Red in tooth and claw


We are strolling through the park to preschool. The sun is shining, the children are proceeding in the right direction at the right pace. Suddenly a crow flies by, with a  nestling fieldfare in its beak, the parents chack-chacking in outraged pursuit. I’m outraged too- after all that, the marauding crow is just going to get away with it.


We are at the icecream shop over the road, not buying a dog icecream, though we could if we wanted, but a normal one. First indulging in the favoured Polish sport of waiting in a queue for half an hour, and then having to eat a carrot sorbet because all the really good ones have been eaten by the hipster dogs of Mokotów. Suddenly the kids start to yelp with excitement. There’s a baby bird, feathered but with the stumpy wings and bald patches which show it probably can’t fly and really has no chance. A broken nest lies on the ground. The baby bird is huddled up next to a park seat and Janek and Maja dance around it with glee, having no idea what its fate will be.

The next day we are still feeling guilty. We could have taken it home and brought it earthworms and called the bird rescuers. Given it some mince and kept it in a box and released it back into the wild…

Anyway, we didn’t. But I did remember that the birds in the park aren’t just there so I can have the nice little hobby of observing them during the interminable walk to and from pre-school, or to pretty up my turd-strewn urban life with their song. It’s a jungle out there, actually. In case you didn’t know

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Filed under birds, twitching

Sucking at sport

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.


Filed under around Poland, sport

Becoming a twitcher

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.


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Filed under birds, mokotow, twitching, weather

The language of 3 year olds

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.


Filed under children's brains, language, language acquisition, teaching English, twins

10 things at 3 years- Maja

This time I’ve decided not to be stingy with my list, and give both of you the full ten. Here are yours.

Nice things

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. You ride your bike like a little professional, with madness and pure joy in your eyes.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. You totally love books  and remember whole chunks of text after what seems to be a single read.
  8. You are eating by yourself quite happily with no coaxing . Though your choice of food is not always what I would wish for you.
  9. You are getting more and more attached to Marcin.
  10. You like making nonsense rhymes ( mummy-gummy is your favourite)

Less nice things

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. Wanting to be carried home from preschool because you don’t feel like walking or riding your bike.
  4. 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.
  5. The mess you make
  6. The late hour at which you deign to go to bed
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9.  Still worrying about your shyness, although you’re much more forthcoming than you were.
  10. 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



Filed under language acquisition, motherhood, ten things, twins

10 things at 3 years- Janek

Nice things

  1. The way you are constantly pretending to be an animal- a stork, a baby chick, Uncle Hugo’s dog Cruz.
  2. 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.)
  3.  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.
  4. The way you sleep like a log, muttering to yourself but deeply unconscious.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. You are still a great big dog lover and I still love watching you approach them.
  8. 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!
  9. You talk and think a lot about The Stralia- you know already that some part of your life is there.
  10. 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

  1. 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.
  2. When you refuse to eat anything because you’re a baby chicken and they don’t have arms.
  3.  Your selective muteness at the eye doctor.
  4. You weigh a ton and carrying you is no longer a joke.
  5. The way you scream when it’s time to wash your hair.
  6. The mess.
  7. Your food sensitivities.
  8. You won’t poo without company.
  9. You wet your pants pretty regularly.
  10. 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.


Filed under childhood, family, ten things, twins

Conversations 2

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.  

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Filed under around Poland, conversations, Uncategorized

Australian vignettes- birds


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.



Filed under Australia, birds, Uncategorized


We’re at the house of J., a  friend whose father died last month. We’re good friends but the subject of this bereavement is a difficult one- it’s surprisingly hard to say, so, how are you feeling now your dad’s dead?

We’re sitting in the kitchen, me and Marcin and J. and his  wife, all the non-bereaved a bit shifty-eyed but determined not to pretend it hasn’t happened, and the conversation is lurching along, grief, what to do about it, etc. J. doesn’t really want to discuss it, so we’re skirting around him a bit, but still going, slightly braver for the wine but out of our depth .  Their kids come into the kitchen and start sniffing around for something to eat and J.  asks them what they’re going to have for dinner. Chocolate wafers, says Zosia. Oh, OK. says J. You’d better have two, then.

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Filed under friendship, grief, Uncategorized

Australia vignettes- friends


In Newcastle, we stay with our friends Chris and Laura. Of all the people we know, these are the ones who shared  the biggest part of our cycling trip 5 years ago- we saw Angkor Wat  and the Great Wall of China with them, lounged on a Thai island and unexpectedly ran across each other in the foamy streets of Vientiane when we thought we had already seen each other for the last time. Now we are all thoroughly domesticated, having produced 4 children between us in the space of 3 years. Of course, we talk baby farming, but not only. For 2 days we can have those lovely meandering conversations which happen around the obligations of the day. Sometimes we don’t say anything.

Maja and Janek fall in love with their son Hugo, and insist on going everywhere holding his hands, flanking him. They refer to him as HIM. Mummy, I want to hold hands with HIM. Hugo is not averse, as they race about the museum and leap into the fountain in one long glorious chain of 3 year old exuberance.


In Sydney, we are caught up in a social whirl. Our friend Kat organises a barbeque for us and I talk late into the night  with old friends. I am so involved in this day-long conversation that when a mad, cyclonic storm blows up in the afternoon I don’t even notice it.


Some of what goes on this trip is mere maintenance, hoping to keep friendships going for another couple of years until we come again. I’ve spent too much time being sick to fulfil the whole ambitious plan of visits. So instead, sometimes  there’s only a  phone call,  or a short, harried picnic, just to say, we love you, wait for us until next time.


Filed under Australia, friendship, travel, Uncategorized