Olá Portugal!


As soon as I wrote I’ve had it with traveling in one long essay last summer, I found myself obsessively planning a proper vacation for myself and my son during his fall break from school. After considering Greece, Italy, Spain, Goa and the Canary Islands, I settled on a combination of sea and city in not-so-distant Portugal. Airline tickets were purchased, a car was reserved, accommodations were booked, a foldaway kite was procured. And on the last Friday in October our family of two plunged into our first ever foreign adventure. We spent six nights near the southern edge of the Alentejo coast, soaking up unseasonably perfect weather on a different beach every day and discovering nearby sites in Algarve. Next, we zipped back up to Lisbon by way of out-of-the-way Sintra, to explore tourism’s other side, which we agreed was interesting enough, but exhausting in comparison with empty beaches in low season and sleepy sunlit villages along the Atlantic. On the tenth day we went home, stunned at the way not much time had passed but how so much had managed to happen, and amazed at the way we now know exactly what it’s like to spend nine days in Portugal.

The photos I’ve chosen illustrate a composite story—about family time; about rediscovering the thrill of photography while figuring out a new camera; about a country less classically “southern” than expected, bracingly unostentatious and tinged with a kind of relaxed aloofness that recalls not Italy but Scandinavia. All were taken in ambient light with the Fujifilm X-T20 and the Fujinon 23mm f/1.4 lens. (Given the Fuji’s crop factor, this is functionally a 35-mm lens, which may well be the optimal leisure-travel combo of width and reach, with a range of depth options and practically no distortion.) The images shown are my favorites out of hundreds: specifically, out of the 550 that I snapped, of which 450 made it home, only to become 200 after import and the requisite vetting in Lightroom. (Note to my mother: you get to see all two hundred whenever you like!)

A Thing or Two About Turning Forty

Contrary to what I imagined, and definitely against most that I’ve been told, turning forty is not so monumental at all. Over the past three or four years, I’ve actually grown accustomed to being “almost forty” and “around forty,” so there’s even a sense of relief, as though I’ve finally been let in to somewhere I have to be, after waiting at the gate way too long.

What is shocking seems elusive and lodged in my memory: a sense I once had of the weight of such an age a whole generation ago, back when I was on the brink of adulthood. How strange that so many of the things I associated with full-on maturity have now zoomed past me, like a highway sign or some vista I didn’t stop for: discovering what to do in life, finding that someone, naming those children. What used to denote grown-up life now smacks of youth; adulthood keeps redefining itself, and for me it has remained something that’s just about to begin for a solid twenty years. It is only now that this sense of being on the brink of life is finally lifting. This is a welcome development—hence the relief, hence a sense of quiet pride and cause for calm celebration.

At forty I am grateful to have had my son, unexpectedly satisfied to be raising him on my own and relieved to know a lot more than I used to about the math of my emotions. I feel no shame with regard to my age, but quite a bit about what I’ve said and done in the past (especially during that awkward time between my ninth and thirty-third birthdays). Unlike the songs and motivational quotes that claim the opposite—I regret things I did way more than those I didn’t do, though luckily most of the sharp edges are gone and the guilt I carry is softened by nostalgia.

My dreams have shifted, too. Now what I want most for my birthday is not ecstatic gain but prudent absence: no illness, few worries about my loved ones, no legal troubles, no unwanted anything. If that seems unambitious or austere, keep in mind that the people I keep close, the work I do, the home I’ve made and the things I do for pleasure: these beget ecstasy enough. In fact, if I squint and recall what I might have wished upon my forty-year old self two decades ago, I can make out the contours of a life I wouldn’t choose over the one I am living.

And that, I concede, is a monumental conclusion to come to on one’s uneventful fortieth birthday.

The New Fuji: Early Days

When I attempted my first and only “official” camera review in 2014, I discovered I was more interested in the implications of one’s inexperience with a system than I was in any technical specifications. So if you’re in mood for the latter, I refer you to the excellent FujiVsFuji. As far as this review goes, most can be left unsaid. The pictures really do tell all—and even they are bound to evolve along with my mastery of the equipment. After all, I’m still getting used to the controls and testing my agility with the autofocus and its manual better half (my main challenge, either way, for which I blame both second-rate eyesight and iffy motor coordination). The question isn’t really if my bokeh is dazzling enough, or if the sharpness can julienne a diamond: it’s whether I’ve found a tool for capturing the scenes I need to capture to tell the stories I want to tell. So far, things look promising.

The switch I’m making is from both the maddeningly viewfinder-free 2010 Leica X1 and the superb Canon L 200mm f/2.8 (perversely mounted on the paltry 8MP Digital Rebel XT from 2005). My expectations are high, but the bar isn’t: I’m already enthralled, and I haven’t even played with all of the basic functions. My pulse-quickening kit includes the 14mm f/2.8, the 23mm f/1.4 and the 56mm f/1.2 Fujinon prime lenses (equivalents of the 21, 35 and 85 focal lengths in classic 35mm format), along with the X-T20 mirrorless body, which is almost too small, but in fact fits my hands perfectly and was worth every minute of the long wait for supply to catch up with demand. In time I may add the 90mm f/2 or the ultralight 27mm f/2.8 (or both), but for the moment I’m content with the options I’ve got, and delighted to find myself rediscovering the possibilities of photography. Because what are megapixels without the inspiration to match?

Or test shots with a new camera—what good are those if they don’t reveal something new about the person behind the lens?

Captions for a Late Summer Sky

Photo by Natalia Osiatynska, taken in Mokotów one half hour before sunset (and minutes before a burst of rain) on 2017 08 27, using the infallible Canon L-series 200mm/f2.8 lens mounted on a laughable Canon digital Rebel XT from 2005. The image was underexposed by two stops and cautiously, imperfectly relit in Lightroom.

Photo by Natalia Osiatynska, taken in Mokotów one half hour before sunset (and minutes before a burst of rain) on 2017 08 27, using the infallible Canon L-series 200mm/f2.8 lens mounted on a laughable Canon digital Rebel XT from 2005. The image was underexposed by two stops and cautiously, imperfectly relit in Lightroom.

In Poland the clouds sport linings in gold.
Not chemtrails. Coastlines.
May even your most difficult puzzles have parts that are a joy to piece together.

Part of Captions, an emerging series.

Ore of the Woods

A work in progress can surprise you one day, suddenly endowed with permanence even as it remains incomplete. What is finished, at that point, is the experience of something as new. And maybe a reversal has occurred: the process has stepped into our role, now it is shaping us. Now it is determining its own course, with us as its proxy.

Our cabin sits atop an improbable hill on an oblong, unruly patch of the only land I’ve ever owned. It has been witness to Anker’s unfolding childhood and it is the most likely suspect behind the way I have kind of quit recreational travel. Ruda. The name of the nearby village that lends its meek administrative heft to our wooded sector (zoned for recreational use and as separate from the village as it gets) means ore, and it’s the name of at least forty-four villages throughout Poland. Anker might have been three when he inadvertently coined Ruda Lasu, a swift possessive that conveys just what it is we profitably extract from our cabin’s surroundings. Note that las is the Polish for both forest and woods, and most Poles will deploy the former term even when it’s the latter that better conveys their more casual, non-primeval meaning.

There is an evocative Japanese term, shinrin yoku, for being among trees. Forest bathing, the translation issues, and the proof follows: those volatile wood compounds wafting from trees are powerful tonics for the mind and body, so visiting a forest for sport and play helps seal the deal on a healthy lifestyle. (Don’t studies sometimes go to show the most obvious things?) But at our cabin we don’t just bathe: we get inundated. In shinrin yoku terms, we transform into creatures of the tree-sea for days at a time. Readjusting to the city is at times an ordeal (because city air is not air at all to a recalibrated body), at times a breeze (because everything is a breeze after one’s been mainlining the breath of trees).

Until a few years ago, the cabin served as my father’s little-used writing retreat, in our family since the late 90s, when my dad bought it at the behest of a friend whose history of summering in the Ruda woods had comparatively ancient origins, though it would end abruptly with the friend’s early death just years later. As for my mother, she likes to say Ruda is too far from the philharmonic. (Actually, it’s what I like to say as I claim to be quoting her.) And while it is true that my mom is neither outdoorsy nor reclusive, I suspect the real reason she never came to call the cabin her own was that, like me, she didn’t know what to do with a clunky 1970s kit house crammed with exiled furniture, defunct fax machines and long-expired non-perishables in the kitchen.

My own visits before Anker came along were no prediction of the love I would eventually gain for the place. Sparse, haphazard, forgotten—these were stopovers between a life paused and a life resumed. Each split my attention between awe for the trees and disdain for the decor. I tended to sleep on the front porch, in a sleeping bag, avoiding the interior unless I needed to use the kitchen, bathroom or sauna (which came with the house and held zero interest for my dad but plenty for me). Over awkward weekends with boyfriends who didn’t last, I don’t recall even imagining what it might be like to clear out the clutter, much less remodel the place in my image. The rules for respecting my father’s choices were unspoken but absolute: fantasies did not wander beyond certain boundaries. But life would surprise me yet, finding new spaces to grow into, and new sources of desire and perseverance and perhaps courage.

Anker and I first began planting our flag here during the summer of 2013. It was then that it became clear my half-Danish boy and I would stay put in Poland, and it was then that the process of redefining my relationship to my parents had reached a comfortable plateau: now they seemed less my looming family of origin (one step from me on the family tree) and more the adoring grandparents to my son, in his and my life on my terms (a full three hops away). Now asking my father to let me take charge of the cabin seemed less a selfish act and more one of prudent parenting. In fact, I’m not sure there was asking involved: it may well be that he offered.

So out they went: the rugs and the file cabinets, lurid velour armchairs and the cable strewn like tinsel across the worn roof. What followed was a new roof, and with it two skylights, illuminating the ever-dim pine-lined house in a way that at last revealed possibilities. In 2014 came the mattresses: four of them, luxuriously thick but placed plainly on the floor in the two compact bedrooms. In 2015, a sleek grey IKEA kitchen pushed out the fractured remains of the old. We also greeted the first of the bonfires, safely relegated to a clearing toward the back of the property and responsibly outfitted with a faucet and running water. With these bonfires, the fallen twigs and branches finally had somewhere to go, revealing the mossy vibrance of our wooded lot. As the season was concluding—these are not winterized properties, so before the frosts come the pipes get drained and the house is bolted up until springtime—my parents signed over the deed to the house and the land. Ruda Lasu was mine, in theory and in practice.

This was also the year when the new neighbors bought the adjacent property with plans to live there year-round. What a couple, too: she a nature conservationist, he a massage therapist, both raven-haired and of the right age and impressed with my cooking, versed in Ayurveda and as interested in us as we were in them. But on a cruel January day, just a half-year later, the cabin they had been renovating so fervently burned to the ground. Thus, our new neighbors became our former neighbors, and the view from our deck transformed into an unthinkable one, of a scar in the clearing where a house had once stood, mirroring ours for decades.

In 2016, the faulty wiring was fixed and sturdy new lights replaced the garish lamps of before. Again the difference was subtractive in quality: an improvement not of elegance added but of discord removed. A new vanity and toilet were installed in the bathroom, and next to them a long-awaited small-capacity washing machine. The work lagged, but what a summer it was when it finally arrived: unfettered by the tedium of hauling soiled laundry back to Warsaw, rich with the splendor of hanging clothes on a line stretched between our own pines.

For all these improvements, my generous father picked up the bill—with the signature vehemence that inflected his practice of generosity. I may not know exactly what my needs and wants wound up costing (his distinction, not mine), but I do have the sense of another kind of price. With every change I made to the house, my dad’s wistfulness grew. On his infrequent visits, he would pace the property, joking about notions of paradise and loss, the humor a poor cover for what might have been a sea of regret. At the same time, my father’s inability to recognize the value of an airy, alluring interior was subsiding, and with it his reluctance toward my enthusiasm. Each year, at some point I would mention that Anker and I had spent thirty or forty nights at the cabin that season alone—and my father would say that he probably spent as many nights here over fifteen years. He would sometimes ask if he could borrow the house for a few days, and I would often offer. I even made a habit of stacking kindling and logs in the fireplace before leaving for Warsaw, so he might enjoy the fire he never attempted himself. He asked and I offered, but he never did come, and I was not really surprised, nor was I exactly disappointed, because the boundaries of his territorialism marked mine, too. He knew and I knew: my invitations were well-intentioned sentiments of gratitude and decency—but I was not about to let him impart chaos on my order.

When the 2017 season arrived, things were different. The quarter-mile of disintegrating chicken wire encircling the property struck me not as in need of replacing, but as gracefully weathered and perfectly integrated with the land. The cabin’s patchy foundation seemed fine, painting it no longer a priority. Resealing the shower could wait and so would trimming the trees and planting blackberries. Though unfinished, our summer house was complete. And in Warsaw my father was dying.

Some of our last exchanges were about Ruda. About how we both couldn’t believe I’m finally done with the renovations. About how amazing it is to be headed to the cabin for a brisk April weekend. I hope you don’t mind that I’m leaving, I chirped to my withered father, and for a minute we shared in my elation. That evening, upon arrival, I sent my father the requisite text. We made it safely, the woods are sublime. Soon, I got a usual reply. Thank you, goodnight. How could I know these would be the last words my father would ever write? Or his last lucid response to my stab at communication?

I was a city child, raised is the vicinity of universities and philharmonics, and then I was a city adult, well-adapted to living on a seventh floor and working from home. I am coming late to the experiences a summer home offers, discovering their dazzling, edifying, restorative magic alongside my son, my wonder a lot like his, if less uninhibited. Every day eighty-five hours long and perfectly quiet. Books. Board games. Wild strawberries edging the house, tart bilberries for miles. Kanika, our family’s husky, now twelve. Hammocks. Homemade pesto. Fat mattresses that don’t threaten knocked shins or stubbed toes. Laundry aflutter on the line. The resin-scented heat of that sauna. Composting things. Sprouting things. Tending to the herbs. Hunting wild mushrooms. Preferring that there is no dishwasher. Having no more furniture than is necessary. Never making trips to the store. Getting sweaty stoking a bonfire with a thousand fallen twigs. Dabbling in pottery. Dabbling in having company. Every day, sweeping the deck of the sand that is everywhere and of the copious dust shed by our evergreens. Having reception so bad one gives up and forgets the internet. Magazines. Jigsaw puzzles. A child’s toddler-era toys, a father’s ashes. And a ritual stacking of kindling and logs in the fireplace before leaving for Warsaw.

The summer of 2017 is a time of mourning, but it is defiant with pleasure and tangled with paradox. A house stripped of a man winds up brimming with his spirit. Everything is a comment on a relationship, each detail evidence of a father’s generosity. Opposites, it turns out, aren’t necessarily made of difference. Consider, for instance, how identically unthinkable it was, for either of us, to attempt some way of owning the cabin together. But, in our way, haven’t we all along? This place—this stage for so much living—it has been an ore of more than we imagined. A victory for me. For my father, a sacrifice.

Osiatynska has posted about the cabin twice before—once when the neighboring property first went on sale and again, last year, to describe her plunge into mushroom foragingAll photos are by the author, with the exception of the one she is in, by her son.