It is a strange thing to travel alone. There are moments remembered, absorbed by the lonely viewer that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. In January two years ago I travelled to Poland by myself and spent a month alone in the frozen and still depth of winter. These are some of the things I remember; memories that were presented in the small, singular channel watched by the lone traveller who has been left undisturbed to revel in the indulgence of an unexplained fascination. When there is no-one but you to tell these stories, you become watchful: the single witness for the purpose of regaling others, or not, with the tiny and the unremarkable and the mammoth and beautiful.
In Krakow, where I began my trip, the temperature regularly falls below -10 and so in my mind’s eye, that time remains ossified; caught off-guard and immoveable in unexpected time: static until the temperature will suddenly change and the city comes to life again. But until then these snapshots are fixed, like frames from a much longer film. They begin on Ulica Józefa in the Jewish district of Kazimierz.
At number 34 on the street is the Secret Apartment. It is an old synagogue and I was its sole occupant. Alone in this eerie space, every night I lay in bed and listened to its noises-listening to the building expand and retract- and to the noises on the street.: A cellar bar that played loud music until late and then the shuffling of footsteps as people made their way home on the salt-lined street beneath my window.
The Vistula River snakes through the city and runs north to the Baltic Sea, vast and important. In January when the air is so cold it stifles your breath and forms ice at any point moisture is to be found, teardrops, nose, blinking eyes - the river freezes over. A lone cyclist braves its river bank, and I alone watch him from the bridge. On the way back from the river, I cross the tram tracks for the first time and see a group of Cameldolite monks travel down the hill from the Wawel, the friction of speed at which they travel gently lifts the heavy, brown material of their cloaks.
On Ulica Izaaka there is a bar called the Singer Bar, where behind a thick velvet curtain people sit by fires hiding from the cold, drinking warm cider and red wine in a protective capsule from a physical reality outside that once made me faint. Here I sat and read, occasionally listening to the Polish techno favoured by by the bar staff, but sometimes in almost perfect silence, and planned my route.
In a churchyard across a garden almost impassable for snow, there is a Christmas tree. Bright, plastic lights balance on the edge of its branches as it leans against an empty crib. Against the grey of the church building, against the background of icicles that threaten to fall at any moment, the tree stands out for some distance. Its pink, orange and yellow bawbles are a reminder of how exiting December must have been, redundant now to face a January without them.
I ate fish, potatoes and pickled cabbage in an old-fashioned restaurant that was wedged between a sushi restaurant and an off-licence, and read my book. I was served by a man who could have been a ghost.
To Auschwitz - impossible to describe, but I am grateful that I went. I remember lines and lines of photographs along a corridor - a single pink, plastic rose peeking out from behind one. A gasp, and a tear.
Przykro mi. I nie mów polskiego printed on a piece of paper and directions of where I wanted to go, I took a tram to the train station, weaving across grand squares and shopping centres; weaving between a then and a now. The station stands beside a generic commercial court yard, all fountains and H&M signs. Stepping inside the station is to leave this familiarity behind and move away from the saccharine reminders that this could be anywhere and to step into Poland. Behind an old, thick-glass barrier, between a teller and a gesturing traveller a silent request was waged and an exchange agreed- 30PLN for a clutch of train tickets that I still possess. The next day I shared a carriage with four strangers and travelled 252km to Warsaw, as if chasing a storm, the weather continued to diminish. Friendly, broken conversation gave way once we left the city and entered the hypnotic glare of a pure white countryside, enabled into a trance by the rhythmic lull of wheels on track. Like Narnia, white, grey and navy broken only hedgerows and stone walls we continue when at once the light suddenly changed and we entered the incredible hold of the petrified forest. Here, a darkness broken by sunshine allowed through the gaps in the forest wall, giant statues hovered far above the train; an entire forest preserved by ice for winter.
Warsaw Central station is an imposing, desperately grey and sad building. I take a tram that goes in a straight line up and down the main street. I cannot use the ticket machine and a stranger gives me his ticket. I cannot lift my heavy suitcase up the concrete stairwell; a stranger, speechless, picks it up and carries it for me. I make my way to my flat sixteen stories up in a building the type of which I will see replicated for miles and miles into the distance. Inside, pipes clank, pumping boiling water through the building. Outside, Warsaw twinkles, reflected against snowflakes that fall silently through the sky.
Opposite is the National Museum. War planes retire to its grounds and these planes, obscured only by the tram as it passes by is my view, visible through a freezing fog.
There is a marble bench on the side of the street, partially covered by icey slush. Engraved is a map of Warsaw and a button. The bench will gently play Chopin’s Minute Waltz against the background noise of a busy street. I will remember this forever.
The Old Town, completely rebuilt after the war, stands like a stage set built from cardboard on the cusp of the city centre. I climb to the top of a church steeple to see a Coca-cola sign blinking off in the distance. At the centre of the main inter-section is a giant Palm Tree, a gift from an Israeli artist. It seems completely at odds with its surroundings. On either side of it, the streets are desolate. Warsaw is an abandoned city in hibernation.
I fall in the snow and break my shoe. A lady is cleaning the building and she lends me her shoes. I step out onto Nowy Świat Street. Leaning against a wall to catch my breath, the frozen air, caught in my lungs.