Some time last November, after bingeing for several months on nature writing, I decided I was interested in birds. It really was that simple, and I took the kids out to the leaden, shit-strewn park for an inaugural twitch.
It was something akin to a religious experience. The hoot and rattle of Puławska St. faded, and I entered another dimension. Here was another world which had always existed alongside mine, and which I had never looked at before. A pair of magpies hopped across the sodden ground, and the desolate hedges turned out to be alive with tits.
I watched David Attenborough’s series on birds, seeing what it takes for a pigeon to get off the ground and observing the mating dance of a grebe for the first time with a sensation that could only be called wonder. I played recordings of blackbird and chaffinch song on youtube over the breakfast table (boring the pants off everyone else, as a good twitcher should).
The pace of my walking also slowed to approximate that of a pair of 3 year olds, which was a useful adaptation. Peering into a hole in a tree in a Pruszków in the middle of winter, I was surprised by a rush of yellow -green as a woodpecker flew out in a panic. I watched the winter rook roosts forming in our park and came back from Australia to find that the fieldfares were back too, from somewhere or other.
Now I’m about halfway through my first twitching year. I am comforted by the presence of birds, which provide some counterpoint to the trudging human masses. I am invested in the success of their nestlings and am not above shooing off a predatory, nest-robbing crow in a futile attempt to save a baby fieldfare. I watch for them when I run, listen for them when I wake up, count species out the window while I’m folding the clothes. My world is suddenly richer.
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?
By the beginning of November, whatever is left of the summer foliage is thin and diseased-looking. The sun can barely make it above the horizon before it collapses again. After the time change, it’s completely dark by 4:30. There are brief flares of brightness in the house, where the naked trees let the low light through into the living room, and a few sharp blue days which are just as sad as the iron-grey ones. It’s a time for hunkering down, escaping into books and friendship, building some fat reserves. There is an outburst of panicked activity among the local squirrels, but for everyone else, the slow descent into winter torpor has begun.
This will be my third winter in Poland, and as I am going through my late-autumn reckoning, it gradually becomes clear to me that I am more or less at home here. This means that I can conduct any business I have to conduct in Polish, as evidenced by a recent successful call to Polish Centrelink. It means I have stopped seeing everything around me with that painful sharpness, and allowed my surroundings to fade into a sort of backdrop. I no longer find social occasions a trial for which I need to prepare three days in advance (though at a party I still do a lot of nodding and pretending to have understood). I am girding my loins to apply for a permanent residency.
So- an ideal time to go back to Australia and see how I feel there. I am looking forward to it.
When Marcin’s parents visited us a couple of weeks ago, they brought us a pumpkin- a great golden thing, bursting with seeds and significance. Pumpkins and capsicums- the palette of autumn. The light is sharpening and deepening, the days are shortening, there is a bite in the early morning air. This will be my third Polish winter, and finally I am starting to approach it like a Pole: with fear, bitterness, and a sense that I have been ripped off by the brevity of the summer. I think that last winter was so terrifying that the approach of another one makes me anxious.
Marcin will be 40 next week, and maybe I am appropriating his midlife crisis. Along with my autumnal melancholy I am feeling a niggling dissatisfaction with myself,a feeling that I should be reading more, thinking more interesting things, coming out of my cocoon of motherhood. But I still feel stretched thin; the rising tide of drudgery never really recedes, and my main preoccupation is still my children. I read for 5 minutes in the interstices of the day- before bed, or hooked up to my milking machine when-by some miracle- nobody is licking the power point or trying to climb the lamp or practicing their pincer grip on a forgotten peanut in a corner. Or screaming.
I feel constantly distracted and am convinced that I had better learn to concentrate and compartmentalise now, because it’s not going to get any easier.
On Sunday we went up to Żoliborz to have breakfast with our friends. After much looking in all the wrong places, we discovered that the concentration of hipsters there had given rise to the habit of going out for scrambled eggs on the weekend, an Australian habit that we haven’t been able to indulge much here. We ate our saveloys in a welter of banging knives and howling infants (not all of them ours), and then headed off for a walk along the Wisła.
The river was hammering along, big and brown and foam flecked from recent rains, sending off its intoxicating river smell which was only one part raw sewage. The blue bruise of a summer storm lay on the horizon so we went into a river bar to lounge, just in case it came our way.
We were halfway through our beer when it started to hail. The hailstones fell into the river like leaping fish, and a howling wind sprung up. It started pouring and the hailstones came shooting in under the table so we retired to the kitchen where we watched the barmen trying to hold the wall planks together in the gale.
It rained for an hour and a half, a tropical, drenching, roaring rain, during which time we held our no-longer-featherweight babies in our arms and listened to one remorse-stricken babcia repeating over and over again that she had checked the weather forecast and nothing like this had been predicted, or she never would have left the house. Someone else asked in a panic, “Are we under water?” Marcin, who has an endless succession of paranoid fantasies about sharp objects piercing his childrens’ fontanelles, was holding a hand protectively over Janek’s head. I thanked my paranoia and providence (another gift from my parents) that we had milk for the whole day and didn’t have to worry about them starving.
Maja fell asleep as I held her, a warm weight with one floppy arm trailing. When it eventually slowed down, we took off our shoes and ventured out. Half the city was under water. Impatient motorists had driven up onto the footpath and were tearing along as fast as they could to get back on the road (in a more advantageous position) before somebody caught them. Paddling back to our friend’s place with two worn-out babies unconscious in the pram, we passed a drowned sewer rat and a few tentative houseowners checking out the damage in their cellars.
We spent the afternoon at Marek and Kaśka’s place, cut off from home by a citywide gridlock. The metro had flooded too so there was only ground transport, and we ended up eventually on the slowest bus in the world which gave me severe carsickness and got us home after bedtime. On Tuesday Maja and Janek were still recovering with the longest naps in world history and the appetites of a pair of Sumo wrestlers. I vowed never to leave the house again without warm clothes and an inflatable raft.
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.
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.