Last weekend was a long weekend in Poland, for various reasons. It’s the anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw, when the Poles turned the Bolsheviks away from the city in 1920, preventing (so they say) the further spread of communism in Europe. It’s also Polish Army Day, and not to leave out the religious folks it’s the Feast of our Lady of the Greenery (my own translation- at first I considered ‘our lady of the herbs’).
It’s such a momentous occasion that we resolve to get out of Warsaw and on Sunday, after 2 days of rampant socialising, we head out into the wilds beyond Pruszków for a night in the country. Friends of Marcin’s from school live there, in a village far enough removed from city life that we are woken at daybreak by a combination of chickens and the neighbours washing their new car, which for their own mysterious reasons they choose to do at 6 am.
The evening consisted of good food, imbibing, one-handed horsey and various games with blankets and Marcin’s cast as props (eg The Scary Hand). But for me the highlight was the screening of a film from Piotrek’s 18 th birthday party, with Marcin and Kuba in a pair of similarly horrible shirts in supporting roles.
It is 1991. Communism has been dead for two years. Boys in braces and girls in bouffants pair-dance to u2 and various other hits of the 80s, all known and beloved to me.
Marcin squirms but I am inexplicably moved by this unexpected access to history. He isn’t wearing glasses yet and can’t see me lurking in his future. The party continues all night and in the morning the birthday boy and guests drive off into adult life in a silly car.
It’s one of the things which fascinates and bothers me, living here. Marcin’s past is all around, lying in wait on street corners, in the WKD to Pruszków, in the supermarket. He has several friends that he has known since primary school. My own history seems to lack this density and continuity, and I find it both exotic and inaccessible in him. Watching the film, I feel a tinge of shame at my overwhelming urge to touch something which isn’t mine, but the fascination is much stronger.
- Army Day
I have been a bit too voluble in my enthusiasm for hunting mushrooms, so that as soon as the first kurki (chanterelles) appear in the market, Marcin’s father is on the phone, requesting our company on an expedition to the forests around Warka.
In my innocence, I’m not entirely aware of what this will entail. It turns out that one of the features of successful mushroom hunting is an early start, to beat all the other kurki-crazed locals into the forest, fill your basket and make your escape before they even wake up.
We are in the forest by 7. A damp green light prevails under the trees, lit by the occasional gleam of a leaf which has yellowed prematurely and which gives an instant of hope that there are actually mushrooms to be found. There aren’t, really. After 2 hours we have barely covered the bottom of a single basket with kurki the size of pennies, and a few great slimy podgrzybki with spongy undersides and moth-eaten caps. We are accompanied by clouds of mosquitoes which fly up our sleeves and ricochet, whining, between hood (it’s still raining) and ear. Marcin gives up first and retires to the car to read his magazine. I keep looking with Marcin’s parents for another half hour which yields 3 more podgrzyby. Then we too give up and start for home with some relief.
Marcin’s father, however, is not so easily deterred. We have gone for mushrooms and will come back with mushrooms. So we stop at the market in Warka and after some sustained haggling, supplement our 50 grams of mushrooms with a kilogram or so collected by more successful gatherers.
It’s not the end of the shopping spree. In the carpark, he buys a chainsaw from a brown man speaking funny Polish (nobody can tell me where he’s from). Being the strong silent type, he is characteristically unwilling to explain this apparently spontaneous purchase and I privately diagnose him as a compulsive spender/ hoarder- a theory borne out by the crippled china shepherdesses, broken clock, ancient laptop, chipped receptacles shaped like pigs, and aged teaspoons which are among his other treasures, as well as the mound of antique shoes in the cupboard which he is unable to throw out, despite a chorus of protest from his sons. It turns out, however, that he simply wants to chop the branches off a tree in their garden. We eventually discover this fact after about an hour of sustained interrogation on the subject. No wonder it’s almost impossible to get any information about his hopes and dreams…..