Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Long March

I recently came across a book in the adventure genre which made our trip look like a walk in the park. Sławomir Rawicz, a Polish officer arrested by the Russians in 1939, escapes from a prison camp in Siberia where he has been sent for 25 years of forced labour. With 5 others, he walks out of the USSR, across Mongolia (where 2 of the party die of thirst in the Gobi), across the Himalayas  (where 2 more die) and eventually, after a year, into British India. They have only an axe and a knife, and they escape in the middle of winter so the snow will cover their tracks.

I read this spellbound , thinking privately that I probably would have preferred to stay in a warm dry prison camp for 25 years than try to escape. I believed every word, and only when I sat down to write this post found out that there’s a controversy over whether or not it really happened, or at least to Rawicz. The claim is that he stole somebody else’s story, another Polish officer called Witold Gliński.

I found myself desperate for it to be true, for reasons which are unclear to me. Probably two : I want to think that the human organism is capable of such a feat, and I want to think that people are basically honest. I don’t subscribe to the great- story- who- cares- if- it’s- true school of thought. Instead I feel horribly disappointed by the possibility of a hoax.


Filed under Reading

Springtime hypochondria

There’s something about the sight of my own flesh emerging from its winter layers like a great white larva that fills me with alarm. Having spent the winter neglecting to notice my earthly vessel, I have trouble believing that it’s really mine. My hypochondria, relatively dormant throughout the cold months, awakes and I have to take my spotty hide off to a grinning dermatologist to assure me that my forgotten freckles are not neglected and advanced melanomas.

But why stop there? I also visit a glowering gynecologist. The examination is much more comprehensive than the one you get in Australia, and for the first time in my life I know the capacity of my uterus and the size of my ovaries. I spend a happy few days browsing the hypochondriac forums with my cryptic Polish description of my reproductive system in my hands, dictionary within arm’s reach, and assure myself that all is normal.

Thence to the dentist. Apparently two years of doubtful dental hygiene have taken their  toll and I have a gigantic cavity in one tooth. The dentist tells me with relish that if I don’t take action now, I am months away from a root canal. She fills the tooth, and it’s back to the hypochondriac forums to find out why it still hurts to bite 2 weeks later.

All checkups over, it’s time to start building the requisite paranoia to force me through the same unpleasant procedure this time next year.


Filed under medical

Reflections on the year

We arrived in Warsaw last Easter, slightly over one  year ago. It’s been a year full of new impressions, events, and acclimatisation. I’m incredibly glad it’s over.

We have lived through one  cycle of seasons in this new configuration, and I have stopped having the sudden, heart-stopping realisation which would come on me unannounced at regular intervals during  the whole first summer, a sort of mental exclamation that would leave me reeling: YOU LIVE IN POLAND!!!!!!

I have gotten used to speaking Polish, and its sibillants feel less hostile. I can even make phone calls. I know my way around the city from Ulica Suwak to Ulica Owsiana and can get around the corporate gatekeepers in all but the most  extreme circumstances.

Familiarity manifests mainly in an absence of dread . I have also lost the sharp feeling of historical consciousness that I had for the first few months, where I felt with every step that I was trampling on a mound of bones. I have made some friends and started socialising without Marcin, which was my plan for the New Year.

It’s only now that I realise how horrible the beginning of this new life was, and what a shock. I remember feeling as if my mind were hovering somewhere outside my body, commenting on every move as if it was happening to someone else. The reintegration of these parts was such a relief that it made me realise how quickly I would sacrifice a new perspective for a sense of comfort.

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Filed under migrant life

Terra Nullius

Recently I got my hands on a Polish translation of a  copy of Terra Nullius, Sven Lindqvist’s 2005 book about the Aboriginal history of Australia.  I borrowed it from a friend writing a thesis about cannibalism and colonialism, and it was bristling with little coloured post-it notes in the relevant places. Inside the front cover, Sven looked out from behind his glasses, hands in pockets, a baggy shirt hiding his affluent gut.

I admit to some initial reservations. There’s something about hearing foreigners describing your country that instantly raises the hackles of the natives. Even his botanical observations fill me with scorn- what’s so amazing about the proliferation of eucalypts and acacias? Later, lost myself  in a sea of birches and beeches and larches, I had to admit that for a European, this may indeed be worthy of mention.

I observed this initial irritation and defensiveness with interest, and saw it slowly dissipate as I got deeper into the book. I read things that are new to me-  about the internment of Aborigines supposedly carrying venereal disease on Bernier and Dorre Islands, the theorising of Durkheim and Freud about the ‘elementary’ nature of Aboriginal society and religion, a short biography of Albert Namatjira.

Mainly, though,  my reaction was an emotional one. I have always sympathised, in theory, with the fate of the Aborigines and like any good leftie, have had no problems glibly espousing my politically correct views. But somehow I haven’t thought about the subject for so long that it hit me anew, causing a visceral response which I find myself more or less unable to describe in words. Part of it may have been the shock at realising that, far from being the paradise the Poles think it is, Australia could also be described as a land of overweight racists devoid of the milk of human kindness.  But mainly I felt the horror of the Aboriginal experience of colonisation as I had never felt it before, obscured as it was by the talk of horror, the attempts to explain, express, describe.

Browsing the reviews, I find the inevitable bile boiling up at well-fed, hand- wringing liberals, the self- righteous outrage at the idea that the sons be held responsible for the crimes of their fathers (Peter Preston for the Observer, whose grandfather’s Aboriginal blood apparently gives him the right to defend us all). There is also a more measured response from Robert Manne, though he too criticises Lindqvist for his failure to fully understand the whole issue.  What they have in common is a sort of resentment (better rationalised in one case than the other) that any outsider dare comment on our history, let alone pass moral judgment.

And yet we aren’t able to see clearly ourselves. The mention of collective responsibility raises such a furor that  further rational conversation becomes impossible. We are like a nation of children, all clamouring It wasn’t me! I can’t agree. Somehow, as inheritors of that particular earth, we have to answer for the way it came into our hands.


Filed under Australia