We were walking through Wrocław, a place he knew better than I did. It was only my first visit, but he had been living there part time, on and off, for months. During our walk, he grabbed my hand, with some urgency and purpose, less as a tender gesture and more as the take-charge guide, leading me to the next spot on the tour he had apparently planned and perfected.
“Poland,” he said authoritatively, “is a hidden gem.” I smiled but said nothing. Poland is a kind of hidden gem. I had no argument and nothing to add. It’s an especially bright gem once you start being able to pronounce the words. Say it with me: Wrocław. Could you do it? No? Give it time.
I didn’t tell him how much I had once dreamt of visiting Poland, at the apogee of my “Slavic/eastern-central-southern European studies” life. In fact I shared so little about myself because that was not the nature of things. This was not going to be one of those ‘confessional’ entanglements. Revelations about ourselves were doled out not as linear narratives but as footnotes to what we observed around us. Strolling past a courthouse, for example, he might comment, “It was total drudgery practicing law”, which would lead to a lecture on corruption in the legal system where he came from and the complete sense of helplessness and anger that arises from being unable to do anything but quit (which he did… and moved to Europe). But this was not deep or personal reflection on his vocation or life events that led him to or from it.
In this way, we knew each other incrementally, just as we came to know the city. Nothing of the roller-coaster arc on which most stories jaggedly rise and fall. Even more liberating, there was nothing of the “who-I-was” and “who-will-I-be”. No, there was only right now. Fortuitous, given that the “right now” of those moments filled quickly with the challenges of mastering the idiosyncrasies of basic Polish: dziękuję. Or most useful of all for two itinerant non-Poles wandering around together: nie mówię po polsku.