The perverse significance of the common Polish expression ‘My flat is my hobby’ only fully dawned on me in the early 1990s, when I received a job offer from Warsaw and moved into a 19.5m2 studio flat.
My meagre financial resources prevented me from buying anything larger, but I paid it off after five years. It was on the fifth floor of an 11-storey, late-Gomułka-style, concrete-slab tower block on Czerniakowska Street.
My childhood and early adolescence were spent in the family home in Kraków, a three-roomed flat of 107.4m2 located in a modernist building for employees of the Lwów Insurance Company for White-Collar Workers. The building, known as the ‘crystal house’ because of its interiors, was designed in Polish art deco style with elements of European expressionist architecture. A picture of the building was featured in the Gutenberg encyclopaedia to illustrate the entry on modern architecture, as well as in an album of the most interesting Polish achievements, published in 1928 for the 10th anniversary of Poland’s regained independence.
One might say I had an elegant residence there, two tram stops away from Planty Park. My bedroom would easily have contained the entirety of my home in Warsaw. That cramped studio came as a shock to me: a small room of 10.3m2, a kitchen alcove, and a bathroom with such a tiny bath that you had to wash yourself with your knees up under your chin.
On top of that was the mind-numbing cacophony of rattling water pipes, and whenever you turned the taps on, they would spit out foul-smelling rusty ooze. Outside, regardless of the season or time of day, was the incessant droning of a cavalcade of vehicles jolting through the potholes of the Wisłostrada, the large trucks being particularly noisy. Consequently, opening the window was hazardous to one’s health.
I soon began to share this less-than-20m2 space with my wife Krysia, and after our daughter Ola was born, there were three of us. Furniture and equipment began to accumulate in the house.
In the bathroom, we put in a washbasin in order to install an extra-narrow automatic washing machine. Incidentally, its top also served as a makeshift table, for whenever I needed to work late and didn’t want to dazzle my wife with lights as she slept on the sofa bed unfolded for the night, or my daughter, squeezed into her increasingly cramped little bed.
We had a drop-leaf table, which was raised for meals, ironing, and for Ola to do her homework. Before long, however, a large portion of the table was overtaken by the rather sizeable monitor of our daughter’s personal computer.
My wife worked genuine miracles to find space for new books, which had already filled two bookcases reaching right up to the ceiling – which was sadly very low – while a network of shelving practically encircled the whole room. Occasionally, she would advise me to move certain items to my workplace, although my editorial cupboard was slowly beginning to burst at the seams.
Thanks to my wife’s practical and aesthetic flair, our flat was charmingly snug. The small dimensions of the rooms did not stop Krysia from creating some amazingly interesting interiors. She found room on the walls for stylishly framed photographs of our ancestors: great-grandmothers with lace dresses, elegant hats and dainty parasols; a great-grandfather with his curly moustache, bowler hat and starched collar; one grandfather in his student’s uniform with a mandarin collar; our grandmothers as little girls, with sticks at the ready to bowl their hoops.
The sill of the flat’s only panoramic window and every morsel of spare space on the shelves were all occupied by stylish copper- and brassware: saucepans, mortars, candlesticks, jugs, cooking pots, teapots and old-fashioned coffee makers. There was an art-nouveau boiler which glinted magnificently in the sunlight, a coffee grinder, and the sphere of an illuminated globe. Soon, a samovar arrived, bought from a shop on the Arbat in Moscow.
The nursery area of the room was designated by toys, most of which were stuffed animals. They sat on the little bed by day, and by night were piled up on top of wicker baskets filled with all manner of knick-knacks. A pastel portrait of our daughter dominated the wall above her bed. Among other pictures were a few that she had done herself. The shelf for children’s books was 60cm wide, and I honestly have no idea how on earth we managed to slot it into the remaining vacant 59cm gap.
Above the low refrigerator in the kitchen, my wife had suspended mugs – with original home-cooked recipes written on them in French under a transparent glaze – which effectively camouflaged the crooked pipe from the gas cooker. The walls were hung with sets of wooden and metal spoons, ladles, and spice jars clearly demarcating the kitchen from the hall, where a tall mirror hung next to the bathroom door, along with several warm-hued still-life paintings.
Our small flat taught us humility. It prevented us from buying too many clothes, since both wardrobes were already full. Defective ventilation meant that the panes of the newly-fitted and (reputedly) soundproof window – our one and only – would stream with condensation, especially when the washing coincided with dinner preparations. Fortunately, we were soon able to install thermostat valves on the radiators, which at least partially resolved the issue.
Any space can be subdued to become a harmonious home. Yet sometimes it’s hard to explain to a child that there’s no more room for a doggie or kitty, and that it would be better if she didn’t invite her friends round too often – and only one by one. Just for the time being, of course, for the time being…
Although our dwelling place was microscopic, I think it was perfectly tolerable, despite all the inconveniences. My wife’s aesthetic sense allowed us to fit in all the essentials while ensuring that the interior was cosy. Our little flat had so-called character – its own distinctive, individual style.
When our daughter had finished primary school, our housing association finally came through after missing its deadline by several years. The building was put into service at last, and we acquired a three-roomed flat where we still live today. Now there are just two of us once more, as our daughter has grown up and, thanks to a 30-year mortgage, already has a modest 31m2 flat of her own, three stops away on the metro.
Originally written in Polish, April 2020; translated by Mark Bence, May 2020