Monthly Archives: January 2012

The properties of snowmen

Night, somewhere on the periphery of the city. I have finished my lesson with Sad Beautiful Iza (not her real name)  and am cutting across the suburbs to Jarek and Lucynka’s place in Ursynów. The buses out here on the edge of everything are ancient beasts and I wonder if they are relics from the bad old PRL days. They have brown vinyl seats with a surprising amount of padding that soaks up some of the shock from the lack of suspension, and comfortingly analogue special effects. The warning bell which rings when the doors are closing reminds me of our old school bell- a little hammer beating madly inside an iron cup. No  timid  electronic beeping here. The doors close with a great roaring wheeze, and there is a smell of petrol. You can hear the engine grinding away under the floor.

Marcin and Jarek are waiting for me at the bus stop with a bottle of wine. It is snowing and the snowflakes swarm in the light from the streetlamps as we walk home. There is food, more wine, an excursion to the pond on the back of their block which I haven’t actually been to before. We throw things at the ice forming on the surface (one of my favourite activities). At midnight Jarek informs us that the conditions are right for building a snowman- since he has a degree in physics, we have to believe him. He gives a short lecture explaining  that the snow sticks together best when the temperature is around zero and we get to work.

It’s my first snowman. I have only seen them before in pictures and and I am shocked by the weight of the snow- it takes two of us to lift the head onto the body. It’s also surprisingly hard to make round balls of that size, so our snowman has a blocky angularity about him. When  we give him a face, I suddenly understand why “bałwan”  means some sort of moron. He has a long droopy nose made of a pine stick, a pair of crooked eyes, a slack gaping mouth, a hairless dome. He also lacks the sense to escape from the elements so in the morning he’s still there, edges smoothed by rain.

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Perhaps under the influence of an unusually effective yoga session, I find myself in the grip of that incomparable feeling which is nostalgia at its best. The richness and inaccessibility of the past is a wonder rather than a taunt; I reread the blog from our trip and marvel. I listen to “The Big Rock Candy Mountains”, which I remember hearing  in my childhood without ever realising it was a Depression song, and think that it describes Australia (the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night). I watch a video of Nick Cave singing “Straight to You” (oh the towers of ivory are crumbling/ and the swallows have sharpened their beaks/this is the time of our great undoing..) He looks young and hungry. Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”, Sława Przybylska’s “Pamiętasz, była jesień”. I have a strange feeling of unassailability and go on to songs to bring back the dead- Alison Krauss and Union Station singing   “Goodbye is all we have”, Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”. I open some photographs from the early days of my romance with Marcin and my first trip to Poland. Bike rides in the mountains, the exotic sight of all that exposed summer flesh. The sad, lovely untouchable past…..

It’s soon over, this brief moment of exaltation, and it’s back to the more mundane pleasures of lying in bed with a Polish novel and a dictionary and a nerdy little notebook, and menu planning, and movies. But it seems to mark a watershed; over the following week the days are perceptibly longer,  and though the temperature plunges and the first real snow arrives, the sun is out. The winter no longer seems endless. The sap is starting to flow.


Filed under history, migrant life

Christmas in Pruszków

I am not inclined to pine for home during the festive season, being old enough to be convinced that it’s the same gluttonous and vaguely disappointing occasion wherever you celebrate it. Besides, the Polish Christmas has its own charms, though this year they don’t include snow.

One of them (since this is my first ) is anthropological and linguistic charm. There is a whole vocabulary connected to Christmas which is unfamiliar to me and I learn the words for midnight mass, creche,  and the unconsecrated wafer which you break with your brethren (or brethren- in- law) before the Christmas Eve dinner,   and one line of an archaic and very boring carol which is still circulating in my head a week later. There was also the novelty of hearing people complain that they’re still hungry after the Christmas Eve dinner, which doesn’t include any real meat because it’s a ‘fast meal’ . (What this means in reality is 12 courses of fish but the absence of pig causes a psychological craving in some.)

The simplicity of the food was compensated for by the extravagance of the dress. We received about 500 phone calls to talk us out of cycling to Pruszków because Marcin’s parents were convinced we would appear at the festive board encased in muddy lycra.  Kuba’s stepson asked  him where his mother (who was swathed in lace) had got her curtain from.

We went to the neighbour’s house, since Kuba (Marcin’s brother) is married to the girl next door and there is now a grandson in common. Convenient for me as my winter boots had broken and were in repair; all we had to do was mince across to the next klatka and hey presto, there we were. A slightly stiff occasion which was only eased by the children and presents and the ensuing mayhem.

Afterwards we went to drop in on Babcia, who celebrated her 93rd  birthday in the summer. A terrifying joyride with Marcin’s father at the wheel- he had a stroke in September but can’t admit that his vision and coordination are not what they were. It was wet and slippery and when he skidded he just said, “Well, it was a controlled skid..” Babcia was lying in bed, recovering from that mysterious ailment which strikes the old, young and unresistant in Poland- almost-pneumonia ( I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve had it myself.) Since we got to Poland I’ve barely heard her say a word and we always wonder after seeing her if any pleasure remains in her life. One of the grandsons in law had been detailed to keep watch over her, and being unable to work out how to use the remote control, he had settled to ‘reflecting’, as he put it, in a horizontal position on the couch with his eyes closed.

But my favourite part of Christmas was a walk with Marcin’s old schoolfriend Czaja through the old mental hospital in Tworki. On the afternoon of the 25th, suffering from cabin fever, we decided on a prolonged stroll with a can of beer through the grounds of this place, whose inhabitants were murdered by Hitler and friends in the 40s. It was grey and damp and the fishermen who fish the rehabilitated river were at home torturing their families. All the maniacs were inside. This walk lasted for several hours while we excavated Marcin and Czaja’s family history, marvelled at the sheer effectiveness of the Nazis (who would think, in the middle of a war, that it would occur to somebody to liquidate the mentally ill of Tworki?), sang a carol by phone to Jeziorek in India, finished our beer, bought some vodka and finally had a last drink under the viaduct before returning merrily home in the pitch dark at 4:30.

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Filed under language, migrant life, observations on Polish society