I think back to Antwerp. A damp evening, streets full of puddles, eventually I caught a glimpse of sky between ragged clouds. Autumn in an unfamiliar city, cold air, my slowly developing sore throat, sleep deprivation turning unnoticed into flu. It was dark, mist had set in, I wandered the empty streets, a luxury shopping district, mannequins in shop windows frozen in elegant gestures, staring into infinity. I thought of Poland, remembering a similar street in another city, another country, another time and place. The memory no longer seemed to belong to me.
It was ten years ago in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast. At half past two in the morning two friends and I got onto a train which would take us right across Poland. There was a division of the Polish army on the train. All the way we stood in the aisle in a crammed, smoke-filled carriage exchanging cigarettes and gulps of Czech and Polish vodka with the soldiers (not much older than us) and teaching each other swear words, something that greatly interested the soldiers. Suddenly we stood, a little drunk, watery eyed and stiff jawed from laughing, on a platform in the cold Baltic night. You could smell the salt in the air, the city was empty, just the last few drunkards and the shop window mannequins, staring into infinity (as in Antwerp but with slightly different poses and gestures, to fit the fashions of that season long ago).
There were three of us: me, Ondra and Vojta. The overnight bus dropped us somewhere outside the city. We followed the smell in search of the sea, but we must have lost our way. We spent the night in a goal on an abandoned football pitch. In the morning we wandered the pine forests without map or compass. Everything was salty, pines grew in the sand, we even saw a few shells among the pine needles, but still no sea. When we finally found the beach we were euphoric: there was no one to be seen, miles of empty beach, the wind snatched our breath away, high waves pounded the sand, we jumped into the sea and for a long while we rode the breakers.
I’m not sure who noticed first, but suddenly we became aware of the sea’s strength. We realised we were being pulled away from the coast, drifting further and further out. We saw the beach, our rucksacks dumped on the sand, everything disappearing behind the walls of water to reappear moments later. I remember the panic, the fleeting shock of body and mind. We all began to swim desperately but made no headway. I could see Ondra and Vojta, we went through this together, but at the same time we were each terribly alone. Those fifteen or twenty metres were suddenly an uncrossable border.
After ages wasting our energy it finally occurred to us to swim under water, dive to the bottom, where the hollow echo of breaking waves pounded and the current was less powerful. Finally when we crawled back up the beach, we were so tired we just lay in the sand until evening, strewn across the beach, like parachutists after a bad landing. In the evening we were joined by friends we had last seen in Wroclaw, where we had gone our separate ways for a few days. We camped for a while on the beaches, but as far as I can remember I didn’t venture back into the sea at all.
Strange: the first day in The Hague thanks to a TV news report I thought about the sea all day long, and in parting on the last day in Antwerp I thought of the sea again. Under the gaze of the mannequins I was taken back as if through a time tunnel to the Polish coast. At ten I walked into the hotel and realised that the pounding I had been hearing in my head all evening was not the memory of the Polish waves, but rising fever. I wrapped myself in the bed covers, the hotel was right next to the theatre where the festival was in progress. As I fell asleep Andrew Bird’s performance, which I had planned to attend, was beginning. The walls and frame of the building faithfully relayed the remnants of music back to me. In The Hague I had heard an argument between strangers through the wall, in Antwerp bass tones muffled by bricks and concrete. It sounded as if it was under water, on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. I covered myself in the waves, let the current take me. Everything repeats, I thought, all borders are imaginary, you can swim underneath. I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.