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A Gift from Fate: a visit in paradise

Updated: Jun 18, 2021


Koło 1-ej wjechaliśmy do Carcassonne. Miasteczko małe i urocze. Po drugiej stronie rzeki zamek, cały gród warowny, jak dekoracja w teatrze. W Carcassonne pusto, bo południe i upał. W ,,Hôtel Vitrac” odnajdujemy siedmiu naszych kolegów z paryskiego biura. W Carcassonne jest część naszej fabryki, jest nawet coś w rodzaju dyrekcji. Można dostać 500 franków, potem 675 – jako indemnité de repliement, czyli odszkodowanie za wianie, a właśnie dziś wszyscy zapisuję się na listę zasiłków – 23 franki dziennie – płatne od jutra. Polaków traktują jak swoich – bez żadnych różnic…

July 3, 1940

Around one in the afternoon we entered Carcassonne. A small town, full of charm. Across the river the castle, a fortified bastion, like a stage set. Carcassonne is deserted, because it’s noon and hot. In the Hôtel Vitrac we find seven of our colleagues from the Paris office. Part of our factory is in Carcassonne, even part of the management. You can get 500 francs. later 675, as an indemnité de repliement, or compensation for making yourself scarce, and today everyone is signing up for benefits: 23 francs a day, to be paid starting tomorrow. They’re treating the Poles no differently than the French…

Bobkowski will spend two months in this quiet, paradise-like region of Languedoc, in southern France along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Lodged with other Polish workers in a couple of shared rooms in Hôtel Vitrac, he appreciates every moment of this unexpected furlough, playing hooky from reality – reality of war, seemingly too far away to have any impact, reality of worries and responsibilities.

He visits the nearby town of Narbonne, the former Roman provincial capital; rides his bike through the countryside of vineyards and limestone hills; reads whatever books may fall into his hands; gets to know a few colorful local characters; bathes in the sun and the sea in a picturesque village of Gruissan...And, of course, takes notes inviting us to share his enchantment with the blessed moments filled with “sunshine, magnificent and lush; evenings and nights, as silky as the coat of a black cat.”

After the shock and turmoil of the rushed exit from Paris, Bobkowski has now reached the part of France that could still sustain an illusion of undisturbed peace and where time seems to have a different dimension. The fortress of Carcassonne stands up on the hill, across the Pont Vieux over the river Aude, just a few steps from the street of Old Bridge where his temporary lodging is located. Its two enormous concentric walls, surrounded by moats, incorporating 53 towers and punctuated by heavy barbicans, recall grandeur of a medieval strongpoint along the border between the French kingdom and the Spanish Crown of Aragon. Above the fortified walls rise the gothic towers of the Cathedral Saint-Nazaire, completed by the middle of the twelfth century.

Memory of even more ancient powers left a visible mark in the region. The first ramparts around “Carcasum“, an important trading post half-way between the towns of Tolosa (Toulouse) and Narbo (Narbonne), were built by the Romans, around 100 AD. After the Visigoths’ conquest in the fifth century, they were expanded by King Theodoric II. Roman presence echoes in impressive ruins in several cities, in the imprint of major routes and in gracious aqueduct arches dotting the landscape. Gallo-Roman culture is preserved in the region’s name: the “Langue d’oc” refers to the version of French spoken in the south of France, i.e. the language in which the word for “yes” was derived from the Latin “ac.” (In contrast to the north of France, where people said “oeuil,” an old French word to express agreement that has become modern French “oui.”).

In Languedoc, Bobkowski recuperates an almost child-like pleasure of “doing nothing” and of sensual experience. He allows himself to enter the zone of charmed suspension in time, perhaps particularly notable in Polish literature so marked by somber notes in minor key. The Notebooks’ entries during the months of July and August of 1940 compose a very special ode to the gift of life in its basic and essential simplicity, singing praises of the immersion in here and now.

First thing in the morning, into the water, Bobkowski notes in his entry of July 14, the lazy feeling of limbs relaxed by a swim. Feels absolutely great. I’ve caught up here with old-time France. And now I’ll savor her slowly, in tiny sips, like a glass of good wine. Then? My God… ‘Tomorrow,’ ‘then,’ ‘in the future’ – these are words from a bygone age. That age has disappeared, perished – and let history treat it kindly. If we didn’t manage to get rid of these words, “the now” would lose all meaning, all its charm. I want to live only “now.” From the very first day here, I felt most clearly that fate has allowed me to win an immense prize and I must cherish every minute, I am hoarding them. The complete, round, fragrant minutes and hours".

Grażyna Drabik

New York, April 26, 2021

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