Category Archives: observations on Polish society

Women at work in Poland



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.


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Filed under around Poland, feminism, gender, observations on Polish society, Reading

Weather (again)

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?

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“All children are ours”

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.

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Filed under around Poland, childhood, migrant life, observations on Polish society, 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

‘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


Filed under around Poland, migrant life, observations on Polish society


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.

Maja and Jaś, sleeping off their excitement.

Eating lunch with Jaś (ended in a soup bath)

Eating lunch with Jaś (ended in a soup bath)

Eating lunch with Maja

Eating lunch with Maja

Grandma sending a pair of grumpy twins to sleep in the function room.

Grandma sending a pair of grumpy twins to sleep in the function room.

My new goddaughter Basia, sleeping off her dousing.

My new goddaughter Basia, sleeping off her dousing.


Filed under around Poland, observations on Polish society

The cripple Olympics

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.

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Filed under around Poland, observations on Polish society, pregnancy

The cheerless world of Polish cinema

A couple of months ago it miraculously turned out that I could understand Polish films, and I have been availing myself  of this peculiarly grim artistic  resource ever since. I’m not talking about frivolous, cheerful comedies (like the  incredibly stupid Wyjazd Integracyjny, or older lightweight films like Miś, Seks Misja, Rozmowa Kontrolowane).

I’m talking about Wesele, Dom Zły, Tatarak, Wymyk- films full of  venality and death and loss, without the slightest hint of redemption, a word I learned from Marcin as I made my way home from ‘Wymyk’ in tears.  These films make Agnieszka Holland’s latest film “In Darkness”, (about Jews hiding in the sewers of Lwów during WW 2) look like a jolly romp. They make you beg for the happy ending which must surely be your due for enduring 90 minutes on the dark side, but don’t deliver it.

I love these ruthless films, which play to my hidden conviction that life is a vale of tears.  I love the absence of plastic beauty in actors like Marcin Więckiewicz and Kinga Preis- him with his battered gangster’s face, her with her peasant’s hips and sudden white smile.  And I’m only at the beginning of my investigations into this treasure trove- happy days ahead.

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Christmas in Pruszków

I am not inclined to pine for home during the festive season, being old enough to be convinced that it’s the same gluttonous and vaguely disappointing occasion wherever you celebrate it. Besides, the Polish Christmas has its own charms, though this year they don’t include snow.

One of them (since this is my first ) is anthropological and linguistic charm. There is a whole vocabulary connected to Christmas which is unfamiliar to me and I learn the words for midnight mass, creche,  and the unconsecrated wafer which you break with your brethren (or brethren- in- law) before the Christmas Eve dinner,   and one line of an archaic and very boring carol which is still circulating in my head a week later. There was also the novelty of hearing people complain that they’re still hungry after the Christmas Eve dinner, which doesn’t include any real meat because it’s a ‘fast meal’ . (What this means in reality is 12 courses of fish but the absence of pig causes a psychological craving in some.)

The simplicity of the food was compensated for by the extravagance of the dress. We received about 500 phone calls to talk us out of cycling to Pruszków because Marcin’s parents were convinced we would appear at the festive board encased in muddy lycra.  Kuba’s stepson asked  him where his mother (who was swathed in lace) had got her curtain from.

We went to the neighbour’s house, since Kuba (Marcin’s brother) is married to the girl next door and there is now a grandson in common. Convenient for me as my winter boots had broken and were in repair; all we had to do was mince across to the next klatka and hey presto, there we were. A slightly stiff occasion which was only eased by the children and presents and the ensuing mayhem.

Afterwards we went to drop in on Babcia, who celebrated her 93rd  birthday in the summer. A terrifying joyride with Marcin’s father at the wheel- he had a stroke in September but can’t admit that his vision and coordination are not what they were. It was wet and slippery and when he skidded he just said, “Well, it was a controlled skid..” Babcia was lying in bed, recovering from that mysterious ailment which strikes the old, young and unresistant in Poland- almost-pneumonia ( I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve had it myself.) Since we got to Poland I’ve barely heard her say a word and we always wonder after seeing her if any pleasure remains in her life. One of the grandsons in law had been detailed to keep watch over her, and being unable to work out how to use the remote control, he had settled to ‘reflecting’, as he put it, in a horizontal position on the couch with his eyes closed.

But my favourite part of Christmas was a walk with Marcin’s old schoolfriend Czaja through the old mental hospital in Tworki. On the afternoon of the 25th, suffering from cabin fever, we decided on a prolonged stroll with a can of beer through the grounds of this place, whose inhabitants were murdered by Hitler and friends in the 40s. It was grey and damp and the fishermen who fish the rehabilitated river were at home torturing their families. All the maniacs were inside. This walk lasted for several hours while we excavated Marcin and Czaja’s family history, marvelled at the sheer effectiveness of the Nazis (who would think, in the middle of a war, that it would occur to somebody to liquidate the mentally ill of Tworki?), sang a carol by phone to Jeziorek in India, finished our beer, bought some vodka and finally had a last drink under the viaduct before returning merrily home in the pitch dark at 4:30.

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Filed under language, migrant life, observations on Polish society

All Soul’s Day

On November the 1st, Poland celebrates the  northern hemisphere feast  of All Soul’s Day. It’s an exotic occasion for me, since at this time  in Australia the year is turning in the other direction, and the trick-or-treating ghouls and vampires just look ridiculous in the long spring evening.  Despite the masses and the crosses, there’s a pagan flavour to the whole event.  I was trying to remember Yeats’ poem about All Soul’s Night but couldn’t even recall a line until I got home and looked it up on the internet. Here’s the first verse.
Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And may a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine
In Poland, the mystery of it all is countered by a frenzy of activity. There are a record number of car accidents as people who shouldn’t be allowed to drive all get into their cars at once and roam the country, visiting their dead, tidying their graves and  leaving flowers. One of my students later gave me a very funny piece of vocabulary for describing these visits- grobbing, a macabre analogy of klubbing (a grob is a grave).
Having no dead of my own to visit, I went with Marcin to Kampinos National Park to visit a war cemetery, combining ceremony with the chance for a nice ride. It was unseasonably warm, depriving many a poor old lady of the chance to show off her furs, which (according to our friend Karol) is as important a part of the day as the grobbing itself.
After riding for a couple of hours, we got to the cemetery in the middle of the mass. In the graveyard there are monuments to about 2000 people executed by the Germans between 1939 and 1941. After the war, the bodies were exhumed, since observers had marked their location after the execution, but the majority of them couldn’t be identified. Most of the victims belonged to the Polish intelligentsia.  Somebody apparently photographed the whole procedure and you can see the pictures below, interspersed with mine.

The Palmiry cemetry in Kampinos National Park

A convoy of prisoners en route to the execution site

Blindfolding the prisoners before their execution

Leading the prisoners to their execution

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