I didn’t know that meeting Krystyna would be so momentous. At first I was wary of this strange Polish woman with her waist-length faded blonde hair, smoky dark glasses and frayed yellow coat. When I noticed her marching across the Planty I immediately made plans to leave the bench and find somewhere else for my sorrow. But something made me pause and wait for her.
Maybe it was curiosity. I was certainly in need of distraction. Maybe it was exhaustion. I hadn’t slept much the night before and all I could think about was leaving. I had an afternoon to fill and then, to my relief, I would be going home. Krystyna gave the impression that she had all the time in the world. ‘What a pity, you can’t stay, but never mind we can still talk.’ That was the important thing: conversation, the kind that goes beyond courtesy. The kind that takes place in a concentrated space of time. A true connection.
She inspired me because in that moment she saw the value of exploring what we might have in common. I was far too preoccupied to care. Wrapped in my own concerns, I just wanted her to vanish. It makes me wonder now how many other times I’ve made quick exits to avoid what I think is going to be inconvenient or embarrassing. I’m not saying that every time I’ve been wrong – quite sensibly I don’t wish to connect with every stranger – but I’m sure there is much I’ve missed along the way. Of course not every bag lady turns out to be a fallen aristocrat.
Krystyna’s act of generosity inspired a novel. She has no idea of this. When we met in Poland ten years ago she was probably in her late seventies and it is quite likely that she has since died. Do I take more of an interest in people now as a result of meeting her? The honest answer is: no. I’m still looking at the world through my own lens and that is mostly necessary. Empathy for all would be pointless and exhausting. Not long after I returned from Krakow, I went to a talk about meaning and time given by the philosopher and writer Jonathan Ree. It was his view that the greatest gift any human being can give to another is the gift of time. I remember how he opened his hands to illustrate the point and I also remember a subsequent meeting at his cramped university office when he listened to me without interruption.
When my first afternoon in Krakow ended I tried to pay for the coffee and ice cream I’d shared with Krystyna. She refused. She also waved away the spare zloty from my purse and seemed baffled at my protest that I no longer needed the currency.
Her smile was gracious. ‘Maybe you will come back.’