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Torfaen Tales

A Small World

My time as a Polish woman in Wales has certainly been interesting. I applied for a job on Reception at the Celtic Manor Hotel. Knowledge of languages was listed as a requirement. I speak six, but thought I wouldn’t have much chance as Welsh is not one of them. To my surprise I was called for an interview.

‘Knowledge of Welsh is an asset but not necessary,’ advised the Assistant Manager. ‘Nobody much in this part of Wales actually speaks it.’

I got the job, and soon found he was right. Nevertheless I decided to teach myself Welsh from a book. I had plenty of long, lonely evenings to fill despite the advantages of living in a five-star hotel.

There’s a lot of written Welsh around, for example road signs, but even in Cardiff all you seem to hear is English. Or rather Wenglish, which is what they call the Welsh dialect of English. It’s certainly caused me some confusion and amusement.

Of course I was lonely at first. Once the initial excitement of living in the lap of luxury wore off I found I was missing my parents terribly, missing the cramped squalour of our tiny apartment and the noisy clamour of the streets of Warsaw. The Celtic Manor is very quiet, it stands like a sentinel overlooking Newport but all you can hear is bird song and people playing golf. Newport is a city, but lacks the bustle of Warsaw.

Gradually I got to know some of the girls who work at the hotel, some of whom are locals. We occasionally went clubbing in Newport on our nights off. The Welsh, like the Polish, seem fond of drinking and dancing. They call it ‘letting their hair down’, I think.

One of the girls, Lucy, invited me to a party in her home town.

‘One of my friends is running the Race for Life next week. She’s raising money for cancer research.’

‘What is this Race for Life?’ I asked.

‘Oh, it’s been going for years. All over the UK each summer women get together and dress up in pink and run or walk 5km or 10km. They get people to sponsor them and the money goes to cancer research. Bethan is having a pink party. We must all wear pink, and we’re going to play games where we have to donate money.’

‘Sounds different. Thanks, Lucy. I would like to join you.’

Wearing my only pink dress I set off with Lucy in her car. Within half an hour we were at Bethan’s house, where the party was already in full swing. We played silly games and I soon forgot my loneliness. I agreed to attend the Race for Life the following Sunday and cheer Bethan along as she ran. It seemed taking part was more important than winning, an idea which I liked.

Then Bethan announced supper was served in the dining room. The table was laid with an assortment of delicacies and the idea was to help oneself.

‘She’s bought it all from Iceland,’ I heard one woman whisper to another. ‘I recognise that cheesecake.’

‘Why did Bethan import the food from Iceland when there are plenty of local supermarkets?’ I discreetly asked Lucy. It seemed strange to spend what surely amounted to a lot of money on paying the air fare from a small island nation for what was in truth a very ordinary taste experience.

Lucy grinned. ‘Iceland is the name of one of our supermarkets. They mostly sell frozen food.’

While filling my plate I noticed a bowl containing small savoury biscuits. There was something about the pattern on that bowl that spoke to me from the past. In the hubbub of the party I soon forgot about it, but lay awake later that night with indigestion and thoughts running through my mind of that bowl on Bethan’s table. I’d seen it before but I just couldn’t remember when.

It bothered me for days. As I left with Lucy for the Race for Life I reminded myself to ask Bethan about it, but of course I forgot. The race was amazing, women of all shapes and sizes out there doing their bit to raise money and sharing stories of friends and relations who’d won or lost their battles with cancer.

Then about a week later it came to me. My uncle was a potter, and lived in a village about 100 kilometres from Warsaw. He sold his wares from a roadside stall, and Bethan’s bowl looked very much like one of his designs.

Fired up with excitement, I drove to Bethan’s home and knocked on the door. Of course she was surprised to see me.

‘I’m sorry to trouble you, Bethan, but I’m interested in a bowl you had on the table at your party. I wonder if my uncle may have made it.’

Bethan looked at me as though I was a little crazy, but nevertheless invited me into her kitchen. I described the bowl, and she rummaged in one of her cupboards.

‘Is this it?’ she asked.

It was the very one. I turned it over, and sure enough, painted on the reverse was my uncle’s name, Stefan Gromadzki, and the year 1981.

‘This is just incredible! Did you buy this in Poland?’

‘I’ve never been to Poland,’ replied Bethan, puzzled. ‘Let me think. Ah yes, the bowl once belonged to my ex-husband’s first wife. She left it behind when she left him, and I kept it after Gareth left me. Brenda, his first wife, had a Polish father. That must be the connection.’

‘Where is this first wife, Brenda?’ I asked, eager to speak with the woman.

‘Goodness knows. She married a Colombian after she and Gareth got divorced, and I think they went to Colombia. Anyway I’m sure her father died when she was young.’

It was clear there was no way of knowing exactly how Brenda had come to be in possession of a bowl made by my Uncle Stefan.

‘Take it,’ said Bethan, pressing the bowl into my hands. I demurred, but she insisted.

I still have that bowl on my bedside table. And this year I’m running the Race for Life with my friend Bethan. Shortly after she gave me the bowl I had a letter from my mother telling me that Uncle Stefan had cancer. Sadly he died, and now I want to raise money in the hope that other women’s uncles won’t die too young from this terrible disease.

By Karenne Griffin

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