Why I Will Live Longer in Poland

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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.

370_47998290599_1039_nBut 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.

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10 comments

  1. Kasia

    you just reminded me how i should look at poland, i miss that. for a moment i thought that this way of seeing things was possible only at the age of a child, but no, it’s still possible

  2. Dominique Thronicker

    This is a great post, Stan. It really makes me think and reflect about my time in Poland, other places I lived and my adopted home. While I really like Krakow and Polish people, the country never ‘clicked’ with me in the sense that you describe it. Since many other people feel they way you do about Poland, I always wondered whether there’s something I can’t see. I often thought it might simply be that having grown up in East Germany wasn’t all that different… But it has to be more than that. I think that finding a place you like to live in is as interesting as finding the right partner to live with. And perhaps trying to explain what’s right about it is just something as inexplicable as whom you fall in love with.. You just know. A sense of matching the place, the people, the light, the smell. And having a feeling of endlessness about what else there is to be discovered, just like with love for a person. It needs to click with your soul somehow, allow you to live the things you like doing and be the person you feel you can never quite be in other places. Combine that with a natural selection of others who decided to stay because they feel the same way about the place enhancing a feeling of togetherness, belonging and mutual appreciation. Makes for a place about which you might get upset with at times, but never really want to leave again.

  3. Aneta Herzyk

    Witaj Stan,

    I read Your post and think a lot of people do not appreciate that where we live ,what a beautiful country is Poland.
    Sometimes it is worth to look at it through the eyes of a foreigner, who chose that place to live in.
    I also have a place on earth, my own place on earth, far from Poland, where time flows slower , where everything is so delightful to me as the Poland from You. But maybe it is that I do not live there on a daily basis.
    I hope that you have found your place on earth, Stan. Find what you are looking for and be happy.
    PS.
    Stan, czytam 4 akapit i przypomina mi się czas kiedy przyjechałeś do Bielska uczyć jako native speaker, to też był środek zimy:)
    Uśmiecham się i myślę ile to już czasu minęło? 10 lat może więcej a wydaje się jak by to było wczoraj.
    Miłe wspomnienia zostały, byłeś najlepszym mentorem jakiego mieliśmy ale cóż zostawiłeś nas dla Krakowa.
    Nic się nie zmieniłeś Stan, wyglądasz tak samo jak przed laty:)
    pozdrawiam
    Aneta Herzyk

  4. Barbara Pitak-Piaskowska

    Hi! I just found your blog and I’ve really liked it!
    I’m a PhD student at the Warsaw University (currently completing a scholarship in Cambridge). Because I’ve graduaded from Cultural&Theatre Studies I’d like to ask you about your opinion on modern Polish theatre? Are you actually interested in it? Have you ever wrote something about it?
    Best regards,
    Barbara

  5. kevinkordes

    Your experience is not unusual for expats or others that have spent extensive time in other countries. I experienced the same time-expanding experience while living in Thailand. Benjamin Franklin wrote about his experiences while in France. For him one month was like three back in the American Colonies. Our brains naturally crave new information, and this acquisition of new brain data results in your perception of a longer duration of stay. It’s just brain science. Enjoy!

  6. Federico

    Great post, Stanley! I couldn’t agree more. After living abroad for a few years, my OWN COUNTRY is becoming sort of foreign to me, and I am now able to see it under a different new light. I’m glad to read that is happening to you to.

    I found that if I want to prolong that feeling (and that way of seeing things) you have to do get out of the old ordinary patterns. If you stick to the ordinary (old friends, family, same bar or same old corner of the city) you will soon lose this feeling of novelty! I guess our mind goes on autopilot when everything is predictable.

    Have you tried to do new activities when you go back to Australia? Or do you stick to the same old habits?

    Have a good day!

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