My apartment block looks like a camp, and not the Bible vacation kind.
They call it Barwinek, the Polish word for the vinca flower, whose name derives from the Latin vincire: to bind, fetter.
The apartments are grey, concrete compounds. The compounds are rectangles with five stories worth of square windows that, despite lacking any characteristics other than squareness, still manage to look sad. The Communists, the Nazis, whichever regime inflicted these prefab ruins upon the Poles, arranged the apartments three compounds to a block with only one end left open, either in mimicry of an Italian courtyard or to discourage escape.
All of the compounds are numbered in the Korean style, so you don't forget where you live. My compound is number five, but they go as high as 37. Numbers 25 through 37 are painted the same color as the deep end of a public pool. Numbers one through 25 are not painted at all, except by local graffiti artists. On the side of my compound, my translator tells me, they have sprayed "You will always have a place in my heart!" and "Hello!" Other compounds are less fortunate.
The apartment square is crisscrossed by cement paths. When the sun is up, tens of Poles can be seen traversing these paths in their own peculiar ways: with a buggy, with a cane, with a limp, with a whole lot of vegetables, swaggering drunk. Even if it is unusually crowded, probability dictates that no one path is ever likely to have more than one person walking it at any given time. This fact, in tandem with the new automatic check-out counters at the grocery store, grants almost total isolation to anyone who seeks it. On the grass islands between paths stand some battered playground structures, most frequently utilized by fierce-looking teenagers and napping drunks. There is a low, dissatisfied murmur in the air at all times. The apartment square has the feel of a prison exercise yard. But if you're young and spry with a spring in your step, as I sometimes am, you can walk these paths and pretend that you're the front-runner in some needlessly complex Olympic speed walking event.
There are dogs. Having lived only in societies where canines are kept under the nylon yoke of Man or cut up in His soup, I have never before experienced the pleasures of watching what dogs do when granted total emancipation: they act like humans. The Wild Dogs of Barwinek dart about with absent looks on their mugs, as though they are immersed in some unending task which demands 70% of their brains. They follow a scent with much enthusiasm for a few minutes at a time, then get bored and look for something else. They ignore humans like we are some minor species of rodent who sometimes gets in the way. They don't often sniff each other's rumps as you might expect: they tend to ignore other dogs, unless it's urgent. They do, however, lift their legs/squat and pee on all manner of phallic structures. You will sometimes see a dachshund and a much larger dog at play, the dachshund getting repeatedly tangled and smooshed under the larger dog's tires, the Poles gathering around to watch, the dachshund tumbling end-over-end like a fumbled football.
Along the southern fringe of the complex are some shops. There is a general store called Kolporter, a word that means "distributor" in Polish, no intended connection to the great Cole Albert Porter, American songsmith of Peru, Indiana. There is a lingerie shop, little more than a glazed window in a yellow shed, before whose sexy red UV lamp the hot matkas bask, babushkas tilted skyward.
The Barwinek vegetable monger is a cheat. The other day you eked out the word for "carrot" and he gave you some brownish dildo-shaped things. You handed him the money and he claimed the cash register was broken, or that he didn't have any change, or something, i.e. he was screwing you over and you both knew it. But as a chronic foreigner, you've learned which wars to wage and when to nod politely, bow, and say thanks, Pan Vegetable Monger, for the kick in the teeth. So you gathered your bruised mutant fruits and veggies, stuffed them into your inkstained messenger bag, and ducked out the door, forging into the cold, cruel headwind of an unkind exchange rate ...