Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for September is Vodka & Apple Juice by Jay Martin (Fremantle Press), a warm, engaging memoir of travel in Poland and life inside an Australian embassy from the winner of the City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award.
When Jay’s husband lands a diplomatic job in Warsaw, she jumps at the opportunity to escape her predictable life in Canberra for a three-year adventure in the heart of central Europe. Shelving her corporate wardrobe and diving headlong into life as a diplomatic wife, she sets out to get to know quirky, difficult, fascinating Poland.
Agnieszka the kind-hearted, my Polish teacher from Canberra, was in Warsaw for a few weeks. She was heading to the country for a few nights to visit some friends of hers and invited me along.
‘So how’s life in Warsaw?’ she said, as soon as we were aboard the mini-bus out of the city.
‘What about Polish people? What are they like?’
‘Unusually interested in what foreigners think of them,’ I said.
‘Do you think?’
We were heading to Olsztyn, a medium-size regional centre that should have been about three hours north of Warsaw. I kept waiting for the road to deteriorate. Polish people loved to complain about their roads: in the newspapers, in shops, on TV. But this one was a divided highway, two lanes each way. I couldn’t see what the problem was.
Agnieszka’s friend Piotr (the second) picked us up from the bus station and drove us half an hour further to his place. We passed a few tiny villages on the way, each one marked by the Polish city limits road sign, a black-and-white village silhouette, complete with church steeple. The church was so central here that it was part of even a stylised village-scape on a road sign.
I was glad I had something to think about. Piotr attacked the single lane road of sharp bends, blind corners and oncoming cars, children and chickens as though it were a controlled race track. Agnieszka didn’t seem to be feeling the same panic as I was. When we arrived in one piece, I wasn’t so much relieved as surprised. I considered a new theory: maybe it wasn’t Polish roads that were bad, but Polish drivers.
Piotr’s wife was also called Agnieszka (of course). For some reason all forty million Poles seemed to share only half a dozen names between them. Our hosts lived in a rustic house that had been abandoned by its German owners during the war. By the time the communist government had fallen and there was a private property market again that Agnieszka and Piotr could buy it on, the roof had caved in and animals had made homes in the exposed walls. They’d completely restored it since, but kept many of the original features: solid stone walls, low ceilings, timber beams, and a kitchen dominated by an enamel stove that did them for both cooking and heating.
Piotr attacked the single lane road of sharp bends, blind corners and oncoming cars, children and chickens as though it were a controlled race track.
But it was the golden forest around us that beckoned Agnieszka, and she’d barely greeted her old friend before dragging me off for a walk in it, with the family’s five-year-old girl, Mela, joining us.
Tom and I went to Warsaw’s Lazienki Park every chance we got at the moment – or at least, as often as I could coax him away from the PlayStation – to watch squirrels bury nuts under the yellow oaks. Although in truth, you didn’t have to even leave our apartment to appreciate this season. The trees we could see from inside were just as stunning.
Here in the country, nature came into its own – with the added advantage that we could look for mushrooms. Mela’s eagle eyes would spot the patches of fungus, and she’d run towards them and gently inspect them to see whether they were smooth or ridged underneath, already expert in knowing whether or not you could eat them. As Agnieszka and I meandered through the crimson forest, our basket filled with the fruits of the little girl’s labour.
Every so often, I’d spot one. ‘This one?’ I’d say to Mela. She’d run over and check, before putting her hands on her tiny hips and shaking her head. I don’t think she’d ever met an adult who knew as little about mushrooms as me.
‘This is called maślak,’ Agnieszka explained to me. ‘It’s buttery and soft, good with pasta. This one is borowik, it’s the noblest of all the mushrooms!’
‘I only need one word for mushroom in English. How can I need more words in Polish?’ And no mushroom I knew looked in any way noble.
She rolled her eyes. ‘Anglo-Saxons don’t understand anything about mushrooms.’ I added that to the list.
Agnieszka rolled her eyes. ‘Anglo-Saxons don’t understand anything about mushrooms.’
We were almost back again when I spied something in the shadow of a tree. ‘This one?’ I asked Mela. It was at least ten centimetres across. Mela ran over, checked, and nodded her head in admiration. She gave me her small knife and I cut it off at the stem like she’d showed me, so another would grow. I posed for a photo with my find. Catch of the day!
‘It’s funny,’ I said to Agnieszka, ‘I’ve never done this before, but it seems so familiar.’ All those stories from my childhood of little girls mushrooming in forests, I guess. ‘Can mushrooming be in your genes?’
‘Maybe if you’re Polish!’
We’d no sooner reached the kitchen with our catch than our host Agnieszka breezed in, unaffected by the clutch of children – Mela and her two brothers – following after her. There were only three of them, but their flailing arms and excited screams took up a lot of room in the small home.
Agnieszka and Piotr apologised for their poor English, before proceeding to speak to me fluently on a range of issues, all while Piotr whipped up a two-course meal with the mushrooms their daughter had collected. Usually I persisted in Polish. Today I decided to just enjoy the conversation.
We sat down to eat a meal of homegrown vegetables and forest-picked mushrooms, in a one-hundred-and-ten-year-old restored country farmhouse, warmed by the heat from the stove that had cooked our meal. How many people must have done just this in this house over its long life? But here I was, probably the first Australian. Maybe the first Australian to have ever been to this tiny town.
‘This is lovely, Piotr. You’ve gone to so much trouble.’ I said to the host.
‘Do you know the Polish saying, Gość w dom, Bóg w dom?’ he asked me.
‘Guest in the house, God in the house?’ I tried a translation out loud.
The Agnieszkas and Piotr nodded enthusiastically. ‘To a Polish person, a guest is sacred. It’s never a trouble to have a guest. It’s always a pleasure.’
Agnieszka reeled off another one: ‘Więcej gość w cudzym domu przez godzinę niż gospodarz za dzien ujrzy’.
I shook my head and looked at my old teacher.
‘A guest in a foreign house sees more in an hour than the host sees in a day,’ she enlightened me. I rolled that one round in my mind for a while.
‘A guest in a foreign house sees more in an hour than the host sees in a day.’
A few hours later and Agnieszka and I were making ourselves comfortable in the space where a barn had once been, to one side of the house. With a couple of mattresses, thick blankets and a wall full of books, it was a cozy guest room.
‘Do you feel homesick for Poland still, Agnieszka – even after all these years in Australia?’ I asked her. It had been twenty years. I fully expected her to say no.
‘Oh, yes,’ she said instead, with an intensity that surprised me. ‘It’s so easy here for me. With my parents and my friends and my language – my many words for mushrooms. Australians always want to ask me where I’m from and how long I’ve been in Australia and what I think of it. It’s okay I guess. But it gets boring. How come Australians always ask you all those things anyway?’
‘How come Poles never do?’ I said.
‘What about you. Do you feel homesick being away from Australia?’ Agnieszka asked.
I shook my head. There were a few things I missed about Australia, I supposed. But I didn’t dwell on them. We were only here for three years, after all. I was making the most of it. ‘Being an expat isn’t like being a migrant. It’s just three years. I’ll be back in Australia soon enough,’ I said.
‘Oh, I nearly forgot, I brought you something!’ She fished a small plastic bag out of her things and gave it to me.
The drab olive of a eucalyptus branch showed through the plastic. She’d brought me gum leaves! I opened the bag and inhaled their distinctive scent. The smell of the hills I used to walk on after work to the sounds of pink and grey galahs and crimson rosellas. Of the endless lazy hours of the summer holidays of my childhood. Of camping holidays by the ocean. Of a place where things were easy, and people were like me. Where what I could say wasn’t limited by the vocabulary and grammar I had. Where Tom and I had felt like we were on the same team. Not where crazy event after crazy event left us no time to just be together. I wondered if Charlie was still waiting for us to come home, with no idea we never would. All of a sudden a flood of hot, heavy tears were rolling down my face and I was powerless to stop them.
‘It’s hard sometimes. Being a guest in someone’s house, isn’t it?’ Agnieszka said.