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.