These days, I seem to be almost perpetually in transit. I’m living on the Isle of Wight, commuting to work in London for two days a week and my partner is in Poland for work, which adds another pin in the map.
The trip out to see him came as a little bit of a surprise, a late birthday present from my sister and Stefan, so last Wednesday, I took the ferry and the train to London, worked there on Thursday (well, actually, we went to Cardiff!) and on Friday, then up at the crack of dawn to get to Heathrow on Saturday morning.
I was staying with a friend in Peckham and had set my alarm for 4:48 just to emphasise how crazy the plan was. I watched one of the brighter meteors in the Perseid shower streak over Rye Lane by the brilliantly white moon, then caught the 12 to Piccadilly.
On the first tube train of the morning, I didn’t have to contend with the awkward situation of having to prompt anyone to offer me a seat (Incidentally, I think “Excuse me, is there anyone who is able to offer me a seat?” is about the fairest way of asking without guilt-tripping anyone who has hidden disabilities, and it gives people the chance to look like they’re being good without it veering too far into passive aggression), so I sat and read, or at least stared at the electronic pages of The Ilead on my iPad for a while.
Got to Heathrow and headed straight to the Special Assistance desk, which I’ve never used before, so, for some reason, kept finding myself saying “I’ve not used this service before” and “It’s the first time I’ve had to use this” about fifty times before I realised it could get me into a mindset of feeling either guilty for using it or sinking into grief that I need to.
All of that grief melted when I looked out of the windows of the plane. The views over France and Belgium were phenomenal, flying early on a very clear morning. The sense of each little dot of a house containing life, and seeing how the fields of Britain, France, Belgium and Germany were the same, with only minor variations emphasised how petty the distinctions between people can seem. It’s that strange (capital R) Romantic paradox that we can draw comfort from the tiny futility of our existence when faced with the enormous beauty, might and majesty of nature. You are dwarfed, you disappear into it; you realise you are a part of it.
The people at every step of the journey were amazing. Travelling alone, it’s nice to have someone chatty to talk to, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to make my connection at Frankfurt without someone driving me in a little golf buggy and calling “Vorsicht! Your attention please!” as she ploughed towards the heels of every other passenger racing for their connection.
She told me that she finds it really frustrating that there are a lot of passengers who, either through ignorance or pride, don’t ask for the service when they could benefit from it. Apparently, some people just book it because they want to go on shopping sprees in the airport and know they’ll buy more than they can lift (how do they get it onto the plane!), so it’s doubly frustrating when she’s driving some fit shopper past someone who’s struggling.
The second flight was a lovely propellor plane, with tricky steps up onto it that I’m not sure I would have managed a few weeks ago, but the excitement pulled me up.
One slightly bizarre pretzel injected with butter later, and I was touching down in Wroclaw, my first time in Poland.
At Frankfurt, the assistance person waited inside the terminal, so I assumed it would be the same in Wroclaw, but I think I managed to walk straight past them and out of the airport before I’d taken ten paces, so they might still be there waiting for me now.
Having had that help meant I wasn’t nearly as exhausted as I’d anticipated from the flight, and Hannah, Stefan and I managed to get around the cobbled streets (beware, if you’re not terribly steady, much of the city centre’s a stick-trapping maze!) to see the main square and to take a little wander down to the fruit market next to the University.
Several things surprised me, even though I’d thought I’d come with very few expectations.
First of all, the weather is gloriously warm here, and it’s cooler now than it’s been over the last few weeks, apparently. The bleak imagery of Poland we’re exposed to kind of shirks back like a hollywood vampire in this sunshine.
Secondly, the diversity of the architecture is phenomenal. There’s bizarre pink and grey eighties blocks near to brutalist (they call it ‘avant-garde modernism’ in the guide book, of course), near to a suspension bridge and at least fifty churches per yard (kinda) reflected in the glass frontage of some new office block.
Along with this, you can see the waves of history written on the walls around you. The older buildings are in a state of disarray, the grand facades built when this was German Breslau are smudged black with time; the jutting concrete communist bloc(k)s are peeling, rendered bright only by the plentiful graffiti tags and artwork. There has often been money here, that much is obvious, but it’s left and returned in a tick-tock of millennial art deco optimism, war, poverty, war, mass population movement, occupation and then liberation.
It’s not just in peeling paint and the occasional bullet chipped wall that you see the history here, but the small brass dwarfs you encounter rolling a marble ball, using a cashpoint, hosing down the streets, loafing drunkenly against a wall. You’d be forgiven if you thought they were like the boy, girl and dog pissing over Brussels, but they’re enduring symbols of resistance to oppression, having begun as the work of a student “socialist surrealism” movement which reacted to communist conformity with dada-ist nonsense to poke fun at the status quo. It’s quite lovely to think that the tourist appeal of the army of tiny gnomes started in a very real struggle.
I can’t begin to imagine the effects of the huge changes in government and nationality on the psychology of the city, and I’m keenly aware that what little I notice from that kind of psychogeographical musing is through the lens of someone who has never experienced the like, and that’s without starting to process the thought of the road signs that point to a place I’ve only known for the concentration camp that once stood there.
There’s much more I’ll want to write about once I’ve explored more and had a chance to think about it all a little more, and I’m keeping a little drawn diary of my time here, which I’ll talk more about once it’s scanned. For the meantime, I’m resting at Stefan’s flat and enjoying the shelter of his balcony while I recover from walking far too much yesterday.
The thought that I really should ask about my own ancestry a little nags at me; all I know is that somewhere in my family tree, there’s a Jewish name that arrived in England from Poland. Just like looking down from the plane and feeling as though I could disappear in the landscape that rolled by, I find myself thinking of how my blood travelled once in the opposite direction and I wonder how hard we’d need to look to find parts of ourselves in every place on the earth.