Monika Stasiak (Flinders University, Australia)
My uncle Witek slumps on the white leather couch, tapping his fingers and periodically clearing his throat. The satellite news loops continuously. Snow falls quietly outside. Europe labours through its coldest winter on record. Every half hour he stands up, parts the white gauzy curtains and stares out onto the balcony, muttering as he watches the snow bank grow taller. He reaches for the duck-down coat that hangs on the peg next to the window, rummaging in its pockets for cigarettes.
Aunty Danka snaps.
‘You’re letting the cold in! We’re trying to keep warm here.’
He winks at me behind her dyed-blonde hair. My uncle and aunt bicker constantly. Are they happy together? Perhaps there is no sense in being apart after being together for so long?
I announce that I want to go for a walk to the shop. They look at each other and begin conferring rapidly. I know that they will try to convince me not to go out, even though the shop is just across the street.
‘No, Emka!’ Danka implores, ‘It’s so dangerous! You might get robbed, or worse!’
It is unwise to go wandering, I know. I am from the other side of the world and I barely speak enough to be understood, or even to understand basic conversations. But I need some fresh air after a week inside. I miss being outside and my aunt and uncle probably understand that. They think Australians need lots of space.
I need time alone, too. In the evenings I relax in bed, free from the strain of stumbling through another language. My phrasebook fits into my handbag, but it only contains simple expressions. I need to express complete thoughts. I supplement the phrasebook with broken English and hand gestures.
It’s a claustrophobic type of irony, feeling so isolated in a place where people sustain lives in compact spaces. Here, life is communal. People live in apartments, in cities, and share their recreational spaces. When I arrived I felt guilty that entire families live in such small homes. In my home in Australia it is just me in a big house with a big garden. I stayed a week with Danka and Witek before I realised how small their flat is. I assumed that the nooks led to other parts of the place until I saw them unfolding the lounge room sofa. They spent many years sleeping there; it is a one-bedroom apartment and their two daughters grew up in my tiny room. Now a double bed wedges tightly under the window, which overlooks the parking lot and the adjoining building. One of Danka’s maidenhair ferns cascades towards the window, pushing for light.
This building is one among many rows of identical square blocks, distinguishable by bold spray painted numbers. Occasionally, differing colours or graffiti murals disguise the original drab bluish grey cast. Witek and Danka live in a lime green building, on the fifth floor: building 68. Their space is neat, scrupulously clean, and satisfyingly ordered. Plastic concertina screens swing across the doorways to conserve space. I stand in the bathroom cubicle holding an extendable hose in one hand and wash my hair with the other. A clothesline hangs above my head. From the shower space, I see a tiny washing machine and a shelf of cleaning supplies. I imagine the years sliding by, my aunt scrubbing, wiping and dusting.
After a short conversation in which Danka raises her voice slightly and Witek waves his hands around and shrugs noncommittally, she pats me on the shoulder.
‘Be careful. Don’t talk to anyone. Just to the shop, and home, quick quick.’
I produce the mobile phone that Witek has given me and make a show of dropping it into my coat pocket. He smiles, and points at his wristwatch. That means ‘don’t be long.’ I pull on the pink beanie that clashes with my red gloves, and open the door to the stairwell. Living on the fifth floor has its advantages in weather like this: the grey concrete stairwell has gathered some heat.
Danka and I have walked many times to the local shops so it is not difficult to pick my way across the snow-covered parking lot to the street. The snow is slushy and mud-strewn with footprints and dirty, crushed leaves, and my feet are unsteady. It doesn’t snow at home in Australia, and I’m still getting used to balancing. My breath catches in my throat and I breathe down into the warmth of my collar beneath Danka’s thick yellow scarf. Despite the cold, my spirits lift immediately.
The walking started when I was a child. I kept my mother company while she wandered. We strolled in twilight, watching the weather changing. I followed my mother’s brown arms, entranced as she pointed out the languid shapes and bright colours of swelling pomegranates and unfurling hibiscus. A network of internal maps developed as we walked. I made more maps as I grew older and found new ways of moving. Bicycles could transport me from one end of the city to the other. My mental maps expanded as I explored new parts of the city. I have honed my childhood skill as I’ve aged. Now map-making is automatic. I find myself spontaneously orienting at unexpected moments; checking my internal compass like a child grasping a worn security blanket.
Even though I have spent my life in the same city, I still feel like a stranger. Eleven addresses under the same sky, but none permanent. A place to belong has eluded me. I have roamed all over my city, but my connections with it have all been transient.
I have travelled here knowing that it is my last chance to see the places my grandmother spoke of; the lost childhood homeland. People assured me that I would feel at home here. I can afford to travel only because I have family here. Soon travel will be only for the extremely wealthy; already it is prohibitive. My grandmother gives money away freely as she ages. She presses folded bills into my palms when I visit on weekends, attaches it to gifts with sticky tape, and slips it into birthday envelopes.
‘Take it. Enjoy your life while you can. I did my travel when I was young and I don’t regret that. Now I’m just sitting in my lounge room. I would go home again, but I’m too old. You go. Go for me.’
She brokered the visit over the telephone, knowing the language barrier. She assured me that Witek and Danka speak a little English.
‘Everyone will understand each other, more or less.’
She instructed them not to let me out of their sight. A trusting Australian would be easy prey in a dangerous place full of theft and poverty and opportunism.
In the first few weeks, Witek followed my grandmother’s instructions to the letter. We visited an art gallery and I roamed dully through rooms filled with gleaming silverware, just for a few moments’ escape from his constant presence. Living by myself, I forget that another person’s proximity can be cloying. I languish blissfully alone in the evenings behind the concertina door, while my aunt and uncle camp in the lounge room. I feel intolerant and self-indulgent.
For some people, walking is a political statement: a way of demonstrating that they care about their impact. Covering ground with my feet has always been my way of life. At home, I feel safe for the most part. It’s unwise after dark, but I run if there is limited light. I have become adept at scanning my surroundings for other people, and I mumble a greeting if they look friendly or acknowledge me.
Witek told me that people used to wander about all night here too, when it was safe. Lots of shops and businesses traded all hours to catch a constant flow of customers. I notice remnants of those times. Near apartment block 68, a ramshackle stall leans to one side. Someone has written their name in black marker over an ancient image of an ice-cream cone painted on its side.
Walking is clarifying, even in the cold. Energy flows down my legs into the ground, I am warm with circulation, and thoughts rise from the tangled clumps in my mind. I don’t need a destination: just space, and the feeling of moving through it.
Small groups of people huddle outside the local shops, keeping warm with the neon lighting and the heated air from inside. Witek has warned me about beggars. They are not beggars but pickpockets: money is scarce. The beggars make a pretence of asking for money, then surround their victim. Sometimes they are violent, but most of the time they work quickly and take whatever they find without harming anyone. Better to not attract attention. I walk past them towards the town centre, even though I told Witek and Danka I wouldn’t be long. It’s cold beyond the warm cabin of my down parka, but my legs appreciate the movement and my head sings with fresh air.
The town is a stern yet beguiling mix of eras. On one of our first circuits in Witek’s car, I clumsily compiled a simple sentence, ‘I like this town.’
Witek glanced over with eyebrows raised.
‘Do you? I don’t.’
Perhaps not, if a person must spend their life in one place, prescribed by a government. To me, the layers of history beckon. On the outskirts of town the streets are narrow, flanked by old three-storey row houses. These would have filled the town in my grandmother’s youth. Their facades are white and flat. No balconies or flower pots on window sills. They are functional houses, yet the navy paint of their external support beams is neat and jaunty. A new main road is being built along this stretch, parallel to the train line. New roads are part of the new agenda: the government is replacing old cracked roads even when people do not travel. Like everything here, the pace of the road works is slow. The circuitous detour routes prompt Witek to mutter in frustration.
The city is a grid. Two long boulevards lead towards its centre. On one side is the cemetery, and on the other, the walled public gardens. I have never been into the gardens; Witek has warned me that it is easy to become lost. I stay on the cemetery side where the footpath is wide. People are out walking, even in the coldest winter on record. A young man and a boy are pitching a kite into the air in the corner of the cemetery. The boy resembles a tea cosy: bright woollen garments swaddle every part of his body. It is not windy enough for the kite to fly, but a small breeze catches it briefly. They cheer spontaneously.
The cemetery is quiet; not many people visiting relatives today. Usually old women hold card-table stalls in the shelter of the cemetery walls, selling vigil candles, flowers, and consecrated items. Today there are no stalls. The busy and colourful cemetery is white and silent. An older couple link arms as they pass me, nodding politely beneath fluffy fur hats. The gravestones rise between snow-laden trees. People spend hours here, wandering among the gothic-styled structures and stone ornaments. Some of the memorials are so big they could be churches. These are religious people; their burial sites are located in the middle of the city, and their homage to dead loved ones impressive in magnitude. The atmosphere here is always reverent: haunting yet peaceful.
As I near the boundary of the cemetery, I orient myself, looking for the red sloping roofs of the converted warehouses. Before the regime, the town was an industrial centre of mainly Jewish ownership. The solid red brick buildings were factories, but are now a shopping precinct. My cousins were eager to know how these shops compare with shops in Australia. This country works hard to prove itself equally developed to the West, and sometimes it succeeds. One weekend I dragged Witek to the modern arts centre and chuckled at his baffled response to the interactive installations. Sometimes music parties are held in the old railway barns near the arts centre. Parts of my grandmother’s city are exciting and cosmopolitan.
The enchanting main square is the only part of the city that matches her descriptions but it seems to have mere novelty value. On a walk with Witek there I wanted to linger but he herded me towards the new shopping centre impatiently.
‘You’ll like it. That’s what the young ones like.’
The square is not square, but almost hexagonal. An enormous, regal roundabout designed for carriages is central. Flowers leap from its soil in the spring, but today it is another bank of snow. In every direction are small cobbled walkways filled with intriguing shops. The shop fronts are quaint, with goods hanging from wooden doors, and weathered stoops. Signs swing from curled wrought iron fixtures that creak under the weight of the snow. The shops are so small that they cannot fit more than a few people. Today the square is quiet, like the cemetery. Some shops are open, but there are no tables outside, and the doors are closed against the cold. A few women in long coats and fur hats bounce quickly along the walkway carrying wrapped packages but no-one strolls or lingers, except me.
I peer into a window display that would have thrilled my grandmother as a young woman: delicate umbrellas for sudden rainstorms, lollies in glass bottles on high shelves, and green crystal beads that glitter in sunlight. The phone vibrates in my pocket. Witek knows I have limited language, so he commands sternly into my ear.
I hold onto my beanie and break into a clumsy run across the square.
My favourite part of the city is the park across the main road from my aunt and uncle’s apartment block. People ride bikes there in the warmer months, and even in the cold it’s a popular route. I’ve made a habit of joining Witek on the balcony before dinner. He smokes cigarettes and I watch people walking. He likes the tiny friendly brown birds that dart and hop among people looking for crumbs. Today most of the small paths are snowed over, and I half-run, sliding across the wet ground. I keep my eyes on the main road, looking for the shortest route to the green building where Witek and Danka will greet me with relief and irritation. I almost collide with a woman wheeling a pram in front of me. A small pink face peers out, wrapped in layers of blankets. The woman sees me looking at her baby, and smiles. She wears a bulky royal blue coat and a blue knitted hat that is sliding off. I touch my own head to check that I’m still wearing my beanie, and the woman tug hers back on. The green apartment building looms into view. I’m looking forward to Witek offering me a strong espresso with milk on the side. He laughs at my preference for milk in coffee; everyone here drinks it black. He will slurp his noisily to conclusion, and bang his cup into its saucer with satisfied unintentional force. Danka will scold him for making so much noise and drinking too much coffee. He will raise long-suffering eyebrows at me and become engrossed in the news channel, tapping his palm on the armrest of the couch and clearing his throat loudly every few minutes.
I hear a shriek behind me and I slip over in the snow as I spin around quickly. The woman with the pram is screaming as a man runs away from her holding the baby. Its blankets trail from his arms and he loops them over his shoulder as he runs. The woman stumbles towards me holding her jaw, where blood trickles from a rapidly swelling wound. I can see the man running across the park between the trees, towards the city. There is no way I can catch up with him. The woman screams hysterically, pointing towards the man. I understand that she has lost her baby, but I don’t have the words to explain that I’m a foreigner who doesn’t know what to do. I take her hand and drag her towards the apartment, stumbling across the park in wet clothes. When we reach the stairwell at the bottom of apartment block 68, I realise that the woman’s hat has fallen off somewhere, and that we’ve left the pram in the park. It could be evidence, or something. I beckon to the woman and point up the stairwell, leaping up the stairs until I reach Witek’s door. I pound on it with my fist, panting breathlessly as my uncle cautiously opens it.
The weather was warm when I first arrived. We travelled to the places that my grandmother had woven into endless re-telling of girlhood tales. She conjured rural scenes: vast green fields tipped with golden crops and wild poppies. Pleasant sunshine. As a curious child poking through her house, I saw this other culture: carved wooden folk art, floral embroidered textiles, brightly painted landscapes of blooming poppies, and alpine vistas. Dolls wore multiple skirts and flowers threaded through their hair. I travelled here looking for the familiarity of those dusty icons.
I knew that petrol would be costly beyond belief, but I paid, knowing that it would please her that I was visiting the places she had loved. We drove six hours along winding roads to the village in the mountains where she had spent summer holidays. When she was young, people believed in the healing powers of alpine air. Back then the mountain people farmed goats on the hillsides, wore goatskin waistcoats and hand-sewn trousers, and played mountain music on hand-carved instruments.
When we arrived in the main street, a seedy sunburnt man in a leather waistcoat approached us, begging Witek for a cigarette. He explained that he knew somewhere nice to stay. Our accommodation was as seedy as the man; my bed consisted of two sofa cushions covered by a sheet. I avoided placing bare skin on any unknown surface. Our evening meal was included. Danka and I glanced at each other over a greasy anonymous piece of meat fried in a breaded batter. Vegetables drowned in a brownish-lilac sauce alongside. I ate two small doughy bread rolls from a grubby basket in the centre of the table, and refused the generic cake smothered in amorphous red jam. I went to bed as early as I could, and forced myself back to sleep whenever I woke up. When a morning breeze raised dusty air from the curtains I heard Witek and Danka bickering in the other room.
‘I knew that man looked like a robber! Why did you give him good money for this terrible place?’
‘Shh! Keep your voice down. You’ll wake the Australian.’
We caught the cable car up the mountain. It terminated at a gaudy amusement park. Neon coloured plastic toys and streamers festooned the gaming stalls. Loud rock music blared nearby. Local beer flags fluttered. It was barely 10 o’clock but already groups of people sat at tables drinking oversized bottles of beer, and eating huge starchy meals. I felt slightly disgusted and simultaneously guilty. The gluttony is a peculiar but familiar aspect of this culture. These people know oppression and starvation. They celebrate when they are not starving, and remind themselves that they may starve again in the future. Some of the traditional mountain houses remain: wood slab cabins nestled into the hillside among fields of blooming yellow alpine flowers. A mountain man in a traditional costume stood near a horse and cart, accosting tourists for paid rides in his cart. Witek and Danka posed for my photos.
The next week we drove to visit my cousins in the capital. Leaving Witek and Danka’s hometown we stopped at a shabby barricade, just a few pieces of lopsided rotting wood painted red. Two young soldiers sat at a card-table drinking coffee and chatting, guns resting between their legs. They squinted at me through the car window in the morning sun, and Witek passed his ID to them. Travelling required him to explain himself to the government. Most people stayed in the cities. My uncle shrugged when I asked him about it.
‘The government doesn’t like people moving around. They like to know where you are. Too much bother signing all those forms.’
He said things are better now than they had been. He and Danka had lived through years of lining up for food every day, fighting with hundreds of others for sparse resources. The government starved and tortured people. Children were born deformed because no-one had enough to eat. I wondered how people maintained enough hope to have children. They survived changing governments and the changing weather. There are no food shortages anymore, but many cannot find work. Witek warned me about desperation. On my first day in the city, a stranger approached me asking for directions. He grabbed my arm tightly and told me not to talk to anyone.
‘Just keep walking. They are not friends to you.’
Witek and Danka live quietly and frugally in their fifth-storey flat. Plenty of large families live in apartment block 68 and others surrounding it. Most families survive on one income, including children, parents, and grandparents. Witek occasionally fixes electrical items; he uses a work pass to travel beyond the city. Danka never travels.
‘When do you see your children?’
She looks down and twists her knuckles in her lap.
‘They moved away to find a job. Young people go where there is work. I don’t blame them for that.’
My city cousins greet me with interest. Like Witek and Danka, they live in a drab apartment block—four people in a one-bedroom apartment. Nika, seven, and Mitch, four, share the bedroom. Nika’s bedspread is pink with a dancing horses motif. Mitch’s is blue, with racing cars. My cousin Sylvia shares a fold-up bed with her husband Piot in the lounge room. During the day, their bed becomes a sofa that the children bounce on. The dinner table moves freely from its corner into the centre of the room when it is required for a meal, and quickly folds up back into the corner afterwards. The only fixed item in the room is the TV cabinet. Piot eagerly questions me about Australian television. Do we have satellite? What about mobile phones? When I tell him Australia has television and mobile phones, he seems satisfied that his country is keeping up.
My cousins’ apartment looks onto a forest. In medieval times it was the King’s Forest, and now it is a public park. The forest runs alongside a majestic river, and we walk there in the warm twilight. I gladly stretch my legs in the last golden rays of the day. I’m sure this is the land that my grandmother longs for. The light is gentle, unlike the harsh sun at home. It glitters through birch trees. People on mountain bikes whizz past us along the softly trodden trails.
I push the woman into the hallway and feel suddenly overwhelmed by the heat in the flat. I wrestle my parka off, and lean, feeling light-headed, against the doorframe of my bedroom. Danka looks at me and touches my shoulder, softly muttering something that I don’t understand. The woman has collapsed on the floor and Witek stoops over her, his hand on her shoulder. He is asking questions rapidly. The woman howls. Witek puts his arms around the woman and lifts her onto her feet. He leads her towards the couch. The wound on her face is bleeding freely. Danka swoops towards it with a dishcloth, pressing the cloth against the woman’s face with her right hand, and patting the woman gently on her shoulder with her other hand. Witek and Danka confer softly over the woman’s head. I understand the word ‘police’.
Witek collects his car keys and wallet from the telephone table next to the front door and reaches for the heavy coat on the rack. As always, he pats its pockets to check for cigarettes. In the slow, clear voice that she usually uses to communicate with me, Danka instructs the woman to hold the cloth to her face. She places a hand behind the woman’s shoulder and guides her to stand up. It reminds me of my first conversation with Danka. Clumsily, we established that she had been a nurse before her own children arrived, and it occurs to me now that her demeanour is professional as she holds the woman’s elbow and steers her towards the front door. When Witek opens the door, I remember the pram in the park. I gesture urgently to my uncle, wheeling an imaginary pram and pointing towards the park. My language is failing. I am not sure whether he understands me but he nods and leads the woman into the stairwell. The door closes behind them and I sink onto the couch. My aunt examines the seat closely to check whether any blood has dripped onto the white leather.
Danka smiles at me.
‘It’s cold outside, no?’
For once, I understand her. We try an awkward exchange. I lapse into English, feeling anguished that I cannot find the words in the right language. Danka has never taken any English classes, so she has no way of understanding me. She nods politely anyway. She opens the curtains and peers out over the balcony.
She seems struck by inspiration.
‘You like a coffee? Are you hungry?’
We sit on the white couch staring at the satellite news looping, as we have done for the last ten days. It is still snowing. I am looking forward to Thursday, when I will fly to London. Counting down the hours, I am mentally organising my suitcase. I hope the weather doesn’t prevent me from flying.
The newsreader announces that the nation continues to search for a baby girl missing almost a week now, snatched from a park while out walking with its mother. The police have found no trace of a man who fled the scene on foot. The only witness to the crime was the baby’s mother. A young tourist was passing by and helped the mother to safety. Cameras show church services dedicated to praying for the infant’s safe return, but grave fears are held for her welfare.
The reporter reveals that increasing instances of child trade have been reported in the past two winters. His bearded face flashes onto the screen. He is standing on the steps of a police station wearing a huge brown overcoat. Snow is falling behind him and I wonder why none has fallen onto the camera.
‘Police fear that this may be a sign of the harsh weather. It’s desperate actions in desperate times by desperate people. What do you make of that, Commissioner?’
A policeman in a tight uniform decorated in badges appears on the screen and the reporter thrusts the microphone into his face.
‘We are starting to see some unusual weather conditions. It’s possible that this is an extreme reaction to that. We know that people are struggling…but we only hope that this is not a pattern…’
Danka clicks her tongue and clasps her elbows.
‘It’s terrible, terrible.’ She shakes her head. ‘That poor child.’
‘What will happen to her?’ I ask.
I have finally used the correct grammatical tense.
‘Who can say?’ my uncle shrugs. ‘She’s gone. Sold, maybe? Robbers get good money for a baby…’
‘Poor little thing. Not knowing where she comes from. Speaking some foreign language somewhere. I hope they find her. She needs her mother. That poor woman. If I lost my daughter…’
Danka twists her fingers together in distress.
Relief washes over me with the crisp English voice on the in-flight announcement.
‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard flight 722 to London. Conditions are looking clear for a nice smooth flight today, so we should have you disembarking at Heathrow at our expected arrival time of 3:15PM.’
In two hours I will be in London, where I can speak more than a few words in every sentence. I’ll be able to talk with people. I’ll be able to walk about freely, feeling safe. On the TV screen in the seat in front of me, English satellite news shows a press conference: the baby’s distraught mother is appealing to the thief. Tears roll down her face as she pleads,
‘Bring back my child. Please, I beg you…’
Then more footage of snow storms across Europe. I adjust the seatbelt on my waist and close my eyes. The man in the seat next to me raises his hand for the drinks cart. As he orders a beer, I notice his hand is missing several fingers.
Monika is completing a PhD at Flinders University. Her thesis explores creative responses to environmental uncertainty. She enjoys new Australian fiction and walking with her dogs.