SEPTEMBER 28, 2011
IF YOU WISH TO SEE the Romanian town of Babadag, get in your hot air balloon, with a nice cup of coffee. Glide past the convenience store on the corner of Venice and Sepulveda, which isn’t too far from where I am writing this now, and over the toothy mountains and frothy seas you know from postcards. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in Europe. Avoid the flashy capitals. Europe can be overwhelming, so think of it as East and West — there is nothing wrong with following in the footsteps of finicky, divisive political history. Heading east through Germany, pay attention to how the neatly ordered villas give way to Soviet-style apartment towers. Once you cross into Poland, you’ll see how the race toward modernization and beautification (the Poles tucking in their shirts for a seat at the big boys’ table of Europe) has gone into overdrive; don’t ask questions when locals remind you that you’re in Central — not Eastern — Europe, which, as far as they’re concerned, is some other place altogether. You’ll hear about Sobieski, Chopin, Mickiewicz, Milosz, Wojtyla, and Walesa, or about how Marie Curie’s maiden name was Sklodowska, and that she was born and raised in Warsaw, not far from where you’re standing, facing the skyscrapers and the national stadium going up in the shadow of the spruced-up Palace of Culture and Science, that was gifted to the Polish people by Stalin and company.
But if you wish to see Andrzej Stasiuk’s Poland, where Warsaw’s traffic and designer boutiques end, where you are not following the ancient amber trade route so much as the needle of a compass held by one of Poland’s most engaging writers (whose popularity in the English-speaking world is on the rise), you must, necessarily you must, point your balloon south. You’ll need to see Kraków, the country’s cultural heart. From there, it’s a mere stone’s throw to the small village in the Beskids where Stasiuk lives and writes, having abandoned many modern luxuries in favor of a house in the foothills, herds of sheep, and an occasional horse-drawn carriage. “My Europe is full of animals,” he announces, not unironically, in his book On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe. In this collection of 14 travel essays, Stasiuk travels more or less along the 24th longitude, through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, and Moldova.
When I was a child growing up in Poland, it was not uncommon to see a horse grazing in the field not far from my family’s apartment building. When we took our summer vacations, we often saw cows trotting along the side of the highway. Those days are over. Nowadays, one is unlikely to see livestock near population centers, even small towns. This separation has, on the one hand, had a tremendous effect on our sanitary standards, but it has also completely robbed us of the understanding of where we get our meat, and of certain other obvious animal roles. But where Stasiuk travels, the sight of children and women in headscarves tending to a herd of cattle is still common. Indeed, the image of “[t]he human joined with the bestial to wait out the night together” is at the center of Stasiuk’s existential and metaphysical tapestry, for it allows him a view into himself, where the two elements manifest themselves, regardless of what form they may eventually take. While the sight of men and livestock together borders on the unreal, it is the unexpected that Stasiuk, whose senses and humanity have been dulled by progress and modernization, longs for: “as on awakening, when we are spurred by the desire to return to the world of dreams.”
Driving or hitchhiking, Stasiuk stays off the beaten path, and in most places sees “decline everywhere and [cannot] imagine renaissance.” With a keen eye for detail and a ruminating mind, Stasiuk travels to learn things anew: to see and comprehend, but with the understanding that our existence is made of nothing but fleeting moments. His appetite is insatiable; there’s never enough to put him at ease. When he uses Slovenia, the most successful of the former Eastern Bloc, as an example of a place that has shed its skin and won’t allow itself to be caught looking backwards, he clearly hopes to keep himself, and us, honest. He doesn’t believe that we should hide under nice clothes where we come from, for our pastoral origins are impossible to erase. The fact that we embrace progress at great psychological, physical, and environmental costs is ultimately making us spiritually poorer, and crazy at that. It’s a futile endeavor, to try to become something we are not, and his evocative essays serve as both mementos and tokens of appreciation.
One of the greatest strengths of these essays is Stasiuk’s descriptions of the people he encounters during his sojourns. These range from mean, corrupt border guards, to the helpful drivers of rickety Ladas, Dacias, and Mercedes who take him where he wants to go but can’t fathom why he’s going there. Though these men possess a level of independence and worldliness not enjoyed by some of their neighbors, they aren’t all that different from the peasants they pass at double the speed limit. In fact, Stasiuk seems to suggest that our metamorphosis from dirty peasants to bedraggled cab drivers to office workers and account executives is only a façade, or a smokescreen. In reality, not much changes in terms of how we love and hate, dream and feel pain — glossy magazines full of advice on how to improve ourselves will never eradicate the primordial within us. Yet Stasiuk doesn’t so much give voice to the voiceless, to borrow a famous phrase, as engrave our hearts and minds with images of the so-called vanishing Europe, a place ruled by “a perpetual decline,” where “children are born exhausted” and “[m]en stand on street corners staring at the emptiness of the day. They spit on the sidewalk and smoke cigarettes. That’s the present.” If this goes against what the E.U., with its generous subsidies and ethos of solidarity, stands for, so be it. We have no way of knowing how the locals might feel about a cleaner, safer dwelling, good schooling, and access to top-rate medical care, because for Stasiuk, “[e]verything new is a movie that has no connection with the past.” Stasiuk opts for what’s old and marked by “decay, whose continuity cannot be undermined.”
The livestock, of course, is often the only tangible thing of value the locals posses, and when he writes about the West’s materialistic addictions, Stasiuk calls on the Gypsies as the perfect antidote. That Gypsies are arguably the most hated and discriminated people in Europe sheds even more light on Stasiuk’s position:
I considered this decaying village, the trash in the center of the square, the rectory and pool all fearfully gated and locked, and decided that it was the Gypsies’ victory. Since the year 1322, when Europe first noted their presence on the Peloponnesian peninsula, they had not changed. Europe brought into being nations, kingdoms, empires, and governments, which rose and fell. Focused on progress, expansion, growth, it could not imagine that life might be lived outside time, outside history. Meanwhile, the Gypsies with a sardonic smile regarded the paroxysms of our civilization, and if they took anything for themselves, it was the rubbish, the garbage, the ruined homes, and alms. As if all the rest were of no value.
But Stasiuk doesn’t so much glorify the past, feasting on the backwardness and insecurity of bygone eras, as he honors a way of life that puts humanity in tune with a particular time and place. When he sees four men gathering wood not far from his house, he tells us that, “[t]hey work like animals — slowly, monotonously, performing the same movements and gestures performed one hundred, two hundred years ago … Their smell, effort, groans, existence, follow a form that has endured since unrecorded time.” As a travel writer and essayist, Stasiuk is primarily concerned with the encroachment of progress and the so-called civilized world on those who seem (perhaps only seem) to be stuck on the wrong side of the tracks. He isn’t against improving standards of living, per se; rather, he bemoans the fact that modernization has shattered our physical and metaphysical realms, and made existential orphans of us.
Needless to say, the past in this part of the world is hugely complicated. But Stasiuk isn’t interested in playing the “know-it-all” sage, nor does he care to explain the various coups and wars, partitions and resettlements that breed resentment among the locals — in fact, he hardly mentions them — and which turn Westerners away from this Europe’s perennial fear and loathing. Instead, he lets what he sees and records do the talking, and keeps returning to the places where humans have existed and stood the test of time for millennia, even though the world appears to be an odd amalgam of dilapidated dreams and desires and hard-hitting reality — all mixed up, as if by a lab student in a white coat, whose futile experiments serve as the record of having done something useful, a way to feel good about oneself. One could argue that this desire to make things whole and to improve something, even if only cosmetically, is also as old as dirt and poverty, and that it implies ownership, a firm awareness of one’s own place and time, but Stasiuk shatters our illusions:
Neglect is the essence of this region. History, deeds, consequences, ideas, and plans dissolve into the landscape, into something considerably older and vaster than striving. Time gets the better of memory. Nothing can be remembered with certainty, because acts do not line up according to the principle of cause and effect. A long narrative about the spirit of the times in this place seems a project as pathetic as it is pretentious, like a novel written from the point of view of God. Paroxysm and tedium rule here in turn, and that is why this region is so human.
Of course, Western Europe has tried very hard to do something about its other half, although many in the West continue to believe that Europe ends in Berlin. Still, the expansion of the European Union to the east and south has proved mostly successful, even though for many on the lower rungs of the respective countries’ social strata, life remains a seemingly inexplicable tangle of old customs and concerns, which are a world removed from the E.U.’s headquarters in Brussels. Observing a group of men arguing next to an overturned wagon somewhere in Slovakia, Stasiuk writes:
The men were dark, stocky, animated, as if their bodies did not feel the inertia around them, as if they inhabited another, weightless space … They lived in the old Jewish quarter, at the edge of a Slovak town, at the foot of a Hungarian castle, so in order to exist and not disappear, they had had to create their own rules, their own special theory of relativity, and a gravity that would keep them on the surface of the earth and not let them fall into the interstellar voice, into the vacuum of oblivion.
Regardless of Brussels’s diplomatic efforts and good intentions, the occupants of the countries Stasiuk visits see their lives governed by the kind of fatalism that would make them look grotesque if they were uprooted and planted on a wide boulevard ending at a flashy, bursting-at-the-seams megastore. Clearly, Stasiuk believes that some things should be valued for what they are and left untouched.
The need to possess — or, if you will, to update — that Stasiuk finds so grating, is also what has made us who we are today; and Stasiuk does use ATMs on his trips. It is true: We buy and accumulate things, barricade ourselves behind the thick walls and tall fences of our homes, and become even more automated in our behavior, which in turn becomes more predictable. Stasiuk tells us that he’d like to “write a history of Gypsy eternity, because it is more enduring, and wiser, than our governments and cities, than our entire world, which trembles at the imminence of its demise.” It’s hard to believe that at least some Gypsies wouldn’t want to better their lot by settling down and acquiring a steady job, an aim which, in many countries, remains out of their reach due to discrimination and deep-seated prejudice, but Stasiuk, operating from the opposite vantage point, is no doubt onto something in shunning our culture of excess and wasteful living.
Any diatribe against the materialistic West echoes loud and clear in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which often see themselves as superior to their neighbors. In a way, Stasiuk helps shatter these delusions of grandeur, of being better or more privileged than others. The level and speed of urban development has been mind-boggling, if uneven — and it strikes Stasiuk as fanciful:
[A] city on a trip is a disaster. Especially in countries that are like large villages. Villagers don’t know how to build a city. They end up with totems of foreign gods. The downtown area takes a stab at copying something, while the suburbs invariably resemble an aborted farm.
Stasiuk calls this effort to develop and expand one’s horizon a form of camouflage. Moreover, anyone who’s traveled in this part of Europe knows about the mass of kitsch embedded in commercials and daytime television, not to mention billboards and other signage, which often incorporate misspelled versions of their American or German originals. So, while globalization takes its toll on the so-called minor languages of the equally minor countries, Stasiuk keeps his gaze on Albania, calling it “the unconscious” of Europe, where “the persistent weight of matter wishes to be left alone, to be rid of its shapes, to rest, and to return to the time when there were no forms.” This desire to erase definitions and divisions accounts for Stasiuk’s own longing to live in a place free of history and the burden of memory, a country “unable to remember its lands, its peoples, its capitals, so every morning it would need to start over.”
This longing may seem impossibly, even laughably utopian, but Stasiuk, a refugee from his own time and place to what remains palatable and inexplicable, is a man worthy of attention. Reading his essays, we may not learn anything new about “the other Europe,” but we do get a clear picture of one of its inhabitants. Indeed, Stasiuk may be successful, but he’s also disillusioned, and there are many others like him. The collection includes two photographs, one of which is André Kertész’s “The Blind Violinist, Abony, Hungary, 1921,” which depicts a man playing the violin while crossing an unpaved road with his son. Stasiuk tells us that this photograph spurred him on to become a writer, and it wouldn’t be completely fantastical to think of Stasiuk as a lost soul spinning his melancholic tale. Ultimately, the Kertész photograph is important to Stasiuk because of what the photographer didn’t capture — something just off to the side, peripheral — and this quest to discover the other, beyond the frame, is Stasiuk’s modus operandi. Aware that his “attitude is benighted, backward,” he shames himself for staying up through the night to dream of “building a reservation of sorts,” which he knows would not please the people he writes about. So why would he even bother mentioning it? Because his heart sinks, he says,
whenever something disappears from view, with a bend in the road or in growing darkness, and I cannot free myself of the thought that it has disappeared forever and I am the only one who witnessed it and now must tell, tell — assuming that anyone will want to listen. Moreover, all these places are falling apart, totally wrecked, just one stone upon the other, the remnants of former glory, so this fear of mine is no figment: if I return to where I once was, I may find nothing.
If the Industrial Revolution, along with its devastating effect on a communal way of life, is but a distant memory, one can reach for countless other examples — such as, say, the damming of Chinese rivers or the growth of suburban America. Similarly, it’s not altogether surprising that Stasiuk, a school dropout and army deserter, would find a haven away from “Western” civilization. For every young Polish or Slovak or Romanian college graduate who dreams of a high-paying job and career, there is another who studies humanities, who writes travel essays and poetry against the practical advice of parents and well-wishers. Stasiuk, born in 1960, knows a bit of both: He remembers communism and Poland’s transformation to democracy and capitalism. He’s aware that what mattered most before 1989 was allegiance to the Party, cemented by favors and connections, and that an analogous system still holds true today. So, disillusioned, he lives in the mountains, among chickens and llamas, where he breathes fresh air, and where his vagabond past keeps sending him out on the road, because, as our guide Stasiuk says, it’s “precisely on a trip, in the morning, in a strange city, before the second cup of coffee has begun to work, that you experience most palpably the oddness of your banal existence.”