You stand at the door into this land, looking over Lake Solina as it melts into the evening sky, and remember – this was the promise of forgotten dreams. Bieszczady Mountains, the magical land at the very end of Poland. For many, at the end of the world.
Green hills sink into the blue fog as they grow instead of diminishing, skewing the perspective, right into the horizon line. This is the only place in all of Poland, where you can find beautiful Poloniny (translated as Polonyna to English): the tall mountain ridges covered with lush meadows and rocky paths, so typical for the Carpathian land. Once you start walking the Polonina ridge, you go on for hours, on top of the world, in open sun. Sweet scent hangs in the air, the smell of freedom, blissful abandon, joy and zest for life coming all the way from Zakarpattia – Carpathian Ruthenia in Ukraine and from Bukovské vrchy in Slovakia. As the delicate dusk envelops the landscape, a huge, aureate moon illuminates the clouds. It sails slowly above the Solina Lake and hills covered with fir trees.
“And this is evening on Solina, and silence, which is home” – this is the Polish songs’ lyrics, which did not leave my mind when I took in the beautiful canvass before my eyes.
This is the Carpathian borderland, closer in its character to Ukraine and to Slovakia, than to the heart of Poland. Turning tides do not surprise anyone here. The history has not been kind to these lands.
People look straight at each other here – some that never left this land, born here and resting here in little cemeteries under the open sky. Some that carry the blood of their Ruthenian ancestors, with neighbors, brothers and sisters forced to leave in 1947 Action Vistula, which forved many of Boyko and Lemko origin (Ruthenian minority) to resettle in other parts of Poland.
Some other faces are of those, who claimed Bieszczady as their adopted home, and run away from the Soviet regime here in 1960s and 1970s to live close to nature. “Bieszczadzkie Zakapiory” they are called, and even though the word “Zakapior” can be translated as hoodlum or a roughneck, it has a different meaning in these mountains. It denotes someone with the strong personality and love of freedom, a lone wolf who chose these mountains as his home. They are sometimes called “Bieszczadzkie Anioly” – “Bieszczady Angels”. They are a special breed of men. They earn what little money they can earn here, creating art or looking after animals.
They are the wanderers.
Wake up under open sun in summer, sleep in cellars of a few apartment blocks in winter, if winter proves tough. They are not homeless, as these mountains are their home. Their faces tired, honest and distrustful, kind, accepting and wary. Their eyes full of dreams and rough mountain reality.
I had a very personal reason to travel to Bieszczady. I needed to visit a final resting place of my former partner – who departed tragically and way too early, just as the spring of his life became an early summer… On his grave, the inscription was carved: “the sun disappeared while the day still lasted“, and it felt so painfully appropriate for how it happened. I have put off the visit to his grave for many years, and when it finally happened, it hit me very hard. So visiting Bieszczady was not just a simple travel, but a visit to my past, to his past, and to his beloved land, which he taught me to love.
I met him when, young and heartbroken, I ended up in Ustrzyki Gorne one summer. I willed the beautiful Poloniny to heal my heart as I hiked Tarnica and Carynska, through Carynskie Siolo bright in sun, melting in golden flowers. He run the local summer hostel, Kremenaros, looking after the camping grounds and the restaurant/bar with his friend. We clicked. He was kindness, sarcasm, thrill-seeking and freedom, and I was a Sunflower, light and a dream to him. We wandered Bieszczady together, Rawka, Wetlinska, and ruins of Boyko villages without names on the steep slopes above Solina; places I would not have found without him, as only a local child knew where to go to see them in the forest. We traveled Ukraine, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia together. He loved me more than I loved him. He loved me too much. We parted after three years – but we remained friends.
Now he sleeps here. Too young to go on the ultimate adventure.
To be an expat with roots…
Those of us who grew up in the 1980s in Poland are a weird generation. We remember the smell of grass and flowers as we played early in our childhood in between or behind our enormous, grey and ugly blocks of flats, where little village-like meadows still grew. We know how it feels to dig clay from the ground (if one grew up in Mazovia) and pretend it is edible… to suck a sweet nectar from particular flower species, catch a little frog or a tiny grasshopper and just watch them curiously… play “battle”, throwing actual little stones at each other, girls team against boys team, all equals… Our childhoods had smells and tastes and absolutely no technology, and we loved it that way.
When we were in our late teenage years and early twenties, very few of us dreamed about a plane flight or living abroad. Everything changed for many of us when we were 23 or 24 years of age, the world has opened, possibilities appeared and they were so new, shiny and enticing that many of us just jumped right in.
Travel. Experience. Cultures. Tastes. Work. Hard work. Changes. Challenges. Fun. Joy.
We were open, but we had roots. We were already adults. We were expats, but we came from a very strong culture. No third-culture kids, little mixed cultural background really, as fifty years of communism created a very uniform society…
And ultimately, especially in moments of whirlwind and change, in our expat lives, we can find these roots within us. We are always standing, one foot firmly within our souls on a safe ground with tight borders, another one on a moving platform of a train, which speeds between the clouds, into the unknown.
There is a special kind of comfort in this duality.
Standing in the middle of Bieszczady landscape, drinking in the beauty around me, the smells of summer, the wind caressing my face, meditating with my eyes as they moved over the wondrous horizon, the shiny lake, the golden moon – I was part of the nature, which surrounded the grave of someone, who greatly shaped my life in my early adulthood. I hoped it brought him comfort, to rest among the world he loved, from far beyond.
I went back in time. I was the young adult that did not know yet how it is to live in another culture. My world, back then, was limited to one language, one home. I walked the mountains, I talked to people, and I discovered places to love deeply. I could never imagine that one day I will move so far away from it all. And yet…
Me and these mountains are one. Imprint on my soul.
The people here, in their honesty and positive outlook on life against all odds are my brethren. While I travel around the world, learn new languages, find new challenges, test new winds – I belong. And having a home like this is a blessing.
Remember where you come from.
Remember who you are.
MPK/Free, Album ID
Many of the photos used in this post were taken by my sister.