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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Do Widzenia Warszawo and worry warts: working to be well

Warsaw's old town outskirts, near to our apartment on Senatorka

Today we left Warsaw after three days staying in the old town for what was my first ever visit to Poland. Mat used to live in Poland – in Toruń – where he taught Philosophy at Toruń University for a year or so. Again I was reminded of the privilege of being able to travel the world with very few words of the foreign language spoken in my country’s destination. Mat speaks fluent Polish, give or take the odd word (sorrel, for example, which he then remembered seconds later), so I knew that I would be fine with making myself understood, albeit through an interpreter.

Reconstructed part of Jewish Mosque in Jewish Museum, Warsaw. Stunning.

On my own in a few shops, though, I felt rather lost. I could say good morning (Dzien dobry), good day (which is really 'see you again soon', i.e. au revoir', (Do Widzenia) and hello etc. (Cześć). I could also say cheers (Na zdrowie) but very little else, except perhaps to recite the first person present of the verbs to be and to have (Jestem, jesteś, jest…mam, maśz, ma…) The loss of language for me brings a sense of disorientation, because I rely so much upon my written, spoken and read words to make myself feel understood, either through the way I express myself or the way that others express themselves, and how I identify with them. A particular favourite photo of two of my favourite things included below, proving that false friends in language are still alive and well.

Luckily, eating is a great Polish pleasure.
Surely it was here among the smalec that the phrase 
"I am the greatest thing of all time," says Bacon, was coined.

We’ve met a few of Mat’s old friends here in Poland, and I’ve sat beside them as they speak (quite often in Polish) which I say little because the odd word I understand amounts to ‘and’ and ‘of course’: nothing more than the connective tissue of conversation.

Remember to breathe!

Social outings have been few and far between of late, at least ones with close friends, and I have been trying (and I’m still trying) to reconcile my social presence with my totally private one, the one which no one else at all sees, and where I don’t by habit wonder at all times what others are thinking of my every move, glance, gesture, thought, expression and so on. These two presences have always been present in that I have performed to (my own concocted) requirements of an occasion: recounting anecdotes gregariously for the entertainment of others, speaking seriously on business topics with a studied air of what I considered to be appropriate gravitas. Having acted on stage as a child and teenager I had applied myself to the art of creating different personas, and this I carried off stage and into my own existence.

Whichever part of me is writing this blog,
 this guy should have thought twice before ordering that ice cream.
Just my two cents.

As a management consultant it is a key part of my job to get along with people, people of all different personality types and characteristics (or, as we sometimes refer to this in my profession, of different ‘social styles’). Now considering the number of colleagues I have and have had in the past, I am so impressed that anyone speaking a language that is not his or her mother tongue can even try to develop this nuanced approach towards language style in an effort to build greater empathy and trust with other colleagues or clients.

Ice creams. They come in all different flavours and guises. Like all of us.

What I am trying to learn now is not to abandon my ability to flex personae entirely; I accept that there is a time and a place to allow myself a chameleonic presence, and that it is useful to me (and others) that I have this trait. After all, we are all made up of many pieces of us, whether we consider the many emotions that we all feel on any given day, or the fact that we may have a passion for Brahms and Blur or for margaritas and Mexican food as well as Meringue, for Matisse, Monet and for Mondrian. There are the friends I see chick flicks with, the friends I discuss Latin literature with, the friends (most of my like, friends) who like good food and company. And there are the times when I prefer to be alone and enjoy a film or food that I know I particularly like, alone, selfishly, just for my own sake.

Breakfast Martini (right) or vodka sour(left). 
Sweet or sour...we all have elements of both within us.

There is no dishonesty in having these varied tastes, nor in expressing agreement with someone else that Turner was a great painter, while also wondering at the completely opposite, hard lines, abstract and precise painting of Dali.

A face with many sides, and many facets beyond (Dali)

A woman in a hat, but what lies beneath? (Matisse)

Sometimes I am gregarious and loud, and sometimes I am totally silent. It is probably these traits that are more likely to be noticeable to others, so that I might seem to have an erratic, changeable personality. This is true, and I have to make a choice about how I tailor these characteristics publicly. I recognise that if I behave overtly enthusiastically or gushingly, that this can be exhausting for me and for others too. I am equally self-conscious of myself acting this way or being silent and unresponsive, wondering (fearing) that someone might judge me in some way based on this behaviour. (Mind reading, again. Not beneficial to my health.)

It is a blessing to be able to be either of these (or neither) with Mat who has seen me in all dispositions and realises that I can switch from tears to tantrums to laughter with little or no warning between them.

On holiday I can find that I become stressed by a desire to please my travelling companions by going along with what they would find interesting, regardless of whether I do. Also I don’t always do well without structure, and holidays to unknown places are naturally without a defined structure (or at least, I can’t always confirm exactly how they will go) which can make me feel anxious in case I am not able or equipped to go along with plans. I used to be very unfit and once worried intensely about a hill walk with friends. They all went tearing off (or so I felt) up the hill in their walking boots, practised walkers with much more stamina; I panted along behind, feeling incredibly self-conscious that I was holding up the group and spoiling the fun.

Now that my physical health has imposed its constraints I’m trying to take a more holistic approach to speaking out about my needs (as well as imagining other people’s for them), hoping to strike a balance with friends / family when making plans. I will say when I cannot walk on (or am close to running out of steam), when I am tired, when I need to sit and rest (probably for a combination of mental health and physical health reasons). On the train out of Warsaw today we are speeding along for Kraków and my heart is racing on one of my more anxious days. It is unclear to me what combination of factors leads to one day becoming worse than another, but any event where I must get from A to B, pack, move, negotiate tickets, platforms, disability requirements (especially in a foreign language) brings with it added events to contribute to a feeling that all is not well. Added to this a bad night’s sleep, and I’ve had a run of them so far in Poland, with nightmares all night filled with nearly-real-life possibilities of what ‘might’ happen as a result of our continued efforts to move house (among a host of other things) and I am feeling fairly sick.

Calming lunches in Kraków and Warsaw. 
Healthy foods ahead of the lard. And that's not a metaphor.

In my role as a training specialist I tell others that 70% of what we really learn during a change is learned through how we apply what we have formally learned or learned through coaching. I have taken a number of classes on how to apply techniques to combat anxiety (cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety) and also on stress management. Deep breathing is a simple one, mindfulness trickier to master, but good to know that I am feeling anxious in the moment and that ‘this too shall pass’. I learned to schedule time for ‘worrying about that house move’ at 5pm and not allow myself to worry until then, and even then, only for 10 minutes. (There’s nothing I can do about it, after all, so why torture myself?!)

I learned all these things, and more, and yet on the train my heart is racing and I feel sick to my stomach; I feel sluggish because of the effort all the cortisol racing around me causes my body to absorb; I need to nap but my head is flying around, and I haven’t taken a sedative for two days because my snoring is threatening to cause Poland’s first earth quake caused by human activity.
I breathe deeply (Step one). I look out of the train window and remind myself that there is beautiful scenery outside and it is fleeting, like my anxiety, and that at some point it will pass (step two). I tell myself that just because I’m on holiday does not mean I have to have an ‘all singing, all dancing, ridiculously raucous and jolly time, all the time’ (step three). And step four, I schedule worrying time for later. Finally (no steps above listed) I just tell the truth to Mat about how I’m feeling, which makes me feel less burdened to hide my anxiety and jolly myself along (falsely) to do things I have no desire whatsoever to do. Which means I have a much nicer time immediately because the trap of being dishonest has gone. Phew.

Deep breathing whilst mindfully looking out at this
en route from Warsaw to Kraków. Sticking at it does really help me.

We are off to Auschwitz-Birkenau tomorrow. I imagine I will have much and little to say of that, so for now, I will continue to breathe deeply, and absorb the Polish scenery mindfully, because even when I am anxious, I can still try to use the skills I’ve learned. I have to. It's a continuous work in progress though, so I can present myself as an example of the 70:20:10 rule of training, or we all can. We get our prescriptions. We get our physiotherapy exercises. Do we always take them to the letter and continue to progress? Do we always eat healthily when we know that's the best thing for us? Don't we sometimes think ice cream rather than a piece of fruit is what's really missing between us feeling satiated? I can't speak for you, but for me, it's a continuous work in progress. So here I continue...

Pacifying Pierogi. To be recommended in all their flavourings

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