Wroclaw, Poland (for my birthday)

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The city of Wroclaw in Poland was, like so many others in East-Central Europe, almost completely destroyed in World War II and, in subsequent years, rebuilt as a facsimile of itself. The only way you’d ever know that some of the worst devastation ever inflicted by mankind upon itself occurred there is the fact that all the buildings in the Old Town look suspiciously new, as if they’ve recently been thoroughly cleaned. Or at least, this is the only way you’d know if you were only able to use your eyes. In fact the city has a peculiar hollowness to it: despite being a large city filled with beautiful buildings, strikingly situated around a number of islands on the River Oder, it is possible to wander around it and feel like nothing is really there, that there is nothing to see or to do, that you shouldn’t have come here, and that really you just want to leave.

Before the war, Wroclaw was the German city of Breslau, the largest German city east of Berlin, and accordingly it had a majority German population, around 190,000 Germans to just some 17,000 Poles. But after the war almost all of the Germans of Breslau were forcibly expelled, and replaced with Poles mostly coming from Lwow, which had previously been the second-largest city in Poland before it was claimed by the Soviets for Ukraine. So Wroclaw was rebuilt exactly as it had been but not by people who before this had anything to do with the place; perhaps this is what gives it this hollow quality that I have described, it is not a place that has been allowed to develop as it were organically around the actual lives of the residents but a brittle shell disguising two different traumas.

The centre of Wroclaw has around 15 large churches in it including the Cathedral, but like most Polish churches they are mostly, inside, just huge and empty and white, with a few tacky icons and candles and boxes where you can give money to the saints to get them to intercede; the surviving decoration from their pre-devastation counterparts is all stashed on the first floor of the National Museum, which was totally empty when I went to visit recently on an afternoon in peak tourist season, except for myself and (this being a museum in Eastern Europe) a clearly excessive number of guards. A lot of the sculpture in particular is really beautiful, but it is as if the city doesn’t really know what to do with it, its connection with it is totally incidental (perhaps it also doesn’t help that, in what is a psychotically Catholic country, a lot of the best examples come from what had been Lutheran churches). The city’s most popular tourist attaction sits across from the National Museum in the same park: it is the Raclawice Panorama, a large cycloramic painting depicting the Battle of Raclawice, a victory in the Polish uprising against Russian and Prussian occupation in the 18th century. The Panorama was created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this battle, in 1894, at a time when Breslau was a majority German city, in Lwow, and was later transported to Wroclaw along with most of the surviving population.

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Another thing you would notice if you come to Wroclaw is it is full of all these little statues of gnomes. These are the ‘Wroclaw Dwarfs’, and since they first appeared in 2001 they have come to stand as something of a symbol of the city. There are over 250 dwarf statues in the city, and they can be found outside almost every important building or on every significant street, mostly performing some activity characteristic of their location. Other dwarfs do things like, for example one of them sits in a wheelchair, as a sort of monument to the disabled citizens of the city. The first dwarf statue was a dumpy little yeti-man designed after the mascot of the Orange Alternative movement, an underground subversive group based in the city in the 1980s, who used surreal or comic tactics to spread their propoganda while making fools of the censors. The other dwarfs however all resemble traditional garden gnomes: their instantiation began to accelerate in 2005, and people now go around the city trying to spot them, taking photographs of them squatting down next to them and so forth. They’re really quite a strange public art phenomenon, the dwarfs, since aside from the original dwarf (which has little to do with the rest of them either aesthetically or otherwise), they don’t really stand for anything other than the thing they are placed near which they just kind of directly mimic in dwarf-form, and their proliferation has been really quite sudden and intense. They are like some furious attempt to impart meaning to a place that has, somewhere along the way, been hollowed out of its significance.

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I went to Wroclaw for the second time this summer. I was travelling down through Europe from Berlin to Vienna by myself, largely because I was bored of spending all my time by myself doing philosophy, in a village mostly populated by other academics, and wanted to have an adventure. The first time I went there I was travelling through Europe from Gdansk to Budapest, with my then-girlfriend, Catriona. I was 20 years old and, after a smotheringly dull upbringing that had left me stupid, listless, and fat, I was at a point in my life where the world felt like it was opening up for me, full of possibility and magic, and I was in love. And in truth that trip was probably one of the happiest periods of my life, a really beautiful time which I often find myself wanting to go back to. Although we had not enjoyed Wroclaw, we found it pretty dull; we both had wretched colds, and we had a famously terrible breakfast in the hotel we were staying in where we were served only undefrosted bread rolls and lukewarm luncheon meats (despite one of us being a vegetarian) and were shouted at in Polish whenever we tried to take edible food from the buffet. Such that when I told Cat that I was going to go back to Wroclaw (we were talking on the phone after I had received the long-overdue gas bill from the flat we had shared two years previously, just one of the many real-world necessities that had driven us, really in a lot of ways two children when we fell completely, giddily in love, eventually apart), her reaction was just to ask, incredulously, why.

I think I went back to Wroclaw because of a painter called Malarz Wroclawski. Wroclawski was an obscure Renaissance artist, many of whose paintings hang in the second floor of the aforementioned National Museum. He was local to the city, a fact obvious not just from the surname but also by the fact that underneath his name in the gallery it tells, you ‘Wroclaw Painter’. His paintings, produced over a long period mostly in the 16th century, lack any real originality, displaying the obvious influence of contemporary German, Flemish, and Italian painting, and aside from this often suffer from a certain crudeness in the rendering of figures or perspective bordering on the inept. But this is, in fact, part of Wroclawski’s charm: his works have a folky vibrancy totally absent from the likes of, for instance, Raphael. Moreover, Wroclawski’s oeuvre is almost astonishingly diverse: his style can seem to shift totally from work to work, as he experiments with different ways of representing figures, different subject matters, different colour palettes, brush techniques. Compare:

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On what was a disappointing visit to Wroclaw in 2009, Wroclawski was the one real highlight, the thing that captured my imagination the most. I thought he was an exciting discovery, and looked forward to getting back to the UK and learning more about him and his place in art history more generally. But as it turned out, he proved ungoogleable, and I never did encounter his work or any information about him anywhere again outside his native city. In time, I forgot his name completely, and just remembered him as “that amazing artist from Wroclaw.” His paintings, though, had also faded from my memory, so I couldn’t really quite remember why he was so amazing, beyond the cold abstract fact of his crudity, vibrancy, and diversity. So I guess it was a desire to fill in a sort of blank spot that drew me back to Wroclaw, to see these paintings again and, this time, make sure to absorb all the information about this mysteriously ungoogleable man that I could find.

As I walked through Wroclaw for the second time, everything had a haunting, sort of ineffable familiarity about it. In truth I had no real memories of what anything particularly looked like in Wroclaw, but suddenly when I was there I recognised it all, this building, which me and Catriona had walked past at this particular angle, with the light like that, and so forth. This gave what is I say a really quite hollow-feeling city a strange sort of significance about it, if only for me: these buildings had been a participant, if a minor and rather underwhelming one, in what had been a very happy period in my life, and for that they were somehow washed in its afterglow, a glow I enjoyed basking in as I walked through the city, not really thinking anything but just kind of stunned by the phenomenon, vertiginous.

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The phenomenon intensified as I got to the National Museum, and begun looking around. One room in particular, on the ground floor, was just acutely, desperately familiar. It was a small collection of 14th-century Silesian sculpture (distinct from the stuff from the Wroclaw churches I have already described above), and although, again, as with most of the rest of the city, I would never previously have been able to spontaneously bring it to mind, when I saw it I remembered in rich detail walking around that small room with Catriona all those years ago, and I saw all these couples around me – all the other people on the ground floor of the museum that day, it seemed, were couples – strolling around with their arms around each other and pausing sometimes to kiss, and I thought about how all those years ago we had been one of those couples in that exact same place, and it was like I guess the whole place was haunted by the ghosts of that happiness I had experienced then in that period of my life. I felt in a way like I had had the wind knocked out of me.

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Eventually I got to the Malarz Wroclawskis. I had built this moment up in my mind, if anything going through the rest of the museum up until then deliberately slowly so I could savour all the more the moment when I saw his work again, to the extent that of course, when I finally got there, I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed. I had remembered the gallery as being almost overflowing with Malarz Wroclawski’s works, but actually there were only about 10 or so them, although they were all still exactly as quirkily impressive as I had believed them to be. I went from piece to piece three or four times, every time finding something else to be excited by. And yet there was, still, hardly any information about this man. I noticed an accompanying catalogue in one of the two rooms where his paintings hung, entitled something like ‘Renaissance Silesian Art’ (although it was in Polish, which I don’t even speak the most basic rudiments of, like please and thankyou or yes and no), and tried looking him up, but I couldn’t find anything in particular about him there either.

And then I noticed something rather strange. The earliest of his works in the gallery was dated 1480 or thereabouts, but the latest was dated to the 1620s. Malarz Wroclawski, it seemed, had lived (and worked) for an almost implausibly long time. And there was something odd, too, about the way that the only information given about him, did not include his date of birth or death or anything like that, just the words, as I have already mentioned above, ‘Wroclaw Painter’. And the word ‘Malarz’, too… I wouldn’t have known this when I last went to Wroclaw as I didn’t speak any German then, but now I did… wasn’t it very similar to the German word for ‘painter’?

Malarz Wroclawski did not exist, had never existed. This was why he was ungoogleable, because he was not a person. ‘Malarz Wroclawski’ just meant ‘[Unknown] Painter from Wroclaw’. This explained his curious mix of ineptitude and stylistic diversity: his career had been synthesised out of the works of various average and anonymous painters by my imagination. I had gone to Wroclaw chasing after something I had only, in a more excitable and magical and naïve time in my life, believed to have existed. And it wasn’t there, had never been there, it was a phantom.

By the time I left the National Museum, it was too late to really do anything else, so I wandered around for a bit, before eventually deciding I wanted to get something to eat. There didn’t really seem to be very many good options anywhere, so I settled for one of the probably not very good and definitely slightly overpriced places on the Old Town square. There were a lot of very similar-looking restaurants all with a lot of tables outside under canopies. I let my feet take me to one pretty much at random, which seemed quiet and like it would remain so. I had an alright meal of dumplings and beer. After a while, and in particular when I went to go to the toilet and saw the very distinctive signs gendering them, I realised that this was the exact same restaurant that me and Cat had gone to, again right after visiting the National Museum and seeing the Malarz Wroclawskis for the first time, all those years before.

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After I left the restaurant I bought some beers from an off-licence and sat in the communal area of the hostel I was staying in drinking and listening to music on my headphones and talking to people on the internet and following the football match between England and Scotland, over the course of which Rickie Lambert, a 31 year-old striker who when I had previously visited Wroclaw in 2009 had just completed a move to Southampton from their fellow League One club Bristol Rovers, would come off the bench and, on what was his international debut, score. The communal area was large and dark and I was, for the most part, the only person in it. The hostel was near the train station and, although it had clearly decorated itself with the intention of serving as something of a backpacker hub, was mostly populated by commercial travellers, who would be up early the next morning ironing their shirts. After a while, an overweight Polish man in a crumpled suit, probably in his late 40s and obviously quite drunk, breathing heavily, stumbled into the room and, having sat down on the couch next to mine, asked me persistently in Polish if he could turn the television across from us on, to which I each time replied, that I do not speak Polish, before eventually working out what he was asking and nodding vigorously for OK. He then turned the television on and sat there quite contentedly, watching television static, for at least the next half hour or so.

I was really disturbed by this man. He had a very strange presence to him, like he seemed to be on the verge of death. Not that he was very obviously critically unhealthy or anything like that, he just had this sort of air around him, like he was about to die suddenly, from a heart attack or because he’d get hit by a car or something. He just seemed like a man whose life was rapidly unravelling, and he was too stubborn or stupid to make the necessary changes to save it or himself. And he was watching television static, which let’s face it is just weird, like David Lynch weird. That night, I was woken up at around three in the morning by his grotesque snoring. He was on the bunk opposite mine, slumped on his back, his shirt popped open and his great round belly quivering up and down with each hellish, disgusting snore.

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After trying and failing for about an hour to get back to sleep in the vicinity of that grating, obscene noise, I got up, and spent the next three hours showering, sorting out my stuff, having a coffee, preparing to leave the hostel, procrastinating really, so that I didn’t show up at the train station too early… and then when I did get there it turned out I had missed the last train to Krakow for the next three hours by ten minutes. Initially I just figured this was fine and represented a good excuse to go get some breakfast, but then after a while, especially after the train was delayed first by 20 minutes and then by another hour, I began to be seized by an increasing sense of the impossibility of ever leaving Wroclaw, a gathering fear that the train would be cancelled completely and that I would be trapped here forever, and I would have to return to the hostel and then that man would accost me and force me to sit with him as he watched more of his favourite television static, occassionally reaching over to say something ribald in Polish and grab me by the knee.

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I was sat in a compartment of the train all by myself, listening to ‘Did I Tell You’ by Yo La Tengo, when the train finally eased out of the station, two hours after it had supposed to and five hours after I had arrived at the station. And outside the window the sun was beautiful, and as the train paced off into the outskirts of Wroclaw and gathered speed I saw all these buildings that I had glanced out of the window the last time I left Wroclaw, with Cat for Prague, and I remembered something she had said to me then, a cute in-joke, and the burden of all that fear, that sense of impossibility, was drifting off me, and it felt like I was surrounded by new air, air that I could breathe now, and there were tears in my eyes at the whole strange beauty of it all. Only then the train spluttered, and stopped, and as my music kicked into ‘Sugarcube’ myself and all the other passengers’ heads were thrust out of the window trying in vain to see what was going on. And then after we’d hung there for a few minutes, the thick air of Wroclaw descending again, or better: trembling above me, as if it could or was about to descend, the worst thing possible happened, and we started to go backwards, back into the train station. That was it, I thought. The train had been cancelled, we would all be told to get off, there would not be another one all day and I would be stuck there forever.

Only then that didn’t happen. There was a terrifying ten or fifteen minutes, when we just sort of hung at the platform, and I didn’t know what was going on because I don’t speak any Polish and none of the guards spoke any English and I had access to no other information so I was stuck in this sort of limbo where I was totally blind to know what course or courses of action I might take that would result in me getting to Krakow, where I could check into my hotel room and cocoon myself finally, after a strange day and a bad night, in privacy, but no great number of the other passengers got off so I figured my best chance was probably to stay on. This turned out to be a good decision. Only even when the train had left the station, and was heading, I could tell from the names of the stations we were going through, very definitely towards Krakow, the journey seemed to take forever, like for instance there is a whole stretch on the line past Katowice where for some reason (I went back this way later) the trains seem to be forced to go at about 20mph for a whole hour, so what should be a very short distance for a train to cover yawns into an eternity, and so I would, again, be seized by this fear that I would never get to my anticipated sanctuary. And then when I finally did, I was so relieved; it was only at that point, when I opened the door to my hotel room, that I was finally able to feel like I had really, definitively, escaped that heavy Wroclaw air, which I could not breathe.

I remember, when I was, again, 20 years old, being sat at my desk in my old room on Kathleen Grove in Manchester where all that year Catriona had used to visit me from Glasgow about once every two weeks, and then suddenly feeling this kind of strange darting feeling down my back, like a mouse was running down it, or maybe like someone was trying to push some rather viscuous fluid out through some wire mesh. And then I felt a sort of heavy bursting, and when I put my hand on the affected area to check what was going on I realised that the back of my t-shirt was all dump with pus. A huge spot, which totally beknownst to me had been developing somewhere far beneath my skin, where it could not have been seen even if it was on an area that I was in the business of usually looking at, had taken it upon itself to just suddenly pop, and afterwards how I felt was, it was just this immensely satisfying feeling, like some great weight I had been carrying with me without even knowing about it had been lifted.

And this was much like how I felt after leaving Wroclaw. Over the next few days I realised that the relief I had felt when I got to my hotel room in Krakow had not just been the satisfaction of a desire for some privacy after a bad night in a shared dorm but rather, it was something much deeper, like a sadness I had carried around with me for years, knotted up in me and buried so far down I didn’t even know about it, had suddenly become undone from me and lifted out. And so although consciously I was going back to Wroclaw to see again the paintings of Malarz Wroclawski I think on some level I was going there to confront this sadness and have it, like how I have described, lifted from me, although I cannot quite articulate it and do not really know why Wroclaw and I do not know why what I saw there should have seen it lifted from me either, although I do have a good idea of what that sadness itself probably was.

Wroclaw is a strange place, not just for me. It’s a strange place for all the reasons I discussed at the start. The desire to restore things that have been destroyed exactly as they were is, I think, really a destructive one. Aside from the inherent falseness of the facsimiles, they represent a repression – rather than an undoing – of the logic that made the initial destruction possible in the first place. This sort of repression is inherent in all attempts to romanticise what has been but no longer is. If it ended badly, it cannot simply be saved by somehow, per impossibile, picking up all the pieces and standing them up back together again exactly as they were. In this sense Coventry, far more than Dresden, Warsaw, or Wroclaw, is to be applauded.

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I am 25 years old today. My birthday always feels like the start of a new year. Maybe this is because it actually does fall at the start of what is for me after all given what I do the real new year, the Academic New Year, which always feels much more significant, much more like the start of something new, than the calendar New Year, which I rarely celebrate and which never feels like the end or beginning of anything at all. As I stand thus at the start of this year I feel a strange sort of optimism, and I think it is connected with the sadness that, as I have described, I felt lifted from me after leaving Wroclaw. I hope I can live this year, I guess, as more of what I would understand in the terms of this piece as a sort of Coventry than as a sort of Wroclaw, although I don’t in particular want my life to have anything to do with the actual real-world Coventry, maybe more: I want to be a Coventry of the right sort of life. Thankyou for indulging me by reading this.

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One Response to Wroclaw, Poland (for my birthday)

  1. Fantastic, fascinating article…

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