Being an English teacher and developing a sort of intimacy with the students means that I am sometimes privy to more information than I want or expect from them. The lesson on job satisfaction can cause an outpouring of frustration and resentment. The “Nearest and Dearest” lesson from the Cambridge Proficiency in English textbook prompted my 15-year old student to comment that she didn’t think she’d ever had a real friend. Conversation classes on gender roles encourage men to express their opinion that they wouldn’t like to have a female boss because women are bitches. And so forth.
A harmless query about pet ownership led somebody else to confess that well, she had had a cat once but since she has a penchant for closing all the open doors in the house before she goes to sleep, the cat ended up spending the night in the drier and suffocating.
But my favourite story so far concerns the crazy husband of the woman who killed the cat. I did nothing to invite this confidence and was actually even trying to persuade her to do some work, which wasn;t all that easy on a Friday night with the crazy husband and the 2 children hanging around. The children were saying “Fish!” and “Hello-how-are-you!” over and over again in English and the husband was lurking peaceably in the background, looking much more normal than he apparently is.
When hubby left to drive Grandma home, D. commented that her oldest daughter is similar to her husband, who tends to ‘worry about the future.’ I expected to be regaled with some banal list of concerns about pensions and poverty stricken retirement, but it turns out he has more serious things on his mind.
First of all, he is convinced that the Russians are coming. Also the Germans. And to complete the trifecta, he’s certain that the Wisła is going to bust its banks, sooner or later, and drown the city. The family are looking for a new house, since their flat is too small, and apparently there is only a tiny area where he is willing to live, in what (according to him) will be the ghetto that the Germans will build for the Poles. He wants to live there because he thinks everything will function like clockwork and they will be spared the Slavic anarchy that the Russians will impose. I almost wet my pants laughing but when I sobered up, had to confess that I’m happy I don’t have to live with him.
We have a new fridge. Who would have guessed the pleasure it could bring? It was the cheapest one in the shop, carefully selected by our landlord who is not known for his enthusiasm for spending money. (“I tried to show him another one,” said Marcin, “but something just kept drawing him back to that one..”.)
Months ago, when we first broached the topic with him, he launched into a long explanation that he would have to pay on instalment. The reason for this was so outlandish that it was probably true, and took almost an hour to explain. It turned out that he had rented another house of his, somewhere in a village, to a group of Vietnamese drug lords who had immediately covered the floors in dirt, installed a complex lighting and heating system, and set about raising marijuana. When they were caught, the insurance didn’t pay him back, and hence, he needs to buy the cheapest fridge in town and must pay on instalment.
None of this detracts from our joy in our new possession. Opening the door, we are almost blinded by the gleaming white interior, where our milk and cheese sit cleanly on the shelves. The old fridge was a monster from the 1970s or thereabouts; it had long ceased to be a white good and become a rather yellowish good, with fungus-green trimmings. It shuddered and dripped, and on many an insomniac night I would hear it let out a long, trembling sigh which seemed like it must surely be its last. Furry things lurked in corners.
And so, in the spirit of a new determination to fully enjoy minor victories, I am mindfully smiling to myself whenever I put away the butter, and expect this state of affairs to continue for about a week.
Last weekend spent somewhere near Olsztynek on the lakes, where a friend of Marcin’s from childhood has built an agroturistyka in the middle of the forest. I am slowly adjusting myself to the pace of these weekends away, having initially been surprised by the paucity of conversation between the participants at certain stages of the day.
It turns out that although Poles don’t mind sitting on top of you or engaging in extreme groin-to-groin contact with strangers in the metro, or walking beside you on the footpath although they neither know you or intend to rob you, they have a much higher tolerance for the deadly silence than I do. Last time we were with these friends, I developed my linguistic capacity and exhausted myself trying to keep the conversation going- this time I escaped to the silence of the forest, which is where I had really wanted to be all along.
I still find the greenness of the Polish woods overwhelming (the leaves, after a warm September, are only just starting to turn): at first glance it seems a drenched and monotonous world where everything climbs over everything else in a sort of violent profusion. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to possess a subtle palette of its own, as I hope the following photos will show.
Despite my complaints about the lack of chattiness, I have to confess that all in all it was a magical weekend: the groan of rutting stags in the night, the call overhead of flocks of southbound cranes, Mars hoisting itself above the trees as the sun disappeared. All this beauty revived in me a long-buried fantasy of rural life, helped along by the 200 interior-design-for-farmers magazines that I consumed while we were there. Back to Warsaw late on Sunday evening, restored and ready to hawk prepositions around the corporate jungle for another week.
A perfect autumn day on the Mazury Lakes
If I try to describe my dominant emotion over the past 6 months of my migrant life in all honesty, I would have to say that it is fear. From the moment of triumphal arrival on the Plac Zamkowy, I have been acclimatising myself to living with this emotion as a more or less constant companion. Especially in the beginning, every verbal encounter filled me with dread, knowing as I did that unexpected complications could arise in the most seemingly simple transaction. Who would have thought, for example, that there are so many ways to ask if somebody wants a shopping bag? Also, for no good reason (I have never had this problem before when attempting to get what I want in any other language, subscribing to the they-should-be-grateful-I’m-trying-at-all school of thought)) I felt acutely shy about having an accent and being a foreigner, as if it were something to be ashamed of.
Then I started going to job interviews, and suffered for the first ten or so from a burning urge to turn tail and flee when I reached the doorway of my prospective employer. This did fade after a period of intensive interviewing until I could face it with relative equanimity. However, I now have to contend with the moment of sheer terror which accompanies meeting a new class for the first time. In terms of physical unpleasantness, there isn’t much that can compete with it (besides the desire to vomit).
The point of all this is that I realised that in almost 2 years of travelling by bike across the globe, I almost never felt this sensation, and certainly not on a daily basis as I do now. (Though I did suffer, interestingly, from many more imaginary illnesses). There is nothing in the situation which seems to warrant it.
On reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the problem is this: there is just too much at stake. Given Marcin’s claim that he’s a ‘crappy migrant’ who certainly never considered a life of permanent exile on the other side of the planet, there’s every chance that living in Poland is a permanent arrangement for us. The pressure for me to assimilate, to get the jokes and talk like a grown up rather than a lisping infant, is enormous, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Every time I miss out on critical information because of linguistic retardedness (eg turning up for my Polish class at twelve instead of 8 pm because I have mistaken dwadzieścia for dwanaśćie on the phone), I undergo a crisis of confidence which lasts for anything from 5 minutes to 5 days.
Is it getting easier? It’s hard to say, but it’s true that I no longer flinch as if somebody has bitten me when I get asked for directions. I no longer (with some exceptions) approach social engagements as if I’m going to my own execution. I even answer my phone when I don’t recognise the number (something I avoided doing for a long time) and manage to have a conversation, although it does make me sweat profusely. I will report back again on the fear phenomenon in 6 months.