I Hope my Granddaughter Will Live in a Democracy
Mira has worked as a university lecturer in Warsaw and been active in Polish and international organizations disseminating knowledge about Alzheimer’s disease. Our conversation took place in Studio Buffo, a restaurant and a theatre near her flat in Warsaw. We connected to Mira through a friend in Denmark and her sister in Stockholm.
My days are getting back to normal
My days are different now, because I retired three years ago, and also because of the pandemic. I used to work as an academic teacher of English and a manager of a university foreign language unit. I didn’t work extremely hard, but I had quite a lot of responsibility for my colleagues and students and was turning into a workaholic the last ten year. So, when I was almost 67 I decided to retire, also because of the political situation in Poland. I was somewhat afraid of the change, but it has turned out ok.
The pandemic felt like a prison, the first six months the restrictions were very severe in Poland. When I talked with my sister in Sweden on messenger and showed her my mask, she laughed and said, “They are cheating you.” The restaurants, like cinemas and theatres, were closed, but I could order take away from the Studio Buffo, which is only three minutes from my home.
The worst thing was that I couldn’t see my granddaughter Kalinka, who is ten years old and my pride. It is such a pleasure to talk with her, she is a good listener and curious about the world. I however have to be very serious and careful, as she can’t understand irony. Right now, she is in a camp at the Czech border, and for the first time without her parents. She is in the dancing group, and I see the pictures they publish on their website every day.
I divorced when my son was ten, and live alone. During the pandemic, I got two stray cats from an organization, because I needed someone to hug. They are so sweet and make me get up at eight to serve them food, but it is very nice. When I retired, it was my plan to read more and renew friendships from the past. I could of course read and follow politics on the radio. I can’t live without knowing what is going on and listen to talk radio during the day and to music in the evening to relax.
Now my days are getting back to normal again, I can go out and meet people. I do Nordic walking with an old friend from primary school in a park. Warsaw is a very green city. Sometimes we walk for three hours, I love walking and talking. Walking alone would probably not be so pleasant. My work for the Alzheimer movement is also an important part of my daily life.
I loved my work
I was born in another part of Warsaw in 1952, at that time Poland was still a poor country. It was a premature birth at home in a very harsh winter. I used this fact to blackmail my parents, and said, “Remember I could have been dead.” I was a rebel, while my sister was more diplomatic. We had a very happy childhood, I think.
My mother started working for the parliamentary library when I was nine and we moved to this part of the city, my father was a professor of education. He was very strict, and very clever. I appreciate this only now, when he is gone. He was born in 1905, my mother in 1925, so he was 20 years older than her. Father was not spoiling us with clothes and such things, like mother did. He had a garden where we had to help weeding and pick berries. It was especially difficult to pick blackcurrant, and I felt like a slave. He told us it was important to learn languages, and we had private lessons in German from a young age. Father saved money for our flats and for travelling. In 1968, I went to Switzerland for two weeks. This was possible, but not so common in Poland at that time. My friend’s father worked at the Polish embassy in Bern, and I stayed with her family.
In 1969, I started studying English philology and travelled to Great Britain with some friends. We worked illegally in restaurants and hotels to survive. I was 22 when I completed my studies, and went to teach in a secondary school. All graduates had to do that at the time. I hardly looked older than the pupils, and on the first day they stopped me because I didn’t wear home shoes like they should. The following year I began to teach at the university, and stayed in the same place for over 40 years. When my son one time asked me, why I didn’t go to a private school to get a change and perhaps make more money, I said that I loved my work, and was glad to be paid during the summer holidays.
I got married when I was 24, I fell in love because he was very handsome, but it turned out that he was not mature enough to be in a relationship. Perhaps I am too demanding, but I didn’t want to be a nurse, a cook and a manager at home, so I had to divorce. It would also be better for my son not to have his father as a role model, I thought. I had to hide this for my parents for some time, because they would be very sad. The court decided that my son should stay with me. This was and is still is the most common solution in Poland.
My mother had Alzheimer’s
When my ex-husband left the flat in March 1988, I thought it would be a very happy year, but in October my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I was talking with my sister in Sweden on the phone about my mother's strange behaviour. She is not a doctor but had seen a film on television, and said, “It seems our mother has Alzheimer’s.”
I had never heard the name and could not look it up, even in the big Polish Encyclopaedia. I was trying to get more information, and friends in Britain sent me a book about the disease, and the diagnosis was right. When my mother died six years later, the doctor made an autopsy, and found the brain deeply damaged, but mother didn’t behave as if this was the case. Until her death, she kept phrases in her mind, and was able to respond in a polite manner for instance when a friend gave her flowers. She was never aggressive.
I read and translated the English manual to her, she was very thankful about this and most importantly trusted me. Since then I have told other caregivers to be honest about the disease, but not necessarily tell them that it can’t be cured, there must be some hope. In the book, I found a list of organizations in Britain and around the World. This inspired me together with a group of doctors and carers to found the Polish Alzheimer’s Association. We also became members of a European and an international federation. For some time, I was on the board of the international organization - ADI.
I am still working for the Alzheimer’s movement in Poland. Inspired by us, other Polish cities began setting up similar organizations, and in 2018, we decided to found a formal federation. Because of our history with centralism it had until then only been an informal forum or partnership in which Warsaw shared for instance a quarterly bulletin and a manual, and were hoping to raise awareness together and speak one voice.
In September this year, the newly elected Ombudsman and our federation Alzheimer Polska will arrange another conference, like in the previous years, and this time about how the disease affects younger people. People with Alzheimer’s and dementia are discriminated against, and our aim is to raise awareness. Alzheimer’s was completely hidden and unknown in Poland, when we started in 1992. When I now ask people in the street, it seems they know more about it, but the disease is still a taboo.
I am not a Catholic
As I said I have been a rebel, not an opportunist. I don’t agree to things which I feel are wrong. My father was an atheist, before the Second World War he was working for the Polish Socialist Party, during the war, he worked with educational reforms for the Polish Government-in-Exile. I am not a Catholic, I don’t like churches at all. If I visit a church, it is because of the art, architecture and paintings. I can understand that the church plays a vital role in some people’s lives, but not in mine. They say that more than 90% of the Polish population are Catholics, but I think that the group of younger people who are not churchgoers is growing.
When my son was nine and in primary school after 1989 a law reintroduced religion to be taught in schools. In my childhood, religious education was managed by the church and in church buildings, not in schools. I told him to go to the lessons to decide for himself. He went probably twice, and was the only person in his class who decided not to attend religion. “They are saying stupid things, and you can’t ask questions,” he said. I warned him, “You may be discriminated,” and he was discriminated. Some pupils said, “You are a Jew.” I talked with the teachers about it at a parent’s meeting. When he started secondary education, half of his class didn’t attend religious education, and the discrimination stopped.
Religious lessons are still optional, but one day they may become obligatory, with the new minister of education. The ties between the Catholic Church and the ruling party are very tight. The church is given lots of tax-money from our government to build more churches, it is an unhealthy coalition. This of course also has an influence on Polish rules of abortion and LGBT-rights.
I like to see myself as an open person, I love reading, learning, meeting people, talking and travelling. My work for the international Alzheimer’s movement has brought me to many countries. I have for instance been in Denmark, New Zealand, Japan, the Dominican Republic and South Africa. I pitied the black people there but also spoke with white people and learnt from them. This is why, when I read your website, I decided to talk with you, so that you could learn more about Poland.
I am worried about the future
I am however not a representative of the majority, Poland is divided like the United States. The gaps between East and West, the big cities, the small towns and the countryside are large. Perhaps it has always been like that, but we didn’t notice.
I consider myself a tolerant person, but I am intolerant to stupidity and to anti-democratic movements and governments. I am worried about the future and the parliamentary election in 2023. Our government rules by fear: of refugees, LGBT-people, etc. Racism and nationalism prevails, this is not my country any more. Before the last election their slogan was: “Poland is in ruins.” Public media are paid by the government, and they manipulate people. Polish schools are still not teaching children to think critically for themselves and distinguish between facts and opinions, I think.
It was my big hope, when Poland entered the EU. Students could travel and study abroad, and foreign students could come here. Poland has gone far, people can afford to travel, a holiday in Greece may even be cheaper than one at the Polish seaside. There are lots of goods and no queues in our shops, but this is only the surface of things, and when you look deeper, we have serious problems.
Most people mainly think about current gains, not about the future. I hope my granddaughter will live in a democratic country, but I feel powerless. What can I do other than my work for Alzheimer’s and talking to people I know?
Before we had dinner together Mira’s sister Agnieszka, who is a professor of education in Stockholm, joined the conversation and told us about her interest in the Nordic folk high school tradition. She has written a Polish book about N.F.S. Grundtvig and will give a lecture at the celebration of the folk high schools 100-years anniversary in Poland.