Pandemic Archive

On Planes that have Changed into Birds

By Szymon Chrzastowski . . .

The Psychological Counselling Centre of The University of Warsaw, Poland . . .

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the word

Emily Dickinson

I’m very busy in everyday life, dividing my time between academic duties and conducting psychotherapy. I also try to foster continuing professional development. A while back, I partially moved to Portugal due to the unstable political situation in Poland. I decided to settle in Porto. I frequently fly between Warsaw and Porto, and Portugal is becoming my second home.

I know the airports in Warsaw and in Porto like the back of my hand, seamlessly navigating them. There was a time when I would fly weekly for professional reasons. However, I associate airports with anxiety, stress and rushing around to get through them efficiently. Once smoothly past the security check, I would usually buy myself a very expensive (airport-priced) coffee, open my laptop and prepare for lectures or write articles. I have an attention deficit disorder but, paradoxically, I find it easier to concentrate in environments such as airports. I would usually continue working throughout the flight. I like working.

I also enjoyed looking at planes. They filled me with a childlike joy and wonder. They’re like toys. I must admit that I really can’t fathom what makes planes fly, just like I can’t grasp how a TV or microwave works. These devices never cease to amaze me. 

I was faced with the pandemic while in Porto, where I was giving lectures. I remember a friend calling me up in the middle of the night. He was having a strong panic attack. He hadn’t previously suffered from this kind of anxiety. He told me that he had just had a nightmare about the epidemic. He  encouraged me to return quickly to Poland. I did just that. I rebooked an earlier flight and returned sooner. Two days after I got back, Polish airspace was closed.

From my journey home, I remember the long travelators at Frankfurt Airport, where I had my transfer. I rode up and down the moving walkways, talking to close friends and family on my phone about the epidemic. While deep in conversation, I would get on a moving walkway, arrive at the end of it, go to the next moving walkway, and continue like this through the long hallways. After a few minutes, I would go back to the beginning of the travelator and begin my “ride” again, all the time talking on the phone. 

I have been home for several weeks now. I conduct online classes for my students and give  consultations on Skype for clients. I also write. 

Every day I observe the sparrows that sit on my balcony. Most people in Poland live in flats and apartment blocks, so don’t have their own gardens. But sparrows still come and sit on balcony railings and ledges. I scatter some feed mix for the birds but somehow they’re not that interested in it. They come and perch on my balcony, look around for a bit, and then flutter off somewhere else. Now they are flying around instead of me, while I just look on. Their freedom brings me so much joy. I sometimes get the impression that I have finally given them some space. Not filling their space with myself, with my personal matters. I’m sharing a piece of sky with them.  

I try to talk to my friend Katarzyna every day over the phone or by Skype. She, too, lives in an apartment block, on the 12th floor, on one of the large housing estates in Krakow. During one of our conversations, she shared an experience that had been difficult for her. I could tell she was tense and her voice was trembling.  All of a sudden, quite unexpectedly, she interrupted our conversation and said: “I can see storks outside my window”. Just that. And the tone of her voice changed for a fleeting moment. I felt that, for a fleeting moment, both she and I had  suddenly found ourselves in a different world, a world where storks fly.

I’m not a birdwatcher. I find it very difficult to distinguish colours, which makes identifying birds extremely challenging. Although I do have a Collins Bird Guide at home, I don’t look inside. And I keep on forgetting the names of species.

Change: planes have changed into birds for me. However, I don’t want to say that I am oblivious to the suffering that the pandemic has brought to many people’s lives. I try not to avert my eyes from their hardship, although I would often like to shut myself away in the world of my writing, patients and lectures. I do not forget about those who have lost their loved ones. I fear the consequences of economic collapse. I remember the somewhat subdued expression on my supervisor’s face during our last Skype meeting. When I go out to do some shopping, I wear my medical face mask, which is now mandatory in Poland. The masks are meant to protect us, but they also make me feel apprehensive. Perhaps they bring associations with things alien.

I do also see sparrows and storks, however. The sparrows frolic every day, taking over the airspace of planes.      

After writing these reflections, I had an online meeting with another supervisor of mine. She mentioned how her colleagues from the University Hospital in Krakow are selflessly helping patients, despite the risk of themselves becoming infected with the coronavirus. I felt ashamed of myself for writing about sparrows and storks… Just as I feel ashamed about flying when I think about the climate crisis. However, my supervisor did also mention, right at the very end, that she sometimes escapes to a meadow just outside her home… as soon as she said that, I thought to myself that I have the right to this particular joy of seeing the birds on my balcony.


2 thoughts on “On Planes that have Changed into Birds

    • I love the transition you are describing between planes and birds, from high transcendence to local on your balcony. For me, the sounds across the valley have been changing. Birds, not planes, rule the skies and are the sound. But I am already saddened at the re-balancing of the soundscape now humans are getting back in our noisy vehicles. Apparently we MUST travel.

    • The birds, have always meant for me the FREEDOM. I come from Poland, but I was studying in Heidelberg, Germany for quite many years. When the time was dfficult for me I was always looking in the sky, watching birds flying. They could go anywhere they wanted. The pandemic was and is a state of huge isolation. Thank You, Szymon, for Your wanderful story on birds, planes and the capacity to be alone on the balcony.

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