About this Translation
Both the author of the following short stories and myself are from Gostyn, a small town in Poland. When Lukasz, the author, suggested I could translate his debut stories, I agreed. My rationale was that his depiction of our hometown deserves to be disseminated further. Typically, settlements of Gostyn’s size inspire only historical, anthropological, socio-economic or other scientific monographs, often written with the official and financial support of the local authorities, who can draw these days on sizeable EU funds to aid such projects. But literature whose main character is a 20,000 Polish town is rare, and its translation into English even more extraordinary. So I had decided to take on the challenge.
Because a challenge it did indeed prove itself to be. To convey in English the reality of the 1980s Poland seemed at times inexecutable. I wouldn’t like to go into detail about how I resolved all the issues that kept arising in the course of translation; I can only rest assured that I have done my absolute best to bridge the two cultures in one language.
Translating the book, I couldn’t help wondering who its readership is going to be. Well, it’s a well-known fact that there are many Polish migrants in Europe. Having previously lived myself in the UK for many years, I realize that there is a certain group of foreigners who, having come into contact with Poles, would like to learn more about our country and mentality. This book can assist in the acquisition of such knowledge. It is because small towns like Gostyn act like a prism through which the reader sees the character of the whole country more clearly. But whatever the reason to open this book might be, and whoever the reader happens to be, I hope an account of life in Poland as it was in the 1980s narrated in English will be a refreshing literary mixture.
Lukasz Andrzejewski, translator
Some beet pulp, for a good start
In Gostyn in the 1980s there were — and in fact remain to this day — three mainstays of local industry, employing establishments, as they were called back then: a glass container factory, a sugar refinery and a dairy cooperative. As a rule, at least half of my friends’ parents, be it someone’s mother or father, worked for one of the three enterprises. The glass foundry produced primarily jars, catering to our conservatory needs, so it didn’t have any particular appeal to children. If anything, only the huge potholes created by lorries bringing in the necessary raw materials and taking away the ready glass product may have held some attraction for kids.
The dairy cooperative, known in Gostyn as the condensery, was an entirely different story. It was there that condensed milk, arguably the best of its kind anywhere in the world, some of it sold in tin tubes, was made. For sure, the dairy also produced milk, kefir, cream and butter, but who was interested in those? Certainly not schoolchildren. Not at the time when it was virtually impossible to find any sweets in a sweet shop! Yes, you hear me right: no sweets in a sweet shop… The crisis was rearing its ugly head and music on television was Gang Marcela, Lady Pank and Kombi. Unfortunately, condensed milk was not easy to come by, inasmuch as most of it was exported to the west, bringing The Polish People’s Republic hard currency — the only stable store of value for the country — and becoming a rare commodity in the process, too rare to be freely available to the population at large. No surprise then that whenever the lucky child’s parents did manage to procure a tube or two of condensed milk and bring it home, the world would instantly become sweeter and more colourful. A child would squeeze the liquid out until the very sweet end, methodically bending the tin at the bottom of the tube so as not to waste a single gram of the blissfully white and syrupy substance. Sometimes the tube would have to be cut open and its inner surface licked clean till the very last smidgen of the sticky milk was gone. The dairy cooperative was located away from the main traffic, on the outskirts of the town. I saw it for the first time only after having enjoyed a vast number of condensed milk tubes.
The red-brick sugar refinery, on the other hand, was only a short distance away from the centre of Gostyn, stretching along the road that anyone driving through the town would take. The refinery has always evoked the uniquely scented memory of the sugar beet campaign. Today too, every year in autumn, the air is over-saturated with the perennial odour of sugar beet pulp. The smell hangs heavy in the morning, afternoon and evening and does not subside throughout the night. Smart outfits worn by elegant ladies become suffused with it, as do those worn by well-dressed men. Also permeated by the strong aroma are the uniforms of policemen and policewomen, many lying in ambush in Poznanska Street, a portable speed-camera in hand. For as long as people can remember, the smell has been the very symbol of Gostyn.
Both the smell of beet pulp and the flavour of condensed milk came to mind the other day, when I was tidying up the basement. A few empty glass jars caught my eye, most likely produced at the local glass container factory. This triggered a train of thought. The jar — the glass factory — Gostyn; childhood — beet pulp — condensed milk. No sooner had the imaginary tin tube entered my mind than I was headed for the nearest grocery store.
Walnuts and chestnuts
Nothing is so capable of evoking memories of my childhood in Gostyn as walnuts and chestnuts. Oh, boy! The time we spent climbing the trees. Certainly, like every other kid, I too played football, flicked metal bottle caps in a pretend track-cycling contest round the velodrome of sand-pit benches, enjoyed hide and seek, chased cockchafers with badminton rackets in May and flew kites in autumn, so a sight of a bottle cap or a badminton racket still rekindle many memories of my youth. Yet, it is when I catch a whiff of fresh walnuts, or chestnuts, that I can recall the most vivid memory: that of my grandparents’ yard, enclosed by three small blocks of flats at Mostowa Street, their construction dating back to the 1950s. I will always think of it as my first yard, for not only did I spend out in it most of my after-school time, but, more importantly, the boys I played there with were two or three years older than me — eight at that time — and that made their knowledge about the world far superior to mine.
The yard was home to walnut trees. For a few months they merely stood there. True, they towered above the nearby carpet beating rack and cast long shadows over the sandpits and benches, but we remained unfazed by their presence. In September, however, a walnut craze would sweep through the place. Around the time a new school year was about to commence, the trees would shed the first few walnuts, marking off the beginning of yet another great gathering season. Naturally, our hunter-gatherer instinct never asleep, rather than waiting for ripe walnuts to fall down, pulled by gravity, we would climb the trees to shake their branches, thus making them release their fruit. After each of such climbs, we proudly carried home a nylon carrier bag half-full of walnuts. In the 1980s plastic carrier bags were still a thing of the future. Once at home, we were not in the mood to let the nuts dry, as adults would have, for, contrary to common belief, they are most delicious when consumed fresh. Here is what I recommend you do should you find yourself with fresh walnuts heaped into your your hands by an eight-year-old chestnut tree climber: you crack the shell open, take the kernel out and delicately peel the bitter and tart husk off it. Now you are ready to eat the white heart of the walnut. Enjoy. But beware: your hands will inevitably turn brown and generally dirty in the process, and, afterwards, their surface will be resistant to any attempt on your part to wash it clean, even when you resort to scrubbing your hands with a pumice stone. No wonder then that our triumphant return home with a bagful of walnuts always caused confusion: our mothers and grandmothers were not sure whether to applaud the successful harvest or condemn the appalling state of our hands.
Chestnuts are a different story. They didn’t grow in the yard, but in the nearby park and playground. Chestnuts are not edible and we gathered them for handicraft — sticking matches into them as limbs and other extremities, we would bring into being most fantastical figurines. Chestnut and walnut trees did have one thing in common though. They both afforded us a climbing opportunity. The most brave of us ventured up to the very top and would remain there for a really long while. Often this was not because of the climber’s sudden wish to feast their eyes on the landscape and on the view of our heads perked up but due to his fear of the descent — the initial intrepidity all but evaporated, in accordance with the common knowledge that it is easier to climb a tree than to come off it. Since then I have always remembered that, not only when climbing, but also when performing more mundane everyday tasks, it is convenient to have someone covering your back.
A walk and bottle caps
I first took a walk unaccompanied by an adult along the anti-flood embankment running parallel to Primary School No. 3 in Gostyn. My parents saw me off to the top of the rise, where the pavement then used to begin. I was supposed to walk some two or three hundred meters down to the rendezvous point with my grandparents. It was late spring and I may have been six years old, at the most. I was wearing a long sleeve, shorts and sandals, while my head was adorned with a beret, a perky stem on its top. It was that stem that Grandpa and Grandma first caught sight of, only later to be followed by their grandson. Full of purpose, I was walking briskly, not once glancing back. On my right there was a playground, the site of many of our outdoor games. Having passed it, I eventually saw the figures of my grandparents. One of them was holding a reward for me. A lollipop. Red, on a wooden stick, made entirely of sugar and protected by a transparent wrapper. It was most likely heart-shaped: my first solo journey was successful. True, it was a downhill success, rather than an uphill triumph, but there was still plenty of time for adventurous climbs in my life.
My grandparents lived in a tiny housing estate, consisting of a mere three blocks of flats, first such buildings to have been constructed in Gostyn — they were erected in the 1950s. Within the bounds defined by these three-storey gabled dwelling houses, there was a yard, its space taken up by walnut trees, willows, a carpet beating rack, two sandpits, some walking paths and benches. The yard teemed with life. The benches were occupied by women indulging in leisurely chatter. Local men were cleaning and oiling their bicycles and Komar mopeds. Every now and then someone would cut across the yard on their way to the rubbish bin shelter, its gate kept shut with a metal bolt. Once every hour or even less frequently a car would cruise past along the nearby road.
There, out in the yard, we, the boys from the estate, played the game of bottle caps. The only sandpit fit for the purpose was the one whose horizontal planks used as seats by both parents and children were relatively undamaged and even-surfaced. The other one was in such a poor state that our metal bottle caps, placed down with their smooth top down for the purpose of the game, when flicked, skidded straight off into the sand. Each of us would bring quite a few various bottle caps, some screw caps, others of the type that, when still in use, were pressed over and around the small flange of the bottleneck. They came from Coca-Cola, orange soda or other, not as easily identifiable, drinks. In order to be able to steer the lighter ones with greater precision, we filled their hollows with wax or plasticine. If anyone had packed too much of any of the materials inside, they got to know they had done so at the very first flick because of the resulting pain piercing through the quick of their fingernails. We cushioned the corners of the sandpit with clay: that way the bottle caps were less prone to veer off the track and the game lasted longer. Naturally, it was a competitive game, and the winner was the player who had flicked their bottle caps four times around the sandpit in a lowest number of individual hits. Just like in any other game, one sometimes won, lost at other times. It was then however, playing the game, when I understood that a race is not always won by the fastest, but that victory may as well belong to those who, besides possessing speed and strength, have mastered precision.
Bananas and shoelaces
In Poland of my school years, salaried state workers — the majority of the population — didn’t earn much. Even if one happened to have some extra cash, it was not often possible to freely convert it into consumer goods, as shop shelves echoed with emptiness. Therefore whenever there was an opportunity for anyone’s parents to go abroad for a few weeks or months to earn additional money, they grabbed it with both hands. The return of such a parent was immediately evident. For instance, one day, during break time, one of my schoolmates pulled an actual banana out of his bag. We just stood there, dazed by the sight. None of us had ever seen the fruit before. Twice a year sour Cuban oranges would grace the shelves of some grocery shops, but bananas remained strangers to our stores. We saw them on television or read about them in books. Now before our very own eyes, there was a real one … one, while there were seven of us. We all wanted to taste the flavour of it. The fruit was as exotic for us as nothing but a banana in 1986 or 1987 could be. Its taste could only be fantasised. Was it sweet? Or sour? We were only to have a second-hand experience, though: there was no way the banana owner was going to share the unique fruit. Having eaten it in front of our inquiring eyes, the boy confirmed the banana’s relative sweetness. Later, it turned out that it was all he had been given for lunch. Anyway, he would not have wanted to corrupt the taste of this exotic fruit by eating anything else, nowhere near as exquisite and rare — in all likelihood his father had not brought back home more than two kilograms of the fleshy fruit. And he definitely shared part of the bounty with the extended family, as a fruity tribute to familial allegiance, or, at the very least, he invited them to participate in a banana tasting event.
Some other day the very same fellow came to school sporting dazzling white trainers. But it was not his shoe-wear that blew our minds. It was the radiant jade-green shoelaces. We were wearing ordinary plimsolls (read: drab plimsolls with drab and worn-out shoelaces). The vibrant jade-green celadon of the trainers was too intensely-hued for our eyes. Some reacted with derisory laughter, but most looked on with envy. Yes, they were envious of his colourful accessory and couldn’t hide it. These stunningly coloured shoelaces were a far cry from our everyday reality. Even when their wearer was a mile off, one could not help but noticing them, and thus him. They appeared to be larger than the shoes they held tied up. Even larger than the lucky owner. In the space of a few days, however, we got used to the sight. The shoelaces got covered with dust and lost their radiance. One particularly rainy day the chap arrived at school totally soaked through, all the way down to his white plimsolls. He took them off, pulled out the wet shoelaces and slosh-slapped the whole damp lot on the radiator. Sagging there, the laces lost their charm for us. They lost their vibrancy. Lost their flare. They were what they had always been — just shoelaces, still less average, but not extraordinary any longer. Since then, I have always known that it is far easier to become a one hit wonder than to remain a perennial classic rock favourite.
On Sundays we used to go to church. Many had to march through nearly the whole town to get there. The route I followed, an unbroken straight line, took me from my neighbourhood, colloquially known to every Gostynian as the Hills, across the historical market square, to the central parish church, known as… well… the Parish Church. The trail was probably a bit over a kilometer long.
Every Sunday was an adventure, but the essence of the experience was not in attending the church service. Yes, we listened to the priest talking about God and were learning to sing hymns with the church organist, crossed ourselves and inhaled the sweet incense of frankincense. Yet the holy day had a good deal more to offer — the central street’s shopfronts. My route took me along 1st May Street and its many shop window displays. Most of these were rather dingy, a situation fully understandable in the light of the economic crisis of the 1980s. Most, but not all. There were two notable exceptions. On the right, one could easily spot a grocery store that flaunted goods unavailable in any other shops around. The display caught one’s eye with the glorious glitz of its many drink cans, silver and golden-packaged foods, even some exotic fruit (!) and bubble gum. But there was the rub. The shop charged market-regulated prices, while our parents earned state-fixed salaries. Across from that store, on the left-hand side of the street, if one were going towards the Parish Church, there was to be found the second exception. That store did not display anything that could be drunk, eaten or chewed on. Instead we could feast our eyes on T-shirts and pinback buttons featuring musicians or bands popularized by Wideoteka, a contemporary trend-setting TV music programme. Beside the music merchandise there squatted, starkly out of keeping with the decor, silver and copper chalices filled with ballpens bearing the resemblance of Pope John Paul II. Last but not least, there were the mandatory plane and automobile models. Even though the Sunday scrutiny of the content of two shopfronts was part of a never changing midday ritual, the sight never failed to leave the same deep impression on us.
After the service, I would join some of my schoolmates, some friends from my neighbourhood and some other guys whom I just happened to know, the small population of Gostyn (20 thousand people) ruling out total anonymity, on the way to the peat meadow located just behind the Parish Church to burn a mixture of sodium nitrate and sugar. The peaty patch of land was ideal for the pyrotechnical fun because of its countless bulges of molehills. We would arrange, give or take, a meter-long thin line of the powder so that it ran all the way to one of the conical mounds, with the remainder of the concoction being buried inside it. Then the chap who had brought matches along with him would set fire to the tail end of the flammable arrangement and we would all run for it. After several seconds — all of us now ready for it — the molehill exploded not unlike a miniature volcano. For us that very moment was the most magnificent scene in the whole world.
When I had been leaving home, my parents knew where I was headed and to some extent how I was going to spend my time. However, they were in no way able to monitor all my movements. GPS and mobile phone technology hadn’t been dreamt of yet. Nor did we have 333 TV stations or Wi-Fi. Was there anything wrong with not having those Big Brother technologies?
Music and table tennis
Curiously enough, my best mates in primary school were my namesakes — we were three Lukaszs. One was tall, one short, while I was of medium height. Lining up at school assembly or proudly puffing our chests out during a taking of attendance by the PE teacher, we looked terrific next to each other.
Apart from being bosom friends, we listened together to music. The father of one of us was a real music connoisseur. He had worked abroad for a while, and, on his return home — for the dollars he had been paid there with — purchased what was regarded back in the day as an absolutely cutting edge stereo set: a Technics CD player and amplifier. On the days when our lessons were scheduled to begin in the early afternoon, as was common practice for all Gostyn schools in the 1980s, we would come to that particular Lukasz’s place to listen to music, and to generally behave silly, as boys will do. Though there were several dozen CD disks, all brought back from the friend’s father’s sojourn across the Atlantic, it was the much more sizeable stockpile of vinyls that we were listening to most often. These, we would really cautiously pull out of their sleeves and — even more gingerly — place on the turntable. Someone would press the button and the music would purr forth. The music loving father did not seem to appreciate punk, yet it is thanks to the collection he had amassed that I first heard The Police and The Talking Heads. Given the vastness of his collection, I cannot recall what music we grew to like the most. Anyway, it was not the act of listening itself that constituted the essence of our gatherings, but rather the mere fact that we could spend time in each others’ company. One more thing, a curious consequence of those long gone sessions is that now we tend to share the same musical DNA.
We were bonded by something more than music. It was table tennis. Or ping pong, if you will. Half way through primary school, aged ten or eleven, our trio and one other chap used to play the sport twice a week in an unassuming building of our local housing cooperative. The fourth player was required for the doubles, as that format guaranteed the greatest entertainment. Playing two against two, it was more fun to smash the ball, add a spin onto it or manage to send it cheekily onto the very edge of the table so that it ricocheted off it in a totally unpredictable direction. I recall that, for an inexplicable reason, the windows of the room we were assigned had to be kept shut throughout the whole mini tournament so we knew we would definitely need something to quench our thirst. With this in mind, before the matches, we would buy a few glass bottles of Grodziska, refreshingly fizzy mineral water, characterized by its low mineral content. Since we all owned different rackets, to level the playing field, we swapped them round in the course of our games. Fun as the sport was, the end of primary school spelled the end to ping pong. It marked however a new beginning: our interest in girls, but that was going to be an entirely different game.
Of the two of my best friends, it had always been Little Lukasz that had not only aimed at being first at everything, but also regularly managed to succeed in it. First to turn up at school in the morning, though he lived the farthest. First to have owned a Schneider stereo system with stand-alone speakers and — of absolutely crucial importance — a dual cassette deck! That enabled him to copy music from one cassette to another: a rare freedom in the 1980s. Also first to develop interest in tennis, the sport he later got us hooked on. First to sport tennis shoes and a genuine Terrycloth wristband. He too was first to receive an acoustic guitar from his parents. Towards the end of school, Lukasz proficiently performed songs by Tilt and Sztywny Pal Azji, both their mellow and snappy compositions.
He may have been the first of our trio to have been dating a girl. Though I might be wrong on this account, as our interest in the fairer sex in primary school was close to none. However, what I cannot be in the least wrong about is that he was the very first of us to have seen a naked girl. Lukasz let a few of us, his friends, on to the secret and described all the details of the female physique that had been laid bare to his eyes. The short moment the actual experience had lasted took on a much longer life in the story he recounted to us. We were listening to it mouth agape, having seen none other than clothed girls before.
Interestingly enough, Lukasz and I have never locked horns over a female, despite knowing each other for close to forty years. The ones he has admired have always looked unlike those I have been fond of. But I am convinced the difference was not merely in the looks. Far from it. Rather, it was made by that one single atom that manifests itself in the flare we call attraction, and this nuclear chemistry is pretty much a very personal phenomenon. I do not claim to know what exactly it is and how it works, but the existence of something of the sort would explain why we dated different girls.
Another thing he beat us all to: Lukasz had always been first to catch a light brown tan that added healthy lustre to his complexion. As early as in April, after the first really warm weekend, he would turn up one Monday at school with a radiant smile on his finely suntanned face. That tan was his identification mark. And there is one last precedence. A few years after graduating, he left for Australia and eventually settled down there. He is the first and in all likelihood the only Gostynian to have both Australian and Polish citizenship. No matter what he does Down Under and who he shares his life there with, I rest assured that he will never suffer from a lack of sunshine and the resulting suntan.
The other of my best friends in primary school was Big Lukasz. We had known each other practically from the cradle. When we were still less than a year old, our parents moved into the same housing estate to live in apartment blocks facing each other, separated only by a sand pit, a handful of benches, a carpet beating rack, clothes lines and a rubbish bins shelter. Then, after we had turned ten, both his and my parents moved to another housing estate, as they had been allocated there more spacious, two-bedroom, flats. This time too our blocks of flats were near, though not opposite, to one another, and again we shared the same sand pit and carpet beating rack. More than that, not only did we attend the same school and our respective pairs of parents knew each other well, but we also had siblings of the same age, one year our juniors, though his was a brother while mine a sister. We had so much in common, yet there was one thing that set us apart. It was butter, which I unconditionally hated. Lukasz, in his turn, could gulp half a stick of butter — without, it should be added, throwing up — before I could even look away.