Riding along on my bike, being overtaken by all the fairweather cyclists who have come out of hiding since the weather warmed up and reflecting on my lack of running success, I realised I have sucked at every sport I have ever tried. Here’s an exhaustive list.
In my day I have sucked at: skiing ( I regularly cry when faced with a too-steep slope), climbing (never progressed to being able to lead any route) , running (my 10 km speed record run at a speed which I overheard my workmates once describing as well but nobody runs that slowly), surfing (I might have stood up once but not for very long), hockey (it was long ago and in another country, but I sucked quite comprehensively), and riding a bike (as evidenced by the fact that all the hipsters on single speeds are flying past me with the wind in their beards).
Anyway, apparently it’s edifying. One of my students said that the best things she got out of years of playing school volleyball was ‘learning how to lose,’ which actually might not be such a useless skill.
Some time last November, after bingeing for several months on nature writing, I decided I was interested in birds. It really was that simple, and I took the kids out to the leaden, shit-strewn park for an inaugural twitch.
It was something akin to a religious experience. The hoot and rattle of Puławska St. faded, and I entered another dimension. Here was another world which had always existed alongside mine, and which I had never looked at before. A pair of magpies hopped across the sodden ground, and the desolate hedges turned out to be alive with tits.
I watched David Attenborough’s series on birds, seeing what it takes for a pigeon to get off the ground and observing the mating dance of a grebe for the first time with a sensation that could only be called wonder. I played recordings of blackbird and chaffinch song on youtube over the breakfast table (boring the pants off everyone else, as a good twitcher should).
The pace of my walking also slowed to approximate that of a pair of 3 year olds, which was a useful adaptation. Peering into a hole in a tree in a Pruszków in the middle of winter, I was surprised by a rush of yellow -green as a woodpecker flew out in a panic. I watched the winter rook roosts forming in our park and came back from Australia to find that the fieldfares were back too, from somewhere or other.
Now I’m about halfway through my first twitching year. I am comforted by the presence of birds, which provide some counterpoint to the trudging human masses. I am invested in the success of their nestlings and am not above shooing off a predatory, nest-robbing crow in a futile attempt to save a baby fieldfare. I watch for them when I run, listen for them when I wake up, count species out the window while I’m folding the clothes. My world is suddenly richer.
My children know 2 languages. This sometimes still amazes me, since by the time I started learning languages it was too late for me to be properly bilingual. They know they speak two languages, and have for a long time. They call it ‘having two words’.
I am, frankly, also amazed by how well they do it. We speak a lot of Polish at home and they go to a Polish preschool, but their English is better than it has ever been, and after our trip to Australia they have even started to play together in English. Maybe it’s because my parents have always been around for a few months of the year to give them more exposure.
They switch languages effortlessly depending on who they talk to.They know what the languages are called and if they don’t know a word they ask (Mummy, how you say ‘restauracja’ in English?) Their development in both languages seems to be pretty normal for their age- I can’t see any discernible delays, though I don’t have much to compare them with as far as their English goes.
Sometimes they mix the names of the languages up (mummy, how you say ‘remont’ in Polish?). They have a bit of an accent when they speak English which led our friend Laura to comment that they sound like Russian film villains. Sometimes they use phrases (lonely as a finger) or grammar structures (I too want one) from Polish when they speak English. Overall, though, I’m satisfied with their ability to communicate in my language.
I expect it to become more difficult when they get into the Polish school system and start to find me less important and spend more time with their friends. I also realise that I will be faced with the responsibility of teaching them to read in English, which is daunting. But for the moment, it’s working better than I expected.
This time I’ve decided not to be stingy with my list, and give both of you the full ten. Here are yours.
- You are sucking up information like a sponge and processing the world with your own logic. When we tell you you can’t run with a fork because we saw a picture on the internet of a kid who did that and had to have it surgically removed from his nose, you file the information away. One day, we get into the tram and see a woman with a nose stud. Mummy, you say, that Pani mustabeen running with a fork.
- You draw beautifully. Snails in a car, a snowman with a scarf, a beautiful graphic of a giraffe made of an L with 2 dots for eyes, bespectacled portraits of Daddy and Jaś. All entirely recognisable
- You are getting socially braver and don’t have to be bribed with cake to go to preschool on your own when Janek is sick.
- You ride your bike like a little professional, with madness and pure joy in your eyes.
- You have started to tell your own stories sometimes at bedtime. They inevitably contain a dog, and an adventure that ends with a nice warm cocoa (your words) and going to sleep.
- You recently took great pleasure in informing me that Babcia is Daddy’s mummy. I can see how this messes with your head and it’s so funny.
- You totally love books and remember whole chunks of text after what seems to be a single read.
- You are eating by yourself quite happily with no coaxing . Though your choice of food is not always what I would wish for you.
- You are getting more and more attached to Marcin.
- You like making nonsense rhymes ( mummy-gummy is your favourite)
Less nice things
- Tantrums. In a word. At night, in the morning, in the middle of the day. Sometimes the things you want are so crazy that we have no choice but to do battle (for example when you threw yourself on the floor and kicked because you wanted to eat all the breakfast eggs for everyone by yourself.)
- You always want to have exactly what Janek has, and you’re not afraid to bite his ears off to get it. Your fights with him are getting incredibly violent.
- Wanting to be carried home from preschool because you don’t feel like walking or riding your bike.
- When we don’t have something you want and you say go to the shop and buy some. It makes me want to lecture you for hours about children in Africa.
- The mess you make
- The late hour at which you deign to go to bed
- The way you demand that someone scratch your back for what feels like 5 hours before you will go to sleep. I hate scratching you.
- Watching you ride your bike down the hill as fast as you can, knowing you are going to fall off and being powerless to stop you.
- Still worrying about your shyness, although you’re much more forthcoming than you were.
- Your erratic affections- when you scream all the way to our friend’s place in the taxi because you don’t want me sitting near you, but Marcin
- The way you are constantly pretending to be an animal- a stork, a baby chick, Uncle Hugo’s dog Cruz.
- You are finally starting to report what goes on at preschool. I love this development, even when it means hearing in great detail about who ate their soup and who didn’t (Marcinek never eats his and as a consequence he is going to be small and his teeth are going to fall out.)
- The way you gesticulate madly when you’re saying something that excites you, and your eyes go huge and googly and you giggle with pure amazement.
- The way you sleep like a log, muttering to yourself but deeply unconscious.
- How you ran up to Grandpa Joe at the airport and flung your arms around him and gave him the biggest hug in the world.
- You are starting to develop your social life and preferences at preschool- you apparently don’t like to play with boys with doodles, only with girls.
- You are still a great big dog lover and I still love watching you approach them.
- Your fascination with our workplaces, and how you say that preschool is your work. I worked hard today, Mummy, you tell me. What, eating soup? I ask . No! you say, as if I am the biggest fool on earth . Sleeping!
- You talk and think a lot about The Stralia- you know already that some part of your life is there.
- The way you ask insane and unanswerable questions and then goggle up at us through your glasses as though you have absolute faith that we know the answer.
Less nice things
- The fighting with Maja, and how you know you are just a bit bigger and you say to her through hysterical tears, I’m going to LIE on you.
- When you refuse to eat anything because you’re a baby chicken and they don’t have arms.
- Your selective muteness at the eye doctor.
- You weigh a ton and carrying you is no longer a joke.
- The way you scream when it’s time to wash your hair.
- The mess.
- Your food sensitivities.
- You won’t poo without company.
- You wet your pants pretty regularly.
- When you say you’re going to wash the dishes and you climb up to the sink and soak yourself and use gallons of water and when it’s all over one plate has been partially smeared at with a sponge.
In the bakery near the preschool where we go to buy buns sometimes, there is a customer service relic from PRL days- bouffant, name badge, perpetual scowl. Marcin goes in to get some breakfast on our way to drop the kids off in the morning, and I wait outside. When he comes out I as, How’s Pani Teresa’s mood today?
Stable, he answers. And gives a violent, outraged snort to show what this means. I laugh all the way to preschool.
The kids’ hilarious identifications of Australian birds- besides the ‘funny stork’ (a ibis), there’s also a ‘funny crow’ ( a currawong), a ‘big seagull’ (a pelican) and lots of ‘pawwots’ (this covers the whole range from a honeyeater to a cockatoo.)
After a few days, I feel poorly and take to my bed. In practice, this means lying on the couch under the shed overhang in Franki’s garden, shrouded in a sheet to keep the flies off, fevering the afternoon away with dreams about a boy I knew in primary school who was later killed in a car accident. My companions throughout the afternoon are a flock of rowdy parrots, oblivious to my corpse-like presence, feasting on the grevillea tree and bickering with each other.
Driving up Mount Tambourine after a swim, stuck in a line of impatient drivers, we look up and see a wedgetail eagle cruising down to land on a tree by the road. I have never seen one up really close and when I see its hooked, predatory beak and hairy legs, I ask Franki in all serious if she’s sure it’s not a vulture.