Throughout my whole childhood, every summer we used to visit my grandparents in Cracow, south of Poland.
It was a long trip—half a day on a train, which seems like three worlds away when you’re a kid—and it was a solid holiday in many other respects too. I grew up in a high-rise; my grandparents lived in the suburbs, with a large house full of animals and an appropriately sized garden. Cracow is usually much hotter in the summer than my hometown (I remember one day when the temperatures reached 110 degrees, although that was uncommon). There was an old black-and-white TV with an old-school aerial. No computers of any kind! Little family grocery stores. The city centre more than one hour away. Everything was different. My grandparents even smelled different. (Do everyone’s grandparents do?)
As I grew up, I learned to love our time there, and Cracow is such a beautiful and artistic city that I used to find an excuse to go there every year while still in Poland, even after my grandparents passed away.
But before that, my family and I visited year after year. It was the summer of 1992, though, that proved to be much more meaningful than all the others.
I grew up on books of Stanisław Lem, one of Poland’s most famous writers. I’ve been soaking in his works since as long as I remember, literally the age of 5 or 6 or so—initially drawn to sci-fi, later discovering layers after layers of depth and meaning (this still, by the way, happens today). I loved the realism and vastness of the worlds Lem created, I loved his fascination with science, I loved his constant questioning of everything we took for granted, I loved the playfulness with which he approached sci-fi and the willingness to throw away every sci-fi cliché.
Some of his books I must have read dozens of times—this is not an exaggeration! Some of the characters I learned to love and identify with. And I think I never wanted to be anywhere in my life more so than on Pirx’s little ship called Cuivier.
(At some point, a number of years ago, someone read Pirx’s adventures for the first time and remarked how much I reminded her of the protagonist. Whether I was drawn to these books because Pirx was like me, or whether the books shaped me to be like Pirx is left as an exercise for, well, the reader.)
It must’ve been early 1990s when I read somewhere that Stanisław Lem actually lives in Cracow and quickly, with a naïveté characteristic of a 14-year-old, I formulated a plan—I would go and visit him while we were there.
I think putting this plan into motion wasn’t all that hard, because by then I’ve already been used to just doing stuff on my own and not worrying about things like etiquette and common sense. I went to the post office, fetched Cracow’s phone book (how I knew they had one I have no idea), and looked up people named “Lem.” Stanisław wasn’t there, but there were two or three others sharing his last name, so I just jotted down their addresses (we didn’t have a phone then, besides I used to hate phones and I would have been too afraid to call). And I took all of Lem’s books I had into my backpack, not telling my Mom they replaced half of my clothes.
And then, one day when we were in Cracow, I just took off with some random excuse and went to see the first person on my little list. Her name was Barbara Lem. Her address, which I still remember: Narwik 66. It was a suburban residential area, with two bus changes and a long walk. I found a big, beautiful house, rang the doorbell—not immediately, of course; it took me many minutes to summon up the courage—and then when somebody opened the door, I just asked point blank, without any follow up in mind, “Does Stanisław Lem live here?”
He did. He stepped outside and let me in. I don’t remember much of the rest. I think I drank some homemade juice. I don’t believe we talked all that much—I was star-struck, Lem was already jaded and reclusive back then, and later I realized I was really lucky he actually came out to see me. He was kind enough to sign all the books I had, and then we parted ways.
In a way, what I did was incredibly stupid and somewhat rude—it was an invasion of privacy, after all. But back then, I didn’t know any better, and frankly, I am glad I didn’t. And I am glad I never asked anyone for help, because I’m sure my family would discourage me from doing this.
We did meet again, Lem and I, during the unfortunate 9/11 birthday party—but that is a whole different story. He signed some of my books in 2001 too, but I’ll always hold the “originals” much closer to my heart. Among close to two thousand books I have in my apartment, there might be none that is more valuable to me than the badly-typeset, battered, falling apart copy of one of my favourites, Tales of Pirx the Pilot, with a couple of red ink strokes on the title page saying simply StLem 1992.