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I would like to know what "Like an unwritten piece of paper" means in the following sentences:

It did me good, this walk. It reminded me of the aimless ones I would take in Wrocław, when I could no longer stand being in the same space as Granny or at school. There was nowhere I could be without being with others, having to interact or to act. Even on my walks around the block, neighbours greeted and appraised. There were times when I’d get on the tram and ride across the city. I would get off at the last stop, in a neighbourhood where no one knew me, and I’d wander, not thinking, looking at the unknown streets and houses and people and feeling free and anonymous. Like an unwritten piece of paper. I’d forgotten the pleasure of this, and then and there, by the river, with the fields stretching out before me and the camp far behind me, something of that freedom returned. The water was clear and at the bottom I could see the bed of pebbles and light-brown mud and small fish swimming to and fro.

In this novel which is set in the 1980's in Poland under the socialist regime, where homosexuality was socially unacceptable, the protagonist Ludwik (a university graduate) left Poland in 1981 to live in the United States of America. And he remembers what it was like back then in Poland, where he went to the agricultural camp (which was mandatory for college graduation). At the camp, he took a walk after the field work was over, and felt anonymous like "an unwritten piece of paper."

In this part, I wonder what "unwritten" means here. Does it literally mean that the paper sheet was blank, with no letters written on it? Or does it perhaps mean that, though some letters were written on the paper, the name of the person who wrote those letters was not written on it, imparting the air of anonymous freedom...?

I am an English learner from South Korea, so thank you for your patience in advance as I may not know obvious things. I would very much appreciate your help. :)

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Comparing anonymity with being "like an unwritten piece of paper" strikes me as unusual but it can be explained. An unwritten piece of paper has no names or other words on it and therefore cannot be identified is being part of a specific text or as belonging to a specific person, unlike the "papers" (official documents or an identity card) that you carry with you. An unwritten piece of paper does not have any content that draws attention to itself.

Note that this interpretation assumes that "Like an unwritten piece of paper" refers back to the last part of the preceding sentence: "feeling free and anonymous". This experience is contrasted with the narrator's experience when walking around in his neighbourhood: "Even on my walks around the block, neighbours greeted and appraised." In his own neighbourhood, he is not anonymous, so he is not like an "unwritten piece of paper" but more like a piece of paper with everything the neighbours know about him written on it.

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  • Dear Tsundoku, thank you very much for the detailed explanation. Then, may I take it to mean that "unwritten" here means that his name was not written on the paper, and also, any letter or drawing or anything (that might give a hint as to who the writer might be) was not written on it, either? (Would that--letter or drawing--basically have the same function as writing the name on it, albeit indirect compared to writing the name itself?) – Pasta Addict Dec 19 '20 at 8:10
  • Actually, I have seen a blank paper or canvas being used to refer to creativity and possibility as in "life is a blank canvas", but this is my first time seeing the blank paper used to describe anonymity, as you note, so I was little confused. – Pasta Addict Dec 19 '20 at 8:10
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    I am aware of the metaphor of the blank sheet of paper as referring to creative possibilities, but I think that is at best a secondary meaning in this context and that the concept of anonymity dominates the association with creativity. – Tsundoku Dec 19 '20 at 9:24
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The phrase is not used in the literal sense here. When they say life is a blank paper, or an unwritten piece of paper, it signifies that life can be made to take any turn as wanted by our actions, just like a blank paper can be written on with anything we feel like.

The narrator is telling about their unplanned tram journey across the city and how they used to get down at the last stop and explore a previously unexplored neighbourhood. Being among strangers made them feel free and anonymous, just like a blank paper waiting to be written upon with different life experiences.

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