Jay Martin writes for the Fremantle Herald about her new book Vodka and Apple Juice.
POLAND first inspired me to write the book.
I knew virtually nothing about Poland before I found myself there, yet when I arrived I found this incredible, amazing country.
Parts of it are incredibly beautiful, particularly when the whole country turns gold and crimson in the autumn. But it was the unusual and crazy that I loved – the village after village of wacky local festivals that no one outside of a 50km radius had ever heard of.
The International Championship of Hand-Scything Boggy Meadows for Nature was a stand out (obviously), but I also found a skull chapel, a miraculous painting of the Virgin Mary and a museum of Soviet Realism.
It seemed there were endless things to experience there, and certainly so much more than typical tourists seemed to do.
Indeed, Poland seemed so underdone in the guidebook that I even wondered if the people who had written it had even been there.
So I wanted to say to people – ‘Hey, come here, it’s amazing!’ – or if you can’t, then at least read this book about it.
While that’s one of the things that made me want to write about Poland, that alone wouldn’t have sustained the effort.
What kept me going was the story I wanted to tell about my tough transition to stay-at-home wife, and the toll it had taken on my relationship with my husband, Tom.
I remember Tom saying to me before we went, ‘Are you sure you won’t miss work when you’re in Poland?’
I nearly fell off my chair laughing. I honestly could not have been more excited about chucking in my job for three years and having the opportunity to travel the world, meet some new people and do some new things. Who wouldn’t?
And while there was all of that and more, I was also surprised how deeply I ended up struggling with being ‘just a wife’.
I found it a real blow to my sense of self-worth, as all of a sudden myself, others – and Tom – seemed to have expectations about me that I’d never understood I’d signed up to.
Interestingly, this has been the thing that people have most written to me about since the book’s been published – their own experiences of finding themselves adrift when they’ve gone to another country for their husband’s job, or when they’ve left work to have a baby, or when their kids have left home.
I always suspected it wasn’t just me – it was nice to have that confirmed.
The third thing I wanted to write about was what diplomatic life was like, and what the people living that life got up to.
I had the opportunity to meet some incredibly talented and generous people – presidents, ministers, other diplomats and their families.
But – and there’s no nice way of saying this – a lot of the people I met were very rich, very bored and very mean.
Some of them I came to see as ‘prisoners in gilded cages’ – living lives of unbelievable material excess, yet with no reason to get up in the morning.
Others – I’m sorry – they behaved terribly and got what they deserved in the telling.
All in all though I have them to thank for a lot of the revelations I had along the way about how to live a happy and fulfilled life, and ultimately how to survive the three years with my sanity – and marriage – intact.
They showed me what was going to happen if I didn’t do something differently – which was all the incentive I needed.
So to them I say, dziekuje – and happy reading.
NATALIA, the sparky Polish girl from the language exchange group, had invited us – in four languages – to her place for a pre-Christmas gathering.
Five of us were there: her, plus Tomek the other Pole, Elena the Russian, new recruit Klaus from Germany, and me.
Even this many was a stretch in Natalia’s place. Once upon a time, the pre-war building in the centre of town must have been a grand residence. Now it had been broken up, and each room was a separate apartment.
A kettle and microwave in one corner served as a kitchen, a computer doubled as a TV, and we perched on her fold-out couch, which was her bed when there weren’t visitors.
Everything in Natalia’s place had more than one function. Suddenly IKEA made sense.
Everyone had brought something Christmassy to eat, and Natalia’s table boasted a mix of Russian, Polish and German traditions.
Fish salad, herring, sausages with potato salad, a bean stew. My Anglo-Saxon contribution was an attempt at fruitcake.
I sat down next to Tomek on the fold-out, and pulled some papers out of my bag.
I’d found a volunteering program at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, and I wanted some help with the application form.
I knew I had to get in before the food came out. I’d lose the Poles at that point.
‘So this what I don’t understand, here we have narodowość,’ I said to Tomek. Nationality, it meant.
‘Australia,’ Tomek said.
‘Agreed. And here, obywatelstwo.’ Citizenship, it translated as.
‘Australia,’ Tomek said again.
‘Agreed. But what’s the difference?’
‘So, you have Australian citizenship. Why?’ he asked.
‘Because I have Australian passport,’ I replied.
‘Yes. And you have Australian nationality. Why?’
‘Because I have Australian passport.’
I tried a hypothetical: ‘So, Tomek, you move to Australia and you live Australia for few years. Then you get Australian passport. Your obywatelstwo is Australia, right? And your narodowość is Australia.’
He shook his head. ‘If I filled in this form in Australia, my obywatelstwo can be Australia, but my narodowość is always Polish. You can’t change your narodowość,’ he said. ‘Yes?’
No, I thought, because forms in Australia didn’t have two spaces.
‘So it mean like, the country where you’re born?’
Tomek rolled his eyes. I was obviously making this harder than it had to be as far as he was concerned. ‘No. You can have Polish narodowość and be born somewhere else. Like Germany or Ukraine,’ Tomek said.
I’d established a lot of things this wasn’t about. I didn’t know what it was about.
Something about a characteristic you had, regardless of where you lived, regardless of where you were born. If you were Polish, anyway.
‘Let’s eat!’ called Natalia.
And with that announcement, just as I’d predicted, I’d lost his Polish interest. Just as well. At this rate, it was going to take months to get through this form.
‘Jay,’ Natalia said to get my attention, ‘in Australia, do you really sing that song – “Waltzing Matilda”?’
‘Sure. Not every day, but …’
‘So let’s sing it! How does it start?’
‘ “Once a jolly swagman …” ’ I started, Natalia joined in in Polish, and we continued together until the end of the chorus, everyone clapping along.
‘But Natalia how do you know that song – in Polish?’
‘I’m sure you know some Polish folk tunes. Like this one,’ she started humming, and Tomek joined in the soulful lament. They switched to another one, in another minor key, for a different poignant refrain – as unknown to me as the last.
‘Natalia, you overestimate us,’ I said, when the second of the heartrending melodies had ended.
‘What is the Australian song about?’ Elena asked.
‘A man in the old days steal a sheep. He gets caught, police kill him,’ I said.
‘Why does it sound so happy?’
‘I don’t really know,’ I said.
‘And what are the Polish songs about?’ Klaus asked.
‘The farmers are singing about how beautiful their women are and how good life is after the harvest,’ said Natalia.
The farmers sounded suicidal with happiness.
‘But it’s Christmas, we should be singing Christmas songs,’ said Klaus.
Flakes of snow sailed down from the clouds, past Natalia’s windows.
‘Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace,’ we all sang, in our own languages, the simple tune reminding us, perhaps – in a tiny Polish room, sat on a fold-out couch – of what we had and what we shared.
by JAY MARTIN