Hugs and kisses

I am a bit confused about some of the latest lockdown easing rules due to kick in from the 17th of May.

Hugs and kisses among friends and family members will be allowed, I get that. Those of us who feel passionately about their personal space must be thrilled by the way.

The guidelines further state that the above mentioned intimacy will not be allowed among strangers.

Why then, do I see news headlines herald ‘the return of casual sex’?

I might be rusty on the subject, but aren’t the majority of one night stands supposed to be happening with strangers? Or at the very most with Roger from accounts? Is the government now saying that it is once again fine to sleep around, provided we do it within firmly established friendship groups or (surely not?) among extended family members.

I would welcome more clarity on the subject. Asking for a friend, naturally.

Teenagers. Life’s best kept secret.

Just like rats, rottweilers and spiders, teenagers have long been the victims of the most undeservingly bad reputation.

When you actually live with them, you will find that if you look after them well, they become the source of your life’s most precious moments.

Their fresh, quick-witted humour is on tap.

Their impassioned rants about the unfairness of school make the biggest political zealots sound like amateurs.

Their outbursts of boundless joy about the smallest things are one of a kind.

In short, to use a trendy phrase, teenagers are brilliant for your mental health.

Below, to illustrate the issue for those of you who do not have one at home, a handful of this week’s gems from my bunch.

Friday afternoon, after an intense week of GCSE preparation, or rather, in the words of my Year 11 daughter, the preparation for the non-GCSEs, which are replacing the real GCSEs and are every bit as important as the real GCSEs but without the school having the decency to give us study leave for them because, of course they are not the real thing.

– I need to go outside, I need to feel the fresh air. 
– Good, idea, go now. 
– You can’t make me! 

– There is this boy at my school, he is proper British.
– What do you mean?
– I mean he eats ham and cheese sandwiches every day. 

– Ma, I’ve got abs, look, abs!
– Well done, must be all that walking you did yesterday. 
– I am going to eat some cream eggs now. Bye, abs! 

– Ma, I thought I might have ADHD, so I’ve downloaded a list of symptoms, but I couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish reading it.  

– Ma, I was offered to be on Holby City next Friday. But I said no, I got school. 
– What? School could manage without you for a day. 
– What?? And you tell me this now? 
– This could have been your big break. Who asked you? How? 
– I signed up to a company called Slick Casting. It is for extras. Anyway, I said no. 
– Next time somebody invites you to be on Holby City, Casualty, EastEnders or Line of Duty, you say yes, unless it’s your wedding day. 
– Hmm, I think this should take priority over wedding. Weddings are lame and common. So common. Think about it, what’s more interesting to say to someone, ‘This one time I got married’, or ‘This one time I was in EastEnders’? 


RIP Prince Philip

Yesterday, Britain was at its ceremonial best and the nation came together once again for a brief afternoon. I was glued to the TV for 5 hours and hardly noticed the time when it was all over. Every little detail was beautifully dignified, infinitely sad and just perfect.

The 3pm national minute silence stayed with me for the rest of the day.
The image of the Queen perched alone at the end of the pew, head bowed, will stay with the world for much longer. A lot has been said how small, stooped and alone she looked at that moment, and how it would have been better if one of her children had been able to sit next to her, if not for the current Covid restrictions. Then again, when you are a widow, sitting at the funeral of your husband of 73 years, you are going to be alone, no matter who sits next to you.

A lot of people only learnt what an extraordinary person the Duke of Edinburgh was after he died, through a slew of documentaries and televised interviews with his friends.
I heard so many people say, in the last eight days, ‘I didn’t know he was involved in x as well as y and z’.

A lot of people have humbly changed their mind about him too, and now feel a bit awkward about only having him down as a ‘cantankerous old sod’ (Duke’s own words) before.
The sense of loss lingers on, but life goes on, so in the words of the Duke’s famous motto, let’s get on with it, it’s a beautiful day out there.

The Duke of Edinburgh

Buckingham Palace, where mourners have been leaving flowers this week.

Basic housekeeping first, if you don’t mind.
If you believe that Monarchy has no place in the 21st century Britain, or that Prince Philip was an obnoxious racist waste of space, please click away now. If you continue reading, you might feel compelled to leave a disparaging comment, I might be tempted to respond, and things could turn ugly, because with me, it’s personal. 

My love affair with the British Royal Family began shortly after I first stepped my foot onto the British soil, in the summer of 1988. I can pinpoint the moment accurately, to the day that Prince Andrew’s first born daughter’s name were announced to the world, some days after her birth. I was at work and listened to the radio for hours on that day, as royal commentators analysed the significance and the provenance of the choice of Beatrice Elizabeth Mary. I was hooked on the spot, and the British Monarchy gained a lifelong fan that day.  A few years later, the Queen gained an unwaveringly devoted subject in me. 

When I chose to adopt Britain as my for ever country, I adopted the Royal Family wholeheartedly, too, warts and all. I am not going to lie, they have tested my devotion a few times over the recent years, but my loyalty to them remains as strong as ever.

Prince Phillip has always been my second favourite Royal, overshadowed in my adulation only by his wife, the Queen. The latter is my all time, undisputed, hands down, no questions asked, nobody comes close, role model, coming as near to perfection in my eyes, as any human being can get. 

Throughout my life in Britain, Prince Philip had been a reassuring public presence, and I always had a soft spot for him, but couldn’t quite figure out why that was, until one day it dawned on me that his boundless energy reminded me a lot about my own dad.

I am acutely aware that I was not being terribly original in this discovery. In fact, I am sure that a lot of people of my generation or thereabout must have recognised traits of their own fathers and grandfathers in the Duke too. He represented that solid type of ‘real man’ which used to be prevalent in the world when he was in his prime. He simply got on with things. The concept has become somewhat old-fashioned now.
Ever since that lightbulb moment, linking the Duke to my dad, and especially since my dad passed away 10 years ago, Prince Philip had gained a unique place in my affections.  

I loved his relentless curiosity and his deep involvement in a vast range of projects, often comparing him to my father, who was similarly passionate about many things in his lifetime. 
Prince Philip did nothing by half, but rather devoted his full attention to each task at hand. Ditto, my dad. He seemed to love spending time with young people, and children; again, my dad in a nutshell. The Duke was absurdly handsome as a young man, and so, of course, was my dad. I admired Prince Philip’s appetite for creativity and innovation, his incessant search for something meaningful to do, combined with his amazing down to earth attitude, his dislike of any sort of ‘fuss’ and ‘stuffiness’.    

I loved his, often cheeky, sense of humour, and it never occurred to me to find his famous one-liners offensive, but rather I recognised them as part of his charm and one of the kind personality.
My favourite quip of his is his response to being asked (in 1967) whether he would like to visit Soviet Union? 
‘I would like to go to Russia very much — although the bastards murdered half my family.’  

The Queen and Prince Philip together were an ultimate couples goal. Their devotion to each other, their partnership, loyalty, their division of labour and building each other up during their 73 years of marriage was something that even the most irritating smug-marrieds among us can only dream of. 

As I write this, my older daughter is traipsing the hills of Surrey, as part of her Gold DofE Award practice run expedition. She got up at 6 am on the last Friday of her Easter holiday and off she went, her backpack towering over her head. She will spend the day hiking, equipped with a map, a compass, and her common sense, to reach the destination sometime late afternoon. Tomorrow, she will repeat the same task again. Sometime in May, she is going to go on the final overnight expedition, complete with pitching a tent, cooking an evening meal, and finding her way along the track.

And that’s it really, that’s all that the Duke of Edinburgh means to me. For everything else, there is Wikipedia. 

The Duchess of Drama

Now that the dust begins to settle and we all have had time to reflect, a clarity of mind returns.  I promise to be brief.

When a woman pushing forty feels compelled to reveal to a global TV audience of 50 million, that it was in fact Kate, a higher ranking Duchess, who made her cry, and not the other way round, in the run-up to her royal wedding three years earlier, because of something to do with the flower girls dresses, the whole thing reaches Alice in Wonderland level of absurdity. 

We had all been dragged through the rabbit hole for the duration of that surreal interview. The good news was, the majority of us got to crawl back up at the end of it. No such luck for Harry, he is staying firmly put, for now, hen-pecked in the Chick Inn, whilst the Duchess ponders his fate. 

Christmas 2020

At 4pm on last Saturday before Christmas Tier 4 was announced for London. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, we spent the evening doing the Which Disney Character Are You Most Like? quiz for each family member.  

Daisy, our cat, was not too happy when she got Pumbaa from Lion King. She was hoping for Simba, naturally. 

Personally, I was not too thrilled with Hades from Hercules, either, but my children were quick to explain to me, that Hades is really cool, with a great sense of humour and edgy blue hair, so I am fine with it now.  

Last Sunday before Christmas. 

With nowhere to go and nothing to do, we had a family viewing of Tangled, complete with a trayful of pigs in blankets and a box of Roses. A fascinating film, which prophesied lockdown and dreams of escaping from it ten years ago. 

Monday before Christmas. 

We spent the last week emptying the fridge of everything still remotely edible to make room for Christmas. 

This morning we woke up to the photos of 4000 lorries stuck in Dover, immediately followed by news of panic buying of lettuce, broccoli and lemons. 

With the rampant new strain of Covid on the loose, I have decided to shield my husband, who has a mild underlying condition, from turkey-hungry crowds at our local orange-themed supermarket. 

Not taking any chances, the said husband also developed a well pronounced limp in his left leg today, in case I changed my mind about the marital shielding. I must congratulate him on his survival instinct, because Sainsbury’s was a killer, if you excuse a hint of Covid humour.

The only turkeys still available were size XL, boasting to feed 13-17 people each. Something sad and ironic about only the biggest birds being left on the shelves, as most families get ready for a seriously scaled down Christmas dinner. 

Goose fat. Nowhere to be found, sold out apparently. Not a single full goose either, come to think of it. I wonder what happens to all the geese when jars of their fat start adorning supermarket shelves every November. Never seen a goose in the meat section of any shop. Never seen a plucked goose anywhere in fact, apart from the one Patrick Stewart swings around on TV every year. Must be liposuction. Yuck. We move on to a morally neutral territory of festive napkins and Christmas crackers before I turn vegetarian.

Christmas Eve. 

The 24th of December is the only day in the year when I dig out my Polish culinary roots and cook a meal which requires a lot of cabbage, sauerkraut, dried mushrooms, prunes, four different types of meat and an unlikely combination of spices.   

Polish Christmas is all about the Christmas Eve dinner, Wigilia. We sit down to it, dressed to the nines, just like I remember from my childhood. I dedicated the whole nostalgia-ridden blog post about Wigilia a couple of years ago, so I am not going to repeat myself. 

After dinner, charades with a twist. There is little point in us playing the traditional version. What usually happens is, as soon as I get up and announce, ‘film, two words’, the rest of the family shout over one another, ‘Les Mis’! before I begin to mime a single letter. If I have a second go, and show ‘film, two words’, they scream ‘Leap Year’!! before I have a chance to take a single exaggerated step across the carpet. So, this year, we decided to pick up random words from a newspaper article to act out. We also split the family into two teams. My husband and I got Covid-19, social distancing, and Exeter to mime to the rest. The first two were a doddle but Exeter posed a challenge. We started by frantically pointing our fingers at our son, but that, unsurprisingly, didn’t tease out the correct response. I then proceeded to perform a fervent Nazi salute, as well as to pretend to throw something up in the air and catch it back, whilst my husband was very convincingly imitating slicing somebody with a sword. Our combined efforts brought a suggestion of a ‘little Nazi graduate’ from our first-born, and it is quickly acquiring the status of a family Christmas classic.

For the uninitiated, our son graduated from Exeter University with a history and German degree a few years ago.     

It is now the 27th of December and we have all fallen into the blissful mellowness which comes after two days of guilt-free gluttony and alcohol abuse. The horrors of the annual New Year New Me are still a few safe days away. I am going back to the sofa in a minute, to enjoy the fullness of the moment. I invite you all to do the same.  

And how is your December going?

Christmas Season 2020 so far has gone as well as everything else this year for us.
First off, our Jingle Bells Turkey lost his voice. He is at least 15 years old but it still came as a shock. When pinched on his tail, he still gyrates like mad, and stretches his neck as expected, but without the sound he looks like he is having a seizure. I would like to help him, just don’t know how.

Next thing I know, our baby poinsettia plant is not looking very healthy. He might not make it till Christmas.
And finally, for the first time since I became a mother, I failed to secure Advent calendars for my brood. Fair enough, I set off to purchase them on the 2nd of December, but I expected some sad Frozen 2 or Percy Pig offerings to still be available. Nothing. Zilch.

A year of feeling that as soon as one door closes, another slams firmly shut in your face, is crawling to its end.  In slow motion, of course, like everything since February.

On Monday, the 14th of December, we got another bad news bogof. Tier 3 for London announced in the same breath as a new strain of faster spreading Covid. Where does it stop? It’s been relentless, exhausting, bottomless. I am not prone to negativity, I hate to complain, my default mode is happy. But this is beginning to test me.  

At least Eastenders sounds more and more like comedy central these days. 
Last night, Rainie to Stuart, all heaving bosom ravishing : ‘I am proud of you. For being honest about the dead man in our fridge’.
I can’t wait for the Christmas meltdown.  

Lockdown Revisited

Lockdown 2.0
Here we go again. Personally, I think it was unnecessary, but enough politics already. 

Lockdown the Sequel confirmed once more that you can never step into the same river twice. Probably for the better, as I, for one, would not like to go through the same volume of panic and fear per square inch as before. The fear is still there, and it’s real, but I think we managed to tame it a little and get on with it.

The decision to keep the schools open this time round meant that, for our household at least, life changed very little on the 5th of November.  We experienced none of the late March nationwide lull and Netflix.  Alarm clocks still went off at 6.00 each weekday morning, and continued going off for half an hour in regular intervals, until our younger girl got up and woke up her sister. 

Courts stayed open this time round, which meant I was frequently out and about myself. 
My husband, the two cats, and Charlie the hedgehog remained as blissfully relaxed and removed from any stresses of everyday life as they had always been. 

During springtime lockdown, I missed the theatre and the school concerts, I mourned the lack of Easter holiday, and the cancellation of summer family trip to South Africa. I missed the Sunday markets, weekend catch-ups with friends, strolls around art galleries, bookshops, pet shops, garden centres, and impromptu meals in quirky out of the way restaurants. 

What did I miss this time round? Ice-skating Sundays, Everyman cinema, John Lewis Oxford Street and Cafe Nero with friends. I am acutely aware how short this list is, and it is actually quite concerning. Is my world shrinking? What if this is irreversible? Life feels comfortable and cosy. Too comfortable and too cosy. Laziness is no longer frowned upon. Why would it be?

When the second lockdown was first announced, I felt a short-lived spark of excitement. I know, pathetic. For a day or two I was kidding myself that this time round I was going to do things differently. This time I was going to do it right, actually going to do something with all the extra time. There would be no banana bread, and no Joe Wicks, but also no bingeing on Netflix.  I was going to start with a proper spring clean. November sounded as good a month for it as any, it is still 2020 after all.  I had so many plans.

And then, life happened, and as we are entering the last few days of Part 2, I have nothing to show for it. I have embraced the new normal.    

What I have learnt since last lockdown ended. 

Putting my phone in airplane mode will be the closest I am going to come to flying anywhere anytime soon.  

Given time, there is no limit to what humans can get used to, and do without.

My body’s resistance to starting a fitness regime is stronger than previously thought. 

Life goes on. 

Katy Carr, Providence

Katy Carr is a British singer-songwriter of Polish, English and Scottish background. She is fiercely proud of her Polish heritage, which she has been referring to extensively throughout her music career. When I think Katy Carr, I see a tall dark-haired lady in one of her signature 1940s inspired outfits, gently strumming the ukulele, while singing her own songs in her unique deep dark voice.
At the end of last month, Katy released her latest album, Providence.

The album includes a curiously eclectic mix of themes, a veritable feast for the intellectually minded among us. In Providence, Katy takes her audience on historical, cultural and literary rollercoaster, which ranges from recounting the 1920 Battle of Warsaw during the Polish-Soviet war, through tributes to Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth I, and Boadicea, to singing the praises of the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. The latter is my favourite song in this collection. The Hampstead Ladies’ Pond is an utterly surreal place, Katy Carr re-creates its esoteric, peculiar nature perfectly.

The album includes one song performed in its original Polish, Hej, Sokoły (Hey, Falcons). The song has been every traditional Polish wedding reception’s staple for decades. Katy adds her unique vocal interpretation to this absolute legend of a song, bringing it beautifully close to its original Ukrainian steppes setting, with her slow and maudlin version, whilst adding her trademark folk harmonies.

Throughout this album, I can’t help hearing distant echoes of another singer of Slavic origin, Regina Spektor, both in the quirky lyrics, and in the tone of Katy’s voice.

I will leave you with a review from a very dear friend of mine, who has spent the last 40 years working in the Polish ‘music industry’, as a musician, composer, conductor, and music director. He can play more instruments that I can name. He requested to remain anonymous.

Katy Carr’s album transports me into a different world. The world of dark brown chambers, styled in the austere aesthetics of musical painters who inhabit them, and who are for ever waiting for a visitor from the past, knowing that he will not be coming.  Nevertheless, they insist on arranging objects from their past on the table, in the belief that these items will help evoke the spirit of the bygone eras.  The sound of this record gives the chambers their colour, the objects on the table are the instruments used in it. And what an unusual combination of instruments it is. A cello, piano fender, harmonica, mandolin and … a drum machine of the 1980s!  Is it possible to conjure up anything out of it? I can say with appreciative certainty, that it works beautifully. It works thanks to Katy Carr’s dark voice, brimming with the honesty of expression. Her voice manages to magically glue together seemingly mismatched elements, and the result is a truly unique album, in which we hear folk music combining the Scottish singing aesthetics, and instrumental performance with notes originating in Poland and Ukraine. Perfect for long autumn evenings, best enjoyed with a glass of smoky whiskey. I heartily recommend!      

Poland this week

I wrote the title and paused. Where do I even begin?

Poland, unlike Britain, has a written Constitution which serves as a supreme book of law for the country. Polish Constitution has a long and distinguished tradition, and as every proud Pole is keen to tell you, Poland was the first country in Europe and second in the world, after the US, to have come up with the written Constitution, in 1791 no less. We should probably gloss over the fact that that first Constitution only lasted 14 months, but anyway, the tradition was set, and suffice to say that the Constitution is a very big deal in Poland. It’s a sacred document of the land. Like the Bible, which, ironically, is also a sacred document to many Poles, and that is where a lot of Poland’s current problems stem from.  

Last Thursday, a court called Constitutional Tribunal (CT), which rules on constitutionality of all Polish laws, issued a decision banning abortion based on severe malformation of the foetus.

Over the last few decades, abortion has arguably been the single most inflammatory, emotive, divisive, controversial issue in Polish political and social life. Do not get me wrong, there have been plenty other inflammatory, emotive, divisive and controversial topics around recently, such as LGBT rights, specifically gay marriages and adoptions (both remain firmly illegal), the intake of refugees (Poland refuses to take any), sexual education at schools (you can guess), free access to contraception, and a plethora of other similar issues. 

Before last Thursday, abortion had already been outlawed in Poland in most cases anyway, but the recent decision takes it up to another level by introducing a near-blanket ban. Abortion is only going to be allowed where there is a risk to a woman’s life, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or (puzzling turn of phrase) incestual violence. The last two scenarios need to be verified by a prosecutor. 

Historically, as introduced by Abortion Act in 1956 by the then Communist government, abortion in Poland was legally available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. At the time, this was a pretty liberal law, compared to other European countries. As any Call the Midwife fan worth their salt knows, abortion in Britain was only legalised by Abortion Act of 1967. 

The recital of the Polish 1956 abortion law included circumstances which allowed for the legal termination of pregnancy. One of them quoted ‘difficult life conditions of the pregnant woman’, which opened itself up to a broad range of interpretations and effectively amounted to ‘abortion on request’. 

Despite fairly regular challenges by the Catholic Church and its derivative organisations, the status quo existed until the end of Communist rule in Poland.

All of that changed in 1993, when the new Act of Parliament removed the ‘difficult life conditions’ provision from the previous law, leaving only the danger to woman’s life, foetal malformation and rape or incest as grounds for legal abortion. As far as game changers go, that one was pretty major. Curiously, the 1993 Act had been referred to as an ‘abortion compromise’ in Polish political discourse, which should have set off some worrying alarm bells among the pro-choice section of Polish society. If that was a compromise, what else could the opposite side have in mind?  As of last Thursday, we’ve got the answer. 

The amendment to the law means that women will now be forced to carry pregnancies to term even in the case of most severe, irreversible foetal abnormalities. Such babies will often only live for the matter of minutes, or hours, and that could be seen as small mercies. Others will live lives stripped off any meaningful existence or dignity for years. There is no need to explain what depths of misery and avoidable suffering that will entail for the severely disabled babies, their mothers and wider families.   

The timing of the latest decision cannot go unnoticed, and is truly despicable in itself. Poland is as much in the grip of the Covid pandemic as the rest of us, the stats have been steadily rising over the last few weeks. Polish government must have known that a CT decision of such magnitude, with such breathtaking social consequences, would not be accepted without protest, that the people will take to the streets ignoring current Covid restrictions thus endangering lives.  

Nationwide response came literally within hours of the CT decision. Thousands of protesters poured onto the streets of Polish towns and cities, armed with unprecedented anger and makeshift slogans. They’ve been out there for the last week and they have no plans to return home any time soon.

One word stands out on their cardboard banners, the word which, incidentally, I shrink from using in everyday parlance. The word is Wypierdalać and it means Get the fuck out. This word has been traditionally associated with representatives of lower social classes, who would use it in situations of heightened emotions or extreme inebriation. Since last week, I have seen this word on the lips of individuals I thought incapable of pronouncing it. The word is directed against the current government, the Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party and also against the dignitaries of the Catholic Church, which is seen as largely responsible for the current developments.  Which leads us to the next stage.

Three days after the CT decision, several groups of protesters all over Poland, entered their local Catholic Churches, and interrupted the Sunday Mass. Religious feelings run as deep among some parts of Polish society as their love of the Constitution, so this was seen by many church-goers as a terrifying escalation of events, the violation of the sanctity of the churches.

Two days later, on Tuesday this week, and I promise this is the final episode in my current reporting, the leader of the PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński, decided to address his party faithful on national TV, mainly on the matter of attacks on churches, but also on the subject of the vulgarity of expression on the part of the protesters. He appealed to all Polish citizens, and specifically to all the PiS members to ‘protect Polish churches at all cost’. He described the attacks on churches as part of the plan to destroy Poland. He referred to the current events as ‘war’ for the preservation of Polish national identity and Polish patriotism. He signed off by saying, ‘let’s defend Poland’.  
It did not take long for his audiences to draw chilling parallels with another sombre leader’s speech, watched by millions, as general Jaruzelski declared Martial Law from TV screens on a December morning in 1981.

Since I like to do things thoroughly, I set out to find somebody who supports the latest CT decision and to try to understand the reasons why they defend it. None of my friends does, so I resorted to a well-known research method of Facebook stalking. I found one person, who is not only in favour of the decision, but she is prepared to, quite literally, go to war over it. Yes, it’s a woman. She welcomed the CT decision with ‘joyous heart’, and she is now ‘more proud than ever’ to be Polish. You get the gist.  

She attracts like-minded individuals to comment on her posts. Remember Katie Hopkins comparing migrants to ‘cockroaches’? That’s exactly how this person and her circle refer to their political opponents. The all-embracing highly contemptuous term which they use to describe anybody with even a hint of liberal views, is lewak.  Lewak doesn’t translate easily, mainly because whatever word I choose, it will likely fail to convey the utter disgust and derision the Polish term implies. Leftie is too soft, it sounds almost like a term of endearment by comparison. Libtard comes close, except it is not used very often in English, whereas the label lewak is freely given out in Poland to anybody who expresses even slightly progressive views, about anything. 

This morning, she put a temporary frame on her profile picture, which reads ‘National Guard’. She has taken her leader’s words to heart, and has declared herself ready to ‘protect the churches, protect Poland’ against the supporters of eugenic abortion.

So there it is. Eugenic abortion. This is a rather cleverly, carefully chosen term, I must admit. Eugenics is a fully discredited concept, and it gives the supporters of the current CT decision a high moral ground they so crave.

All of this is far from over. I will let you know what happens next.