Zakopane, late February. Icicles hanging from the eaves, the whole town pillowed in snow.
I am learning to ski and my elementary knowledge of physics has informed me that it will be easy because gravity is on my side. I have failed to take into account the effort required to brake, especially since we are temporarily between insurances and I have no wish to break a limb, and so am braking more than I otherwise might. I also suffer from the morale-dashing experience of being hopeless at something which everyone I know has been doing for at least 2 decades. Also, the fact that -unbelievably- there are people who are more hopeless than me doesn’t provide much comfort when they are running into me from every direction as I attempt to stay on my feet.
To add insult to injury, we meet one of Marcin’s friends in the train station on the way home. I am exhausted and feel as if I have spent the weekend being kicked in the thighs by a wild stallion, and can barely wait until we’re in the train before falling asleep. She is 3rd in Poland in cross-country skiing, has spent the day racing and looks cheerful and energetic. I sulk briefly before falling asleep to a self pitying litany which runs something like why am I the worst at everything? (everything means winter sports and speaking Polish).
Off to try again this weekend after watching 200 youtube videos on how to progress from the elementary snow plough to parallel turns.
A couple of months ago it miraculously turned out that I could understand Polish films, and I have been availing myself of this peculiarly grim artistic resource ever since. I’m not talking about frivolous, cheerful comedies (like the incredibly stupid Wyjazd Integracyjny, or older lightweight films like Miś, Seks Misja, Rozmowa Kontrolowane).
I’m talking about Wesele, Dom Zły, Tatarak, Wymyk- films full of venality and death and loss, without the slightest hint of redemption, a word I learned from Marcin as I made my way home from ‘Wymyk’ in tears. These films make Agnieszka Holland’s latest film “In Darkness”, (about Jews hiding in the sewers of Lwów during WW 2) look like a jolly romp. They make you beg for the happy ending which must surely be your due for enduring 90 minutes on the dark side, but don’t deliver it.
I love these ruthless films, which play to my hidden conviction that life is a vale of tears. I love the absence of plastic beauty in actors like Marcin Więckiewicz and Kinga Preis- him with his battered gangster’s face, her with her peasant’s hips and sudden white smile. And I’m only at the beginning of my investigations into this treasure trove- happy days ahead.
At the very beginning of the current mróz, as I shuffled towards the Natolin metro station wondering if I would survive it, I found myself doing a mental inventory of my winter wardrobe, to try and persuade myself of my sartorial preparation. It turns out that I own 2 down jackets, 2 goretex jackets, a waterproof cycling jacket, a coat and 2 windbreakers. I still wonder if I need more, and I still get tormented every time we visit Marcin’s parents for inadequate kidney coverage.
The fact is that I have never seen such cold before. When I watch the weather forecast in the metro, I want to laugh. Surely there’s some mistake? The Wisła is freezing up slowly and the river in Pruszków has only a few remaining patches of open water which are black with desperate ducks. The snow underfoot (already several weeks old) is no longer suitable for building snowmen. Sometimes the air itself freezes into millions of tiny glinting crystals. It’s beautiful but leaves me disinclined to wait at the bus stop or roam the streets.
For New Year’s Eve, we escaped from Warsaw to the Lithuanian borderlands, apparently the coldest place in Poland. The artist grandfather of a friend of ours has a house in a village near Suwałki on the Czarna Hańcza river, but having recently fallen in love with a younger woman in her fifties, he had abandoned it for the big smoke, leaving Janek and his father to decide if they want to play lords of the manor.
The house was one of those beautiful old Polish country houses, smelling of wood, with a tile stove in almost every room storing heat like a great battery. Even the quality of light filtered by the multi-lit windows had its own peculiar quality; a sort of pale, watery clarity. Outside horses galloped across meadows dotted with trees which Marcin was convinced had been planted according to special rules of picturesqueness (‘po malowniczo’, I think he said). The Czarna Hancza flowed darkly along the foot of the property.
Before our party started, we went to the village and had ourselves a bania ( a village sauna) with a couple of Janek’s friends. A modest and sheet- wrapped beginning gave way to a less prudish atmosphere as we all relaxed, and soon Marcin and Mateusz were happily flogging each other’s buttocks with a bunch of twigs which had been left lying around for that purpose. When it got too hot we went outside and rolled in the snow (the others leapt into the Czarna Hancza but I thought it might give me a heart attack).
We came back to Warsaw on the train on Sunday night, relieved not to have to get in the car with anyone. We were black from woodsmoke after 2 nights of standing around the bonfire and happily exhausted.