River

gdansk water reflections

water reflections (Photo credit: mariusz kluzniak)


This is the third city on the same river, and the last. A port city, which sounds bleak, but has the balm of sea temperatures, the legacy of being a gateway—excitement. This evening, Jogobella in my coat pocket, I was going to be sociable and watch tv.

But I kept walking, and the end of the street opens to the river. The river is black of water at night. Lights reflected on the water are an oil painting already, white, orange, purple. Men have spaced themselves along the river bank to fish, some have bicycled in army-print jackets. A girl and a boy in an archway play Hallelujah on guitar and violin. And the breeze is the moderation and edge of the sea. I remember the first sea breeze after walking from the mountains, the sea was still hours away but I knew then that I’d almost finished.

In W—, where I attempted retail therapy, I went to a museum and was impressed that after five years of occupation, the population shrunk, there was almost tacit agreement among the community to start an uprising and go on their own terms. For the first time in five years they felt free. They flew their own flags, and broadcasted their own messages over loudspeakers, they watched their own propaganda films in a theatre. It lasted two months, and euphoria lasted a few days, but they were desperate to feel free. And in the end, there was virtually nothing left of the city. This is anecdotal and in reconstructed propaganda films. The information online describes the Uprising in strategic terms.

Following this, further hard times, ‘degrading poverty’, under communism. More uprisings, in the form of strikes, more ‘pacifications’. The iconic shelves in the shops that were always empty because what goods there were, were stored under the counter. If you were at a store when there happened to be a delivery of cigarettes or refrigerators, well there was no reason not to buy because no-one in your family smoked. Possessions were hope. Providing for your family was like hunting.

This is a story from a guide in Budapest: a family went outside the Bloc and returned with a treat, 10 kg of bananas, to share with their friends and family, but they were barred from taking them across the border. So rather than let the bananas go to waste, the family sat down and ate them all.

Another from the same guide: you could cross the border to buy a refrigerator or stove, but there had to be five people in the car. So it was common to see carloads of people squeezed in with a fridge.

It gets dark early, around 4pm. The home must be cosy to survive the next four months. Corner banquette.

I copied this down when I was reading After This by Alice McDermott in June: There was, there would always be, the snag of disappointment—it would not be the life she had wanted—but there was, at last, as well, something it would take her until the end of the year to begin to understand… the wisdom of scattering. That day, I saw an old lady sitting with her cows on the side of a hill. The next day, the sea.

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