Learning Polish by Jay Martin

Jay Martin is one of five shortlisted contenders for the 2016 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award to be announced at Fremantle Arts Centre on Wednesday 2 November. Here is an extract from her shortlisted manuscript called Learning Polish.

Agnieszka, Ewa and I sat down to a meal of wild-grown mushrooms, in a one hundred and ten-year-old restored country farmhouse. How many people must have done just this in this house over its long life? But I was surely the first Australian. Possibly the first Australian to have ever been to this tiny town.

‘You’ve gone to so much trouble, Ewa.’

‘Do you know the Polish saying, Gość w domu, Bóg w domu?’ she asked.

‘Guest in the house, God in the house?’ I tried a translation out loud.

Agnieszka and Ewa nodded enthusiastically. I imagined it must work better in Polish. ‘To Polish people, guests are sacred. It’s never a trouble to have a guest.’

Agnieszka reeled off another saying, but I just shook my head, not catching anything my former Polish teacher said.

‘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 as we feasted, warmed by the wood stove.

A few hours later Agnieszka and I were making ourselves comfortable in the cozy guest room.

I asked her if she still got homesick in Australia. Given she’d lived there more than twenty years, I fully expected her to say no.

‘Oh, yes,’ she said. Her intensity surprised me. ‘It’s so easy here for me. With my parents and my friends and my language – my many words for my different mushrooms. Australians hear my accent and they always want to ask me where I’m from and how long I’ve been in Australia. It’s hard sometimes, being a foreigner.’

‘Maybe it’s different for us,’ I said, explaining how I wasn’t homesick at all. It wasn’t forever, after all, just three years. Yes, there were things that were difficult about living here, but this was a once in a lifetime experience. Unlike her, I knew I’d be back in my ‘normal life’ soon enough. And that made it easy just to appreciate all the opportunities of being here, and not worry about the things we were missing.

‘Oh, I nearly forgot!’ she said, fishing something out of her things.

The drab olive of a eucalyptus branch poked out of a small bag. 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 summer holidays of my childhood, and camping by the ocean. Of a place where things were easy, and people were like me. Where what I could say wasn’t limited by vocabulary and grammar. Where I wasn’t a foreigner. Where I was more than ‘just a wife’. All of a sudden a flood of hot, heavy tears were rolling down my face, and I was powerless to stop them.

Fremantle Press is 40! Celebrate the anniversary and the announcement of this year’s winner of the City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award at Fremantle Arts Centre on Wednesday 2 November.

Books discussed
Vodka and Apple Juice: Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife in Poland

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