Meeting Balsam in Warsaw

Riding a train to Warsaw in early October feels like watching some kind of show. Gold and  yellow are colours in fashion these days and the trees along the railways track seem to follow suit. I am happy to be whizzing through Mazowsze in that unexpected time window between jobs. Or I should say contracts. With two weeks off before my new British Museum contract starts (this time for a full year!) I didn’t think for long before booking tickets home.

My Warsaw social calendar is already quite busy. I have only told some friends I was coming – I am trying to keep it easy. I would like to have time to wander around and rediscover the city without rushing from place to place. Also I want to visit Balsam Shakal (ITP 2014) in the National Museum and see how the preparations for the Sudanese exhibition are going and also what her perception of Poland is.

But I don’t seem to be very lucky. My texts must be getting lost and I cannot contact her on her British mobile either.  So I decide to go straight to the Museum and ask there. It has been a while since I have been there, the last time probably the Night in the Museum before I moved out of Warsaw.  Quite embarrassing but I don’t remember which door is the main entrance! Both gates are open but the area seems quiet at lunchtime and I hesitate about which way to go. I follow my intuition and I get it right. I get to the main hall and make my way to the Information Desk/Gift Shop. A group of school children is there trying desperately to spend every ‘zloty’ they have been given by their parents. Some seem to know exactly what they want, others just want to get rid of their pocket money, as if leaving the museum without a souvenir was some kind of a dishonour. Good for the museum shop. I ask for a person whom I know has been looking after Balsam but again no luck.  Alexandra is out of office that day so is my ITP friend. Hmmm… I am not a person who gives up easily. Quite opposite, even little challenges excite me, give me a thrill of an adventure. I ask for Balsam’s accommodation address which I know is somewhere in the Old Town about 30 min walk. The weather is glorious: a sunny day, +26C, blue skies. I can make my way there by foot. But before I turn into Nowy Swiat I decide to have a quick stroll around Plac Trzech Krzyzy. It has always been a bit of a posh place with expensive boutiques, galleries and once favourite cafés. My cafés have been replaced with new ones and there are some new galleries. I spot an Ada Bucholc painting on a board which I like.

I turn around and walk towards Nowy Swiat. So good to see Joanna Rajkowska’s Palm Tree still there – I remember when the ‘Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue’ art project caused much controversy and was regarded as totally out of place. Twelve years on, the palm tree is a part of the Warsaw scenery, and no one seems to protest against it.

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I walk Krakowskie Przedmiescie, passing by the University of Warsaw, the Parliament and stop for a while to look at the Trasa W-Z with its passing trams. I am not far from the Old Town Museum where Balsam is based. When I get there and ask for my ITP friend a staff member walks me to a quiet backyard and points the way. I climb the stairs to the third floor and knock at the door. I can hear Balsam’s voice and tell her: ‘It’s me, Sylwia’. The answer I get is: ‘Are you sure’? Of course I am sure!

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The door opens and Balsam gives me a huge hug. This time I have been really lucky, Balsam was just about to leave to meet a friend. She cancels her appointment and off we go to have lunch together. When deciding where to go it turns out she has never tried pierogi, the traditional Polish dumplings. And she hasn’t even heard of them! What has she been doing for the last month? Off we go to Bar Mleczny and order a portion with blueberries and cream for her and with meat stuffing for me. We also get a fruit kompot. We need to get it right after all. Balsam looks relaxed and happy. While here in Warsaw she focuses on research and also uses the opportunity to visit other nearby cities. There is another  ex- ITP participant from Sudan but I don’t get to meet her, she is off to Sweden this week.

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We set off for a little walk around the New Town, pass a Maria Sklodowska- Curie (whom Balsam is a big fan of) statue and sit on a bench overlooking the Vistula River and Praga District. We chat about ITP, how wonderful it was and how great it would be to see everyone again some time in the future. We laugh remembering all the funny moments we have had. When we part we both feel there is no reason to be sad. Our paths will cross again, after London and Warsaw next time it is going to be somewhere in Sudan that we meet.

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Sylwia Janik,

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department

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