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What do I tell them?

12 of March '24

The column is from A&B issue 10|23

I am to appear before the students of the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology, giving an inaugural lecture. In addition, in the language of Shakespeare, because this is about an international company, which every year begins its studies in the Vistula capital, having come here literally from everywhere.

So I'm supposed to be speaking to a feisty Nigerian, a lost Moldovan, an ambitious Iranian and a small crowd of people who probably already know something about architecture - after all, this is the first year of graduate studies. Most likely, however, they know very little about the country, the city and the university itself, leaving out the few Poles who can be found in any year. Here, by the way, it's hard to derive any regularity, because from conversations with students of previous years I've concluded that it's not uncommon for French and Italian women to know less about the place than Syrian and Turkish men.

They probably come here for several reasons. Because Poland is such a West, but still quite cheap and with a human face. Read: more informal, emotional and energetic than, say, such Denmark or Belgium. At least that's how a Kazakh acquaintance explained it to me. The boy saw the coolness of Lechistan in a certain parallelism of our histories enforced by the nature of our common neighbor called by Ronald Reagan "the evil empire." As a result, a not insignificant group among the young people landing on our faculty are citizens and nationals of the "states" of Central Asia, that is, the steppe former Soviet republics, who increasingly feel the magnetism of the depraved West. Well, okay, Tajiks, Kazakhs and Tatars have a lot in common, from our perspective it's hard to even tell what makes them fundamentally different. But what are the common points of interest not only for them, but also for Danes, Belgians, and often youngsters from Paris who end up in Warsaw under the Erasmus program?

Because, after all, my "keynote," or inaugural lecture, is not just to show that the lecturers of a respected technical university speak English at all, perhaps even quite clearly and with sense. Nor that they can be nice and perhaps even charming. What can I, a guy already living half a century with a cardioverter, credits and crotoplasma, convey to these people? In addition, valuable!

Don't ask me what crotoplasma is: I just invented the word for the purpose of this column. Just to get a string of three "k" words that would give a catchy melody of a sentence. And on top of that, crotoplasma sounds very polytechnic, so it might come in handy for me later in the text. It will also be useful in medical discourse, because it resembles the concept of cataplasm, meaning a poultice filled with bran. I immediately stipulate that I am introducing this concept on an open source basis, but with one caveat: you can use it on the condition that you always think well of me, its humble author, on occasion. Crotoplasma is great for making sublime adjectives that can go toe-to-toe with, for example, the English "kafkesque." On top of that, it sticks well with other words: imagine the confusion on your interlocutor's face when you shoot him a slightly blasé look: "Well, yes, that's a typical crotoplasmic effect." Or appalled: "It's just pure crotoplasm!". Be my guest!

But let's get back to our sheep, as the French say. I have no choice: I have to prepare for the lecture. Improvisation is out of the question, because then I could only rely on a surge of inspiration that borders on the miraculous. Without hard preparation, an embarrassing riff will come out, which will sink me, the university and the entire national system of higher education, because I will, after all, be REPRESENTING! Imagine this. A hall darkened with curtains, with a colorful crowd in it. A chair made of dark walnut, and on either side of it colleagues with at least a doctoral degree. And a blinding spot for a face. I walk out to other people's elevens in a belly-baring jacket, ironed shirt, blue in the face from a fresh shave and smelling of oldspay. I sweep the room with my eyes. I rustle the cards lying on the lectern, wipe away the fog in my eyepiece, grunt and, swallowing my saliva, begin, let's put it this way: "Eeee, elkam, elkam."

Elkam is already a start, quite a good one, because it's universal: after all, most people like to be greeted, and if you greet them twice, it will mean you're terribly stoked that they came. Then it'll be easier for a while, because I'll add where I'm elbowing them and on whose behalf, it'll already be a good three sentences, so a few seconds will go by.

So now what? "If you don't have anything to say, keep silent," my mother used to tell me as a child, adding that, alternatively, I can also tell the truth, but that's already more risky. And, after all, to remain silent, standing at the lectern, I can't. So I will stand in the truth and with the truth I will go, but with some caution, while glancing sideways to check the effect. So I say with the firm voice of a guy who KNOWS: "Listen: it won't be easy. A master's degree is not a piece of cake or a bed strewn with roses...", I begin, recalling in passing idioms from non-Polish pop songs memorized in high school. I lean to the side and see that the dean and several professors are nodding seriously. For it will indeed not be easy. Not only will most students have to study a lot and do labor-intensive projects, but they will also have to earn a pittance in architectural studios or simply in a bar on the night shift, when the rate is double. Immediately afterward, however, I add with a disarming smile: "But you'll have fun too!", which will also to some extent be a universal, hard-to-question truth from my experience as well. In my senior year, I was part of a group of graduate students sharing a friend's empty house, where we opened a studio. We worked like crazy, supporting each other, we made money drawing storyboards and packshot illustrations, because it was the 90s and the advertising market had just exploded, and in the evenings we cooked together, danced till we dropped and smoked lollies. We had so much fun that no relationship then survived, because the community of optimistic enthusiasts clicking on PC keyboards was simply unrivaled. This lasted, by the way, for a good few years after we defended our diplomas, as we turned into a collective of excitable experimenters called the Central Design Group.

At the mention of fun, some students will react with understanding, responding to my broad smile borrowed from Zygmunt Kaluzinski. Someone in the crowd giggles, probably recalling the details of some fun, but which it will be better not to share with the rest. Well, okay, that was easy. But it could be that just when I jump on a wave of uncontroversial obviousness that gives us all the promise of happily reaching the end of this ordeal in the assumed time of thirty minutes, that's when it all hits. That Odysseus's boat will ditch. Because suddenly my gaze will wander to the faces and eyes of those who can't get enough of it. Who want answers, who crave prescriptions, who need help and simply soothe the pain of existence. Because they have come to this hall and to this university not as if they were going to a knowledge store where they can buy skills in the use of programs and their applications in the design of houses and estates for little money. Because they want more. Because pandemic and recession. Because war and social inequality. Because the breath of death in the form of droughts and floods. And what do I say to them crotoplasmically? I'll say: "Eeee, uczitsa, uczitsa and more uczitsa, because then some boss will notice you, appreciate you, give you a job, because it's hard to find a good worker in the market. And there will be raises and better and better gadgets and maybe even from your parents, from a co-rented room you will be able to move closer to the center, and maybe take a loan for your own M in the far suburbs, where Happy Valleys and Prestigious Developments grow among the fields. And that, if it goes well, you will find someone who will be willing to repay this loan with you, who will be as insecure as you are, and will drown your insecurities every day in buying blingy clothes and watching a Netflix series together on an Ikea couch. And that you will look for confirmation in the eyes of those closest to you, and that it will take you decades to get to know the world and yourselves enough to lose your illusions or become infected with the hope that you can live differently, more, somewhere else after all. That you may have children in your life, who will become a source of joy, but also anguish, and on top of that, their growth will be your metronome and clock of passing. That every day you will have to choose and bear the consequences of those choices, and that, no matter how you try, you will not be able to avoid the damnable mistakes from which you will hate yourself, spit in your beards or wallow in quiet desperation. That every move will have a price, often for your loved ones as well. That only a few of you will escape trivial scenarios and a sense of invalidity. That only a few will have success, whatever that success means, because it will often be something other than what they dreamed of. And finally, that happiness is a moment, a luxury, and that it is not guaranteed by a new aiphone, religion, or even recognition in the eyes of people important to us."

I look around the room, into those watchful eyes, and say, "We will not give you happiness, we will not give you certainty. Especially in these interesting times. Because today no one has it, except little children and idiots. We can give you the tools to better cope with an uncertain future, and in coping, build a sense of agency and self-esteem. We also can't tell you that things are exactly this way and not that way, because most things have experienced liquidation. What is gold today becomes poop tomorrow. But there are still immutable things. Like ethics, attentiveness and care. Because we can sensitize you to the fact that it is necessary to take care of the world and each other, because in the end we may be as naked as a Turkish saint, but hugged by people. And that most religions, though anachronistic, are right, because our main duty is to love, whether we express our love by stubbornly designing a world that does not destroy itself, or by patiently helping a child do his homework. And the rest is mere crotoplasmic hucksterry."

Jakub Szczęsny

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