Family

Bambi and Thumper

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We were coming back from visiting our friends’ parents’ farm and my two girls were discussing the bull they had been within a metre of. Lilly, who likes making her younger sister feel like a sack of shit said, ”When a bull climbs up on a cow, that’s how they make a baby cow. You didn’t know that, did you Malina?” To which Malina responded, ”Well, you didn’t know that 7 + 3 is 10, so ha, ha.”

I laughed. Which was nice. Because eight hours earlier I had my 19th catastrophic heart-attack of the week when I was teaching them how to read. Let’s go back, and zero in on the exact moment Lilly broke her father by not knowing how to read the word ”Know”-

”THE ‘K’ IS SILENT. IT’S SILENT. I’VE TOLD YOU THIS A HUNDRED TIMES, NO, FIVE HUNDRED – WHY CAN’T YOU REMEMBER IT? WHY? WHY?”

Hold on, let’s go back earlier, as in a month earlier when my cousin visited from London with his five-year old daughter Caitlin. She pulled out a book the size of a brick and started reading it by herself. A kid’s book, yes, but nothing simplistic, definitely not Horrid Henry which is basically a virus in pulp form and only read by kids who are strung-out on Ritalin. Honestly, it’s seventy per cent bad drawings to the point where Horrid Henry’s parents are so ragged and straggly that by the end of the book they resemble HIV+ patients circa 1989. The remaining thirty per cent of Horrid Henry is made up of giant words written sideways and zero-dimensional characters the author essayed whilst overhearing a drunken conversation about The Simpsons. Sorry, where was I? Yes, Caitlin – so she’s reading like a prodigy, like she’s this miniature Salman Rushdie who got a sex-change and whitened his skin and somehow ended up on holidays in southern Poland.

And my daughters are listening to this, freaking out because they can’t read. They can speak two languages, but they can’t read in any of them. My daughters’ panic is nothing compared to mine, owing to the original sin of all parents in that I think the walking, talking, anthropoidal form of my semen has got to be blessed by genius. I’ve been showing them educational stuff on youtube for the last five years and this is how they repay me? By not being geniuses? By having my cousin’s child read like a Kashmiri Indian, Fatwa-suffering, world famous novelist while they sit there, shoulders hunched, breathing through their mouths – not my daughters any more, but a combination of Woody from Cheers and Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama.

In the following weeks, I decided to go hardcore. I decided to get all Roald Dahl on their asses – Fantastic Mr Fucking Fox – and each day we hunkered down to read a new page. I did this with the manic persuasion of a man who wants to make his children clever so by association he will appear clever and have something to boast about at cocktail parties other than he once burped the entire alphabet backwards.

This was a mistake of gargantuan proportions. Reading Fantastic Mr Fox has been the most anhedonistic period of my entire life.

My daughters, those two shining beacons of joy, my Butch and Sundance, my Mick and Keith, my Bambi and Thumper well, I want to fucking kill them. Why? Because they can’t tell a ‘b’ from a ‘d’. Because it takes them thirty minutes to read a sentence. Because they get confused by ”where” and ”were”, ”they” and ”the”. Because the English language is as sneaky as a serpent hiding in witch’s hat, home to stupid words like ”know” with its silent ”k” and its retarded silent ”w” that everyone forgets about – but my daughters shouldn’t forget about it, they shouldn’t.

And I scream at them, and threaten them because I’m not like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, no, I’m the evil thunderbastard music teacher from Whiplash, I’m a complete asshole of a teacher and after I want to kill them, I am awash with self-loathing and guilt, a tsunami of remorse floods the ventricles of my asshole heart and my kids are hating me, hating reading and it shouldn’t be like this, it shouldn’t, I just want them to be smart and happy and relaxed, but they won’t be unless I’m like that.

So I put the book away, we spent the day with our friends, we ate nice food and met a bull. I watch them. I can see they’re smart kids. It’s not them who has to learn. It’s me.

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First Day Of School

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I’m writing this on what is the morning of my eldest daughter’s first day of school. Lilly-lola is six and there’s a look on her face similar to that of a parachutist who has been given an anvil instead of a parachute. The size of her new backpack and she could actually be a parachutist. It’s huge, bigger than our apartment, less a backpack and more of a giant Panic Room. I think this is the idea, if school starts to get too rough, if an unforeseen event takes place such as her teacher going loco and taking out an M16 assault rifle, Lilly climbs into the backpack and sits the ordeal out.

Christ knows she’s got enough stuff in there to survive a nuclear fallout. Tytka? Where parents supply their child with a huge cone full of candy – our entire household food budget has been spent on chocolate monkeys and strawberry bubblegum. We don’t have the Tytka tradition in Ireland. On my first day of school no-one gave me anything. Sorry, I lie. My mother warned me that she’d slap the taste out of my mouth if I did anything wrong and I subsequently gave myself a crotch-full of urine. She must have given the same warning to my classmates. They all reeked of piss too. It was catastrophic. So it was no surprise when the teacher put the whole class in a sealed plastic bag full of uncooked rice.

What. A. Day. Later on, I met a bully from the class above, a guy called The Onion on account of how he made you cry. And also because he slept with eight other smelly siblings in a net bag. I’m not really sure The Onion did anything bad to me, despite my defective childhood memory insisting he must have maimed me by, I don’t know, sticking clothes pegs to my nipples or slipping a hedgehog into my whitebread and sugar sandwich. I do remember him (his real name was Paul) being the one who broke the Facts of Life to me. Not on my first day of school, but years later when I was nine or ten, the age a boy starts to feel ”sensations” south of the border and subsequently, albeit at an unconscious, sub-atomic level, knows that the outlandish premise of a man putting his thing into a woman’s thing, is horribly true.

None of that for my daughter. She gets a metre long cone filled with enough treats to feed a starving Polish family for a month. She gets a class packed with her buddies, highly-motivated, intelligent kids.

As long as it isn’t the boy from the park that I hate. I know, I’m a grown man. I shouldn’t feel hate towards a six-year old boy, but I do. I don’t know his name, but for months we’ve been meeting him in the playground in the park beside where we live and I hate him. I hate him for several reasons. Because he’s got more hair than me. His is really thick and shiny and my hair is falling out so fast I’m looking like Gollum. What does that kid need great hair for? What a waste. It’s not like he’s going to be going on dates. Neither am I, but like all married men I cling to the illusion that I could go on a date if I wanted to.

The main reason I hate this boy is he’s great at climbing and jumping off things. My daughter is good at these too but he’s better. I do question my behavior. You’d swear that a proficiency in jumping and climbing was going to have this big bearing on Lilly’s life, that when she’s at the job interview at Apple she’ll be put in front of this massive climbing wall and the ghost of Steve Jobs is there with a stopwatch shouting, ‘go!’

I suppose I really hate him because I’m reliving my childhood through my daughter and he reminds me how everyone was better than me at everything. And isn’t this why we become parents, to right the wrongs of a cruel and unjust childhood? Having said that, one of these kids in Lilly’s class is also going to break the news to her how babies get made. This is it. The first day of school is the end of the beginning. The first phase of raising kids is over. They start to learn from other people than us their parents. Their friends start to get more important. You and me and every parent have entered a new era;

We’re not their heroes anymore.

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Teach Your Children Well

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Who am I? Have you ever asked this question? The way I figure it, it’s another way of asking, ‘what do I believe in?’

I was having a beer (okay, a few beers) with a surgeon friend of mine and I asked him the same question and he said to me, ‘we’ve got to stick together Peadar.’ He was referring to our respective older daughters, aged six, who will start school in September. Both girls will be in the same class and both come from families who have issues regarding the primacy of Catholicism in Poland’s primary school education.

I’m a spiritual person who believes that every human being is entitled to make peace with the Universe in a manner that suits them. We’re all different, emotionally, physically, intellectually, so why not spiritually? I have problems with the word ‘religion’ which comes from the same root word as ‘ligature’ and ‘ligament’ and it means to be bound together in one belief.

The very concept of this is incredibly creepy and ultimately dangerous when you have Catholic Fundamentalists who have very little in common with the actual teachings of Christianity, subverting science and influencing political decisions affecting us all. I would hope our daughters’ school won’t discriminate or isolate anyone, whether they believe in a man from Bethlehem who fed a lot of people with a loaf of bread or the Sheela-na-Gig Irish fertility goddess flashing her vulva to ward off evil.

When I’m clearing a spiritual path for my girls, I like to aim towards actions rather than words. So when we recently came across a pigeon near our house who couldn’t fly, my daughters and I protected it from interested dogs, packed it in a box and took it to the animal sanctuary. All of this of course, was coordinated by my PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE. It took us three hours and during that time I questioned my sanity, basically helping a flying rat who didn’t look like it was going to survive the morning.

But you can’t give up. Especially on those who need help. My girls will hopefully inherit this belief from their mother regardless. But from me, I hope they learn to believe in themselves. I remind them everyday how amazing they are by the simple expedient of spending time with them. We draw, we cycle, we learn poems, we create crazy stories as we wander through our park. You do it too and take it from me, the minute you pull out a boardgame to play with your children, you are saying to them, ‘hey, I love you spending time with you because you are so cool.’

But you know what else I believe in? I believe in localism. My girls have traveled and boy do they know there is a world out there for them to explore. But more important is their neighbourhood. Their environment is not defined by graffiti and neglect and dirty buildings. It is defined by the people; the elderly woman who used to be a doctor and a cured people for free, the old man who walks his dogs and spent six years a Siberian labour camp. It is our park designed by a German architect. It is the Soviet Cemetary. It is the ancient oak trees we talk to. Our neighbourhood is epic and we are heroes moving through momentous history, no more so than when they had to go to the local shop on their own for the first time to buy Kefir. Now there’s a practical lesson – no parents to watch them! Holding money in their hands! Having to address the shop-lady themselves! We teach our children by showing them they are masters of their own destiny and not victims of negligent overlords their mouths full of bibles.

The life I have chosen (living in Poland, writing) means I have very little money even by Polish standards. But I have daughters to teach and this makes me rich.

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The PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE gets asked Out On A Date!

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Like all intelligent women who value their health, my PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE went to the oncology unit here in Gliwice to have her breasts checked. Three hours in the waiting room, chatting away to the other worried and hopeful patients, worried and hopeful herself because no-one knows more than doctors what breed of lurking demons your body can propel against you.

She left with good news, and unlocking her bike by the entrance, she was approached by a man who she’d seen in the waiting room with his mother.

‘Hello,’ he said, his head bowed, slightly nervous on account of what he had to say next. ‘I was wondering if I could have your phone number…and maybe…eh…we could meet? For a coffee?’

My PSW smiled, thanked him for his interest but admitted she was married with kids.

‘This was remarkable,’ she told me later.

‘What’s so remarkable?’ I asked. ‘You’re an attractive woman, in the full bloom of life – don’t be so hard on yourself.’

But like most Polish women, my PSW can’t take a compliment, making a face as if she’d just ingested a tarantula cookie baked by Angelina Jolie.

‘What was remarkable is him asking me out after seeing me in the waiting room – for all he knows, I could be sick, yet he didn’t care – how many Polish men would do this?’

I told her I didn’t know how many Polish men would take a chance and ask out a potentially sick woman. I don’t have these conversations with my male friends here.

But it’s a damn good question. So let me set the scene: you meet a woman in hospital, she’s got a body like a Coke bottle, when she walks she jiggles like jelly on a plate, the top half of her at least, down below she’s got well-sprung thighs like a thrilling, adolescent Impala and every time she looks in your direction your pants snap about two-inches shorter.

You get talking to her and boy oh boy, the sequence of the words coming out her mouth tells you she’s funny and smart and the feeling in your groin dissipates, moves north until your heart is subsumed with an analgesic glow! So what do you do? Ask her out? Yes, by god! But hold on – time-out for a minute. Your emotions are still marching upwards, the warm, chocolate feeling in your chest as been replaced by a cold logic forming like icicles in your brain as you wonder, ‘what is she doing here in hospital? What’s wrong with her?’

You start to look at your dream girl afresh; perhaps you actually mistook her smile for a grimace? Could it be her alluring sallow skin is nothing but a peculiar tint of jaundice and oh my god – she’s just after scratching her nose – isn’t that the first sign of intestinal parasites? Jesus H. Christ! Do I really need to be dating a woman with parasites – if we share the same comb will they get passed on to me?

Would I be wrong in saying that most men would give up on asking her out, put their head down and continue on their way? Hands up, honestly, how many of you would take the chance? How many of you would say, ‘aw fuck it, I don’t care if her rare blood disorder turns her into a vegetable in six months time – I’ll wipe her ass and make her all the chicken soup she needs.’

No, I didn’t think so.

But the guy in the oncology waiting room didn’t mind and my wife admired this man who spoke with a strong Silesian accent. He was no Clooney, she said, a little rough around the edges, but deep down he reaffirmed her belief in the essential decency of Polish men.

Yep, there’s a good guy out there somewhere, either that or he was the one with the rare disease and wanted some sucker to look after him.

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How Two Little Girls In Poland Can Be Irish

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While canoeing the great lakes of Mazury, my eldest daughter turned to me and said she would like to learn Irish. Come, come Lilly, I said. There are many other languages for you to master, tongues useful for travelling such as Spanish or Russian. Or why not German where unlike Irish, the laws of grammar can actually be applied coherently and logically? I even offered Italian as an alternative. Not really a language at all, more a catalogue of food names. It is well known that 90% of all Italian is gesticulation, the world’s noisiest body-language, its value essential, no more so when shrugging your way through Rome or grimacing whilst being robbed at knifepoint by Camorra street urchins in Casal di Principe.

But no, with true donkey stubbornness, she insisted on Irish, Ireland’s majority language. Or it was, at least until the mid 19th century when it was purposefully and wilfully thwarted by the rulers of Britain who engineered ‘The Famine’ of 1845-52, killing a million and forcing another million on death-boats to America. Those who remained were evicted from the land and relocated to cities where English became the essential tool of survival.

This is how Irish became a minority language in its own country. Of course, ‘The Famine’ wasn’t really a famine at all, the name is erroneous. Its correct historical title is ‘The Great Hunger’ as there was more food in the country then than there ever has been. But it was guarded from an impoverished Irish peasantry when the potato blight killed their staple food source.

I often wonder what would have happened if a similar scenario befell Poland in the 19th century? Go on, be honest. A quarter of your population aggressively and horrifically removed? Then, simultaneously, your culture and traditions systematically erradicated with an exactitude and diligence that only the world’s greatest Empire can enforce? Tell me, what language would you be speaking now?

Or in the 20th century, if Hitler hadn’t made his Halt Order at Dunkirk, a folly that cost him the war, would there be a Polish language? Imagine the possible resulting scenario; growing up in Poland with German as your first language, the means by which you interact with entertainment and culture, and perversely, the means by which you engage in your Polish traditions and values. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? And the only thing which would make it worse would be if your German rulers fostered an extreme hatred in you towards your native Polish to the extent where it was seen as a backward, idiotic practice. But this is the schizophrenic sensibility we Irish are trapped within, this boisterous little nation who have influenced the culture of the world in the language of our once greatest enemy.

At present both Lilly and Malina speak English and Polish and are learning French. I have negated Irish from my life and that of my daughters based on the qualification that it isn’t useful. Only 3% of Ireland’s population speak Irish as an everyday practicality despite it being a compulsory subject in all secondary schools. It is a dying language that when spoken has all the charm of a crow eating itself in a chimney… And yet somehow it seems important that I acquiesce to my daughter’s wishes.

Sure, perhaps her commitment to the Irish language will be a folly, a laborious luxury which her still childish mind does not fully comprehend. But in the face of accepted bland corporate subservience, it could be a mighty declaration of her heritage, who she is and who I forgot I am. As parents, we are keepers of a flame. We guard it and we pass it on.

To not do so would be negligent. It would limit the intangible mysteries which govern our journey. I speak of course about the imagination, the soul and the values of our antecedents. My daughters would not be here if it weren’t for those who came before them, those lucky ones who survived ‘The Great Hunger.’ They never met their grandfather Peadar Mór, he who taught me Irish when I was four. They never met their great-grandmother Kathleen who left the side of a Kerry mountain at seventeen to nurse in London. They never met their great-grandfather Peter who had a ticket for the Titanic and thanks to the great de Búrca trait of being late, missed the liner’s last stop at Cobh in County Cork.

But through the Irish language and my teaching of it, there is a chance they can meet something of their ancestor’s spirit, their soul, their flame and these two little girls living in Poland, can be Irish.

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Hard To Handle

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I’ve operated a cement mixer and I’ve had conversations which reminded me of operating a cement mixer and yes that sounds smug and arrogant, but they just happen to be the two words I have tattooed on my testicles, there to remind me life’s too short for boring exchanges. Here’s the god’s honest; I’ve never been bored while interacting with my girls, Lilly and Malina. Their spaced-out, mash-up of Elfish and Screaming is often homicidal, yet is invariably edgy and compelling. Take this following exchange –

‘Hey Dad?’

‘Yup?’

‘You’re a testicle head!’

‘Malinaaaa…knock it off!’

Then Lilly hops up on the funny-word wagon.

‘Don’t get penisy Dad!’

There you go, a Family Guy/Blue Harvest reference, but this is where my four and five year old are at with their vocab. They like words, they like the sounds and they’re currently going through a groin-phrase phase.

‘Hey Dad, did you go for your testicular-test yet?’ And then the laugh so hard that beetles start scurrying out their noses.

Don’t look at me. Despite being over forty and a hypochondriac, I keep any testicle-related information to myself and all references to penises are exclusively reserved for scientific/educational purposes.

But it’s not just penis talk. Their ‘interesting’ behaviour can also involve climbing, hitting, biting, slandering, constructing explosive materials – the kind of multi-purpose mania designed to crush a parent’s mind into a find powdery substance. Times were it made me mad and sent me off on a three-day Jagermeister binge. Now I see it as a signal. Their energy is building up and it needs to be released.

With this in mind, my PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE and I took our foul-mouthed offspring on a weekend designed to light a match under all that energy and burn it up into the stratosphere.

Here’s the itinerary; camping on Czech border, 8km hill-walk, journey to Wroclaw, children’s party in Tee-pee Town, up-late playing with our friends’ kids, then a garden party in honour of their great-grandfather Andrej.

We got home on Sunday evening, so tired we couldn’t find our feet with two hands and a flashlight.

Lilly was filthy dirty, her body home to a good collection of scar-tissue. Malina was wiser, possessing the specific maturity that comes from being pushed ass-first by her sister into a patch of nettles.

And for the last few days they’ve been, you know, good.

Wasn’t always this way.

Both girls used to be cranky, introverted little shits, moaning, allergic to life, finicky, socially maladjusted and generally hard to handle. I regularly worried about Lilly’s personality and how she was perpetually communing with the world like a witch giving birth to a kangaroo. Malina was worse in that she constantly gave the impression she was auditioning for the lead role in Rainman, albeit without the gambling superintelligence.

We weren’t alone. There’s no amount of parents out there who have kids with behavioural problems. Some are deep-rooted and need more than a three-hour hike or a playground re-enactment of Return of the Jedi. But if like me, you’re a child of the eighties, think back to the stupid, crazy shit you regularly did. My PSW openly admits to setting fire to fields. In between having my head walloped with a Space Hopper by Niall Feeney and Paul McDonald, I used to throw apples at cars and tease the local priest by flashing my arse at him as he sat eating his breakfast.

The girls in my class would regularly pester a certain teacher by ‘knick-knocking’ – ringing the doorbell and running away – fnar, fnar – stupid in the extreme, but enormously funny and a great cardiovascular work-out at the same time.

What did our parents know? They didn’t have time to take us canoeing or to an art gallery. They threw us outside with a buttered cream-cracker and a toe in the hole, because common sense told them life would be better for all if we got rid of all that bubbling dark-matter children store up.

Times it verged a little on Lord of the Flies, but what kid in 2015 wouldn’t benefit from being taken out of their gluten-free, safety-mat existence? In Poland it’s very noticeable. You got a large population living in small apartments with both parents trying to keep body and soul together working the daylight away. The kids are left to the kindergarten lottery, many of them crying out for a male figure to show them how best to fall off a tree or take out an enemy with a bow and arrow. The same in Ireland where suburban development and computer entertainment means it’s a car-to-tablet world, leaving all that energy to build up and a contingent of unlucky kids who are labelled hard to handle…

Grab your kids. Take them out and breed a bit of recklessness into them. Stir it up. Cut it loose. Put it to the man and light the candle.

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I Am You And You Are Me And We Are All Together

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My summer of travelling got back on track as I took Lilly, Malina and their Polish grandparents to Ireland. My PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE, who paid for the holiday, ended up at the last minute not being able to go. I felt sorry for her for all of two seconds, because it meant I had to shoulder the following permutation; my mother+in-laws+two hyperactive children. Good people, all very dear to me, but dealing with them together is much akin to driving a truck-load of dynamite over a rocky road.

Well maybe not my father-in-law. The promise of a beer and a bike and he’s more than happy. I provided him with both and he tore through Connemara, past the fields of turf, cut and stacked high, past the natives in their simple, corrugated huts. The west of Ireland is the edge of world, a lonesome, beautiful, awful place, where you can smell the soft brown patches of rain falling down the mountainside and where a feral goat may or may not steal your children when you’re not looking. Much like east Poland then, only with less bigots running around pulling out people’s toenails.

This holiday, for me at least, was not so much about the travelling or the adventures, or the random buffoonery, but more about reconnecting with my natural environment and letting my wife’s parents see me in a different light; a gliding, fluid, self-sufficient Irishman. Devoid of paranoia. Likeable. Cool. HD Ready de Búrca. 

And yet, I must have known it was never going to turn out that way.

This became appallingly obvious as we entered the hallway of my mother’s house, when the first thing that greeted us was a metre-high statue of Jesus Christ. This is in keeping with the various forms she has collected over the years; a golden Buddha, several stuffed witches and a two-metre high bronze goblin in the downstairs toilet. The Jesus likeness is undeniably handsome, doe-eyed, with implausible blonde hair and being thereabouts the same size as my daughters, they took to him immediately;

‘Dad, it’s Jesus,’ said Lilly, her red cheeks glowing. 

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Or it could be scruffy Rod Stewart.’

‘I love him,’ said Malina.

‘No I love him. He’s my boyfriend,’ said Lilly, pushing her sister away from this miniature son of God and hugging him. So bizarre to witness your daughters first ever dispute over a boyfriend, especially when said boyfriend is an inanimate wooden deity.

Weirder still is the improbable, yet undeniable actuality of having trumped my Polish in-laws in terms of religious iconography. This truncated, beautific prophet had torpedoed my vague hopes of recasting myself as a suave, urbane Irish, sui generis; not afflicted by superstition. What other embarrassments had my mother in store? A bag of chemical pollutant spilling over the living room floor? Two crashed BMW’s being welded together in the back garden by a man called Mirek?

‘I don’t like the new priest they have at mass,’ she said in a loud, unapologetic voice, as I stood sadly nearby, trying to find solace in the folds of my plaid shirt. ‘He’s from Malta and he kisses all the female parishioners.’ I tried to change the subject by throwing a scorpion at her, but she wouldn’t be diverted; ‘And I don’t like getting communion from a lay-person – only priests should touch the sacrament!’

She went on to describe how she had to fight past two women who were trying to give her communion, to get to this Maltese priest, only he couldn’t give her the sacrament as he was administering wine to another lady, who suffers from coeliac disease and can’t take the sacrament as it’s not gluten-free.

‘…And of course, I voted ‘No’ to Gay Marriage in the recent referendum,’ she added in that proud yet challenging way ultra-conservative people have. My Polish in laws were lapping this up, no doubt recording her so they could use her ravings as their ring tone. Could things get any more embarrassing? I looked out into the hall and there was Lilly, her arms draped around Jesus, hugging him, her Tonight’s The Night, forever friend.

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Heroes

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The PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE gets all the fun and when she had to go to Warsaw for a medical conference, I braced myself for a week alone with Lilly and Malina. There’s some kind of shining, heroic feeling when you got to raise children by yourself, even if it is only for a couple of days. Those who do it full-time should automatically have their salaries quadrupled and be given a summer-house on Lake Como or have a mountain named after them in Connemara.

And everyone knows girls are the worst to look after. Boys may destroy your house, but girls will destroy you mind. Lilly and Malina; one is good, the other is evil. Trouble is, they alternate and by the time I’ve figured it out, it’s too late and the couch is already engulfed in maple syrup.

We’d planned for the four of us to reconnect in Berlin, me driving the girls from Gliwice and the PSW coming from Warsaw. I was excited. I get Berlin. I click with that city the way a teenager clicks with superheroes. Berlin marches to its own beat. Its history tugs you on the shoulder and not just black and white Hitler-history either; this is the city of Bowie’s golden period, U2’s second last great album, Achtung Baby, Cabaret and Marlene Dietrich.

But it didn’t seem like we were going to make it there; a virus got into the house. Malina woke at midnight, emptying the contents of her stomach all over her bed. She was crying and panicked and I had to wash her. Then I had to wash the bedclothes, even the floor, pouring cologne over it like a demented gay exorcist.

Sometime around four am Malina replays the whole incident again. At this stage, I don’t know if I’m coming or going. Running into the room, I slip in the fresh vomit the way it’s all up the right side of my body. And there’s no hot water, so Malina’s screaming the paint off the walls from the cold shower. I’ve no bedclothes for her either, so I improvise with towels and table-cloths. I throw ten pairs of football socks in a sack and hope this works as a pillow.

By five am I’ve got her to sleep so I go to the basement and throw a wash on. I hear a scream upstairs in our groundfloor apartment. I leg it up and this time it’s Lilly shouting out the words no father should ever have to hear at five am;

I HAVE DIARRHOEA!

Not only is it great when you’re kids can self-diagnose, but it’s also pretty helpful when they can keep a lid on their eruptions until you hustle them onto a toilet. Just in the nick of time. Lilly, my darling, for this, I will always be grateful.

I wait with her for forty shivering minutes, giving her sips of water, giving myself sips of brandy, wondering if Berlin is ever going to happen? The next few days sees me running an ad hoc medical unit gratefully assisted by various nurses and specialists who shall be known as The Iron Giant, Spirited Away, The Secret of Kells, Finding Nemo, My Neighbour Totoro, all the Toy Stories, The Incredibles,and seasons 1-3 of Futurama.

The girls got better. The power of animation, eh? Berlin looked on. Until the virus latched on to me. By this stage it had mutated into an all-encompassing malignancy, a super-villain, the Professor Moriarty of stomach bugs, leaving me in the toilet so long and in so much gastro-pain that I abandoned all my philosophies and beliefs and contemplated becoming a Hermit. This was Thursday morning and Friday was supposed to be Berlin. No way. Game over.

But we made it there, thanks to two heroes.

Two Silesian women rescued me. Both named Iwonka.

Iwonka number one is my daughters’ great grandmother. She’s in her eighties. She drives a Toyota and calls everyone on the road Dupa! There’s a lot of Dupas on Polish roads apparently. Iwonka also makes soup. When she heard I was carrying a belly-load of pain she whipped up a chicken broth and ferried it over. The other Iwonka is a pharmacist who called me when she heard I was ailing. Her English isn’t good, but she’s got that Silesian mentality where if there’s a broken man lying around, she’s going to be the one to fix him.

‘I will come and save you,’ she said. Honestly, this is how she phrased it.

‘I’m taking tablets but they’re not working,’ I whined.

‘I have secret weapon!’ exclaimed Iwonka.

‘What?’

‘Flat Coca-Cola!’

Iwonka came over with the Coke. She even played with the girls who were by this stage calling themselves Fry and Bender. 500mls of cola later, I went to bed.

Things were different when I woke up. I wasn’t going to be playing any impromptu games of Twister, but driving was plausible.

I got Fry and Bender in the car and drove north. It’s a pretty straightforward ride from Gliwice to Berlin, even for me. It took me five hours and two bottles of Coke to make the journey.

We did it. And when I met the PSW in Berlin we kissed as though nothing could fall.

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Man Rapes Dog

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Driving around Silesia with Malina and in keeping with my default setting in Poland, I was lost. It’s only when you’re overcome with self-loathing because you can’t follow simple directions, that your three-year old daughter decides she absolutely, positively has to do a pee-pee and a poo. The pee-pee bit is okay, as I can hold her ass out the window. God knows I’ve done it many times, to the point where I don’t even need to stop the car. Might even chance tuning in the radio if the wind is blowing in the right direction.

But the poo-poo bit is a problem. I don’t like stopping on the side of the road waiting for one of her triumphant brown bastards to emerge. ‘Waiting’ is the key word, as Malina, doesn’t like going au naturel. Whatever her problem is – the bitter Polish wind snapping at her bum-cheeks or me shouting, “push, for mercy’s sake, push!” – she won’t let go in the open. She needs the reassuring feel of a plastic toilet seat before she’ll drop a load. So I made a stop at this village, bleak as bejesus, with about twenty houses laid out before me. I’ll ask at someone’s house, I thought. No-one is going to refuse a child who needs the toilet are they?

I got out and walked around the twenty houses and I swear to you, each and every one had a beware of the dog sign- Uwaga; Pies. Some don’t have it written, instead they have a picture of Doberman with a string of lower intestines falling from its mouth.

I suppose it would be easy to dismiss the Poles as paranoid, but as a policeman once told my PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE, “I never investigated a burglary where the house had a guard dog.”  I go back to Malina in the car and already she’s got her pants around her ankles, in typical pre-detonation pose –

‘Dad-eeee! I need to do a poooooo!’

‘C’mon Mal…let’s go behind a tree… Whaddaya say?’

‘Noooo…’

I’ve been down this road before – wrestling Malina out of the car when she’s primed to go Krakatoa – it’s not worth the hassle. I pick a house and open the gate. Straight away I hear a bark – ah shit…

The noise gets louder, coming around the side of the house… But I was in luck. It wasn’t a proper dog, but a little midget of a thing. A Corgi I think, or whatever breed the Queen uses to warm her hands. And such an annoying bark, it sounded like ‘fuck-fuck’. This is what I’m hearing every time it opened its tiny gob – ‘fuck-fuck’. I turn to Malina and say,

‘It’s okay darling, it’s only a small fella-‘ But doesn’t the the little prick start in on my ankles, biting and pinching me like this four-legged Richard Nixon. My instant reaction was to get down and grab its neck, trying to pull it away. He’s wriggling and I’m wriggling, and by the time I got on my knees to grab its collar, I’m realising how weird this must look to anyone passing by: like I’m trying to rape the dog. Or strangle it. Neither is good. Christ, here I am lost in southern Poland, sweating like a degenerate and half-way to molesting a different species. They don’t tell you that when you first arrive – Welcome to Poland! Land of coal, beautiful women and raping little dogs! Enjoy your stay!

And of course, the owner of the house comes out. A woman in her late sixties was my guess. The look on her face said it all; the Soviets are back, only this time they’re so sexually depraved they’re not even waiting for women. She verbalises all of this in one question:

‘Sort oh robish?’ I’ve written it phone-et-ically for the delicate sensibilities of the non-Polish readers. Roughly translated it means, ‘what in the name of Christ are you up to Mr Potato?’

The extent of my Polish meant that all I could say was,

‘Eh…shoo-shoo…kupa…?’ – this being Polish for ‘pee-pee and ‘poo’.

The woman starts screaming and runs inside for her husband. He comes out, waving something that’s either a crutch or an aluminium, single-barrelled shotgun. I let go of the dog and start backing away, but Mr fuck-fuck Corgi resumes attacking my ankles. I grab Malina out of the car and hold her up to the people. I’m hoping her inherent cuteness will persuade the frightened pensioners to shoot their dog instead of me.

‘Shoo-shoo! Kupa!’ I repeat, all the while shaking Malina as the dog is singing its fuck-fuck song underneath her. The combination of all this has an effect; Malina erupts, bends a beauty right on top of the Corgi. The elderly couple start walking into their house backwards, blessing themselves.

I put Mal in the back seat and drive off thinking, I need to get a sign for my car, something along the lines of Beware of the Irish.

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A Day In The Life

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I’m woken at six-thirty by Malina, nearly four, and her morning personality is that of a stage-one alcoholic in an enforced detox situation. Her mother is forcing her to wear a skirt for a performance at the kindergarten and she’s ranting away in Polish, the words flying around the room like wasps. Strange how they use their mother’s tongue when they’re angry, but revert to English when things are hunky dory.

‘Malina – can you give it a break?’ Without missing a beat she cuts from Polish to English –

‘I’m not Malina – I’m Roger – I’m not a girl, I’m a boy. I don’t want a skirt.’

Roger? What is this bullshit? But pre-seven am, pre-caffeine and I am the path of least resistance. I am the Zen flower floating on a river of chakras spray-painted by Yoko Ono.

‘I want to wear the orange pants,’ she says. The same pants she refused to wear yesterday and I had to enlist the help of a passing Policeman to get on her.

‘Please Malina-‘

‘Roger.’

‘Please Roger – I’ll buy you chocolate.’

‘Okay.’

I check in with Lilly, five, prone to Norman Bates personality swings. This morning though, she’s being nice because the cosmic ju-ju laws of being a sister necessitate that if Malina is giving us blisters, she can only do the opposite. My PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE approaches me. Tired from the twenty-four hour duty she had yesterday and the mental strain of making sure I don’t buy any magic beans from men wearing wizard hats.

‘When do I’ve to be at the kindergarten?’ I ask.

She checks her phone – the Samsung Bible – ‘Ten-thirty. Don’t forget you’ve got your hospital appointment at eleven.’

I’ve a tiny mole on my leg and for the last month I’ve been running my PSW through a detailed analysis of every potential life-threatening condition I’m sure to have – skin cancer, lupus, spastic vascular syndrome, or combinations of all three. Now I’ve got to hope their isn’t a Communist-era queue snaking around the entire hospital and that the surgeon has a rudimentary grasp of English and a sufficient aura of authority to convince me that the mole is nothing more than an enlarged freckle.

I get a call from Warsaw Wyborcza asking if I’ll write a piece on Ireland voting Yes to same-sex marriages. I say Yes to writing about the Yes vote. I take out the rubbish. I hoover.

I cycle to the kindergarten just in time to catch Malina’s peformance. About two months ago, a supervising teacher recommended we take her to a child psychologist. This seemed ridiculous to me. She can be moody and difficult but she’s a kid. When we asked why Malina required specialist help, we were told it was because she sucks her fingers and is ‘withdrawn’. Hmm…

Part of me likes how the kindergarten is keeping an eye out for my girls, but another part of me wonders about people trying to justify their positions. When I think back to my school-days. Autism and ADHD weren’t part of anyone’s vocabulary and teachers had to work it out for themselves. I remember a boy called the Bubblegum Kid, on account of how he used to pick bubblegum off the street and eat it. He was always drawing dead sheep and because of this, or perhaps because he couldn’t spell words like ‘dead’ and ‘sheep’, the teacher made him stand against the wall balancing a bucket on his head.

I get on the bike, make the ten-minute dash to the other side of our neighbourhood.

‘I read your columns in the paper,’ the surgeon tells me. ‘My husband too.’

‘Glad to hear it. I hope you enjoy them.’ But she doesn’t tell me if she does or not. This is how it is here. Praise is a dish served in small portions. I show her my mole, my heart skittering like a cornered rat. She squints her eyes and dismisses it with a hand gesture as if to say, this is what your wasting both our time with? Go on, get out of here, you big goofball!

‘It’s okay?’ I ask, still not totally convinced.

‘It’s nothing. Come back in two weeks and we’ll cut it off.’

‘What? Why?’

‘Just to make sure.’ Like Malina, who I’m sure is going through a typical phase, the mole is benign, but this is Poland – in a country that has been slapped by fate so many times, they don’t take chances. I go home. I write. I cook. I play with the girls. I go upstairs and fall into a dream.

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