My lips are stained deep red with blueberries and beets as I wander the streets of Gdańsk, in search of the revolutionary spirit of Lech Wałęsa and a plate of warm pierogis. It must have been my recent readings on Solidarność (Solidarity) – the Polish labour movement that established trade unions and which is cited as one of the first threads pulled, beginning the slow unravelling of communist rule – that brings me impulsively to this northern Polish port city.
Between industrial waste and new build condominiums, Gdańsk (2016)
Shadows and birds are cutting constantly into the frame of my photographs. From my fifth floor attic apartment on Szeroka street, I look out over the city. The colour of the sky vacillates between dramatic slate grey tinged with golden gleams to bright white cloud cover, punctuated by fits of snow and rain and hail and bursts of frigid wind, animated by diving sea birds swooping and calling at each other. On bridges I remember the Polish postage stamps I collected as a child, along with other bevelled squares of paper emblazoned with CCCP and Magyar Posta and Československo. And while I had a peculiar obsession with Russian ship stamps, it is the soft muted colours and the coarse matte finish of the Polish and Hungarian stamps I remember most.
Chasing a mural in a dissonant landscape, Gdańsk (2016)
Slate coloured sky and birds cutting in, Gdańsk (2016)
I chase a mural that I see from a distance, finding myself lost in some dissonant landscape of industrial waste and new build condominiums. I read Rilke off a random website in small letters off my mobile phone between sips of coffee and flurries of handwriting at Café Libertas. I think a lot about birds. I also think a lot about whether it is its imprecision which I like best about philosophy: for, like poetry there is space for interpretation and application and a certain comfort in its ambiguity. Impossibly strong Polish men are everywhere: lifting heavy bits of machinery and orchestrating, I imagine, the echoing clangs that resonate loudly as you approach the water, the distant shipyards reaching sonically back from the sea carried by bitter Baltic wind that numbs fingertips, reddens cheeks, and steals your breath.
Today I visited Stocznia Gdańska (Gdańsk Shipyards), known formerly as the Lenin Shipyards. And while the sounds and smells of the shipyards are still present, the Europejskie Centrum Solidarnośći (European Solidarity Centre) stands here now, imposing even in the late afternoon darkness in which the edges of the bold architecture disappears against the sky. I think of Anna Walentynowicz, whose yellow crane is on display inside the centre’s permanent exhibition, and whose activism led to her dismissal, initiating the momentous strikes of 1980. There are crosses everywhere throughout the city, in lights atop of churches, and here at the monuments commemorating the deaths of the workers killed in the events of 1970. On the streets, the faint scent of Catholicism lingers; incense wafting delicately, diffused and distilled into late November air. It occasionally lifts all the way up to the window by my bed from one of the many adjacent churches.
I think about a lot at the Lenin Shipyards.
One of many messages left behind in a Solidarność mosaic composed of thousands of other messages at the European Solidarity Centre, Gdańsk (2016)
Below are links to the revolutionary song ‘Piosenka dla córki’ ‘(Song for my Daughter’) from 1980 with lyrics by Krzysztof Kasprzyk and music by Maciej Pietrz and a clip from the 1981 film ‘Człowiek z żelaza’ (‘Man of Iron’) by director Andrzej Wajda.