PUBLISHED AS PART OF THE RESILIENTS PROJECT IN COLLABORATION WITH FO.AM.
“I don’t think I was given the best careers advice in school,” he says. “There was no future in making things, they told us. If you were bright, you should go to college and study something like law.”
With his law degree, he spent four and a half years working in data entry jobs and call centres.
“It was work I could have done when I was eleven years old. But it wasn’t minimum wage, I was earning enough to be saving money. I always planned to have a midlife crisis before I turned thirty.”
He was twenty-eight when he had enough saved to start travelling. That was a year ago. Since then, he’s been around most of Europe. On this trip, he is headed for Ukraine, then back through Moldova.
He might have spent everything he’d saved, travelling as long as it lasted and picking up jobs in hostels, if he hadn’t found what it is he actually wants to do with his life.
“I knew if I kept travelling, it would come to me.”
It came to him as he was walking on the Curonian Spit, the sliver of land that arcs across from the Lithuanian coast to the Russian naval outpost of Kaliningrad. He spent a while helping the local amber gatherers, sifting sand. They let him keep the small pieces for himself. Afterwards, walking along this beach that stretches on for fifty miles, he realised that what he wanted to do was to make whisky.
He travelled for a while around Scotland and Ireland, talking to people in the distilleries about how to get into the trade. Twenty years ago, they told him, you would have persuaded someone to take you on as an apprentice. Nowadays, the UK has become so obsessed with education, you need a degree for everything. That includes a Masters in Brewing and Distilling in Edinburgh.
“So I’ll be going back to college in September. Only this time to study something I actually want to do.”
First he was a portrait painter, then a seaman, and now he walks into the bar carrying a banjo and a rucksack with a three-stringed ukelele sticking out of it. He gets himself a beer, comes to sit at my table and offers me a cigarette from a pack of Winston’s.
He asks me what I am doing and I try to explain. About resilience, the systems we depend on, the things that carry us through. I say that I want to learn about how people cope in hard times, why one person will keep going where another gives up.
“Singing,” he tells me.
He reaches for his banjo.
“I know one English song.”
Both the index finger and the middle finger of his right hand are missing. He fits the picks onto his thumb and the two remaining fingers and starts gently, once around the tune before he sings, verse and chorus. “Can the circle be unbroken? Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye…” He has a way of singing out of both corners of his mouth, cigarette still held between his lips.
“It is about his mother,” he says, when he is finished. Later, he tells me he has been to another city to deal with his mother’s apartment which he recently inherited.
I order two more beers.
From his rucksack, he takes out what looks like a cigar box. It has Greek lettering on the outside. He opens it to show a small backgammon board. Instead of checkers and dice, it holds a row of six harmonicas. He takes the first of them and plays a blues that sounds like a memory of the end of something.
He was at sea for twenty years, an ordinary seaman and then a radio officer. He learned to tap Morse code in the last years before it went silent and the satellites took over. Three years ago, he came ashore for good. I ask what made him choose to become a seaman. He must have been well over thirty, at the time. He looks as though I have asked a question too big to expect an answer.
“Because the sea is poetry,” he says, finally. “You understand?”
A few years ago, there was a UNESCO competition to commemorate Joseph Conrad, another Polish seaman. Did I ever read Conrad? He had written a song to enter the competition. It took first place in its category. First place.
When his mother’s apartment is dealt with, all he wants is a small place beside the sea, as far from the world as he can get.
By now, we have finished our drinks. I leave my rucksack and go downstairs to the bathroom. When I come back, he is gone.
“Sometimes it’s not so good to travel alone,” he says. “Three nights ago, I am cycling in the dark on an empty beach, and now I can’t tell if I did that or if I dreamed it.”
He is awake when I get into the compartment and heave my rucksack onto the overhead shelf. Awake, but sleepy like a child that has just been woken. He asks me where I am going next and when I start to describe it, he brightens, and tells me the name. He remembers.
“It was after nine when I came there. I was climbing in the dark and there were drums playing across the hillside. I knew that I was close, but I missed the turning and I had to camp in the forest. In the morning, I found them.”
The moon is like a slice of caramelised orange over the station at Tczew, a moon from a children’s story. He gets up and walks to the end of the carriage to check his bicycle is still there. He comes back, reassured. The train pulls off again.
“So, you will go there.” He is smiling to himself at the memory. “I think it is some kind of paradise.”
He sleeps more than I do that night, as we draw in and out of empty stations, but he is already awake when my alarm goes off, a few minutes outside Warsaw. He looks better. Sleep has grounded him.
He watches as I repack my rucksack.
“You go through Bohumin? That is the way I would go from here, if I was going home.”
Next week, he thinks he will be in Berlin.
“And Zajezova,” he smiles. “You will be there tonight.”