The next morning the bird hadn’t died. A new sound accompanied its happy whistles. It sounded like an excited herald running up the wooden stairs, while taking two, three steps at once. There was no-one to knock on the door. I looked outside. A man stood in the courtyard. He faced a carpet. He beat the dust out of it with, what seemed to me, an iron rug beater. I watched him for a while. His pace slowed down a bit, almost to match the solemn tread at a funeral march. What else would you expect in the land of Chopin.
I imagined a professional rug beater. Professional in a sense that he would be a percussionist in a symphony orchestra. He doesn’t need to dress as one. But he would need a music stand next to him, so that he could read at which intervals he had to beat the rug. Since the rug will produce one and one note only -and I don’t accept any pussyfooting on this subject- the score can be kept as simple as possible. However, the composer should have very clear thoughts on the weight of the carpet and the composure of the rugbeater (both man and tool), the positioning of the iron structure that holds the carpet, the succession of intervals, the pauses, and, most important of all, the acoustic quality of the courtyard. This is not supposed to become an afternoon’s exercise in musical writing.
And it is not supposed to be an idea that gets copied by other people. That would lead to an installation of, say, at least seven different sized well-tempered rugs, and that would be so lame. I can imagine a special version of ‘We Will Rock You” later this year to commemorate Freddy Mercury’s passing away in 1991. So, don’t do that. I would like to invite an old-fashioned mum, the kind of mother that you won’t recognise like a mother, if you would meet her preparing falafel sandwich for you in a tiny snack bar in Berlin. She would speak russian too. Her clothes and hair are slightly greasy, yes she has some overweight, but that is what happens to some old-fashioned women once they pass the 55-year mark, and it is okay; also, when she smiles, it shows almost like a revelation, and for a very short moment it opens to her younger years, when Russia was still Soviet-Union and she was a young woman with a head scarf and the bright sky of Summer behind her, all in black and white and set in the time when I was afraid of parrots.
I would give her also a rug to beat. She needs to be irritated by the percussionist and his mannerist beats. She would just go paw-paw-paw in a murderous tempo. Free style! Of course, as it goes with performances in places of cultural high-class, it would be a complete bore to stand or sit through the whole thing. I mean, after two minutes you have had enough. That’s why I would rebuilt an exact copy of the Vietnamese restaurant where Anna and I had a late lunch for 26 zlotys, and make it an organic part of the sound experience.
When, on a very sunny and bright day in Warsaw, we walked in front of the monumental stairs that went up to the shopping mall, we didn’t know, that we would end up in a tiny Vietnamese restaurant a couple of streets deeper into Praga. I didn’t even know that I was going to be hungry in about twenty minutes. It arrived to her first. Salad, she wanted salad, something green and healthy. Maybe she was inspired by our immediate surroundings. The Russian-Orthodox church at the other side of the road, with its onion shaped bulbs that topped the edifice, brought a strong pierogi awareness. The transparent blue structures that roofed the entrances to the underground – there were about five of them, looked exactly like the kind of cardboard take-away boxes they give you at McDonald’s or KFC. And then there were the street vendors with their choices of strawberries, raspberries, plums, sunflower seeds and beans. No wonder Anna’s alarm clock went off. She headed for the monumental stairs, and I followed equally decisive. Erase everyone around us from the picture and the scene must have looked like an album cover from the mid 1970s.
Now there is something about shopping malls, that gives them an almost ceremonial allure. It is all about movement, isn’t it. You walk into it and you recognise the same shops and make-up they use in airports or in modern railway stations. There is lalala in the air, and all that music seems to go on only above your head. It is like an angel’s voice, that never properly enters your ears. I am good at recognising songs, but in the shopping mall I never recognise the song as eventually being a song. The people who pass me on the left and right keep up a rush hour pace. They look rejuvenated, money conscious too. The world of Louis Vuitton and Prada might be very far away, but hey, all mannequins look the same when they are naked. I do like automatic stairs, though. I think they look great everywhere. And they look great ever since I encountered them for the first time, when those steps with their metal jaws looked really ferocious and were a challenge to every daring boy who wanted to impress his mother. Best thing about them is that they still look the same; they never aged. Two of them could take us to the fast food area with its Green Point and the healthy salad, but I could convince Anna to give it a try in a nearby street.
Most of the apartments look battered, and if they don’t look battered, you forget what they look like within a minute. But those damaged ones have character. The roofs are high enough to give the street a big city feel. With time almost all the stucco has crumbled and fallen down. The apartment blocks lay bare their old bricks; they are full of scars. I think I love those houses as much as I love the automatic stairs. Each one of them should have one, as a touch of modernity. The church doesn’t like the idea of replacing the wooden stairs with automatic ones. Somehow they ridicule the idea of ascension, don’t they? I was in Kraków a couple of days after Pope Francis was there. The streets were still filled with pilgrims whose faces shone with happiness; I mean, extreme happiness, as if they had received a free voucher for a beauty treatment in heaven. The last time I had seen people so very happy was in the streets of Berlin, a city considered heaven on earth by a different breed of pilgrim. Though that’s not the point I try to make. Popes don’t come for no specific reason to Poland. I have the impression that the church holds major shares to everything in this country. And neither that is the point I am trying to make.
In Kraków you can book tours to Auschwitz and to Schindler’s factory. The old Jewish town can be reached by foot. It looks like a theme park complete with bloody klezmer musicians that for the entire fucking day play to the tourists on the terraces. Now, one popular neighborhood in Kraków is called Kazimierz, and on two of the corners of a neat little square with a rotunda in the middle, that people who know more than I do want to tear down, there are two replica’s of the old café’s that existed during Jew time. They are full of schmatta, schlubs and shmendriks and other things you can’t describe in yiddish. They look cosy and good, because it looks like they haven’t been designed last year. No. The café’s eventually look like a gift by Steven Spielberg that he made to show his gratitude to the city and citizens of Cracovia, shortly after he had finished working on Schindler’s list. You can almost imagine that the interior is original, even if it is original. I had the same idea when I followed Anna into the restaurant on the corner not far from the street with the pockmarked houses. It could have produced a short tinkle from a bell upon entering, like doors of old grocery shops do, but it didn’t. We looked at the menu. (I didn’t like the calligraphy, neither did I like the dress of the girl behind the counter; it was just a bit too ‘Gone with the Wind, forty years later’, when suddenly all pictures had to be soft-focussed and the girls wore ‘country.’) (all accompanied by terrible film music full of violins, by the way). The prices of the dishes had to remind the customers of €-times to come.
Back outside I looked to the west, where the street opened to a big gate of sunlight. There was some Berlinishness about it, some expectation, a promise that one day a bit of the German capital would enter this street, where everything looked so neat in the low sun. The houses weren’t high, so there was lots of sky above us. Yes, it was a typical fine street for the world citizens of tomorrow, who would come here to buy organic food and health products. There would be shops with restored country furniture and shops where you could buy herbs, tea and coffee. People would sit outside and talk leisurely, while they had an ice cream or a pumpkin soup. There would be little galleries and small boutiques, a record shop and of course a beer brewery where a former hairdresser who had experience in developing all kinds of lotions, would do the same with beer. In short, the street would be full of shops and stores, galleries and boutiques that would take care of your opinions and morals and offer an attitude in return. We walked back into a nondescript street with hardly any traffic, where we had spotted a Vietnamese restaurant. And you know what, I will not build a replica of it at the sound thing, nor will I describe it here. But believe me, it was great. It was better than beating rugs.