Allow me to take you to Wrocław, Poland circa 2008. As is the case with many of my anecdotes, this one took place during my youthfully irresponsible days backpacking around Europe. Oh how blessed was the epoch of self-negligence…
Poland had been the Holy Grail of my interests for quite some time, and it just so happened that Wrocław was the first destination in what would be thousands of miles of aimless wandering throughout the Northern European Plains. Not only was it my first time in Polska, but it was also my first time couch-surfing (asking complete strangers on the internet if you can sleep in their living room), and as luck would have it, my first host was a lovely young lady three years my senior who, for the sake of anonymity, I shall name Kochana.
Kochana was a veteran of hospitality. I was lucky to have her as a host for many reasons: 1) she didn’t kill me, 2) she didn’t rob me, and 3) I actually got to sleep in a guest room with a bed. Truth be told, there are many greater reasons to extend my gratitude towards her and her family (with whom she lived), and I will forever be in debt to their generosity and self-sacrifice. Also, their cooking was delicious.
I don’t mean just metaphysical debt. I crashed their car. The family insisted I didn’t have to pay for it, but if Kochana came knocking on my door, I’d have a hard time not throwing piles of money at her.
Allow me to explain. It was a lovely day and we deemed it appropriate to head off to the countryside to visit a monastery or a church or some ruins or whatever it was that we didn’t end up seeing because we never actually got there. The problem was this: Kochana didn’t have a drivers license. Fortunately, her eldest sister did. Unfortunately she had other things to do and couldn’t go with us. Fortunately I also had a license. Unfortunately their car was a manual transmission, and I, being a silly American, only knew how to drive automatics.
So the sister decided to give me a crash course on driving stick, because apparently it’s super easy to learn in ten minutes. Just one problem: she didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Polish.
Imagine this scene: Sister (the teacher) in the backseat. Kochana (the translator) in the passenger seat. Myself (nervous and sweaty) in the driver seat. Sister would shout a command in Polish, Kochana would translate the command into English, I would neurotically reply in English, and Kochana would translate my reply back into Polish. Rinse and repeat at 40 km/hr a couple times around a city block. A dozen stalls later, I was a pro.
It was time to embark on our journey. We set up the GPS (in English for my convenience) and began to follow its instructions. Unfortunately, the GPS was operating in some parallel universe only vaguely resembling our reality, and in no time at all, we had taken a right down an alleyway and a left onto the banks of the Oder River.
It was time to back up. This was something I had yet to do. I had managed to return to the alleyway from the riverbank, but as I was focusing so hard on manipulating the clutch and the stick, I didn’t notice the parallel brick wall inching closer and closer to the passenger side, and then, “scrape-crunch.”
That’s when an angry Polish grandmother came storming out of the adjacent building, yelling what I’m sure were profanities at me, while Kochana, bless her heart, got out of the car to yell back. I think we might have been in her driveway, but I was too terrified to think thoughts.
“Don’t worry about the car! We have four!” was the reply from the mother when we returned.
This was only one of the adventures that made my time with Kochana special. I remember once conversing with her about my impressions of Poland. Something that struck me as interesting was the sheer amount of graffiti throughout Wrocław. I told her that, in the United States, graffiti is often the sign of a questionable neighborhood. In Wrocław, it’s all over the place indiscriminately, so it loses its connotation as the mark of criminal vandalism and instead becomes the mark of civilization in general. It was not uncommon for quaint little old ladies to be waiting for a bus with a backdrop of complete urban tagging, and the image seemed antithetical. Additionally, the graffiti in Poland was more than just shameless tagging; it usually had some sort of political message or artistic quality seldom seen in American cities.
Fast forward: My departure was met with both melancholy and panic – the former because I was going to miss her company, and the latter because I was going to miss my train. Regardless of the panic, our tram ride together to the train station was in what I thought was meaningful silence. When suddenly, she spoke:
“Gravity is everywhere. It is all around us.”
I was touched by her enigmatic words. I didn’t quite know what they meant. Perhaps she was referring to the gravity of my indefinite absence after such a pleasant and memorable visit. It seemed a shame that we can have such close experiences with people who would otherwise be nameless, indifferent strangers, and then be separated for the rest of eternity due to… what, the circumstances of our birth? Nationhood? Distance? Convenience?
But perhaps she was using ‘gravity’ in the literal sense. Is it not true that gravity is everywhere? She is being pulled towards the earth in the same way I am being pulled towards the earth. Even a continent over, are we not connected by the relentless forces of the cosmos? Do we not revolve around the same core and look upward away from that core to the limitless expanses of the same sky? Even if we were to never see each other again, we would continue to be pulled into a pan-human singularity in the heart of the Earth for as long as our bones exist. What can unite humanity if not the physics of the cosmos?
Gravity is everywhere. Nothing more needed to be said.
We didn’t have time for a heart-felt goodbye. My train was just about to pull away from the station the moment I got there. We ran to the platform, she pushed me into the right car, and within seconds the door closed and we started moving. I waved goodbye from the window of the door.
That’s when it hit me: she was talking about graffiti. Graffiti is everywhere.
But therein lies the magic of language. Language is symbolic. Seldom do people ever mean what they say. Gravity or graffiti, it was not actually important. The meaning was there in spite of the words.