A PORTRAIT OF MY HOMETOWN
It all started with the house my grandfather built. During the communist era, if you built a home then you intended to spend most of your life there. Typically your government-assigned job was nearby and building a home was costly in a time of sparse incomes and prevented most families from moving and building again. People stayed put, they became tied to the town they lived in, a part of it. When communism ended, I was still a young boy who didn’t understand the reality of the times. My grandfather’s house, and the small town it was tied to, raised and fostered me until my early twenties.
The town is called Strzyzow. A name that is hard to spell and a place that is hard to live in. A place that isn’t for sightseeing and marveling. A place where you don’t need a map. In fact, you can walk the length and breadth of it very easily in few hours. This is the kind of town you live in with routine quietness despite your experiences, the kind that sits modestly in the valley, that provides a background to everyday life.
Everything here is singular: one cafe, a park, the only library. There is also a middle-aged church and a recently erected shiny, red bridge. They stand together surrounded by the relics of a past era: half-ruined homes, closed factories, low-income public housing, drunken dens and old railway tracks built during Hitler’s reign. It all looks and sounds bleak but there’s a spirit in my hometown, an honesty. Above all, it is a real place. Here I had my first fights, first infatuations, first smoke and bottle of vodka, first true love, first disappointment, and pretty much every good and bad experience a teenager can have.
I’ve returned to my hometown after almost ten years only to witness a change. Though I’m not yet sure what sort of change it is, I am attempting to document it with this long-term project. Some things in town are new and fresh, but there is also plenty that has been forgotten and abandoned that weren’t meant to be. Crippled trees, empty swimming pools filled with overgrown weeds, abandoned dance stages strewn with litter where my friends and I made our first attempts at picking up girls, ruined houses with motionless shutters that were once opened by someone’s hand – they all have been taken over by time and nature. Alleys that once had mysteries and stories to tell are now stripped of interest, as is the forlorn statue of St. Michael in the main square. My only constant, as I roam the once familiar landscape, is the sad Wislok river that has no choice but to flow forward alongside the mucky banks of my town.
As my visit home nears its end, another winter in my hometown passes slowly. I sit behind an empty beer mug and realize winters here have always been the worst for me. They uncover the ugliness of the city. Leaky, hollow buildings, cracked pavements and roads. People lock themselves in their homes, caging themselves away from the cold, empty streets. The young people have mostly left Strzyzow in search of employment and better lives elsewhere. Those who decided to stay, despite the lack of employment in town, recall the old days when jobs were plentiful and social life flourished in the streets and marketplaces. I decide to go out and walk around a few blocks. Encounters are sparse and a feeling of resignation strikes me when I pass by the few others who have also dared to go out in the cold winter’s evening. They walk with their heads hung, sad. The whole landscape seems almost claustrophobic in its emptiness. I struggle to raise my camera.
The spring and summer are somewhat better here, as the ugliness is covered over by the glories of nature, showy in her beauty and vitality. Earth answers the sun, townspeople come out of their winter phase of indifference and anonymity. Life is livable again. Even the town itself awakens, whispering for attention. Strzyzow wants to be handsome and charming again. It wants to be a witness of its dwellers’ extraordinary stories, their fragile longings and dilemmas. As I make this portrait of my hometown, I’m hoping I’m not the only one who notices all this. I’m hoping it is not only my enamored eyes that can still see Strzyzow’s past beauty in the current, aged landscape. In my memories I’m seeing the silhouette of a soaring campanile, outlined on the background of white clouds. I’m seeing departing trains leaving clenched hands on the platform, and a quiet atmosphere that rests under the vernal sky – almost like from Chagall’s painting. I’m remembering all this and I’m hoping…but, for now, I’m showing Strzyzow as it is today.
You can find more of Radek Kozak’s work here.