Always in the first place

On the walk. Willy Aastrup, Anna Wandzel, Malgorzata Perdeus, Ireneusz Bialek

A student is a student

A small aircraft of the Scandinavian airline SAS landed at the Cracow airport. Planes would not touch down frequently back then and there were not that many visitors. When you appeared in the  terminal building with your legendary coat hung over your shoulder, you had no difficulties in recognising us. Two youngsters and Ajzik the dog with whom you met immediately. How many times did we laughed later that there were just us, you, the dog and several soldiers at the airport.

That was the reality of that year 1999. We were proud of Polish achievements made over the decade following the regaining of independence after communist rule yet we also knew how much still remained to be done. We, fresh university graduates with no money, wanted to remove inequalities and exclusion, youthfully naive and wishing to move mountains. You, in the prime of life and hugely experienced, with a brilliant mind, good stature and contacts, decided to help us achieve just that.

That evening, and maybe the following one, you invited us to a Corsican restaurant. Never before had we been to such an eatery. I remember us eating chips with garlic, some refined meat and that strange apple pie served hot whose French name I had heard for the first time back then. And we were drinking very good wine.

You were an adviser to the Danish government then while all we had were our romantic visions. You told us that to have a vision was a lot. I thought you were joking. Now I obviously know you were right.

Those words must have been spoken exactly during our first meeting ever. You asked what the duty of a university student was and we were wondering how to provide you with a neat answer. You were prompting us trying to mislead us: to be nice to your teachers (indeed), to have fun (obviously), to meet some cool people (fair enough), yet the key duty of each student, including those with disabilities, was to have good results and pass examinations. And then there was the other part of the question: ‘What is the obligation of the university? To ensure conditions for those students to take examinations on an equal footing with others, to be fair in assessing them, not to allow any negative – but equally positive – discrimination as well as to do everything in its power so that they can achieve increasingly good results which in the labour market will not make them any different from other graduates,’ you were saying.

How many times, over that period of twenty years, in various locations in Poland and elsewhere in Europe, have we recounted that ‘a student is a student’ story and quoted your questions? How many times have our audiences been surprised that such students also deserve equal treatment? It was seemingly simple yet you will remember how frustrated I was when things were going slowly. When eighteen years later we were on a raft on the River Dunajec, we concluded, however, that the plan, once sketched out in a Corsican restaurant and based on a youthful romantic vision, had been actually implemented.

For a dollar

Maybe I asked you that question back then in Aarhus, when were sitting with your people and a group of Poles I had gathered from various universities who were keen to learn something from you. Maybe then and maybe on some other occasion, yet the story about one dollar surely made the whole Polish delegation laugh to tears. They had heard it for the first time, I – far from it – yet I just always loved it.

The 1960s. A group of Danish students set off for summer holidays wondering where to go. ‘We have been to France, Spain as well, and in Germany we are frequently,’ they debated, ‘but we have not yet been to Poland.’ ‘Yes, but Poland is a country behind the Iron Curtain,’ some were expressing their fears. The bravest, obviously including Willy Aastrup, were excited about the prospect and managed to push the trip trough. Despite some travel difficulties and their ignorance of the local language, the holidays in Poland proved highly interesting for the group of friends.

‘We did not have lots of money, yet enough to have good fun in Poland. We were always received with kindness and great hospitality. I remember fantastic dinners. What we ate was very tasty and homemade. They offered us Russian bubbly at one place and Polish home-brewed booze at another. I would then produce a dollar and ask whether that was a decent payment. It was always enough and the hosts were thrilled.’

To conclude, you used to frequently add: ‘Can you just imagine that, to get all that for a single dollar?’ and the Polish listeners would burst with laughter. When we had finally learnt to tell that story together, I would say the memorable closing words: ‘Forget it, Willy. You will not get anything for a dollar in this country any more, best not to come here without a thick wallet.’

And so in 1999 you wanted to be reminded what this strange country lying on the Vistula looked like after the systemic transformation as you remembered it with fondness from your student years. I have always told you that your advice given to me cost a dollar. I then need to thank my fellow countrymen of the sixties for preparing the ground for it.

Parchment made of embryos

The Vistula and San Rivers, the Polish Jura, the Karkonosze and Bieszczady mountains and the River Dunajec: you developed a liking for that Polish nature although you did not always expressed it with burning emotions. Well, that is how Scandinavians are. Yet when we were sitting at a bonfire in Wetlina tasting local cheeses and looking at the Milky Way you were describing to me, I clearly sensed that fascination. It was probably then that we discussed how to talk to blind persons about stars, the horizon and the Milky Way. Do you remember how we made a stop at the Pod Małą Rawką mountain hut from where we were looking at mountain peaks enthusing about them? I found funny your somewhat fearful question whether Ukraine was truly lying over there. Bieszczady-related themes kept recurring in our memories for many years.

When at the Jagiellonian Library we were provided with very old books to look at, you told me that I had probably been the first person to have touched them with their own hands after two hundred years. It did not matter that there were cotton gloves on those hands of mine. The atmosphere became elevated, as it happens in that noble Library. Yet everyone laughed at the words you had spoken. Those were truly extraordinary books. Their parchment pages had been made centuries before of embryos of lambs, maybe just like those that grew to become their sisters living in Bieszczady. Thanks to their milk, we were able to eat delicious sheep milk cheese in Wetlina. We discussed cheeses, books and many other things at the main Market Square in Cracow in the evening, over your favourite coffee. You would light your pipe that oozed a tempting aroma, we opened a good wine and talked late into the night. Then we would take a walk along the lanes of the Old Town ending up in Poselska Street, where you liked to stay.

A blind surgeon

A seminar, another one and yet one more. You ask serious university people whether Mr Białek sitting here could be a surgeon; to general bafflement, although everyone knows he could not yet will not say that out loud. You say that in the case of that particular profession and that particular disability it is impossible but people with some other disabilities could become surgeons and should not be discriminated against. You give another example: women are medical students nowadays but a century before no one could imagine that and they could study fine arts at best. Consequently, we must accept that what was impossible some time ago due to the stage of development and mentality is a social norm now and not stunning anyone. It is a reasonable example yet you are taken for a radical as you claim publicly what everyone quietly considers to be obvious: as a blind man, Mr Białek cannot be a surgeon. People who on a daily basis do not necessarily make Mr Białek’s life easier protest at your words – that Aastrup goes slightly too far – they say, and I reply to them that as someone directly affected I think exactly like that radical from Denmark.

‘You do not let me be a surgeon, Willy,’ we are laughing in the evening over Ripasso. It is thanks to you that I know good Ripasso. Poor Willy, considered a cool-headed rationalist by romantics and an incorrigible romantic to rationalists.

‘Let us give it up,’ I said to you then, ‘no one understands us. You have been in business, maybe we could think of something together?’

‘You inhabit a certain sine curve, Irek. Once at the bottom, then at the top, yet one day you will glide high,’ you said, puffing away on your pipe.

Yes, I know

When I take my iPhone in my hand and look at the contact list, you are in the first place. Well, your surname starts with a double a, so it is only natural. Yet even if it started with a z – yes, I know, you would still be in the first place.

I have grown very much used to activating that double a by voice and then I learn about your assessment of my place on the sine curve, after which we talk about everything, lately much about music.

Penderecki, Lutosławski – you stress how much appreciated they are in Scandinavia, and Polish jazz players, obviously. I would like to reach for something more relatable and local, but there is more play on words there – potentially ambiguous and vague – while you have always liked to have a full understanding of things. Maybe it does not matter that much now?

Yes, I know that we are not going to take photos again.

Yes, I know that your legendary coat will not brush against me in Gołębia Street any more.

Yes, I know that the period of twenty years after university studies is sufficiently long for a youngster to become a mature man who does need to hold your arm.

Yes, I know that now it is I who should give other people an arm to hold on to.

Yes, I know it all. Still, I would like to be able to double-touch that icon with the double a and hear on the other side a pipe being puffed on and your words: ‘Hello Irek, this is Willy. How are things going on?’

Myslovitz & Marek Grechuta ‘Kraków’

That Evening’s Poetry

It is raining as I write this and there was a storm before. When I learned about the artist’s ultimate departure, it was raining and there had been a storm before. The moment I want to talk about began with a storm and then it was raining.
To Touch Culture stands for intimate concerts where anyone who so wishes can establish some, if fleeting, contact with the artist performing in a given year’s edition of the event at the courtyard of the Collegium Maius. That is a special scenery indeed and when good music sounds there, one can be easily transported skywards. Back then, in 2013 many claimed to be in heaven.
The concert was beginning at 20:00 hours. The courtyard in question is not protected against the elements and although the weather in June is typically good, it can sometimes deteriorate. Such is the beauty of the climate we live in. Ten minutes before eight, heavy clouds gathered over Kraków. A few minutes later, I was in the artist’s dressing room. I asked whether the start of the gig should not be delayed so that the rain could end.
– Such great weather throughout the day and now the rain. It must be this evening’s poetry then. Let’s go – said Tomasz Stańko casually picking up his legendary trumpet.
The first notes of his album Wisława were still played against a backdrop of thunders. Later, in regular rain, the music travelled far, also thanks to Dominik Wania’s piano accompanying Tomasz that evening.
When thunders were striking, I was not yet sure whether the performance would go on but just a while later I realised that nature offered us something additional, something unusual that does not happen on a daily basis. I understood that was the poetry of the evening. Today, I wish to recall that moment grateful to my destiny that I was able to make my humble contribution to its existence, there and then. I know that emotions triggered by that music will stay with me forever and probably with many others in the audience present at that memorable concert.
Snippets from Tomasz Stańko and Dominik Wania’s concert at the courtyard of the Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Maius held as part of the To Touch Culture event featuring in video footage entitled ‘The Elusive Target’, June 2013

In a golden afterglow

Mummy

They do not look like corpses, probably because of the natural mummification they were subject to in this specific microclimate. Yet they are real. These people died in 1670-1780 and were buried in this crypt. Still now, several dozen coffins holding perfectly preserved bodies can be seen in Cracow’s monastery of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance. The lives of many hide romantic, sometimes mysterious, and sometimes macabre tales of centuries ago – be it a countess going to a cloister and leading a modest life there disclosing her true origins only before her death, be it lovers lying next to each other, or a braid in a wedding dress poisoned for her misalliance by her own father, or a child buried with a fixed facial grimace, having most possibly drowned in slime. All these stories can be read online, found in publications or heard from a monk guiding us into the underground on one of those rare days in the year when the crypt is open to tourists. Yet what is it that we cannot see? What is the monastery’s great mystery? This is exactly what this story is about.

Florek

Brother Florian had always liked to drink. That is why he could be seen in many bars around the Old Town. He had a preference for wines and was by no means satisfied with stealing altar wine from the monastery’s larder. He also got drunk regularly in Cracow’s pubs, bars and sometimes just on benches outdoors. He would then discard the monk’s habit and wear trendy clothes for the young although he was not exactly in that age group. Yet he liked the company young people and as he was fascinated by distant travels he kept in touch with travellers from across the globe. Despite a rather strict rule of the order, the Internet is not banned for the Lesser Brothers, which is the case in many cloisters for nuns. So one can surf it, get to know people and sometimes meet someone in reality. The superiors do not mind. Florian keenly seized such opportunities and remained constantly in touch with several dozen travellers the world over. Yet it was not he who went to visit them but mostly they came to Cracow and sometimes arranged to meet him in town. They would then go to a pub, a bar, a joint. They would have a meal together and above all drink a lot. More often than not, he would not tell his friends he was a monk. To many, he was simply Florek from Cracow. After such meetings, the guests would leave and then keep in touch with him by email. That time around, however, things were to be different.

A meeting of cultures

Keiko and Hitoshi had a passion for travels and discovering in the Christian world what was so far removed from their own tradition. They were fascinated by old churches, Gothic monasteries soaked in semi-darkness, mysterious paintings and crucifixes as well as church crypts, often hiding thrilling tales of people long gone. Keiko and Hitoshi were senior managers in one of Japanese corporations. They were not a couple, yet their colleagues believed that Hitoshi had a secret crush on Keiko, whose beauty was extraordinary, typical of the most beautiful Japanese women. She was a mature woman with an alabaster complexion and at the same time one could clearly discern on her face some features of a child. Many Europeans would just die for it.
The young Japanese had quite a budget for travels during which they would discover places that fascinated them and which they described on their blog. That was the blog Florek came across and he began to comment on entries about medieval paintings and after some time invited them to Cracow, saying that was the last moment to see mummies of centuries ago preserved in a very realistic condition.
The journey from Tokyo to Frankfurt means ten hours on the plane. Then it is not far – just over an hour with Lufthansa’s regional connection, the first gasp of the smoggy air and Keiko with Hitoshi found themselves in Poland’s former capital. They were staying in a small hotel at Poselska Street with comfortable rooms, inexpensive by Japanese standards. They took one day off to acclimatise and then meet Florek the following day. And so they did.
Florek liked them straight away and made no secret of his monk’s identity. He immediately offered them a tour of the famous crypt holding mummified corpses. They were alone there as it was not a day when it was opened to visitors. Florek simply took the keys from the gate and together they walked down the steep stairs leading into the crypt. What Keiko and Hitoshi saw there made an electrifying impression on them, not to leave them that night and only to amplify over time.

A contract done at the Wedel café

After that unusual visit, they sat down in the Wedel cafe in the main market square where they serve handmade chocolate pralines. Eating them with delight, they started to talk about the monastery and its problems. It was 2013 and the Lesser Brothers did not have sufficient funds to properly protect the bodies against total destruction. The crypt began to get moist and fungus appeared on some of the mummies. That is why Florek had written to the Japanese that was the last moment to see them in their former glory. They asked why the municipal authorities would not save the site. The Minicipality of Cracow did deal with the matter but – as is usually the case with it – at its own sluggish pace. Unfortunately, the fungus was faster.
The young Japanese were moved by the story and asked how much money was needed to save the mummies. Florek did not know the precise sum yet he called his superior. The Japanese promptly received information on the amount to be paid to rescue the mummies. They decided to act and immediately sent the money to the order’s account. They set a single condition – as contemporary benefactors they would like to be put to rest in the crypt so that their bodies become mummified like the several dozen ones already there. By doing so, they actually declared that they want to lie next to each other after death, although neither had confessed to the other yet that they wanted to spend their earthly lives together. In a sense, however, that might have been done that very day in the Wedel café.
Florek exchanged several text messages with his superior and received his approval for the terms set by the Japanese, which he communicated to them straight away. On a piece of paper, they drafted a contract of a few sentences and signed it, after which Keiko reached for her mobile to transfer the right amount to the order’s account. After the successful transaction, they ate some more pralines with Advocaat stuffing and finished the coffee, then went for a walk in the market square.
Throughout the afternoon, they devoted themselves to the shared passion and saw various churches, paintings, drawings and sculptures. Then they wanted to eat something and Florek suggested a pizza at St Anne’s Street. They serve great pizza from a wood-fired oven there. The smell of the wood often penetrates the air at the corner of St Anne’s and Jagiellońska Streets. After a meal like that, one can always move on to one of hundreds of bars around the main square or further away. This is exactly what they did settling in a wine bar at Sławkowska Street.
Florek ordered strong spicy Pinotage from Africa and they started talking. He told them about himself. He came from the Polish region of Subcarpathia, where he completed secondary education after which he moved to Cracow to study. He studied art history at the Jagiellonian University but had never finished the programme. However, he was fascinated with medieval paintings and completely succumbed to that passion, visiting various sites, reading about their collections and thinking about the creators of those pieces of art and their motivation to be creative, their lives and deaths. He had also met a girl while at university and he moved in to live with her in a house she rented in the district of Salwator. She, in turn, was very much into dark but at the same time romantic music, regardless of whether it was Bruckner or The Sisters of Mercy. Florek then accompanied her to concerts in Bolków, where goth rock festivals are held regularly at a medieval castle. When in Cracow, they would also walk around the quarter together, climbing Kościuszko’s Mound and visiting the local cemetery situated on its slopes. This is a burial site of Polish poets, writers and other artists. As it happens, however, she met someone else one day and soon left him. It was then that Florek started to drink more and turned to God, which after some time bore fruit in the form of his vocation to become a monk. Florek joined the congregation of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance and was responsible for gate-keeping.
He was telling all this to the young Japanese couple as he felt so good in their company. They shared common passions and they were opening up to one another worlds normally poles apart. Keiko noticed a badge in the lapel of his jacket – a yellow triangle with black zigzagy lines and asked about its meaning.
– It is the symbol of our fraternity – was Florek’s reply.
– Of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance? – she wanted to know.
– In a sense.
Then they talked about old and contemporary times and how rotten the latter were, and how formerly people had lived in harmony and tune with values, regardless of their definition. The evening was passing fast and turned into night. Successive bottles with spicy Pinotage were being emptied and finally Florek rose saying that he would like to invite his guests to the monastery, where they were going to taste a special kind of wine. Keiko and Hitoshi were far from sober at that point as their small bodies were not as sturdy as Florek’s, used to Subcarpathian heavy drinking, so they were not too enthusiastic about the proposal. They wanted to head for the hotel and go to bed. Florek insisted, however, encouraging them with a strange smile on his face saying that on the occasion he would show them something they might never and nowhere see again. So they agreed and barely able to drag their feet they moved towards the exit. Luckily, it is not far from Sławkowska to Reformacka Street.

In a golden afterglow

They were walking in silence along the few lanes they needed to take, going past groups of completely drunk young Englishmen who simply popped in for good fun in Cracow using the sky taxi offering a direct connection between Poland’s former capital and numerous British cities. Yet the more they were leaving popular touristy trails, the quieter it was getting and finally the monastery gate stood before them at the end of Reformacka Street. It was closed at that hour, yet Florek produced a bunch of keys from his pocket. He was unable to fit one of them into the hole, yet eventually he was successful and all three found themselves in the dark inside. The gate-keeper was either asleep or not there at all. In any case, no-one asked them about anything and soon they were in Florek’s cell.
It was not large and looked rather austere. It comprised a small table, a desk with a PC, probably the only thing that let the Japanese conclude that there was some physical connection between the world they knew and that place. The rest was shelves with holy books, somewhat kitschy paintings of the Blessed Virgin on the walls and a huge crucifix, which immediately attracted their attention although most probably the consumed alcohol made them seem to see that the head of the crucified as if protruded towards them and Keiko even seemed to see that he winked to her with a painful eyelid. She tried to ask Hitoshi whether he saw the same but as she turned her head she froze seeing his facial expression. Then she followed his line of vision and saw two chairs where some monks’ habits with hoods were hanging. Their shapes, however, were far from typical. They looked as if sewn for people of miniscule size. On the sleeves and back, one could see triangular yellow signs with black zigzagy lines.
Florek caught their eyes and began to laugh:
– You think I want to make you monks? Do not worry. You will return to your corporation safely but at last with unforgettable memories – and then he reached inside a small refectory, opened its door and got a bottle out of it.
– I have promised you a special kind of wine. In our fraternity, it is used exclusively during great celebrations. I have nicked a few bottles from the small larder. I sometimes serve it to my guests, yet only those truly special, like you.
– What makes you think we are special? – Keiko asked – her delicate face was veiled in the semi-darkness of the cell.
– I had developed a liking for you already at the stage of our email exchange, and then you turned out to be people of great spirit and transferred money to the order. It is a magnificent gesture – he replied reaching for a corkscrew. The cork popped out of the bottle with a characteristic sound. Florek poured the wine into glasses. An extraordinary aroma filled the air. The Japanese felt almost dizzy.
– This is just the beginning – said the host. I suggest you put on these habits as you are about to see something unusual.
They reached for them without much thinking. They fitted them really well. Florek smiled and handed the glasses to them. They smelled the drink contained in them. That extraordinary intensive aroma hit their nostrils with double force. They took a sip all at once.
A peculiar glare appeared before their eyes. Everything seemed to lighten up and assume otherworldly colours. The kitschy paintings glittered, the crucifix also glistened with a golden-yellow afterglow. A golden hue flooded the room, and the holy books on the shelves were squirming, making black zigzagy shapes. It looked fantastic and was overwhelmingly beautiful. So they stood there for some time peering into the space whirling around them, just as if they had put on 3D glasses.
Florek took Keiko by the hand and said to Hitoshi:
– Let’s go, I’ll show you something.
They left the cell. Neither of the Japanese noticed that on this occasion Florek had not taken a single sip of wine. He was leading Keiko by the hand through a labyrinth of monastery corridors, followed by Hitoshi. Everything was veiled in a golden afterglow. They started to descend. The young Japanese were in a sort of trans, failing to pay attention to the things around them, but sensing they were going down and further down and deeper and that it was taking a very long time.
Finally, they reached a medium-sized crypt with yellow walls or that was just the yellow afterglow accompanying them since they had consumed the wine. The crypt slightly resembled the one with mummified corpses but was larger and located somewhere else. Most bizarrely, although it was the middle of the night, the place was filled with people. Just like the young Japanese, they wore habits, although highly varied in terms of cut and colour. The only common element was the triangular yellow sign with black zigzag lines sewn on the back and sleeves. For sure, there were around a dozen or so persons there. Florek led Keiko closer. He ordered Hitoshi to wait in the place he showed him with his hand. No-one present turned as their entered; no-one noticed them. There was general concentration and silence.
Florek brought Keiko closer to the person obliterating the niche with their body. When she came up over there, she saw sand on the floor, just like that on which the dead monks were lying in the crypt with the mummies. There, everyone’s head rested against stone. And here there were no stones but only something shaped like a catafalque, or maybe a small altar. Everything was spinning in the golden-yellow afterglow. Keiko’s eyes ran towards the upper side of the altar. What she saw was both disturbing and beautiful.
On that little catafalque, rested a mummy with unbelievably realistic features. It seemed that the person was asleep although most certainly they were dead. It was not a child, neither was it someone of an adult size. There were candles placed all around casting a glow on the lovely face of a girl lying on the catafalque. It was hard to say whether it was the flames and the entire afterglow that lent the face just that colour or that really was a face of a young Japanese woman of astonishing beauty.
Keiko opened her mouth exactly when the master of that strange ceremony turned to her. For a few seconds, Keiko saw an old furrowed face and glowing eyes. The monk held a gold cup out to her, a source of that impossibly intensive aroma which reminded her of something.
She wanted to cry, escape, and she extended her arms to knock the cup out of the monk’s hand. Florek’s strong hands, however, got a hold of the Japanese’s small hands from behind and before she could shout out, the master of ceremony was already pouring the contents of the cup into her mouth. A moment later, she lost consciousness.
Hitoshi did not see that scene at all. Looking around, he was standing in the place indicated by Florek. The crypt seemed amazing to him and as if transported straight from the Middle Ages. It was dripping with gold, or maybe that was the impression after drinking that peculiar wine? He investigated one of the side niches and made out a beautiful girl wearing a habit with the order’s symbol sewn on it, which he recognised as perfectly familiar. She smiled at him almost flirtatiously and her gorgeous eyes seemed to be saying “come closer to me”. That was too magnetic to resist. Once he drew closer, the half-beauty half-nun extended a hand towards him and it was only then that he noticed a gold cup in her hand, a source of the familiar intoxicating aroma. Hitoshi winced and retreated but at the same time someone’s strong hands got a grip on his small hands from behind and the contents of the cup started to flow into his mouth, and then he lost consciousness.

A secret fraternity

Keiko came to in her hotel room at Poselska Street. Her head was spinning and she felt omnipresent pressure and pain. Just then, she heard hollow knocking on the door. She dragged herself off the bed and opened it with great effort. She saw Hitoshi in a state like her own, or worse. They sat down slowly and began talking about the events of the day before.
Once they slowly came to themselves, they decided to find Florek and talk to him seriously. They went to the monastery for the third time and, to their great surprise, it turned out that there was no Brother Florian in the congregation. They were arguing they had been with him there the previous day, in a glowing cell and then in a secret medieval crypt but various brothers and fathers looked at them surprised, intrigued and – those who spoke any English – with care and sympathy. The young Japanese did not look great and one could smell digested alcohol on their breath. Hearing the phrase ‘Brother Florian’, everyone was throwing up their hands. They did admit that there existed a crypt with mummies but only one and that the mummies were disintegrating indeed and if they wanted to help, the monks would be happy to accept the gift. Keiko and Hitoshi were explaining passionately that they had already transferred a huge sum of money to the order’s account in exchange for the promise of their burial in that special microclimate. The friars explained that no-one was buried there anymore and looked at them with growing concern. Finally, one asked whether they needed assistance and said that he could call his acquaintance working in Cracow’s well-known psychiatric hospital named after Dr Babiński.
They refused such help, however, and left the monastery. They checked the bank account again and confirmed the money was gone. They also searched their pockets but could not find the contract signed on a piece of paper in the Wedel café. All that was left for them was to report to the police.
A polite officer at the police station at the Main Market Square received the young Japanese with much openness. It was great that he spoke excellent English. He took them to some room and asked them to wait. They sat down and looked around. Keiko looked at the desk and fainted. Hitoshi stormed out to help her but saw a bottle opener featuring a sculpted sign – black zigzagy shapes against a yellow background – on the top of the desk. Hitoshi had to support himself on the desk trying hard not to collapse to the floor like his friend.

Epilogue

– What would you like to drink? – asked a stewardess onboard of a Lufthansa plane flying from Cracow to Frankfurt.
– Certainly not wine – replied Keiko – maybe tomato juice.
– And you? – she turned to Hitoshi.
– Juice as well, no salt or pepper – he pre-empted her next question.
– Certainly – she smiled and began to pour the juice.
He was looking at her lovely eyes reminding him of something. Then Keiko seized his hand.
– Florek!
– What with Florek? – he asked her at the same time turning his head in the direction Keiko was looking. In a row next to theirs, there was a man in a window seat looking just like Florek, maybe Florek himself. He looked in their direction.
– Your tomato juice – the stewardess presented Hitoshi with a filled plastic cup and he winced, remembering the half-nun half-beauty handing a golden cup to him in the crypt and yes, it was she indeed! Now serving him tomato juice.
– Is everything ok? You are very pale – she asked.
– Yes, thank you very much – with a shaking hand, he was holding the cup with juice that he did not raise to his lips.
From the outside of the plane window, rays of the morning sunlight were penetrating inside the cabin, making for a beautiful golden afterglow.

Note: Apart from the existence of several dozen mummified bodies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in a crypt of the church of the Lesser Brothers of the Stricter Observance in Cracow, all the other threads in the short story entitled ‘In a golden afterglow’ and the persons featuring in them are figments of its author’s imagination.

Ilustrated by Lech Kolasiński
Translated by Mikołaj Sekrecki

Russian female friends of a Polish pope

Cats

 

This history is veiled in mystery and much greater than that already surrounding the very race of these unusual animals. They came from remote Arkhangelsk and have survived all storms of history. They have a beautiful plush coat of hair that glitters in an almost quicksilver fashion. They fascinate with their majesty, posture and something like a permanent smile on their tiny faces sometimes referred to as Mona Lisa’s smile. Above all, however, their charm lies in the green eyes. Their look is hypnotising, one just cannot take the eyes off it. Mystics claim that advanced communication with them is possible just thanks to their eyes, that as the depth of their species-blending look meets two souls, a mirror of sorts is created reflecting the past and much can be read from it about the future, too. However, this ability is a privilege of the few.
That evening, the pope was very tired. He had been receiving pilgrims from across the globe, held a general audience, and had a few guests from Poland for a private supper. That supper, in particular, took its toll on him as his guests, highly educated and cultured, still entered into a typically Polish dispute, not paying too much attention to the fact that they were at the table with a great Pole who became pope and began to influence global politics to an extent never reached by his predecessors or any of Polish leaders, dead or alive. One of the bishops got so worked up during that quarrel that while shouting he spat out onto a snow-white tablecloth a pill with a cross, which flew all the way to the other end of the table stopping next to the pope’s glass half-filled with Montepulciano rosé wine. “What is it that he swallows?” – thought Karol Wojtyła with disgust. The pope settled in Rome and felt good in the city yet he still loved Poland, which is why all disputes of his fellow countrymen, including those at the table, worried him a lot, as well as fatigued him immeasurably.
After days like this one, he would give himself over to innocent play with the cats, throwing them a ball to retrieve or even a cassock button that had come off once and he started to use it for that purpose. The pope adored his two female Russian Blue kitties Anna and Teresa. As faithful friends, they always followed him once, tired, just like that evening, he returned to his private apartments in the Vatican. He would delicately caress their small but delightfully plush heads. They accompanied him in play and writing letters to friends but also meditation. Sister Tobiana, in charge of the impeccable whiteness of the pontiff’s cassock, would often find silvery threads from the fur of the plush ones on it. She would then only sigh deeply, whispering under her breath: “all that hassle with Your Holiness, all the hassle he gives me.”
Yet the bond between the lovely but also very mysterious animals and the pope from Poland was more profound and had more serious consequences than it might have seemed and this does not at all concern the fact that he wrote several encyclicals in their company. From the snippets of reports from the pope’s butler Angel Gugel and some other indiscrete persons in the Vatican, we can recreate, if only partially, the events in which Anna and Teresa participated.

Not Birmans
It is worth mentioning first, however, how those lovely and endearing animals found themselves in the papal halls. Once a Pole had been chosen pope, when Cardinal Pericle Felici announced the fact to the astonished world on 16 October 1978, the machine started of constructing the papal court and adjusting the environment to the needs of the Vatican’s new leader. Also the circle of his closest collaborators was taking shape. Father Stanisław, his collaborator of many years from Cracow, became the pope’s secretary and man of highest trust. It was he that received from the new pope the task of bringing cats to the Vatican but, behold, they were to be so-called Sacred Cats of Burma. Those wonderful creatures with turquoise eyes holding inside souls of Buddhist monks were to accompany Karol Wojtyła during his rest after long days filled with hard work. They fitted the purpose very well indeed as that race is famous for being able to adapt to the owner’s mood.
Hardly anyone is aware that Stanisław, known from the very beginning for his great love of his boss and willingness to meticulously do anything needed to satisfy him, paid a brief visit to Burma for that reason, where – as legend has it – lie the roots of the sacred feline race. True to the pope’s orders yet entirely ignorant about cats, the benevolent priest most probably did not know that he really needed to go to France, as it was there that he could find ones best matching the racial qualities. Stanisław must have concluded that for the pope he would like to bring animals almost directly originating from the legendary cat Sinhu. To that end, ignoring the differences of their worldviews, he even met with a certain Buddhist monk, yet interestingly enough not in a monastery but a cosy restaurant, where they discussed the whole matter drinking a strange blue beverage of a sweetish taste. The monk was supposed to know how to get to the people who were the only breeders of cats descended from Sinhu. Why then was it not female Birmans that came to the Vatican soon afterwards but two Russian cats Anna and Teresa, incidentally loved by the pontiff at first sight? Here is one of many riddles in this story.

She-cat aggressors
The then head of the Soviet KGB accused Zbigniew Brzeziński, a security adviser in the US president Jimmy Carter’s administration, of voting manipulation during the conclave and ensuring the choice of a Polish pope, which would certainly impede the promotion of communism in East-Central Europe. It must be said that the Russian was right at least in that respect. During meetings with Brzeziński, John Paul II would often joke that since he had made him pope, he then had to visit him in the Vatican. That is what happened and sometimes the meetings would take place a few times a year. For this story, however, the most important is their first-ever telephone conversation in December 1980 during a political crisis. It was then that 18 Soviet divisions, two East German and one Czechoslovak stood at Poland’s border. They were all supposed to march into the country in two days. Brzeziński called the pope to discuss the matter. However, he had major connection problems and it was urgent. Finally, having realised that the direct number to John Paul II’s private apartments would not work, he started to connect through other telephone lines, which was not that safe anymore considering such conversations could be eavesdropped by Russians using agents known to the CIA as operating within the Vatican. The conversation did take place eventually and the whole thing had a happy ending. After all that, it turned out, however, that the telephone cables in the pontiff’s apartments were bitten through by Anna and Teresa, and exactly when Brzeziński wanted to connect with the pope for the first time. This could be considered a coincidence, were it not for the events that followed.
Karol Wojtyła decided to crack down on communist spies inside the Vatican by strengthening a secret unit in the Holy See playing the role of counterintelligence, that is the Sodalitium Pianum, appointing as its leader Archbishop Luigi Poggi whom he greatly trusted. The archbishop initiated close cooperation with Israel’s intelligence and the CIA. Interestingly, both of the pope’s cats, usually rather friendly towards John Paul II’ collaborators and most of his guests, just hated Poggi. During one of the deliberations, Anna tore the archbishop’s cassock apart and Teresa bit his calf which oozed a trickle of scarlet blood. The meeting was interrupted as Poggi’s wound had to be dressed. Karol Wojtyła was surprised by the incident yet did not scolded his plush ones, who just then and there turned out to be far from sweet mascots.
In 1979, the pope comes to his native Poland for a historic visit. In Washington D.C. the event is watched by Ronald Reagan, soon the President of the United States. He sees great potential in the Poles and Solidarity movement in terms of fighting communism in Poland itself but also the entire Eastern Bloc. Consequently, in the pope he sees a man who can help a lot in that regard. Reagan was much concerned about the introduction of Martial Law in Poland and the day after he called John Paul II expressing his friendly attitude towards the Poles. The US president’s collaborators later reported than the conversation was often interrupted – horror, horror – because of cats meowing exceptionally loudly. Finally, however, the leaders managed to finish that important exchange. Then they wrote to each other frequently. One of Reagan’s letters was found by Sister Tobiana in the pontiff’s cassock bearing clear traces of a cat’s talons. Soon, in June 1982, Reagan met the pope in the Vatican Library. As a result of the meeting, contact between the CIA and Sodalitium Pianum intensified and the head of the US intelligence agency William Cassey began to appear in Rome.
During one of Cassey’s meetings with the pontiff, the incident with Poggi recurred and the conversation was interrupted again, an important one as Cassey was showing John Paul II photos by spy satellites taken over East-Central Europe. Later, it was noticed that due to the commotion over Cassey’s biting by the pope’s cats several such photos disappeared. The suspicion fell on communist spies inside the Vatican, still existing yet fought by Poggi. Nevertheless, at least some of those photos were found – in the form of torn pieces – by a butler, who immediately suspected that Anna and Teresa were to blame. The pope’s collaborators began to draw his attention to the fact that both cats behaved a bit strangely and their aggression was very particularly targeted. After all, when John Paul II received the governmental representatives of the Polish People’s Republic, the cats were rubbing against their feet.
The great pope tried not to be mean towards his collaborators yet when he heard that and other nonsense concerning some strange attitude of his cats towards Americans and their being nice towards communist dignitaries, he minced no words when speaking to those who promoted such theories, and depending on his mood on a given day such remarks on his part were either funny or bitingly ridiculing their stupidity. Over time, they would then watch successive incidents in silence and some of them simply stopped paying attention to the cats concluding that despite being no less than the pope he still had his own obsessions and they were exactly his two favourites.
In the meantime, in 1982, in a Siberian military base, a certain Dmitry Vereshchagin supervises the setting up of a secret centre for research on human consciousness so that it can be controlled without the will of the ones to be controlled. The work goes very slowly but it bears first fruit. Already in the 1970s, such experiments were carried out on animals in the USSR, with promising results, and in the 1980s they involved humans. One day, a man from Burma appeared in the base with whom the officers working there would drink a blue beverage of a strange sweetish taste. At his feet played cats with a penetrating look of their beautiful green eyes.

A mirror
Anna and Teresa grew in the Vatican. Despite his great love for both of them, John Paul II began to worry about their aggressiveness towards certain guests, destroying satellite images provided by the CIA as well as the cats’ growing distrust of his faithful collaborators. Nevertheless, he would not share his doubts with them, although they saw him more and more often sitting and peering into the distance. Facing the pope, sat Anna and Teresa, also as if looking at something far away. That scene would recur increasingly often and one day it took place during a trek in the mountains where Karol Wojtyła took his cats in a cage. That bizarre but also highly mysterious scene was noticed then by his faithful companion during such treks, Father Tadeusz. However, he did not attach any special importance to it back then – well, it was just the pope enjoying being close to nature in the form of not only flora but also fauna, and as he would typically fall into a meditative mode then, that was most probably the case.
No-one had ever seen the pope in photographs with his Russian Blue female friends, although there exist several pictures taken by the butler Gugel during those rare trips where the cats were present and in Karol Wojtyła’s private apartments. From the leaks and indiscretions concerning them, one may conclude that they are extraordinary and may shed a new light on understanding between man and animal as well as the unusual mysticism of John Paul II.
Suffice to say that after such unique meditative sessions featuring two Russian cats and one of the greatest mystics of the contemporary world, their behaviour changed beyond recognition. They softened vis-à-vis guests from the USA, becoming almost endearing and starting to accept Archbishop Poggi. They did not destroy any documents or photographs anymore and since then they had never obstructed a conversation or bitten through a telephone cable. Whence the change? Stanisław, who believed in the sanctity of the Polish Pope already then, saw the reason for it in the supernatural abilities Karol Wojtyła had of talking with all creatures. He would say that was like a breath of the living God. Himself rather stiff towards animals, one single time was he brave enough to throw the pontiff’s zucchetto cap to be retrieved, encouraged by Karol Wojtyła’s joyful cries. Anna and Teresa brought it in the teeth together, as if walking in a cortege or procession, straight into the hands of the Vicar of Christ, not his secretary. Wojtyła reacted to it with his well-known sense of humour: “You see, Stan, they know who rules the world.” The entire scene made them both burst with laughter. There was also a characteristic laughter on the faces of the Russian Blue cats. After the sudden change in Anna and Teresa’s behaviour and a few gestures on the part of Stanisław, some in the Vatican started to suspect that the papal secretary also fell in love with the cats. They could have been wrong, however, and the current cardinal’s only love was and remains his boss.
The cats’ transformation, however, brought them the favour of the papal court and since then even former enemies of the plush ones began to show them fondness and attachment. Sister Tobiana would pick out silvery threads with tenderness whispering that the cats of His Holiness were close also to her and that she loved them with love only an animal can receive. And so everything started to work very harmoniously until those dramatic days to unravel soon.

The parting
In 1987, when the pope returned from yet another visit to Poland, he learnt that Anna had been most probably poisoned. A secretly ordered toxicological analysis confirmed that suspicion. John Paul II was in despair, which Teresa – still alive – sensed perfectly. Her behaviour also showed her highest concern. In those days, the pope’s collaborators hardly saw him at all. They were guessing that he sat with Teresa, both looking into the distance, and talked in that peculiar manner when in meditation the animal soul becomes one with that of a human. We learnt about what followed thanks to a report of one of the Swiss guardsmen.
He was asked to discreetly prepare a car with ordinary Roman registration plates, which they entered wearing civilian clothes, only Father Stanisław and the pope himself but dressed the way no-one could recognise him. He had made such incognito escapades to ski, yet that time around it was a special mission. Karol Wojtyła firmly held a cage with Teresa inside. The car left the Vatican without any security assistance and went to Trastevere.
In this Roman quarter, an old Polish woman named Wanda lived on her own. She was a widow of a soldier serving under General Anders who had died near Ancona after which she settled permanently in the eternal city. She was found by people from the Sodalitium Pianum and she agreed to take Teresa in as her continued presence in the Vatican could have been too risky. It was very hard for the pope to part with her but he knew that was what he had to do. He decided to accompany her on the way to Trastevere and when the old woman realised that she was visited in her modest flat by the Vicar of Christ himself, she almost became another victim in this strange story, so emotional she was about the personal meeting with Karol Wojtyła. His parting with Teresa was brief – a quick kiss on her sweet plush head and a firm order for the accompanying priest: “Let us go, Stan.” The events of the following day close the mysterious story.
Wanda went out for an espresso to a nearby café, which was not expensive and they also baked delicious cantuccio biscuits on the spot. There were only three tables and usually it was not difficult to find a free space. That time around, however, all the seats were taken. When she was about to turn around and leave, a man looking like a monk rose from one of the tables, put aside a glass with a bluish beverage, smiled at her offering his seat and left. She thanked him, sat down and enjoyed the great black infusion. Then she did some light shopping and returned home. She did not find the cat there yet she thought it had gone into a hole and sat there. After several hours, however, she started to look for the cat. To no avail. In the evening, she called the contact number she had received from Father Stanisław and told him that the Russian Blue cat disappeared without a trace. We do not know John Paul II’s reaction to the news and can only make conjectures about it.

Epilogue
In the early 1990s, when communism fell in East-Central Europe, to which the pope from Poland greatly contributed, and all alliances changed, a man was at confession in a small parish near Lviv. He claimed to have been working at the Medical College in Omsk where he assisted in cruel experiments performed on animals. He was also supposed to have seen Teresa’s head left as a keepsake by a mad associate professor who for the purposes of research on human consciousness control would kill thousands of animals there, including cats. He claimed that in the anguish administered to Teresa, her penetrating green eyes had been the last to go. Yet they finally did. As the priest taking the man’s confession turned out to collaborate with the Sodalitium Pianum, the event was immediately reported to the Vatican. For many successive years, it was verified using various channels and has never been fully confirmed.
After many years following the trip to Burma, in a tiny café at Trastevere Father Stanisław met with the Buddhist monk again and they drank a strange blue beverage with a sweetish taste. Little is known about that meeting. It remains a fact, however, that just a few days later a limousine from the Israeli embassy in Rome entered the Vatican on several occasions. Did that mean some negotiations between the parties, and if so, what was put on the table? Were there some other meetings between the mysterious monk and Stanisław? Who was that man really? How did it happen that once cars stopped moving between the Israeli embassy and the Vatican suddenly joyfully running in the pontiff’s apartments was Teresa, very old now? There are no unambiguous answers to all these questions. It should be assumed with high likelihood, however, that an entirely different cat found itself in Omsk while Teresa had been taken care of by the world’s most powerful intelligence service. The Russians were then outwitted by the Mossad, not for the first time in history. Which diplomat of the embassy was entering the Vatican in the limo? Who and why poisoned Anna? Did the pope give priority to the interest of his own love for an animal over some important matter concerning the whole Church – we do not know any of this still today and experts on the Vatican will probably still long deal with such riddles. As regards this story, it is interesting, however, what it was in those two Russian Blue she-cats, and later one, that made her chased by the world’s most powerful intelligence services? Doubtlessly exciting is also the fact that there have not been many cases in history bringing Judaism and Christianity close to each other like that single sweet creature with penetrating green eyes.

Note: Apart from the fact that John Paul II did possess two Russian Blue she-cats, some historical dates as well as the pope’s generally known official meetings and conversations, the entire other content of the short story entitled ‘Russian female friends of a Polish pope’ is a figment of its author’s imagination.

 

Ilustrated by Lech Kolasiński
Translated by Mikołaj Sekrecki

A Slave’s Beer

The mother of a disabled child dependent on life-supporting equipment has been recently arrested in Poland. She failed to notice that the tube connecting the child to the machine had slipped away, the direct cause of her child’s death. Another mother taking care of her child in a similar state went to a shop and put in her basket a beer, among other things. That did not go unnoticed and a watchful neighbour scolded the uncaring mother straight away for going shopping for alcohol, instead of minding her child. Defending herself, she explained that the beer was for someone else.

Yet another mother maintains a blog where she describes her daily struggle aiming to ensure proper care for her bed-bound child. She eloquently reports on her various adventures featuring individuals and institutions in principle meant to be professional support for parents of children with considerable disability yet in practice failing to deliver or providing support that is far from sufficient for the family to operate normally. So conceived, that social policy – or its travesty, if you will – dooms that mother and ones like herself to giving up entirely on themselves, their own lives, not just professional but also private, as well as all pleasures enjoyed by others like fashion, culture, holidaymaking, and drinking a beer. The blogger mother offers her unambiguous interpretation of this reality: it is modern slavery sanctioned by the Polish state. She is right.

It was she and other mothers of disabled children that the Polish president called heroines during his address on the occasion of 3 May Constitution Day. Referring to the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, his spouse declared that “it is worthwhile to help these special people”. In the case of children hooked up permanently to medical equipment such help is delivered mainly by the hands of their mothers. Lofty declarations delivered on the occasion of this or that festivity are not accompanied by any specific ideas on the creation of long-term and well-financed systems to support mothers’ needs related to the care they provide for disabled children. Although such systems, based on help rendered by personal assistants, are known and implemented for years as part of social policies across Europe, we in Poland limit ourselves to beautiful words which are usually all that the mothers can hope for. Sometimes, such words are needed as a spark that fuels change. Empty declarations, however, amplify frustration, as they have been spoken so many times before by so many politicians of so many colours on so many occasions that the sound of such cliched phrases may be plain nauseating.

Yet politicians may continue that way, safe in the knowledge that this or that female slave  will not go out and protest, demanding a system of support, asking for assistants, explaining that her on-duty time at the side of her disabled child equals labour. Because a slave is always bound. Day and night, she holds a vigil next to her child, looks after him/her and turns him/her on the other side. Sometimes, she is replaced by her husband, who has to work to provide for both the child and the slave. Yet sometimes the husband leaves her because he wants to live a different life or cannot take it any longer. And she has to remain at that post of hers, to persist regardless. She is unbreakable, determined and unwaveringly loving, after all it is all about her own and her child’s dignity.
It is exactly these mothers’ feelings and vital forces that are exploited by politicians of each level and each colour and ideologues who inspire them. It is at the expense of these mothers and their slave labour that the “system of support” for children dependent on assistance of others persists. Indeed, they are the famed archetypal Polish Mothers – doting and ready to make sacrifices – of whom such politicians and many more other people expect the highest form of heroism: the decision to give birth to a child with such considerable disability and then taking care of him/her throughout her entire live. As this expectation ties up with the perception of women in Polish society, it is effortless for these people to express that expectation. Little wonder then that according to them no slave is allowed to drink a single beer. What will people say? She has a very sick child but succumbs to pleasures.

The slave herself senses and maybe even accepts it, which explains why she says that she has bought the beer not for herself. She needs to explain herself to this or that neighbour, who under the applicable model of culture is free to go and drink himself unconscious with his mates, then curse someone in the street, and give his wife hell at home quarrelling with her. He is free to do all that, yet that very same neighbour has the moral right or even civic obligation to reproach the Polish Mother for a single beer. He feels a better human being then.
When such a mother fails to see or rather forgets to see something, no one will help her out. Who would like to take responsibility when there is a seriously disabled child in the background? Who would like to face problems related to it? When she fails to see, possibly due to exhaustion, that her child’s tube has slipped and the worst happens, a prosecutor will come and the police and she will be simply arrested.

Which is why the slave is always alone left to her own devices. Vigilant all the time, she has got no female friends, close or less close. Sometimes, provided she still has the strength to write her blog entries, someone will like them on Facebook, someone will call, yet less often as a phone call takes more effort. Consequently, the slave remains alone with her child and her thoughts. As she is unable to talk to that child, she thinks. Most frequently, her thoughts revolve around the future of her son or daughter. Sometimes, she is willing to share them on her blog and so we know exactly what such thoughts represent: what if she or her husband becomes ill or old, lose their job, or die. What will happen with her child then?

Days and months pass by. Come another festivity, and president will say something about her heroism again. Days and months pass by, come another festivity and another politician will say something nice about her. Days and months pass by, and the mother is not strong and healthy any more. Years pass by, this or that blog disappears. In its place, others open: edited by modern slaves, Polish Mothers.

Ilustrated by Lech Kolasiński
Translated by Mikołaj Sekrecki

At a foil-covered table

In memory of Julek

 In my contribution as an Ashoka Fellow delivered in Bucharest, I recalled my best decisions to date. One of them was related to my persistent desire to attend an ordinary school and pursue journalistic studies. I was telling the audience that back then everybody around me laughed the idea off saying that I would be overwhelmed and discriminated against in a standard school and that I would not pass any entrance test to become a university student. They were also saying that after the special-needs school a bright future awaited me as I would earn a lot practising professions that were good for blind persons. Such good professions were ones stereotypically perceived as suited for non-sighted individuals: piano tuning and massage.
I often remember it when I get a massage these days. It is very pleasant to receive that service but I would not like at all to offer it to someone. And it seems to me that, willingness or lack of it aside, I did not have enough strength or hand structure to deliver. Still, those were the only suggested jobs society offered. They failed to meet any of my expectations and did not even come close to dreams. When everyone around me, however, repeatedly said that what I did was wrong, my choice was wrong, I, despite my stubbornness, thought about asking someone mature about it.
There was a man who never laughed at any dilemmas but listened patiently and then offered some advice. His name was Julek Wójcik. I was 15 and he was 60.
His life was no bed of roses. He had been born in a village near Lviv and lost sight very early on at a tender age of three so no visual sensations could reach him. Then the war broke out. I remember his recollection of many beautiful aeroplanes appearing in the sky. His sisters cried: “Julek, how beautiful they are,” yet soon after the planes began to drop bombs and everyone ran and hid away forgetting about Julek.
After the war, he moved with the family to Krakow. That was an austere life in communist Poland and for a blind boy the only place was in a special-needs school. So he learnt there one of the professions society assigned for blind persons and later tuned those grand pianos, he would also play various instruments a bit. No, not like Stevie Wonder and he was well aware of it, he would play them in Julek’s style and derived pleasure from it: his sort of clubbing, as I would call it today, which I enjoyed.
For the first time, I met him during a trip to the Jurassic Upland in the 1970s. He was a member of the Association for the Blind, like my father, and during that trip Julek, over the bonfire, would play the accordion, which we incorrectly called harmonica or used the Russian term harmoshka. He was liked by everybody as he told jokes and laughed a lot. As a child, I remembered his sunny face and early bald patch. I probably thought back then that he was very old and I would not have imagined that we would soon become mates for many years. So I knew his face well. He could only imagine mine. He would sometimes touch people’s faces in order to be able to imagine them better. Some female friends liked it a lot, and some other did not at all. Now, I understand them both, yet facial features were important to him. He would say later: “That Ewa has got such a delicate face and when she smiles, her features match her chirping perfectly. She must be a sensitive girl”. And he loved sensitive ones, intellectuals, those searching for meaning. When able to offer them some advice, he felt needed.
When I lost sight, I immediately addressed my initial questions regarding the new situation to him, and I would always receive answers, better or worse, but I knew I could count on them. He was the only one to support me when I decided to attend a standard school, saying: “This is what you feel and this is what you must do, you must be among other people, do it, something I could not, the world is beautiful and do not close yourself in with people similar to you.”
Later, when it turned out how many new friends I had and when they all learnt about my unique mate, much liked by youngsters, crowds would follow me to meet him. We talked about life, much about music and, obviously, our crushes as well as serious love affairs. Knowledgeably, he would advise us in such matters, too. At Julek’s, there was always a glass of something good at hand, tea and cake. Today, I think he was a connoisseur, although in times like those we would not slobber over tiramisu as we did not know something by that name existed, but had successive doses of biscuits in transparent foil like chocolate-chip cookies (just entering the Polish market as capitalism was making headway in the country).
Years went by, life was rolling on. Julek would often listen to the radio, to the music I played and we disagreed over goth rock because above all he cherished harmony, with chords balanced like in Vivaldi’s music, while I started to enjoy crazy stuff. Yet we liked Jarre in equal measure.
– Do you remember how you feared that school and now you bring along someone attending it every week – he reminded me once. Those schools for the blind are bleeding ghettoes and it is good that you got away from it and attended your Eleventh and that you went on to study at university.
At university and afterwards as an adult, I would call him often asking about things like in the old days. Those were not anymore matters, choices and decisions matching that first and most important one, but I always wanted to have a chat, hear his sunny voice, for example saying something on how interesting it was to meet new people, visit a new country and get familiar with its culture. After my first time in the States where I brought Ajzik along, I went to see Julek immediately although at first Ajziczek was unruly, to put it mildly, and Julek was afraid of dogs having been seriously beaten in his childhood. Still, they became friends soon as Julek was simply each creature’s good mate.
I sometimes listen to Jarre’s Oxygene and it is typically with that music playing that I think of him. I have such a great Mobile Fidelity issue on gold, with extraordinary sound on tube amps. Julek might have been born in an era of tube players, but never experienced music played from a CD or a vinyl record by means of a good tube amplifier. I am sure he would be enchanted with Jarre’s music sounding this way or Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which he liked very much, too, or that Vivaldi with ideally balanced chords.
If today I sat with him at his table, covered with a simple cloth or at the kitchen one covered simply with a foil tablecloth, I would produce Crema Ovieja or maybe some good Porto. We would play a record with fado, I wonder whether he would like it, music of sadness, love and longing.
Maybe I would sometimes invite Julek for a tiramisu to Aqua e Vino or to the Indian place at Mikołajska Street, although he was no great fan of spicy food, so maybe sushi would be to his liking as he enjoyed fish?
Or maybe he would not like all that and we would just sit again at this or that table, drinking thin tea brewed in bags, binging on chocolate-chip cookies and arguing whether it is better to look at the stars and horizon or to draw the curtains. Then we would listen to some CD I would have brought with me played on his bulky hi-fi set called Condor. Indeed, that might have been enough for us and we would have been together again, happy that it is possible.

Translated by Mikołaj Sekrecki

A banner, clouds of smoke

It was three years ago. I was lying on a beach in Portugal. My wife was wading at will somewhere in the sea yet at a certain distance from me. My eyes were closed, I was listening to the swoosh of the ocean and birdsong. Suddenly, I felt a kiss on my cheek, but somehow cold. What is happening? She is relatively far away, so this must be someone else, it crossed my mind. I opened my eyes, yet that did not solve the puzzle as I was unable to see anyone. And no-one spoke to me, either. A moment later, an unknown woman came up to me, regretting the behaviour of her Labrador bitch that had poked me with that cold nose of her – Sorry, this is my dog, my Lab, she said.

Dog lovers know very well that a dog’s kiss is pleasant, an encouragement to start an adventure, game or play, yet if offered out of a sudden it seems merely wet and cold and one does not know what is happening. If one is blind, that effect intensifies and may lead to major astonishment, initially not necessarily pleasant. Joy, warmth and desire to play come somewhat later.

This is a good metaphor for a sequence of powerful life experiences. Losing sight surprised me, chilled me like that cold kiss, only aggravated by multiple failures and being humiliated, a result of unequal treatment on grounds of disability. This has happened and continues to happen in all aspects of life. Nevertheless, the place I am in now, the success of inclusive education at the Jagiellonian University, the development of the notion of the Manager of the Future as well as the impact I can make on social innovations as part of Ashoka represent the other side: warmth, joy and a great adventure. Still, people often ask me about my experience of disability as something absolutely critical, something that has shaped me and had a major influence upon my life. Certainly, that impact has been major, yet even considerable disability is never the only factor shaping a person. What else has it been then?

I was born and raised in Krakow’s working-class district of Nowa Huta. Not all Krakow residents liked it and it possibly remains the case, yet it was just there that the Solidarity movement took solid roots. A movement embracing millions of ordinary people to whom Jon Anderson dedicated an unforgettable piece entitled Polonaise. My childhood came during the “Solidarity carnival” period as well as, regrettably, Marshal Law which followed. On the one hand, I have seen true solidarity, assistance offered to others, cooperation in very difficult and sometimes extreme situations, and on the other hand street violence and the totalitarian state’s attempt to destroy all that was good and what the movement had sown among the people. “A picture like from Wajda’s film: a banner, clouds of smoke,” the bard Jacek Kaczmarski once sang and such were exactly the images that fed my daily experience back then. Teargas stinging the eyes was an integral part of it. When I recall it, I immediately see before my eyes a huge crowd of people holding a white-and-red flag extended across the width of the street with a slogan Solidarność written on it in a characteristic font. The crowd starts off at the church and a line of riot militiamen armed up to the teeth brandishing long white truncheons can be seen on the horizon. Wherever one looks, to the left and to the right, there are paddy wagons, water cannons and armed vehicles. The crowd is moving in that direction. With Mum, we are walking along the lay-by yet and a child’s mind is working intensively: what is going to happen? And just when it seemed that a confrontation was unavoidable, the militiamen got an order to withdraw, they are running and getting into the cars. A confrontation did come, multiplied, yet at that particular junction violence lost. That beautiful image remains in my memory, as I was worried then about those people and that banner.

And then it was 1986, when the retina became detached on my left eye, and the right one a year later. After the surgery, I woke up with patches on my eyes and the head tied with a bandage. In a famous clinic in Katowice, another boy was lying somewhere nearby after the same treatment. We both had been told that we would regain sight, imperfect but still, because the hospital was good and had the best equipment in the country and the doctors were talented.

Soon after regaining consciousness, I still heard a conversation between nurses:

– Bartek has had a great surgery. Professor is very happy. The boy is going to see.

– And Irek? – the other one asked.

Silence.

And then I understood in just few seconds that my life was changing very much. I also sensed the helplessness of those who wanted to help me yet medicine failed. Still, those nurses were first to somehow intuitively offer me great assistance. For hours on end, I would talk to them in their office and then over the phone once out of hospital. It is indeed hard to believe today that there was no clinical psychologist on hand who could talk to me about that massive change I was experiencing. That role was played by sisters Ola, Renata and others. Since then, I have met at least one such Ola, Renata, Agnieszka or Gosia. I am truly very lucky to have been able to meet them all.

Since the time of that chitchat in nurses’ rooms, I have also had a slight weakness for a 1980s musical style known as Italo disco, something real connoisseurs always hold against me. Yet it was the music that accompanied my long conversations with the nurses, laughing girls with whom I shared jokes but also possibly first plans concerning my changed life. One of my dreams I held on to was to learn. That was not easy a year before the fall of communism in Poland. The poor country faced many problems that needed to be resolved. I was granted individualised tuition and then attended a special school for blind and partially sighted persons in Krakow. It was not a dream place for me, though. I wanted to attend an ordinary school and return to a normal life. I also had another dream – to work in the radio. Everybody laughed that off.

– You will be a piano tuner, they would say. But I love music and feel no vocation to tune instruments.

– You will be a masseur. It pays well. People like to use the services of blind masseurs. I like getting massage indeed but do not feel like massaging other people. I want to work in the radio. I am into music and social transformation.

In 1989, a new government was appointed, led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister in East-Central Europe after the Second World War. This is the year when I decided to return to an ordinary school and began education in the Comprehensive Secondary School no 11 in Nowa Huta, right next to the junction where a few years earlier riot militiamen had tried to block the passage of a marching crowd carrying the banner with “Solidarność” written on it. Further change came soon, too: systemic, social and economic.

While studying at the School no 11, I got a foothold in a local radio station and began to play music there. That was youthful and inexperienced journalism, yet at least some people stopped laughing. Then I changed to another, now inexistent, private station where we played lots of what we now call golden hits and from time to time also the immortal Italo disco.

After secondary school completion, I started my dream journalistic studies. I would meet people from groups affected by the system change. There were too many of them. Yet I still believed the direction of the reforms was right, as was the implementation of market economy principles. I tried to collect material related to those who were excluded from being part of growth and development, more vulnerable, marginalised. The radio was the first place when I felt that it was possible that I, in turn, could show solidarity with others by making their problems heard. After my studies, I initiated cooperation with the Reportage and Documentary Studio of the Polish Radio and made a number of reportage footage focusing on social issues.

I used my personal experiences from the period of my studies and the newly acquired knowledge when creating an innovative university unit dealing with educational support for persons excluded from education as such, including higher education. That was a very difficult task. It may suffice to say that years ago one of my superiors at the university called it “invasive”, meaning destroying mainstream thinking about what the university should be about. In this context, it is only fitting to quote my friend who at the same time was doing the same in Denmark. Willy has always said that “Although the university is not for everybody, as it is for the best, when you are disabled and despite your disability you are good, then the university is also for you and it must adjust to your specific needs.” That is a university I wanted to build with like-minded people. Over time, it seemed that also those who resented that “invasion” got used to that vision.

I am glad that after nearly two decades of building it, we can now offer support even in most difficult situations, for instance to a student who is bed-bound at home and dependent on life-supporting appliances. In the circumstances, they pursue their studies in distance-learning format.

That was exactly the case of Jacek. Because of his ill health, other universities refused to have him as a student. His key dream was to be able to learn. I then thought it was back to the past for me.

One had to hold examinations at the student’s home and come up with how to take lecture notes for him and make it possible to transfer them. He also required assistance when establishing contact with those deciding about his affairs as a university student. All this ended successfully on the part of Jacek, his institute and the entire university. We were proud of that student’s achievement as well as the solidarity-based cooperation he inspired in his teachers and various university units. Now persons unable to leave home do indeed study on the basis of the same operational model which can be called standard. I am glad that together with my team I have been able to help Jacek make his dream come true, thus reducing the number of cold kisses life would constantly give him and others who have been – and are – breaking through the barricades of the Polish educational system in order to be able to fully participate in it.

The experiences related to the implementation of inclusive education at Poland’s oldest university were decidedly a very important aspect as I was going through the long and difficult verification process to be selected a Polish Ashoka Fellow in 2017. Along the way, I was supported by my close collaborators and people I had met relatively recently seeking to develop the idea of the Manager of the Future with them. I felt solidarity from others yet again. And so on the occasion I recalled fondly that banner from the early 1980s. The slogan put on it is no political motto to me, and even less the name of a trade union: it is an internal imperative, a calling for acting with others and for others. This is also, I think, one of the values on which sustainable social development should be based. No matter where I am abroad and talk about Poland, nearly everybody associates it with just “Solidarity” and the name of its legendary leader. This is our trademark. What is more, during many interesting conferences I hear about solidarity as social cement that today’s capitalism needs in order to mitigate the differences it causes. Discussants are either heavyweight professors from eminent universities or important managers arguing that the corporations they lead must operate on the basis of true values.

When as a child I walked with Mum along the streets of Nowa Huta, when the unfurled banner was moving in the clouds of smoke, when teargas was biting my eyes with vengeance and the streets were full of militiamen, I could not have imagined that one day I would be given the opportunity to stand before the leaders of that great social movement and shake their hands. When I think about it, I remember the lyrics of yet another song by Jacek Kaczmarski about sentimental Miss S.: “And she was carried on the shoulders of her new young friends who worshipped her like an old star, not falling but suddenly rising instead.”

 

This text includes excerpts from my speech on the occasion of a membership in Ashoka, an international network of social innovators. It was delivered at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw on 20 October 2017.

For those of you who are interested, songs mentioned in the text:

John Anderson „Polonaise”:

Jacek Kaczmarski „Świadectwo”:

Translated by Mikołaj Sekrecki