Friday the 10th. Podlasie.
5 PM. It’s raining cats and dogs, I’m in the middle of nowhere, storm is rumbling, strong winds are calling the shots regarding weather in a blink. My equipment is put to test. With a soft-shell jacket, a rainproof pants cut at the ankles, two rain covers for the bags, one can resist a light rain for a long time, but not a downpour during 10 minutes. Water always finds a way. If the new front mudguard is making miracles for the bottom of my front package, feet are soon soaked wet, water is running behind my backpack and flowing in my running tights.
Like a watercolour swash I’m gliding across a tiny village, Rosochate Kościelne, from which the imposant church seems able to harbour the whole neighbourhood district. I notice a big house, near the redbrick edifice (with the blooming of baltic gothic churches, I’m definitely in northern territories). I knock on a pane of a window, behind it stands the crane of a motionless man. He rushes to put off earphones he had on, and a few instants later, appears at the door. In his fifties, gray trousers and a somber pullover, he’s waiting for an explanation of my strange apparition. I ask then if I can use the bathroom. Yes, of course. I’m hesitating: I’m saturated with rainwater, I’ll flood the floor as soon as I’ll walk in. Go on, go on it doesn’t matter.
It’s his private bathroom; I’m used to gaz stations WC, bars toilets, public « tualets », but most of all to high grasses, trees and fields. It’s awkward all of a sudden to enter the daily intimacy of this man, who I guess to be a churchman, even if nothing has been confirmed yet. Creams, soaps, fingernails scissors, very classic. One can sense that it’s a masculine private, it reminds me of that of my maternal grand father, a long-time widow; I’m thinking of the creaking door and the white walls of the small room which has witness the aging man do his daily ablutions, slow down and tremble, until his death. Year after year, the activity and density of a day are progressively decreasing to those repeated gestures. It’s the habits, with invisible roots long as decades that ramifies onto the living room where one grasps a magazine, to the kitchen where one puts the radio on, to the fork which seize the food, cooked a little bit less than before, it’s the habits that constitute the fundamentals. Disrupt the possibility to carry them out in a familiar environment, and the whole world collapses, no adaptation possible anymore. I see my reflection in his mirror. I guess there is no need for a handrail in the tube when hairs whiten and when one washes in the river. Yet, even in nomadism, habits make roots.
When I come out of the bathroom, I dare not evoke the subtile « how to shit in the woods », a thing which constitutes nevertheless a point of experiment and a way of hedonism in the fresh air that regularly punctuates a wild life (with an ecological awareness). Nor even « On bullshit » by Harry Frankfurt, whose philosophical investigations regarding truth and lies could make for a more cerebral approach of « shit », for I’m not given the time to do so.
I noticed that when I arrive in a place where there are people, if I let the footbike in sight, go on to some occupations and come back a bit later, people have had the time to look more closely on their own, to prime some inner interrogations. It’s the moment when a kind of selection has happened: a small number just « don’t give a shit », the majority has stared at it and sometimes made a link with me, a small number decided to start a conversation and the last category of people is pushed to do something for me, sometimes even before I explain anything*.
My host, during the time of my disappearance, seems to have been infused with the best of intentions. It’s as if he was opening the door a second time. His face has changed. He invites me to come further into the house, in a sort of dining room: there is a big table garnished with fruits, pastries, tableware. Is it a seminary center here? No, I’m a priest, I live here, he explains. So all of this is for you? Yes. Deep down, I can not help but smile: Church is doing well in Poland! Since I met the crazy bike guys of Onill, I know that the government is catholic and conservative. I’m then plunged into thinking about French anti-clericalism.**
He offers me tea, quickly glide the kitchen door, addressing himself to a woman obviously responsible for the house logistics. I note now some details of the place. Crucifix, a portrait of the ecumestist John-Paul II (a Polish man). Willingly I’m invited to grab some food, cakes and local sweets, energy says he, for the effort (they are, truly, mouth watering). I’ll content myself with an apple though, vaguely alluding to Eve and the Garden. By fear of ruining the velour coated seats (I’m still soaked), here I am, putting my rain trousers down, to knees height. Did he believe for an instant that I was undressing in order to illustrate some excerpt of the Genesis? Countryside parish priest, he seems exactly like his homolog psychologist of the modern times, ready to hear anything with a patient smile.
Andrzej, sitting in front of me, is looking at me as I eat the fruit. He speaks little English, I don’t speak Polish. We manage to share the basics. I feel as if the scene was written, played a thousand times, in myths and in customs. As if we were touching the heart of humanhood. Someone opens the door to a stranger seeking for refuge, in the heart of a storm. He offers him/her some of what he possesses. The strange visitor sets off bewilderment, showing up from nowhere, with a strange mount, he/she’s 33 of age. « Age of the Christ… » he says. Of Alexander the Great would joke the Greeks back then. Of Balavoine, Eva Peron and William Burroughs. « And then they all died» ! Well, for one of them, it’s a bit unsure, crazy rumours run about it. I feel at home, I’m chopping my apple with a knife as I do many times a day, on the road sides. I chew. No need to say much, to speak the same language.
– « Smile is enough », says Andrzej, with his eyes full of benevolence and amazement.
– « Eyes too », I answer, « it’s because of Babel ». I try to adapt to my benefactor.
– « Just as Europe » he states back with a problematic tone. (I talk about my Europe tour). He tries to adapt to his guest.
– « True. But similarly, there are common legacies, aren’t they? Matrix of our representations has emerged in Central Asia, we are brotherhoods of indo-europeans and finno-ougrians, from our myths up to our institutions (Dumézil, Benveniste…). So, today for Europe, must we dig under the tower and search for old foundations or bricken some new common tale?
He’s celebrating mass at 7.30 pm, like every day, for the 200 inhabitants village. He’s not from here, he was attributed the parish. He officiating with what he calls an « abjurator », as I hear it, who lives here, they are two.
My finished the apple. I stand up, bring up to my waist the rainpant which was preventing me from walking. We exchange names. Andrzej, Blandine. I speak of the first catholics, trouble for public order, anarchists they were, that was interesting! I’m not a religious person, and surely allergic to dogma, but I like to think there was something good in the individualism dimension christianity brought, that it was realistic, and avoiding traps of the progressive vision: one that does good to the system but harms individuals.
When we open the door, sun is back and radiant, there is that fresh earth and grass smell after a beating rain. Birds that one can hear again.
In the mirror of the bathroom, I have no idea who I saw. When we say farewell, we both know who the other is.
* What triggers the sudden will to do something, to show solidarity, offer something? In giving, there is a gratifying symbolic counterpart (and a counter giving in Mauss’s anthropological framework of « to give, to reveice, and to reciprocate »), one wins the quality of benefactor, it reinforces the social position and the narcissistic foundation, in a virtuous circle for the individual as for the species. In addition to contributing to the continuation of the social body, there is an immediate exchange between subjects, perhaps do people exchange the sureness of an incarnated common, of a shared system of beliefs giving an unequivocal value to the gesture, one gesture that, beyond the personal reward of the agent, also tells: at the same time as we are unique, we are peers too. The journey throughout Europe in the 21st century keeps on showing the consistency of altruism, in a lower or higher degree of spontaneity towards the stranger in the geo-cultures (Greece and Turkey were the acme of it), it’s not news. We know that mutual aid is prevalent in the rest of the living kingdom (Koproktine), where cooperation takes place on the same evolutionist background (team work in the biocenosis). A less classic thing, amongst animals not equipped with symbolic words concurring to the civilization process, a kind of counter instinctive instinct is sometimes witnessed: examples of rescuing and help without social or evolutive gain (until proof of the contrary) between different species (dogs rescuing a cat or a child, hippopotamus saving a young wildebeest from a crocodile, etc). This is more curious, less expected. Isn’t that something that seems to cruelly be lacked of by the global civilization, and appears far more difficult to exercice: that, outside from the established framework of programmed solidarity between fellows, civilization should know, in a counter-intuitive fashion nowadays, how to take care of what Modernity has often relegated to a status of essentially alien and inferior, the animal. One could add that in fact, concern for biodiversity and animals are beneficial to the survival of our species…
** Enlightenment and revolutionaries were probably right to battle against the pomp of Rome, entangled in the snare of the temporal, in the process of universalisation. When the powerful seated their absolutism on the opportune natural divine justification, which legitimates any State violence, wasn’t that a moment when the abrahamic religion was cannibalized, it which illustrates in such baroque way a rethoric of vampirism (one drinks the blood and eats the body of a god-man): theology is pleased in proclaiming the slavery of philosophy to its own ends – philosophia ancilla theologiae – but what hasn’t she lost of its anarchy and subversion power by gazing at its own reflection in the silver candlesticks of the princes! What was the gain in collusion with political power, a power of social control tailored for big empires?
7 (Thanks, keep going !)