About a year ago (well, it will be a year on June 15, 2016), I brought my family from Belarus to Wrocław in western Poland. The move was as well-coordinated as anything resembling a flight of refugees from potential Russian aggression might appear. However, we were coming to this city well ahead of any urgent need, as migrants, or at least my wife and kids were. She held a karta polaka, and could confer residency on our kids, while I held onto an American passport in its last year of validity.
I could say we had high expectations, coming to this city. It was a growth center for this country with lots of foreign businesses looking at it for investment. Jobs seemed to be plentiful. The Cultural Capital of Europe baton was on its way here, meaning that my kids would not be stuck with a provincial mental picture misshaping their thoughts and lives. There were things to do, and many people to meet. At least five capitals were a short distance away, should the decision be made to travel to any one of them – all of which were within the so-called Shengen Zone, a border-less collection of different states. There would be no visa hassles to face down.
However, I think in the back of my mind, I didn’t fully believe my expectations. All the signs indicated as we arrived that the more nationalist Law and Order party were succeeding in taking over the country from the business-friendly Civic Platform government, ending a period of relative prosperity. As if one “illiberal” country wasn’t enough for Europe. Further, the refugee crisis and a series of ISIS terror attacks transformed Europe into a greed and fear driven nightmare that closed all the borders and made multiculturalism tantamount to naivete in the eyes of most people hiding behind their closed doors. I still took my daughter to the one rally for tolerance that was held on Plac Solny (for which I was very thankful to the Cuban dancers who demonstrated on stage what her Hispanic ancestry was about), but, as outsiders, we opted to enjoy non-political activities.
Looking back over the year, there was actually a lot I was able to take my daughter to see. We picnicked with new friends on Wyspa Słodowa and on a rooftop overlooking Klecina Park, had coffee a few times with expatriates from a variety of different lands, shared hot chocolate in the Christmas fair held in the Rynek Square and rode on its roller coaster, ate KFC and had Starbucks on several occasions, did projects together that won awards in school contests that recognized her as a talented little girl, visited the zoo, saw dinosaurs at Poland’s largest shopping mall, marched in the opening ceremony marking the arrival of the Cultural Capital of Europe status for Wrocław as well as had fun during the day that the city became the UNESCO World Book Capital, witnessed the Guinness World Record-breaking event for most guitars playing simultaneously, visited a kid’s fair at our nearby Borek shopping mall, and even taught English while her mother was away with her little brother. Of course, the rest of the family was in on a lot of these events, but I felt complete as her dad, transmitting the values I needed to transmit to her.
Indeed, as we had while going to Detsky Sad in Belarus, on each morning that I would personally bring her to school (usually when her mother couldn’t), I would have her recite to me what I told her were the three parts of a good school day – to have lots of fun, make lots of friends, and learn lots of stuff. I’d also have her recite “the most important part” – that her mother and father love her. When asked to do so by their mother, I would read stories to the and sing songs to put them to sleep at night, including “Prithee”, “City of New Orleans”, and a modified version of “Danny Boy”.
I talked to her about drugs (but admittedly hadn’t felt quite that comfortable talking to her about boys and sexuality yet), and the importance of not being scared of others just because they are different. I taught her about being alert in public areas if someone leaves a bag or parcel behind them, and what to do if someone tries to grab her and kidnap her (scream, yell, and fight for all her worth). We watched weather radar maps and real-time plane trackers on the computer, as well as Masha and the Bear videos. She learned about genealogy from me, and walked electronically by my side through Google’s Street View of some of the neighborhoods I lived in many years ago. She became sociable with her grandparents while sitting on my lap, and yes, even managed to drag me to playgrounds too (I still am not much for these sorts of places, though I know she adores them).
My son is still too young to share a lot of these things, but I would love to if he were older. We did manage to play ball and cars, and of course when he broke down and cried, I would pick him up and hold him. Unlike the stereotypical bad father (“three children, four diaper changes”), I did change him on numerous occasions. Often these changes were so bad that they involved the shower, but this also gave me the opportunity to teach him not to fear water getting on him. As with his sister, I’ve not managed to get him to try new foods, but he is able to communicate now when he’s hungry or thirsty. When he wakes up, I am there to hug him and kiss him. His smile may seem somewhat goofy to an objective viewer, but I live for it.
He’s fearless in crowds. We’ve had to stop him from tugging on the skirts of beautiful women or playing ball with strange men. Sometimes he holds his hand up to block photos when taking his picture, as if he were a movie star blocking the paparazzi. Still, he is learning slowly to be a proper gentleman. He’s still far from perfect, but he’s getting better at sharing. He loves planes, trains, and trams. But most of all, he loves his sister. I couldn’t ask for more.
Looking toward my wife, it’s fair to say that she has probably gone through the worst stress of all of us while we’ve been here. She speaks Polish, so she’s been the interface our family has with schools, government, and just about everything out there that doesn’t use English. Early on in our relationship, she made the critical error of being the more particular of the two of us when it comes to housework. This has led to a lot of fights over things like where a particular thing goes. But she’s also been my most avid supporter in my writing, one that never seems to give up on me. Many times when she says that she loves me, I’m pleasantly surprised. Granted, she’s not the biggest fan of my travels, but she seems to understand that they are part of my soul.
I often tell others that I know that I’m lucky to have my wife. It’s no exaggeration to call her my salvation. Had she appeared much earlier in my life, perhaps things would have gone differently. We might have both lead a more comfortable and normal existence, one that perhaps would have contributed much more to making the world a better place. But if anything, our life together has been a lesson in being thankful for what we have. It’s also been about preserving our optimism. Without that important human quality, we are keenly aware that constructive ambition is impossible.
Certainly, we didn’t need to go to Wrocław to learn all this. But it has provided a wonderful backdrop to the lesson, even in this time when rampant demagoguery and unholy wars keep plaguing our world.