Christmas edition – 2018

It’s been an eventful year, as always. To begin with, a few hours after I sent out last year’s letter, my son Adam had a TIA (mini-stroke), followed by a couple of others, and was barely out of hospital in time for the Christmas festivities. Much drama followed in the New Year, with recurrences, diagnosis of an unusual condition, talk of brain surgery and the like. All this concentrated my mind wonderfully, as you can imagine.

2018 stef wedding

They could have danced all night…

Adam continued to improve, so in July I wandered off to Poland for my cousin Stefek’s wedding. He and his bride are in their seventies, and I could only watch in amazement as they danced for ten hours on and off (mostly on) through the day into the evening. They met at a dance class and will obviously live forever if their current state of health is anything to go by!

It was a wonderful chance to catch up with other cousins and their children. And to my amazement and delight, IMG-2647Stefek gave me the small perfume bottle, shaped like a watering can, that had contained Violettes de Toulouse. My father had bought for his mother in France in 1939. It’s mentioned in a post on my website. If you’re reading this online, you can find it here.

I travelled on to Krakow, where I’d booked a night in a hotel, not realizing that it had formerly been a residence for priests visiting the city. I was eleven years old when I (and my twin sisters) first visited Poland. My uncle, a priest, took us to see Krakow, where we lodged with some nuns, but he stayed at this hostelry. I wondered if I might be sleeping in the same room he’d used, but decided I probably wasn’t — I feel sure that even so many decades later, I’d have been able to detect a lingering trace of eau de cologne, his favorite aftershave.

I took the train from there to Zurich, to meet up with my friend Liz, who normally lives in Carmel, California. We spent a few days exploring the city and eating far too much chocolate. (At least, I did…). I found out how much I enjoy traveling by rail. As the train rocked me to sleep in my little bunk, the memories of my first long-distance trip – London to Warsaw – many decades ago, flooded back.

I squeezed in a three-day writers’ conference at Wesleyan University, to get some feedback on my memoir, which I did. “Clean writing” said a famous writer for the New Yorker. I’d been hoping it might be a bit risqué, but apparently not… Also got a crick in the neck from sleeping in my own luxurious dorm room on a dauntingly firm bed, with the air-conditioning blasting as if it were cooling the dairy section in the supermarket.

2018 London Eye

On the London Eye…

Only a few weeks later, my daughter, Helenka and her two daughters traveled to London with me, and suddenly I was longing for the air-conditioning, even if it came with a crick in the neck. The temperatures were around 95F (35C) during the day and 80F (27C) at night, and the flat I’d rented hadn’t managed to provide a single fan! We found ourselves entering any establishment that looked air-conditioned – and taking boat trips along the Thames to cool off. At least Helenka and the girls reconnected with all their cousins, and Helenka treated me to tea at the place where she was born. Yes, that’s right. The former hospital, a lovely Regency building at Hyde Park Corner, is now an extremely luxurious hotel, with an English afternoon tea so lavish that we didn’t need to eat again that day.

Back home in early August, Amanda invited me to join her and her family in a house she’d rented on the shores of Lake Sunapee, where we used to live. It turned out to be delightful, and we found time to attend the local barn playhouse, for old time’s sake.

But I needed to focus on writing. I finished the memoir (because I’d made a bet with a writer friend and wasn’t about to lose!) and got the manuscript edited by two editors, one English and one American (two countries divided by a common language, as you know). Then I began researching publishers who might want it, only to discover that the market for memoirs is in a slump. So I’m considering plan B: a small independent publisher or plan C: publishing it myself.

2018 WTN reading

Reading my story at a book signing…

I rashly agreed to help organize the first literary festival in the neighboring town of Westport, which turned out to be great fun. And at the same time, I was asked to contribute when-to-now-cover-final-shortera short story on a time travel theme to an anthology, When to Now, which was published on October 1st. I knew nothing about sci-fi or speculative fiction, so of course I said yes. You can find it on Amazon…  And throughout the year I kept running my monthly writers’ groups, meeting other writers, taking a class or two, and generally soaking up the culture round here.

Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and an excellent 2019!

 

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Seeking refuge

My father was stranded in England after World War II. So he wasn’t an immigrant, exactly – he hadn’t made a plan to leave Poland for better things. I suppose, technically, he was a refugee.

What he had done, before the world went to war, was to leave his homeland in 1938 to work in Toulouse, in south-western France, for a year. He was an agricultural economist, and at 25, had no ties to prevent him from going. He worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, and they assigned him to the Polish consulate in Toulouse, to give him some gravitas. His French is excellent, although the regional accent of that corner of the country can be hard to understand.

Daddy ToulouseI have a couple of photos of him from that time. Here he comes, strolling along a French street, sporting a beret, hoping to blend in. But the camera in its leather case that swings from his wrist tells the world he’s a tourist. He’s wearing a suit and tie – there’s a gleam on his shoes and a smile on his innocent young face.

IMG-2647Perhaps he’s on his way to buy that bottle of Violettes de Toulouse perfume, shaped like a tiny watering can, to give to his mother when he returns home. He is there to study local farming methods so he can return to Poland and help his country increase production. Poland has only recently regained its independence from Germany, Austria and Russia, so now the Poles have to make their country work.

You might think he’d wear more casual clothes when working, but no. My father was a bit of a dandy, I suspect. Here he is again, standing in a field outside Toulouse, his right hand shading his eyes while he tries not to squint at the camera. He has his left hand on the hip pocket of his tweed jacket. As my eyes move down the photo, I see his jodhpurs, ending at the top of his pristine leather riding boots. If there was one thing my father always insisted on, it was well-polished footwear.

When not working, he hiked the Pyrenees, and passed the time in cafes and bars with other young people. He visited Lourdes, a shrine not far from Toulouse, not because he needed a miracle then, but because his older brother was a priest, and the gift of a small bottle of Lourdes water could cure all kinds of ills. He managed to hang onto that bottle no matter where he went.

When Hitler marched into Poland, my father joined many of his compatriots who were living and working in France, to form a Polish Army. They fought the Germans side by side with the French, only to find themselves backed up against the English Channel at Dunkerque, praying for a miracle.

They got one. Almost everyone was rescued and delivered to England by a flotilla of small fishing boats, dinghies, and yachts, which volunteered when the troopships couldn’t manage alone.

My father arrived on the south coast, with only the uniform he stood up in, to be put on a train along with his comrades, bound for Blackpool in the north of England. As the train stood hissing and puffing before it began to move, bevvies of women walked up and down the platform handing up thick china cups of milky tea and buns for the new arrivals. My father thanked them in English, and was rewarded with smiles and shouts of “Good luck!”

The Poles ended up in Scotland, and began to prepare for active duty. They knew what they were fighting for – the right to return home to a Poland liberated from the Germans and Russians who were using their country as a battlefield. His brothers showed up in Britain, too. His older brother, an army chaplain, was delighted with is bottle of Lourdes water. Dominic, who was younger, served as a rear gunner in the Royal Air Force.

At the end of the war, anyone who’d served was offered a free (one-way) ticket to Poland, now an officially Communist country. They could stay in Britain, and become miners, foresters or agricultural workers. If they turned that down, they might be offered passage to some part of the British Empire, where they could start again. Their last option was to take the £25 and the suit of clothes they were given on demobilization, and start their own business.

My father had met my English mother by then, and fallen in love. He was faced with a heartrending decision. To travel back to his family – parents, siblings and cousins, whom he hadn’t seen for six years, in the knowledge that the Government would be unlikely to let him leave in the future. Or to stay in Britain until the Communists left. His older brother went back to Poland to tend to his congregation. His younger brother had been shot down over Belgium during the Battle of Britain, and was buried there.

He decided to stay. It wasn’t easy. His homeland now had a new name – the People’s Republic of Poland, and his old consular passport was of no use. After he married my mother, he applied for a British passport, hoping this might let him visit Poland, but the British didn’t want him either.

My father became a stateless person. He had Displaced Persons’ papers, so he was allowed to travel in Western Europe, but he died sixteen years later, without a country, and without seeing his mother again. When I traveled Continue reading