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