Category Archives: Australia

Australian vignettes- birds

1.

The kids’ hilarious identifications of Australian birds- besides the ‘funny stork’ (a ibis), there’s also a ‘funny crow’ ( a currawong), a ‘big seagull’ (a pelican) and lots of ‘pawwots’ (this covers the whole range from a honeyeater to a cockatoo.)

2.

After a few days, I feel poorly and take to my bed. In practice, this means  lying on the couch under the shed overhang in Franki’s garden, shrouded in a sheet to keep the flies off, fevering the afternoon away with dreams about a boy I knew in primary school who was later killed in a car accident. My companions throughout the afternoon are a flock of rowdy parrots, oblivious to my corpse-like presence, feasting on the grevillea tree and bickering with each other.

3.

Driving up Mount Tambourine after a swim, stuck in a line of impatient drivers, we look up and see a wedgetail eagle cruising down to land on a tree by the road.  I have never seen one up really close and  when I see its hooked, predatory beak and  hairy legs, I ask Franki in all serious if she’s sure it’s not a vulture.

 

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Australia vignettes- friends

1.

In Newcastle, we stay with our friends Chris and Laura. Of all the people we know, these are the ones who shared  the biggest part of our cycling trip 5 years ago- we saw Angkor Wat  and the Great Wall of China with them, lounged on a Thai island and unexpectedly ran across each other in the foamy streets of Vientiane when we thought we had already seen each other for the last time. Now we are all thoroughly domesticated, having produced 4 children between us in the space of 3 years. Of course, we talk baby farming, but not only. For 2 days we can have those lovely meandering conversations which happen around the obligations of the day. Sometimes we don’t say anything.

Maja and Janek fall in love with their son Hugo, and insist on going everywhere holding his hands, flanking him. They refer to him as HIM. Mummy, I want to hold hands with HIM. Hugo is not averse, as they race about the museum and leap into the fountain in one long glorious chain of 3 year old exuberance.

2.

In Sydney, we are caught up in a social whirl. Our friend Kat organises a barbeque for us and I talk late into the night  with old friends. I am so involved in this day-long conversation that when a mad, cyclonic storm blows up in the afternoon I don’t even notice it.

3.

Some of what goes on this trip is mere maintenance, hoping to keep friendships going for another couple of years until we come again. I’ve spent too much time being sick to fulfil the whole ambitious plan of visits. So instead, sometimes  there’s only a  phone call,  or a short, harried picnic, just to say, we love you, wait for us until next time.

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Australian vignettes 3- road tripping

1.

Heading south from Stanthorpe, still feeling shaky. We stop at Guyra, in the throes of the lamb and potato festival, and are buying some sausages when a deluge begins. It rains so hard that the air becomes a wall of water. We decide there and then that camping is not a wise idea, and drive through more storms down to Ebor on the waterfall way and get a room in the motel. We compensate by going up to the national park to cook our dinner instead.

The waterfalls are racing, great volumes of water sliding off old lava. Everything is saturated, literally and figuratively; the grass is a poisonous green, tree trunks shine lurid orange, and the water disappears into a bright, impenetrable wall of vegetation. A magpie comes begging for food and the kids give it their leftover spaghetti. I have the best sleep of the trip so far.

2.

The rain clears, finally, in the afternoon. In the evening we turn onto the Lakes WAy and start heading down to Booti-Booti, planning to camp. We drive through the blocky, estuarine sprawl of Tuncurry and Forster, which appear to be inhabited solely by bronzed schoolies and condo-owning pensioners. When we get to the campground at Booti-Booti, it turns out to be hosting a convention of teenage bogans, and we keep going.

3.

After a night in the tent, we pull off the highway for breakfast in Buladelah. We cook in a rest area right on the river, noting the flood debris in the the trees at a level far above our heads. The sun glints off the water, and a flock of geese arrives. They clamber up the bank and start grazing as if they own the place.

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Australian vignettes 2-Stanthorpe

1.

We drive up to Queen Mary Falls for a walk. I feel unwell and have to stop and rest every five minutes on the way down, stop and vomit on the way up. Marcin has already taken a course of antibiotics after coughing up unspeakable things on arrival. By evening I am in the hospital in Stanthorpe with a chest infection. They call me sweetie and poke a great big stick up my nose to get a swab and ask me if I’ve been hanging around with any Ebola victims. I spend the night there, and they send me home the next day, still shaky but no longer delirious.

2.

The kids are on farm time. They wake up at 5:30, Janek demanding a vegemite sandwich. They feed the old peckers (alpacas), collect the eggs, eat perfect corn from the garden. Why there’s not much peoples in Australia? asks Janek. Why the toilets are outside? In the evenings they fall asleep watching Bambi, dogs at their feet.

3.

We go down to the Giraween National Park for a swim and a walk, stopping at the Ballandean Shop for a (now traditional) meat pie and a ginger beer. We have walked about 500 metres when Franki falls into a crevice in the rock, tears the skin off her big toe and bangs up her leg. She almost faints onto the granite but refuses to go to the hospital, having only just extracted me. We spend the afternoon sitting in a sandy wallow while the kids play in the water and the snapping turtles cruise the tannin-brown depths of the waterhole.

 

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Australian vignettes: First Days

1.

We arrive in  Brisbane in the evening. It’s hot and humid. When we finally get through customs, Franki is waiting and when she offers to carry someone Janek jumps onto her back without hesitation.

She takes us to a hotel near the port. It is already dark, and after we have eaten  we go to the playground, where there are woodchips on the ground instead of sand, and a shadecloth instead of trees.

On the way home we see a huge possum swaggering through the enveloping branches of a fig tree.

2.

Marcin takes Janek out early one morning for a meat pie and chocolate milk. On the way they encounter an ibis. Look!  calls Janek, delighted. It’s a funny stork!

3.

We drive a winding road to Binna Burra, and mountain resort where we have booked a night. From the picture window we can see all the way down to the Gold Coast, jumbled on the horizon. We eat lambchops for dinner and the kids sleep from 2 in the afternoon until 7 the next morning (with a brief wakeup to eat at 11). In the morning we go into the rainforest, where my nascent twitcher’s eye is befuddled by all the greenery, and my nascent twitcher’s ear is distracted by chants of Carry me, carry me, carry me. We do see a bush turkey and a potaroo, and 2 hikers who have been so mauled by leeches that they look like they have escaped from Wolf Creek.

 

 

 

 

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Coming home

We are back in Poland after a month in Australia. There is something soothing about the rain and the grey air, and the spareness of wintertime. I will post a bit about Australia over the next few weeks.

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What the eye doesn’t see

Looking back at our photos from Australia, all I see is the kids. There’s only two of them, and they’re only small, but they cover a whole country, a whole continent. There they are: loving dogs, hating sand, patting a wallaby, being indulged by various friends and relatives. The whole landscape in which they do these things is absent, or faded to distant backdrop.

I don’t know when this part of parenting ends, this tight focus that makes the rest of the universe disappear. Quite frankly it doesn’t seem like it will be any time soon. For a taste of what the south coast of NSW actually looks like, may I direct you  here.    If you want to see a small taste of what we saw, read on.

P1160870 P1160897 P1160952 P1160967 P1160968

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Having two homes

When we went to Australia last month, I hadn’t been home for almost 5 years. During which I had cycled from Tokyo to Warsaw, settled in Poland, learnt Polish, and had two children.

I couldn’t predict what would happen to me when I got out of the plane. On the surface, most of my apprehension centred on logistics- how to transport 4 people, two of them only one year old, from one side of the world to the other, with a minimum of squealing and disruption.

What I was really worried about was what sort of crisis the trip might force. I live fairly happily and unreflectively in Warsaw, and thought that maybe this was only possible because of the lapse in space-time that separated me from my real life and home. I hear myself brushing off people’s questions about why I have made this choice and what life is like with a sort of obtuseness- that I don’t really think about it, that I am as happy as I would be anywhere, stubbornly refusing to admit any real dissatisfaction or make any unfavourable comparisons, though I think this is often what they want or expect. I felt on some visceral level that my life in Warsaw wouldn’t stand up to any real scrutiny- that my friendships would seem superficial, my work senseless, my  attachment to place tenuous, if I started to compare.

And I loved  being in Australia. I loved speaking English all the time, getting all the jokes, talking silly slang and never thinking about my declensions. I loved feeling totally at ease and inconspicuous, I loved the sea, I loved being in a place where I had a long history and seeing my family and all my lovely friends.

But I also felt fine coming back to Poland again. Partly it was just because I was ready to be back in my own space again, after a month 0f screamy nights in other people’s houses. But mainly, I just felt alright. There were people and places I wanted to see. The freeze was over and the days were longer and the language was still familiar. I felt as if I had passed an important test.

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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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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.

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