How Two Little Girls In Poland Can Be Irish

While canoing the great lakes of Mazury, my eldest daughter turned to me and said she would like to learn Irish. Come, come Lilly, I said. There are many other languages for you to master, tongues useful for traveling such as Spanish or Russian. Or why not German where unlike Irish, the laws of grammar can actually be applied coherently and logically? I even offered Italian as an alternative. Not really a language at all, more a catalogue of food names. It is well known that 90% of all Italian is gesticulation, the world’s noisiest body-language, its value essential, no more so when shrugging your way through Rome or grimacing whilst being robbed at knife-point by Sicilian street urchins.

But no, with true donkey stubbornness, she insisted on Irish.

At present both Lilly and Malina speak English and Polish and are learning French. I haven’t spoken Irish consistently for at least twenty years, based on the qualification that it wasn’t going to be of any use to me. Only 3% of Ireland’s population speak Irish as an everyday practicality despite it being a compulsory subject in all secondary schools. It is a dying language that when spoken has all the charm of a crow eating itself in a chimney… And yet somehow it seems important that I acquiesce to my daughter’s wishes.

Sure, perhaps her commitment to the Irish language will be a folly, a laborious luxury which her still childish mind does not fully comprehend. But in the face of accepted bland, corporate subservience, it could be a mighty declaration of her heritage, of who she is and who I forgot I am. As parents, we are keepers of a flame. We guard it and we pass it on.

To not do so would be negligent. It would limit the intangible mysteries which govern our journey. I speak of course about the imagination, the soul and the values of our antecedents. My daughters would not be here if it weren’t for those who came before them. They never met their grandfather Peadar Mór, he who taught me Irish when I was four. They never met their great-grandmother Kathleen who left the side of a Kerry mountain at seventeen to nurse in London. They never met their great-grandfather Peter who had a ticket for the Titanic and thanks to the great de Búrca trait of being late, missed the liner’s last stop at Cobh in County Cork.

But through the Irish language and my teaching of it, there is a chance they can meet something of their ancestor’s spirit, and these two little girls living in Poland, can be Irish.

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Easter in Poland

Hi there, here are some photos from the last few days. I was cycling around, trying to burn off the kilos of chocolate I’d put away, the weather was awful (very Irish actually and if the end result is a little dank, well, that’s just the way it turned out.

I do apologize for the last photo, but in keeping with the theme, I had to put it in.

 

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You see ‘1945’ here a lot. Anyone know the meaning? Something to do with the local football club being established? Notice how the ‘4’ has a Nazi-influenced ‘SS’ shape.

 

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Easter in the south-western Silesia region of Poland is all about food, the cooking, the baking, the preparation. The traditional Easter Sunday breakfast is a smörgåsbord of salads, cooked meats, cheeses, painted eggs and caramel and chocolate tarts. This photo was taken in a friend’s house on Easter Saturday.

 

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This Easter lamb is a mixture between a sponge cake and dry bread. It was made by my sister-in-law, the very talented Dorota. You can cover them in chocolate (ba-ba black sheep), but most of them end up uneaten as they keep for up to three weeks.

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I don’t really know what to say about this, except it’s near our house.

 

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This is from outside my in-law’s house. We always have nice Easter celebrations here and eat ourselves into a food coma.

 

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I was cycling with my daughters and we saw this. It’s Animal from the Muppets. Or, if you rearrange the letters, you get ‘Malina’, the name of my second girl, which means ‘Raspberry’ in Polish.

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With over 5000 road deaths each year, there could be a reason why this driving school is called Rino.

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This is a typical view of Poland. This line of sheds/garages are off a main street about two minutes from Gliwice city center. There are some really beautiful German built buildings here (Gliwice was once part of Germany), and some of them are on the street near where this was taken.

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The only things is, these once beautiful buildings (this one is a hundred years old) have been allowed to fall into severe disrepair. Lombard is a pawn shop, of which there are many in Poland.

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They look like they’re falling to pieces, and they are, and then when you get up close to them, you see that they’re inhabited, often by families with kids.

 

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On Easter Monday, I went on a cycle with my father-in-law and we chanced upon this very rare (even by Silesian standards) festival. About sixty men and women on horseback come from the church and go up the street, on their way to farms and homesteads where they bless the crops.

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The same festival. Note the typical red-bricked Silesian style house in the background.

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Procesja konna Ostropa – The procession of horses in the village of Ostropa.

 

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That was one unlucky Easter bunny.

Hope yours was better than his.

 

Maniac In The Building

Here’s a story for you, one I’m sure you can relate to at some level, especially if you live in a apartment like I do. Its a petty story, but then again, all stories relating to people living in buildings are petty.

There are seven other families who share our four-storey space, two apartments at every level, and being on the ground floor we often have stuff left in the hallway. By ‘stuff’ I mean prams, bikes, toys, trash bins. One day I remember seeing a heap of plastic bags stuffed with old clothes lying at the foot of the stairs. For us, and our relaxed, kindly neighbors across in number 1, this is never a problem. We understand that those upstairs have to use the groundfloor hall as a place to temporarily leave things. This is normal. There even used to be a pram blocking the back door, and if I’m honest, it was annoying, especially when the owner didn’t live in our building, but life’s too short to be pissing on people’s shoes about such matters, so whenever I saw it, I’d shrug and use the front door instead.

Live and let live, right?

Well you’d think that. Spend enough time in Poland and you’ll learn that a lot of the time you are required to live on other people’s terms. You learn that there is no moral law, only the rules written down and enforced by the organs of Authority and Control and tough titty on any naive chump who believes otherwise.

Tough-titty for believing in neighborliness and understanding. Tough-titty for believing that baking a cake and giving a slice to each apartment when we first arrived meant anything. The taste of cake nothing like the taste of old-school Soviet diplomacy recently served up to me, a strain of which still runs very strong here.

I have a habit of leaving my bike against the wall in our hall. It’s our wall, it’s not impeding anyone, apart maybe from my family as the back wheel partially blocks our front door. Technically, I’m wrong to do this, the rules of our building state that the hall should be kept clear. But the naive, silly Irishman thought that in light of the pram occupying the space there for over a year, it wouldn’t be problem. It’s rare for my bike to be left in the hall anyway, except for the few times when I’m preoccupied with my daughters or popping inside to get something.

And God-forbid, if my bike is somehow causing a threat, if it supernaturally becomes possessed by a dybbuk and begins attacking the good folk of our building, then I’ll sort it out. I’m a very approachable guy and most people know they just have to knock at the door.

But last week there was no door-knocking. There was no communication. Yet, as with a lot of things connected to Poland lately, there was an absence of normality. Someone dragged my bike away from the wall and across the foot of the stairs, blocking the access to the higher apartments. Another family knocked on my door, terribly upset at what they thought were my actions.

The message I got from this Soviet diplomacy was, “you broke the rules and now a little covert action will break you…’’

Just a little intimidation to keep you on your toes Irish, we wouldn’t want you getting too relaxed about your life here.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a nothing story, not something anyone should be getting their knickers in a twist about. Yet within the micro lives the macro, and I wonder what type of fun and games I can expect when I leave my bike outside the apartment again? Maybe our friends across the hallway could tell me. They, like some of you reading this no doubt, had a more sinister example when they found a shard of broken glass lodged in one of the croc shoes kept outside their door. But I steadfastly cling to my naivety and wholeheartedly believe it must have been delinquents from the outside who did this, a nasty, mentally unbalanced thug no doubt and definitely not anyone in our building.

Hard To Handle

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I’ve operated a cement mixer and I’ve had conversations which reminded me of operating a cement mixer and yes that sounds smug and arrogant, but they just happen to be the two words I have tattooed on my testicles, there to remind me life’s too short for boring exchanges. Here’s the god’s honest; I’ve never been bored while interacting with my girls, Lilly and Malina. Their spaced-out, mash-up of Elfish and Screaming is often homicidal, yet is invariably edgy and compelling. Take this following exchange –

‘Hey Dad?’

‘Yup?’

‘You’re a testicle head!’

‘Malinaaaa…knock it off!’

Then Lilly hops up on the funny-word wagon.

‘Don’t get penisy Dad!’

This is where my four and five year old are at with their vocab. They like bad words and they’re currently going through a groin-phrase phase.

‘Hey Dad, did you go for your testicular-test yet?’ And then the laugh so hard that bright green snot flies out their noses.

Don’t look at me. Despite being over forty and a hypochondriac, I keep any testicle-related information to myself and all references to penises are exclusively reserved for scientific/educational purposes.

But it’s not just penis talk. Their ‘interesting’ behaviour can also involve climbing, hitting, biting, slandering, constructing explosive materials – the kind of multi-purpose mania designed to crush a parent’s mind into a find powdery substance. It used to drive me batshit crazy. Now I see it as a signal. Their energy is building up and it needs to be released.

With this in mind, my PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE and I took our foul-mouthed offspring on a weekend designed to light a match under all that energy and burn it up into the stratosphere.

Here’s the itinerary; camping on Czech border, 8km hill-walk, journey to Wroclaw, up-late playing with our friends’ kids, then a garden party in honour of their great-grandfather Andrej.

We got home on Sunday evening, so tired we couldn’t find our feet with two hands and a flashlight.

Lilly was filthy dirty, her body home to a good collection of scar-tissue. Malina was quiet, possessing the specific maturity that comes from being pushed ass-first by her sister into a patch of nettles.

And for the last few days they’ve been, you know, good.

Wasn’t always this way.

Both girls used to be cranky, introverted little shits, moaning, allergic to life, finicky, socially maladjusted and generally hard to handle. I regularly worried about Lilly’s personality and how she was perpetually communing with the world like a witch giving birth to a kangaroo. Malina was worse in that she constantly gave the impression she was auditioning for the lead role in Rainman, albeit without the gambling super-intelligence.

We weren’t alone. There’s no amount of parents out there who have kids with behavioural problems. Some are deep-rooted and need more than a three-hour hike or a playground re-enactment of Return of the Jedi. But if like me, you’re a child of the eighties, think back to the stupid, crazy shit you regularly did. My wife openly admits to setting fire to fields. In between having my head walloped with a Space Hopper by Niall Feeney and Paul McDonald, I used to throw apples at cars and tease the local priest by flashing my arse at him as he sat eating his breakfast.

The girls in my class would regularly pester a certain teacher by ‘knick-knocking’ – ringing the doorbell and running away – fnar, fnar – stupid in the extreme, but enormously funny and a great cardiovascular work-out at the same time.

What did our parents know? They didn’t have time to take us canoing or to art galleries. They threw us outside with a buttered cream-cracker and a toe in the hole, because common sense told them life would be better for all if we got rid of all that bubbling dark-matter energy.

Yes, it verged a little on Lord of the Flies, but what kid in 2017 wouldn’t benefit from being taken out of their gluten-free, safety-mat existence? In Poland it’s very noticeable. You got a large population living in small apartments with both parents trying to pay the bills by working the daylight away. The kids are left to the kindergarten lottery, many of them crying out for a male figure to show them how best to fall off a tree or take out an enemy with a bow and arrow. The same in Ireland where suburban development and computer entertainment means it’s a car-to-tablet world, so the child’s energy builds up and you are left with a contingent of unlucky kids who are labeled hard to handle…

Grab your kids. Take them out and breed a bit of recklessness into them. Stir it up. Cut it loose. 

The Bad Father

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I’m a bad father. I know. It’s hard to believe. You look at me and see the ravishingly handsome, talented Irishman with interesting eyebrows. Collectively you’re thinking, ‘I’d love it if de Búrca were my father…what with his liberalism, his love of lesbians and other endangered species and his witty, democratic repartee.’

If only. If only this were me. But it’s not. For among you walks a monster.

You think I’m exaggerating? Okay, how about this; when my PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE is on a 24h duty, I get my daughters to bed quickly so I can start drinking earlier. I love them. I do. And the shame I’m feeling as I’m drunkenly posting Bronski Beat videos on Facebook is immense.

I’m a bad father. After kindergarten, I tell them I’m going to make the dinner and rattle the pots and pans around, sending out the supposed aural message; ‘daddy is cooking’. But I’m not. I’m listening to the Guardian Football Weekly podcast, convincing myself how it’s better for their development if I’m lying on the couch eating the left-over sticky-toffee pudding.

It gets worse. I regularly pilfer my daughters’ piggy banks. That last sentence was very difficult to write. Even harder is the actual stealing itself. Malina’s piggy bank has no opening at the bottom and I have to surreptitiously create an opening with a razor blade pilfering the coins via this minuscule slit like some petty Warsaw street-urchin. And all for what? A train ticket? A jar of herring in tomato sauce? It’s only when I’m traveling to Katowice, my face smeared in fish oil, that I know it’s not worth it.

Okay sure, I play with them, we play Lego for example, if they’ve done something good like not using their bow and arrow on the local kid who has a patch on his eye – but they don’t have much of it left as I steal the bricks and sell them on the black market. Life is like a box of chocolates said the world famous retard Forest Gump, except if you’re my kids, then it’s just a catalog of betrayal and deceit.

‘Why is my Lego collection getting smaller?’ asks Lilly, strong in her the Polish trait of sensing when someone in authority is taking her to the cleaners.

‘It’s your mother darling. She’s been eating the bricks again.’ So yes, not only am I a bad father, but also a bad husband. I blame their mother for each and every one of my dictatorial decisions; why can’t we go to the playground? Your mother wants us home. Why can’t we have a cat? Your mother hates them. Why was there an earthquake in Bolivia? Your mother ate too much lasagna.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of night, my heart beating like an overworked piston, my brain dancing like an homicidal monkey. I run to the bathroom. I splash my face with water and watch a drop cling to my earlobe. Poland. The only country where a man’s ears cry, and I wonder what have I become? But by morning, my guilt has evaporated like the water on my ear and I wait until my wife is gone to work before I steal her shampoo. On other occasions I hide her underwear, knowing it will give me leverage in future arguments – ‘But darling, you’re always losing things…’

She has married a viper. I sit alone for most of the morning then, full of self-loathing, yet simultaneously ignoring her request to hang out the washing. Yes, I leave the wet clothes in the washing machine. Not even Emperor Palpatine would perpetuate such malevolence. I am the Freewheeling Bad Husband. The Godfather of Bad Fathers. The Lance Armstrong of Lies. Most parents are forced at some stage to tell lies to their children albeit for protective purposes. I do it whenever I get bored:

‘Hey Lilly, you know that kid we meet in the playground?’

‘Marek?’

‘Yes. I saw him killing a sheep with a flowerpot. Bit of red light on the dashboard there. You might want to give him a wide berth.’

Why do I do it? Why does a magpie steal? A rabbit run? A dog smoke? Poland, that’s why. Living here has this effect on foreign men. Something toxic seeps into our being and we ‘go bad’. Next time you see me on the street, don’t look. I can’t bear it.

Fly Me To The Moon

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I sat on the runway at Shannon airport waiting for the Ryanair plane to take off. I’m not a good flier. There have been many, many flights to and from Poland and each one has plunged my mind into a downward spiral of dread and fear. Most of the time I can pull out of it, distract myself with PMI – Positive Mental Imaging, the type of psychological bluff golfers use to kill their putting hobgoblins – The ball won’t roll by or stop short! It goes in the hole!

The girls were fighting in the seats beside me and Malina burst out crying when Lilly bit a chunk out of her arm.

‘Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,’ I shouted at her, sounding like a low-income, nineteen eighties Irish parent. The flying anxiety had pushed my mean side to the fore. I sat there simmering in a low-level panic

Picture the plane landing safely at your destination…

when an incredible thumping noise emanated from under my seat. I turned to the woman sitting across the aisle.

‘Did you just hear that?’

‘Excuse me?’ She was Polish and almost half asleep.

‘There was a ferocious noise just now – didn’t you hear it?’

‘Probably luggage,’ she said.

Luggage? Is she nuts? It’s the plane! There’s something wrong with the plane! Long have I been taken with the notion that fear has a colour and that colour is brown. Brown is also the colour of accumulated metal fatigue, a colour I could now see in large patterns on the plane’s right wing.

‘I think there’s something wrong with the plane,’ I said to the Polish lady.

‘Everything is going to be okay,’ she replied absently. Her voice was a leaf falling off a tree.

‘I’m going to tell one of the cabin crew right now,’ I said, my voice not a falling leaf, more akin to the squeal of brakes from a getaway car driven by Donald Trump.

You are landing at your destination relaxed and happy

No I’m not! The landing gear is broken! The Dunlop is in the rough! This plane is not going to survive take-off!

The Positive Mental Imaging was gone, replaced by Sky News footage of feral children plundering plane crash debris. I’ve got to get up and talk to the Captain! But when I tried to undo the seat-belt, the damn thing was stuck. I was all set to start gnawing at the material to fashion a rip, when a hostess lowered her lacquered head to mine.

‘Is there anything I can help you with?’

‘I heard a noise from under the plane a few minutes ago,’ I told her.

‘Did anyone else hear the noise?’ she asked and I got the implication; it’s all in your head you big loop. Now calm yourself down like a good boy or I’ll zap you with the Ryanair stun gun.

‘Can you please mention it to the Captain? Just in case…’ I was keeping calm, but I knew my next words would be in the voice of the Chairman of the Chinese Tourette Syndrome Association.

‘Sorry sir, but we can’t enter the flight deck when the plane is preparing for take-off.’

She moved away. The engines fired up. The plane boosted faster…

Then…everything slowed down. Slow, slow until it ground to a halt. The passengers looked around at each other. The Captain’s voice came over the speakers;

‘We have encountered a minor technical problem and in the interests of safety this plane will not be departing on schedule. Apologies on behalf of the airline.’

The Polish woman across from me woke up.

‘Have we landed?’

‘No,’ I told her. ‘We have to go back to the departures area.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

And with the satisfaction of a hypochondriac who has finally been diagnosed with a malign melanoma, I told her, ‘It seems there was something wrong with the plane after all. Told you.’

Ten Things I Love About Poland

Ten things? It could have  been twenty, that’s how insane my love is for the Land of Po. Okay, let’s light the candle on this and see where it takes us…

10 Dumping

For the last month I’ve been staring at a car bumper dumped behind my building. I would have done something about it, only the tiny stretch of grass it’s lying on is owned by a delightful man who promised to ‘hunt me down like a dog’ if I ever set foot on his two-metre strip of land ever again. But this is the greatness of Poland; the ever-changing landscape. One day you have a blank wall, the next a swastika.

9 Tiles

I think there’s a law that says every dwelling in Poland must be made up of at least 60% tiles. Cold, uninviting and boringly practical, they say so much about the Polish character. They also make every apartment look like a giant bathroom. Isn’t this amazing?

8 German Toilets

A lot of old buildings have these toilets with a porcelain ledge upon which the contents of your bowel land. That’s right, you have to manually push your poo off the ledge and into the water before you flush. Disgusting? No. Engaging with my own feces on a daily basis has made me a better man.

7 Grudges

It’s impressive how long people here can hold onto a grudge. About three years ago, I accidentally turned off the light in our basement without knowing there was someone else down there. The man in question still refuses to say ‘hello’ when we meet. Worse, his eyes go black and I know he’s imagining what my head would look like on a stick.

6 Roads

Polish roads with their uneven surfaces and craters big enough to fit a mid-size Japanese family, and somehow they’re almost always under repair. As a keen cyclist I appreciate this diversity. Many times I’ve cycled to the Czech Republic but thanks to my numerous falls and the bent wheels, the journey always feels new.

5 Understanding

I was with an American friend in a restaurant and when we’d finished he asked for the bill; “Prosze o rachunek”, but because he was a millimeter out with his pronunciation, the waitress refused to attempt to understand what he meant. Instead she got the manager who also found it impossible to decipher what two men who had just finished their meal and holding credit cards, could mean. Such a beautiful evening and it made me eager to learn more of the world’s most precise language.

4 Liberals

While Poland is currently in the grip of a right-wing, authoritarian, government, it’s heartening to see a coherent alternative being put forward by those in opposition. At least it will be, when they get around to putting those ideas on paper and, uh, you know, tell us how, eh, they might, eh, try to, ahem, do those things, you know?

3 The Teacher Lottery

Unlike Ireland where primary schoolkids have a different teacher every year, Polish kids have the same teacher for three years. Parents here fret who their darling will get; soul-sucking witch or doe-eyed Mary Poppins. I find this lottery aspect very exciting and so what if my child’s development is irrevocably ruined – as long as I have five hours free every day to waste on boredpanda.com then I’m happy.

2 Coal

Others look on coal as a dirty, filthy destroyer of the landscape, responsible for thousands upon thousands of pollution-related deaths. Not me. It’s the dark flower that shows how loyal the Poles are; coal has been good to them and they’re not going to let something like fatal fetal abnormalities get between them and their bestest, blackest friend.

1 Guard Dogs

I like guard dogs. I like the way every house has a pissed-off German Shepherd stalking the front garden. I like how the dogs make me think twice about any unscheduled visits. Do I really need to visit these people? Couldn’t I be putting my time to better use than frivolous socializing? Do I even like these people? Is talking to them worth the risk of having my face bitten off? No. As with most things in Poland, the answer is always no.