At last I have achieved my artistic dream: I am a writer living in a garret.
Most such fantasies involve garrets in Paris – think “La Boheme” — but I’d probably settle for anywhere in Europe. This month I’m back in Wroclaw, Poland (Breslau, Germany, before World War II), to teach at the University of Lower Silesia (officially Dolnoslaska Szkola Wyzsza Edukacji, or D.S.W.) for the fourth time. Past accommodations have been a room at “the pope’s hotel,” as I irreverently call the Jana Pawla II in the charming old-European cathedral neighborhood, Ostrow Tumski; a spare single in a suite of three shared with other teachers at the Academy of Fine Arts; and a similar suite at the Evangelical School in the park setting of Wyspa Piasek, or Sand Island, in the Odra River, which had the advantages of in-room Internet access, laundry and cats. This fall, I’m back at the art academy, but in a far better space.
As garrets go, this one is practical yet charming. My third-floor (fourth to Americans) room under the eaves is reached by a glass elevator from a courtyard filled with sculpture and shared by the adjacent Radisson Hotel. (I can go there for the lavish breakfast buffet and call it brunch, or have dinner after class in the cozy bar, if I want to stick close to home.) The garret has a sloping ceiling; a dormer window so high I have to stand on the desk to open and close it; and a closet door that conceals a sink, a kettle and shelves of dishes but, as last time here, no refrigerator or heating element – which gives me license to indulge in one of my favorite European pastimes, café-sitting. Under the dormer is a spacious built-in desk, big enough for my laptop, folders, papers and the various electrical accoutrements 21st-century travel demands. The apparently shared bathroom has a door connecting from my room, with a key for privacy; I have not yet met anyone there, though I did see signs of a shower the first night. I haven’t yet figured out how to turn on the heat, or if I have any control over it at all, but this is Europe, so the bedding is soft and very warm. In short, my garret is nicer than three of the five hotels rooms I’ve had in the last couple of weeks.
What the art academy lacks in amenities like Internet, laundry and cats, it makes up in atmosphere. This is a working art school, with all the idiosyncrasies and mess that go into making art. Those who saw my Wroclaw photos from two summers ago may remember images of dusty hallways lined with life-size sculptures (except for the mini-rhinoceros) wrapped in plastic, Christo-style, and many are still there. Outside the elevator stand a dozen or so easels, and directly across from my room is a painting studio, with skylights facing north. This year a menagerie of life-size African animals, made of sheet metal, has been added to the sculpture garden; my favorite is the zebra, whose white stripes consist of empty space. A large abstract oil hangs above my sofa.
Sofa! I can’t help comparing Wroclaw with Xiangtan. There I had a full one-bedroom apartment, but here I actually have a comfortable place to sit, namely the sofa, while I read or watch TV. Actually, the TV here doesn’t work much better than the one in China – just three snowy channels, in Polish – so once again I watch DVD’s on my laptop on nights when I’m not in class or at the Wroclaw Opera. (I have tickets for five — so far.) I’m working my way through four seasons of “Dexter,” acquired at the DVD store in Changsha.
The course that brings me here is one I taught in China, “Cultural Backgrounds of English-Speaking Nations.” It will cover much of the same ground, but differently. For one thing, the audience is different: instead of Chinese undergraduates, European adults, many of them working on their master’s degrees or doctorates, and quite fluent in English. This time I’m starting with the United Kingdom and working my way west, to the United States, Canada and Australia. It will be interesting to see how the course evolves in a country that has its own perspectives on the English-speaking world, not to mention its own experience with Communism.
Since I teach only three days a week, I have high hopes of spending the rest of my time working on the ballet book that, so far on this trip, has taken me to London and Stuttgart for interviews – and maybe even the remaining chapters of my long-delayed travel memoir. Sitting in my garret will be a good test of whether I can once again focus on writing after a year dominated by travel. At least, it will if I can make myself sit in my garret and write, between trips to the pool, to the opera, to the luxurious facial salon (even nicer than Panco in Xiangtan). As any writer knows, there’s nothing we’d rather do than put off writing.
I’ve just realized that I don’t seem to have packed the beloved much-folded, multi-circled map I’ve used to navigate Wroclaw for the last three years. Except for the ever-shifting tram routes, I wonder after three days in town if I’ll even need it.
But now, off to that café.