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.
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?
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.
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.
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!”
Trying to infiltrate the Polish hatwearing community
Last weekend we went to Pruszków to see Marcin’s brother’s two young kids being christened.We were supposed to be godparents to Borys and Basia but Marcin was banned from the job after accidentally letting slip that he had acquired his wife unconventionally at the registry office, and I was demoted to the rank of ‘witness’ for my dirty rotten Protestanthood. But there we were anyway, me being initiated into the secret world of Catholic ritual along with them.
I knew two Catholic girls in primary school, and remember that after passing through some mysterious rites, they returned to school with a new middle name which they had chosen themselves. On Sundays they attended the wooden church with the peaked roof instead of the stone church on the hill. One of them got her first bra in year 6 and showed it to me in the treehouse. And that, apart from the odd juicy morsel about pedophile priests and Polish popes, is what I knew about Catholicism before last weekend.
Our preparation began on Saturday night with a trip to the church office. A young priest in a spotless soutane came in with his agenda in his hand to tell us how the rites were going to proceed, but could not refrain from sermonising for a while first, explaining to us the benefits of getting christened at the beginning of life rather than the end. He had long eyelashes which he fluttered in something that looked like self-deprecation, but definitely wasn’t. We all sat there in a huddle of godless unions and bastard babies, me feeling like the biggest Protestant imposter of all as I discovered it would be my duty to draw Kuba and Aneta’s attention to any possible ‘religious neglect’ in Basia’s upbringing. On the wall there was a list of rules for the older kids being prepared for their first communion. Number 8 was “sing joyously.” Underneath, some little Catholic graffiti artist had written in blue biro, “I love God.”
After all my paranoia, the rites went off without much of a hitch. Nobody looked at me and said, “get thee hence!” We exorcised the demons and promised to bring up Borys and Basia as good Catholics. Borys objected loudly to the actual damp and chilly business of christening, and started screaming when the priest put the water on his head: “Cold! Wet! Let’s go let’s go let’s go!”. We then proceeded to the reception where godless and godly babies alike contrived to wail in shifts throughout a long and tasty luncheon.
So I’ve got a godchild. As far as I can see, my real duties appear to be limited to buying her an i-pad for her first communion several years hence, and the rest is just lip service.
Maja and Jaś, sleeping off their excitement.
Eating lunch with Jaś (ended in a soup bath)
Eating lunch with Maja
Grandma sending a pair of grumpy twins to sleep in the function room.
My new goddaughter Basia, sleeping off her dousing.
Every day, a furious and silent battle plays itself out on Warsaw’s public transport. It’s a struggle over who gets a seat and I, thanks to my Condition, have joined the fray.
Currently my participation has been limited by the fact that although my central circumference is now larger that that of my chest (no joke in itself), my pregnancy somehow remains mysteriously invisible, or at least ignorable, to the opposition. Let fatso stand, they think to themselves, as I place my bulging midriff in their line of sight. It will do her good. (I know because I’ve thought it myself in my less charitable moments).
My opponents, though superficially comprised of the halt and the lame, should not be underestimated. What they lack in brute force, they make up for in cunning. Old women arm themselves with stunt walking sticks which they use to beat their rivals out of the way as they race (miraculously unimpaired for a moment) towards the disabled seat on the tram. Young mothers with floppy (fake?) babies breathe heavy sighs of exhaustion and the air is around them is suddenly charged with guilt. Complex calculations of age and frailty are conducted in the space of a covert glance, while badly brought up young people studiously admire the Warsaw streetscape and avoid eye contact.
The interesting thing in all this is the sense of entitlement which we are all carrying. I too am infected. There’s not really any excuse- in fact I need to sit down far less than I did a few months ago, when I had to concentrate hard at all times in order not to vomit into somebody’s handbag. A feeling of being exceptional comes with exceptional physical states, and a need for some sort of public recognition.