She spoke no English so we used the international language of soup
Michael Harding: My friend in Warsaw left me in a restaurant with a frail little woman I couldn’t talk to
Photograph: Getty Images
I wanted to meet my friend Julia, before I left Warsaw. I’m fond of her, and she is good at English. So I messaged her. But she was teaching on Monday. She said we could meet at lunchtime outside her school. And although I don’t like hanging around on the streets when the temperature is below –14, I agreed.
The rendezvous was to be near a church on the corner of Freta Street.
“I would like to show you this church,” she texted, “because it has a beautiful icon from the 16th century. And I often go there, because there is a woman who sings the Mass and she has a beautiful voice.”
So off I went on Monday morning with my Google Maps in the perishing weather, and when I found the church, I went inside and sat in the back pew to thaw out. It was a baroque and ornate interior with fake gold pillars and statues embellishing the side altars.
Julia arrived in a fluster.
“I wanted you to meet Hannah,” she declared, “but she is at the chemist getting her pills.”
“Who is Hannah?” I wondered.
“Hannah is very interesting,” she said. “But now she is at the Apteka. Will you come with me please?”
So out we went to the cold streets. But Hannah was not at the chemist. So Julia texted her again.
“This is very unusual,” Julia said.
We went back to the church, to see if Hannah had arrived in our absence, but there was no sign of her. So I persuaded Julia that we should find the restaurant.
And we were almost at the door, when a text arrived on Julia’s phone. It was Hannah. In the church. Julia laughed. “We must go back for her,” she said.
Just tell her where the restaurant is, or better still phone her, I thought. But who was I to think anything?
Back in the church there was still no sigh of Hannah.
“This is very mysterious,” Julia whispered.
And into the Arctic weather we went again, and this time on the threshold of the restaurant, the phone actually rang.
Hannah wanted to know where we were. Julia wanted to know where Hannah was. Because Hannah claimed she was still waiting in the church.
“Maybe she’s in the wrong church,” I suggested, but Julia looked at me like I was a child in her classroom.
As we walked back down the same street again, I realised I had been outdoors for almost three hours, and my arse was getting numb, and I had a growing sense of terror that I might need a toilet at any moment.
“Hannah is very Catholic,” Julia explained. “You will like her; and she is praying at the altar of St Francis. So she is behind the pillar, and that is how we didn’t see her.”
she left me at the door of the restaurant, with this frail little woman inside a huge fur coat, who didn’t speak a word of English and about whom I knew nothing, apart from the fact that she was very Catholic and on some sort of pills.
And there she was, behind the pillar, a little twig of a lady praying away in a big fur coat, as happy as a little bird in the palm of St Francis’s hand. So there was nothing that could further delay our lunch.
Except that now it was 2pm.
“Now I go back to my class,” Julia declared. And she left me at the door of the restaurant, with this frail little woman inside a huge fur coat, who didn’t speak a word of English and about whom I knew nothing, apart from the fact that she was very Catholic and on some sort of pills.
But we went in and ordered soup. I took out my keyboard, paired it with my phone and started using Google Translate.
“You were praying,” I typed. “Are you a very religious person?”
I wanted to keep it simple. And happily she understood the translation, although she didn’t share my inclination for simplicity.
She swiped the keyboard from me and typed so furiously that her soup bowl trembled.
Then I read the translation.
“Every day I repeat to myself in the church,” Google declared. “At home I repeat to the speaker. But for me, when all of us shout to God, suddenly, the situation is a deep need.”
“Ah yes,” I said, “Yes. Yes. That’s true.”
Although I hadn’t the foggiest clue what she was talking about.
If we had been able to converse we might have ended up arguing about religion, but instead we ate our soup in silence, and after a while we both fell into a strange and deep intimacy. Without any further technology, we began to share something very human. Soup.
“This good,” she said, pointing at her bowl.
“Tak,” I agreed, “Bardzo dobzre!“ And we began to laugh.