Twelfth month in Warsaw: 8th February – 8th March

This is the last post on my 12monthsinwarsaw blog. I’ll be returning to my Potato Point blog, snippetsandsnaps, when I finally manage to reassemble myself in Australia. Please join me in my other life in a week or so.

How do I characterise myself in this last month? Unsettled. Evasive. Defiant. Head-in-the sand. I’m obviously avoiding the pain of leaving, burying myself in Peter Corris detective novels to take my mind off departure. Time in Zakopane activates my timidity. I am in fact terrorised by ice, even with caution and crampons. If I want to take my eyes off the ground, I have to stop and stabilise myself, and I don’t dare take the twins out on my own.

The month is riddled with departures. My granddaughter disappears through customs wearing shorts and ugg boots. A few days later Hugo leaves, wearing board shorts: “You’ll freeze in them mate.” The airport almost becomes a third home.

There are a few final flurries of snow, but the budding is relentless as the grass greens and Pani Wiosna begins her annual beautification program. There is a Polish saying: “Sometimes February has compassion for us and it feels like spring, but sometimes it is so harsh, that you can hardly stand it.” February has compassion this year, at least the weather does.

I find a small teaspoon stuffed down my bra, the one I’m wearing. We renew our geriatric transport passes for a year. We pack up the apartment and our Warsaw lives. 

Jaś and Maja

Suddenly we are reading chapter books: Charlotte’s web, Moominpapa in winter, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. They still enjoy picture books, but they’re avid for longer books too. They begin asking about the meaning of words: “What’s a pane of glass, Nanny Meg?”

Their godparents bring gifts, colour-coded for gender, but soon the girl-doll is brandishing a gun and the contents of the two little suitcases, pink and blue, are completely jumbled.

Maja begins to sit with leg over knee and I realise that this is quite an adult position. Jaś spends a lot of time buttonholing you with wide eyes and a “Did you know … ” question: about perpetually-erupting volcanos, about what happens to food after you put it in your mouth, about whatever information has just entered his voracious mind. Maja becomes a puzzle-addict: mazes, join the dots, pick the differences, match object to shadow. Neither of them show much enthusiasm for skiing lessons.

As the days lengthen we stay outside longer. Hot dogs become the snack of choice, and we discover the difference between a Polish hot dog and an Australian one. J becomes adept at tunnelling a hole through a bun and inserting the butter, tomato sauce (but only for Jaś) and parówki. A taste for vegetables has also developed: cauliflower for Jaś and broccoli for Maja. They eat it like automatons as long as you’re reading to them or sitting in front of “Puffin Rock”.

They both enjoy being pushed very high on the swing in the playground, Maja more than Jaś. As Dziadek pushes them (I’m apparently not strong enough) they play a game: “Beg your pardon Basil Cardin, there’s a … in your garden.” Insert dinosaur, swing, goanna, volcano, whatever tickles your fancy.

The day after J has crushed all their cardboard landscapes, they want to play with the lighthouse and I fumble around to respond without an outright lie. They remember it in verbal detail, especially the amber chips on the beach.

And suddenly it’s countdown: only two more days. They decide to make those days challenging. On Monday morning, Maja refuses to walk with me to preschool. J’s gone ahead with Jaś and she won’t budge, screaming for Tata. Even offering her a ride on my shoulders, that ultimate privilege, doesn’t work. Marcin must be watching, because he comes downstairs and walks with us instead of going to work. Our only failure, and I have the sneaking, and humiliating suspicion that J would’ve handled it better. On Tuesday afternoon, as we are leaving preschool for the last time, Jaś says “Want a pooh”, and has his trousers down before I can respond. So there we are, crouching just inside the fence producing an interminable pooh while I, well–supplied with toilet paper and plastic bags, collect the results and pray that no one is noticing.

I stay for bathtime on the second last night after a final game of Little Cockatoo: Mr Kookaburra Shopkeeper is sick, and Little Cockatoo collects “juicy snakes with medicine” for him. Bathtime is a pleasure of splashing. When I finally leave they come to the door with me, and leap into my arms and hug me and kiss me, naked and squirmy, and they do this all the way down the stairs. I’m overwhelmed. This is most unusual and I’ll treasure it as a precious farewell.

On our last afternoon we play outside till well after dark. They ride energetically around on their bikes, and when the singing clock begins its 5pm martial music they march in time around the base statue of the statue of the jester and the artist, grinning. They play red light / green light, with very clear ideas about how it should be done and relish the dwindling of darkness and cold. At bathtime Maja relished “We”re going on a bear hunt”, eyes alight as she subvocalises the words. Peaceful bathing erupts into disturbance when Jaś decides to put chestnuts in his mouth and spit them out: a few minutes later the pair of them are locked in mortal combat out of nowhere.

Our last glimpse of them is looking out the window as we turn the corner to our apartment.

Out and about

The month begins with a holiday in Zakopane – snow and fairy floss and alps and lost wallet and damaged wrist and a twinly hatred of walking: “Yucky. Yucky. Yucky.” I read a bedtime story to my most beloved senior granddaughter. Beyond that, not much venturing out, what with packing up and a last Warsaw Cold.

Weekly Skype won’t be a patch on a year as next door neighbours.

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The journey home

It’s 10am. I’m standing downstairs near my daughter’s apartment, surrounded by suitcases (“soupcases” in the dialect of twins) waiting for the taxi to the airport. We are going to the airport unaccompanied. We’ve said our farewells.

At checkin we watch anxiously as the kilos click over: we come pretty close to our shared 60 kg allowance. Then it’s through customs, a far more rigorous check than usual for Warsaw: everything out of plastic bags, a tray for each category, boots off.

We reach our seats and feel the usual horror at the smallness of knee-space. The third person in our row is shaping up to be a nuisance – she needs to get out twice before takeoff – but then she nuisances herself into a bulkhead seat, and we have three seats to share between two of us.

That’s how I see out the window, for the first flight time in ages: the wide expanse of the Black Sea and then the rugged spine of snow-droozled mountains; lakes beautiful in the pink light of late afternoon; and, as the sun disappears, twinkling towns in wide valleys.

Dubai turnaround is short, after a very lengthy bus ride from the plane. We lie in recliners chatting desultorily and watching the passing parade: men in keffiyehs twisted in complex arrangements; surprisingly cheerful children in prams; scarved and glittery women; young solitary backpackers; solid couples who demand with their bodies more space than I feel they are entitled to. We display our carry on goods – twice, but more casually than in Warsaw – and we’re boarding for the last leg. 

No upgrades to business class this time, but we’ve somehow scored the extra legroom of economy plus, which also explains why our seats were pre booked.  The window seat is occupied by a very Aussie bloke, who proves to be an oil engineer working in Iraq, 28 days on, 28 days off.  I manage to sleep for probably a third of the 14 hour flight, jaw inelegantly dropped, mouth uncomfortably dry. 

I watch “Dancer” and a documentary about the mounting of an exhibition at MoMa (“China: through the looking glass“) and build up a an insanely long listening list, although I only actually play a few Chuck Berrys, a bit of Johnny Cash and a fair amount of Pavarotti. We’re right at the front of the plane and can watch the comings and goings of the pilot: I’m not sure I find this comforting. However, the only bit of drama happens when I suddenly realise my glasses are not where they ought to be. After a lot of groping in the darkness I find them lying, miraculously unharmed, in the middle of the aisle.

Finally we land in Sydney, and are greeted by cranky customs officers who issue bullying instructions. But all four soupcases arrive; the opal card works on the airport train; and we’re in bed in the hostel by midnight, with the alarm set for 6.

Then it’s the seven and a half hour bus trip down the coast to Potato Point: the luxuriant spreading branches and bluey-green foliage of eucalypts; the white clouds in a blue Australian sky; the line of ocean reaching to the horizon; the friendliness of the woman in the Nowra salad bar and the Lebanese man in the gelato bar in Batemans Bay; the typically Australian joke when I buy an Australian SIM – “It was easier when we just used two tin cans and string.” I relax into familiar landscape and familiar language, at ease with both. 

Already I’m having trouble believing that I lived in Warsaw for a year.

YHA Central

Central Station

At the bus stop in Sydney

A half-hour stop at Batemans Bay

If you want an image of my arriving state of mind, try this photo from the bus window, all blur and mish mash.

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Packing up a year: a journal of departure

As this post appears, I am actually back in Potato Point. My chronology is warped by packing up my Warsaw home and settling into my Australian one. There’ll be two more posts here before I relocate in cyberspace as well.

When our Australian visitors leave, it’s time to contemplate packing up the apartment. It’s also that time after a full-on few weeks when germs seize their opportunity, and I am knocked over by yet another northern hemisphere cold. So much for a lovely two weeks of twins. 

When I stop succumbing to paroxysms of coughing, I’m ready to begin preparations for leaving in earnest.

20th February

I pre-begin the process during the insanely long wait at the airport to farewell my son. Getting there far too early, wherever there might be, is a family failing. I drop into the Emirates office and ask how many bags I can fill with my 30kg baggage allowance. The answer is surprisingly jocular: “As many as you like. Ten with three kilos in each if that’s what you want to do.”

22nd February

I begin packing summer clothes. As I roll each item tightly, I remember summer warmth, fountains, evenings in the park, Chopin on Sunday afternoons, and the rich green of Warsaw’s parkland. My middle-sized bag is soon full to capacity, and I start to collect winter clothes. I decide to dispose of my down jacket, only worn a few times, and incapable of zipping up around my girth. That reduces the volume satisfactorily. But then I remember stuff I’ve bought here: two bulky sweat shirts, a very bulky knitted jumper, joggers, a pair of snow boots, a dressing gown and a rain jacket. The down jacket definitely has to go. My third and smallest suitcase is already a jumble of books and papers. 

That’s enough for one day.

24th February

Today it’s a harder job – sorting out all the stuff created with Maja and Jaś, and all the raw materials still remaining for such creations. We each buzz around in our seperate domains, filling garbage bags, but also reserving judgement. Finally J says “I think we have very different chucking away values” and suggests that we work on each other’s piles. That doesn’t come to anything. I’m hanging on to a plaster teddy bear magnet with googly eyes and glitter and a broken leg that was my gift from grandparents day; he to the recovered cardboard from the Christmas tree.

I audition our fifth suitcase and discover that the smallest, book-laden bag fits in it and still leaves room for boots, shoes and assorted soft garments.

25th February

The weather reflects my ambivalence about leaving. At 8.30 it snows, heavily enough to leave a layer of white along the still-bare black branches outside the window: the flakes are large and wind-driven, angling their way past the apartment to settle gracefully on car roofs and footpaths. By 9.30 the sun is shining, challenging the whiteness with a blue sky, although a layer of grey clouds still glowers above the rooftops.

Today is the day for categorising and organising. The special bags for Maja and Jaś are filling up with their possessions from our place, and odds and ends that we didn’t get round to using. Other bags have bags within them: stick-on stuff; printing stuff; half used colouring books; packs of cards; a jigsaw puzzle; odd torches; magnifying glasses.

We talk to our daughter about transferring paraphernalia to her place, knowing that she’s space-poor and ruthless. She has strategies for reducing the number of books: cousins, preschool and work will diminish the pile. Although she is far taller and slimmer than me, she wants my down jacket. But I have to chuck all the tubs of playdoh.

J is feeling edgy, wanting to go to the airport now to change his ticket for a flight today. I bribe him with the remains of my curative quince nalewka, and he goes for a walk in the snow instead. 

28th February

I close the door to my bedroom where packing and cleaning is well under way and and tell the twins on their last visit “We need to say out of there.” They say plaintively “But that’s where we used to play little cockatoos.” So of course I lift the ban, and Little Cockatoo and Mr Kookaburra set up shop, selling pillows this time.

4th March

Only a few days now. Packing up a year takes a lot of time, and some heartbreak. I hear stomping and crunching in the living room as J destroys box towns, volcanos, bridges and rivers, an intricate paper road system, and a lighthouse island, all co-creations with Jaś and Maja and the basis for many ongoing games.

5th March

The family gathers for a farewell lunch at Rejeneracja: catering for 12 on two hot plates is beyond me. The four cousins play happily and ignore the grown ups, who negotiate the quagmires of unshared language for the last time on this visit. The weather is perfect and there is some resistance to being inside. After we’ve eaten we settle on benches while the cousins tear round on their bikes and R goes home to prepare dessert.

6th March

I collect the basket of flowers I’ve ordered to say thank you to the preschool for a year of coping with foreigners and for making our role easy. It is indecently huge: I have to struggle to carry it half a block, and I leave a trail of petals on the stairs.

7th March

It’s here. The last day we take Maja and Jaś to preschool. As they scoot along on their bikes, J and I walk on either side of the monster basket. Other walkers in the park eye off this procession, either amused or bemused. My embarrassment at floral excessiveness fades when Pani Teacher is delighted and gives us both a big hug.

8th March

We wake early, and soon realise that last minute things are going to swallow up every scrap of time till the taxi arrives at 10. Finally we person-handle our four suitcases downstairs, and drop the keys in the letterbox. We are on our way back to Australia.

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Last minute discoveries

This post marks a trio of Warsaw discoveries I didn’t have time to pursue, thanks to disease and the alternating inertia and flurry of departure. 

Lady Ryder of Warsaw

On a day of rain and gloom, I notice a faint neon sign on one of the old toll houses at Unii Lubelskiej (the other one’s a sushi bar). I’m intrigued: the Sue Ryder Museum, such an English name in the middle of all the … szcz … names in Polish. I’m even more intrigued when I discover she named herself Lady Ryder of Warsaw when she was knighted or whatever happens to a woman granted a title.

I discover that she is an English philanthropist with a special relationship with Poland, forged during World War 2, and beginning with the shame she felt when there was no English support for an invaded Poland. She volunteered for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry when she was only 15: it was active in both nursing and intelligence work. She was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, which was formed to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe, in the Polish section. Her job was to drive Dark and Silent agents to the airfield to leave for Europe – 300 goodbyes. She saw helping victims of war as a way of remembering these heroes.

I tried to visit the museum twice, and it was shut both times. When I return …

Fort Mokotów 

J’s eager walking as the weather warms up leads him to Fort Mokotów. It was built in the 1880s, bombed by the German Army at the beginning of WW2, and saw heavy fighting in 1939 and also during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. That was all the information I could find in English. I’ll return for a photo-shoot of my own … next time.

The Russian cemetery

The Russian cemetery was another of Joe’s discoveries on a late afternoon walk. The photos are his. It’s the burial place of over 20,000 Soviet soldiers who died fighting against Nazi Germany, many in mass graves. It contains one of the first major monuments to be built in Warsaw to those who fought in the Second World War. It includes examples of Socialist Realist art showing workers (with tools) and other civilians greeting the victorious soldiers.

There are many other places I didn’t visit: the Botanical Gardens near Powsin; the Neon Museum; the theatres that offer English supertitles; an exhibition called “The lost pearls of Warsaw architecture”; the Warsaw Philharmonic; the Museum of Modern Art; a Milk Bar for lunch; Winnie the Pooh Street; a church at Ursynów and the suburb of Żoliborz.

There is also a Beyond-Warsaw list: Kazmierz Dolny, an arts centre and picturesque old town; Biskupin, an archaeological site and open-air museum; Bialystok and the primeval forest, to name a few.

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Miscellany 11

This is my final round up of Warsaw odds and ends.



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Paula’s Sunday Black and white challenge is opportune, as I straddle two hemispheres. This time next week Poland will be the other side of the world, and Potato Point will be home again.

The first photo was taken on a family holiday, at Grójec Wielki in western Poland – rain and sun and barbecues and mushrooming and kayaks and forest.

The second photo was taken at a Nerrigundah in the mountains west of Potato Point, a sleepy village now, but once a flourishing gold mining town.

For stunning countryside photos visit Paula’s blog here.

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Ice and buddings

For Pete

Most lives

are ice and buddings,

but some

are frozen deep,

and ice vetoes the fragile buds.



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Last snow 

This Being Done
Clive James

Behind the trees across the street the sun
Takes down its last pale disc. This being done,
No soft pale light is left for anyone.

There is a further comedown in the night.
Outside, unheard, asphalt is turning white:
White swarms of butterflies in the streetlight.

The morning comes, and through the spread of snow
In candy-coloured coats the children go.
Listen awhile and you can hear them grow.

At the tail end of my last northern hemisphere disease, the snow fell, intense and large-flaked, for about an hour. J went out under the influence of snow-love and the last of my quince nalewka (more of that in another post) and came back with a lover’s collection of photos, a shot at every step whenever the bright brief sun emerged. We don’t expect another fall like this before we leave, and I don’t think I’ll be visiting in winter again.

When I looked through the photos, I saw them as he intended: a pilgrimage through places that have become our familiar landscape. The clay-pit lake; the fountain pond; the climbing tree and the stone dome; the paving stones we walk along on the way to preschool; the sledding slopes; the intersecting paths in Park Morskie Oko; the playgrounds where we watched agility increase; the drain J filled with chalked sharks and crocodiles and where we defended buns against marauding dogs. 

Dark against the white were the benches where we dispensed fizzy water and Oreos and mambas, and where on rare occasions one or another of the twinlets climbed on my shoulders for a short carry. There’s the patch of crabapple, and the giant horse chestnut and the sycamore whose helicopters I monitored, still bare but budding as they were when we arrived a year ago.

Tears aren’t far away as I think back over all the joys of this annus mirabilis and face its imminent end. Listen a year and I have indeed heard them grow.

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Miscellany 10

This gallery contains 12 photos.

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Family: black and white and colour

It’s been a family month: a granddaughter and a son (her uncle) both decided independently to come to Poland and they were here simultaneously. And then of course there are Maja and Jaś, the reason why we’re all here at all. So here’s a family gallery in response to Paula’s after and before challenge, although my pairings are a mix of after and before, and before and after.

My Australian granddaughter getting her first taste of alps (and snowboarding) at Zakopane

My son at the airport, anticipating the 30 hours of flying that will take him back to his dog and the surf 

My Polish granddaughter reacting to a gigantic fairy floss in the only appropriate way

My Polish grandson suffering from “my legs are sore” at Zakopane

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