Illusions of Grandeur

by Kleitia Vaso
  1. The Party

The first night in a completely alien city, one with an entirely unfamiliar climate, language, sights can be an unsettling experience for any sensitive traveler. The senses are heightened, ready and prepared for the shapeless and mysterious danger lurking in the unknown streets. Yet, one gets used to these skewed first impressions and, hypothetically, each change becomes easier, especially if one’s past life has included greater and more traumatic moves. Unlike these drastic shifts, which resemble deeply-lodged tremors, slowly and gradually moving towards a pending but unpredictable eruption, smaller journeys complete their cycles of unfamiliarity, adaptation and either love, hate, or indifference in a shorter amount of time.

Nothing in Krakow felt familiar, not the streets, neither the people, nor the city. No facet of it could provide the slightest illusion of familiarity. Thankfully, by now, I expect the unpleasant visit of this initial discomfort just as I know that I must overcome it. Great things may happen once this largely imaginary obstacle is overcome and I know not to let my overly-cautious mind prevent me from finding out. So, I set out of my room, full of knowledge and lessons learned. The polite people at the hotel, trying to encourage a short but thorough enjoyment of their city, inform me and J. of a big party by the river, one where they say everybody will go. As it is nighttime, my mind inspired by a sharp sense of discomfort, produces all kinds of images of rivers near forests, away from the city, drunken revelry and orgies, predators and prey. I see half-naked people, crowns of vines adorning their heads, unaware then that these strange combinations hail from a combination of my distant and not-so distant read about and lived experience.

Discouraged by these debauched nocturnal images and, ultimately, fear, we decide to ignore the party, opting for a more familiar route: a walk in the more reassuring, i.e. touristic, restaurant-filled center. Hunger is also not to be underestimated. Perhaps, the lack of warm, good food has contributed to this nearly hallucinatory state as with the first bites of food and the first sips of beer, my blood starts to finally travel to all the right places. I feel better and more comfortable at once as the world outside becomes slowly superimposed over the one in my mind. Finally comfortable with myself and my reasonable but cowardly decision, I am shaken by a sudden exploding sound and an onrush of people in the square. I turn around and see firecrackers in the sky, followed by a large celebratory crowd coming from the direction of the river. Families, children, young and old couples tooting horns, holding balloons and eating ice cream. The entire city, it seems, is returning home. The party is over. It is 9 o’clock.

  1. The Lecture

The hour following lunch can never be productive, despite our stubborn insistence to work against our bodies, against nature. In a state of fullness and pleasant laziness, the body is forced to keep moving as though it has no nerves and muscles, a clock of its own. This time, after eating with a hunger only a conference can create, the body craving enormous amounts of sugar to compensate for its lethargic state and lack of real interest and emotion, I return to the conference room, ready to daydream while I feign to listen to another panel of papers. Although not-so-fresh, I feel calm as my own presentation will take place the following day. I can indulge in one of my favorite activities, passive participation. Sleepily, I look around at other people, hoping that the sight of a face or another will jolt me out of my too relaxed state. Instead, I notice, at first with indifference and then with a slight but increasing sense of discomfort, a series of nervous ticks. Someone’s leg shakes incessantly, another’s head twitches, a shoulder moves uncontrollably, eyes squint without the permission of their owner. Doubting myself and the clarity of my focus, I close my eyes and reopen them but nothing has changed. Shake, twitch, squint. I even see someone talking to himself, accompanying his nearly silent monologue with facial expressions.

The lecture starts. I cling on to it as to a lifesaver, as if I’m drowning. I quickly realize it won’t save me as I hear a language that I do not yet fully understand. Just as I am beginning to sink, becoming resigned to my fate, I notice with gratitude that a written translation in English accompanies it. I begin reading it as though it were holy scripture. Unfortunately, there are no lush gardens or unreachable mountain peaks here, no Adam and Eve, no Zeus and Hera and their innumerable intrigues, nothing worth noting. Thus, despite my best intentions, I start to lose interest. As per usual, boredom gives me a fever and I start to grow hotter. I want to run out of the room, but I shouldn’t as the speaker is an important person, judging by her age and the number of people present in the room. Even if I could easily leave, I should stay so as to test my resistance to discomfort. These are the kind of games I play with my mind and she with me when the outside world does not deign to give us our due. Quickly, so as not to leave us bored for too long, she supplants the lack, filling the empty space with conjured visions and emotions. Sometimes, it creates the illusion that I am in grave danger and my body prepares to fight boredom as it would fight the worst and most dangerous enemy. It moves constantly between the urge to fly and the decision to stay. The person reading the paper cannot know that its monotony has become paramount to the testing of my endurance. This time, this back-and-forth movement lasts for nearly an hour. By the end, I am flushed and slightly sweaty as though I have fought and emerged victorious from a serious illness.

By now, I know what happens. I cannot convince it to be satisfied, satiated with the crumbs offered her with no generosity and enthusiasm. It knows that we haven’t been created to sit inside a room full of the stagnant air of dust and our breaths, growing increasingly bitter with the passing of the hours. Although we may have conveniently forgotten, we cannot endlessly endure the lack of fresh air, of the soothing green or blue necessary to our eyes, and listen to a slow and steady stream of words. No life-changing torrents here. Thus, the brain plays with the danger as a cat with its favorite ball of yarn. It knows that the twitch, the shaking leg, the bobbing head, the moving shoulder are all signs of something gone awry. They are all feeble traces of an energy left unused, something deeper, out-of-our reach, signaling both its excess and waste through the uncontrolled ticks. They are the signs of our willing or accidental deformation of ourselves, all in the name of a short-lived and short-sighted comfort and sense of importance. We should aim for really playing, not pretending, for real beauty. We were created for greater things.

  1. The room

In a nice gesture triggered by my enthusiasm of living in my new room, a friend of mine offered to help me with decoration ideas. Certain of his good taste and previous experience, I casually asked him to give me a few suggestions. I must admit that despite my real interest in his ideas, I thought of the exchange as an amusing game rather than a plan that could yield practical results. Little did I know that my simple request would be followed by a query on the dimensions of the room and the actual placement of each object there. With a not-unpleasant shudder, I remembered the times of asking my father for help in math, hoping he would silently solve everything without interrupting my daydreaming when, instead, with the patience of a saint and the precision of an architect - his profession, after all -  he would slowly guide me through the step-by-step solution, beginning with the problem’s ultimate question.

Now, I faced the same conundrum. Help would follow but at a price, namely the price of my investment in a world of numbers and figures, meters and square meters which, truth be told, might as well be an impenetrable foreign language to me. If you have ever explained anything to me using numbers, know that I have understood nearly nothing. Even worse, you can be sure that, despite my best intentions, I have stopped listening after the first mention of a meter, kilometer, square meter, dollar, euro, ounce. This time, trying to behave as a regular adult and impress my friend, I offered a few respectable, reasonable numbers of my own. I was doubly pleased by my surprising proficiency and my friend’s reaction to the unusually large size of my room. Proud of myself, I assured him that, indeed, I lived in a great and open space. Of course, I could not remember the year this special building was built but it must have been a the year of the unusual. Skeptical and slightly envious of my fate, my friend asked me to measure my room, just to be sure. Offended and eager to prove my knowledge, tape in hand, I started to measure my room, corner to corner. In disbelief, I realized that my dimensions had to be halved. I thought my room was twice its size when, instead, adding insult to injury, it perfectly corresponded to the standard apartment dimensions of the time and place, an unpleasant truth which would have remained a mystery had I not gone and measured it.


  1. The ATM

Already finished this essay in my mind and preparing for bigger and greater things, I walk out, ready to handle the more practical details of day-to day life. Yet, as soon as I start my journey, determined to think about the small chain of actions to follow, I get distracted who knows by what or whom. I think of the different characters inhabiting my life, presently or/and previously. A color, smell, noise can transport me to the most unexpected places, people, and episodes, even ones that seemed eternally buried under newer and more accessible layers of memory. I am lost in thought or a dream until I reach my first destination, the poor ATM, loved by none and used by many. Confidently, I take my card out of my wallet and place it in the machine. This time, I remember my PIN very well. Past experiences, after all, teach us a thing or two or do they? In disbelief that the PIN which I know is correct, fails to work, I stubbornly but confidently type it again. In front of my by-now enlarged eyes, flushed face, and accelerated heartbeat, I see my card engulfed by the hostile, ugly machine. The entire exchange happens so fast that I have no time to think about what might have gone wrong. I simply feel and, this time, I hate myself, the machine and, above all, our unnatural coexistence in the same world. After the rage subsides, passing as violently and quickly as a sudden storm, I realize that I have wrongly inserted the other identical grey card. Then and there, with a beginner’s blind enthusiasm, I resolve to be more practical, more attentive to silly little actions that have greater consequences than they deserve. The webs and traps we have set for ourselves. Yet, even as I silently promise, I know I won’t keep my word. My change will be tiny, imperceptible to the eye, millimetric even, as I am not yet prepared to exchange a card for an idea or, even better, a feeling.


by Kleitia Vaso