Category Archives: history


On Saturday, we were on Plac Grzybowski in Warsaw with the kids, chasing pigeons and having a picnic. Suddenly a group of English-speaking tourists appeared, trailing behind their guide across the bridge. I was with Janek, who stopped trying to jump off the picnic table as the parade went by and stood there like some knee-high old man in his corduroys and cardigan, mouth open, shamelessly staring.

One of the teenage boys with the group noticed him and stopped. He dug around in his bag and came up with a little bag of Canadian flag pins, and said, would you like one for him? I took it, not because I thought a pointy little choking hazard was a great present for a 16 month old, but because I suddenly remembered a time in my life when I desperately coveted a pin exactly like this.

I’m in year 2, so I must be 7 or 8. It’s most likely 1984,  and we have a great big ginger moustachioed exchange teacher from Canada called Mister Teeft. His son is called Patrick- he is  the same age as me and has the most exotic accent I have ever heard. This must be time for the initiation of adult memory, because I remember quite a lot of things from this year. It is the year that my penchant for going to the toilet in rainstorms is noticed and commented on. Our classroom is the demountable on the hill, not far from the principal’s residence, and the doors in the toilet block are painted pumpkin-orange.It is the year of my spelling triumph, when I successfully spell ‘ocean’ in our class test. Kylie Taylor, the pert, curly-haired, snubnosed policeman’s daughter,  writes ‘oshen’.

Anyway, Mr. Teeft gives out these pins as prizes throughout the year. I desperately want one, but despite my genius for spelling, I don’t manage to get my hands on one until the very end of his stay, when he clears out his maple-leaf pin supply and the whole class gets one. I keep it for years in a little box of treasures- I like collecting things, especially teeny-tiny things.

Remembering all this among the waving grasses of Plac Grzybowski, I realise my own children are embarking on their own path of  unfathomable, thwarted desire. They will urgently want things of which I will be totally unaware -I’m pretty sure Mr. Teeft had no idea how I yearned for a pin. I decide to keep it in mind at moments when their hankerings seem especially baffling.



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Filed under childhood, children's brains, family, history, language, memory, motherhood, pure autobiography

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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Filed under Australia, family, friendship, history, memory, migrant life

Comprehensively: a tale of bloodshed.

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.


Filed under around Poland, history, language, Polish language

The solace of place

Reading blue milk and hoping desperately for a lengthy nap from two grumpy infants, I came across  this  link to an article about an amazing project:  taking  the single photographs requested by people in solitary confinement. I was struck by the number of requests for pictures of downtown Chicago- for neighborhoods and junctions that the prisoner knows well. It reminded me of a scene that always moved me from Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, where an old Aboriginal man, half crazed with loss and disease and alcohol, inspires William Thornhill’s envy for the solace he draws from sitting on a particular piece of land.

The areas that the prisoners want pictures of are not especially salubrious. Beauty has nothing to do with it. They are just places that are dense with personal history: it is as if the prisoner is requesting a picture of his own past.

There’s something wonderful and terrifying about have a place like this, where your entire history sits, layer on layer, like some great midden.  I am thinking about this particularly at the moment because I have just bought a ticket to go and visit my first 14 years, which resides on the south coast of NSW. My children, that ultimate anchor in time and place, are little Europeans, and somehow I feel comforted by the idea of being in Australia with them.

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Filed under art, family, history, memory, migrant life, motherhood, Reading, travel, twins

Free time in the PRL

On the weekend, we took the kids to the Zachęta Gallery, to give them (or actually, us) a little dose of culture. The leaves are turning, the wind is blowing, and there will be no more sitting around in the park this year unless the season dramatically regresses. So off we went to the gallery- one of the things, by the way, which is cheaper when you have children.

We wound up the day at the photo exhibition on the first floor – pictures of the ways in which people used to entertain themselves in communist Poland. Maja had fallen asleep in my arms and I carried her dead weight, head flopping on her soft little flower neck, amongst the crowds of hipsters. It was by far the most popular exhibition in the gallery, and I could see what the fascination was about.

There they were, those inhabitants of the bad old days of queues and ingenuity and making do, watching the horse races, lounging on benches, crowding out of the football stadium, pushing their 3-ton prams under the towering apartment blocks of Nowa Huta, trudging along a muddy road with their satchels on their backs. The children in a factory nursery lay on their little bunks under the tree for their obligatory nap time, draped with identical checked blankets. Since all the shots had appeared in the press of the time, there was nothing overtly controversial, and there was also a good sprinkling of noble peasants and tillers of the earth.

I don’t know if it’s just a special property of black and white photos, but I found myself fighting off a sort of politically incorrect nostalgia to which I most definitely had no right. Those simple days, those simple people, spared the terrible strain of having to be capitalist success stories. How nice not to be obliged to try and get rich. And those innocent pleasures. Etc etc. I was a bit ashamed of myself. I asked Marcin afterwards what his impression had been, and he said, ‘greyness.’ A very literal response, but probably truer. I thought later that any response of his would always be more legitimate than mine, since he lived in those times.

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Filed under around Poland, art, history, observations on Polish society


We spent our May holiday in Gryżyna, in the euphemistically named ‘reclaimed territories’ near the German border. Before the war, this was a part of Germany, a resort for Berliners with a lake and a forest full of deer called Griesel. There was a mansion on the small rise occupied by the village shop, with a fountain that serves now as a bonfire pit. At the edge of the village stands an old manor house, fenced off and guarded by a territorial dog. Avenues of oaks lead to the lake and through the forest- barely misted with green when we arrived, they unfurled over the week, and by the time we left the forest had become a greenwood once again.

Now Griesel is a Polish village, that collection of open secrets and festering resentments, guarded over by a motley herd of hounds, including the headman’s killer sausage dog. The other rulers of the village are the Hardbread family, who account for the majority of its population. They own the shop and the headman belongs to their ranks.

We go to Gryżyna for the forest, the lake and our second family, who have a house there with a poison-green lawn and a stream gurgling by. They interest themselves in the fate and history of the village and have started a website, , dedicated to stories, old photographs, discoveries about the village and the land around it. The story of Gryżyna is one of destruction and transformation- the settlers, many from the east in territory made over to the Russians, moved into the houses vacated by the departing German owners and erased their traces. Murders perpetrated by the Russians against the Germans at the end of the war are disregarded disdainfully by the Poles – the idea of German suffering complicates Polish narratives about the war and their own martyrdom.

While we are there, the headman organises Clean-Up-Gryżyna day. Most of the natives (who like to throw their rubbish into the creek) decline to participate, but the summer people and the tourists (us) take our bags and go off to scour the forest for old brooms, bits of tinfoil from now-defunct bongs, countless bottles and old pieces of plastic. Somebody turns up a nineteenth century coin. Our friends, cleaning up their gully the next day, unearth a human skull, deprived of its lower half, green from a long sojourn in the creek. The rest of its owner is nowhere to be found.

There is richness and mystery in Gryżyna, for our friends, who have bothered to look, and for us, who vicariously enjoy their discoveries. There are ghosts and old bitternesses and loud silences and small resentments. And because this is Poland, there is the endless echo of the war and of the huge migrations it brought in its wake. In the pictures the prewar inhabitants (now long dead) herd their geese and look out from their untouchable place in time, wiry and unsmiling. I love the idea of history by place, the detail, the old tales that come up, distorted by the prisms of storytelling and time.  Here’s to many more journeys and unearthings!

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Filed under around Poland, history

Children are treasures

This is what the woman who took my blood for the ten thousandth time told me when I expressed a fervent hope that this would be the last, and that I had no intention of further reproduction. It made me wonder when people started to feel this way. For most of history, children haven’t been ‘treasures’ (by which I read something lovely but rather useless- nice to hold but without any real function)- they have been insurance policies for their parents, or free labour. Without them, there would be no old age pension, or no security for their mothers, or nobody to inherit from their fathers, or nobody to dig up beetroots and plough the fields, or nobody to help in  the kitchen and the raising of the rest of the brood.

Now it looks as though they really need us more than we need them. We want them, because other people have them and we wonder what it would be like to have our own,  but don’t really expect much from them in the long run. Or we follow  the you’ll-be-sorry-if-you-don’t line of reasoning-in a few years, our reproductive life will be over and we will spend the rest of our barren decades weeping in corners and wondering what could have been.

I still don’t know why I have decided on this path. I don’t expect it to make my life better or easier. I am comforted by all the excitement it generates in others because it somehow convinces me that I’m doing the right thing. I think the nearest I could come to explaining my motives, if at all, is that I just wanted to see what would happen.

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Filed under history, pregnancy