Agnieszka Kłos – NEW GERMANY

Germany greeted me with chewing gum. I found it, right under my feet, on the floor of the central station in Dresden, changing trains. Likely dropped by a teenage girl or some suited sort, who’d eaten something a little too greasy in the buffet. The shop was empty and the packet of gum was lying there, next to my shoe. I picked it up and stuffed it into my coat pocket with a thickly gloved hand. I didn’t want any nosey shopkeeper to think I was a thief. The gum was divine. It tasted of delicate mint and reminded me of all the gums I’d had when little. They too had been delicate and soft. No lost fillings. You could mould them with your tongue and toy with their shape in your mouth. I thought, since Germans are this welcoming this early on, that I would feel at home here. Perhaps more at home than anywhere else. I bought my first bratwurst on the main street in Leipzig. Its aroma floating a few steps ahead of the wooden hut, inside which two women were frying chips and slicing sausage with an electric knife and serving them with ketchup. I burnt the roof of my mouth, eating hungrily, while the two ladies watched me on the sly. I returned to Leipzig a year later. Same time of year, mid-winter. Which is why, instead of going straight to the Institute, I dragged my suitcase down snow-covered streets, recalling everything. In the distance, the small square where an antique merry-go-round had stood before. Bernd said it had burnt down. Having spun right up until Christmas, someone had then set it on fire. The square was empty. And yet all the streets in the very centre of Leipzig spoke of myths, poised and snowbound. I dragged my suitcase onwards and met not a soul. Having made a loop, I saw that the wooden hut was shut, a steel chain wrapped round it. I wanted to eat another bratwurst, but was too late. I looked through the windows, at the clean tabletops inside, the washed knives, the potato dryers hanging on the wall, the wet aprons and towels. The women absent. Back in my hostel room, I sat down, still wearing my shoes and overcoat. It was so cosy and quiet, I stayed still awhile. Listening to the room. There was an office block opposite, the mornings announced by two women I could see clicking away at their computers, every so often looking up and staring blankly back into my room. Each morning, I would jump up in my pyjamas, as if woken by their stares, then shut the blinds. At noon, a man would visit them. Staring into their computer screens, bent over their forms. Brazenly. The flies of his trousers level with their eyes and lips. This happened the first night. I went out to find a beer and once again see the quiet, mythical streets of little Leipzig. To circle the square with its absent, burnt-down merry-go-round. Gone, along with the horse I had ridden last winter. It had been white, huge, and I had climbed it with difficulty. The street was empty. I walked as far as the Chinese shop and turned round, which is when I felt so cold I decided to go back. That’s when those two stopped me. First the man in a cart. Riding round the square and begging. The mechanical wheels flew over the snow and ice, he on the exhale asking for money. Rolling round me as if I was invisible, then towards an elderly woman. He bounced off her as if she were an ice floe, turned on the spot and made such a graceful move, then rode on. I don’t even recall if he managed to get any money. The woman then asked me if I knew the Baum bar, as she really fancied a coffee. I knew the place she was after was right by the Institute, but didn’t know how to direct her to it. I simply waved my hand, then led her down Leipzig’s streets. Distrustful, she didn’t believe me, stopping and shaking her head, once even turning back, grabbing me by the hand, stepping demonstratively back into the street and gesturing for us to reverse. I didn’t give up. Come, I kept repeating in Polish. Alles Gut, assuring her. Nach Baum, kafee. Fraulein didn’t believe me, afraid as we turned a dark corner. She let me go on ahead, trying to leg it. But eventually we found ourselves in front of the bar. I pointed at the entrance. Baum, see? But she had suddenly lost all her enthusiasm. Kept staring dumbly at the sign, glancing through the dimly lit windows. This Baum, Kafe Baum, see? We’re here, you can have your coffee. Kafe Baum alte, I gestured. Nothing helped. Fraulein had evidently changed her mind at the last minute and nothing would now convince her to go inside. I’m going, I said out loud. Gone, guten Nacht. And walked off towards the Institute. I couldn’t help laughing, giggling as if mad, giggling at Fraulein who was even more of stranger in Leipzig than I, unable to find the oldest bar in town by herself. I revealed its location to her, inviting her in, explaining we have arrived and now remember her words; kafee. She only wanted a coffee. Only coffee. Not in an ancient bar, not in Baum, anywhere but there. We had circled round together, rushing down the pavement, across the empty space where the merry-go-round had once stood, and I now reached the small square with a fountain in its centre. Still doubled up with laughter, still giggling as I moved on; towards the lift, by the staircase, right by my door. I forgot all about the beer. Decided to turn back. I went back downstairs, out to the courtyard, towards the cold alleyway. The city was empty. I thought I might meet my Fraulein, that I would once again see her dark skisuit against the snow, but there was no one out there. The air frozen still. Like the winter we’d had under martial law. It had come here all the way from 1981, and I could touch it now at last, after so many years. The city looked like it had just finished partying. Tidied, washed and put away for the night. No Christmas street stalls, no grilled sausages, no mugs of mulled wine. Everything evacuated somewhere. Stuffed down basements, hidden in littered lofts until next year. That beautiful carousel had been less lucky. Both the giant white horse and the dark tiger lost to fire, both of which Asia had ridden. Bashful, delicate, ruddy-cheeked girl. Tiger and horse. I had no idea we were that different from one another. In one of the other seats, shaped like an antique baloon, I had seen a tiny, elderly couple. Enjoying the spin of the merry-go-round and whispering to one another. Their words lost to the noise of the fair. Minuscule mirrors lining their gondola reflecting silver hair, well-cut grey overcoats, her hand with its wedding ring, the hand which grabbed him as they flew, as if they were riding in some speeding carriage. Though they were speeding nowhere. Though the gondola spun slowly, carefully, with special attention, far from child-like. And now the square was empty. I heard shouts and regular clapping. In a nearby basement, women were practising aerobics. Someone was shouting at them, hitting something with a cane, slapping something else with his hand, screaming and moving in synch with the music. Everything ticking along like clockwork, with heavy precision, to the beat of some underground machine. Likely powered by those ever ageing women. I passed a garden, a small cinema and headed towards the nearest bar. I wanted to drink some wheat beer from a tall, narrow mug and knew I had lots of cash and the whole Leipzig evening to myself. Anything I did would be a celebration of my return, a year on. I wanted to walk the city’s streets and revisit all the places we had been before. I circled the pavements like a shadow and knew that the cold wouldn’t let me go far. Only back upstairs to warm up, then on towards the central station, to buy a beer, drink it in my room, fall asleep. On to a pub, to order a bratwurst, drink a beer in a tall mug, fall asleep. I stopped in front of a shop window. Then another. The glass was ever so misted over. People illuminated in gentle shades. I had a lot of money, the whole evening before me and enough shyness to stop me entering any of the places I passed. Instead, I walked on, down ever narrowing streets, longing for my wooden sausage hut, my long-lost bratwurst, the tired women, working away at various tasks, watching their customers, laughing secretly at the hunger which had made me rip the meat with my teeth and swallow, choking on the joy of having returned here. I didn’t know what to do. Walk on, suitcase in tow, mark this territory somehow, sit in ajar with a beer, tell someone in Polish: I’m back? Once more, I entered the street which led towards the Institute. I no longer had the strength to seek out the station, lost along the way, or the bar which would have served me my light beer, the person I could tell that returning after a year comes with the obligation to wander round, revisit and retrace one’s old steps. Imagining how your part of town is asleep now and what might have happened in your hostel room in your year-long absence. Suspecting that somewhere nearby, a few streets along, life went on as if nothing had happened. The same folk living there, nothing changed, even you still stuck to the same spot. I was certain that, if I only I could sneak up silently enough, I would find us all in that dormitory. Meet myself in the loos. See how I’m fairing. Explore all possible states of being. I held on to this, walking up the stairs, then to fell into bed fully dressed. The warmth in my room was impossibly dreamy. As if I had dropped into someone else’s warmed bed, body, pyjamas. As if I had never left this certain room. Never recovered from a certain fever. I wanted to burn. Burn from within, as if from eating scalding sausages. Fatten up on dreams. I was tired, exhausted, unable to utter a single word. As if trapped in a pod. I wrapped the bed covers over myself and started to scan the radio airwaves for the German version of Radio Maria. People spoke, discussed, chatted, while I tried to work out who it was they were so set against. I followed their speech, scanning out the odd word, missing phrases and sobering up again. Under the strain of German words sleep arrived and as if something inflated, mechanical and merciless, covering my eyes. Descending. Hovering over like snow. I mumbled, still laughing at my Fraulein, stop now, now we sleep. But the German pow-wow went on, trapping me in a refugee camp. A jolt woke me. My body, dreaming, had fallen to the floor. The impact waking me. I heard the music playing, and a beep of sorts, unlike Polish radio signals. Which is when I sensed the presence of someone who had lived here before the War, in the room with me. His hands were hairy and he was towering over me. Shepherding my dreams, vanishing too slowly to evade my senses. I sat up on my pillow and studied the room, lit by a bright street lamp opposite. I had the impression the man had dissolved in mid-air, but was still watching and the moment my eyes closed would be back to sit near me. Spooked, I could clearly see his scarred, slashed up hands, covered in thick, tiny hairs, coming closer as if I were a child. He wanted to caress me. A Jew, my dazed mind thought to itself. But Jews are kin. I need not fear, tomorrow I had a lecture on Auschwitz–Birkenau. I would ask Bernd if he knew whose house this had been before the War.

translated by Marek Kazmierski

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opowiadanie po polsku w PDF tutaj

Agnieszka Kłos – writer, art critic, photographer. Has published writings on the subjects of contemporary art, literature, photography and cinema. Author of “Complete cost of all” (2008, 2009 reprint). Has been published by all key periodicals covering literature and arts. Her stories have been translated into Serb, German and English. She lectures on anthropology of film and photography in the Southern Silesian Upper School. By day she keeps busy with art and the aesthetics of the Holocaust. This year, she is representing young literature at the Festival of Feature Films in Gdynia.

Agnieszka Kłos – pisarka, krytyk sztuki, fotografka. Publikuje teksty związane ze sztuką współczesną, literaturą, fotografią i kinem. Autorka książki “Całkowity koszt wszystkiego” (2008, 2009 – dodruk). Publikowała w najważniejszych magazynach związanych z literaturą i sztuką. Jej opowiadania zostały przetłumaczone na język serbski, niemiecki i angielski. Prowadzi zajęcia z antropologii filmu i fotografii w Dolnośląskiej Szkole Wyższej. Na co dzień zajmuje się sztuką i estetyką Holokaustu. W tym roku reprezentuje młodą literaturę na Festiwalu Filmów Fabularnych w Gdyni.