, at least not in this region. It is an exaggeration, but at the same time it is not. It will show – but then it takes eyes to see.

Stalin’s gift

Stalin’s gift

I arrive to Warsaw Central Station at dusk. The first thing one sees when one leaves the station is Pałac Kultury i Nauki, the Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw’s landmark building. It was constructed in the early 1950’s as a ‘gift’ from Stalin, who died before its completion. One of its nicknames, among others, is ‘Stalin’s dick’, which more or less expresses the general opinion of the Varsovians regarding the man who had it built.

Building the palace was a cynical gesture, as for the Poles it symbolized Soviet domination, even more so when regarding the role Stalin played in the city’s history. A decade earlier: the Polish resistance rose up to conduct a revolt against the Nazi’s, knowing that the Red Army was approaching the city. Stalin, however, had his troops wait on the banks of the Vistula river, till the Germans eventually crushed the uprising. The Nazi’s, who had suffered some initial losses, took relentless revenge on the civil population, of whom a significant number had come to the aid of or joined the resistance. After two months of fighting, more than two hundred thousand Varsovians had lost their lives, and in the subsequent weeks the Germans systematically levelled to the ground those parts of the city that were left standing. Only several months later would the Red Army force the Germans to abandon the city.

Stalin’s motivation may have been tactical – it is easier to rule a people broken down by suffering than a people that just liberated themselves from an oppressor. But Stalin, like Hitler a vengeful lunatic, bore in his mind the memory of defeat. In 1922 – Lenin was still alive – the Red Army lost the battle of Warsaw, and he, having refused to direct his troops from Lviv to Warsaw, was blamed by Trotsky for the defeat. It was the defeat that secured Polish independence, until Stalin and Hitler made their monstrous pact to invade and divide it, as happened many times before in Polish history.

This month Warsaw commemorates the 70th anniversary of the uprising, which stands as one of the great infamies of the Second World War. The most moving account of it is probably still Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał. However, attention for it has long been characterized by delusion and propaganda (from the Soviets and communist government) – quite understandably so – while in the West for many years it received little attention. It is hard to believe that after the war ended, most soldiers and officers of the Armia Krajowa, the Polish Home Army, were persecuted by the Soviets in an especially cynical campaign on the accusation of collaboration with the Nazi’s.

What this cynicism expresses is contempt for the oppressed. The will to dominate sometimes follows a cold and rigid logic; and yet, the human capacity for evil, however undeniable, remains unfathomable. They sometimes appear to move along parallel lines, while in reality, they are entangled and become inseparable.

Coming back to Stalin’s dick: it is not surprising most Varsovians have never been fond of the building, especially when it was first built. Architecturally however it is an impressive construction. Personally I have a thing for communist architecture, with it sober facades, and usually a lot of greenery in front, wide lanes with trees in between the blocks, small parks and informal squares with kiosks. It communicates something real, while baroque, for instance, expresses quite the opposite: the glory of the Catholic church, hence, something ideal. Life of everyday rather than eternity.

The Palace, although predominantly Soviet in style, incorporates some Polish elements in its details, while its proportions lend it a grandeur that is reminiscent of the early skyscrapers of the American Art Deco. (Stalin even sent a delegation to New York to study the architectural themes and technology of the Empire State).

In the America of 1920’s and 30’s, skyscrapers were built to glorify human progress and conquest of nature – in one word, ‘modernity’ – but eventually came to symbolize gangsterism and urban despair in equal manner. Stalin, however, built them as sombre monuments to himself. They did not symbolize the moral superiority of the Soviet system, but a man’s quest for immortality.

One thing that comes to mind with the American association is that essentially it is all mafia – the difference is in the scale. The irony is that tyrants like Hitler and Stalin, with all their psychological weaknesses, have passed the impression to possess the personality of a street crook, while thugs such as Al Capone have been portrayed as bosses, kings.
I reckon there is some truth to this. Compared to Stalin, Capone was a petty thief. But in the scene of men dominating other men, the scope of power matters a great deal; the mind can be strategic only if it can take everything into account. In ruling a nation it never can, and here psychological weaknesses come into play. Absurd as it sounds, Stalin and Hitler sometimes behaved completely irrational, even within the frame of their own logic.

What I’m saying is that the human mind is not suitable for ruling other men. That it is too much of a mystery to itself is one thing. But when a person’s position doesn’t allow him to be a human being amongst the people, the consequences can only be disastrous.
A child gets hurt, grows up and becomes an angry man. Then at a crucial point in his life he begets a position or the power to rule. But his pragmatism is rooted in paranoia, his ideas in his illusions, his righteousness in his vanity, his cold passion in his pain, his great ideals in forgotten truth about himself, his lack of mercy in his inability to feel..
Such a man should not even become a schoolteacher, let alone a ruler to be worshipped and obeyed on par with God.

Tracing roots

While in Berlin I decided to pass by Łódź on my way to Warsaw. Łódź is the city where my grandmother Sabina Bogusławska was from. She died before I was born, so all I know of her is what my father told me. Today in Łódź there is my father’s cousin Mieczysław Szulc, his wife Małgorzata and their son Mariusz.

They came to visit us once or twice in the early nineties, when I was very small and my parents were still together. I have no memory of that whatsoever, so it is as I meet them for the first time.  However, when Mariusz and Mietek pick me up from Łódź Kaliska station, I am welcomed like a long-lost son. Of course, they remember – how small I was! – and in Poland family is family.

I am received with Polish hospitality: as soon as we’ve entered the house and taken off  our shoes, tea is served and food put on the table. After dinner Mietek and Gosia take out their photo-albums with pictures of their trips to the Netherlands. Mariusz was about nine or ten, me and my sister were two or three, respectively. The Holland that appears on the pictures is a beautiful place, green and fertile, and the small fishermen-towns they visited are as pitoresque as anywhere else.  The dominant figure in the pictures – apart from the Szulc family – is my grandfather Jan, who would continue to visit Łódź every year after his wife had died. The Szulc’s speak of him with the greatest respect, describing him as a good and elegant man, who spoke very good Polish and always wore a tie, even at breakfast – not a hereditary trait, for sure. I unfortunately never knew him well, he began to suffer from dementia around the time of my parent’s divorce..
Naturally, my parents, my sister and I also appear on the pictures. It’s strange to see pictures of our family when we were still together. I hardly know it any other way than that we were not. I look at it with the specific tenderness that is rooted in resignation. It doesn’t hurt me, but it makes me realize that there are facts of life that we take for granted, but that once were new..

Gosia feels inclined to ask if I’m not about to get married. I say I’m not. She informs about ma age and since I see no reason to lie, I say I’m twenty-six. I take care to exaggerate, adding with emphasis that I’m way too young to get married. She rolls her eyes and nodds in the direction of Mariusz. ˝He is 33 and he neither has any plans to get married.˝ I find the question quite hilarious, but in Mariusz’ defense I subtly reply that we’ve got time till forty. No need to worry! Gosia shakes her head in quiet despair and mumbles ˝starzy kawalerzy˝ – old bachelors. (Mariusz actually has a girlfriend, but I didn’t yet know).

 *

The next day Mariusz shows me around Łódź. We zigzag around the main street, Ulica Piotrkowska, where we teach Arthur Rubinstein how to play quatre main with only ten fingers. We salute the statue of marshal Józef Piłsudski, eat pierogi (dumplings) for lunch and visit Kino BODO, the project Mariusz has with a few companions. With Kino BODO they founded an independent cinema, with special emphasis on democratic programming and amateur filmmaking.

We hop on a tram, get off at a park where old men are play chess and walk towards one of the city’s most famous places, Manufaktura. Manufaktura was one of the two main industrial complexes, founded by Izrael Poznanski. Together with Karol Scheibler, who founded the other, he is the man who left the greatest mark on industrial Łódź.

Łódź is not a particularly beautiful city and it would do no harm if some of its buildings would be renovated. However, the old Manufaktura-factory has undergone a kind of restoration from which it had better been saved: it has not so much been restored as, rather, face-lifted. What’s more, it has been turned into a shopping mall. As a site of industrial heritage it has been, to say the least, assaulted.

I tell Mariusz about my discomfort with it, which he can understand. I came to Łódź by bus from Wrocław, where the train station has been renovated in the same ‘plastic’ fashion. The restoration is simply overdone. A train station, especially, should look like Clint Eastwood, or, if must be, like Freddie Mercury – not like Mickey Mouse. (The next day Mariusz takes me along to another industrial site, a bit farther from the center, which has been beautifully restored. The enormous factory building has been transformed and divided into lofts, while  the adjacent workers lodgings remain unrestored, but nevertheless inhabited).

*

From Manufaktura we make our way to Zdrowie (“Health”), the oldest en largest park in Łódź. There is a momument that celebrates the victory of the factory workers, who in 1905 went on strike for more rights – and got what they demanded.

My great-grandparents lived a stone’s throw from the park. As much as it means to the people of Łódź, it means even more to this family, and I imagine my father spent many summer days there when he was a child. Mietek is quite melancholic about it and tells me the park used to be a magic place. I ask him about what has changed, but he cannot really put his finger on it. I suspect it’s just time, that passed by; – he got older and the days of youth are days gone by.

We drive up to the house, which stands alone along a quiet lane. It was my great-grandparents home from before the war till their death in the early 1980’s. The house doesn’t speak, it just stands there, it’s eyes and mouth closed; it doesn’t even whisper, but if I narrow my eyes, one layer of time is, as it were, uncovered, as on a drawing from one the books by Bruno Szulc (not related).

Back home we have a second session of looking at photographs. This time they are genuinely old, all black and white – pictures of Sabina and her sister Lucyna as young women; of my father as a boy, with his parents; of Sabina’s parents Walenty and Maria; of Walenty with fellow workers, of Walenty meeting his brother Józef in France, after they hadn’t seen each other for thirty years..

When we get to Mariusz’ apartment he shows me something I could not imagine. ˝You have seen the old photo’s˝, he says, ˝now it’s time to see the postcards.˝ He brings out a bundle of postcards of which the content thrills me: some of them are written as long as a century ago, all in elegant, small handwriting. Some of them are whole letters. There’s one sent by a friend of Walenty, who writes him from St. Petersburg, that he can get him a job and that Walenty should make his way there. (Eventually he would, as he was drafted in the army of the Tsar); love letters from Walenty (signed ˝Walery˝ or ˝Waluś˝) to his future wife; postcards from a seventeen year old Sabina, writing to her parents from Berlin during the war. One is dated 4/ 4/ 44 and says that she is alright and that she misses them. Another, written a few months later, reads: ˝Dear Mamusja! (…) I’m alright. The city is being bombed, but I am not afraid, since we work at night..(..) I´m so tired..˝

The honest simplicity of these words, their unheroic bravery deeply move me. At the same time Mariusz and I share in our amazement about the fact that, amidst all the fighting and destruction, the postal services still seemed to work..

*

The next morning Mariusz and I get up early to go to the cemetery where our great-grandparents are buried. We get a candle each and leave it, lit, on the tombstone. For ten minutes or so I stand next to the grave, my hand on the stone, and think nothing, think of how incredibly different their lives must have been from mine; of how strange is the fact that we are related, that all is connected in space and time, that we all move as grains of sand between shoreline and sea; that there are things in this world that are mine, that I exist and that I have become what I have become, that I forgot how it was when I was a boy, that I may one day remember, that one day I may understand; that my parents were once children, and that one day I may be old..

These thoughts follow each other quickly, then they pass altogether and I think nothing again – while I stand with my hand on the grave, an airy feeling of something greater runs through me.

Walenty Bogusławski, a steel worker from Łódź, and intelligent and perceptive man, and Maria Pilipienko, a rather tough woman from Dniepropetrovsk, of whose soul we know little.. Poor Sabina, who could never find her inner light in Holland, despite the adoration of her husband Jan, who spent his whole life taking care of others..  – Salute.