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

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

by Jay Martin


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When Jay’s husband lands a diplomatic job in Warsaw, she jumps at the chance to escape a predictable life in Canberra for adventure in the heart of central Europe. From glamorous cocktail parties and dining with presidents, to snowy sleigh rides and drinking vodka in smoky bars, Jay is thrown into all that embassy life has to offer. She comes to realize that three things in Poland are certain: death, taxes, and that shop assistants won’t have any change. What is less certain is whether her marriage will survive its third Polish winter.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781925591316
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Publication date: 09/01/2018
Edition description: None
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jay Martin grew up in Melbourne and lived in the UK, Vietnam, India, Japan and Perth before moving to Canberra, where she worked as a social policy adviser and inadvertently married a diplomat. While in Poland, Jay worked as a freelance writer for Australian and European publications, volunteered at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, and baked one decent chocolate cake. She came to understand snow and vodka, but never, really, pickled herring. Jay lives in Fremantle, Western Australia, with her husband and a cat called Very.

Read an Excerpt



I suspected that I did not have my dream job. The fact that I was hiding from my boss in a toilet cubicle was a dead giveaway.


She had followed me in here? You cannot be serious.

I had a week to go before I left for Poland. Before Tom and I packed up our lives and moved to Warsaw, for his first stint as a diplomat. Despite having eighteen months' notice, we'd only started doing anything about it in the last two. How long could it take to move to a new country, after all, we'd figured?

Whatever the right answer was, two months wasn't it. Everything about moving had turned out to be so much more work than I'd expected. Packing up everything we owned into boxes and putting them on a ship. Working out what we should take with us for the next three years, and what to leave in storage. Should we pack the wedding photos? The tax records? The laundry basket? What was more possible: that the storage unit would burn down, or that the ship carrying our possessions might sink? Cleaning the house and getting it rented out, selling the car and hiring another one for our last few weeks, getting official passports, signing insurance papers, doing our wills and changing the addresses on all our mail. 'Warsaw Bag' I'd spelled out to what must have been every call centre worker between Manila and Mumbai. Wasn't there someone at Tom's work whose job it was to advise you about these things? It seemed like the sort of thing someone in the Department of Foreign Affairs should have done before. Maybe one of the people whose business cards read, 'Relocation Support', for example.

I'd thought the last decade I'd spent in my job, heading up a high profile government policy team in Canberra, had prepared me for anything. Ten years of dealing with the fifty staff I'd accumulated somewhere up the career ladder, and a procession of twenty-nothing-year-old ministerial advisers who thought calling me every five minutes to check how that ministerial brief was going would get it to them more quickly. Slamming together media statements for ministers who needed me to have a bright idea on their behalf because the polls had dropped. Pulling all nighters to get the papers ready for the next Cabinet meeting.

And yet ...

'Jay? Are you there?'

OK, now I was sure. This was not my dream job.

'Just a sec!' I flushed, keeping up the ruse.

My mobile rang. Tom. He was at home, dealing with the movers who were in charge of getting the container of stuff we were taking with us to Warsaw, and the rest to wherever the storage facility the Department had organised was.

'What's up?' I held my phone to my ear and ran my hands under the tap. My boss tapped her watch and huffed out.

'I need that second set of keys.'

And the minister needed his briefing and my boss wanted her KPI reports and my team leaders were waiting for their succession plan. Take a number, Tom.

'Ah, cutlery drawer, white plastic container? Or kitchen windowsill maybe?'

I heard his footsteps on our kitchen tiles. Charlie barked. Charlie, who had no idea we were about to give him away to another family. Would have no idea why we didn't come home and take him for walks up Red Hill anymore. Tears pricked my eyes.

Shit. No walk for him tonight either. Polish class, I remembered. And I hadn't done my homework. Shit shit shit. Polish grammar wasn't something you could fudge. My chest tightened.

I heard Tom opening and closing drawers. 'Do you want to catch up with Pete and Danny one last time on the weekend?'

What I didn't want, right now, was to be having a conversation about a social life that involved people I was not going to see for three years.

'I need to go, Tom. Text me if you can't find them. OK?'

When I told people I was about to move to Poland for three years with Tom, they'd always ask what I was going to do there. Snow, cabbage and pork were pretty much all that came to my mind when I thought of Poland. As a vegetarian, that was an immediate challenge. At least I ate fish. If there were fish in Poland.

I looked in the mirror. OK, brave face. I had a mountain of work to get done and two more days to do it. And my boss still hadn't signed the exit form I needed for my final pay. I took a deep breath, steeled myself and headed for my office. Through the glass wall I could see two of my team leaders there, waiting for me.

Tom's number flashed up again.


'The movers backed their truck over the water supply,' said Tom. 'Our driveway's turned into a waterfall. Your name's on the account so the company says you'll have to deal with it.'

I didn't know what I was going to do when I got to Poland. I just knew that it wasn't going to be this. That was good enough for me.



Tom and I, a café, Warsaw's Old Town Square. Slender houses in golden plaster, an old couple on a bench throwing bread crumbs to pigeons, buskers with accordions, geraniums on windowsills. The sun warmed my face, through a red-and-white parasol advertising what I presumed was a Polish beer brand. The centre of the town in the centre of the country in the centre of Europe. If you were going to live in Europe for three years, this is exactly how you wanted it to look. And that's exactly what I was going to do.

'We made it,' I said, dragging my eyes away to look at Tom.

'We sure did,' Tom said. He squeezed my hand.

It was a bright July day, and we were the world's most newly minted diplomats. Or one newly minted diplomat, and one new diplomatic wife. I closed my eyes and breathed in warm, fragrant air. Poland even smelled good.

A stocky waiter approached with an order pad.

I sat up straight. 'Dwa cappuccino, prosze,' I said, and smiled at Tom. He winked at me. My first words in Polish in this country. Never mind that one was Italian.

'Shshshshshshsh,' the waiter replied. A torrent of Polish with nary a vowel in sight.

'Prosze, nie rozumiem.' Please, I not understanding. My second Polish phrase in this country.

'Will you be paying by cash or card?' he said.

'Cash,' said Tom. The server turned to leave.

'Prosze pana,' I called him back. 'Um ... what that is saying in Polish?' I asked, in Polish. More or less.

'Gotówka,' the server replied, more slowly.

'Go-toof-kan,' I repeated after him. Cash. Not even two hours here, and a new word! Not a bad effort. I smiled at Tom again. With his tall, slim frame and olive skin courtesy of some Spanish ancestry, he stood out as foreign here. Being blue-eyed and blonde, I seemed to fit in well enough. Although, from the women I could see around me, it seemed I would need some more fashionable clothes and a bit more makeup to be inconspicuous. I reminded myself that, unlike them, I'd stepped off the last of three consecutive long-haul flights a few hours earlier and my body clock thought it was two in the morning.

'I married a computer nerd, and now here we are in Poland as diplomats! How did that happen?' I said.

'My mid-life crisis, wasn't it?'

'Well, I'm glad your mid-life crisis involved a career change, not a hot blonde.'

'I married my hot blonde seven years ago.'

A flock of pigeons flew past. The old couple who'd been sitting on the bench had doled out all their crumbs. The man helped his wife to her feet and they shuffled past, he steadying her over the rough cobblestones.

'Dziekuje,' I thanked the waiter, when our order arrived. Those eighteen months of Polish classes were finally paying off. Whatever else my time here was going to involve, I was definitely going to nail this language. Everything in our house in Canberra had been labelled in Polish – our kettle a czajnik, our wardrobe a szafka. Tom and I had started texting each other tak and nie, not yes and no – although that was about all I'd managed to teach him so far. There was no pretending it was going to be easy; my teacher, Agnieszka, was given to apologising for the language's excessive complexities, and even our textbook had been called Ach, ten jezyk Polski – Oh, This Polish Language. But I was determined to get every cent's worth out of this experience, and that meant learning Polish. Grosze, I meant. I was determined to get every grosze's worth out of this.

'Anyway, you can hardly talk. I thought I'd married a go-getter career woman. Now here you are, a diplomatic wife,' Tom said.

'Yeah, well, your go-getter wife went and got out of that career just in time, I think.'

The waiter brought us our order. Polish coffee. Two words that, to me, sat as comfortably together as teenagers on a first date. There was a lot riding on this. Whether or not I could get a decent coffee would be a big factor in determining if Poland and I were going to get along. I took a sip. Smooth, milky, not bitter. Perfect. Perfect for me.

'We haven't been dropped in Vienna or Paris by accident, have we?' said Tom. 'Where are the potato queues?'

'And isn't there meant to be snow?'

I remembered the first winter Tom and I had spent in Canberra, after moving there from temperate Perth. How we'd struggled to get ourselves out of the house on the few mornings it dropped just under zero, and we had to scrape ice off the car. Neither of us could have imagined that our next move would be somewhere even colder. Agnieszka told me it got so cold in Poland sometimes that you had to wear two beanies! Surely she was exaggerating?

It seemed hard to imagine today, when children and dogs splashed about in an open air fountain, screams and barks of delight echoing around the square. As hard to imagine as that this Old Town – rynek in Polish – had been razed to the ground in the war. It had been painstakingly rebuilt, giving no hint that it hadn't stood here just like this for hundreds of years, watching over its neighbour, the Vistula River, the whole time.

'Hey, we should go up to Gdansk one weekend soon. It's supposed to be nice. There's even a beach there,' I said.

'That's a great idea. But ...' Tom looked over the top of his glasses at me.

'You know this weather's not going to last.'

'I do. We don't have to do everything in the first week, that's all.'

But there was no holding me back. I'd been planning this for eighteen months. Pouring over Google Maps every lunch time from my office desk, imagining all of the places I could go when I was finally here – no longer Canberra, a city that didn't even have an international airport. When I'd finally escaped my predictable, suburban life, and moved to Warsaw!

The waiter brought our bill, and Tom handed him a crisp note.

'Don't you have any change?' We shook our heads, and his brow creased. We pounced on the coins he returned with, turning them over in our hands to get to know them a little before leaving them on the plate. So that was what a grosze looked like.

'How was your coffee?' Tom asked.

'Dobra!' I said.

Yes, Poland and I were going to get along just fine.

* * *

A week into my new life I swapped my tailored pants suits for jeans and a T-shirt and walked into my first Polish class at the language school Agnieszka had recommended. The two other students introduced themselves: Svetlana from Moscow and Jutta from Munich. They'd started three weeks before.

'Australia?' my new Polish teacher, who was also called Agnieszka, repeated my country of origin back to me. 'And how long have you learned Polish?' she asked.

'One and half year,' I replied, proud of my ability to converse in this foreign tongue.

'You have Aboriginal people in Australia, correct?' she said.

'Um, yes. Have.' That turn in the conversation had been unexpected.

'So, can you tell me, what is the situation of Aboriginal people in Australia?'

'Ah ... ' A German, a Russian and a Pole were waiting.

'Difficult thing ...' I said.

'Yes of course, just briefly.' I knew all the months of the year and days of the week. I wondered if she'd accept any of those in lieu of a pronouncement on the most vexed issue in contemporary Australia.

'Very difficult thing,' I finally said, I suspected not adding much. Her lips pursed, confirming as much.

My first Polish teacher Agnieszka had shepherded a small but diligent band of students through the minefield that was Polish grammar like a lioness carrying her litter in her mouth. When one of us got something wrong, a pained expression would come over her face and she'd agree that, yes, what we'd said was logical ... but not correct, because while do was the word for 'to', you only used it for going to somewhere that was three-dimensional – a house, a city. For something flat – a park, a road – you used na, meaning 'on'. Or for an airport, which was sort of more flat than three-dimensional. If you used your imagination. Except if the flat thing was a body of water, like a lake or a sea, in which case you said 'under', and added -im to the end of the noun if it was masculine, changed the final a to a in the singular feminine, and if it was neuter ... Ach, ten jezyk Polski indeed.

My new Polish teacher Agnieszka took a different approach. This Agnieszka launched into a description of the rules governing the sixth of seven Polish cases, the locative, to be used where an activity was conducted somewhere (sometimes), someone was going somewhere (sometimes), or in various other situations, not all of which were obvious to me. In which cases, masculine nouns added -u, except for g which turned to -dze and d to dge, feminine nouns turned the final -ka to -ce, neuter nouns also turned -ko to -ce, adjectives took the -ym, -ej, -ymi endings and l – of course – undertook the usual sound swaps to turn to le. Now in the vocative case ... my gaze drifted out the window across the street, to the pre-war architecture, the wide parade square ringed with Soviet facades, the billboards advertising the Polish version of 'So You Think You Can Dance'.

Three hours later, she paused for breath. 'Clear?' she said. Protecting fragile spirits from the Polish language, it seemed, was not in Agnieszka (the second's) job description.

The three of us nodded – I think we were in shock – and she dismissed us for the day. We had a new textbook here: Polish in Four Weeks. Clearly, if we were going to achieve this KPI we were going to have to get a wriggle on. For a split second, I missed my staffing budgets.

'Coffee at Zlote Tarasy?' Jutta suggested to Svetlana and me.

'Sure,' I said. I had no idea what that was, but the coffee part sounded comforting.

Zlote Tarasy turned out to be a shopping centre across from the school, a cascade of glass panels three storeys high that emerged from the towering office blocks behind it like a frozen waterfall. We sat ourselves in an Italian place in the open air section at its base, and a gum-chewing waitress came to take our order. I pointed to one of the items on the menu.

'She is vegetarian pizza this, yes?' I asked her. She assured me that, yes, she was. The three of us ordered that to share and various forms of caffeine. I took a deep breath. Help was on the way.

'So why are you learning Polish?' Jutta asked.

'I'm going to be living here for three years,' I said. Neither of them looked very convinced about this as an answer.

'Can Anglo-Saxons learn Polish?' Svetlana said. I wasn't sure how to respond. Was I Anglo-Saxon?

Our order came. Vegetarian pizza ... including salami. Clearly vegetarian had a different meaning here. I picked off the smoked meat as best as I could.

Jutta and Svetlana were both here visiting Polish boyfriends. Jutta was on her summer break from psychology studies in Stuttgart, while Svetlana was about to start graduate studies in Moscow. Both had the sort of long, straight hair and slim figures that were effortless in your early twenties, and conversed in idiomatic English. Sitting in my office in Canberra, I'd imagined sitting with my classmates after class, gabbering in broken Polish with them. But my imagination hadn't included a morning with Agnieszka. Nor speaking to no one other than Tom for a whole week. I erased my earlier vision and let myself indulge in my mother tongue.

'So what do you do with yourself – other than trying to learn Polish?' Jutta asked.

Most of my first week here had been spent trying to find things. Find all our receipts so Tom could acquit our travel. Find a drycleaner for his suits. Find out where to buy everything from breakfast cereal to vegetables to sticky tape to washing powder. Find a mobile phone – and a mobile phone plan, although I hadn't quite managed that one yet, I was still on pre-pay. Find out how to buy a tram ticket – and where the trams went. There were other things on my list, like find a tennis court – but they were further down. I'd need to find someone to play tennis with first. But all of those things had another step first – find out what 'drycleaner' and 'sticky tape' were in Polish, so I knew what to try and ask for. I started to wonder how Tom and I had managed to get all of these sorts of administrative things done when we were both working. But, of course, I knew where to buy sticky tape in Canberra, and even what it was called.


Excerpted from "Vodka & Apple Juice"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jay Martin.
Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Lato – summer,
Zlota jesien – golden autumn,
Jesien – autumn,
Zima – winter,
Przedwiosnie – pre-spring,
Wiosna – spring,
Lato – summer,
Zlota jesien – golden autumn,
Jesien – autumn,
Zima – winter,
Przedwiosnie – pre-spring,
Wiosna – spring,
Lato – summer,
Zlota jesien – golden autumn,
Jesien – autumn,
Zima – winter,
Przedwiosnie – pre-spring,
Wiosna – spring,
Lato – summer,
Author's note,

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