Why not a year in Warsaw? People scoot off blithely for a year in Tuscany or Provence. Now that I have my ticket, the reality of the plan begins to bite. A year away from the continuing non-urban treasures of the south coast: the sound of the sea from my bed at night; watching the changing calendar of flowers in the bush; clean sand between my toes as I wander along the beaches; my embryonic study of rocks; the interweaving of solitude and encounters with friends; the comprehensibility of the language around me and my capacity to exchange humour and ideas. All this I’ll leave behind when I pack my bags and set off on March 12, 2016.
2015 was a mad year: two trips to Warsaw (3 months); one trip to North Queensland (2 weeks); one trip to Liston and Mt Tamborine (7 weeks); one visit to the central tablelands of NSW and Canberra (2 weeks); and one volcanic tour of Victoria (2 weeks). But there were interludes of home: time for book club, birthday celebrations, the birthing of a passion for geology. Even that year I was away for two funerals, although I was home for a wake. This year, I have ageing friends, friends with illness threatening, and I wonder whether I’ll see them again.
I am prompted to think about the severing of ties by Rebecca Solnit’s account of a major operation, from which she returns with a sense of an alien body and “many kinds of rupture from which you have to stitch back a storyline” (The faraway nearby: a chapter called ‘Knot’.) She also talks about the possibility of starting afresh after being wrenched out of one’s ordinary life, a prospect that fills me, at 70, with a kind of dread. I am no longer 50 and full of the sense of anticipation and adventure that accompanied me on the last major wrench, from the coast to Broken Hill. Then at least I could speak the language.
And there’s the nettle in the shirt. What am I without language? I can’t even exchange pleasantries at the checkout.
On the same day that the angst begins, I encounter an article from The Huffington Post that mysteriously comforts me. It is called “Enchanting photos capture the modern-day witches and healers of Poland”, and the photos do indeed enchant me – portraits of women with strikingly strong faces and beliefs like those alternative ones I first encountered when I moved from suburban Sydney to the south coast.
Solnit again articulates some of my anticipatory fears as she writes about living in the Water Library in Iceland, where she discovers that “Iceland isn’t good at strangers … I didn’t feel like a polar bear, a threat, just non-existent”. (In a chapter called ‘Breath’.)
I’m now four months away from departure, accommodation is booked, and Warsaw is beginning to edge its way into my mind. The edging begins when I get an email from Airbnb saying cheerfully “Pack your bags. You’re off to Warsaw.” It takes the form of particularities: the table at the coffee shop below my January 2015 apartment; the path though the park where birds congregated on my camera on a snowy morning; the colours of the buildings in the Old Town; the tram stop near my daughter’s apartment; foot-high summer ice creams. At a house concert it noses its way into a musical celebration of the outer Hebrides, and a swirling musical trip along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. A deluge of autumn leaves in the blogosphere creates a longing for another Golden Polish Autumn.
I go to renew my blood pressure prescription, and instead of my usual doctor I see a young Polish woman. As she straps the machine around my arm she asks: “What Polish words do you know?” I reel off dzien dobry, dziękuję, cześć, cudowna, Częstochowa, herbata, proszę, przepraszam – and my blood pressure skyrockets: it’s never 156/95! At least not when I’m speaking English.
Elissaveta posts Berber proverbs and two of them strike me as profoundly significant. “He who leaves his house in search of happiness pursues a shadow” gives me pause for thought until I realise I’m not leaving my house in search of happiness, but in search of twins, whose company will give me ineffable happiness. “The land where the stones know you is worth more than the land where the people know you” is trickier. In Poland, neither stones nor people know me, although I’m building an acquaintance with the stones – cobblestones, in this case. They have a better chance than people, since I can’t even begin to communicate my sophisticated, likeable self. This poses real challenges for a woman who trades in words, and maybe it’s offering me a life lesson in silence and body language. I treasure two non-verbal communications from past visits: one with a shopkeeper who told my daughter I have lovely eyes, and one with the woman at the checkout who shrugged at me expressively after an episode with a half naked barefoot man on Valentine’s Day.
Do the stones know me? Is it enough for me to know some “stones”? – the rough path through parkland behind the Museum of the Earth? The crunchiness of leaves in the parkland behind the Sejm? The cobbled street where Marie Curie once walked to church? The paving around the fountain which delivers a light and sound show in summer? The paved avenues of mighty trees at Łazienki and Wilanów? I feel I know these places well enough after five visits to Warsaw. But I have no confidence at all that they know me. Whereas, I think my bush does. I can imagine it murmuring “Here she comes again. In a minute she’ll kneel down to photograph something that’s caught her eye. I wonder what it’ll be today? It’s comforting to know that she returns time and time again, and always with pleasure. We know the feel of her feet.”
Before the family descends for the holidays, I begin reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and papers from prison”, discovering a very likeable human being. Somehow his ruminations on his second year in prison struck a chord with me as I anticipate my sixth visit to Warsaw. He says “(In my first year) all my impressions were still fresh and vivid and both hardships and joys were felt more keenly. Since then … I have got used to it. … Which has been the greater? The growth of insensitivity or the clarification of experience?” I am hesitant to lay claim to similar thoughts about revisiting Warsaw, but one of my fears is that there are no impressions left to be fresh and vivid; that I have drained all that Warsaw offers. I know it’s a foolish fear. I’ve had the same thought about walking my headland at Potato Point, and it never palls. Nevertheless, the thought stalks through my 2 am panics as I project myself into 12 months in Warsaw.
The enticement continues. Paula posts an enchanting photo of a castle and a lake at Czorstyn. The Polish language blog I follow introduces me to the painted village of Zalipie. And to complete the enticement, the twins visit Australia. Suddenly Warsaw is very inviting. In fact a month seems too long to wait. But the biocycle collapses, the new iPad poses challenges, the solar hot water sensor malfunctions, my Kindle needs updating, Blogsy, my trusty and familiar blogging app, goes out of existence, the household expands to three, and I discover the twice-daily swim. Slowly the suitcases fill, and every night I think of something else that needs to be done, even though I’m not leaving the house empty.
By the time you read this I’ll finally be on my way.