It began with so much angst, and then developed into the most heartwarming experience. Come with me to Poland?
My 12th floor hotel room in Warsaw was wonderfully luxurious but I slept fitfully, with one eye on the clock, as you do when needing to rise early and excited for the journey. Tiny beads of red tail lights trailed into the distance until a hazy dawn crept through my window. Patches of mist nudged the buildings as I gazed down on the city in all its immensity. I made coffee and the mournful tones of Leonard Cohen filled the room as I showered and gathered together my belongings. Downstairs in reception a smiling face awaited. Meg, promptly at 7, to deliver me safely to my coach station, Zachodnie.
Down into the subway we went, that subterranean city maze that bewilders me so, but with Meg by my side it didn’t seem so bad. The ticket lady understood me, and sunlight beamed down on the tracks at Sródmiescie. Two stops later we sat side by side on a bench, speculating on which coach it might be. Trying to cram a world of emotions into dying minutes. Those hugs may have to last us a long time…..
On the bus my neighbour is an elderly Polish lady, who tells me in minute detail about her health and her family. No matter that I can only translate one word in ten. I nod and shake my head vigorously, and attempt a brief family history, and moments later she is fishing in her capacious handbag to pull out a blue and white plastic bracelet with a St. Christopher attached. She presses it upon me. Apparently it will bring me good fortune, but I must look very needy, because immediately she’s back in the bag pulling out a red and white necklace and crucifix too. I am mildly alarmed, wondering if I should offer money or will I give offence and destroy our budding friendship? I risk all and she merely shakes her head. We ride in companionable silence but I am shamefully relieved when she gets off at the first stop….
Two hours later the bus stops on the outskirts of Bełchatów, and lots of passengers climb aboard. An imperious looking lady demands to know where I am getting off and I mumble ‘na centrum’. With a toss of her head she declines to sit next to me and moves on down the bus. She thinks I’m stupid because the bus isn’t going to the centre. I only realise this when a voice from the back of the bus penetrates my consciousness… ‘Johanna! Johanna!’ It is Andrzej, my cousin Jadwiga’s husband, waving his arms frantically. Sent to collect me from the stop, he has had to board the bus to attract my attention. I have arrived….
Things I can do without language…. almost. Sit on the floor and piece together a Snow White jigsaw with a 2 year old. Blow bubbles. Not so successful with the king-sized version- much twirling and blowing, to no avail, but producing gales of laughter from 2 small girls, so a result in entertainment terms. Bounce on a trampoline. Peel potatoes. Eat strawberries and icecream with Marysia and Pawel. Take a walk around the neighbourhood. But the biggest success? Play dominoes with my Uncle Jakub, rolling back the years to when he and Dad played for many an hour. He won, of course! And kiss and cuddle my beloved Aunt Lusia….
Memories…. Andrzej, retired now, with time to ride on his motorbike, feed the rapidly growing ducklings with his granddaughters, and attempt to learn English on his Ipad with Duolingo. Much scratching of head. Silly English language!
His wife, lovely Jadzia, drives the bus for the local school for handicapped children. On an event day in a nearby park, the children flock round her, eager to introduce themselves and curious about her company. They dance with no inhibitions, inside a tent, and drive buggies, under casual supervision. Blond and beautiful, Nadia attracts much attention. Her mind is firmly on candyfloss. ‘Zielony, prosze’ she insists. Green….
Cousin Ewa, quietly but proudly showing me the shell of her home, with its rudimentary furnishings. Her husband Henryk was building it for them when he died 3 years ago, and there is no money to finish it off. The hardware business she was running has failed and she has moved in to the house to save rent. ‘At least I am close to family.’ We sit by the open fire in the garden, bottles of beer in hand, turning the kielbasa on the homemade barbecue as evening fades. Squeals as cousin Marysia plays hide and seek with the children. And then peace….