Riding along on my bike, being overtaken by all the fairweather cyclists who have come out of hiding since the weather warmed up and reflecting on my lack of running success, I realised I have sucked at every sport I have ever tried. Here’s an exhaustive list.
In my day I have sucked at: skiing ( I regularly cry when faced with a too-steep slope), climbing (never progressed to being able to lead any route) , running (my 10 km speed record run at a speed which I overheard my workmates once describing as well but nobody runs that slowly), surfing (I might have stood up once but not for very long), hockey (it was long ago and in another country, but I sucked quite comprehensively), and riding a bike (as evidenced by the fact that all the hipsters on single speeds are flying past me with the wind in their beards).
Anyway, apparently it’s edifying. One of my students said that the best things she got out of years of playing school volleyball was ‘learning how to lose,’ which actually might not be such a useless skill.
In the bakery near the preschool where we go to buy buns sometimes, there is a customer service relic from PRL days- bouffant, name badge, perpetual scowl. Marcin goes in to get some breakfast on our way to drop the kids off in the morning, and I wait outside. When he comes out I as, How’s Pani Teresa’s mood today?
Stable, he answers. And gives a violent, outraged snort to show what this means. I laugh all the way to preschool.
We live on the edge of Morskie Oko Park, and rare is the day when we don’t spend at least half an hour there. We walk through it to and from pre-school- we air the kids there, even now. In summer we lived there, spending the day in the playground and only coming home to sleep
This is our first autumn in this flat, and although it’s the insalubrious month of November, I love the park at this time. After the golden blaze of October, the palette is primarily brown. There is a stillness there, a leaf- muffled silence. A milky-pale sky gleams through the bare trees. Despite the melancholy weather, it’s always full of ecstatic dogs who don’t share their owners objections to the season. It smells like dirt and water, and the ducks, exiled by the winter draining of their pond lower down, come up onto the escarpment to graze like a herd of little goats on whatever they can find.
Now that the sun sets at 4 pm, it gets dark when I’m bringing the kids home from preschool on Fridays. They disappear on their bikes amongst the trees in the dusk, and usually as we climb the hill towards Pałac Szustry, the lamps come on. The kids feel the same way as the dogs about the park- for them it’s a source of endless wonders. They stuff their pockets with chestnuts, chase pigeons, spend all their duck bread on a hideous rat the size of a chihuahua which lives in the reeds near the claypit and which they call ‘mousie’.
Living next to the park, I feel more like an aristocrat than a poor man, even though we live in 60 square metres next to the busiest road in Warsaw.
We came back from Berlin on the Monday after New Year, and stopped off in Pruszków to give back the car, boast about our adventures and let Babcia and Dziadek fondle their youngest grandchildren. In the morning it was -10, with bright sun, and that powdery crunch to the snow. We decided to go to Warsaw with Grandma, Marcin’s brother and his wife and the cousins, and chase squirrels for 5 minutes before everybody got cold and wanted to go home.
On the way we fell into a pothole, tore off the mirror on a roadside pole and got a flat tyre. Our expedition ended at the petrol station, where it transpired that the jack didn’t work. We took a stroll around the car park and then all climbed into the van and ate pretzels while we waited to be rescued. The children whined. Boy cousin insisted in taking off his nappy and peeing in the potty, even though it meant removing and replacing 16 layers of clothes. It got colder and we turned on the engine so the heating would work.
After about an hour, we were saved. But I didn’t really mind any of it at all. After 4 years I have an unburdensome intimacy with Marcin’s family which makes them almost like my own. I like our Sunday meetings, the lack of demands made on me, the fact that there is no necessity to perform. Being stranded at a petrol station with them in the middle of winter was almost fun.
In the weekend magazine recently, there was an article about women in the workplace in Poland- about their pay, their treatment, and their chances of getting to a higher position. I read it with that sort of sick excitement you get at having your worst fears confirmed, thinking somewhere, subconsciously, that things look much better in Australia. And definitely in Australia people might think twice before asking a female architect to make them coffee because she’s a woman, or telling a recruiter that they want a man for the job because they don’t breed, or telling a female in the police force that she should be happy to have gotten this far as a woman, and why does she want a promotion; it will only make her family suffer. In Australia I might not prefer to pretend that I am sick rather than confessing to a childcare crisis (which I have definitely contemplated in Poland.)
Well, guess what, ladies and gentlemen? If you are only interested in the pay gap, it’s much smaller in Poland (9-10 %) than in Australia (15-17%). Looking to confirm my prejudices, however, led me here ; the report uses more data than the pay gap, (it analyses four categories- economic activity, health, educational attainment and political empowerment), and now Australia ranks 24, and Poland 54.
Anyway, one of the things which struck me in the article was that women said they had trouble negotiating; that they were too apologetic, not assertive enough. I realised that it was true, in my case anyway- I am too busy trying to be nice, and my first instinct is to say yes. I vowed to value myself higher, and didn’t have to wait long for a chance; I was offered some work in a preschool, and the first move was to try and beat my price down. As my own children screamed in the background (making it easier to do something which I knew would lose me the job), I named a price only nominally lower than the current one, and said that there was no way I could work for less. I would only call it a partial win; taken by surprise, my initial instinct was still to please. And I am in a very privileged position- I can only imagine what it’s like for people who can’t afford to say no to work.
Christmas shopping for our godchildren with two one-year olds in tow. Unusually, we haven’t been given specific directions on what to buy them so it takes longer than usual. We have already been to the doctor so Maja and Janek have been imprisoned in the pram for hours; when we get to the mummy cafe with attached shop, I let them out to roam free. Maja chases the local dog and starts to pull its tail. Janek falls down the stairs on his head. At this moment my friend who lives around the corner calls and asks me to bring her over some cigarettes and because I am convinced I have recently hurt her feelings by mercilessly mocking her purchase of a down miniskirt, I do it.
Me and Marcin put the babies to bed and leave them with our friend while we go out for a Christmas drink with his old housemates. This is such a rare event for us that we stroll a bit on the way, even though I am wearing stupid shoes and freezing because vanity has won out over practicality in the wardrobe stakes. We saunter along, my hand in his pocket, talking about nothing much, eyeing the fake neon waterfall on Plac na Rozdrożu. I like him, I decide, as I look at him for the first time in a long time without two big bald heads interfering with my view. When we get home around 11, my friend is pacing in my dressing gown- Maja is in her arms, a pair of gleaming snot trails visible under her nose; Janek is running backwards and forwards in the hallway on his hands and knees and whooping like a baboon.
I get an sms from our friend Marek; ‘Kasia, Szymon and the goat will be at your house at 7.’ We have been either entertaining or out every night during the week, and under normal circumstances might be able to refuse this tempting offer, but not at this time of year. Kasia, Szymon and the goat arrive as promised, so when I get home from work at 8, there is already a goaty fragrance floating down the stairs.
We go to Pruszków for the weekend. Janek screams all the way, pissed off at being in his car seat, and since the screaming is going so well for him, he keeps it up for the rest of the night. The next day Marcin goes shopping for Christmas supplies and I stay home with them. I realise where the phrase ‘watching the kids’ to mean looking after them comes from as I lie down on the floor and stare at them with my mouth open.
My attitude to snow is evolving. The first year I lived in Poland, I couldn’t wait. I took a photo of our frozen socks on the balcony the day the first flakes fell, and texted my father with excitement. Last year, as I lay around the house waiting for my foetuses to mature, I wanted the snow for the extra light it sheds, and for the magic it works on the naked grey days of early winter.
This year I am back on my bike again and have practical reasons for hoping it holds off as long as possible. I ride to work, the entire length of Warsaw, across the bridge to Praga Południe, down to Ursynów, and back again. I highly doubt I’m tough enough to do it on frozen slush, leaving me the steamy, wet-dog option of hours in the bus. Now I am joining a select club of Polish friends who have had plenty of time to become jaded with the whole winter wonderland blah blah blah- what is the point of snow, unless you want something to trudge through during your three hours of watery grey daylight?
My Polish is much better than it was two years ago; so much so that I have gotten lazy about looking in the dictionary. If I can’t say what I want elegantly, at least I can come up with a competent paraphrase, which in my current state of intellectual torpor, is good enough for me. But lately, as I read my book about Victorian women travellers, so agog that the language became transparent and I forgot that it wasn’t my own, I was gifted with a word which I have wanted and needed for a while- doszczętnie.
Comprehensively. I use it all the time in English, and have often felt its lack as I try to exaggerate my way into being interesting in Polish. With great satisfaction, I slot it into my matrix. It’s so necessary to me that I don’t forget it, even though I’ve only seen it once.
I share my great revelation with Marcin, who rises to the occasion and, after fiddling about for a second on his phone, gives me the etymology of this word. Sczęt is an old Slavic word for children, which finds its echo in the modern word szczęniak (puppy). These olden-days Slavs, he tells me, used to kill their enemies along with their children. Doszczętnie means something like ‘down to the last child,’ most often used to talk about degrees of destruction.
Not since his research into the mating habits of bedbugs has he acquired such a bloodthirsty piece of trivia. We both feel a strange satisfaction with this etymological revelation.
This is what people say in Poland when they want to express how beloved children are, as if they are some precious collective wealth that we all share. During the many hours I spend in Warsaw public transport, it often occurs to me that people actually do feel some sense of ownership of children in the public sphere. They feel entitled to grope their toes and claim they are cold, or note the shielding blanket hanging over the pram (specifically put there to keep leering old ladies away from a baby who might actually be going to fall asleep if left in peace) and stage whisper, “That child is going to suffocate!” (this happened to Marcin, not me). When they cry, there is a wave of speculation as to the reasons.
Janek’s eczema attracts a magnified amount of this attention. Everybody has their theory on why it is there at all, and their more or less outlandish advice on how to eliminate it. We should smear him with this or that wonder cream, wash his clothes in this or that magic detergent, put him on a diet of pumpkin and rice. We should bathe him in starch, in linseeds, in this particular emollient. We should keep him in a sack of potato flour. And so forth.
Sometimes I enjoy the attention. I find my children beautiful and feel a silly sense of pride when people confirm it’s so (though of course nobody is ever going to approach me and say, what a hideous pair ). Sometimes I feel hounded and accused- do they think that we haven’t tried every scabbiness-eliminating trick that anyone has suggested? (we have, except the potato flour). Sometimes I just want to read my book and not answer the same questions two thousand times.
One thing is for sure- my days of unobtrusiveness are over, as long as I am parading with them. Because although I have twins every day and the novelty has somewhat worn off (though I still do have moments where I look at them and think, WHAT THE FUCK ), they attract double the garrulous attention that a single baby gets, and that is already quite a lot. I am learning to resign myself to all this public possessiveness, because unless I get myself a car, this is going to be my lot.