The artist’s way: love stories in eastern Poland


She certainly wasn’t the woman of my dreams.

But she knew very well how to wield an axe.

And she made me paint.

* * *

Driven largely by yet another romantic disappointment, I set out to visit a stranger in one of the wilder regions of south-eastern Poland last November. I just wanted to get away, and this invitation came at an opportune time.

Once securely landed in the wooden cottage that had been both lovingly and stylishly hand-renovated by the most authentic of butch lesbians I had ever encountered (and having worked for LGBT organisations, some I have seen), checkered guy’s shirts and woodwork skills included, with a glimmer of grey in her hair, after a 12-hour trip finalised with a mud walk under starlight for the last mile or so, I was fed with spicy hot home made borsht.

Of course, the sweet Georgian wine brought home from her voyages couldn’t be skipped, either, despite my concerted efforts (as someone who meditates far more frequently than they drink) to spill as much of it as possible over the animal hides spread out everywhere, and especially near the fireplace. Politely, knowing that I’m vegetarian and rather thin-skinned, she asked whether I’d rather have her hide them away.

Skipping further details, while the hosting was generous beyond measure and I got to see beautiful places of relatively unadulterated nature, rural poverty buffered with warmth and cordiality, ancient icons and wooden architecture, there seemed to be a price to the stay.

It was a mural.

The back of the kitchen fireplace was cracking up and needed to be painted over.

Plus, having covered most walls in artwork by friends or photographs from travels, she couldn’t stand having a huge blank white wall there.

So, she wanted a mural of an orthodox wooden church. Basta.

I had painted neither murals nor orthodox churches before. In fact, I hadn’t painted in years (a decade?), having lost my spirit somewhere along a rather soul-bleak academic expat path paved with doubts and stresses and depressions. I don’t even know how we came up with it.

Yet, there was no joking with this headstrong, army-booted, axe-yielding host.

So I painted the mural somehow.

She liked it, and got her richer cousin to commission religious art from me, providing paint and wood.

Later when I returned to my own village (they call it a town), I was sad.

So she told me to paint. One painting every night.

It helped.

I did that until we met again.

* * *

Since we’ve split up though – over a dramatic story involving family, neighbours, and well-founded doubts over the liveability of any variety of gayness in this traditional region, me packing bags (and paintbrushes) to cross the country in a day and detox in queer Berlin – I’m unable to paint those churches. I’m looking for a new motive.

I can’t. Disappointment in the land, perhaps, even though I understand its ways and I certainly still love it.

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