First Day 2017

The Boy started kindergarten today. It was for him a big adventure, to say the least, but we really didn’t realize the extent of it until it was time to start getting ready for bed. The thought of going back to school tomorrow sent him into a tear-filled panic. We couldn’t figure out what it could be. At one point he talked about how long the day was. At another point, he explained that the teacher won’t let him run his hand along the wall as he walks down the hall.

“She said there might be staples sticking out!” he sobbed. “I like touching the wall.”

So all in all, I think it was just the overwhelming nature of starting a new school with new kids and a new teacher.

For the Girl, the change came after school. She’s a part of the school safety patrol, which is really a great honor for her because no one applies for the positions: it’s simply through teacher recommendation. Since she has chorus and news crew in the morning before school, she had to sign up for the afternoon crew. And anyone who’s ever worked in public education knows what dismissal looks like on that first day. My first day at my middle school over ten years ago now, dismissal lasted until five in the evening because of assorted bus problems. For the Girl, it wasn’t nearly so ridiculous: she was there for forty-five minutes. Still, it must have been tiring.

Tomorrow we do it all again, but everyone is so tired from this first day that I’m surprised anyone is still up.

Infinity

Driving home from Mass today, the Boy and I somehow got into a discussion about infinity. I can’t remember how it came up or even who brought it up, but there we were, discussing one of the great paradoxes of life and math.

To try to explain it to him, I talked about numbers: “You can count on and on and on and on,” I said. But this didn’t seem to support what I said earlier, about infinity having no beginning or ending.

“But it does have a beginning,” he protested from the back. “When I count, I say, ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5.’ You start at one.”

I tried dipping into the topic of negative numbers to show him that we really could start anywhere.

“Negative numbers? Like 5, 4, 3, 2, 1?”

Throwing Away

It’s much simpler to dump now and then sort later. Much later. That is what E has been doing with his toys — cars, action figures, blocks, and the like — for some time now, until all four of his main toy bins are hopelessly mixed. Last night, we decided that we had to get things under control, organized. I suggested it while putting the Boy to bed; he readily agreed.

This morning, then, we got to work by dumping all the bins into a pile.

“That sure is a lot of toys!” said the Boy.

“Perhaps too many,” I suggested.

“Yeah, maybe too many.”

We began sorting, making little piles of action figures, cars, train tracks, blocks, and more, and I suggested that we might want to get rid of some of the toys.

“Yeah, maybe the broken ones.”

He insisted on throwing them away himself.

We made a deal with the cars: for every one car he gets rid of, he gets to keep three cars. That of course means he cuts his cars by twenty-five percent, which would be significant. I didn’t think he’d agree. I thought he’d fuss about the suggestion, but instead, he went along with it quite willingly. He selected trailers for which there were no longer trucks, cars that were, in his words, for babies, and a few cars that just looked like they’d seen their best days. He was thoughtful as he culled his toys and surprisingly mature about the whole process.

Perhaps not so surprisingly: he’s always imitating L, K, or me, always trying to be older than he is, always talking so seriously about such things as he sees K and me discussing important matters. He wants to grow up. He wants to be a man. The worst insult I can give him is to suggest, when he’s fussing and crying over some trifle or other, that he’s acting like a baby.

“I’m not a baby!” he protests.

“Then why are you fussing like one?”

The answer is always the same: “I don’t know.”

In the end, we got rid of two bags of toys. Broken cars, trailers with cars missing, mysteries (What is that? And what did it go to?) all got dumped into the trash bin. The rest we took to Goodwill.

It was a proud little moment for K and me, to see our little man realizing that he’d outgrown some toys, that he had more than he really needed, that he could live without them.

Growing with the Pup

Having a puppy is like having a newborn in the house — that’s what we’d heard. There is a certain amount of truth in this: Clover requires a lot of time and attention. And like a baby, she can’t be just left unattended. But the attention is easy to give: she’s such a sweet puppy, always eager to get a belly rub or a scratch behind the ear. Eager to please. Genuinely remorseful-looking when corrected. Or is she just playing us? Probably a bit of both.

And she’s so curious. Those two things combine to torture our cats. Bida tends just to hiss. It’s all it takes after a snoutful of claws a couple of times. But Elsa runs, and so what does Clover do? Chase her, of course. Isn’t she just trying to play? It’s not just Elsa and Bida, and that’s a little worrying. There’s a little black cat that comes around often enough, and Clover tried to make friends with her, to no avail.

She remembers the encounter with Bida that left her with a slightly bloody ear, so she kept her distance.

The Boy is having a bit of trouble with her, too. She’s still trying to herd him, and the herding is getting more intense. She nips at his shoes, chases him when he walks in the room — the tail is always wagging, but like Elsa, the Boy is starting just to avoid her at times.

Unless there’s a toy to play with, like a stick.

Still, despite it all, we’re all pretty much wrapped around her paw.

How could we not be?

Too Big

Clover is a Border Collie, which means that chasing and herding are as instinctual to her as barking and tail wagging. That dog will herd anything as long as it’s only slightly bigger than she. She chases the Boy around the yard, nipping at his ankles, then crouching down in front of him as soon as he stops.

Apparently, it’s the same with basketballs and soccer balls.

Clover

It took them a while, but eventually they wore me down. I knew they would. When everyone in your family wants a dog but you, you realize that you can only resist for so long. I had one criterion: it must be a smart dog. A really smart dog. That, for me, ruled out mutts: there’s no telling what kind of genes they’ve got. So if you’re going to get a dog with the criterion of it being smart, why not just move to the top of the hierarchy and get a Border Collie?

K began the process while the kids and I were still in Poland. She looked about on Craig’s List for something, and while she was able to find Pit bulls by the dozen, BCs were almost non-existent. A colleague at work has BCs and put K in contact with the woman from whom she’d gotten her dogs.

“Do you happen to have a litter now?”

As a matter of fact, five puppies were available. Then four. Then three. So yesterday we drove three hours to meet the BC lady and her husband and picked out a lovely little girl with an asymmetrical strip down her face and the sweetest eyes ever seen on a dog.

Bringing her home was like bringing home E or L as a newborn: there was not a lot of sleeping in the house. Clover — and it’s a minor miracle we all agreed on a name — was traumatized, having lost her mother and all her siblings as well as her known, comfortable environment and owners in one instant. There was a lot of whimpering and cowering. But the sun eventually rose and we were soon all outside with the dog, laughing at her silliness.

The changes in the last twenty-four hours have been more significant than I would have ever expected. I, for one, have gone from being a lukewarm participant in the process to an enthusiastic dog owner willing to show off our little darling to whomever we can. The Girl got up at six on a Sunday morning in order to take Clover out.

And our house is developing the unmistakable scent of dog.

A Last Long Ride and Walk

The first fall was nothing to worry about — a simple matter of losing momentum in an area where it’s challenging to regain it. Tall grass, a bit of an incline. I’m not surprised he fell. He cried just a little bit, but he managed to calm himself and ride on anyway.

The second fall was more serious. We were riding in one of the two wide tracks a tractor leaves in the fields of grass when he suddenly hit a small clump of grass that didn’t give way but instead insisted on twisting his front wheel violently to the right. His bike stopped without warning, and his little belly slammed into the stem. This time, there was quite a bit of crying. Still, I managed to calm him with our deep-breath methods.

“Take a deep breath,” I say, and he breathes in through his mouth with a quivering breath, then lets it out. Two or three times and he’s usually calm, usually past the crying.

My question was simple: will he continue riding. We’d already made it to the river and were heading, against his initial wishes, to the small concrete bridge just a bit further up the trail. Here he was, hurt, scared, crying. Would he continue?

He did. He accepted my advice to slow down just a bit and continued on.

“I’m proud of you,” I said, and trying to reorient it to his own point of view, rephrased it, “And you should be proud of yourself.”

The third fall was a bit more serious. We’d made it to a part of the path that was particularly challenging: low-hanging branches, deep ruts filled with mud. I walked my bike across and suggested he do the same. I was both worried and proud when he decided that he would try to ride through the pass.

He made it through the mud, but just barely. He came to a sudden and unexpected halt beside my bike, them promptly fell toward my bike. His upper arm landed perfectly on the largest cog of my crankset. It could have been a lot worse: in the end, he had a little scratch where his arm slid off the crankset with a long streak of grease on his arm — I haven’t exactly cleaned my chain adequately since arriving — and a long crying session.

What impressed me most was that in each and every situation, he got back on the bike and continued riding. Nevermind that the bike is a piece of junk we bought for him used at the jarmark. Nevermind that he was in real pain a couple of times. Nevermind that he’s only five years old. He kept on going, knowing the challenges ahead of him (for this was the second time we rode this path) and fully aware of the pain he was experiencing.

In the evening, I took a walk back up to the high fields to the north of Jablonka. I’ve ridden my bike there a couple of times — and there is a passage that I had to walk due to the steep slope and the size of the gravel (or should I say boulders) that made up the path — but that was always without a real camera. The clouds were just right, and I thought I’d give it a try.

The sun was still too high for soft, embracing light, but I took what I could get.

I reached the summit and noticed in the direction of Lipnica an enormous amount of smoke. Perhaps someone burning the fields? It’s illegal, but people still do it. But in late July? Unlikely.

As I walked toward the smoke, hoping with my super-zoom to figure something out, the siren at the Jablonka fire department began wailing. Shortly after that, the rescue truck seemed to crawl toward Lipnica, and for a moment, I considered jumping in our borrowed car to see what it could be. It wasn’t fields, but the smoke was so white that I wondered what it could be.

On my way back home — which led by a house I’d noticed a couple of weeks ago, with a fountain in the front yard that reminded me of the conclusion of Analyze This — I saw several over the firefighters standing in front of the station. I thought about stopping to ask what had been the emergency, but in the end, I just walked on. After all, the Boy as waiting for a promised game of soccer.

Chapter 29, In Which the Girls Arrive

For a couple of days and the night between, we have a house full of girls. Four girls, five if we count Babcia, who’s always going to be a girl at heart, I think.

At first, it starts out as something of a perfect storm of a day. It’s freezing cold — 12 celsius, 53 Fahrenheit — and raining. The girls, it appears, will have to find entertainment indoors. First entertainment: dish washing. Eight hands, one sink, though — it won’t work for everyone. Division of labor: the older girls wash, the younger girls, well, play.

“That’s not fair.” My own kids can almost immediately predict my response: life seldom is. As for the others — they reply similarly. Must be a parenting thing.

Finally it warms up a bit and, more importantly, the sun comes out.

We all head out for some fun.

L gets busy trying to make the arrows K bought for her at odpust useable. They mysteriously have a dangerously sharp arrowhead but completely lack any nock. The girls get the sharp arrowheads taken care of but have a bit of difficulty adding the nocks. In the end, they test fire one, decide it’s not worth it, and go off to look for other things to entertain them.

They find it soon enough.

An enormous dragon fly. We immediately get into a discussion as to whether dragon flies can bite or sting or not.

One thing that can sting, of late, is E’s socker kick. He’s really grown to love the sport while here in Pland — he sees all the boys playing it everywhere and he’s decided to give soccer another chance in the autumn. Babcia’s kick is nothing to joke about either. At oen point she kicks it powerfully into the bottom of the balcony and sends bits of plaster flying.

After dinner, a walk into areas of Jablonka I’d never been to until recently. They’re certainly not new areas: some of the houses have the evidence of the village’s growth: old house numbers when it was enough to write “Jablonka” and a number on an envelope to get mail to a resident.

And like every village, I would imagine, mysteries, like a gate without a fence. Did it fall? was it simply the wire fence just behind it?

And there are other mysteries, but more in the sense that the Catholic Church uses the word: things that seem impossible and are in fact reality even though the exact mechanisms might not be known. For example, an abandoned barn in the middle of a field.

One corner of the foundation was surrendering, letting the whole structure sag toward that weakened point. Yet it’s likely not as old as one might think. The shingles are the same asbestos-based shingles that Babcia and Dziadek had on their house, built in the eighties, until just a few years ago.

Finally, a modern rural Polish mystery — again, in the Catholic sense. Here’s a building that’s erected just in front of the old barn. In the front half, there’s a clothing store called Ela, which is a “fashion and style” shop. In the back half, a shop selling “windows, doors, gates, and blinds.” The owner of the barn opened two shops? Opened one shop? Built the building and rented the space?

It’s probably only a mystery to me, an outsider.

Raspberries and a Bike Ride

The Girl is in Spytkowice, a village about twenty minutes up the road. (That’s the American in me, giving distances in time and not kilometers, in this case.) That means no jarmark unless the Boy and I want to go. And we really don’t want to go. We want to sleep. Since K has headed back home, he’s been sleeping in my bed. “He kicks all night!” L explained many times and then begged me to take over the evening duties. So now he sleeps with me. And that somehow that helps him sleep a bit longer than he might normally.

When we get up about half an hour later than usual, it’s time to help Babcia gather the raspberries in the garden. The Boy willingly wiggles into the spots that are just his size.

Afterward, we take a ride to the river. We’ve walked there many times, during this visit and past visits, but we’ve spoken several times about riding our bikes there, but it was only today that we manage it. In the end, we ride a little over five kilometers and get some fantastic views along the way.

B

But riding with the Boy, no matter how much I enjoy it, is not much exercise, so when we get back to Babcia’s house, I head out for another ride. This time, I head back to the Lipnica area, cutting through fields and following the ruts worn by years of tractor traffic.

There are a few impressive views along this ride, too. So much has changed, though, and yet nothing has changed. I make my way up Lipnica Mala at a leisurely 22 kilometers per hour. Years ago, I used to roll up the same road at around 28 kilometers per hour. Or at least I think so. It sounds good at least to say that.

Support

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but more obvious is the fact that there are no strangers in foxholes. I’ve read that in high tension battle situations, soldiers are not fighting for any sort of grand patriotic notion but simple to protect the men beside them. Challenges bring people together, in short.

I saw that myself a week or so ago when L and I together went through the toughest course at the local line park. We bonded in a way we hadn’t ever really done before.

Today, though, instead of experiencing it, I witnessed it. We went back to the line park with S, L’s and K’s cousin, who was a little hesitant at first about the whole idea. S is not really like L, who will dive into some things without thinking. S is a bit more hesitant. So when I suggested this morning that we might go to a line park after lunch — if it stopped raining — her first reaction, other than, “What’s a line park,” was hesitant. When L and I explained what it was, her reached changed just a little — up went the eyebrows.

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“Maybe…” was all we got.

In the end, she agreed, and in the end, she loved it. And in the final count of things, shen agreed that it would be fun to try it again.

The Boy, though, is not big enough to go on any of the courses except the “Junior Course.”

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But there were a couple of things that everyone was eligible to do.

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Lazy Sunday

First, the Boy decided he wanted to help Babcia with the rosol. After making the broth of chicken, duck, and beef, she adds vegetables, and the Boy always loves helping in the kitchen.

“Babcia, do you have a cutting board?” he asked, and before she knew it, he was carefully cutting the bits of rejected cabbage and other veggies.

Afterwards came the walk — but first, the Boy had to open Babcia’s tricky back gate.

Out on the walk, I decided we needed to change things up. Instead of heading straight to the river, we turned left where we normally continue straight. I had a feeling we would end up on the other side of the river, but E was lost. Until we saw the river a little bit later. Then crossed a bridge over the river. Then saw the spot at the river we normally visit — only from the other side.

The dog of course enjoyed all the puddles

Life at Babcia’s

A clothes drier is a standard item in the States. I don’t know anyone who, having a washing machine, doesn’t have a drier. That’s simple enough to understand: electricity and gas are both cheap in the States, and driers are almost always packaged with washers. In Poland, though, it’s a different story. In much of rural Poland, gas lines simple don’t exist: all gas products use propane tanks. And as far as electricity goes — forget it. It’s ridiculously expensive compared to what we pay in the States. Bottom line: Babcia doesn’t has a drier, and that means one thing — there’s a lot more ironing going on in Babcia’s house than in our house. Everything — jeans, tee-shirts, underwear (and I’m not joking here; some people do iron their underwear), bed clothes, everything — gets ironed.

With all the additional clothes, that would be a ridiculous amount if work, so we try to iron as much as we can. (I say “try” because Babcia is liable sometimes to pull everything off the lines and iron it all while we’re out hiking or some similar silliness.)

Today, E learned to iron. L insisted that she knew how to already, and when she began ironing her own clothes, it seemed that she did indeed know how to. The Boy, though, needed lots of instruction. They both need a lot of work with folding, though.

The outcome: after a few minutes, they were fussing and arguing over who got to iron.

Oravsky Hrad — Redux

A fourth (or is it fifth? or third?) visit to Oravsky Hrad. This time, a few changes. A simplified camera set up to accompany a simplified tour due to the ages of our tourist. And a few random thoughts that unwound along the way.

Thought One

In the crypt of the chapel at Orava Castle there are three coffins, two small ones and a large one. The tour being in Slovak and only partially comprehensible to me, I’m not sure if I understood it all, but I believe the two coffins are those of one owner’s children, an eight month old and a four year old. I had one of those moments: I remember what family life used to be, even for the riches and most fortunate. Infant mortality was unbelievably high (compared to now), and even living past five or six was not assumed. Having children might mean burying them before they were a year old, and it might mean burying multiple children. They could have died for any number of diseases that have now been virtually eradicated through improved hygiene, a better understanding of disease and its transmission, and effective vaccines. Yet for them, each child’s death was something of a mystery. Sure, they recognized and categorized diseases based on symptoms, but the actual cause was a mystery, as was any possible prevention.

And so I am grateful that I live in a time when protecting my children against measles, for example — a potentially fatal disease that, according to the WHO, would have resulted in “an estimated 20.3 million deaths” between 2000-2015. I’m grateful that I live in a time when I can take my child to the doctor and get a diagnosis and medication to help the child. I’m grateful that I’ve never once wondered whether my children will die of measles or small pox before they turn five. As I looked at the smallest casket, I felt fairly sure that her parents would have given almost anything to have that kind of security.

Thought Two

Orava Castle was the set for Nosferatu, a 1922 film adaptation of Dracula. I remember hearing that the idea of a blood sucking tyrant came from Vlad the Impaler. Here was a man who could do just about anything to just about anyone and became famous for a particularly brutal way of killing. He seems to be the exact opposite of what we have in most countries in the Western world today, where the rule of law treats everyone — theoretically — the same. Anyone from a homeless person to the President of the United States can be subject to the same law.

Yet what is most surprising about Vlad is that he was a real law-and-order guy. While there were plenty of people who were killed for arbitrary things, a great number were killed due to transgressions of Vlad’s severe moral code.

Further, Vlad was involved in fighting the Turks and preventing the spread of Islam in Europe. Despite his brutality, he was considered an orthodox Christian, and the Pope had little to nothing to say about his viciousness. He was, after all, fighting the Turks — the rest is insignificant, right?

When the Turks’ invasion began overwhelming Vlad’s forces, he began a scorched-Earth policy, destroying villages on both sides of the Danube to slow the Turks’ progress. This meant destroying his own people in vast numbers.

And so I began thinking about how we take this for granted today. We don’t raise our children wondering whether or not our own leader is going to slaughter them trying to save his own power. We don’t have to fear our rulers’ whims because they are subject to the same laws we are.

Previous Visits

Tour Guide

Oravský Hrad