Poland, some photos to refresh memories

Images that bring back smells, tastes, untold stories

The Church of the Holy Cross.

A few days ago I went to the inauguration of the photo exhibition “Cuba-Polonia. Miradasespeculares,” by young artist Neisys G [Neisys González Pérez], in the Carmen Montilla Art Gallery. The exhibit, curated by Aylet Ojeda, turns the vestibule of the institution into a magnetised space where in parallel images of buildings, parks, monuments, temples of the Central European nation and of our island are on display. It is the first proposal of the young creator and in it she shows that she can go way beyond the simple dominion of the photographic technique since she has the intuition and the sensibility to not stay at the surface of things and, instead of giving us images from a tourist catalogue, she goes to those elements hidden under the coloured surface of objects that can help unveil the culture and the spirituality of a country.

It is still too soon to speak of a personal style in the work of Neisys, but it is possible to affirm that beyond that which she now offers us there is an artistic personality that will be gaining – through searches and stumbles – her just stature. However, for me the exhibition had an added value. For a few minutes it made me return to the already faraway 1981 when, during an autumn that was already becoming a stubborn winter, I visited Poland. Perhaps it was the aroma that came from some images which made me recover those days.


It has been impossible to dilute the taste of that trip by other closer or more important ones. I could say that this one did not begin when I set foot on the land irrigated by the Vistula but rather a few months before, when I was offered an excursion at work with all the paperwork to have access to it already absolutely delayed. Although legal, banking procedures and other thousands of details were rather terrible, I had the impression that an important part of the city of Camagüey had conspired so that I could bring them to a successful conclusion, from that elderly lady who looked like a character from Balzac who knitted a woollen cap in record time so I could tolerate “Europe’s cold weather,” to the bus terminal employee who allowed me to board a bus full of athletes to get to Havana just in time, since the flight I had booked in advance had been cancelled because of bad weather. All of them contributed so that I could remain almost on my own with that sensation, a mixture of joy, exaltation and fear, which I have never been able to feel again. At least for a Cuban, a first trip is always a sort of celestial quake.


He who landed on a cloudy and freezing afternoon in Warsaw’s airport was a young man who a mediocre novelist could describe as full of dreams and with a poor appearance. I say nothing about the first, about the second suffice it to point out that when the wide and comfortable shoes I was recommended as adequate to walk long distances barely came into contact with the local watery snow their toes starting going up in mute protest and they remained thus, resembling the babushkas with which the gnomes are painted. It was worse to confirm that the overcoat an old communist leader had lent me, the same one with which he had witnessed in times of Khrushchev a parade from the tribune of Red Square, was an archaeological piece that when touched set off a cloud of dust and whose appearance got worse when not only snow started falling on it but also the excrement of a perverse crow.

In this church the heart of Frederic Chopin is kept in a white marble urn.

The country I had gotten to was not much better than my clothes. The social restlessness was perceivable.Just a while ago the head of state, Gierek, had resigned and now a military, Jaruselski, was in power, backed by Soviet troops. I remember a large supermarket whose spacious shelves had been stocked with jars of pickles to try to hide the very evident; there were very long lines to buy wine and meat and the citizens’ irritation was frequently translated into throwing rocks at the shop windows. I did not understand the language, but it was evident that that was not precisely what the scientific communism manuals were forecasting. It had fallen on me to witness a sort of general rehearsal of the 1989 collapses.


I had been following for some years the editions of the magazine Polonia. Not only did I like the music of Chopin and of Penderecki, but I was also acquainted with the works of Sienkiewicz, of Iwaszkiewicz, of Mrozek and I used to look in the cinemas for the premiers of reruns of films by Wajda. Thus what the guides wanted to show me was not enough for me.


In no way did I have the backing of the rest of the group, which seemed divided into two: a small part decided to show its consternation because that socialism was “permeated by ideological diversionism,” which some attributed to the existence of private commercial establishments and others to the influence of a Polish pope; while others claimed they had made the trip to buy cheap things and not to go to churches, since they didn’t even know the ones in their own country.

Lazienki Park in Warsaw, the Polish capital.

One morning, when we were returning to the hotel on a tourist bus, the guide let us know that we were passing by the Church of the Holy Cross, where the heart of Frederic Chopin was kept in a white marble urn. The international piano contests that bore the name of the creator of waltzes and nocturnes were inaugurated there. I asked that the bus stop for an instant to take a brief look at the place. She accepted, but that was accompanied by an uncivil shouting by the group who demanded that they wanted to get to the hotel to take advantage of the free afternoon to go out shopping and a young woman resolutely decided to confront me. I will never forget her argument: “And what do you want to see that heart for, it’s surely already rotten?” And she went on with a string of insults directed at the church and all the churches of the world.


However, I soon forgot such things when on an afternoon I attended the opening of the Medieval altarpiece in Holy Mary of Krakow, a daily ceremony before a silent public moved in their kneelers while the organ chords of Bach’s Tocata and fugue in re minor rained on their heads; or sitting in the sumptuous Wielki Theatre to witness Humperdinck’sopera Hansel and Gretel, surrounded by children who were chewing enormous bars of chocolate, so tempting and inaccessible for me like those that decorated the hut of the witch on stage; or simply getting lost in a small street and finding a very small shop of records where for a few zlotys I was able to buy from an opera by Alessandro Scarlatti to recent works by Penderecki. One morning when we were in Jasna Gora I entered the sanctuary that keeps the icon of the Dark Virgin, and before her shone the golden rose that John Paul II had just given her.


More than 35 years have gone by and for me the Wavel Cathedral, the senates of the Jagiellonian University, the Lazienki Park under a fine film of snow, as well as the aroma I perceived when entering the hotel restaurants, or the rooms heated by the old radiators to where I had to go running when my nose and feet were frozen continue being memorable.


If I were asked what the flavour of Poland is, I would simply recall the morning I spent in front of a kiosk selling apples and I couldn’t resist the temptation. I searched in the pockets of the overcoat and I found sufficient coins to buy one. Despite the cold I sat in a park and calmly ate it. My lips were so chapped that every time I bit the fruit tears came to my eyes. But the peace of the moment, the rare sensation of triumph and the pleasure that was invading me were the same thing. Before and after that day I have eaten apples in different places and circumstances, but none have had the flavour of that one.


I’m not a specialist in photography, but if the images captured by Neisys were able to bring back all those sensations, I’m sure she is a considerable artist. (2017)

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