19-26th August 2012
“Shit, I forgot”, Alex told me just before leaving the Hitchgathering, “I have to go to Germany for ten minutes on the way to Ukraine!” “You what?” Apparently his parents sent money to Germany and he has to go there in person to collect it. By the time we leave Bialystok, it’s evolved into a few days he needs there: collect the money and write an exam.
Berlin feels like too big a step backwards for me, despite the vegan heaven. I leave Alex on the highway and get a straight ride to Warsaw, where I’ve arranged to stay in a squat. I get a message from Alex while attempting to navigate the city: he also got a straight ride to Berlin. We are on schedule so far.
They told me Warsaw is ugly. It’s true, I can’t deny it. But, like every city, there are pockets of beauty waiting to be discovered. The Resistance seems strong here.
The squat I’m staying in is enormous and beautiful. A man lets me into the big gate at the front and I find my host, who gives me a small tour. “I thought you would be a guy”, she tells me. The name ‘Jo’ often confuses. I’m staying in the guest room with three others. There is a small bathroom next door, with running water and a shower. It’s cold water, but I don’t care. They have a screen-printing room, a bicycle workshop, a room full of sewing machines, another with computers. There is a weekly batik workshop and migrants dropping in for advice. There is a board in the lounge full of No Borders posters and anti-sexism stickers on the fridge.
I sleep a lot. My body, stiff and aching, has taken a battering lately. Endless highways, constant late nights and staring at the insides of beer glasses and vodka bottles are taking their toll. I am grateful for some rest.
Relative silence now in the squat, but for the distant hum of what could perhaps be a washing machine or electric fan. Every so often, a restless brown dog pads in and out of the room, heels thudding gently against the dusty wooden floor. A child sqeals from the courtyard below the open window. The weather is warm, outside must be scorching, but this sofa is the perfect temperature for lounging in shorts with a book, legs leant up against the cool wall. Nobody disturbs me for hours. I have needed a day like this.
Suddenly, I have an abundance of time alone. I eat slippery, over-oiled vegan pierogi in Polish vegetarian restaurants; wander the city’s glass and concrete maze; sit for hours in artsy hipster cafes amidst wafts of coffee, typing my thoughts.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum teaches me to view the city in new ways. I’m wandering through Ogród Saski, a big park in Warsaw’s old town. I like how the grass is unshawn, big beautiful weeds peeking through under mighty trees. Could it be these are remnants of the original “Paris of the East” Warsaw, the one razed to the ground after the defeat of the Uprising?
I lost my bank card somewhere in Latvia. Justine has been withdrawing money for me and I’ve been doing bank tansfers back to her, waiting for a friend back home to forward my new card to me. It’s coming to Warsaw any day now – hopefully.
Inside the post office, waiting for my number to pop up on one of the digital screeens, an old lady speaks to me in Polish. I nod and smile. “Yes,” I tell her in English, “it is taking rather a long time.” She points at my number: A348, then at her own: A341, muttering the whole time. I imagine her saying something like – “Look, I’ve been here half the day. You only just walked in and it’s only seven more than me!” “Soon, soon”, I tell her. Her number pings up and she hobbles to the counter on stubbly black heels.
Soon, it’s my turn. I hand over the scribbled note that Natalia from the squat wrote for me in Polish. The woman squints at it – “Address?” “Here”, I say, frowning, my finger pointing down. It’s supposed to be coming to this post office. Doesn’t it say that in the note she’s holding? I show her the paper with the address Justine scribbled for me in Bialystok. “Ah, restante!” she says and scurries away. But my hopes are dashed when she returns two minutes later, empty handed, shaking her head.
I meet with a couchsurfer with addictive brown eyes. We hang out and drink beer with his cousin on the grassy river-bank opposite a bar on a boat. I get back late to the squat. The gates are closed, the door is locked. I meet fellow squatters on the street and they let me inside the gate, then disappear. A funny rotund man in boy scout shorts finds me in the courtyard. He furrows in a cupboard and comes out with sheets and blankets. He puts me to bed on the couch outside the second squat, which shares the same courtyard, tucks me in. I try not to look at the undone zip on his flies as he bends over me.
I return to the post office on Friday, the day Alex is due to come back and collect me. The same subdued waiting, the same old people tutting. The same flashing digital numbers and hand-crumpled tickets. “Restante”, I tell her. “Ah”, she says. This time a look of triumph and a small envelope under the arm. I have money once more.
Alex arrives in the middle of the night. Everyone is in bed. The door is double-locked, but the gate is open. I go down to the ground floor kitchen that nobody ever uses and open the window. He’s reluctant to climb up, but what choice do we have? The funny round man in the shorts is here, smiling and muttering. He has gate keys, but not front door keys, it seems.
I’m very afraid that Alex has arrived in one of his black moods, but once inside the window he hugs me. Oh good, we are friends today. The funny round man climbs up behind Alex, defying gravity. “The people in the squat told me they call him the Polish equivalent of ‘happy-go-lucky'”, I inform Alex, who doesn’t seem impressed. Upstairs, the man slices vegetables and offers them to us, sits by the window munching with the radio on. I show Alex the guest room and feed him the polenta I made.
Tomorrow we will meet with Justine and her partner, who are in town by chance. We will drink copious amounts of beer and whisky, play all our favourite songs on Y*utube. I will hug Alex and feel that now we are really friends and that nothing will go wrong again…