The ninth month begins with a surprise, sort of. J decides to go back to Australia for sunshine and R&R: books on Saturday, flies out the following Tuesday, one small red carry on bag in hand. I watch him cross ul Puławska and board the number 35 tram with mixed feelings. Here I am, alone with twins for an unspecified time just as my son-in-law begins a new job which takes him out of the drop-off-at-pre-school loop. But it gives me a chance to be babcia on the loose, running things my way, and I’m not averse to living alone. Besides, I’ve just discovered the delights of online booking. As the days shorten, I begin to haunt the darkness in search of plays and ballet and music. Fridays become very special, lunching for an hour with my super busy daughter.
The trees shed their leaves and frequent showers turn them to mush. We have our first few snowfalls, light but a prophecy of white pleasures to come.
My 72nd birthday yields many treasures: a vast basket of flowers from my Australian daughter, still giving desiccated delight a month later; an array of cards; a pleasant night at the Gromada; and gifts of books, those 3D things you can leaf through, from my wonderful friend who manages to find books about Warsaw in English from the other side of the world. The read-aloud book draws me back into thoughts of my professional life and some regrets that it’s no longer part of my world. It vanished when the twins arrived.
I become the solo dropper-offer four days a week and the picker-upper two days. Often I have the enchantment of little hands in mine “because my mittens won’t stay on, Nanny Meg.” Nanny Meg, in ignorance of the habits of mittens, has cut the connecting strings off, but like a pack rat she kept them. Then begins an attempt to reconnect. I can only find three mittens. When the fourth turns up the third has disappeared. Then when I finally join the second pair together, the first conjoined pair has vanished. Finally there they are, all four, hanging out of coat sleeves, waiting to mould snowballs or protect against icy wind.
My morning role is story reader as they eat breakfast and Tata dresses them: we meet Limelight Harry, Hugh Shampoo, and our favourite, Pipkin the penguin who travels to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in a yellow submarine with a salty sea-dog. Maja has even submitted to a pink scarf without noticing, riveted by the pleasures of a new book.
Then the challenge is to make it downstairs and to the corner of the park without a crisis. That’s where I produce whatever I have in my pocket. We head down to preschool, sometimes with tambourines, sometimes with tree climbing dinosaurs, sometimes with racing cars; sometimes with eyeball rings; sometimes flapping and screeching like cockatoos, sometimes with windscreen wipers swishing along with “The wheels on the bus”; and occasionally to the tune of “We all live in a yellow submarine” (I have two yellow submarines in my bag of tricks). The maracas are not a hit: the eye-rings are. Leaf clearing provides entertainment as autumn fades into winter: “Just one more load dumped in the skip and we have to go.”
Sometimes we set the alarm so we can race it to pre-school: on a few memorable occasions we actually win.
Once in the preschool, I begin the slow dissolution into a puddle of sweat as I take off Peruvian hats, unwind scarves, unzip jackets, keep an eye on the favoured toys so I know where they are when they’re called for. Lately, this has been relatively easy: a table of books for sale to help fund a new gate catch their attention as soon as we’re inside. But I still have to extricate them from boots, and put their slippers on. Sometimes Maja will do all this herself, and on one memorable day Jaś showed secret competence putting on his buckled slippers which I hate doing with a passion. Only once though! We take up far too much room between the cloakroom shelves, nod hello to familiar people, and head up to the classroom. Sometimes I’ll score a nose kiss at the door. One reluctant day they both wriggle in on their bellies pretending to be scary avocados.
When it’s time to come home, they peruse the books again, choose one and put their money in the money box. One day I get castigated because I give them paper money: “You’re supposed to put money in there Nanny Meg.”
Into the dark we go with torches, peering into odd corners, finding mambas I throw into the air, reading the “do not touch signs” with their skulls and lightning bolt on electricity boxes. One night we have a big adventure. They take me a way I haven’t been before but that they know well. After all, it passes a toy shop, which I manage to persuade them is shut.
At home we shed our outside gear, piling it in one place ready for departure when mummy and daddy collect them. Jaś is busy making a paper road; or sticking stickers meticulously exactly where they should go, a skill he didn’t have six months ago; or burying his nose in Donald Duck comics in Polish. Maja paints or makes a volcano to add to Dziadek’s diorama or writes letters to Franki and Greg and J and Uncle Hugo, forming the letters carefully and making sound connections as she writes.
One night, I have to leave for my Shakespeare fix just after my daughter arrives: Jaś gets it into his head that we’re both going out and leaving them by themselves. Another Shakespeare night Maja declares she doesn’t like me because I’m leaving them.
The current passion is for policeman’s hats. They like the idea. They told Ola “We’re policeman. We can tell you what to do”. They think about things deeply and ask questions like “Why don’t ghosts have bones?” They love rhymes and often sing as they play or walk to preschool. One day they yell out to the men in the garbage truck who have become their friends something unintelligible that rhymes in Polish and proves to be “Hey hey buy some glue”. When Maja is misbehaving Jaś offers child-management advice: “Mummy, you need to bite her.”
Entertainment I find in the dark evenings of late-autumn Warsaw has a post of its own, waiting till I finish the current bout of cultural delights: Shakespeare, Brecht, Rattigan and Osborne theatrically; the Bolshoi ballet and Mazowsze for dance; and Chopin in a couple of venues, with, on one occasion, a side of Paderewski.
A tourist in Warsaw
I finetune my acquaintance with Warsaw. I watch the Christmas lights go up, each street a different design. I return to Królikarnia for sculptured heads, the building with its great dome and substantial portico, and a bookshop selling children’s books in English. I visit the Orangery and its collection of sculpture, classical and modern, and find the Dutch garden I enjoyed so much being backhoed into winter rest. At the History Meeting House, a source of so many pleasures over four years, I enjoy Kossakowski’s photographs taken in the early 20th century. I ramble around a very small part of the Bródno cemetery, bright with the flower tributes of All Saints Day. All these star in separate posts.
Two other adventures don’t. I tram it to a new part of Warsaw for a guided tour in English of an exhibition called “Home at last” which showcases housing in Warsaw post World War 2: models, photos, reconstructions of typical rooms, and a chocolate wheel that allows you to look at the economics of living in Warsaw. Of course the commentary is filled with cliche and generalisation, but that in itself is interesting.
Another day I visit the Jewish archives, named after Ringelblum, the historian who created monumental archives of the Ghetto. There, a guide waylays me en route to the Jewish art I was seeking, and sits me down to watch a gruelling documentary on life in the ghetto. Then we talk for some time, about Jewish history in Warsaw at first, sliding into more general conversation provoked by the horrors humans commit against each other. Such delight I take in such a conversation with a stranger after so many months imprisoned by my inability to speak Polish.
Pick of the photos
Back home …
There is a shark sighting at Potato Point, and my surfer son informs me he loves surfing too much to stay out of the water. My niece walks 1000 km on the Bibbulmun track in Western Australia to celebrate her fiftieth birthday and enjoy a gap year before grandchildren: “How we made it through all the hazards – climbing up around and under fallen trees, crossing flooded plains, boot-eating mud, hail, wind, rain, clinging to mountain sides, beach sections and the endless sand dunes and even some wild life that wanted to stand its ground – I feel is nothing short of a miracle.” My favourite Bodalla cafe changes hands; one of my favourite small galleries has an intriguing ceramics exhibition called “Porcelain and politics”; an amazing 80 year old local artist changes direction yet again to create packs of dogs; and the spectacular site of the Four Winds Festival hosts a nature bioblitz.
Sadly, Naarla, a Potato Point dog who was good friends with both our dogs (more than a friend to Mez) and often popped around to share their food died aged 20. My son’s Facebook eulogy ends “I hope wherever you are you find the perfect sunny spot with dog biscuits on tap.”
J hefts his solar panels onto the roof; discovers that the old wooden bridge near his place is slated for replacement and probably demolition; finds orchids and xanthorrhea flowering; spots wombat shit deposited characteristically on a rock in the middle of the road; visits Cruz and our Potato Point son; and eats a fish fresh from the sea. That’s when he’s not filling a large suitcase with books and toys, and things like paper fasteners and balls of string that we don’t seem to be able to find here.
We proposition my most beloved senior granddaughter about coming to Warsaw before she starts university. My surfing son will be, most unexpectedly, here about the same time, a trip that was supposed to be a secret. And that will be February, the eleventh month.