A racist graffiti tag on a wall in his hometown of Cardiff saw Michał Iwanowski doing exactly that and it sent him on a journey of discovery across the breadth of the continent that challenged his, and our, perceptions of what it means to be a modern European.
Michał embarked on a 105-day toil, walking every step from Wales to Poland with a British passport in one hand and a Polish one in the other. Drawing a straight line on a map Michał headed east from Cardiff taking in England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and the Czech Republic before finally landing in Poland.
In a time when Europe is more disenfranchised than ever before House of Beyond caught up with Michał to hear his story…
Is there any reason you chose a straight line rather than taking in some of Europe’s beauty spots?
Yes, when planning the project I was keeping in mind the urgency of ‘go home!’ as an imperative. It is about getting there as soon as possible. It is about not being here as fast as possible, and being there as fast as possible. No dilly-dallying.
I was also excited about the simplicity and randomness of it, letting that straight line decide where I set my foot, who I meet, a great deal of unplanned in the seemingly planned. You know what to expect in beauty spots, but you do not know what to expect in random spots, forests, B-roads.
Your adventure reminds me, in part, of Laurie Lee -“For the first time I was learning how much easier it was to leave than to stay behind and love.” were there reasons drawing you home rather than just those pushing you away?
I do not endorse martyrdom and difficult love. I do not see value in that kind of love. I see love as fundamentally good. I grew up in Poland, but that place was not good for me for many reasons, including homophobia and religious indoctrination. Staying there out of some loyalty now sounds like an unwise thing to do, although I did struggle at the beginning, negotiating my autonomy.
I did absolutely nothing to be Polish, I had made no choices
If you think about it, I did absolutely nothing to be Polish, I had made no choices – just like you did absolutely nothing to be British: we were just delivered by our mothers into that particular geography and administrative system that gave us a national insurance number and made us a member of a random group of people, a pot-luck posse. We did not select any of that, and so I do not see how one can take pride in that. It works for some, I guess, but not for me.
So fundamentally it was quite perverse what I was doing. Despite the apparent ‘going home,’ on my way to Poland, I was actually leaving my home, which is Wales, behind, A subversive performance, heavily clad in auto-irony.
Having done a few solo long distance paddles I know you get to spend a lot of time in your own head which can draw up all sorts of unexpected thoughts. Is there anything in particular you were surprised by?
I was pleasantly surprised at the ease with which my mind was making some of the connections between the things I was seeing and the things I was thinking – the little stories people told me, my observations, little gestures. They seemed to manifest themselves in the landscape effortlessly. The meditative nature of walking at its best. It worked like a well-oiled mechanism.
There must have been some dark points? Did you think at any point ‘I’ve had enough I’m taking the bus?’
Yes, a few. I had one major system shutdown when I rinsed my body clean of electrolytes after a few weeks of intense heat. It was a beast of a summer last year.
I just threw a proper tantrum, flung my bag in the bushes
It seemed out my control what was happening to me, an out-of-body experience, I just threw a proper tantrum, flung my bag in the bushes, threw my phone and my glasses away, took my shirt off and just walked away from all that, lay down on the side of the road in a foetal position and rocked for a couple of hours.
I was surprised how little I cared whether I got up again or not. I was truly done. Obviously I did get up, swearing under my breath, scouring the undergrowth for the bloody phone without my glasses… You gotta laugh at that.
I’ve had a few tantrums on long distance trips they can be quite cathartic can’t they?
Oh yes, indeed. The laughter that follows is glorious. In moments of proper weakness, I was recording little video messages for Future Michal, begging myself to never do another project like that again. It’s hilarious to watch them now – I have forgotten all the tough bits and am itching to be on the road. Some things you never learn I guess.
Besides the demands of social media what did you do to keep the mind active on those long boring days that just needed to be endured?
I was normally on the lookout for photographs. But you’re right, some parts of the landscape are just relentless, repetitive and tedious.
I was quite lucky though: I had the most amazing remote companion – a writer Aleksandra Lun. I met her serendipitously in Ghent, in Belgium, and stayed with her for a couple of nights. We got on. We belly laughed for hours on end. For the remaining journey, we stayed in touch and at some point, instead of typing messages, we started recording audio clips, a few-minute-long monologues that we bounced back and forth a few times a day.
Get a needle and antiseptic wipes and learn to pop blisters
She is one of the funniest and most intelligent people I know, so I was often walking laughing out loud or talking to my phone, having this beautiful conversation about here and now, philosophers, European history, literature, animals, dreams, and everything mundane in between. It not only kept me going on numerous occasions, but it was also a mirror in which I was learning a lot about the project. It was special.
Any advice for those who might want to walk such crazy distances? eg good socks?
A pair of really good hiking shoes. Another pair of really good shoes. Then some really good socks to go with the really good shoes. When doing a long day, change your shoes and socks twice or three times a day, just to change the pressure points on the soles, to give them a break.
Get a needle and antiseptic wipes and learn to pop blisters. Get a good backpack that sits solidly on your shoulders and on your waist. Skimp on everything else but these. And drink electrolytes, especially if it’s hot, I cannot stress this enough. Did I mention good hiking shoes?
Geographically what were some of the highlights of the walk, those instances that you could never plan or imagine?
Again, my highlights would probably be the most unspectacular spots to most tourists. A campsite in Smarden in Kent, where I slept in the company of a dozen wallabies and the sound of a lion roaring through the night. Or a lake in Olpe in Germany, quite ordinary on the surface, but covering a whole village that got flooded after the war when a dam was built.
The landscape of Europe I saw was generally quite familiar and predictable, but it was the little stories and odd elements that brought about the magic. I prefer the quiet beauty to the spectacular one, Magical Realism vibrates strongly on my aesthetic compass.
There’s a lot of humour and commentary in your instagram posts was that the plan?
Absolutely. I enjoy laughter and foolery. It’s medicinal. The topics I work with can be heavy. It’s easy to want to bring the violins out, and I’d like to avoid that. I look at the world with a lot of curiosity and humour in general, so it transpires in my writing, in my photography. I do it for pure joy and also to counteract the heaviness of the world I’m interacting with.
So much of what people believe about other nations is simply fed to us from our media. What were your experiences with those you meet along the way?
I had been bracing myself for confrontation and heavy polemics, Leavers pointing me to Calais, etc. But then I was surprised by the conversations I was having. Contrary to the negativity in mainstream media, and contrary to my own presumptions, I met very little negativity, and mostly kindness, reason, and empathy. Explaining the project was always an interesting moment, gauging a reaction to the heavy title.
The strong xenophobic voice is fanned only by the pages of the Daily Mail
My favourite were the sighs of relief, which happened very often, as if my interlocutors had needed an access point to vent, to let the steam out, to have a moan about the situation with a fellow Remainer. I still cannot figure out whether I was very lucky to have met mostly like minded people, or whether the strong xenophobic voice is fanned only by the pages of the Daily Mail.
The two realities I was confronting did not seem to match. It was good for the soul, to discover people are generally kind and reasonable. You don’t get to read about it in any media, left or right. You don’t get to read about the individual voices, but only the generic umbrella terms, Immigrants, Eastern Europeans, Brits, big sensational statements that do nothing but harm. It was my job to bring the conversation and experience down to the very individual level. This is where we should all start, before we make sweeping statements.
How do you define ‘Home’ now after this experience?
Home is a state of mind. We may use different means to reach it, but fundamentally we all feel it in the same way, the sense of comfort, belonging, safety. Some get it from following a certain football club, some from living in a certain community, some from having a certain passport. I get it from being on this planet. I tend to look up for answers, not down, the universal perspective works for me.
If there’s a single message you could offer Europe, and in particular Britain, on the eve of our own insanity what would it be?
Don’t jump, lemmings…
I love the personal challenges for following your grandfather’s route. Could you tell us a little about that?
It was kind of a prequel to GHP, a journey of similar distance and to the same geographical location, but from the opposite direction – The Soviet Union. Grandad and his brother escaped from captivity and crossed some 2000 km on their way to safety. That was roughly 70 years ago.
They had a much clearer idea of where home was. They would have loved to hear ‘go home, Polish’ I guess, it would have meant freedom. I had been curious about their perseverance, and the strength of the human spirit in general. At the time, the Syrian civilians were struggling for survival on boats across the Mediterranean, fleeing a burning country.
Their plight, so contemporary, yet so similar to the plight of WWII fugitives, to other plights in history, was an impulse for me to retrace my grandfather’s escape and document that landscape – the silent witness to suffering that people bring upon people over and over again. I wanted to show it from the perspective of an individual, as history books swallow us all up and turn us into numbers, movements, patterns. As conclusion to the book ‘Clear of People’ I wrote:
My grandfather Tolek, and his brother Wiktor, escaped from soviet captivity and crossed over 2000 kilometres on their fugitive journey home in 1945.
This is not an unusual story. There are no heroes in it, and there is nothing glorious about the events. You have seen it happen before. And you will see it happen again.
I followed his footsteps for personal reasons. Hoping that if I walked long enough I might find him. Tell him it mattered. Hoping that the landscape might connect me to a time and people long gone.
But what had started as a quiet tribute soon turned into a meditation on the strength of the human spirit. How do you carry on when your body gives up? What hope drives you blindly forward when your life is so obviously disposable?
I have no interest in judging history, nor am I interested in glorifying my relatives. But just what happens to all those people who one day wake up to a war? Who mourns the lost ones? Our landscape is crowded with ghosts on their way home. East. West. North. South. There is no room in history books to fit all those people.
This book is theirs.
What five things couldn’t you do without on the walk?
Good hiking gear. My phone with 20GB data. My camera. My energy bank. The Arts Council funding.