There's an Egg in My Soup

BOOK: There's an Egg in My Soup
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To Asha, for being there

For all the teachers, staff and students in Zespol Szkol Ekonomicznych in Minsk Mazowiecki, a warm and hearty thanks for your hospitality, friendship and humour. I will never forget you. I'd like to extend a special thanks to Stefan Stepniewski, Anna Zimnicka, Malgorzata Grusaczynska and Anna Frelak.

To the APSO group of 1994, it was great to have known you and hope you are all in good places. To the guys – John Joe, Keith, Gearoid and Paul, stay in touch. And to Barry, a late arrival, your help and support with this book was invaluable, sorry you think the title sucks. And to Eamonn Crowley and Padraig Coll for their generosity.

To Rafal and Peter in Radio Polonia for their experience and support and to Magda Sowinska and Nath Espino, formerly of the
Warsaw Voice.
Without all of their help, none of what I am doing now would have been possible.

To those who have departed – Asha's father, Jurek, I wish there had been more time. To Fr Andrzej Pyka, a great friend to the Poles in Ireland who will be dearly missed. And Ollie Morgan, a man who helped so many in so many ways, we'll miss you.

Finally, to all at O'Brien Press for putting their faith in this book, especially Eoin, Michael and Claire.

Summer 1994. It is late afternoon, the heat lingering from another day of intense sunshine. I never imagined this country could get so hot. But here it is, a brutal, dry heat that stings like an iron and makes everything appear rigid. Clothes hang outside on balconies around the town, stiff as playing cards. Windows gape open, gasping for breath. The playground is a patchwork of dried grass and bald spots, with a swing buckling under the heat.

People move slowly, some on old black bicycles, some on foot, barely kicking up dust on streets of tarmac and old rock. It needs rain. It needs some colour. It even needs some noise.

We pull in through the gates of the school, just myself, a driver and a guide. It is kept well enough, but looks as if it needs a couple of grand for a face-lift. Weeds poke up between cracks in uneven concrete. Window panes look like chapped lips. Even the national flag droops limply from a pole inside the gate, weary and just about retaining its colours.

Standing inside the front door of the school is a small, balding man in his sixties, a cigarette between old
fingers and a wide smile like a spade on his face. He shakes hands warmly and brings us inside to his office. He makes coffee in glasses, each glass heaped with two spoonfuls of tar-like granules that should really have passed through a percolator.

The room is in stark contrast to the streets of the town we have wound through. It is bright and spotless, and smells pleasantly of the greenery that invades from every corner. He motions to the seats around a large, well polished table, offering us cigarettes that have no filters. I decline, being on the verge of giving up. Anyway, I am thinking more of my empty stomach, and eye instead the bowl of fruit ripening in the window next to all the plants.

The coffee is strong and has no milk, and as it cools, large, hard flakes begin floating to the top like pieces of loose bark. I battle with the burning glass as the man, who I now realise is the school director, discusses the terms of my contract between nods of the head, smiles and countless filterless cigarettes. He is the type of man that immediately puts a stranger at ease – smiles, a gentle voice, friendly gestures with the hands.

He bellows smoke as he speaks. It comes out of his mouth, and out of his nose. I think at one stage it will start to come out of his ears. If I am trying to quit smoking, I've come to the wrong place.

I was going to miss the rest of the group, each and every one of them. We were a mixed bunch, of all ages
and with different levels of experience. Some were just out of college, some older, and all of us had very different reasons for being there. For two weeks we had been together at a converted monastery in Lublin, in the southeast of the country, drinking mostly, and making vague attempts at learning smatterings of Polish. Almost every night was spent bunking off to an exclusive club in the nearby city, and every morning we were at our desks in a local school by eight, cracking open bottles of fizzy mineral water, trying to get our tongues around the Polish language and melting in the heat.

The language was a tough one. I knew right then that I was never really going to master it. I got a lot of it into my head, but it rarely got as far as my mouth without a lot of thinking getting in the way. That disturbed me a little, as I had come here to teach a language myself. Some of the group coped better. You could spot them during the lessons – even with the hangovers they had a confidence about themselves, and bit into those foreign words like food they had already tasted. These were the ones who were going to make good teachers. I would have to work at it that bit harder.

There was no competition between anyone though. If anything, we all acted as crutches for each other. Some people were homesick; some were just sick. Some were nervous about teaching and others were nervous about the towns they were going to.

Then the time came for us to split up and go our
various ways. A guy called John Joe from Mayo was first, and this seemed fitting, as he had unofficially become something of a group leader, particularly for some of the girls. He was sent to a place not far away called Swidnik, just outside Lublin. In fact, a few days later he was back for a visit, and to give us a rundown on his new home. It was like bloody Ballymun, he said, with blocks as far as the eye could see. He was in one of the blocks, sharing with a bachelor or a divorcee, he hadn't figured out which yet. I would have dreaded sharing with a stranger, but John Joe relished the company.

Our numbers dwindled daily, and the bonds between us were broken. We grew sad, then bored, and finally just waited our turn. Sitting on a wall in the courtyard of the monastery in the baking sun, the guys bare-chested, the women sweating, we sipped on beers and watched our new pals disappear one by one, like cattle. We wondered where the hell they were being taken and how we would all get to meet up again. All we were left with was a list of addresses that nobody could read and mystifying phone numbers composed of four digits and regional codes.

Then it was my turn, along with a group of others. We visited several schools that day, dropping off colleagues one by one until I was the last one left in the van. I had a bad taste in my mouth. All the places we'd seen were fairly grim – lonely outposts, barely mapped,
that had the driver going around in circles as the day wore on. They were mostly villages with one main street, dying as it reached the outskirts, to be swallowed up by flat, endless countryside, fading into the horizon with barely a cow to provide a focal point.

Few of these villages seemed ready to cope with the arrival of a stranger. Bus stops and train stations, even petrol stations, were in the minority. A quick search for bars, general stores and supermarkets was fruitless. These villages seemed lost in time. Motionless and still, they hung there on the cusp of the modern world, some of their inhabitants just about hanging in there with them. But they held a beauty of their own.

Some of the living quarters were also stuck in that weird, grey area between the old and the new. One school had somehow forgotten they were getting a foreign teacher, a girl who smiled bravely as she was led up a flight of bare concrete steps and into a single room by the cleaning lady who had been forced to shoulder the blame. There were no curtains, a couch full of holes for a bed and a bathroom with a toilet the colour of a rotten lung.

The woman ranted and apologised profusely, waving frantically at everything as if with one swish of a magic wand she was going to transform the room into a boudoir fit for a sleeping beauty. Our unfortunate colleague smiled and thanked her. She was tough – she had already told us a lot of stories about a year spent in
Bosnia during the war. A shoddy bathroom wasn't going to kill her.

We felt bad leaving her there alone though, and there was a short burst of hysterical laughter when we returned to the van. Back on the main road, there was barely a sign anywhere to say the place even existed, and I never passed near it again. Now, I can't even recall its name. But I'll never forget how it looked.

The tiny village of Sadowne was next. A place not really worth describing, its only significance is its proximity to the former death camp of Treblinka. This was the last stop for Paul, a guy roughly the same age and equally as bewildered as myself. He hesitated before stepping down from the van and onto the courtyard. There stood the school director, a rather solemn-looking man, gasping heavily on a cigarette and beckoning all of us inside to his office. There was no coffee on offer there, just a few abrupt words from the director. His expression tired, he didn't volunteer any false hopes that Paul would be having a year to remember. He simply recited Paul's duties as though reading from a shopping list.

From the office we were led to the living quarters, a single room next to a single Russian woman with a single kid. Immediately looking for an escape route, Paul asked the whereabouts of a bus or train station. The director gestured in the direction of the nearby woods and informed Paul that the train station was
some distance away and that he could get a lift with him whenever he wanted. Paul looked at the woods, where a desiccated mud trail led between spindly grey trees before disappearing in a series of twists and bends. Where does the train go? To Warsaw. How far is that? About sixty kilometres.

Since I couldn't yet pronounce the name of the place I was headed for, I didn't ask if there was a transport link. I simply shook Paul's hand and left him there, stroking his chin pensively. Then we were back on the road.

The guide now turns to me and goes through the details in English, looking reassuringly pleased. I have Fridays free, if I want, and otherwise work about six teaching hours per day. Although there are a few guys in some of the classes, the school is mostly for girls between the ages of sixteen and early twenties, and there are two other English teachers here that I can work with. I am to focus on improving conversation skills and vocabulary, to generally introduce a more colloquial language into the class than the ‘book' English the students are used to. After that, it is up to me. I try to look content, because my director does. So I nod firmly and shake hands with him.

I stand at the window of my new home and watch the van drive out through the gate, severing that last link I had with the group. It is starting to get dark now and a lump rises in my throat. My quarters are clean
and spacious, but understandably bare. Just me, the hum of the fridge, an old radio the size of a breeze block that the director has left and the fading summer evening sky outside, bloody orange, black at the edges.

I had met a Polish guy in Dublin before I left, who told me that summer evenings are always colourful in Poland. He was right. Deep, warm colours hang before me, over a landscape as flat as a football pitch. The sun looks like a massive, slow-moving balloon, being carried off gradually into the west. At that hour of evening in summer in Poland the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold. It is a comforting warmth that calms the body and soothes the mind. I think after that long day, some of the rough places we have seen and the pang of loneliness that suddenly hits me, if it had been belting down with rain, I would just have turned around and gone home.

Unpacking for a year is an odd feeling. As you pull items out one by one, there is a sense of finality about it. It's not just a wash bag and a few books. There are things that suggest permanency, that remind you of home. Clothes that smell of home cooking. Towels with the scent of the washing powder your mother uses. Books and magazines with coffee rings on the covers. You stare at them and realise that, like you, they have travelled thousands of miles and won't see home again for twelve months. These simple objects take on a value that they never previously had.

I have three large bags with me, one of them a lot heavier than it was the night I packed it. I open the zip of this one first and began wrenching out the winter clothes that lie at the top – heavy socks, gloves, a scarf and some ‘long johns', that were eventually used to polish my boots. Below the clothes I had packed a few books and there, in the middle, lies the cause of the bag's weight – a statue of Our Lady and a heavy, wooden photo frame. Pictures of my family and friends smile up at me from under a clean piece of glass. Obviously, Ma got to the bag the night before I left, when my luggage was sitting downstairs by the door. Mothers mean well when they do such things. Religious relics are always a favourite, and so are family photographs, but I don't need to see all that right now.

The statue goes onto the window-ledge in the hall. The photos drive me to bed, feeling like a stranger should feel in a strange land – lonely, isolated and exhilarated, but strangely anonymous. I know nobody and nobody knows me. If I dwell long enough on that fact I will lapse into a state of panic as my mind balloons to encompass the whole of this country – 312,685 square kilometres, and thirty-six million people contained in it. And then me, a tiny, insignificant speck.

Lying there in bed with the room still basking in warmth, I begin to go over the images I had conjured up for myself before arriving, comparing them with what I have seen so far. You don't expect a thousand
volts of culture shock coming to a place like this. It's not the centre of Africa or the Middle East. It's still Europe, but it's a part of Europe that most of us have only peeped at while it was hidden behind the iron curtain. So question marks hang over almost every aspect of life here.

I had been told many things, a lot of them tinged with a type of black humour that didn't always help. One girl who had spent a year in Warsaw offered me a piece of information by way of reassurance about a month before I left. ‘You can get cornflakes there,' she had said, her smile fading rather miserably once she realised that cornflakes weren't high on my list of priorities. I had pictured instead the bowl they were in – a deep, wooden bowl paired off with a spoon cut from cheap tin that made a harsh sound when dropped on a stark kitchen floor. In that bowl I saw a lot of soups, made from thick vegetables and stringy meat, meat that came from an animal that had worked hard all its life. A horse maybe, with a shaggy coat, a massive pair of blinkers and no name, the remainder of his carcass finishing up as glue on the bench of a peasant carpenter.

I had pictured timber houses, smoke gasping out of their chimneys day and night, sitting under the shadow of grey blocks that clawed the landscape like broken umbrellas. I had pictured old men with shattered teeth, young girls with bright blonde hair, packed under
scarves decorated with the flowers of spring. Fields that were golden in autumn and steel blue in winter. Cold vodka, warm beds and the sound of men singing in taverns, keeping a beat with the thud of beer tankards on long wooden tables. As I drift off to sleep, I think it is fair to say I have a rather confused image of Poland.

BOOK: There's an Egg in My Soup
13.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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