Category Archives: pure autobiography


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

What I remember.

My children are 5 months old. One day one or both of them will ask me (most likely when they have their own babies), what was it like? I am writing this post to preserve some of the things that I will otherwise forget. The first few months are already fading into obscurity- the terror, the sense of having our home invaded by two little foreigners with urgent needs who shout at us all day in their own language which we don’t know yet, the horror of four little eyes gleaming in the dark at 3 am, when all you want to do is get drunk and take a Valium and sleep for a month. The feeling of being in extremis, day in and day out, for weeks and months, with no reprieve in sight. The endless experimentation with ways to get them off to sleep:  hairdryerdummyrockinginthechairinthearmsearlierlaterherethere intheslinginthepraminourbed.

Janek smiled earlier and more willingly, his first unmistakable grin extracted by my father. Maja’s gassy grimaces didn’t become unmistakable expressions of pleasure for 10 or 11 weeks. I remember asking myself, why aren’t they more cheerful? They’re getting enough sleep. WHYAREYOUCRYING????!!!!I got angry at them because they wouldn’t do what I wanted or what some 50s  style nanny-guru said they should be doing, or because they needed something from me when I felt utterly incapable of providing anything at all.

Now I know them better and they are more predictable, but I still adore them most of all when they are both sleeping, wrapped up in their own mystery. Janek’s  chin like a downturned comma, his stern little face like some entombed infant pharaoh (Marcin calls him  the Chinese Emperor). Maja’s soft  fingers, one hand curled, the other extended. (In her waking hours, she likes to poke them in Janek’s mouth, where he clamps down like a crocodile and sets her wailing).

I still think a lot about the very early days, and chew them over in my mind the way you do with extreme experiences, trying to make sense of them, trying to understand from my current place of sanity what was happening to me then. Irecall nights in the hospital, during the 10 nightmarish days we spent there after their birth. Marcin would try to leave me at around 9 with 2 sleeping infants, but we were regularly thwarted by weighing time, which fell around bedtime and got us all worked up. They would be fed, changed, drowsy, when we would hear the dreaded rattle of the scale in the hallway. An outrunner nurse would come in and say, “Undress the babies!”, and we would have to take off all their clothes and watch their little limbs start trembling with cold and rage. We would be anxious too, waiting to see if they had gained or lost a few grams since the previous day. One of the nurses (obviously not a fan of the weighing routine) told  us that it was a system invented to torment parents.

Later on, alone in our quarantine in the dark hours with the pipes groaning and the birthing women wailing, one or another would wake crying. I would feed them, sing “Famous Blue Raincoat”, and whisper my son, my daughter, feeling like an imposter. The words my children still taste strange to me- I have an overwhelming sense that they aren’t really mine. Not that they are changelings, but that they are fiercely and unmistakeably themselves.

I didn’t get a good look at either of them until the day after their birth. Maja was in intensive care, and as I gaped at Janek in his little wheely bed at 6 in the morning, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t require anything from me until backup arrived, I felt thankful that for the moment I only had one to deal with. It’s unthinkable and shameful to me now that I waited to be called to the newborn intensive care to see her, that I didn’t recognise her and trailed after a man in a shower cap who was pushing a baby wrapped up in an identical swaddle to hers, that I didn’t try to steal her away from under those awful fluorescent lights and the gaze of the hygiene crazed nurses who had shoved her into a corner.

At 6 am I would take them for their antibiotics. Outside the window, the snow fell in the yellow light from the streetlamps. I would start to feel a sense of relief that they had survived the night, and that soon one or another of my parents would be there to anchor me in the real world, feed me, and take a part of the burden off my shoulders. Despite functioning on almost no sleep, the days were better- as nightfall approached and Marcin prepared to leave, I would feel a deep sense of dread and as he walked out into the night, I would be full of rage and envy.

So when my own children (most likely my daughter will ask me these things, unless the world changes much more than I expect it to) ask me what the opening phase of parenthood was like, I will report that it wasn’t much fun at all. I will say that the fear of doing it wrong and the weight of responsibility and the loneliness of doing nights with no backup swamped my incipient love, and maybe whoever asked me will feel slightly better about their own confusion, as I did when my mother told me that she had a struggle persuading me to breastfeed. It’s clear to me now that I was in a state of shock which lasted for months, and still, when I see new mothers who are clearly on some higher plane of mad love, I feel a little twinge of failure.

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Filed under post pregnancy, pure autobiography, twins

In the WARS

Coming back from our May week  away, I got a moment (a long one, lasting almost half an hour) of blissful solitude. After starving for weeks on an elimination diet in the hopes it would render Janek’s head less scabby, I took myself to the train restaurant, determined to eat a substantial amount of something at any cost.

We were in the Berlin train, and the restaurant car had waiter service and little white goosenecked lamps on the tables so that important international travellers could read and check Facebook over their dinners. Poland flashed passed the window, green and flat. It started to rain and the  sight of raindrops hitting the window and the springtime whipping past outside induced a sort of ecstasy in me. I read my book and ordered a pig’s trotter and a beer. When the waitress told me I would have to wait 20 minutes, I smirked to myself.

I haven’t been good at acquiring the quick recharge that everybody tells you about, when you spend 5 seconds away from your babies and come back refreshed and ready to do battle for another month. I don’t have that live-in-the-moment Zen where I can roll my instants of freedom about in my mouth and forget that somewhere, not far away, somebody is quite possibly wailing tragically for their own mysterious reasons, and on my return I will have to guess what these are.

In other words, I would generally scoff at the idea that half an hour and a golonka could do much for my state of mind, especially when returning with trepidation to the real world after a week of fun and chaos. But it in this particular instance, it did the trick. It was a brief and necessary reminder that my trotter-scoffing, book -reading Real Self still exists, and that I haven’ t turned into a sort of automated emergency response system. There was my little family, happily ensconced in the disabled car, the kids  showing their gums to Marcin who had been engaging in Daddy-fun and flying them around like a a pair of giggling aeroplanes. I was unequivocally happy to see them.

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Filed under around Poland, post pregnancy, pure autobiography, Reading, twins, weather


The weather outside doesn’t seem to penetrate the walls of our flat. I see what is happening outside- the warmth of late summer, then the turning of the leaves, the sharp gold autumn days, and on Saturday, the first snow. I can see a pair of busy, bushy-tailed squirrels preparing for winter in the tree outside the window, along with a woodpecker going about his gravity- defying business. Clouds of crows go beating purposefully by, black against the milky sky. None of it seems to have anything to do with me. When I go outside for milk or doctor’s appointments, the hydraulics of being vertical and the rarity of the occasion engender a sense of total alienation from the world I inhabit.

Inside, I generate my own emotional climate- a succession of mild, overcast days. Inactivity works on me like a mild antidepressant, depriving me  of any emotional excess. I have two moods- weepy and not-weepy. Although as I get more gravid and bilious, I think that I am beginning to add irritability to my repertoire. This sort of extreme stability is something new for me, and in the current situation I have no objections to my limited range as I explore the land between faint hope and faint gloominess.

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Filed under bed rest/ house arrest, dealing with adversity, pregnancy, pure autobiography, weather

In praise of whitegoods

We have a new fridge. Who would have guessed the pleasure it could bring? It was the cheapest one in the shop, carefully selected by our landlord who is not known for his enthusiasm for spending money. (“I tried to show him another one,” said Marcin, “but something just kept drawing him back to that one..”.)

Months ago, when we first broached the topic with him, he launched into a long explanation that he would have to pay on instalment. The reason for this was so outlandish that it was probably true, and took almost an hour to explain. It turned out that he had rented another house of his, somewhere in a village, to a group of Vietnamese drug lords who had immediately covered the floors in dirt, installed a complex lighting and heating system, and set about raising marijuana. When they were caught, the insurance didn’t pay him back, and hence, he needs to buy the cheapest fridge in town and must pay on instalment.

None of this detracts from our joy in our new possession. Opening the door, we are almost blinded by the gleaming white interior, where our milk and cheese sit cleanly on the shelves. The old fridge was a monster from the 1970s or thereabouts; it  had long ceased to be a white good and become a rather yellowish good, with fungus-green trimmings. It shuddered and dripped, and on many an insomniac night I would hear it let out a long, trembling sigh which seemed like it must surely be its last. Furry things lurked in corners.

And so, in the spirit of a new determination to fully enjoy minor victories, I am mindfully smiling to myself whenever I put away the butter, and expect this state of affairs to continue for about a week.

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Filed under pure autobiography

Somebody else’s Memory Lane

Last weekend was a long weekend in Poland, for various reasons. It’s the anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw, when the Poles turned the Bolsheviks away from the city in 1920, preventing (so they say) the further spread of communism in Europe. It’s also Polish Army Day, and not to leave out the religious folks it’s the Feast of our Lady of the Greenery (my own translation- at first I considered ‘our lady of the herbs’).

It’s such a momentous occasion that we resolve to get out of Warsaw and on Sunday, after 2 days of rampant socialising, we head out into the wilds beyond Pruszków for a night in the country. Friends of Marcin’s from school live there, in a village far enough removed from city life that we are woken at daybreak by a combination of chickens and the neighbours washing their new car, which for their own mysterious reasons they choose to do at 6 am.

The evening consisted of good food, imbibing, one-handed horsey and various games with blankets  and Marcin’s cast as props (eg The Scary Hand). But for me the highlight was  the screening of a film from Piotrek’s 18 th birthday party, with Marcin and Kuba in a pair of similarly horrible shirts in supporting roles.

It is 1991. Communism has been dead for two years. Boys in braces and girls in bouffants pair-dance to u2 and various other hits of the 80s, all known and beloved to me.

Marcin squirms but I am inexplicably moved by this unexpected access to history. He isn’t wearing glasses yet and can’t see me lurking in his future. The party continues all night and in the morning the birthday boy and guests drive off into adult life in a silly car.

A failed attempt to photograph history in action- note the date
One-handed horsey

The charm of Alexis- a bottle of Dynasty wine which Marcin and friends gave Piotrek for his 18th birthday

It’s one of the things which fascinates and bothers me, living here. Marcin’s past is all around, lying in wait on street corners, in the WKD to Pruszków, in the supermarket. He has several  friends that he has known since primary school. My own history seems to lack this density and continuity, and I find it both exotic and inaccessible in him. Watching the film, I feel a tinge of shame at my overwhelming  urge to touch something which isn’t mine, but the fascination is much stronger.

                                                    Army Day

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Filed under migrant life, pure autobiography