Wroclaw, Poland: The Little You Know of Yourself // Part IV

The glass fountain in Rynek, Wroclaw’s historic center.

This is a story from our time in Europe, and it’s a true story, and it came in parts. This is the last part of four. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here. To read part three, click here. Thanks for reading.

A very old man stood in front of the factory dragging on a cigarette.

“Do you think he’s some type of guard or something?”“You think they’d hire a guard that old?”“What do you think, he’s homeless?”

We didn’t know what to think and, lacking in thoughts, decided to act instead.

We approached and from a few steps back I could see him bristle, as though the mere sight of us offended him. Perhaps we seemed strange, two young people sweating and heaving as we were, dragging our possessions behind us, clearly unaware of where we were or where we were going and yet advancing at a rapid pace. Once we’d neared, I was grateful to see an almost grandfatherly worry flit by his face as he took in our bedraggled state. For a moment I hoped he’d give us directions out of this – park, was it? Factory campus? This dense wood? It was impossible to tell what and where exactly we were – but instead his eyes hardened and he rebuked us in Polish. When we asked “English?” the old man shook his head, made a long, slow circle in the air with his index finger, and pointed for us to go. We took our leave with a solemn nod, dragged our suitcases away, and reentered the darkness.
“It’s dangerous here. Especially if even he thinks we should go.” Every exhale shortened and sped up, the air suddenly tight in my throat.“I know. I don’t know what to do.” Dan looked down at me and I could see he meant it.“Goddamn it. Pick up your shit, let’s go.”

I hustled away from the factory and charged down the same dark path we’d stepped away from just a few moments ago. Our “conversation” with the old man was the same as all the others we’d had over the last week: subtly antagonistic, the sort of unfriendliness that could barely be classified as such because neither party explicitly broke through the veneer of courteousness. I longed for a clearer message; even open hostility would be better, less confusing. It was as though a thin membrane separated us from the Polish, fine enough to be penetrated by distress, yet opaque enough to obscure human fellowship. We were more than foreign; we existed on different planes.

A colorful corner: details of the architecture in Wroclaw’s historic center. Poland.

            We walked for so long that it got to the point where I couldn’t believe we were still walking. The path had narrowed considerably and we walked tightly together, taking turns being the lead. Tall chain-link fence rose up on either side of us, though what lay beyond the fence was mostly hidden, concealed in darkness and further hidden by the occasional spindly tree. Above the thicket I could see a few roofs standing no higher than eight or ten feet in the air, covering what seemed to be one-room houses lacking in electricity and, probably, plumbing. They reminded me of the tin-roof chanteys I’d driven by years ago in Jamaica, on the road to a resort in Negril. Even then it didn’t seem enough to merely witness the ghetto, and yet now, hurrying through it, I was acutely aware of the part of me that wished not to be spectator, lacking the words and the analysis with which to testify. Mostly, I was afraid.

We walked straight into the mouth of darkness, following a dirt path that sprung up in tessellated blooms of a gray dust that settled on our shoes, colonized the space underneath our fingernails, and left a metallic grit in the lines of our palms.

I wanted a cigarette but worried that the smoke would bring unwanted attention from the shacks that lay beyond, a needless exposure of our presence that seemed better left unknown. Even stopping to light the thing seemed like a waste of the time that ought to be spent continuing onward; any forward movement was progress.

I heard footsteps behind me, long and heavy like the trail of an echo, and when a match was struck I knew it wasn’t something I’d imagined: we were being followed.
            Dan was just a few paces ahead of me. I stretched out each stride, making every step a little longer than was comfortable, trying to catch up to his side without hurrying and possibly alarming this stranger. It took a good minute before I was able to walk beside him and say,            

“There’s someone behind us.”
            He turned to look. The man was tall, lean. He smoked his cigarette casually, clearly acquainted with his whereabouts and in no way disturbed by our presence.

 “Get in front of me,” Dan said, and I did.

We walked this way for a few minutes – me, followed by Dan, followed by the stranger – and when I turned to look back I saw that a car had rolled up and was crawling along just behind the man.  For a moment I marveled at the driver’s capabilities on this tiny dark path, moving a giant white beast of a vehicle (a leftover from the Seventies, a drug lord’s idea of classy) so silently that if I hadn’t seen it, I would have never known it was there.

“He’s not using headlights,” I realized, and somehow speaking the words aloud detonated a constellation of fear within me, filaments of terror tumbling about in the black pit of my stomach.

I watched Dan turn to look. The car stopped and the man paused next to it. The driver passed something out of his window; it was silver and metal, maybe a gun. I was too far away and too horrified to be sure of anything I saw and had seen.

“Keep walking, move faster,” Dan instructed. “If things become violent, I will engage the attacker and you will release the luggage and run. Try to find a main road; it will be easier to get help.”

I nodded; I understood. Engage the attacker. Release the luggage. I had never heard him talk that way, perversely verbal, as though the acuteness of our fear lit up some special mental clarity within.

Our pace quickened to just short of a jog; the heaviness of our suitcases rumbled over the gravel. An ecstatic burst of adrenaline surged through me, and I could feel where my shoulder would ache in the morning if we made it through this march. I decided we would live.

The car was so close I could feel the heat of the engine warming the air behind us. The voices of the stranger and the driver ground through me like teeth gnawing on bone. One of them laughed loudly. Particles of ether buzzed around us; my body shook and we waited for something to happen.
The path was suddenly bright white. Dan and I turned to find ourselves squinting in the headlights. The man stepped around the front of the car, got in on the passenger side, and slammed the door shut with a resounding thunderclap of sound. The engine revved and they drove right up to us, inches away from our ankles, and made a right turn we didn’t know was there. And just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone.

A breeze sifted the leaves of the trees, cooling the sweat on my brow. I looked at Dan, who blinked hard and smiled. We returned to the path, which seemed to widen with their departure. Within minutes, we came to the edge of the trees and where the trees ended, a road began. A proper road made of concrete, with streetlights and dozens of cars rushing along on it. A young woman stood at a bus stop and we asked her if she spoke English and if she knew the street we were looking for, and she did speak it and she did know and she went so far as to walk us up to the corner to point out the direction we should follow past a five-pointed intersection.

Piwnica Swidnicka, a restaurant in the historic center of Wroclaw, Poland.

We made our way past a series of rather institutional-looking apartment buildings and stopped in front of A.’s address, a clean, new construction. We buzzed her apartment number and she let us in.

We heaved our suitcases up three flights and stood at her door, poised to knock, when she opened it, sweet-faced and smiling. “Hello,” she said and ushered us into her living room, sat us down on a long leather couch, and put beers in our hands without asking if we wanted them, which of course we did.

She asked how our trip had been so far and whether it was easy to find her place. We told her of the cities we’d been to and offered an abbreviated version of our trek from the hostel. When we spoke of the sad, one-room houses we’d seen, she said,“Oh, people don’t live there. Those are, uh” – here she struggled to find a word in English – “the places for gardening? They put their tools and things in there, and plant vegetables and flowers in the ground in front of it.”

“Sheds? They’re sheds.” I stared.“Yes, people rent some land for the year to grow their own food if they like.”“I see. That sounds like a nice program,” I said.“It is! So you were worried for nothing,” she laughed.
We laughed.

“I’ve just been watching a show on the history of democracy,” she continued. “Do you know what country had the very first constitution?”
I looked at Dan, who was quickly draining the last sips of beer from his bottle. “Poland?” I ventured.
            “Hah, no. It was the United States, of course. We had the second constitution, though,” she said proudly.                    

And I realized then that I am full of not knowing.

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