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Michael Harding: Heaven on earth on a cold Warsaw night over schnitzel, strudel and vodka

Callow love sundered, but life rumbles on until … letters yellowed by age surface at a funeral

On a cold winter night in Warsaw just behind TK Maxx, I had a rendezvous with two friends; both academics though they chatter as freely as some women in Donegal.

We ordered soup and the professor asked me what my new book was about. I said it was a series of love letters and letters of gratitude to people I miss.

“Ah,” she exclaimed, “my brother also wrote love letters.”

Apparently, when her brother was young he fell in love with a girl in the same apartment block. He wrote her letters and they had a secret place for exchanging them. But her father discovered the letters and he was totally against their friendship.


The girl renounced her love, and so her life continued on the frozen streets of Warsaw in the sterile world of the Polish Peoples’s Republic until eventually she married someone else.

I could have finished the story myself because it was the usual tale of tragedy that is told in every culture on earth.

“My brother,” the professor said, “never married. The love of his life had rejected him. He would mention her at Christmas or sometimes inquire if I had any news about her life.”

We finished the soup and ordered schnitzel.

When her brother died recently, his childhood sweetheart who was then an old woman came to the funeral and handed some letters to the professor.

“It was my brother’s handwriting. And the paper was yellow from age. But she wanted me to have these letters that she kept all her life, even though she was married to another man. And there were also three songs, within the letters that he had composed. And the words were heartbreaking.”

My other friend at the table had been trying to finish a Phd for a few years. She wore rimless glasses and her features were alert like a bird

The schnitzel arrived and we ate in silence.

My other friend at the table had been trying to finish a PhD for a few years. She wore rimless glasses and her features were alert like a bird.

“I can’t understand why you don’t finish your PhD,” I said and she glared like a hawk at the professor.

“I cannot get a professor to accept me as their student,” she retorted with indignation, while the professor kept her head bowed and concentrated on the food.

Outside severe frost was whitening car windows and the red neon light of TK Maxx went dark.

“When did your brother die?” the PhD scholar inquired.

“Two years ago,” the professor said.

“I never go to funerals,” the scholar said. “It’s like too sad. Although my father had a friend and when he died I went to the funeral. They were in the army together and my father was like a mentor. He was … how do you say?”

“A superior,” I suggested.

“Yes,” she said, “my father was his superior in the army and of course my father is now 85, but this friend died at 69, and because of my father I went to the funeral. And it was a lovely funeral. There was a lot of loud joyful music because he did not want people to be sad.”

We all had the same dessert; a strudel with raisins and cinnamon nesting in the lightly stewed apple.

“It’s very important,” the scholar declared, “not to overcook the apple.”

I thoroughly agreed.

The professor’s speciality is medieval art and she mentioned that she was currently involved in restoration work on an icon of the Mother of God. She even took a photograph of the icon from her purse and showed it to me as we discussed its possible provenance.

“Keep the photograph,” she said as the waiter brought the bill.

As they say in good monasteries, when you live symbolically you will find moments of transformation

I thanked her, paid the bill with my iPhone and then secured the picture in the phone case behind the phone.

“It will keep me safe,” I joked, and they both laughed.

Finally, we had coffees and vodka and chatted about heaven, and who might be there, and if it would be any better than the table we were at.

My hotel was nearby so I walked through the caked snow feeling lighter and fresher than usual. The conversation had not focused on my book or any other rational line of thought. It was an evening of stories, bouncing from one thing to another. As they say in good monasteries, when you live symbolically you will find moments of transformation. The snow was magical. And my phone was under the protection of heaven. And the temperature was -7 but it didn’t bother me as I walked towards the lights of a cosy hotel.