I sat with California, a woman from California who is volunteering with my same organization, and tested pens in the children’s area. I scribbled large circles to test the pens, she made miniature test murals. Mine looked messy, hers looked like art.
She and Grzegorz cleaned the accessories area. She swept, he mopped. They worked through every bin and resorted items, restocked low areas and discarded a dirty diaper that someone deposited behind one bin.
A retired family doctor and I cleaned the Children’s Corner. He swept and mopped. I discarded any broken toys and puzzle pieces, refreshed the toy bins and found some cuter stuffed animals for the “Teddy Bear” bin.
(Our Logistics coordinator who speaks English as a second language thinks that “Stuffed Animals” are what we eat on Thanksgiving – a stuffed turkey. In his language they call all stuffed animals “teddy bears.”)
The last time I was here, I found a bunch of fake food for the kitchen sets; kids loved playing with the plastic toys. The food was gone as were the dishes and little bottles that came with the set. Darn it. Either volunteers trashed the bits because kids had trouble sharing, or kids pocketed the toys.
Maybe we could find more.
We went to the warehouse to dig around and talked to two volunteers who were sorting toys. I told them my wish list: fake food, a soft ball to throw and art supplies.
The doctor and I left with our arms full: one glue stick, a ream of paper, some construction paper and an assortment of dolls. I offered the toy sorters a gold star if they could find me a pencil sharpener.
I didn’t really have a gold star to give. Hopefully they knew that.
At the children’s area, the doctor swept while I reorganized. I decided there was one more gross thing to do: pull everything apart and bring the nine large rugs out for a good shake.
That’s a lot of shaking.
I rolled three rugs together and carried them outside to the side of the parking lot and began. A cloud of dust rose with each shake and hovered in the air for a moment like an apparition, the wind carried the dust into the woods.
The rugs were clean, I was covered in grit.
When I returned to the shop, there was a line of people at the open gate. I had left the gate open; they thought the shop was open.
I slowed my step and shook my head, “no.”
“Is open, yes?” a woman with long blonde hair asked.
“No. Tomorrow open. Today closed.”
She turned to the others and spoke to them in Ukrainian and they all turned and headed to the World Kitchen food tent for a free meal.
I remembered to close the gate each time I entered or left the shop after that.
One of the toy sorters rushed up to me and showed me what she found. A cabbage.
More food for the play set.
We laughed. One cabbage. That’s a main food in Poland. A great start to our play area.
The doctor helped me carry out the other rugs and we did our best to clean them. I shook. He beat them with a broom.
Back inside, we puzzled the rugs back together and placed the bins in order.
The toy sorters returned: a piece of fake corn, a bag of colored pencils and three pencil sharpeners.
“You found pencil sharpeners!”
They smiled and nodded and asked in accents what else I needed.
This was better than shopping. “How about some child-sized scissors?”
They nodded and returned to their dark corner to continue sorting through the many bags of donations.
I removed all of the children’s art from the walls. Underneath were beautiful murals.
It took two of us two hours to clean, refresh and restock the area.
Children would be back in the shop tomorrow.
We were ready.
The doctor headed over to the shoe area to sort used shoes. I set myself up with an enormous bag of colored pencils and started sharpening.
California and Grzegorz joined me. California tested pens, he finished his mopping then sat on a stool next to us and helped sort pencils.
He said, “Poland is better than the United States.” He said it as if it were a fact and in no way diminished our country.
“How?” I asked.
He took a deep breath. “High school truly prepares you for college.”
California and I laughed. She was a college student right now.
“He has a point here.” I said.
California nodded in agreement.
“And college is free here.” He added.
“Free is a great price.” I agreed.
He added that some of the best universities in the world were in the states because they had so much money for tuition and had better programs.
The toy sorters came with big smiles. They had eight pair of children’s scissors, a plastic plate with food on it and a bag of pens and colored pencils.
“You amaze me!” I said to them and added the pens to the table for Carolina and I to test.
He continued. “We have strict gun laws here.”
I asked him to elaborate. He said that people had to apply to get a gun and they could never have an automatic rifle. He asked if it was true that in my country anyone could buy an automatic rifle.
California nodded slowly. “Yes. But many people don’t agree with this rule.”
I sighed. “He has us beat on so many levels.”
He went on. “We have free health care here. But, of course, we benefit from all of the research your country puts into medical research. Your research makes medical care in the world better for all of us, but I will never lose my house because of illness.”
I told him I know people who have lost everything. It is a sad system to watch.
He said that in Poland your employer pays for all of your health insurance and also pays all of your taxes—including income tax.
His list went on. “It is cheaper to live here.”
He told us about the days off requirement. All people with a general contract (regular job) must have at least 26 days off a year (after two years of work.) Ten of those days must be taken in a lump for a longer amount of time away from work.
I can’t comment on the days off requirement since I am a teacher and have the summer off. But the difference is that they are paid for their time off, I am not.
Poland offers all workers 2 days off each year to volunteer for any organization. After the war started it offered two more days for all workers to volunteer for Ukrainian refugees.
That’s why he was here today. He was getting paid to volunteer.
California turned to me. “Maybe you should try to teach here.”
He taught me my first Polish word.
Dog is spelled pies, but you say P.S. That’s how you say dog in Polish—say two letters: P.S.
I told him that in my language P.S. means….
He cut in, “P.S. I love you.”
“Yes.” I smiled. “It means postscript, and you write it at the end of a letter to say one more thing.”
I asked him every question I could think of about Poland. He answered thoughtfully. So I asked more. And he answered more.
“I want to go to the beach when I am done in Krakow. Where should I go?”
“Go to Hel.” He said.
California and I laughed so hard we almost fell off our stools.
“Really?” I said. “It’s called Hell? In my language you would never tell someone to go to Hell.”
“It only has one L.” He said, “But it sounds the same.”
California asked, “Is there a highway that goes there?”
“Yes. It is on a peninsula.”
“How far away is Hel?” I giggled.
“About eight hours away.”
We laughed loudly and California wondered if we were too juvenile in our approach to Poland’s tourist attractions. Then she said,
“I’ve never been so close to Hell.”
We giggled on.
Grzegorz flipped through his phone and handed it to me. There was a photo of two children playing on a sandy beach.
“This is lovely.” I said. “Where is this?”
“Hel.” He said. “My children are there right now with my parents.”
I studied the photo carefully. An older boy and a younger girl built a sandcastle on a sandy beach with small waves lapping at the beach.
I dubbed him my Personal Information Assistant and thanked him for answering my questions. I hadn’t met many Polish people since I’ve been here since I’ve been volunteering with people from many different countries and quarantined for almost a week.
“I don’t mind answering your questions.”
Was there a Polish book I could read? One very well written by a master Polish author?
He and his wife sent me book suggestions into the night. Such kind and helpful people. I would probably choose an historical fiction book to help me understand the country better.
I asked him if the people of Poland thought Putin would invade the Ukraine.
“Never. Nobody ever thought it would happen.”
He said is wife is depressed about the war and worried that Poland will be next.
California said, “Do you have a plan if that happens?”
“I will take my wife and my two children into a car and drive as far away as I can.”
We sat quietly for a moment.
He added, “Maybe we will go to Portugal if war starts with us. It is very far away from here.”
Thanks for reading.
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