Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from Pennies from Heaven)
It wasn’t long after Ben’s run-in with the corrective citrus that Andrea and started planning our winter vacation to correspond with the University’s own winter break. The destination we chose was one that had long captured my imagination: Greece.
The question would be what to do with Ben while we were gone?
Such answers didn’t come in the dog manual we never received, but there were moments we seriously considered whether it would be appropriate to bring him with us. We knew that Magda traveled with Aida to many places and that, according to her stories, traveling with dogs in Europe was normal. That said, it didn’t take long to evaluate the wild ball of fur in front of me whom I couldn’t stop barking to know that we couldn’t possibly bring him.
It really was a difficult decision and, no matter how many times I’ve been presented with the same decision since, the decisions around travel and Ben’s care have never got easier. I worried what would happen to him; I worried whether he would be safe wherever he went; and I especially worried whether he’d remember me when I returned. Hard decisions, indeed ….
After Ben’s defiling of the Renault, we knew Magda was out. That didn’t leave many other options. We had made many acquaintances over our time in Poland and some real friends too; however, many of our friendships were with adult students we taught. And to be clear, these weren’t students from the University but rather were among the professionals we taught after hours and at some of the corporations we worked. We didn’t feel it would be fair to impose on people we otherwise had a professional relationship. To do so felt like it would be taking advantage of our relationship with them.
One day, I arrived at one of the language schools for which I worked; it was actually the language school that transformed what was supposed to be a quick, two-week visit of Poland into one that became about opportunity. It was this school that offered us our first jobs in the country, without which we would never have stayed long enough to get handed the University positions that kept us there another three years.
So there I was, as I had so often been the past two and half years, visiting Ewa, the “directrice” and co-owner of the school, chatting with Nadja, the receptionist and school’s coordinator, making photocopies for my various classes, and getting any schedule changes or other administrative things out of the way. After two and half years, I was pretty low maintenance, did very good work, and, being a “native speaker” with a graduate degree, I was one of their “stars” that gave the school a great deal of credibility when promoting its resources to potential clients. I certainly won’t make any claims to being god’s gift to EFL teaching – far from it – but I was a very able, committed teacher who certainly had many strengths and given that I was still only 28 at the time and with no formal education in teaching, let alone teaching English as a foreign language, let alone business – and Andrea was in the same boat – we were actually doing an amazing job and becoming more successful by the day.
So, there I was speaking with Nadja, a Slovak who herself had emigrated to Poland, and I was telling her about the recent adventures of Benjamin. Nadja and few of the other teachers had met Ben on occasion when Andrea or I had brazenly brought him into the office when collecting our pay or teaching materials, and he had left an impression. Part of that impression was certainly his crazed behaviour and barking, but most of it was his joie de vivre, his unabashed cuteness, and his love of those who gave him attention.
“I know,” I said, finishing my story of my unsuccessful attempt to teach him not to bark “Thank god he gets cuter everyday. Sadly, he is now afraid of lemons, though.”
Meanwhile, Jacek, a longstanding English teacher with the school overheard the conversation.
“Petra says your dog is cute,” he said, joining into the conversation and speaking about another teacher we had known since we started. “Do you have picture?”
“Hi Jacek. Yes, definitely …” and I threw down my backpack to rummage for the pictures that I carried with me. They were always great for an impromptu lesson on dogs and pets.
“Here he is.”
“Aww. He’s so cute. Where did you get him?”
So I told Jacek the story of Ben’s beginnings.
“He’s adorable,” offered Nadja in her thick Slovakian accent.
“If you ever need someone to take care of him, let me know. I love dogs,” offered Jacek.
“Are you serious?” I said, fishing.
Jacek was now caught. Part of him was just making conversation and being nice, but he had just publicly offered help – and Nadja was looking at him all expectantly too.
“Definitely,” he quickly added. “Just give me a bottle of J&B,” and he laughed.
A segue here shouldn’t be all that necessary. The Poles practically invented vodka, though an international competition still wages for supremacy over which Baltic country (or Russia) can outdrink the others. In this regard, Poles definitely feel the title should be theirs. If you need evidence for how basic and essential alcohol and this clear spirit is to Polish culture you only need to know what the word wodka actually translates: “little water.”
I could do a few whole segments on simply alcohol and Poland and a few just on vodka, but let’s leave at this for now: the Poles know how to drink. Jacek was no different but his years of his own language training in the UK had left him with a unique taste for scotch. While Polish vodka was nearly as cheap and readily available as milk, real scotch was not … and when you could find it, it was pricey for Polish wages. All this to say, Jacek had a hankering for something that was not consistent with his lifestyle as a Polish English-teacher.
I knew this about Jacek long ago. He was a philosophy student, terribly smart, had great English skills from his time in the UK, but he was very much working-class Polish as well and, for him, a great Friday night was sitting around, listening to foreign music, talking about politics and the world, and drinking scotch. While I didn’t know him intimately, I had taught with him one weekend at a language retreat the school had offered, and I knew him to be genuine and a good guy.
“Are you sure?” I asked?
“Yes,” he answered before I could add the next part.
“… because Andrea and I need someone to look after Ben for a few weeks when we go Greece.”
The machismo in him was stuck. Nadja was looking at him, batting her big brown eyes … which were a compelling argument if ever there was one since Jacek had the hots for Nadja.
“Yes… I’d love to.”
“Are you going to be around for winter break?”
“Yes. I have teaching to do.”
So it was done and decided right there. Jacek would come over to our place that weekend and meet Ben and, if all went well, a few weeks later, Ben would be staying with him.
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – Separation