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Access All Areas
Selected Writings 1990-2011
By Sara Wheeler
North Point Press Copyright © 2013 Sara Wheeler
All rights reserved.
The End of the Bolster: Romance in Poland
In 1981, I purchased a round-trip ticket to Warsaw on LOT airlines. I was twenty, with a year of university behind me. Why Poland? I can't remember, except that the country had been in the papers a lot that year. I had been waitressing throughout the holidays and accrued the absurdly small sum required to buy, in addition to the plane ticket, a monthlong Polish rail pass.
It was already dark when I arrived in Warsaw, but I had the address of a government accommodation office and managed to get there on a tram. There was throughout the Soviet bloc at that time a scheme under which visitors could stay in people's homes. It was cheap, and I thought it would be a good way of getting to know Poles.
The office had a full-length glass frontage, behind which a poorly stuffed eagle molted kapok. A heavy revolving door scraped through its revolution like an orchestra tuning up. Two gorgons swathed in black behind a Formica desk looked up, briefly. I could see that they found the interruption to their knitting an irritation.
A double room, it quickly emerged, was all that was available. I said I'd take it. It was against the rules, snapped Gorgon One, revealing a row of gold teeth, for a single person to take a double room. She returned to her knitting with a triumphant clack of needles. I said I was prepared to pay double rates. "Also illegal," chipped in Gorgon Two, eager not to miss out on the opportunity to ruin someone's day. In addition, they alleged there was not one hotel room available in the entire city.
I deployed a range of tactics, including tears. No dice. It was dark, and I was in a strange city without a word of Polish.
At that moment the revolving door spluttered to tuneless life once more. All three of us looked up. The crones muttered darkly, no doubt about the damnable inconvenience of a second customer. A tall, blond man with marble-blue eyes and a rucksack sauntered athletically into the room.
"We'll take the double room," I said to the crones.
One looked at the other. So it was all true.
The blond man put down his rucksack and held out his hand to shake mine. A Band-Aid covered his right thumbnail. I knew from the first syllable that he was Australian. It turned out that he had already been on the road in the Eastern bloc for a month, so when I explained the non-accommodation situation, he found it perfectly normal that we should share a room.
We stayed in a high-rise in the industrial suburbs, guests of a saturnine family who had been instructed not to speak to us. (In those days, Poland was still a boiling sea of suspicion, and people who rented out rooms were vetted. So much for meeting Poles.) Once we had settled into our chilly billet, my new friend took up the cylindrical bolster that lay at the head of the double bed and placed it down the middle. "No need to worry," he said. "This is my half," and he pointed to the left side of the bed, "and that's yours."
* * *
The Security Service had been busy that year, doing what it most liked to do — shutting up everyone else, brutally if possible. Millions of Poles naturally reacted with anger, and in March Solidarity activists had coordinated an extraordinary general strike unique in the Eastern bloc. Tension had subsided somewhat, but the economy was a car crash. Even though every food shop was empty, a queue snaked outside, the people waiting for some tiny rationed bit of something to be doled out from behind the counter. A Solidarity poster on the telegraph poles showed a black skull with a crossed knife and fork under it.
As for Teddy, following in the footsteps of so many of his compatriots, he had taken six months out to have a look at the world. His mother was a Pole who had arrived in Western Australia as a twenty-four-year-old refugee. She had married Teddy's father, a wood turner from Perth, and they had worked hard and made good. Teddy, who was twenty-three, was the youngest of seven. He turned out to be a fine companion, with a relaxed antipodean attitude to everything that the Polish system tossed in our path. We decided to travel together. But before leaving Warsaw, we paid twenty pence for opera tickets in Teatr Wielki, installing ourselves in the magnificently restored Moniuszko Auditorium to listen to a fine coloratura soprano sliding up and down Amina's arias in La sonnambula. Afterward we sat in bars kippered with smoke, downing tiny glasses of vodka. We left the capital to wander through the mildewed rooms of baroque castles and tore our jeans climbing to hermitages teetering on Gothic outcrops. We visited Teddy's mother's birthplace, where I took his photograph, and traveled to the Tatra Mountains, where we swam in Lake Morskie Oko, climbed Mount Kosciele, and ate spicy wild boar sausages.
One day, at the end of our second week together, we took an overnight train to Wroclaw. Early in the morning Teddy procured a cup of acorn coffee from a vendor through the train window and brought it to me, waking me by stroking my arm. When I opened my eyes, I felt a rush of emotion. Despite all Poland's exotic unfamiliarity, I learned then that the most foreign country is within.
We visited Chopin's birthplace, a modest manor in Zelazowa Wola, a hamlet nestled in the Mazovian heartland. A group of musicians from the Warsaw Conservatory were giving Chopin piano recitals in the grounds; as we approached, they were belting out mazurkas, but when we took our seats, a young man began to play the C-sharp minor Scherzo. The fierce opening octaves uncoiled over forest, glades, and the willowed hills behind the fast-flowing Utrata: a perfect setting for the music of an ardent patriot. But Chopin finished the piece at George Sand's summer house in Nohant, on the northern rim of the Massif Central. He was twenty-nine, consumptive, and guilty at his self-imposed exile in Louis Philippe's France. Folded into the devotion, a betrayal. But one forgot all that, and one even forgot Poland as the genius of the music took hold. The small amphitheater of chairs gave onto a clearing infused with the butterscotch light of late summer, and the intense final harmonies of the incomparable Scherzo — a climax of desire and longing — drifted away over the silver beeches. We sat there in the checkered shadow of the trees, Teddy rested his fingers on the nape of my neck, and that was the end of the bolster.
The story rolled on for some years, the highlight, at least in retrospect, an extended camping tour up the west coast of Australia. One saw Teddy as he was made to be seen: wading into the ocean to spear supper. We both loved the open road. Every two or three days a gas station emerged from the red dust of the distance. Each had a bar and a shop. We stood at one bar on our way to the Ningaloo Reef, and I asked Teddy about the gutter at our feet, running along the wooden partition.
"Blokes used to piss in it," he said. "So they didn't waste time going to the toilet round the back."
Writers have compared a love affair to the mapping of an unexplored land; it seems a good analogy. If it is seen through to its logical conclusion, the lover does less well than the cartographer. That, too, has a truthful ring.
* * *
As a writer, I have learned to see the past as a friend. What else is there? The present is never around for long enough. I chose this next piece as it illustrates — rather clunkily, it now seems — the way landscape can work as a mirror to history. In these lines I can also see, dimly, the notion that I was working to keep the shadows at bay; what we all do, all the time. The grope for redemption, or at the very least respite, recurs throughout these pages, in different disguises.CHAPTER 2
Tierra del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago that drips off the tail of South America. Separated from the Chilean and Argentinean mainland by the waters of the Strait of Magellan, the largest island is itself divided between the two republics by a vertical line drawn with a ruler. This is the bottom of the world, a region where the curve on the globe turns steeply inward.
Before I turned thirty, some years ago, I found myself down there, marooned at Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino, the southernmost permanent settlement in the world. I was at the end of a six-month journey through Chile. I was writing my second book, and I had learned Spanish on the way down the thin country. It would have been easier if I had not spent the previous two years learning Italian at night school in London. But I ended up with a strong Chilean accent, still noted with disdain by Madrileños today. It had been a great time. My heart was fresh. So were my legs, as I had just recovered from a bout of scabies picked up in a boardinghouse in Puerto Natales. I had got to Tierra del Fuego. It was Land's End: the place where the whole world stopped. What could be more beguiling?
A white man first sighted land there in 1520. He was the Portuguese-born navigator Ferdinand Magellan, standing on the deck of Victoria, and he named what he saw Smoke Land, after the spires rising from the natives' fires. When he got home, his patron, Charles I of Spain, announced that he wished the place to be called instead Fireland, on the basis that there was no smoke without fire. Nobody knew that Fireland was an archipelago. It was Francis Drake who discovered that, when he pushed past the icebergs in the flagship Pelican, not yet renamed Golden Hinde, fifty-eight years later. Drake had already lost three of his six ships and barely weathered the horse latitudes, that subtropical region in which the old sailboats were so frequently becalmed, their captains ordering the crew to throw the horses overboard to conserve drinking water.
Navarino is Chilean now, and Williams its only village. The settlement was named after John Williams, a sea captain from my hometown of Bristol whom the young Chilean government dispatched in a twenty-seven-ton armed schooner in 1843 to claim the Strait of Magellan for Chile. Williams is a harsh and frigid place, squeezed in between three oceans: the Atlantic shoulders in from the east, the Pacific from the west, and the Southern Ocean from below. The westerlies in particular come freighted with rain and snow. Even in summer, the temperature averages just 52°F without windchill — and it is windy all the time in Tierra del Fuego.
It was a place where nothing ever happened. The low houses with their corrugated-iron roofs were separated by dirt tracks carved with puddles, and when you walked away from them, they slunk back into the purple mist. My billet was a guesthouse, though whether any other guest had ever appeared there was a matter for conjecture. One day, to pass the time, I hitched a ride in a lorry that was to deliver wood to a police station at the western tip of the island. The driver had called at the guesthouse on his way out to deliver some sausages. We clunked through miles of deciduous southern beech forest, the silvery trunks swaddled in pale primrose lichen and twisted into alphabet configurations by the prevailing southwesterlies. A band of white mineral deposits circled every pool, and their metallic whiff percolated the unheated cab.
The station consisted of a hut in a clearing that sloped down to the water's edge and a small jetty. It was an odd place for a police station, but Navarino lies directly below Argentinean territory, separated from it by a twelve-mile strait. As the two countries existed in a permanently tensile state, the Chileans kept a keen eye out lest a marauding naval force were to surge over to claim the bounty of Navarino for Argentina. Three unarmed policemen served the station, and it was difficult to see what they would do under those circumstances, but nobody worried too much about the detail down there.
The memory of the Falklands conflict was fresh, and any enemy of the Argies was a friend to Chile. At the end of the afternoon, as I was about to leave with the lorry, which had by now disgorged its firewood, the head policeman asked me if I'd care to stay for a while. My diary for that day notes, "Magritte clouds, beaver wigwams in the sphagnum bogs. No toothbrush. Must stay. What will I read?"
My carabineros took me mushroom picking and taught me which ones were for eating. We fried them in butter with a bright orange spherical fungus we snapped off the beech trees. Every evening, the head carabinero got out his photograph album, and we leafed through it in the flickering candlelight: here was José at Viña, at a party, on the beach. He was living off his memories in the back end of Tierra del Fuego.
In the early morning, when the cleaver peaks of the Darwin Cordillera turned baby pink, we took the horses to patrol the bays of the Beagle Channel to the southwest. The horses stamped the tussock grass, steam dissolving off their coats into the chilly morning air, and lumpy steamer ducks careered over the rocks, redundant wings flapping. We strolled about, and the policemen showed me where grass had grown over mounds of shells and ash left by Yahgan Indians, who used to paddle their beech-bark canoes from bay to bay, diving for shellfish and hunting seal. The name is Westernized; they called themselves Yamana, which means "people." They were nomadic and moved around the part of Tierra del Fuego that stretches from the Brecknock Peninsula to Cape Horn, though their territory shrank as they were hunted by white men, and they ended up confined to the canals around Isla Navarino. They spoke five mutually intelligible dialects, which together constituted a distinct linguistic group, and enjoyed one-word verbs meaning things like "to come unexpectedly across a hard substance while eating something soft" (like a pearl in an oyster). But they had no words for numerals beyond three: after you got to three, you said "many."
The Yahgan were killed off by imported Western diseases and by European settlers who sliced off their ears in order to collect the reward offered for each dead Indian. The last pure Yahgan died in 1982.
When we rustled the gorse bushes, fat upland geese took off against the Hockney-blue sky, unfolding white-striped wings. To the south, mountains trickled down into the ocean, last visible remains of the longest range on earth — one that runs forty-three hundred miles from the Caribbean to Cape Horn, where it goes underwater, and who knows what happens to it then. In the peaty light of early evening we rode toward the mountains called the Navarino Teeth in the heart of the island, a gleaming, uneven row of lower canines. Polar winds hurried across the ocean at that hour, and winter gusted in from the south.
On my last night we went at sunset on a final trip: my carabineros wanted me to see a beaver. There were many clearings of leafless and chiseled trunks enfolded within the luxuriance of the forest, but although we saw their wigwams and their swimming pools as we sloshed through the mud, we did not see any beavers. I heard the policemen expressing disappointment among themselves. The clouds hung low like white canopies, illuminated from underneath. The mountains turned shades of indigo, and the mirrored water darkened, cracked by trails of ducklings. On the highest peak of Hoste Island, a slender column of rock jutted upward just before the perpendicular walls of the summit.
"That," said José, "is what we call the monk entering the monastery."
When I woke on the last day, a three-foot-long stuffed beaver glared up from the end of my bed, baring horrid little yellow teeth.
* * *
This was fifteen years ago. When I think of it, costive at a desk behind the rain-splattered windows of home, staring into the sulfurous halos of London streetlights, I see the ghostly outlines of beech-bark canoes paddling eagerly from Wulaia to Douglas Bay. And I look back not just at a landscape I loved deeply. Shipwrecked now in another life, here where the curve on the globe is barely perceptible, I can just make out too the hopes and dreams of a young woman I once knew, down there in Tierra del Fuego.
Excerpted from Access All Areas by Sara Wheeler. Copyright © 2013 Sara Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of North Point Press.
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