Cemetery of Memories

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The first time I approached the cemetery in Lipnica Wielka, it was November of 1996, and I headed up for my first experience with All Saints’ Day in Poland. I took pictures and made mental notes for my journal:

I left my apartment around 4:30 and headed up to the cemetery to witness my first All Saints’ Day in Poland. I weaved my way through the maze of mud puddles that serve as my front yard and made it to the road, and suddenly it was if I was in Kraków instead of Lipnica. The street was filled with people, all leaving the cemetery as I made my way to the cemetery. I felt like the one Israelite who might have decided to turn back in the middle of the exodus. With my camera in hand and a bewildered look plastered across my face, I surely looked like a fool. But I didn’t care, for I was about to experience something I had heard about since arriving in Poland. (November 1997)

It was the first of many visits, for I found myself strangely drawn to the cemetery as the sun set. Summer sunsets were the best, giving Babia Gora just a touch of golden haze, but any sunset cast a lovely light over the headstones.

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From the cemetery’s small hill, I could see all of the central area of Lipnica Wielka — centrum as it’s known — and that somehow gave me a sense of peace and belonging that other views lacked. Indeed, it was odd for me that from the first time I ever attended the cemetery prayers and processions of All Saints’ Day, this plot of land filled with the remains of total strangers became a place of peaceful retreat. I never imagined I’d really have a personal connection to it. After all, I taught high school, and most of my interactions were with students: how often do high school students die? All the teachers at the school were young: what were the chances of some random accident taking one of them? No, I never really thought that I would think of Lipnica’s cemetery as much more than a quiet place of reflection.

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Yet that was just what happened. Disease, accident, and tragedy claimed several students’ lives during my time there.

The first was a girl named Halina. She wasn’t actually from Lipnica, but she was living at a rehabilitation center at the top of the village, just below Babia Gora. It was a center the Duchess of York had established for children recovering from the barrage of chemicals and radiation used to treat cancer. Halina was eighteen but trying to complete her first year of high school in Lipnica. Just before Christmas break, Halina disappeared. Several weeks later, during the two-week inter-semester winter break, I ran into the director of the rehab center.

“Halina died,” he said abruptly.

As she was from the west of Poland, several hours’ travel from Lipnica, I was unable to attend the funeral, and I’ve never visited her grave.

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The cemetery was one of the last places I managed to visit during our 2013 trip, though.  I’d come to pay respects to those students who’d died after the shock of Halina’s passing.

It took me little while, though, to realize how much had changed. The last remaining tree in the cemetery (a large evergreen) had been chopped down — a negative change. It always amazed me how the light of thousands of candles could illuminate the entire tree during All Saints’ Day, and that single tree, almost in the center of the cemetery, was a constant reminder of the renewal that follows death.

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The chainlink fence around a small group of graves (including a couple of Hungarian markers) had been replaced with a modest chain barrier — a positive change. The two iron crosses, in the center of the cemetery but toward the rear fence, always stood out, and the chain link fence seemed an inappropriate addition.

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But I hadn’t come to see how much the cemetery had changed; I’d come to pay respects to three people, all of whom were taken entirely too soon.

Marcela finished up her freshman year in high school as I left Poland in 1999. I didn’t know her well: I only taught her class a couple of times a week, and I worked with her for only that one year. But when, back in the States, I learned that she and another girl, also my student, had drowned while on a trip to the Baltic Sea, that small connection seemed much more significant. A young girl, on a summer trip, drowns: it seems to be almost cruelly ironic.

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Andrzej I knew much better, though. I taught him for three years, and when I returned to Poland in 2001, he’d graduated high school and we developed a friendly acquaintance as adults. Andrzej was truly popular with everyone. I don’t recall ever seeing him do anything other than smile. His death in a farming accident shocked and shook hundreds of people: his funeral mass was standing-room only, and for many weeks after, whenever I wandered into the cemetery, someone would be standing at his grave.

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Emil Kowalczyk was Przewodniczący Rady Gminy (Chairman of the Municipal Council) for Lipnica Wielka, but more than that, he was a constant champion of the cultural heritage of Lipnica. I really only knew him in a professional capacity mainly by helping occasionally with some translation work. It was he, however, who arranged for me the traditional outfit required for admittance to the VIP seating area during Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1997. The mayor offered me the spot; Kowalczyk provided me the clothes. Always a kind and friendly soul, he died in 2005 of cancer at the young age of 64.

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I visited the graves and felt a tinge of guilt that I didn’t bring flowers or a candle. I thought of the Jewish tradition of laying a rock on a grave as a mark of respect, but it seemed out of place, a Jewish tradition from a Catholic in a Catholic cemetery, as if I would just be going through some motions or other.

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In the end, I just left after mumbling a short prayer over each grave, the same prayer L and I pray for Dziadek every night: “Have mercy on his soul and give him peace.”

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On the way out, I noticed a fresly dug grave. Unlike in most US cemeteries, the graves in Lipnica are dug manually: a couple of guys with shovels, picks, and a few planks. Winter graves are hellishly difficult because of the depth of the frost line. Diggers must first thaw the earth before they can begin with the shoves and picks. In the summer, it must be relatively quick work.

Here [They] Come

walkin’ down the street…

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Such a difference in how L plays here in the States versus Babcia’s place in Polska. With all the houses tightly packed in Babcia’s neighborhood, I could easily hear L just about anywhere she was. She’d developed a few little haunts, but they were all within earshot of the house. Here, I watch her as she walks up the street to her friend’s house, and his parents do the same when they return. It’s a busier street to begin with, but there’s also the eternal fear that sparks the almost cliche instructions, “Don’t talk to strangers.” In Polska, there were times that I didn’t really know where L was, but I wasn’t really worried about it. It’s not that there aren’t evil people in Polska, they just seem fewer and farther between. You don’t read news accounts of abductions and murders like you do here.

And so L and S would often strike out on their own, yelling to one of us on their way out where they were headed.

Stacks

Driving through the Orawa region of Poland, you notice two things fairly quickly: first, the fields are long and narrow. That’s really nothing special about the region: such is the case throughout Poland. There have been efforts to help people consolidate their various fields through land reform laws (in essence, trading land with neighbors to have one large field instead of half a dozen scattered through the village), but the efforts have met with little effect in the south. The second that that you notice is that many of these fields are filled not with crops but with large stacks of thick, rough-sawn boards. Because of the nature of land ownership, there are often six or seven stacks about three meters wide, five or more meters tall, and probably eight to ten meters long.

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“Nie martw się,” Babcia replies. “Deska nigdy nie marnuje się.”

“Don’t worry. Planks never go to waste.”

Cemetery

Cemeteries and funerals are for the living, not the dead–it’s what I’ve heard all my life. For even if any or all the -isms are right and life continues after death, what reward can a nice funeral or attractive grave site be for someone who is experiencing ultimate reality? That being said, there is one place on the planet where, were it logical logistically and fiscally, I would want to be buried.

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Isolated on the top of a ridge with a view of the whole Tatra range, the cemetery at Ząb (“Tooth”) never ceases to provoke thoughts that should really, I suppose, be saved for a later point of my life: where would I want to be buried? What environment would I like for those who come to visit my grave? With what feeling would I like the experience to leave them?

Ząb’s cemetery leaves only one emotion: awe. Even wandering among the tragically small graves of children who lived a few weeks, a few days, a few hours doesn’t entirely dampen that feeling.

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The small graves do provoke in L a certain solemnity that is rare in such a wound-up girl. She stands looking at the grave of a little boy who didn’t even live a full day, visibly shaken by it.

“Would you like to prayer for their souls like we pray for Dziadek’s soul?” I suggest.

“Tak,” comes the plaintive, affirmative reply. (She’s answering my English with Polish with increasing frequency lately.)

We cross ourselves. “W imiu ojca i syna i ducha swietego,” we begin, with L switching to English at this point.

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“Are we praying for just him?”

“Maybe all of them?” I suggest with a sweep of my hand.

“Dobrze.” And back to English: “Have mercy on their souls and give them peace.” I think for a moment about what it would be like to lose a child after a day, a week, a month–to lose a child, period–and I think, “Perhaps we might better pray for the parents, pray that they have peace and that a quiet returns to their souls, for there’s no way, even after almost thirty years, a pain like that can ever go away.”

We cross ourselves anew, and L, back to her usual vivacious self, skips to cousin S and begins jabbering about something or other. Not only cemeteries are for the living; so too prayers.

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As for our own peace, all we have to do is look around.

Sunday Afternoon

When in southern Poland you look out and see not a single cloud in the sky, staying inside is simply a sin.

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And with only a few days left of our Polish adventure, it’s even more critical to make the most out of each moment, to squeeze every single opportunity out of every single moment (not to mention every single mixed metaphor). This also means beginning the lasts — the last time seeing this or that friend, the last walk to the river, the last, the last. Always some kind of last.

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Today, on the walk, I take some of the last opportunities for some shots of the two of them. For them, it was possibly a last chance to play in the water, to play with the puppy that lives along the way to the river, to play some jokes on each other.

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On the way back, we find a common sight: a stork hunting in the fields.

“Quiet! Quiet!” I call to the girls behind me. “Up ahead there’s a stork.” We sneak up to watch the stork, but at the last minute, Kajtek, Babcia’s dog, spots the stork himself and gives chase.

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It thrills the girls despite the fact that there’s no chance of watching the stork up close.

When we get back to the house, I jump into the car and head to a couple of locations I know to take a few landscape shots. After all, who could possibly pass up a virtually cloudless sky here? First stop — just over the border in Slovakia. The fields are different here: instead of the patchwork of small plots all with different owners growing different crops, with each owner probably owning half a dozen plots spread about the village, the Slovaks have consolidated their fields, resulting in huge fields of corn, wheat, potatoes, and other crops.

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Returning, I stop at the start of Lipnica Mała to get a few shots of Babia Góra. In the end, neither location provides clear views of either the Tatra Mountains or Babia Góra: the air is still just a bit too thick, too heavy.

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I head back to take the girls and Babcia to Orawskie Lato, a local folk festival that’s in its twenty-second year. We arrive just in time for the “Popisy Hajduków” contest. I doubt you can think of a dance that’s harder on the knees and more exhausting on the legs and lower back.

Afterward, while out with a friend at a nearby village, the skies clear and the mountains look close enough to touch from this distance.

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As we head back to Jabłonka, clouds lightly cover the Tatras.

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A good days of lasts — temporary lasts, that is.

Trains

At one point, they were the summit of technological development: steel giants that turned coal and water into unbelievable power. Now, in Chabówka, the steam locomotives that drove Poland for a hundred years sit idle, some rusting, others still miraculously glistening in a mid-summer sun. But if you time your visit to the outdoor rail museum just right, though, you can take a fifteen-kilometer ride in a train pulled by a coal-powered steam locomotive.

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It was an outing I’d been hoping for since our arrival — something new for me and something intriguing for the Girl. For a while it looked like we might not make it, but with a little good luck and sadly a little bad luck, we made it. We arrived just in time to see a tired-looking man working on the engine, proclaiming to the conductor at the end, “There’s nothing we can do: we’ll have to replace it.”

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For an instant, I thought that meant the end of our train journey before it even began, but fortunately, the replacement will come later. So the girls and I were able to search out a hard wooden bench in the third class section and settled down for a once-in-a-lifetime (maybe?) trip. Of course, the places are now sold on a first-come-first-serve basis, but the decades-old passengar cars were still clearly divided into first-, second-, and third-class seating.

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A far cry from the modern train that pulled up beside us: no first- or any- class. No real division between the carriages, in fact — just a long, sleek train. “It’s missing the romaticism,” Babcia proclaimed later, looking at the pictures.

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Our journey was short, a mere fifteen kilometers (less than ten miles) one way. We passed Turbacz, a popular climb, and we stopped at several stations that are now served only by this tourist steam locomotive: the majority of the sleek modern trains pass right through most of these locations.

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At the end of the line, we all got out and gaped as the locomotive pulled to the front, only facing backwards. Of course, these locomotives (like all of them, I guess) can go either way with equal facility. Of course the modern trains simply have an engine at each end — indeed, the engine and the wagon are difficult to discern. Less romantic, I’m sure.

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On the way back, we were unable to find a free seat, so we took positions in fourth class — stand-where-you-can. It was in fact a mixed blessing, for we stood in between cars and got to see the black smoke drift overhead and smell the arcid odor of coal power.

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Afterward, we walked around the train-yard/museum, climbing into the locomotives, looking into the fire chambers, clambering into the coal cars — it reawakend the little boy in me, and the girls had a blast climbing up and down the imposing engines.

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Dolina Chochołowska

It was a daunting prospect from the start: two little girls not really accustomed to strenuous activity, a nine-kilometer hike that was always slightly inclined and sometimes quite steep, and an un-Polish-ly hot sun. It was an outing I’d been keeping in the back of my mind from the beginning of our visit: a hike up Dolina Chochołowska (Chochołowska Valley) to Polana Chochołowska (Chochołowska Glade).

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Dolina Chochołowska is one of several tourist routes that promises a relatively easy walk for most everyone. Much of the lovely path, which winds along a mountain stream most of the way, is paved, and there are alternatives to walking for those who don’t feel up to it. It’s a long walk, in other words, but it’s entirely possible for two little girls to make it up the whole path on their own. Indeed, families make the walk pushing strollers, and I saw one man with arms the size of trees rolling up in a wheel chair. In other words, it’s accessible.

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Not to mention beautiful. Most of the path runs just beside a stream, and cliffs jut out on either side of the valley, which is nestled in a coniferous forest. The stream today served as a constant distraction to the tiring walk: the girls wanted to scramble among the rocks along the bank at every possible occasion, and given the fact that I wanted the outing to be truly fun and not just an exercise in, well, exercise, I let them head to the stream whenever they wanted. They pretended to rescue stranded fish, save threatened turtles, and plan bridges and dams.

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Along the way, we met a few people who use the stream for more practical purposes. We happened across Mr. Andrzej, a shepherd who was fetching a wooden bucket of water for drinking and adding water for rinsing clothes in a second, plastic bucket. He runs a bacówka, a small hut in which shepherds sleep and make the incredibly delicious local smoked cheese, oscypek. His bacówka is right on the tourist path, so he gets a lot of business and brings his whole family to help. His wife was waiting impatiently for him at the door but he paused long enough to talk to us a moment and let us take a picture.

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As we continued up, though, the girls started to tire. “How much longer do we have to walk?” they asked. I knew it was quite a long way to go, so I used the bribe I’d been saving for just that moment: “If you guys can make it all the way up to the shelter at the end of the path without complaining, we’ll take carriage back down.” Instant change in mood. And an instantly new topic for discussion: what type of horse would we like to pull our carriage?

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And so we continued, up, up and up. The paved road ended and the dirt road began. The dirt path ended and the steep stone-paved path began. Up. Up. Up.

It was at this point that we caught up to the young man in the wheel chair. He was struggling up the side of the stone, itself a challenge with rocks of various sizes providing a constant additional challenge to the climb. I mentioned this to the girls, not in a harsh, didactic way, but as a way both to remind them of how blessed they are and to point out the strength of some people. “Be thankful and ever grateful that you have legs that can tire, that can hurt and burn.”

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But still, nine kilometers — that’s a long way for a six- and seven-year-old. They made a brave effort to put up a strong face, but I could tell: they were getting exhausted.

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Finally, the sign: twenty-five minutes to go.

I knew what awaited them. K and I once rode our bikes from Jablonka to Dolina Chochołowska. I knew it was an incredibly beautiful glade, often with sheep grazing, their bells adding a tinny soundtrack to the view. Once we arrived, we sat in the shade for a while, drank some water, and prepared ourselves for the final climb to a small chapel at the base of the tree line.

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From there, we could look out at both directions of the valley, toward the Tatra Mountains towering before us and back at the valley we’d just passed through.

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I wish I could say they stood in awe of the beauty. I wish I could say they suggested we sit and just soak in the view. I wish I could say they were left speechless. But they had other things on their minds, a second bribe: ice cream at the shelter.

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So we headed back down to the base of the glade, grabbed a little snack, and talked about how utterly exhausted they were. 

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They clearly weren’t the only ones tired. Polish domestic tourism is so much different from its American counterpart. In North Carolina, you can drive all the way up to the summit of Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the state. In Poland, such an idea would be profane. Either you walk up, ride a bike up, or hire a horse-drawn carriage. Your car stays behind, as it should.

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As we started back down, I thought about how easy bedtime promised to be tonight. “You girls look so tired that I bet we won’t even have to read to you tonight,” I laughed, and they both agreed.

“But remember, Wujek,” S reminded me, “we’re taking a carriage back to the bottom.”

And so we set off looking for a carriage. The first one we found was already hired. “Busy,” he literally said in Polish when I asked him how much a trip back down the valley would cost.

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“Where can we find an available carriage?” I asked. He pointed down the valley: “You’ll just have to walk down and look for one.”

We continued down, and I started to wonder what the reaction would be if we couldn’t find one. The gentleman didn’t seem to indicate that there was any particular place where free carriages gather, waiting for passengers.

“You know,” I said, preparing the girls, “we might not find one.”

“And then what?”

“And then we’d have to walk all the way back down.”

The reaction: “Okay.” A surprise — they’re growing up, I thought.

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But thankfully, we find one only a few minutes later. The girls raced ahead to ask if he was free. After a few seconds, L turned and raced back up to me. “He’s available! He’s available! He’s available! He’s available!” I knew then that, no matter the cost (though I wasn’t expecting an exorbitant price), I would be hiring the gentleman.

“How much to the bottom of the valley?” I asked.

He’d been chatting with the girls, an older man probably approaching his mid-sixties. He looked at the girls with a smile, then said, “Eighty zloty.” About twenty-five dollars — a steal, I thought.

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So we climbed in, and the girls immediately asked if one of them could sit beside the driver.

“Certainly, but only one.”

“Oh heavens,” I thought, “here it comes. ‘Me first! Me first!’ ‘No, me first!’ ‘No, me first!’ ‘No, me first!'” Sure enough, S and L on cue: “Me first!” Almost reading my mind, the driver said, “Well, why don’t you ride first and then we’ll switch?”

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Clearly this gentleman had had much experience with eager young riders.

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As we drove down, it was as if we were in Cinderella’s carriage: everyone cleared out of the way, many stopped briefly and glanced at us — just as we’d done during our ascent.

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We passed other carriages and the drivers called out to each other. And all the while, L sat in the back, patiently waiting.

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And about mid-way, the driver stopped, the girls switched to the drivers gentle reminders: “Slowly. Slowly” He shook the reins, called out to the horse, and we were on our way again.

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When the dirt path stopped, so did we, leaving us about another three kilometers to walk. But there was the river, the blessed bribe that kept them entertained and moving. They started a new game: patting their wet hands on rocks, they claimed them for their own. I stood and watched, wondering how long it would take for the rocks to dry, for the traces of our visit to disappear.

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The irony of it all: we were vacationing, taking a break from our every day realities with thousands of other tourists, and all around us, people lived their own work-day realities. And it wasn’t just the cheese mongers and carriage drivers and bike rental attendants. Loggers pulled their freshly cut trees from out of the forest, giving us all a glimpse of what real work looks like.

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But in the end, we all left together, the loggers, the cyclists, the mothers pushing strollers, the brave little girls.

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The marks they left on the rocks disappeared before we’d made it much more than a few dozen steps; the marks left on their souls will hopefully last much longer.

Outdoor School

Under the Linden tree, a small school blossomed today. Because everyone is an expert about something and a complete idiot about other things, the girls took turn being teacher and student.

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Lessons covered a wide range of topics. There were English spelling and vocabulary lessons, lessons on Polish orthography, simple mathematics, art, and chaos theory — otherwise known as scribble-scrabble

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It’s always fascinating how kids want to play things that they don’t really want to do in life. Already, just in kindergarten, L was complaining almost daily, “I don’t want to go to school.” Ask them to clean and it’s fun for a few moments, but then too boring. Suggest that they play like they’re cleaning and they’ll do it for hours.

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School started up again in the evening, when guests arrived after the opening of a mutual friend’s photography exhibition. The Girl took over as full-time teacher, though, providing lessons in English for all guests, then testing them on their recently acquired knowledge. This was somewhat tricky as she’s still not the best speller in the world. Even guests who’d had some English were stumped with “shgar.” The Girl, unphased but ever aware that it was a test, switched to English and said, “Tata, how do you spell ‘sugar’? I don’t think I got it right.” I spelled it out, then she proclaimed “Dobra!” and continued her test.

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Soon, L brought the chalkboard out of the “maly domek” and began quizzing everyone. D’s neighbor, who accompanied her to the exhibition, got grilled on “I” — the poor lady was forced to repeat it at least half a dozen times. A demanding teacher, that L.

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The dog, of course, was entirely uninterested in learning any English commands. “Look for your ‘give'” doesn’t even make sense in Polish (Szukaj daj) unless someone explains to you that the dog as associated the command “daj” (give) with the toilet plunger he loves playing fetch with. 

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As the final week of our time here in Poland disappears — where did five weeks go? — it’s evenings like this that I most appreciate. Frustrations and irritations of the day (fish and guests smell after stink after three days; there’s no telling what we do after 35) seem to disappear in the cool Polish evening and I find myself hoping, wishing, that every day could end like this.

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