How I got to Wislawa Szymborska’s apartment

How I got to Wislawa Szymborska’s apartment
How I got to Wislawa Szymborska’s apartment

Wislawa Szymborska’s footsteps can be heard ascending the stairs with bags of vegetables, legumes and fruit she brought from the market just a few blocks away. She puts the bags down on the floor to open the door. She goes in and arranges her purchases on the counter in the small kitchen. She lights a cigarette and looks out the window overlooking the tree-lined avenue. After taking a long drag, she begins to prepare something to eat. This is how I imagine Wislawa among the fruits, cutting boards and cigarette smoke.

Outside, nailed to the wall, there is a metal nameplate that identifies this building: UL. PIASTOWSKA 46klII DZ: KROWODRZA. Ola, Pawel and I climb the stairs that Wislawa used thousands of times. A creamy colour on the wall frames a group of flower pots that receive light on the landing of the stairs. Finally, a white door right in front of our eyes. The number 18 hangs, it contains infinity in the second sign. My legs tremble. I never imagined being here in my dreams. This, which was once her home, is one of many nests that, when inhabited, offer discreet sounds in their everyday life.

My heart is racing as Pawel knocks on the door. I say nothing. The person who opened the door was his personal assistant, Professor Michał Rusinek. Wislawa chose him, among other qualities, probably for his simplicity, his kind and friendly manner.

The apartment is small. At the entrance there is a picture of Wislawa and below a short table. White walls. To the right is a modest green living room and two of the four walls have large wooden bookcases. At the back is a wooden dining room with eight chairs. Light enters through a window. And turning to the left, one can see the kitchenette through a small window. Through this frame Szymborska was conducting conversation, drinks and attention to those in the dining room.

We sit at the table where she used to receive her friends and translators. Rusinek brings us a perfect espresso. He shows us Wislawa’s latest books. There is a colossal craze for her work that has put her literature on the best-seller lists all over the world.

Professor Rusinek tells us that there is one last unpublished poem found and it has been included in the latest of the recently published books. He shows us three thick editions.

I look at the bookcases in the department, which also contain mugs with caricatures of the Nobel Prize winner and cats. There is also a photograph of the partner with whom she shared the last part of her life, the writer Kornel Filipowicz. Playful collages hang on the walls, including a plastic fly measuring more than ten centimetres, which seems to echo those parties where Wislawa gave strange objects to the guests.

The simplicity of the apartment impresses me. There are other Nobel Prize winners who used part of their money to buy mansions. She preferred a slightly better apartment, not a bigger one, but a functional one, since the previous one, located on the fourth floor – Ola tells me – did not have hot water. Curiously, hot water could reach her apartment when she won the Nobel Prize, but the decision had already been made.

During the tour, Rusinek shows us the two bedrooms, one of which Wislawa slept in. There are two walls of the apartment on which her handwriting has been transferred in large format. Wislawa’s manuscripts are rare, as she used to work directly on the typewriter.

We entered a small room with a washing machine. I imagine Wislawa there, I don’t know if with this washing machine or an older model, but putting her clothes in and wondering about the cleanliness or dirtiness of the world.

Rusinek tells us that she tried as hard as she could to live in anonymity. I immediately remember her poem entitled Like One of the Crowd. I imagine her walking while cabbages, trees, bombs or questions about the slowness of compassion grew in her head. Verses and more verses that, like darts, embedded themselves in the reality she dissected.

Rusinek says that nothing is known about the method she used to write. What there is in her apartment is a waste basket woven from natural fibres, because Wislawa said that’s where the poems that didn’t work ended up. Not everything is worth publishing, she said.

In order to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, the King of Sweden had to make an exception. Szymborska refused to attend the ceremony that banned cigarettes, as quitting smoking was never in her plans.

One of the last poems written by his own hand, it allows us to understand part of his life, a complex life that included his militancy in communism, which he later abandoned for consistency (we know a lot about the monsters of the left and the right). It is a poem that I deeply love and that I accessed thanks to the translation by Abel Murcia and Gerardo Beltrán, since it brings us closer to the problem of freedom, a theme that never abandoned Wislawa, who was a witness of the Second World War and later suffered censorship and food shortages. The title is Someone I have been watching for a while, it has these lines: “once he found a pigeon cage in the bushes. / He took it away / and that is why he keeps it / so that it remains empty.”

This is Wislawa Szymborska who lived in a small apartment and wrote at a small table, to let the poems grow to such a degree that they illuminated the world with their questions.

The word freedom comes from the Latin libertas, which means “one who is legally and politically free.” In ancient times, this word referred to those who were born free, or to those who, having been born slaves or vassals, had obtained the autonomy to call themselves free.

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