Monthly Archives: June 2013

Hitting my stride

A month or two ago, I started running.  Though it’s hard to call it that- the word carries the feeling of speed and wind in the hair, a tinge of exhilaration. My style  is something more like a cross between a limp and a shuffle. I feel gravity weighing on me, and all my joints protest against it. I have to buy a gigantic bra with a scaffold inside so that my lactating chest doesn’t fling me off balance.

I persist for the sheer pleasure of leaving the house in the evening and the sweaty little sensation of virtue that blooms in me when it’s done.  I love the park where I run, down a damp green avenue of European trees (everyone else in my family would be able to name their species) that sway and sigh in the wind. I love the fat and solitary goose that sits on his wooden pontoon in the middle of the pond, and the ordered little family of ducks that swim across it, one after the other. There is a couple of young lovers whose idea of a hot date is to head off with their fishing rods to try their luck here too. The playground is always full of kids, though mine are long in bed.

Marcin runs too, on the nights when I don’t. It was his idea first, and he is far ahead of me in the distance he runs and the pleasure he takes in it. He has a heart monitor and a watch which tells him how many calories he’s burned, and he always reports back on how  real runners mistake him for one of their own and give him a laconic, gadget-based greeting.

I try to distract myself from the actual physical act I am performing with  admiration of my surroundings. I have picked running because I have to do something, and it’s cheap and uncomplicated. My body, however, doesn’t necessarily agree that this is a good idea. I seem to be lacking some centrifugal force that the beautiful runners (the ones who look like they’re moving on springs) possess-  none of my body parts  agree on the direction they are heading.

Even at my very fittest, I have never been a runner, so I don’t expect much besides a little aerobic buzz. Then one day, a miracle takes place. Instead of checking my watch every 2 seconds to see if I’m allowed to stop yet, I find my 4 minutes is up before I know it. My organism synchronises with itself, and I am hypnotised by the sound and rhythm of my feet hitting the ground. At last I understand why people do it.  It’s a long way from a marathon, but I taste victory anyway- maybe I am a sporty person, after all.

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‘English Beauty’

I’m sitting in the park with Maja on my knee,  ostensibly reading on my Kindle, but really just staring into space and marvelling at the texture of her skin, as yet unexposed to that great big cancer ball of the sun. Janek is sleeping and I am also watching him pout while fondling my daughter and not reading, when two women approach me. “For sure you speak English,” one of them says. Yes, I reply, I do, but how did they know? I ask. “You  have a sort of English beauty,” she replies.

Suspicious of such compliments from Polish strangers, I mentally scan myself, and come to the conclusion that what she means is “you’re wearing a stupid hat.” In an attempt to assimilate, I decide that I will buy myself another hat, and promptly purchase one which seems to me to be more representative of Polish beauty.

My Polish hat makes its maiden outing to a picnic in the park with my mother’s group, one of whom spies me from afar and calls out, “Rose! You look like a real English lady!”

"English beauty"

“English beauty”

Trying to infiltrate the Polish hatwearing community

Trying to infiltrate the Polish hatwearing community

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Why having children will make you a feminist

It’s counter-intuitive, I know. Having produced not one, but two babies, surely, in my smug fecundity, I should just slip straight into an apron and sidle off to the kitchen. But there are two very basic reasons why nobody can avoid insidious feminist thoughts when they find themselves in the role of mother: one, it’s hard, and two, it’s not fair.

One of the issues is that the major  burden of baby farming falls on me.  I spend all day, every day with them, and a goodly portion of the night (the nastiest, darkest portion), is also mine. It is me who makes provision for explosive diarrhea and freak storms when we leave the house, who cleans the said house, who has 7 books on her Kindle about baby sleep.  I am constantly preparing for every eventuality, multi-tasking like a motherfucker, concerning myself with their amusement and development, starting my Mystic Meg act 2 weeks before a trip to London to try and imagine everything that might go wrong without me and avert it.

You might think that this exercise in advanced planning would make me into upper management material, but no. In fact, my daily logistical triumphs actually make me less employable, if you can believe it. My ability to predict, plan, and force myself day in and day out to do things I don’t feel very enthusiastic about so the whole enterprise can run smoothly, apparently give me absolutely no advantage in the workplace, where my potential need to minister to plague-ridden infants renders me less reliable.

Even if somebody were to miraculously recognise these skills as valid, more than likely I will lose confidence on my own if I stay at home for too long. Even I, knowing what  sort of razor mind baby farming requires, have somehow taken on the general assumption that this work is not work. Maybe because of its subjects, maybe because of its location, maybe because it doesn’t pay.

I find myself frequently resenting the invisibility of this labour. I want to be rewarded in some way- flooded with expressions of admiration and gratitude. Instead, I notice that mothers, far from being the sacred cows they should be, are more like scapegoats. They (we) are constantly judged and held responsible for the caprices of our offspring. Everybody loves to tell us, overtly or otherwise, what we should be doing differently, from the old lady who shouts on the street corner, ‘that baby has no socks!’ to the person who tells me that girl babies should not be put in a sitting position because it will do unspeakable things to their uterus. I know about mother-judging because I feel the same impulse myself, which makes me sure that this is a social phenomenon.

I have no solutions to these problems, but for anyone who finds this rant of interest, may I direct you to the wonderful blog   blue milk  , where you can regularly find intelligent discussion of all manner of discouraging information about being a mother.

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Weather

On Sunday we went up to Żoliborz to have breakfast with our friends. After much looking in all the wrong places, we discovered that the concentration of hipsters there had given rise to the habit of going out for scrambled eggs on the weekend, an Australian habit that we haven’t been able to indulge much here. We ate our saveloys in a welter of banging knives and howling infants (not all of them ours), and then headed off for a walk along the Wisła.

The river was hammering along, big and brown  and foam flecked from recent rains, sending off its intoxicating river smell which was only one part raw sewage. The blue bruise of a summer storm lay on the horizon so we went into a river bar to lounge, just in case it came our way.

We were halfway through our beer when it started to hail. The hailstones fell into the river like leaping fish, and a howling wind sprung up. It started pouring and the hailstones came shooting in under the table so we retired to the kitchen where we watched the barmen trying to hold the wall planks together in the gale.

It rained for an hour and a half, a tropical, drenching, roaring rain,  during which time we held our no-longer-featherweight babies in our arms and listened to one remorse-stricken babcia repeating over and over again that she had checked the weather forecast and nothing like this had been predicted, or she never would have left the house. Someone else asked in a panic, “Are we under water?” Marcin, who has an endless succession of paranoid fantasies about sharp objects piercing his childrens’ fontanelles, was holding a hand protectively over Janek’s head.  I thanked my paranoia and providence (another gift from my parents)  that we had milk for the whole day and didn’t have to worry about them starving.

Maja fell asleep as I held her, a warm weight with one floppy arm trailing. When it eventually slowed down, we took off our shoes and ventured out. Half the city was under water. Impatient motorists had driven up onto the footpath and were tearing along as fast as they could to get back on the road (in a more advantageous position) before somebody caught them. Paddling back to our friend’s place with two worn-out babies unconscious in the pram, we passed a drowned sewer rat and a few tentative houseowners checking out the damage in their cellars.

We spent the afternoon at Marek and Kaśka’s place, cut off from home by a citywide gridlock. The metro had flooded too so there was only ground transport, and we ended up eventually on the slowest bus in the world which gave me severe carsickness  and got us home after bedtime. On Tuesday Maja and Janek were still recovering with the longest naps in world history and  the appetites of a pair of Sumo wrestlers. I vowed never to leave the house again without warm clothes and an inflatable raft.

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Filed under around Poland, weather

When mummy and daddy came to Poland

In the last months of my pregnancy (which I now look back on as a golden age of lounging), both my mother and father decided they would rather worry about me from close quarters. They came to Poland when I was around 30 weeks pregnant, and by the time they left, Maja and Janek were 10 weeks old. Looking back, I realise that their presence was what made the first few months bearable for me.

I had not expected them to come. Being of advanced maternal age, I have long been used to managing without my mummy and daddy. In addition, I was so overwhelmed by my own drama that I didn’t necessarily feel capable of playing host. So our first long period together for many years began on the understanding that I would do nothing for them and they would do everything for me.

And indeed this is how it looked. Before I left the hospital they were feeding and cuddling our babies like a pair of old midwives, coming at 7 for the morning shift with baked goods to supplement the miserly hospital diet. They managed their own lives and all the logistics associated with trying to get basic needs met in a foreign country with an incomprehensible language, learning the bus system, picking up basic Polish (no mean feat in 5 months) and braving the supermarket daily. My father made a trip to Belarus to renew his visa which almost gave him a stroke. My mother hurt her leg and couldn’t walk for months, and ended up being intensively rehabilitated twice a week by a young and happily English- speaking physiotherapist, who she befriended (as only she could) as she was getting her buttocks kneaded .

Despite their own tribulations, after we got home, every day they came, no matter how hobbling and apoplectic , across Warsaw, cooked my dinner, cleaned my house, did my shopping and took care of my babies. But their greatest gift (aside from a regular afternoon nap) was their company. It made me feel human and gave me the pleasures of social interaction without having to leave the house or get out of my pyjamas. My father was an endless source of silly and less silly poems (including John Crow Ransome’s “Piazza Piece”    which he liked  to recite to Maja (I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying/ to make you hear. Your ears are soft and small/ And listen to an old man not at all), and this John Ciardi gem   which made me laugh like a drain. I told Maja and Janek that I was Nanny Meg and Grandpa Joe’s little baby once, and the thought of it made my head spin.

I know that it cost them, not only financially, but psychologically. They were in a strange place without much help from anyone, back at the hard work of baby farming, and having to live together for the first time in years. For me, though,  it was a great blessing, and quite apart from all the assistance, I loved having a chance to spend time with them. We gossiped about everyone we had ever known, and talked about the olden days when they were the same age as I am now- about their friendships, their life choices, their own baby-raising days, their own parents. I am amazed and grateful that this was possible at exactly the time when I was living on the other side of the world.

I also realised that many of the things I want to give my own children are things which come from them. My mother’s inimitable gift for friendship, my father’s endless curiosity, their love of books and fascination with the natural world and mature-age camping skills. Watching them with our babies made me smile, and I felt somehow less exiled.

When they left, I felt powerless to thank them, as is often the case when somebody does everything for you and you do nothing for them, and pined for a good long while before I recovered.

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For want of a ławka

Summer is here, that season of leaf and wind and sudden storm, and with it comes the burning urge to be outside as much as possible. I have had a chance to fulfil my fantasy of lounging on the grass with a blanket with two semi-clad babies (ignoring  Marcin’s mother, who has already told me it is ‘generally accepted’ in Poland that one does not sit on the ground until after St. John’s Day on June 24), but in another respect, this alfresco life is proving to be a failure.

I am engaged in a passionate and fruitless search for a bench in my hood. I want to sit and read a little bit and watch the passers by, when I have the miraculous luck to have two sleeping babies in my pram. Going home wakes them up- the thud of the doors closing, the jolting journey up the stairs to the lift, the sudden cessation of motion. I am looking for something under a tree, maybe with a little bit of green space around. It should be reasonably inviting but I am not asking for a rose garden and a pergola.

So far the closest I have come to any public sitting place in the near vicinity is a sad facsimile of a  bench, trussed up to the bin where you throw your secondhand clothes with a chain. It’s there or the bus stop.  I did sit there once, out of sheer desperation, and admired the view of cars parked 25 cm in front of my nose and practiced my posture. The only other people who I have seen using this fine piece of street furniture were a pair of wavering drunks, who had also apparently concluded (like me) that it was better than nothing. In fact, if you want to drink on this bench, you had better bring a brother drunk for support, since it has no backrest or armrest.

The absence of benches around our block of flats is so pronounced that I am quite sure it’s not a city planning oversight, but a symptom of a deeper problem, a complicated attitude to delineations of public and private space, a systemic attempt to discourage people from loitering in zones not designated for the purpose. There is always the park, after all, where benches abound and the fountains gurgle. But heaven forbid anybody should sit around in a residential area, talking to their neighbours and watching the world go by.

These suspicions are confirmed when we infiltrate the allotment gardens behind our block one day, taking the pram as a tool of disarmament, and go to the office to ask about the possibility of getting a key so that we can walk there with our babies. The woman in the office tells us with a curious mixture of defensiveness and pride that there is no such option. Perhaps you’ve noticed that there are no benches, she says. Well, that’s because we don’t want people coming in here and sitting around.  The allotments are not even privately owned- they are, in theory, a public space divided up into blocks which are leased. Nobody owns them- they just have a right to their use. This does not make the non-owners any more generous- in fact, it makes them even more possessive as they lock the gates up tight behind them and stare suspiciously out at newcomers from behind their watering cans.

So this is suburban Warsaw- there are no benches, because people might sit on them. In the same vein, there are no public toilets (people might shit in them). It’s amazing how these simple absences create a feeling of being somehow hunted, constantly moved on, until eventually you have no choice but to slink back into the isolation of your little flat  where you can finally have a pee and a sit down. It’s enough to turn a body to urban planning.

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