“Rain not included.” Eleven-year-old Simeon said, looking at the sky.
We were all hoping that the rain would hold off as long as possible for our day of touring castles in the Ojcow National Park.
This was the first time I heard Simeon talk. “Yes. Tell the sky no rain.” I encouraged.
He ran up to a tree and rubbed his hands over the bark. “I like this one tree.”
“Do you want me to take your photo with this tree that you like?”
“Yes. But over there.”
I laughed and let him direct the photo shoot. “Today you can tell me to take a photo of anything you like.” I said.
“I like that thing good idea.” He answered. “Now please take a photo of this other tree over there.”
I was on a full day tour with Washington, a volunteer from the same organization I’ve worked with and another woman, Iryna—Simeon’s mother—who is also a volunteer there. It’s wonderful to have her volunteering with us since she speaks Ukrainian and English.
Iryna, her husband and her three children fled Kiev, Ukraine when the war started. They left everything behind. Their house. Their belongings. Their life. She told me the story of the horror of leaving, of the terror of driving on a road filled with traffic and the burden of making her children, of which Simeon is the youngest, feel safe as they fled the war when she didn’t feel safe.
As a gift to Iryna and her son, Washington paid their way to join us on this private tour of the Ojcow National Park, which is just a thirty minute drive from Krakow. It was just the four of us: Washington, Iryna, Simeon and me in the guide’s passenger van.
As we climbed up to the castle on the wide path, I was able to get Simeon to laugh, which brought me deep satisfaction. But no matter what we were doing, sadness remained in his eyes. I wanted him to have a vacation from worry. I wanted to buy him an ice cream or a toy or… something.
The best gift I could give him was time.
I asked Simeon if he was having a good day.
He said he always had good days. He just pretends that he is time traveling and will return home to the Ukraine after he has one more good day in this place that’s just a movie.
That’s a pretty good strategy for being ripped out of your life. Live one day at a time. Detach from the pain. Pretend it’s a movie.
Simeon is a highly-functioning autistic boy. Iryna said that the move to Krakow affected him greatly: he reverted to being like a five-year-old who was upset all of the time. He lost all of his strategies and coping skills that had kept him balanced over the years.
As they were driving away from the war zone, Simeon would see a restaurant and say brightly, “I know. Let’s go to this restaurant!” Or he would say in a playful sing-song voice, “It’s time for ice cream. Who wants to eat a delicious treat right now?”
She said that they had no money and no time to act like tourists.
They got to the train station in Krakow and didn’t know what to do next. They stood there on the platform of the train station with their suitcases, with other refugees, in a state of shock, trying to plan their next steps.
Someone took them to a refugee camp. They were glad to be together. Simeon was a mess and kept saying he didn’t like this vacation. In the Ukraine Iryna and her husband both worked, she as a STEM teacher at the elementary school level. I don’t remember what he does, but I know that he works from home and that he makes enough money so she didn’t have to work. She worked because she liked to work.
Now she spends five days a week volunteering at the Free Store and helping other refugees.
I asked her if it was hard to work at the store with people who had just arrived and were still struggling.
She thought for a moment and then said, “You must be patient, but you must also be strong.”
While they were at the refugee camp, some random person paid for the family to spend three nights in a hotel.
Three whole nights in a beautiful hotel.
She looked down the road. “We never found out who did this for us, but it really helped us.”
The inexpensive apartments were gone right away. Many apartment owners raised their prices when the refugees arrived. Her family was able to find a decent place that they could afford near the center of town where they could take trams and busses to get around.
Simeon tapped my arm. “Look. Over there. It’s a crocodile!”
I laughed. That tree limb did look like a crocodile. I snapped a photo of it.
He nodded his approval.
I asked her if she felt settled in Krakow, or if she was waiting to go home.
“It is like being on both sides of a river and holding on.” She leaned closer, “We live here now. Only here.”
There is a friend who checks on their house in Kiev. So far all of their things are safe.
Simon walked next to his mother and said something in Ukrainian. She translated. “He wants to know if we should pay the Earth since we use the Earth.”
He was in a private school back home and was doing well because the teachers were caring and the class sizes were small. He’s incredibly smart, learns quickly and practically absorbs new information. He can speak Ukrainian, English and Russian.
He is smarter than the average boy his age when it comes to nonfiction learnings. He has trouble with things like planning, changes in routine, comprehending social situations and taking refuge in a neighboring country.
This move has been intolerable for him: he wants to go home.
Iryna said that the way he is dealing with the stress is talking nonstop about every thing that’s on his mind.
“It is exhausting.” She said.
I agreed with her. That must be exhausting. I told her that I’ve worked with many children on the spectrum and that there were things she could do to make life easier for the family.
“Give me one thing.”
“Tell him that he can’t tell you all of his ideas until a certain time, maybe one hour from now. Tell him that he can tell you everything important at eleven o’clock.”
She said, “But he will just sit there with his watch waiting for that time.”
“Yes.” I agreed, “But he will not talk to you until it is time. Then permit him a window of ten minutes to tell to you everything he wants to say.”
“It will still be difficult, but you can get some small breaks from his constant commentary.”
We stopped for ice cream and I said I would treat everyone – including our guide who tried to refuse, but finally let me buy him a one dollar dessert.
I got a mango sorbet and was enjoying my treat when Simeon asked me if I liked mango sorbet.
“I love it.”
He said, “I like mango also very much, but not today.”
I smiled. “Do you like the blue ice cream?” Eating outrageous colors is something kids love to do. I wondered if the ice cream would make his tongue blue.
“Yes, but I didn’t eat it because I like the color blue, I ate it because the colors in this ice cream are blue and yellow and I wanted to be patriotic for my country.”
My mango sorbet tasted dull after that.
Iryna and I needed a bathroom. We followed signs, but couldn’t figure out where it was. Finally our guide brought us back to the hotel that had a bathroom for people to use. It was in an outer building. We had to pay about 2 zloty (42 cents). Neither of us had change. The guide paid our way.
We didn’t know which bathroom to use. I asked the guide, “Are we the circle bathroom or the triangle bathroom?”
Ok. Got it. The circle is for women, the triangle for men. But, why?
There was a sign along the next trail of a man next to the path.
The guide said, “This sign means do not go there.”
It was a simple picture of a man. It seems like it meant that all men should follow this trail.
Later I saw a sign that was a picture of a man with a line through it.
“Yes.” The guide said when he saw me looking at the sign. “This also means don’t go there.”
Signage can be confusing.
We started hiking up a small mountain. There was a small cave. Simeon sat on a bench inside and said he would like to live there.
“I will come and visit you here.” I said. “It is beautiful.”
Our guide sent us up the mountain for a hike while he ran back to the car and drove it to pick us up at a parking lot at the end of the trail.
The hill was steeper than I’d expected. A long incline. Though my symptoms of Covid were mostly gone, the mountain stressed my poor body. I coughed and slowed as my body worked to get more air.
Simon ran ahead of us, then found a place to sit and wait for us to catch up. Then he did it again. Run up the mountain. Stop and relax. Run up the mountain. Stop and relax.
He found a snail on the trail. He picked it up and carried it inches from his face where he could study it. Then he found a large leaf to hold the snail.
“You are very caring.” I said to him.
“He only wanted a ride. I can give him a ride.”
We climbed and climbed. I was glad to be outside in nature. The forest was green and lush. Birds called from all around us.
Washington took out her phone and showed us an app she has that identifies birds based on their calls. She turned on the app. It told us that the birds we were listening to were called, the Common Chaffinch.
We climbed on.
Iryna said, “We have a New York in Ukraine.”
“Wait, there’s a place named New York?”
“Yes.” She said with a big smile on her face. “It’s a small village.”
I asked her what it was like there.
“They even have a New York marathon there.”
I didn’t ask her if New York, Ukraine had been flattened in the war.
We arrived at the last castle of the day, Ogrodzieniec Castle. As we walked to the entrance, a fast storm brought winds and rain. We opened our umbrellas and walked on, but had to duck into a deserted vender’s stall to wait out the storm.
The temperature dropped. Washington and I layered up, she added a Patagonia quilted coat over her long sleeved shirt. I put on every layer I had with me: a short sleeved shirt, a light jacket, a heavier jacket and my red windbreaker. I wasn’t warm, but I wasn’t cold.
Simeon was wearing a short sleeved shirt and his windbreaker. He didn’t complain that he was cold. He watched the rain with interest and tapped his toe into the small puddles that formed in the stall where we stood.
Finally it was time to see the castle ruins.
I walked with the guide, a man in his early thirties who was planning his wedding. Three hundred and fifty people would attend. In Poland they let you pay for the wedding after the event, because most people give money as a gift which pays for the wedding.
I asked the guide, “Do you get tired of this tour?”
“Never.” He said as his eyes ran over the landscape below the castle. “My biggest wish is to go back in time for one day to see what it was really like here.”
I nodded. “Just be sure you don’t choose a day of famine or a day of war.”
He agreed. “Or a time of illness.”
Simeon ran ahead of us and reported back from the high perch he climbed up to.
“It is good up here.”
He beckoned us to join him while he showed off the views as if he’d painted them himself.
Thanks for reading.
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