By Stanley Bill
Living in Poland will lengthen my life. No, I don’t mean to suggest that my adopted country is good for my health. As I breathe the acrid smog that keeps the city of Krakow in a coal-fired chokehold through the winter months, I know that the opposite is almost certainly true. Cherry vodka, cheap beer and chain smoking in candle-lit bars might not do me much good in the long run either. And the prospect of relying on the Polish public health service – with its cancerous combination of often aging facilities, shoddy administration and petty corruption – sometimes terrifies me to the point of wistful nostalgia for Australian shores. By any objective measure, I am bound to die younger here than if I return to my home town of Perth on the Indian Ocean, where new public hospitals rise from the sand like gleaming cathedrals of health.
My life will objectively be shorter in Poland – in fact, seven years shorter according to the most recent estimates of average male life expectancy. Yet in a more subjective sense I am convinced that I will live longer. How do I make this calculation? Because I believe in a palpable expansion of time on its most intimate scale. In this country, each moment of the day somehow becomes more spacious. Ordinary happenings take on unexpectedly extensive dimensions, demanding attention and reflection, filling the scope of my senses with material to assimilate, forcing my mind out of its inertia. A morning walk to a familiar destination swells with more content and perception than I could ever extract from the habitual streets of my childhood home. I live in a state of constant curiosity. Of course, Poland is not inherently more interesting than Australia. The whole difference lies in a persistent feeling of estrangement.
Perhaps what I really mean to say is that living outside your home country lengthens your life. When things are strange – when you are a stranger – subjective time expands. In the home of my childhood, with its clean streets and dazzling light, I coasted over whole swathes of time without any passionate engagement with my immediate environment. It was given, taken for granted, inessential – just there. I paid no attention to pavements. I walked past buildings with no burning curiosity about their histories. I shifted from one physical location to another without a thought for the space between them. My days were bland, my creative instincts lay dormant and I felt no desire to draw my surroundings inside me, to explore their secret dimensions or fix them in the gaze of my mind’s eye. I seemed to slide off the face of my daily life like a spider in a wet bathtub. The sun came up and went down again, and I was often left with the melancholic sensation that the day had escaped me. Probably I lacked imagination – not all Australians are so unappreciative of their home.
From my first days in Poland, things were different. I arrived in the middle of winter. The whole country was covered with fresh mounds of snow – novelty enough for a child of warmer climes. The light was different. The sun kept a low profile in the sky, striking the world at a different angle and illuminating everything in a dazzling new way. Everything had texture. I no longer felt that my daily existence was escaping my grasp, slipping away through my own lack of mindfulness. I suddenly found I could hook into things, explore them, enter their depths. Even a visit to a local supermarket was an expedition into an unfamiliar realm of unknown words, unfathomable laws of social etiquette and awkward attempts at human contact that had meaning precisely because they were so arduous and strange. A single uneventful day could expand into a multilayered network of new connections and observations, where every last paving stone was worthy of attention.
An Australian in Poland can visit beautiful cities – Krakow, Poznań, Wrocław – where slow rivers flow past centuries of human history accumulated in stone and brick. He can step into churches and palaces over thresholds worn smooth by millions of feet – by royal processions, pious commoners, invading armies and camera-wielding daytrippers. He confronts the destructive power of history in Warsaw, where plaques, museums and monuments appear at every step, as if memory itself were blooming out of the postwar concrete. He can hike through wooded trails covered with pine needles, over high rocky mountains and across sweeping ridges of wind-disheveled grass in the Carpathians. Travel and exploration make life richer – this has become a truism in Western culture.
But I am talking about something quite different here. What makes my life longer in Poland is not adventure, but the expansion of the ordinary: the multiplication of meanings that occurs when everyday things become strange. I walk along a Polish street. Perhaps it is not the most beautiful Polish street – not the royal way of Grodzka in Krakow, or even the faded pomp of Piotrkowska in Łódź. It’s a rougher part of a medium-sized town in winter. I slush my dirty boots through a brown soup of snow and mud, dodging cracks and craters in the pavement. The sky is gray. People’s faces are chapped and vicious in the cold. Naked trees quail in a frigid wind. Stucco peels off a prewar building like skin from a flesh wound, exposing the blood-red brick below. There is no light. Everything is gloomy and obscure. And I am happy.
The coarse texture of the building facades gives my searching eyes and thoughts something to catch hold of. The people are expressive in their impassivity. The darkness breeds mysteries that bolt off into the recesses of muddy courtyards, beckoning me to follow them through echoing passageways where the only sounds are my own steps and the dripping of melting snow. The odor of burning coal evokes the warmth of rough human shelters against the cold of the universe. Everything is filled with meaning. Everything is strange. Even familiar routes seem constantly to reinvent themselves for me, bringing fresh news from the unfamiliar every day. Something about Polish city streets stimulates my desire to pursue meanings. I am a hunter here.
But how long can this last before what was once strange becomes natural and wearisome? Surely these naïve and romantic idealizations of the ordinary are only sustainable so long as the first blush of novelty remains. Surely they must fade with familiarity. I can only say in response that I have lived in Poland for seven years – on and off – and so far I see no signs of this estrangement coming to an end. I know the landscapes and the city streets. I speak the language. I am well acquainted with a broad repertoire of cultural practices. I have many friends. I feel thoroughly at home here. Yet somehow things have never become mundane. They are both familiar and strange. I belong and I do not belong. I remain curious.
Perhaps childhood is the key. Images of Poland are not permanently rooted in my earliest memories and formative experiences. The words of the Polish language are not imprinted at the deepest levels of my linguistic consciousness. The reality that surrounds me – as familiar as it may have become – still feels like a temporary structure built on top of original Australian foundations. I live in a physical and linguistic world that can never become self-evident or natural, since I am still consolidating my associations with it. Each individual moment of subjective time inflates with this activity, while the warp and weave of all the accumulated moments form the expanded temporal matrix of my life in Poland. I never take reality for granted. There is no end in sight.
When I visit my home country, I experience a temporary form of the same fascination. Perth and its surrounds become alien to me after a long absence. I view the dry landscape through the eyes of a northern foreigner – through Polish eyes. But this feeling soon fades away, and before long my imagination goes dormant again. Time begins to contract. I want to leave. I long for a subtler light and a coarser texture. I remain an eternally ungrateful Australian.
My life will be longer in Poland.