It was late afternoon in late January. I was sitting on my own in a compartment of a Berlin–Warsaw train. There was only two or three minutes until its departure, and I assumed that I would have the compartment to myself when this guy came in. He didn’t say hello or ask if the remaining seats were free, as it was customary on the Polish trains, just took his seat near the door and put his small rucksack and two shopping bags on a shelf above him. Although his behaviour was verging on being rude, I felt instant sympathy for him, in part because behind his actions I sensed a desire to be invisible rather than rudeness and in part on the account of his similarity to my old friend from university, with whom the passenger shared an un-self-conscious handsomeness. It was difficult to detect his age and social status, although he looked as if he was past forty and didn’t have a 9 to 5 job. His clothes didn’t look expensive, but at the same time he came across as well dressed. He wore a dark-blue winter jacket with a dark-blue sweater and a dark-blue gilet underneath. His combat trousers were also dark blue with zips up the sides. The only garment that was slightly out of kilter were his sports shoes, which were new and white, suiting more a teenager than a man in his forties. His head was shaved, although he wasn’t even balding. If he gave his hair a chance to grow, his scalp would be covered by blond hair, matching his Slavic blue eyes and naturally light complexion.
I opened my computer and started to work on an index for my book, but I was tired, and work went slowly. My companion didn’t do anything, just sat with his eyes half-shut. Half an hour after the train departed, a conductor came and questioned the validity of our tickets – mine, because he couldn’t scan it from my mobile phone; my travel companion’s, because he argued that his ticket was not valid on Intercity trains. Eventually, the conductor gave in, because I dug out from my bag a printout with the right barcode and the other passenger showed him a booklet with regulations proving that he was entitled to use this train. His German was better than mine, but it was German of the kind one picks up when traveling or working abroad, rather than one learnt at school. Putting us in the category of suspected ticket dodgers brought us together, and we started to talk.
“I printed the ticket out to be reimbursed for my trip to Berlin, and it was my good luck that I forgot to hand over the receipts to the people who invited me. Otherwise I probably would have had to buy another ticket and maybe pay a fine.”
“What you were doing in Berlin?” he asked.
“I was attending a conference about precarious work,” I replied.
He laughed and said: “Sounds like what I am doing.”
“Attending conferences or working precariously?”
“So, what are you doing for a living?”
“You can say that I’m partly self-employed and partly retired.”
“Which part is larger?”
“This depends on the specific day.”
“In Berlin were you self-employed or partly retired?” I quizzed him further.
“Partly retired,” he said. “I hoped to stay longer, but the rain drove me away.”
“During the first two days of the conference, the weather was dry and crispy, but the last day it was pouring with rain and I forgot to zip my bag up properly when walking to the station and now my clothes are wet.”
“This is bad,” the guy said. “Keeping things dry is the first rule of successful travel and successful living.”
“Yes, but you cannot ensure it.”
“This is true, but you can minimise the danger. My rule is: when it’s raining, I move on.”
“I see,” I said and there was some silence between us, so I returned to my computer, assuming that this was the end of our conversation. But he continued: “Do you know, where I like to travel most?”
“South of France: Montpellier, Andorra, Monte Carlo, Nice.”
“I haven’t been to any of these places, although I know some others: Collioure near Perpignan, from where I travelled to Carcassonne and Villefranche. Carcassonne is my favourite place in France, although I haven’t travelled much in this country.”
“I like Carcassonne too, but it does not have the right facilities for me,” said the guy.
“What facilities do you need?” I asked.
“Basically, I need to be in places, where one can live well without having a fixed address.”
“I see,” I said, although I hadn’t fully grasped what he had in mind.
“You see,” he continued. “I like to live light, having all my belongings in one small rucksack. I like to travel, not settle, visit, not occupy. This is the most efficient way of living. I learnt it a long time ago when I was studying economy. I didn’t finish my studies, but what I learned there was imprinted on my mind, maybe because it confirmed what I already knew.”
“That the more things you have, the less flexibility you have in your life. This is the reason that banks typically don’t buy office buildings; they rent them, as buying reduces their capital, which needs to be liquid. I apply the same rule to my entire life. As I have no apartment, I pay no mortgage or service charge. This allows me to travel practically wherever and whenever I want.”
“But wherever you go, you need to sleep somewhere,” I said.
“True, but I can sleep under the sky, and I don’t need to wash in my own bathroom. For example, in the Red Cross facility in Montpellier you can have a shower, and wash and dry your clothes for 1 Euro 40. This sort of money every homeless person can earn begging or collecting bottles. The trick is to turn up there early, as later the queue gets longer.”
“So you go to Montpellier for this reason?”
“Partly. But this is not the only reason. The other is sunsets and sunrises. I want to see them. I would say I collect them, like other people collect properties, cars or books.”
He switched on his mobile phone and showed me his photos of the sky of almost all possible colours: different shades of blue, green, orange, purple and red.
“They were taken mostly on the coast from Andorra to Monaco. The best sunsets and sunrises are between Marseille and Nice.”
“Why there?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. It might be because I spent so much time there or I put the most effort into capturing these phenomena, or there is something unusual about the sky. It is practically never one-coloured, blue or black. The clouds give the sky a specific tint. The trick is not to wait passively for the sunset or sunrise, but to be on the move, keep walking. Then not only will you find an excellent view, but many different ones. Sometimes I walked for three to four hours at a time, hunting for images.”
“For me it would be too tiring to get up in the middle of the night to capture the sunrise.”
“It’s easier when you sleep in the open air; then there is no sharp division between sleeping and being awake, being in the world. You open your eyes and you are already there, on a beach or a street. You are in possession of the whole world. Besides, the current time is on our side. Take a mobile phone – you have at least 80% of your life there: books, television, music. And the other things are getting lighter. Take a sleeping bag – twenty years ago it took half of a large rucksack. Now I can put my rucksack in my pocket. And have you seen this?”
He took out from his rucksack a small thing labelled “temporary blanket.”
“See, you can put this blanket on the palm of your hand, and I assure you that it protects you perfectly from rain.”
“But people will still pity and patronise you if you are homeless,” I said. “They also might ask you to leave, if you trespass.”
“I don’t call people like myself homeless, because I have a home: the entire Earth is my home. I call us ‘the immaterial,’ because we don’t need material things to find fulfilment. Plus, people treat you as a homeless only if you look homeless. The challenge is not to look like that.”
“How do you achieve it?” I asked.
“You know that somebody asked Karl Lagerfeld what is most important in looking good and he replied, ‘finding one’s own style.’ If it works, there is no need to change it. I took this advice to heart. My clothes are of high quality, so they survive every weather and plenty of encounters with a washing machine. I basically wear them till they are destroyed and then buy similar ones. The only exception is shoes. To lead such a life as I do, I need to change shoes often. Still, one wants to take one’s shoes off from time to time and walk barefoot or in slippers, but in many places, people are not allowed to do it. One such place is Monte Carlo, but I did walk barefoot in Monte Carlo, and nobody dared to criticise me for it.”
“Well, it might be fine to sleep in the fresh air in the South of France in summer, but being homeless in winter is miserable.”
“You are wrong. It’s the other way round. It’s much easier to sleep under the sky in cold weather than when it’s hot. In hot weather, there are more people around, as well as mosquitos, and it’s simply too hot. It’s difficult to fall asleep in hot weather. In cold weather, on the other hand, you snuggle into a sleeping bag and are perfectly warm, except from your face which is breathing cold fresh air. It’s like cryotherapy, except that you get it for free.”
There was again silence between us for a while and then I showed him some pictures of sunsets and sunrises on my phone, which I took in Scotland. I hesitated to reveal that I had a holiday house there, not because I was anxious that he would take me for a crude materialist, but because he might take me for somebody who boasts about one’s wealth.
“These photos are good,” he said. “It looks like you enjoy nature and are very observant. You seem to be a sensitive kind.”
He said “sensitive kind” in English, which made me think that he referred to a song by JJ Cale. If so, it was a piece of magic for me as it was an anthem of my youth and one of my favourite songs of all time. But I didn’t ask him what he meant. Instead I said: “True, but I don’t want to travel anymore. I’m not curious about the world, even of beautiful sunsets and sunrises in the South of France or anywhere. I’d rather return to my home village and ‘my lake’ in Poland.”
Then I showed him photos of my lake taken the previous summer.
“This is a nice lake. In fact, I prefer to swim in lakes than in the sea, because there are no waves and no salt. After swimming in a lake, one is clean; there is no need to take a shower. By contrast, after swimming in the sea one needs a proper wash. This limits the opportunities; I can only go to beaches which have good facilities.”
“Even if you lead such a frugal lifestyle, you still need money – for food, for travel, to pay for washing.”
“Well, I work sometimes. On occasions I buy things in one country and sell them in another: cigarettes, weed, alcohol. Sometimes I work as a guide or chauffer for tourists. There were times when I was working on a building site with a pneumatic hammer for an equivalent of 40 euros per day, but this I wouldn’t do again. I get by. The lack of money is not an issue for me.”
“When did you choose such a lifestyle?”
“I’m not sure, but maybe it happened when I was a child. My parents were always quarrelling, and I couldn’t stand it. We lived on a miserable high-rise housing estate in Ostrołęka, the town where crows turn back. Have you been there?”
“Well, no need to go there. When I sensed conflict at home, I left. First, I used to go to a bench in front of our block or to a swing, but gradually I went further and further from my house. I noticed that there were different places than this estate; there were woods and rivers. I would say that I’ve been running away from home since I was a kid. Sometimes I return for two-three days to Ostrołęka, because I need to visit some office or simply to check on my parents and then I notice that nothing really has changed. They hate each other as much as forty years ago, only manage it better. My father gets up at four or five in the morning when my mother goes to sleep, and she sleeps till one o’clock. Their fridge is divided, with Father’s food on the top shelves and Mother’s on the bottom ones. Still, if this fragile dynamic gets disrupted by something, like a visit from me, the open hostility resurfaces.”
“I know such situations. My parents were like that. However, my father eventually died, liberating my mother. Maybe the same will happen to your parents: one will die and the other will blossom?”
“Maybe, but I’m not sure. Neither of them wants to give in, and each tries to remain fit. My father worked as a PE teacher; he has sport in his blood.”
“Why did you say that crows turn back from Ostrołęka?” I asked.
“Because if they go further, they find the same things. Ostrołęka is 120 km from three large cities: Warsaw, Olsztyn and Białystok. It’s like being inside a circle, which for me was a trap. Warsaw was a trap, Olsztyn was a trap, Białystok was a trap, so I went to study in Poznań, but it was still a trap, so I had to go further, to Spain, to Italy, to the UK. Eventually I discovered that I’m not looking for a place to settle, but being on the move is my way of being settled. So, I carry on. Next week I go to Prague with somebody, a woman. She seems to be like me in this respect, but just at the beginning of her journey so I’m not sure if this is her cup of tea.”
“I see,” I said, feeling somewhat embarrassed and unprepared to hear about his romantic life. He must have sensed it, so he didn’t continue on this topic, instead shared with me his dilemma of where to get off the train: at the West or Central Railway station and what to do when he finally finds himself in Warsaw.
“There are different possibilities. I can go to the Casino in the Marriott Hotel and doze off there till the morning when I can take the first train to Ostrołęka. I can visit my friend the Chinese (who is really from Taiwan), a seller of Chinese fast food at the West Station or walk to the Łazienki Park and sleep there on a bench. I can also go to a gym as a friend gave me his pass; this means not only a chance to sleep on a comfy bench but also having a shower. Finally, I can visit my sister who lives four tram stops from the Central Station. But it is already almost midnight, hence not the best time to make unannounced visits, especially to somebody who lives with an ass of a husband and two small kids.”
After thinking aloud for twenty minutes he decided to get off at the West Station and call his Taiwanese friend.
By the time he made up his mind we had passed Sochaczew, which was the last station before Warsaw and I still didn’t know his name, because the entire trip we were addressing each other officially, Sir/Lady (Pan, Pani) as Polish adults tend to do. But I grew curious about his identity and eventually asked: “What is your name?”
“I have many names. You can give me any name you want.”
“Well, I would like to know your Christian name.”
“I’m not Christian anymore. I’m Buddhist, so I don’t have a Christian name.”
“What about the name in your passport?”
“This name is unimportant”
“Still, I would like to know it.”
“Then you have to guess, but I can help you – it is a regal name.”
I was thinking for a while and said: “You cannot be called Baron, as this is not a Polish name, so you must be called Cezary.”
“Bingo. But I prefer when people call me Kaiser.”
“The Kaiser of the Immaterial Empire,” I said, laughing.
“Or rather the Kaiser of the Empire of the Immaterial Creatures.”
“Don’t you want to know my name?” I asked.
“No, not really. I rather prefer to give you my own name.”
“Okay,” I said.
When Cezary left I closed my computer and started to collect my belongings, as there were only ten minutes until the Central Station, where I was getting off.
Then I noticed that he was knocking on my window. I opened it and he said: “Your name is Mnemosyne, the goddess of storytelling,” and he left.
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories and creative nonfiction in her spare time. She published over forty of them in The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef, Toasted Cheese, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Verity La and Mystery Tribune, among others. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, Neighbours and Tourists (New York, Adelaide Books), which won Grand Prize in Eyelands Book Award competition. Ewa is also a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK. You can follow her on Twitter. This is her first feature on The Fictional Café.