My cousins have been honest and considerate. I’ve heard a great deal about the war, about poverty, about hardship. It’s etched on some of their faces, which is probably why they are more inclined to smile; every opportunity, as it were. It’s not that simple, of course; Stefania, for one, is ambivalent about the fall of Communism. To her, people were looked after then, in a sufficient though minimalist way. Now, the disadvantaged and the poor and the elderly seem to be left to fend for themselves. As ever, the price of freedom is miserable inequality.
They are also honest about my father. He was a much more complex man than I realised. I suppose all fathers – and mothers – are.
There’s no mileage to be gained in going over old transgressions, not least because there are some still alive who have suffered because of them. And how he behaved would hardly merit a minor storyline in a soap opera nowadays (“PolskaSoap”?). Enough to say that he was as capable as any young man of being ruled by his heart and his hormones rather than his head. As a result, three families were directly affected, hurt. Been there myself. Too often.
In the normal scheme of things, it would all have blown over. It would have been handled, as ever, by the women. Perhaps the whole messy business between my father and his family might have resurrected itself only occasionally, merely as hot-tempered, drunken recriminations at weddings and funerals.
But the War wouldn’t have that. It picked people up and dumped them thousands of miles away, on the other side of national and ideological divides, lost them from sight only to regurgitate them to find their personal landscapes had changed beyond recognition. It separated families, and when those families were going through dysfunctional times anyway, the process of healing never had a chance.
In Wroclaw, there is an unremarkable, iron bridge that connects the cathedral island of Ostrów Tumski to the rest of the city. A tradition has developed recently of lovers coming to the bridge, their names painted or engraved on padlocks which are locked around the bridge’s structure. Then, I presume, they cast the key into the River Odra, and their love affair is permanently commemorated. Padlocks are locked to padlocks, thousands of them: enterprising show-offs have taken to climbing to a higher and higher proof. It’s a lovely thought. I imagine the bridge groaning under the excess weight, eventually giving in and tumbling into the water, the first ever demolished by Love not War.
In the middle of my trip, I get an e-mail from a recent ex-girlfriend. I’d had a nice enough time with an accomplished, pretty, charismatic young woman, the experience marred only by an inability to find time for those shared experiences that build real intimacy and, perhaps, a little thoughtlessness about feelings as we came to the mutual decision it wasn’t going anywhere. So, something positive, but something I need to put in the past if I’m going to get things done.
We’re all guilty of it. We sit in a life with a door open, waiting for that someone who might have been something to walk back through it. They never do, of course, and all that happens is we get a draught on the back of the neck. Or, worse yet, someone else sneaks in and burgles our hearts.
It was just an e-mail passing on some professional information, with a “hope you don’t mind” message because I’d said that I didn’t think it was appropriate to keep in touch. No problem. I thank her for the details, hope all is going well for her. But it feels as if someone has rattled the letterbox of that door I’ve locked up so carefully, and it’s difficult to resist scurrying up to the spy hole to see what’s going on on the other side.
My father closed a lot of doors back in Poland, apparently. Trouble was, as he got older, they had a tendency to fly open of their own accord. In the late 90s, as his mental incapacity began to take grip and glaucoma was robbing him of his eyesight, my partner and I had a family get together at our home. She stepped out to top up teas and cakes; in his wonky way, he followed her out. She told me he’d grabbed her amorously in the kitchen, said it was so good to see her again after all these years. And then he started telephoning, he’d be round soon he said, don’t tell Raymond. God knows who she reminded him of, or what he was reliving, or how he managed to conflate it with a current timeline that included me. Cardiovascular dementia is a bastard, it seems.
I went to see him about it, hating myself for feeling a twinge of righteous indignation. Upstairs, early evening, he was in bed, like a wee Buddha dressed in Paisley pattern pyjamas. Yes, he said, my partner did remind him of someone. No, he understood now, he said, as I patiently explained that he was confused, and it was okay to be confused, but he should talk it over with me if he felt like this again. As I went out, he called me back. “I’m sorry,” he said.
A few years later, that relationship was gone, sabotaged largely by my own head versus heart versus hormones conflict. Our beautiful house was sold, I was living alone. In the November after it had all been reduced to rubble, I visited my father in the nursing home. He lay on his side, nothing left but a pair of old bellows sucking in air and a pacemaker that kept his heart going. I held his hand, those frost-bitten knuckles like walnuts that scared me as a child now shrivelled and tiny. I spoke about nothing. After half an hour, I told him I had to go to the shops, get some stuff in for tea. I guess he died around the time I was in the pasta aisle. As I left the supermarket, I was aware of a fundamental change in the air, and wasn’t surprised by the phone call an hour later.
My ex-partner was probably the only woman who loved me strongly enough to have been any use to me on this trip; perhaps one other, if things had been different. But they are both out of my life now. So I’m proudly self-sufficient, a happily independent traveller. I gave up looking for “my other half” ages ago; I am no less 100% a person for being single, thank you very much, and have no need of someone to “complete me”, no matter how joyous it can be to be in a relationship.
But on my last night in Wroclaw, I stand in the Rynek in the perfect light; the colours of the façades soften in the warm air. It’s peaceful and beautiful, but thoughts are thundering through my head like the bedlam of a coal mine. This trip has given me so much to do – revision to my novel, short stories that are throwing themselves at me – and only this laptop and the whole world wide web to work it out with, and there’s a nagging feeling which is no longer quite all the way at the back of my head that is uncomfortably like loneliness.
I hope all those couples on the Tumski bridge are still together. If my dad and I are anything to go by, I doubt it, unfortunately.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Creative Scotland. This trip was funded in part by their 2010 bursary award in order to undertake research for my novel.
Pod Papugami is a tourist bar in the central square of Wroclaw. However, it is interesting in that it hosts live bands most evenings, and tonight is “Family Business”, with the emphasis on the business, says guitarist David Korba.
They are, however, pretty damned good. Essentially a pub covers band, they play jazz-funk that is effortlessly entertaining. Korba is the star of the show; he is an excellent guitarist, with a gently lazy style that is ineffably cool. I like his patience: he waits for his solos, knowing that even if he is the leader, he is nevertheless part of a whole that consists of a five-string bassist, a subtle drummer and a lead singer, Asia Kurasnik, who has a voice like thunder but who knows how to use her voice and a mike to integrate herself into the soundscape without dominating it.
Efficient covers include a rather nicely tingly version of Alicia Key’s “Fallin'” and a funky “I Wish”, and the band enjoy themselves on “Respect”. Good stuff.
But this is a group of musicians who come together for the tourists to finance other, more worthy ventures; before he grabs the money and runs out the door, I have a chat with Korba. What he is most passionate about is his Mikromusic project, and that looks very, very interesting. I’ve been looking for some Polish music to buy before I leave, and this is it. Check out their MySpace site: “Slowa”, for instance, is just lovely. I’m off to the record store tomorrow.
ps – a word of warning. Polish beer is very nice, but it’s very strong and makes you pee a lot. I know.
Polish churches are different. I visited St Mary’s Basilica in Krakow a few years ago and marvelled at the interior; made of brick rather than grey stone, the inside walls are plastered and every surface painted. In Krakow, it was in warm red and mustard tones, a bit like my own house; here, in Wroclaw, it is in cool, refreshing whites. The effect is airy and almost informal.
The faithful turn up in droves, whole bus parties of them. Healthy and sick. Old and young. Blind, on crutches, in wheelchairs. One child rolls down the aisle of the cathedral towards me; her front wheels flash neon, like those daft trainers you get in the shopping centre at Braehead.
There is no pattern to their piety; gruff middle-aged men kneel and clasp their hands for minutes, old grey ladies cast off a quick one-two-three-four as they scurry past, perhaps to get the priest’s attention first. Odd bods, I think, and then I slap myself. They are in groups, families, friends; I’m sitting in the pews in my solitary atheist smugness. Serves me right.
In the National Museum, Catholicism in all its Gothic scariness is predominant. Don’t let anyone tell you Mel Gibson’s “Passion” is the most brutal representation of the Crucifixion story around; you should see what 12th to 14th century Silesia made of it. The images of flagellation are bloody and visceral, the faces, like that of the veil of St Veronica, are tortured and alien, the landscapes are hellish; and then there are real beauties, such as the Virgin and Child from St John the Baptist’s Cathedral, painted by… well, some drone in a master’s workshop.
There’s nothing of great interest after the Gothic period – the modern art is drab and uninspiring – except that I come across one portrait that proves that Robert de Niro existed in a former life, and his name was Johan van Vogt, and one lovely portrait of Elisabeth Schroeter.
The nationalism is supplied by the rather stunning Raclawice Panorama. 120 metres long, 15 metres high, it is one of the few surviving European panorama paintings. Completed in 1894, it commemorates the Polish nationalist uprising of exactly 100 years earlier. Housed in its own circular building, it’s Wroclaw’s biggest tourist attraction. While the quality of the painting is so-so, the effect is truly monumental. Unfortunately, I found it extraordinarily difficult to get focussed photographs of the huge landscape and few images appear on the web – so take my word for it, it’s well worth a visit.
ps – I did this on my Macbook, and I hate it. Nothing works right, it’s too slow, text editing is crazy without an easy right-click button, copying and pasting is a footer, do something wrong and it fucks you up and downloading is a bastard. I also object to iPhotos telling me what to do all the time, when I just want to know where my photos are. I truly hate to admit it, but I’m a Windows boy…
Mid-afternoon in Wroclaw, nothing to do in the evening, so I try to track down some live music. The tourist office says there isn’t much on, just this Susanne Sundfør gig down at the Arsenal. I decide to go. I’m glad I did.
Susanne Sundfør is Norwegian, which means she’d probably rather be anywhere else but performing on stage here; it’s not difficult to imagine that, given Norway’s size, someone in her touring party has been directly affected by events there. Not surprisingly, the five-piece band are dressed in black and distinctly subdued.
Sundfør herself is a waif with a powerful voice. Steeped in Scandinavian wonky electronic-eclectic that sounds, in a good way, like everything from OMD to Kraftwerk to Jean Michel Jarre, and with a voice that is pitch perfect and hits some amazingly high notes, with shades of Carole King and Tori Amos in there, this is interesting stuff.
But there’s no denying the influence of the tragedy in Norway. She sings in English, which means the prescience of her lyrics goes largely unnoticed. When she sings “O Master”, the lines
“Waiting for a bullet / waiting for a bullet / waiting for a bullet /I feel so alive”
must rip her heart out. Perhaps she’s arranged the set deliberately, but there are few chances for applause, and this is one that she barely and painfully acknowledges. “The Silicone Veil” punches home too; “I go to a funeral every day… I carry their caskets…”
Sonically and musically, she does some lovely things. Highlights include “The Brothel”, the provocative title track of her most recent album. She sings solo, her ethereal voice counterpointed with a sub-woofer that kicks the shins, knees and nuts at the same time. Even here the words – “God has left us anyway” – seem to drain her.
The band manage an encore, though goodness’ knows how. “Here’s a new song,” she says. “I hope you like it.”
What follows – “Among Us” – is a real danceable with a rocky edge and some fantastic vocal interchanges with her excellent backing singers. And then, if I’ve heard them right, the words slice home like a scalpel:“There’s a killer among us… He collects hearts in jars… He dumps his bodies into a wishing well… Who will save us from his madness?”
If anyone can sing for those youngsters slaughtered by that fucked up bastard, it’s this young woman.
Wroclaw may be the one of the most beautiful European cities I’ve ever visited. Yes, Paris has more to see, Istanbul is more exotic, Venice is fascinating enough to have to exist in an alternate universe where people are born with gills. I’ll go back to any of them any time. But I really like this place. It is lovely and peaceful and architecturally amazing.
But it is all about facades. Big Baroque and Rococo facades. The buildings look so old, so distinguished, like aging gentlemen who take to wearing pastel shades of trouser, perhaps daring the occasional salmon pink blazer, perhaps adopting a penchant for collar length grey hair clipped beneath an expensive panama hat. All facades.
Sixty years go, little of this existed, bombed level as it was by Soviet artillery. It has been rebuilt, “sympathetically” restored, as if a plastic surgeon’s job is to make a face look exactly as old as it should be.
I’ve come here not in search of my father, but perhaps to catch a tiny glimpse of him. It’s impossible, of course. He would not recognise it at all, this vibrant, indolent city. Even the people have changed: Germans out, Poles in. It was somewhere different then, eighty years ago. It has been rebuilt with a different heart. Then, crowds perhaps gathered for political rallies, to hear the Nazi faithful, I imagine; now, the central square – as breathtaking as any I have seen – fills to watch a T-mobile festival of US cinema, the crowds watching Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” (a Brit-film, of course), on a screen that Goebbels would have killed for. It is a heart of bars and restaurants – Greek! Spanish! Sushi! – and music clubs and impossibly pretty brunettes. What is it about head-turning Polish brunettes? Is it the broad cheekbones that suit those perfect blue eyes, those fantastic teeth?
My father would be too old for this city; I am too old for this city.
It is all so unfathomable too. I cannot get my Scottish tongue around the twisting words; “Hi” is pronounced “cheshch”, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to pronounce a word that consists of 86% consonants. It’s a Countdown nightmare. So I smile apologetically and settle for an English “Hi” that is in turn stolen from the Yanks, so why shouldn’t they have our films? It elicits a long-suffering smile.
I’m sorry. I’d say sorry in Polish, if I could pronounce “pshe pra-shem”. But I can’t.