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’