The World In Your Head
The first trip I ever took was across the fields, on foot. It took them a long time to notice I was gone, which meant I was able to make it quite some distance. I covered the whole park and even—going down dirt roads, through the corn and the damp meadows teeming with cowslip flowers, sectioned into squares by ditches—reached the river. Though of course the river was ubiquitous in that valley, soaking up under the ground cover and lapping at the fields.
Clambering up onto the embankment, I could see an undulating ribbon, a road that kept flowing outside of the frame, outside of the world. If you were lucky, you might catch sight of a boat there, one of those great flat boats gliding over the river in either direction, oblivious to the shores, to the trees, to the people who stand on the embankment, unreliable landmarks, perhaps, not worth remarking, just an audience to the boats’ own motion, so full of grace. I dreamed of working on a boat like that when I grew up—or even better, of becoming one of those boats.
It wasn’t a big river, only the Oder, but I, too, was little then. It had its place in the hierarchy of rivers, which I later checked on the maps—a minor one, but present, nonetheless, a kind of country viscountess at the court of the Amazon queen. But it was more than enough for me. It seemed enormous. It flowed as it liked, essentially unimpeded, prone to flooding, unpredictable.
Occasionally along the banks it would catch on some underwater obstacle, and eddies would develop. But the river flowed on, parading, concerned only with its hidden aims beyond the horizon, somewhere far off to the north. Your eyes couldn’t keep focused on the water, which pulled your gaze along up past the horizon, so that you’d lose your balance.
To me, of course, the river paid no attention, caring only for itself, those changing, roving waters into which—as I later learned—you can never step twice.
Every year it charged a steep price to bear the weight of those boats because each year someone drowned in the river, whether a child taking a dip on a hot summer’s day or some drunk who somehow wound up on the bridge and, in spite of the railing, still fell into the water. The search for the drowned always took place with great pomp and circumstance, with everyone in the vicinity waiting with bated breath. They’d bring in divers and army boats. According to adults’ accounts we overheard, the recovered bodies were swollen and pale—the water had rinsed all the life out of them, blurring their facial features to such an extent that their loved ones would have a hard time identifying their corpses.
Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that—in spite of all the risks involved—a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity. From then on, the river was like a needle inserted into my formerly safe and stable surroundings, the landscape composed of the park, the greenhouses with their vegetables that grew in sad little rows, and the sidewalk with its concrete slabs where we would go to play hopscotch. This needle went all the way through, marking a vertical third dimension; so pierced, the landscape of my childhood world turned out to be nothing more than a toy made of rubber from which all the air was escaping, with a hiss.
My parents were not fully the settling kind. They moved from place to place, time and time again, until finally they paused for longer near a country school, far from any proper road or a train station. Then traveling simply became crossing the unplowed ridge between the furrows, going into the little town nearby, doing the shopping, filing paperwork at the district office. The hairdresser on the main square by the Town Hall was always there in the same apron, washed and bleached in vain because the clients’ hair dye left stains like calligraphy, like Chinese characters. My mom would have her hair dyed, and my father would wait for her at the New Café, at one of the two little tables set up outside. He’d read the local paper, where the most interesting section was always the one with the police reports, gherkins and jam jars stolen out of cellars.
And then the vacations, their timid tourism, their Škoda packed to the gills. Endlessly prepared for, planned in the evenings in the early spring when the snow had all but stopped, though the ground had yet to come back to its senses; you had to wait until it finally gave itself to plow and hoe, when you could plant in it again, and from that moment forward it would take up all their time, from morning to eve.
Theirs was the generation of motor homes, of tugging along behind them a whole surrogate household. A gas stove, little folding tables and chairs. A plastic cord to hang laundry up to dry when they stopped and some wooden clothespins. Waterproof tablecloths. A ready-made picnic set: colored plastic plates, utensils, salt and pepper shakers, and glasses.
Somewhere along the way, at one of the flea markets that he and my mother particularly loved to visit (since they were not interested, for instance, in having their pictures taken at churches or monuments), my father had purchased an army kettle—a brass device, a vessel with a tube in the middle that you would fill up with tinder you lit on fire. Though you could get electricity at the campsites, he would heat up water in that smoking, spluttering pot. He’d kneel down over the hot kettle, taking no small pride in the gurgle of the boiling water he’d then pour over our tea bags—a true nomad.
They’d set up in the designated areas, at campsites where they were always in the company of others just like them, having lively conversations with their neighbors, surrounded by socks drying on tent cords. The itineraries for these trips would be determined with the aid of guidebooks that painstakingly highlighted all the attractions. In the morning a swim in the sea or the lake, and in the afternoon an excursion into the city’s history, capped off by dinner, most often out of glass jars: goulash, meatballs in tomato sauce. You just had to cook the pasta or the rice. Costs were always being cut, the Polish zloty was weak—penny of the world. There was the search for a place where you could get electricity and then the reluctant decamping after, although all journeys remained within the same metaphysical orbit of home. They weren’t real travelers: they left in order to return. And they were relieved when they got back, with a sense of having fulfilled an obligation. They returned to collect the letters and bills that stacked up on the chest of drawers. To do a big wash. To bore their friends to death by showing pictures as everyone attempted to conceal their yawns. This is us in Carcassonne. Here’s my wife with the Acropolis in the background.
Then they would lead a settled life for the next year, going back every morning to the same thing they had left in the evening, their clothes permeated by the scent of their own flat, their feet tirelessly wearing down a path in the carpet.
That life is not for me. Clearly I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots. I’ve tried, a number of times, but my roots have always been shallow; the littlest breeze could always blow me right over. I don’t know how to germinate, I’m simply not in possession of that vegetable capacity. I can’t extract nutrition from the ground, I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement—from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.
I have a practical build. I’m petite, compact. My stomach is tight, small, undemanding. My lungs and my shoulders are strong. I’m not on any prescriptions—not even the pill—and I don’t wear glasses. I cut my hair with clippers, once every three months, and I use almost no makeup. My teeth are healthy, perhaps a bit uneven, but intact, and I have just one old filling, which I believe is located in my lower left canine. My liver function is within the normal range. As is my pancreas. Both my right and left kidneys are in great shape. My abdominal aorta is normal. My bladder works. Hemoglobin 12.7. Leukocytes 4.5. Hematocrit 41.6. Platelets 228. Cholesterol 204. Creatinine 1.0. Bilirubin 4.2. And so on. My IQ—if you put any stock in that kind of thing—is 121; it’s passable. My spatial reasoning is particularly advanced, almost eidetic, though my laterality is lousy. Personality unstable, or not entirely reliable. Age all in your mind. Gender grammatical. I actually buy my books in paperback, so that I can leave them without remorse on the platform, for someone else to find. I don’t collect anything.
I completed my degree, but I never really mastered any trade, which I do regret; my great-grandfather was a weaver, bleaching woven cloth by laying it out along the hillside, baring it to the sun’s hot rays. I would have been well suited to the intermingling of warp and weft, but there’s no such thing as a portable loom. Weaving is an art of sedentary tribes. When I’m traveling I knit. Sadly, in recent times some airlines have banned the use of knitting needles and crochet hooks on board. I never learned, as I say, any particular line of work, and yet in spite of what my parents always used to tell me, I’ve been able to get by, working different jobs as I go, staying afloat.
When my parents went back to the city after their twenty-year experiment, when they had finally tired of the droughts and the frosts, healthy food that ailed all winter in the cellar, the wool from their own sheep assiduously stuffed inside the gaping mouths of comforters and pillows, they gave me a little bit of money, and I set off on my first trip.
I took odd jobs wherever I happened to be. In an international factory on the outskirts of a large metropolis I assembled antennas for high-end yachts. There were a lot of people like me there. We were paid under the table and never questioned about where we came from or what our plans were for the future. Every Friday we got our money, and whoever didn’t feel like it anymore simply didn’t come back on Monday. There were high school graduates taking a break before applying to university. Immigrants still en route to that fair, idyllic country they were sure was somewhere in the West, where people are brothers and sisters, and a strong state plays the role of parent; fugitives from their families—from their wives, their husbands, their parents; the unhappily in love, the confused, the melancholic, those who were always cold. Those running from the law because they couldn’t pay off their debts. Wanderers, vagabonds. Crazy people who’d wind up in the hospital the next time they fell ill again, and from there they’d get deported back to their countries of origin on the basis of rules and regulations shrouded in mystery.
Just one person worked there permanently, an Indian man who had been there for years, though in reality his situation was no different from ours. He didn’t have insurance or paid vacation. He worked in silence, patiently, on an even keel. He was never late. He never found any need to take time off. I tried to talk some people into setting up a trade union—these were the days of Solidarity—if only for him, but he didn’t want to. Touched by the interest I’d taken in him, however, he began to share with me the spicy curry he brought in a lunch box every day. I no longer remember what his name was.
I was a waitress, a maid in an upscale hotel, and a nanny. I sold books. I sold tickets. I was employed in a small theater for one season to work in wardrobe, making it through that long winter ensconced backstage amidst heavy costumes, satin capes, and wigs. Once I’d finished my studies, I also worked as a teacher, as a rehab counselor, and—most recently—in a library. Whenever I managed to save any money, I would be on my way again.
Benedictus, Qui Venit
April on the motorway, the sun’s red streaks across the asphalt, the world all delicately decorated with a glaze from the recent rain—an Easter cake. I’m driving on Good Friday, at dusk, from the Netherlands to Belgium—I don’t know which country I’m in now, since the border has vanished; unused, it’s been expunged. They’re playing a requiem on the radio. At the Benedictus, the lights come on along the motorway, as though reinforcing the blessing I’m getting involuntarily from the radio.
But in reality it could not have meant anything other than that I’d made it to Belgium, where, happily for travelers, all the motorways are well lit.
Enormous airports assemble us together on the promise of connection with our next flight; it is an order of transferral and of timetables in the service of motion. But even if we had nowhere else to go in the coming couple of days, it would still be worth getting to know these spaces.
Once they were in the outskirts, supplementing cities, like train stations. But now airports have emancipated themselves, so that today they have a whole identity of their own. Soon we may well say that it’s the cities that supplement the airports, as workplaces and places to sleep. It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement.
In what possible way could airports be considered inferior to actual cities, nowadays? They hold conference centers, interesting art exhibits, festivals, and product launches. They have gardens and promenades; they instruct: at Amsterdam’s Schiphol you can see excellent copies of Rembrandt, and there is an airport in Asia that has a museum of religion—a fabulous idea. We have access to good hotels and a wide variety of restaurants and bars from inside airports. There are little shops and supermarkets and shopping malls where you can stock up not only on provisions for the road, but also on souvenirs, in advance, so as to not waste any time once you get where you are going. There are gyms, places that offer both traditional and Eastern massage, hairstylists and customer service representatives from banks and mobile phone companies. And after satisfying the needs of our bodies, we can move on to spiritual succor at the numerous chapels and meditation spaces offered by airports. Sometimes they host readings and book signings for travelers. Somewhere in my backpack I still have the program from one such event: “The History and Foundations of Travel Psychology,” “The Development of Seventeenth-Century Anatomy.”
Everything is well lit; moving walkways facilitate the migration of travelers from one terminal to another so they may go, in turn, from one airport to another (sometimes at a distance of some sixteen hours of flight!) while a discreet staff ensures the flawlessness of this great mechanism’s workings.
They are more than travel hubs: this is a special category of city-state, with a stable location, but citizens in flux. They are airport-republics, members of a World Airport Union, and while they aren’t yet represented at the UN, it is only a matter of time. They are an example of a system where internal politics matter less than ties with other airport members of the Union—for only these provide them with their raison d’être. An example of an extroverted system, where the constitution is spelled out on every ticket, and where one’s boarding pass is one’s only identification as a citizen.
The number of inhabitants here always varies quite a bit. Interestingly, the population increases in fogs and storms. Citizens, so as to feel comfortable anywhere, must not be too eye-catching. Sometimes, as one is going down a moving walkway, one passes one’s brothers-and sisters-in-travel, who may give the impression of having been preserved in formaldehyde—as though everyone is peering out at everyone else from inside bell jars. In the airport-republic, your address is your seat on the plane: 7D, let’s say, or 16A. Those great moving belts whisk us away in opposite directions, some voyagers in cloaks and hats, others in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, eyes blurred by snow or skin darkened by the sun, seeped in the damp of the north, the scent of rotting leaves and softened earth, or bearing desert sand in the recesses of their sandals. Some bronzed or tanned or burned, others blindingly, fluorescently white. People who shave their heads and those who never get a haircut. The big and tall, like that man, and the delicate and petite, like that woman who reaches up only to his waist.
Airports also have a sound track, a symphony of airplane engines, a couple of simple sounds that extend into a space devoid of rhythm, an Orthodox twin-engine choir, gloomy minor, infrared, infrablack, largo, based on a single chord that bores even itself. A requiem that opens with the potent introitus of takeoff and closes with an amen descending into landing.
A Very Long Quarter of an Hour
On the plane between 8:45 and 9:00 AM. To my mind, it took an hour, or even longer.
Plane of Profligates
Reddened northern faces surprised by sudden sun. Faded by salt water, and that hair after several hours daily at the beach. Bags filled with dirty, sweated-in clothes. In their carry-ons last-minute purchases from the airport: souvenirs for loved ones, bottles of strong alcohol from the duty-free shop. Just men; they occupy the same part of the plane now in a sort of tacit pact. They settle into their seats, buckle their seat belts—they will sleep. They will make up for those nights without sleep. Their skin still gives off a smell of alcohol, their bodies have not yet managed to fully digest that two-week dosage—after several hours in the air this smell will have saturated the whole plane. In addition to a stench of sweat mixed with remnants of arousal. A good criminologist would uncover more evidence—a single long dark hair snagged on the button of a shirt; trace amounts of organic matter under index and middle fingernails—human, someone else’s DNA; in the cotton fibers of their underwear, microscopic skin flakes; in navels, microquantities of sperm.
Before takeoff they get in a word or two with neighbors to their left and right. Reservedly they express their satisfaction with their recent stay—it wouldn’t do to say more, and in any case, it’s understood. Just a few, those most incorrigible, ask last questions about the prices and the range of services, and then—content—they doze off. It all turned out to be so cheap.
Trains for Cowards
There are trains that are designed to be slept on. They are made up, in their entirety, of sleeping compartments and a single café car, not even a restaurant car, because a café car is enough. This type of train runs, for example, from Szczecin to Wrocław. It leaves at 10:30 at night and gets in at 7:00 in the morning, although the trip itself is not that long, only about two hundred miles, and you could make it in five hours. But the point isn’t always to get there faster: the company cares about its passengers’ comfort. The train stops in fields and stands in their nocturnal fogs, a quiet hotel on wheels. There’s no sense in trying to race the night.
There’s a very good train from Berlin to Paris. And from Budapest to Belgrade. And from Bucharest to Zurich. I feel as though these trains were just invented for people with a fear of flying. They’re a little embarrassing—it’s better not to admit that you take them. And they’re not really advertised that much. They’re trains for long-standing customers, for that unfortunate percentage of the population that has a heart attack over every takeoff and every landing. For those with sweaty hands who wad up Kleenex after Kleenex in despair, and for those who grasp on to the flight attendants’ sleeves.
This sort of train stands humbly on the side track, keeping a low profile. (For example, the one from Hamburg to Krakow at Altona, where it is concealed by billboards and other advertising.) People taking one for the first time wander around the station for a while before they find it. Boarding is carried out discreetly. In the outer pockets of suitcases there are pajamas and slippers, toiletry cases, earplugs. Clothing is hung carefully on special hooks, and at the minuscule washbasins closed off in closets the tools for teeth-brushing are arrayed. Soon the conductor will take breakfast orders. Coffee or tea? That’s the closest to freedom the railway gets. Had these passengers just got one of those cheap flights, they would have been there in an hour, and it would have cost them less money, too. They would have had a night in the arms of their longing lovers, breakfast at one of the restaurants on rue je‑ne‑sais-quoi, where oysters are served. An evening Mozart concert at a cathedral. A walk along the riverbanks. Instead they must fully surrender to the time taken by rail travel, must personally traverse every kilometer according to the age-old custom of their ancestors, go over every bridge and through each viaduct and tunnel on this voyage over land. Nothing can be skipped, nothing bypassed. Every millimeter of the way will be touched by the wheel, will for an instant be part of its tangent, and this will be an unrepeatable configuration for all time—of the wheel and the rail, of the time and place, unique throughout the cosmos.
As soon as this train for cowards sets off into the night—practically without warning—the bar begins to fill up with people. Drawn in are men in suits who come for a couple of quick ones or for a pint to help them sleep, elegant gay men whose eyes dart around like castanets; forlorn football fans, separated from their friends—who’d flown—as insecure as sheep parted from their flocks; female friends over the age of forty who have left their boring husbands in search of some excitement. Slowly there begins to be less and less space, and passengers behave as though they are at a big party, and sometimes the amiable waiters will introduce them to one another: “This fellow travels with us every week”; “Ted, who says he won’t go to bed but is actually always the first one snoring”; “The passenger who travels every week to see his wife—he must really love her”; “Mrs. I’m Never Traveling on This Train Again.”
In the middle of the night, as the train creeps along the plains of Belgium or Lubusz, as the nighttime mist thickens and blurs everything, the café car is host to a second round of visitors: exhausted, insomniac passengers who are not ashamed of the slippers on their unstockinged feet. They join in with the rest as though putting themselves in fate’s hands—whatever will be, will be.
But it seems to me that the only things that can happen to them are the things that are for the best. After all, they are now in a place that is mobile, that moves through black space; they are borne by the night. Not knowing anyone and being recognized by no one. Escaping their own lives, and then being safely escorted right back to them.
In Pursuit of Night
It’s hard for me to get a good night’s sleep when I stay in a place for just one night. Now the city was slowly cooling off, calming down. My hotel was one run by the airlines and included in the price of my ticket. I was supposed to wait in it until tomorrow.
On the bedside table there was a light blue pack of condoms. Right by the bed there was a Bible and the Teachings of the Buddha. Unfortunately, the plug for my electric kettle didn’t fit into the socket—so I would have to do without tea. Although perhaps it was coffee I should be drinking at this hour? My body was in no state to interpret the numbers on the clock built into the radio on the bedside table, although it would appear that numerals are international, despite being known as Arabic. Was the yellow glow out the window the onset of dawn, or was it a dusk that had already largely condensed into night? It was hard to determine whether this part of the world—over which the sun was about to appear or else had just vanished—was the East or the West. I concentrated on counting up the hours I’d spent on the plane, employing as an aid an image I’d once seen on the internet of a globe with a nocturnal bar that moves from east to west like a giant mouth that systematically devours the world.
The square in front of the hotel was deserted, just stray dogs skirmishing around its closed stalls. I finally decided it must be the middle of the night, and without tea or a bath I went to bed. Although on my time, on the time I was carting around on my mobile phone, it was early afternoon. So I could not naively count on drifting off to sleep.
What you do is get under the covers and turn on the TV—volume down, let it grumble, flicker, whine. You hold the remote out like a weapon, and you take shots at the very center of the screen. Each shot kills one channel, but then another follows directly on its heels. My game this time, though, was to pursue the night, to choose only those channels that were broadcast from places where it was currently dark. To picture the globe and the dark scar running down its gentle curvature, evidence of some past attack—disfigurement after an audacious operation to separate light and dark, those conjoined twins.
Night never ends. Its dominion always spans some section of the world. And you can keep up with it with your remote, look exclusively for stations that fall within the shadowy purview of that dark, concave hand that upholds the earth, and in this way you can continue westward country by country, hour by hour. You will encounter an interesting phenomenon if you do.
The first shot I fired at the smooth, mindless forehead of the television produced Channel 348, the Holy God Channel. Here I beheld a crucifixion scene—some movie from the sixties. The Virgin Mary had perfectly plucked eyebrows. Mary Magdalene must have had a corset on underneath her peasant dress, which was a dingy blue—you could tell it was a black-and-white movie that had been inexpertly colored later on. Her massive breasts, cone-shaped, protruding absurdly; her tiny waist. As the unattractive soldiers cackled and divided the outer garments, the filmmakers interspersed images of every cataclysm imaginable, footage that appeared to have been ripped right out of nature programs and inserted here without alteration. Now there were clouds gathering at an accelerated rate, lightning bolts, sky, funnel pointing down at the ground, whirlwind, finger of God—which would next sketch a series of flourishes on the earth’s surface. Now furious waves pounding a shore, some sailboats, some cheap-looking dummies blown to pieces by that riled water. Volcanoes erupting, a fiery ejaculation that might well have inseminated the sky—but it was a nonstarter; the lava slid inertly down the volcanoes’ sides. Thus was ecstasy unignited, demoted to plain old nocturnal emission.
Enough. I took another shot. Channel 350, Blue Line TV. A woman masturbating, her fingertips disappearing between her slim thighs. The woman was talking to someone in Italian, speaking into a microphone that was clipped to her ear and reminiscent of a long thin tongue licking each of those Italian words right off her lips, every sì, sì, and prego.
Channel 354, Sex Satellite 1: this time it was two girls masturbating, both bored—they must have been finishing up their shift, unable to hide their tiredness. One of them ran the camera that recorded them with her own remote control, so in that sense they were entirely self-sufficient. Every so often a kind of grimace would surface on their faces, as though they suddenly remembered what they were doing—eyes closed, mouth half open—but it would evaporate again in a flash, and tiredness and distraction would set in in its place. No one was calling them, despite what I presumed were alluring words in Arabic at the bottom of the screen.
And suddenly Cyrillic—I’d taken another shot at the screen—Genesis in Cyrillic. The words that scrolled along the bottom of the screen were no doubt illustrious ones, illustrated in fact by images of mountains, of the sea, of clouds, plants, and animals. On 358 they were showing the best scenes by an apparent pornographic sensation whose name was Rocco. I paused here for a moment, noting a drop of sweat on his brow. As he executed his pelvic thrusts into anonymous buttocks, the porn star put one hand on his hip, and you might have mistaken him for someone concentrating on the practice of some samba move, or salsa move: one-two, one-two.
On 288, Oman TV, they were reading verses from the Koran. So I supposed, anyway. A lovely and utterly unintelligible pattern of Arabic script floated placidly across the screen. It made me want to reach out and catch them first, hold them awhile before trying to decipher their meaning. Tease out those intricate flourishes, pull them out into a simple, soothing line.
Another shot and there was a black minister and an audience eagerly rejoining hallelujahs.
Night, then, quieted the raucous and aggressive news and weather and film channels, setting to one side the daytime ruckus of the world, bringing in instead the relief of the simple coordinate system of sex and religion. The body and the divine. Physiology and theology.
—Translated by Jennifer Croft
From Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Olga Tokarczuk. English translation © 2017 by Jennifer Croft.