Ela went to Poland last month and met her family. She knew about most of them – but hadn’t seen them much before.
These are our country cousins. My grandma’s family. During my life these guys have made their presence felt. All my toys and clothes went to their rural Polish village when I was a kid – sometimes even if I hadn’t finished with them. Not going to lie – got a little resentful. Once, visiting their farmhouse, I was with one girl when I realised she was wearing my t-shirt. I can’t ask for it back, I thought. Can I?
They used to help my grandmother in turn. When food was severely rationed in Communist times, her rural cousins always made sure we always left with a cow. It would be dispatched and placed in the boot of my grandfather’s car. For weeks afterwards, strange smells used to roll out of my grandma’s kitchen back in Warsaw. She boiled, grinded, jellied and baked. When our eyes stopped streaming, she’d stopped cooking.
Ela wasn’t so much involved in this bit. I was sent to Poland sometimes with my brother and cousin while our parents worked. And since then, the world has changed. Communism fell. We don’t have to put the cow in the back of the car anymore. My grandma no longer cooks things that makes our eyes stream. No one takes my clothes anymore when I’m not looking. To be honest, I don’t think they’d want them. I’ve become rural too.
Ela has retired but has stayed posh and swanky. London living requires it. She gives me her hand-downs now and I’m grateful. I got an awesome pair of sandals last week. And when she went to Poland last month, she finally took a trip to the countryside.
Ela had a bit of a surprise upon arrival. First because she realised she had a rather excellent family. She and my mum grew up with a small nuclear family. Living abroad gave her the sense her family was even smaller.
These country cousins? Teachers, engineers, computer technicians, doctors now. Clearly sights were set high. You realise social mobility became a serious option in the last generations. The kids who wore our clothes definitely don’t need them anymore. But, as Ela sat and talked with her pretty wonderful-sounding cousin, she realised what was missing from this neighbourhood. It wasn’t delicious food from locally-grown produce. Homemade everything. It wasn’t the standard of living either. Renovation and construction of many Polish houses means they are often more comfortable and swankier than houses in the UK these days. The Polish builder phenomenon went back home too. What was missing then?
Children. Turns out almost everyone professional and young live in cities now. Why? It’s where the work is.
When Ela told me, I felt a shock wave pass through. I’d assumed these country cousins – who I haven’t seen for at least twenty years – would be living the same lives as I’d known them to live. The farm continuing as always. The next generation lined up to continue. Kids being around.
It struck me on a relative level too. Welsh rural culture is strong. The Welsh-speaking schools are well-attended. Hill farms and typical Welsh smallholdings are an enduring feature of rural life here. The Welsh-medium festivals – the Urdd and the Eisteddfod – which my girls have grown up alongside but always on the outside – feels suddenly like a brilliant plan.
Community and family. No matter where.
Love, love, love.