Memoirs of a train traveller

The day I stalked Stanisław Lem

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 a vintage black-and-white TV with an old-school aerial. No computers of any kind! Little family grocery stores instead. And the city centre more than one hour away. Everything was different. My grandparents even smelled different. (Do everyone’s grandparents do?)

The lack of computers aside, I learned to love our time there, and Cracow is such a beautiful and artist-friendly city that I found an excuse to go there often while still living 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.

Stanisław Lem in 1966

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 the sci-fi veneer, later discovering layers after layers of depth and meaning (this, by the way, continues to happen today). I loved the realism and vastness of the worlds Lem created; his fascination with science; constant questioning of everything we took for granted; playfulness with which he approached science fiction, and 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 later, 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’d already been used to doing stuff on my own. I went to the local post office, fetched Cracow’s phone book (how I knew they had one I have no idea), and looked up people named “Lem.” Mr. Lem 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 intimidated to call), and I packed all of Lem’s books I had, not telling my mom they replaced half of my clothes.

And then, one day when we were in Cracow, I 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 already jaded and reclusive back then, and later I realized I was really lucky he came out to see me. He was kind enough to sign all seven or so books I brought with me, and then we parted ways.

In a way, what I did was incredibly stupid and more than a bit 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. (Although, much more recently, I’ve learned that Lem has always had regular visitors like me at his house.)

We did meet again, Lem and I, during the unfortunate 9/11 birthday party, but that is a whole different story. So is one of the best letters I ever received, one from phone book’s Barbara, Lem’s wife, in 2011, sending me her impressions about the Lem Google doodle. Lem signed some of my books in 2001 too, a few years before his death, but I’ll always hold the “originals” much closer to my heart. Among thousands 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 Tales of Pirx the Pilot, with a couple of red ink strokes on the title page saying simply StLem 1992.

Written in 2010, updated in 2015.

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