GROUNDHOG YEAR – REFLECTIONS – ARTISTRY
A few quick thoughts slowly written down. Something to think about, something to look at, something to buy a few moments in which to ask: is that really the whole year over and out already?
No matter what I do, the year just races by. No sooner started than it’s over like lightning across the sky.
There were questions I meant to contemplate, issues I meant to tame.
Now the whole twelve months has passed and my jobs list looks the same. And so, too, does the prospect of another new year to come before I’ve really made my peace with the one that we’ve just done.
I’d say to rush headlong from old to new without the slightest pause for breath would be unwise, wouldn’t you?
A pause for thought is more than due, some reflection and appreciation too. A moment to recharge body and soul, a moment to look beyond those things we didn’t do and give all those things we did their due.
If it’s Ground Hog Day again tomorrow, so be it – but not today.
I always used to talk about my life being founded on five central pillars. Now though it increasingly feels as though I am surrounded not by five simple, elegant marble columns but by an endless sprawling labyrinth. The priorities have shifted and matters of emotion, matters that staunchly resist any simplification, seem to be taking up more and more of my attention. There is clearly no turning back either, for I and my wife now understand we will inevitably follow where our hearts lead us. We have fallen into step with an irresistible and unfailing rhythm tapped out by our sense of responsibility for our actions and omissions and their effects on the people who matter to us.
Who matters to us? It is certainly not simply a question of family ties; in fact we are agreed shared blood need not necessarily play any role at all. We remain as interested in and curious about our fellow humans as we have ever been despite the familiar sting of recurring disappointments. Two decades of sharing the same space have melded us into a unit that works wonderfully well as a shield against unpleasant life experiences, which turn out to be far more easily processed with two heads rather than one.
I always understood that solitude was not the perfect solution (it’s hardly a contentious position to adopt after all), but experience has taught me that it definitely beats sharing the wrong company. And the right company cannot be relied on to come knocking just by chance: it pays to stay sharp!
Human interaction is what makes us tick and what keeps us on course however much events and adverse encounters threaten to drive us astray, however persuasively that sinister voice insinuates to one or the other of us that we have it wrong, that we must change, adapt, keep up with the times (acquiesce to the demands of the envious). We are able to leave such pretences floundering in our wake by holding true to our guiding light, our battle-proven principle of social interaction. We have to be able to allow ourselves to be authentic, to be who we are and say it as we see it. It’s hardly a novel principle, granted, but it serves us well and it helps us to find safe water quickly without dithering or doubt.
Our day job provides us both with an honest living. One of us might have been expected (expecting?) to have hung up his drill and wrenches by now (after a good fifty years at the transom) but what would that achieve when the work still supplies fun, friendship, interesting days and endless new insights? Mustn’t grumble…
Our life in two countries is exciting. Being part of the scene in two places at once can be hard going, but it has been 20 years since we first decided to live like this (Four legs in two countries) and we have not yet had any cause to regret our choice. We spend all day everyday together and, believe it or not, we never take a holiday. We don’t seem to mind though: there’s just no time left for holidays when we have so much else to get done first. How do we do it? I have no idea, but it works, it keeps us happy and it brings us friends – friends who help us, friends who respect us and friends who enjoy sharing the fun times to be had in the company of people who live in balance and value the opportunity to give at least as much as they take out of their social interactions.
Allow me to explain…
Our hearts belong to the young and the old. It is their wishes we love to fulfil and for their words we always have an ear (and not just in times of crisis). Seeing their children filled with joy can also help to persuade parents to do a little more for their little ones than just provide room and board (which too many families seem to think ought to suffice). Homework, shoelace tying and other basic necessities can even be dealt with on FaceTime once people’s undivided attention has been gained and fairness and respect are assured. Consistency is what matters: even quite little children can learn to understand boundaries and accept consequences if rules and expectations are consistent. It’s the parents who think they can just let it slide and have an easy life by not enforcing boundaries and consequences who end up with the biggest problems.
I suspect it is the way that consequences force them as well as their children to face up to the facts that make consistency such a challenge for some of the parents I see. It isn’t difficult to understand why they might be tempted to seek refuge in their phone and exercise their thumbs in preference to dealing with the next generation. As my friend Wilfried used to say though, exactly how parents choose to raise their children is up to them but they do have an obligation to do it properly, otherwise the children cannot be expected to grow up right.
Our days in Poland start early. There is waving to be done as the children from the outlying villages pass by on the school bus, noses pressed against the steamy bus windows hoping to catch the eye of Ciocha (Aunt) Marzena, whom they will see again at the end of the day when she collects them from the school just around the corner. Why do these children have such an interest in us? Because we are able and willing to be interested in them and to give them the attention they often miss out on at home due to the size of their family. When you have eleven people living under one roof, there is hardly likely to be enough time for everyone every day and we are very happy to fill in the gaps and lend a listening ear wherever possible.
It came to our attention during the pandemic that even immediate neighbours were not prepared to help each other out with food supplies. We were in a position to be able to do that, so off we went to Poland. We are instinctively open and welcoming people and it turns out that in this part of the world, open arms and friendly faces help you to make a whole army of friends very quickly.
Some, like Franek, have become especially dear to us. Franek and his magic hands have for years been conjuring the most amazing sculptures for us, from the two-metre tall, 500kg bear who graces our entrance, a walrus called “Don” who has settled in by our fireplace and two mighty lions who guard the workshop (and will shortly have to learn to share their territory with a third) to numerous intricately detailed figurines whose expressions can only be fully appreciated with a magnifying glass.
Franek is our hero, the captain of our heart, and we welcome the chance to do anything we can for him. He has already earned himself a new roof, a quad bike for the woods and a new car (his dog goes by the name of Skoda, which made choosing the car nice and easy).
He has even managed to give up smoking after increasingly feeling short of breath. He made up his mind and he has done it.
Here is a man with genius in his hands living in a small village in the woods surrounded by people who have not the slightest idea what to make of his talent, a man who has in the past seen his sculptures disappear into the boot of the priest’s car in exchange not for payment but for a reminder to trust in divine providence.
His days of supplying strictly religious-themed pieces free of charge behind him,
Franek has now begun to unleash a dazzling diversity of artworks in a blaze of creativity apparently limited only by the challenge of procuring a sufficient number of suitable tree trunks in a country in which timber is habitually converted into firewood immediately on the spot. Having found the right source material, Franek produces plenty of firewood in the truly breath-taking process of liberating (with saw, plane and rasp) the forms
and textures of his imagination from a solid chunk of tree
The result is a warm home today and a work of art to be admired for ever more. Or, looking at it a different way, for years we have been living in the midst of the by-products of firewood processing… Relativise it for long enough and just about anything can become a laughing matter.
Recently Franek has begun facing up to his greatest challenge yet: Marzena in life size. It will probably take many months, as usual. He loves to keep us on tenterhooks so that we come running whenever he gives the word. We are very excited and I would say we can’t wait – except that I know we will have to!
Cough syrup from Germany, haemorrhoid cream for old ladies, shoes for the kids, snowsuits for the white stuff … Oh yes, and Ciocha, might there be a coat like the one you are wearing for me? We have always needed a big car to accommodate all our complexes. Actually that can’t be true: our big car is always so full when we head East that even a minor psychological hang-up would have to ride on the roof.
We probably should have realised sooner that more generous gifts were sometimes finding their way onto eBay. A constant balancing act, it is one of those situations in which one has to remember to focus on the big picture and not try to come out on top every time. There is leakage everywhere, but our understanding of people is growing exponentially and that does help to stem the losses.
Today we can usually spot the wrong’uns coming and have learned to escort them swiftly – but politely – back out the way they came when the requests become too excessive. The question of course is what exactly constitutes too excessive. Where do we draw the line? We have had to learn on the job –and we have done so. Every day brings new learning opportunities in abundance and we find it very interesting to analyse and dissect behaviours that strike a duff note (before they lead to adverse consequences for us).
The Halloween party we host in our house and garden continues to grow bigger every year, drawing in not just the children of the area but also a great many parents, whose curious faces can’t resist peaking round the corner to see how what nightmarish decorations Ciocha Marzena has arranged for their pleasure this year.
But back to wood, the material that is seemingly there for the collecting, sawing and chopping all over Poland and that heats the whole country through the winter. We love woodwork, so it took us no time at all last year to create employment for artists recently arrived from Ukraine by commissioning them to build a series of fairy-tale wooden houses. We have formed quite a friendship with the Ukrainian craftspeople and the wonderful enchanted village they have magicked up has become an irresistible draw – and not just for the local children.
The visitors pour in in their droves to admire and play among the Hansel-and-Gretel buildings (which everyone instantly recognises as such from our collective imagination). The extraordinary skills these timber virtuosos possess have inspired us to keep the village growing – and keep them employed in the process. We have suitable accommodation for no fewer than eight storybook witches now – and no idea where it will all end.
The latest updates from the carpentry team are as exciting as ever: a peacock for Christmas and drafts for the next gingerbread house, a real stunner!
Along with forestry we have also developed a serious interest in agriculture. Growing food is another area of village life in which things are not always straightforward. We have people (who are supposed) to work our fields and meadows but the costs can sometimes exceed the proceeds and extreme weather can restrict or destroy the crop very quickly at any point right up to harvest.
Here too there are human factors to consider. The weather might be kind, but what if the perfect moment to harvest falls on a day when the harvesters are all laid low by a raging hangover? What if the tractor has a flat tyre? What if the harvest turns out to be smaller than expected because the fertiliser that should have fed it ended up being spread elsewhere to generate a bigger harvest for the spreader’s own account? That’s the constant balancing act again: the year-end accounts may not make particularly pleasant reading, but there is a certain pride to be gained from seeing the land productive and well maintained.
To say that my wife has green fingers hardly does her urge to sow, plant and cultivate justice. Flowers and plants fairly burst from every nook and cranny of our quarters and standards are high: the leafy being that fails to measure up is likely to be unceremoniously wrenched out and replaced with a more obedient alternative at any moment. Seeds, plants and cuttings that are relocating for a change of scene or soil often join us on the journey between Poland and Germany.
In the autumn there is always a big sack at the ready to receive seeds and dried flowers, the starting point for next year’s crop in the other country. It is striking how often we come back from Poland with nothing but us and our dirty clothes in the car. The border authorities do sometimes give us more than the usual perfunctory glance.
As well as everything else, our village in Poland has a very effective bush telegraph. If I am out and about on foot, each neighbour I pass will immediately spread the word, so everyone there always knows which of us is at home. It’s even easier with Marzena, because her voice carries clearly from one end of the village to the other. She has an enormous presence – big enough sometimes even to leave me with nothing to add. Perhaps it’s my advancing years, but I rather enjoy it – and I certainly enjoy spending time in her home village, which now feels like a home for me too. I never saw it coming, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Written with pleasure at Christmas
Peter Foerthmann 23 December 2022