15 Meet the Parents
15 MEET THE PARENTS
The train screeched to a halt as Shaun wiped the sleep from his eyes and checked his watch to find it was five in the morning. He had passed the journey sitting in a cramped compartment, surrounded by stocky, Polish labourers. They had spent the night drinking from a single bottle of vodka, softening the sting of the strong spirit with thick slices of bread covered with ham and gherkin. Polish sounded rough in their mouths and the word “curva” was very prominent in their conversations. He determined to ask Magda what it meant when he met her, but he already had his suspicions.
The early morning light had reformed them into respectful sons and dutiful husbands. They reached above their heads to retrieve bulging, luggage bags and looked impatient to meet whoever was waiting for them. The last one, turned briefly as if he had forgotten something, smiled awkwardly, and said goodbye in English. Shaun smiled and enjoyed the look of boyish pride on the man’s worn face.
I walked uncertainly down the long platform, suddenly spotting a small group of people, waving in my direction. I could just about make out a tall man and two girls in the distance. A desperate prayer formed on my, a prayer I wasn’t sure my distant God would be prepared to answer: Just then, Maciek came into focus as his stature dwarfed both Halina and Magda.
“Why did Magda opt to share their first moments with those he had spent most time with in Magdeburg?” he worried. “Could that handsome young Polish boyfriend be waiting jealously outside the station? Had she promised to return to his arms as soon as she sorted out this awkward situation”
A photograph you had sent him from a hiking trip flashed across my mind as I approached you: A tall bronzed youth had posed proudly just too close to you. His black curly hair blew in the breeze and he stood bare to the waist, boasting a tanned, athletic body and a perfect manly smile. I wouldn’t have bet on my chances at that moment and my expression must have shown a mixture of horror and self-doubt, as I tried my utmost to muster a confident smile.
“Does she plan to push me onto Maciek and Halina?”
The question still tortured Shaun as he reached the place where they stood. He disguised the alarm and tension he was feeling with an exaggerated smile. He kissed Halina on the cheek, as she stood ahead of the other two.
“What a surprise Halina,” he said, searching her eyes for confirmation of what he dreaded was about to happen.
“Lovely to see you Maciek,” he greeted. “Good of you to get up so early just to meet me.”
Finally you stood before me. I shook your hand awkwardly not knowing how much you were regretting you parting words in Berlin. I felt my face redden and knew the rush of blood to my face betrayed my inner turmoil.
You turned to the others and exchanged a few words in Polish. You stared back in my direction once or twice and said something which made the others laugh. They all spoke German better than I did, but you chose Polish and you left me at a total loss. Maciek and Halina moved to go, promising to meet sometime during the week. Suddenly they were gone and we were alone for the first time in a very long time.
“Kisses for Halina and a wet fish handshake for me,” was your opening jibe as you pretended to be insulted and I was again at a loss as to how to react.
I needed confirmation and I tried to kiss you, but you moved quickly back out of range.
“It’s too late now,” you taunted,” the damage has already been done. Perhaps Halina will find you somewhere to stay. I know how much you appreciated her company in Magdeburg.”
You waited for me to rise to her provocation, but I was lost for words. Sixteen hours in a crowded train had left me exhausted and I was still in the dark about your feelings.
“Where are we going now?” Shaun asked.
“Where would you like to go?” Magda answered evasively.
“I was hoping you would be good enough to bring me home and even make me some breakfast,” he answered.
“Haven’t you heard there’s an economic crisis?” she continued with the same flirtatious grin. “You would expect my father to get up in the middle of the night to queue for your breakfast?”
The streets they walked through on their way to the tram were surprisingly crowded for the time of day. Long queues formed outside shops and the shelves were already sparsely filled or completely bare.
As they waited for the tram, he felt mistrustful eyes on him. He was the only one without a hat or boots and a heavy winter coat.
“What did your parents say when you told them a crazy Irishman was coming to visit them?” he asked.
“They’re looking forward to meeting you,” she laughed.
“What’s the laugh about?” he insisted pretending to be insulted.
“They have never met anyone with roaring red hair and freckles before.”
“What have you been telling them?” he complained, raising his open hand in mock threat over her head, until he noticed the concerned looks around him.
“You don’t want to get arrested in your first hour in Cracow do you?” she joked. “We Poles don’t take kindly to foreigners trying to push us around, so be careful.”
In the same moment, she pulled him in the direction of the tram which had just stopped in the middle of the street. They were lucky to push their way to the back and find a place where they could lean against the back window. An old man looked at Shaun with hate in his eyes when he recognised the German words coming from his mouth. He quickly followed Magda’s example and lowered his voice to a whisper.
Her face became serious and she looked up at him with those wonderful eyes, and he forgot what he was about to say. He kissed her on the forehead and she tightened her grip around his waist. The tram emptied, as they went further from the city centre towards Nova Huta. Shaun enjoyed how they were thrown closer together every so often, as the tram bumped and twisted its way through the narrow streets.
Through the grimy windows one could see men with heavy winter coats and flat cloth caps, carrying heavy loads on their shoulders. Women wore woollen berets or scarves and carried cloth bags bulging with vegetables and whatever else they had been able to buy.
In Dublin the streets would still be empty, but here they had half the day behind them already. Women with rough overalls and lined faces banged their hands together for warmth and returned to sweeping leaves into piles along the road.
“The next stop is ours,” she whispered, taking her hand from around his waist.
He was sorry the tram ride had ended and he hoped that she felt the same. He gently put his free hand under her chin as she waited for the door to open and kissed her softly on the lips. It was their first kiss in what seemed like an eternity.
The doors opened and he followed her quickly out onto the road. The tar was so creased in places that it resembled the furrows of a ploughed field. The pavement was equally uneven and he marvelled at Magda’s sure-footedness, while he stumbled like a toddler in her wake.
“What’s the strange smell?” he asked.
“What smell?” she answered, looking back at him in confusion.
“Welcome to Nova Huta,” she grinned finally. “The name means the new steelworks and that explains the pollution. Are you sure you’re still interested in a girl with such polluted lungs?”
“I’ll have to have a word with your father about the extent of the guarantee,” he grinned back.
They crossed a busy road and came upon an imposing statue of Lenin in the middle of a large square, surrounded by badly blackened buildings. Their rigid facades were reminiscent of the Karl Marx Allee in Berlin.
“He looks familiar,” he joked as they passed by.
“Another present from our Russian brothers,” she commented sarcastically.
To counter the pollution, the authorities had planted thousands of trees when the steelworks was built in the sixties and now tall trees lined every street and occupied every possible free space.
“He we are,” she announced as they turned into a small square dominated by large trees and surrounded by old-fashioned blocks, each with a cellar and three storeys over ground.
Magda’s flat block was deathly quiet as they climbed a small flight of stairs to the flat.
“Everybody’s at work,” she explained as she turned a long old fashioned key in the lock and opened the door with some difficulty.
“What about your family. Where do they work?” he asked.
“My parents and my older sister are at the steelworks like nearly everyone else around here. My younger sister is at school, as is my brother-in-law. He’s a teacher. My little niece will soon be home from Kindergarten.”
“They all live here?” he asked incredulously.
“Very happily,” she countered defensively.
“This is your room,” she said, showing him into the smaller of the two rooms.
He was just about to enter when leather slippers were placed into his hand.
“Leave your shoes on the mat in the corner,” she ordered disappearing into the kitchen.
“Would you like to drink tea or coffee?” she called as he untied his laces.
The room was furnished with a bed-settee, a small table and a wall unit filled with books. He was relieved that he would have time to relax and clean up before her parents returned. Magda appeared intermittently carrying plates covered with an assortment of ham, cheese and gherkins. She served tea in small glasses and couldn’t resist remarking how pampered he was when he had difficulty holding the hot glass.
“Is there any chance you could put a drop of milk in it?” he pleaded.
“Milk,” she repeated, “only pregnant women take milk in their tea.”
“If you Poles want to tell me something about drinking vodka,” he countered, “then I’m all ears, but tea is something we know a lot about and it’s meant to be drunk with milk.”
“I’m sure you would like to have a shower and go to bed;” she suggested when he had eaten.
She returned from the kitchen a few seconds later holding a towel and was about to leave it on the small table when he caught her arm and pulled her over onto the couch beside him.
“Magda, all I want to do is put my arms around you and hold you close,” he confessed.
“I’m not sure you deserve any kisses,” she answered, pulling away from him. “Perhaps you would prefer Halina?”
He understood her fears only too well.
“Magda, you know my reason for coming to the GDR and the sixteen hours of discomfort I’ve just suffered have to tell you something. Your reaction when I phoned left me with doubts about the depth of your feelings. Are you sure you haven’t forgotten me and lost your heart to a handsome Pole?”
“Shaunoosh, I haven’t forgotten you. Your letters were all I had, but when I read them it was like having you here beside me.”
Suddenly, her arms were around his neck and she was making up for the kisses she had denied him earlier. She stopped every so often and looked into his eyes. He was intoxicated by her fragrance and the warmth of her body against his.
“I just can’t read her,” he thought. “It’s wonderful but it’s frustrating. She drives me crazy.”
“Oh hell,” she exclaimed, looking at the clock on the wall, “I’ll be late for my niece at the Kindergarten. Go and have a shower and I’ll turn the couch into a bed. I’ll be gone when you come out, just close the door and we’ll wake you for dinner.”
A few hours later, Shaun was roused from a deep sleep becoming aware of whispering and giggling at the glass door to his room.
He opened his eyes reluctantly, not wanting the pleasure of soft hands against his face to stop and expecting to be greeted by Magda’s mischievous smile.
He was surprised instead by the prettiest little, innocent face. The three year old was as shocked as Shaun when he opened his eyes. Her eyes had the same marvellous quality as Magda’s and her expression had the same mix of everything from keen intelligence to mischievous fun and daring. Magda’s silhouette appeared through the glass in the door and he could hear her urging Kaya to pinch his nose before she retreated to the protection of her parents in the other room.
“Wake up sleepy-head,” Magda ordered in fake exasperation as she entered the room and opened the blinds over his head.
“The family are starving and they can’t eat until you get up.”
“Give me a minute,” he implored not wanting to jump out of bed without giving her time to leave the room, so he could pull his jeans on..
“Hurry up or it’ll get cold,” she warned, deliberately taking her time and leaving the door ajar in her wake.
Shaun grabbed his clothes from a stool and he straightened the bed clothes, having no idea how to turn it back into a couch. He could hear a sweet innocent voice responding to adult questions in the other room and her answers were followed by howls of laughter.
He stood nervously at the door to the big room. Magda’s father, a small stocky man with a wonderful head of curly black hair and a dark handsome face was the first to welcome him. Shaun felt the father’s stubbly cheeks against his, as he embraced him three times. The greetings from the other family members were no less cordial, but more hurried as they were all engaged in preparing and bringing food from the kitchen.
Lost for words, Magda’s father pointed to an empty chair at the head of the table and beckoned Shaun to sit. It appeared different to the room he had glimpsed on his arrival. A large extended table now dominated it. Steaming bowls of red soup, waited at each place setting and the table was covered with various foods, most of which he didn’t recognise.
Much to his relief Magda returned carrying a basket of bread. Her mother followed with the last bowls of soup. She had such an honest motherly smile. She shook his hand, kissed him on the cheeks and greeted him with “Guten Tag” blushing at her inability to communicate as she wanted. She looked in Magda’s direction totally frustrated and waited for Magda to translate:
“My mother welcomes you to our family,” she explained. “She hopes you will enjoy Cracow and will stay with us for as long as possible. She says the food is only normal Polish food but she hopes you enjoy it nonetheless.”
“Tell her that I’m very happy to visit,” Shaun told Magda. “I hope not to be too big a burden on the family”.
Magda’s mother smiled and pointed towards the table.
“She wants you to eat before it gets cold,” explained Magda.
He was relieved when Magda sat beside him. She squeezed his hand secretly under the table and he couldn’t help smiling. The family talked away in Polish.
“What is this?” he inquired, looking into a blood red soup with large semi-circular pieces of something white in it.
“It’s barst with ears,” explained Magda. “It’s typical for Poland.”
The rest of the family were already enjoying theirs. Even Kaya was blowing on the steamy soup, before taking it into her mouth. He looked at the bottom of the bowl and dreaded eating the ears. He knew he would manage the soup if only he could get rid of them. He took up his knife and fork, dreading the texture and taste. He was surprised to cut through an ear with little difficulty. He took a small piece on his fork and closed his eyes as he took it into his mouth.
When he reopened his eyes he found bemused faces eying him from every side. Magda poked him in the ribs with visible embarrassment, telling him to put down the knife and fork.
“Does everybody eat soup with a knife and fork in Dublin?” she asked.
“You were the one who said they were ears,” he replied indignantly. “How would I know they just melt in your mouth?”
Magda just couldn’t resist translating and adding her own comments to everybody’s amusement. Marek the handsome young son-in-law laughed so heartily that he nearly choked on his soup.
Shaun felt more at home with a main course. Even without the language he could sense the warmth around the table. It was obvious that everybody felt loved and appreciated. Just when he felt he couldn’t eat any more, homemade cakes and a pot of coffee appeared.
He became serious as he considered how difficult it would be to integrate into this family without learning to speak Polish. The whole room sat laughing as they listened to a humorous exchange between Marek and Magda. Shaun had to decide whether to sit blankly or copy everyone else.
“Did you understand?” Magda asked excitedly, seeing the smile on his face.
“No,” he admitted feeling stupid.
“Idiota,” he heard Kaya saying to her mother as she looked in his direction and gave an honest evaluation of what she had seen. Grazina, Magda’s older sister looked a little embarrassed when she felt his eyes on her, but felt sure he couldn’t have understood.
“What did your niece say about me?” he asked in a whisper that came out louder than he had intended.
Magda’s face flushed and she pretended not to hear him.
“I’m not stupid,” he continued, “I can guess what the word “idiota” means.”
Magda turned to her sister and translated. The room exploded with laughter. Shaun wasn’t sure whether to laugh along or be insulted. Magda was enjoying his predicament so much that her mother had to intervene to get her to explain.
“Kaya looked at you, a fully grown man,” she explained, “unable to say or understand anything and she made the only logical conclusion based on her limited experience. You must be an idiot.”
“That’s it,” Shaun declared with determination, “I’m going to learn Polish and Kaya is going to teach me.”
“Bravo,” shouted Marek at the top of his voice when Magda translated.
Shaun could see that Magda got her sense of fun and her quick-wittedness from her mother and her dark complexion from her father. Her sisters looked admiringly at her, as she translated. Ula was full of confidence despite being the youngest. She had eyes like Magda and a beautiful head of long black wavy hair. Grazina, the oldest, was shy and liked staying in the background.
Magda’s father put a full bottle of vodka on the table. He filled two small glasses and signalled to Shaun to join him.
“You don’t need to if you don’t feel like it,” Magda advised.
Shaun raised his glass, repeating the father’s nazdovia and lowered its contents in one go.
“Wow,” he gasped, trying to catch his breath.
“Tell him our vodka is better than the Russian stuff,” he told Magda.
“What?” Shaun asked.
“He wants to know if you liked it,” she lied.
“Dobra, dobra,” praised Shaun and Stashew filled his glass again.
“It’s time for us to go to the other room,” Magda told him. “They need to put Kaya to bed,” she explained.
He answered their Dobranots and followed Magda into the other room.
“We’ll have to speak quietly,” she cautioned. “It’s way past Kaya’s bedtime and my dad has to queue for meat tomorrow before he goes to work.”
“How many classes do you have to teach tomorrow?” he asked hopefully.
“I’m sick, she explained with a smile.”
“That’s a relief,” he confessed. “It would be impossible here without you.”
“I have one or two private classes,” she warned,” but my family will take good care of you,” she promised.
“You’re lucky to have such a wonderful family,” he told her.
“I know,” she replied.
He wondered if they had a positive impression of him as well. She looked at him with that knowing look and read his thoughts.
“I don’t know how you fooled them,” she smiled.
“Fooled them!” he protested already feeling complimented.
“They said you were the nicest Paddy they had ever met,” she joked.
He pulled her towards him as if to slap her, but he couldn’t resist her when she came into range and her own half-hearted attempts to defend herself lost momentum as they fell into each other’s arms.
It was well past midnight when Magda left him. It was taken for granted that she had a right to the time she needed to get to know him. Every evening was to be like this and she stayed longer and longer each time.
“I was afraid you had forgotten me,” he admitted. “I had moved mountains to get the scholarship and when I rang you there was no reaction?”
“West Berlin was wonderful,” she defended, “but what did I know about your life and your feelings since?”
“I love you,” he heard himself saying, “and I want to be with you for the rest of my life.”
He could see she was thinking deeply and he wasn’t sure from her expression if he wanted to hear what she had to say.
“Do you think we can be happy, if it is at the expense of somebody else’s happiness?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly, “but every moment I spend with you is precious. With you I feel more alive than with anyone else. Nothing would make me happier than to be with you for the rest of my life.”
“What about your promise to Caragh?” she asked directly. “Why doesn’t it surprise me that you are so concerned about the sadness my love for you will cause another?” Shaun answered. “My reluctance to face the truth has only made everything worse, but the next time I come to Poland I will be free to ask you what I would ask you now.”
The days in Cracow passed as in a dream. They walked arm in arm along the tree-lined Planti which enclosed the old city. They walked down from the Barbican to the huge central square. They listened for the bugler in the high tower. Magda suddenly ran over to a small kiosk and beckoned him to follow her. They stamped their feet as they queued and she covered his reddened ears with her warm hands. When they finally got to the kiosk window, she took what seemed to be a lot of money from her purse. In exchange, she got twelve toilet rolls tied together on a loop of rough string.
Shaun proudly carried the toilet rolls on his shoulder. People stopped him constantly, asking him something in Polish.
“It might seem strange to you,” Magda blushed, “but they are asking you about the toilet rolls.”
“I’d better keep a firm grip,” he joked,” just in case we get mugged.”
“You need to be practical to survive in Poland these days,” Magda stressed when she had finished laughing.
Later that evening, they drank beer with Maciek and Halina in a popular bar off Florianska Street. When they were alone again they stood in the shadow of an old-fashioned lamp in the semi-deserted square and kissed.
“I don’t want to go back to Berlin,” he told her.
Sunday was their last day and they got up at six to walk to church. They arrived a half hour early and were lucky to find a seat. The congregation observed a strict silence as the priest read out an endless list of requests for prayers. Finally, the organ boomed out the entrance hymn as the procession of young priests and altar boys proceeded from the sacristy, eventually filling the centre aisle of the church on its way to the main altar which had been draped with a Solidarity flag.
If the organ was loud, the thunder of Polish Catholics singing was louder. Shaun was carried along on the emotion. The whole congregation were locked in concentration for over an hour and a quarter. The priest pounded his fist on the pulpit and his voice thundered from the loud-speakers. The volume reached its crescendo for the closing hymn. Shaun squeezed Magda’s hand tightly as they left the church.
“It was beautiful wasn’t it?” she asked looking for confirmation.
“I have never experienced anything like that fervour in Ireland,” he answered evasively.
“I couldn’t spend my life with anybody who didn’t believe in God,” she warned.
“It seems easier to be a Polish Catholic,” he confided, “The church appears to be fully on the side of the oppressed. You are fortunate the communists confiscated the property of the rich or the situation might not look so black and white”
I wanted to be as convinced as you were, but I had seen a very different side of the same church. I envied your pure picture of the Church fighting side by side with selfless Solidarity heroes. You believed fully in a saintly Polish Pope ably manoeuvring to counter the sly moves of the godless Soviet Union. Any Pole who didn’t agree with this outlook was a self-seeking lackey ready to betray all to his Russian bosses.
I wanted to be convinced, but a heartless Christian Brother parading Wilson around the class wouldn’t get out of my head. Of course, I had a choice of episodes from my working life: There were the segregated Travellers, corrupt parish priests who sorted out teaching jobs for all their relatives and then there had been the threats from training college to declare me a bad risk.
I was walking on eggs and I knew it. I took your hand as we walked back home among the allotments deep in thought. We avoided so many topics, but we were both aware of the wide gulf in experience and belief that lay between us. Kaya pushed between us, putting her tiny hands in ours.
“Magda, promise me you won’t get married and move away,” she begged. “You are the best auntie anybody could have.”
“What did she say?” I asked when I saw the sad expression on your face.
“I don’t know if I could ever leave my country and live among people who are so different,” you admitted.
“Come back soon,” Babcia called and I looked back at a row of heads waving from the window and wondered if I could ever fit into such a tightly knit family, whose language and customs were so foreign.
The train station was nearly deserted. Those taking the Berlin train stood alone, or in small groups. Their expressions betrayed their feelings about the journey back to the GDR. Poles had never been very welcome and old prejudices were being stirred up by the authorities to lessen the danger of Solidarity spreading.
It was Shaun’s turn to stand at a train window and wave.
“I love you Madgi. I’ll be back soon,” he promised, as the train started to move.
“I love you too. I’ll be waiting.”
Shaun sat back in his seat, dreading what lay before him. Caragh’s love-filled eyes and his parting words a few days earlier echoed in his head:
“You won’t feel it until Christmas and we will have a really lovely time together.”