Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 29, 2018

Vodka & Apple Juice, by Jay Martin #BookReview

Vodka & Apple Juice is a travel memoir with a difference…

First of all, it’s about travel in Poland, not a destination that gets much attention in the travel memoir market.  Secondly, it’s written by the wife of an Australian diplomat, based in Warsaw for a three-year posting.  And finally – most importantly- the author took the trouble to learn Polish so that she was not dependent on translators for local information.

Jay Martin was a senior public servant in Canberra when her husband’s career change took them to Warsaw, a world away from more fashionable destinations like Paris, London and Rome.  Before long they are caught up in the diplomatic social whirl, and Jay finds that she has a lot to learn about how to shop, how to dress and especially how to make small talk with people she will never see again.

(Her struggles to maintain a vegetarian diet in a world of Polish sausage are quite amusing!)

What she finds hardest to adjust to, is not having the social status of work any more.  She is a diplomat’s wife, and although she has rudimentary Polish at her command, she finds it takes all day to negotiate quite simple things because of the language and cultural barriers.  But when she is introduced as ‘the wife of’, she finds that people tend to be dismissive and although she’s enjoying a rest from the pressures of work, she resents their assumption that she is not capable or intelligent.

She fills the gap with travel.  She travels all over Poland and beyond, delighting in cheap air fares and – once or twice – in the diplomatic immunity which means she can ignore some rules.  But the downside is that her husband’s very long hours place pressure on their marriage and it comes perilously close to falling apart.

Her honesty about her deficiencies is quite disarming.  She admits to not knowing anything about Polish literature and their four Nobel prize winners – and she has the grace to feel ashamed that she hasn’t read Patrick White, our Australian Nobel Prize winner either.  She’s also ignorant about why postwar reconstruction in Berlin obliterated its history while Poland painstakingly reconstructed historic Warsaw after it was destroyed in WW2.  She hadn’t heard about the Holocaust Museum in Berlin either. It made me realise yet again how painful it must be for migrants and international visitors to Australia when they encounter similar complacent ignorance about the rest of the world.  We really should do better with educating our students about world history and literature though how we can wean students off YA fiction and endless rehashings of the Anzac story I do not know.

My favourite anecdote comes from her attendance at the Eighth Polish (and Sixth International) Hand Scything of Boggy Meadows for Nature Championship. Planning to write an article about it for a newsletter she contributes to, Jay goes with a friend called Julie after finding out about this event in a guidebook.  Waddling along in their gumboots, they observe the ‘training fields’ and the competitors dressed in practical attire except for one who bucked the trend… in a black Lycra one piece with Slovakia emblazoned on the back.

The beginnings of the finals was announced, and we lined up with a hundred or so other people.  Orange tape strung at waist-height marked out twelve lanes in a pristine field of boggy marsh grass.  We squelched over and took up a place at the edge.  Two solid men with bellies the result of a lifetime of effort took up position on one side, on the other were a younger couple of men with black felt hats and embroidered braces.

A gun went off, and the contestants came out, scythes swinging. The crowd around us yelled, and the competitors quickly settled into their rhythms.  A folk band played a rousing tune.  Grass flew left and right as the scythes swung, leaving in their wake a trail of neatly cut grass.

Dawaj dawaj!’ the beer bellies yelled.

Dawaj dawaj!’ I yelled.

‘Dawaj dawaj!’ Julie joined in.

The first of them came in ten minutes later, to rousing applause from the crowd and a crescendo of folk instruments. We kept clapping as the rest of the dozen finalists came over the finish line.  Despite Mr Slovakia’s friction-resistant outfit, he finished middle of the field. (p. 156)

It is only later that Julie confesses that she thought that they would be doing the scything… and Jay takes this as a sign of potential friendship that Julie was willing to come anyway!

Despite the dark moments when the marriage is under grave strain, this is a hugely enjoyable memoir of embassy life and an illuminating insight into Polish culture.

Recommended for expats, tourists and anyone who enjoys a good chuckle.

PS This MS was the first creative non-fiction manuscript to win the TAG Hungerford Award.

Author: Jay Martin
Title: Vodka & Apple Juice,Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife in Poland
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781925591316
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press


Responses

  1. You’re right. There don’t seem to be many books of travel in Poland. What fun.

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    • There’s probably more in Europe. But here booksellers seem to think we just want more and more books about France…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Did you take Estonia and Poland with you to Norfolk Is, or did you find them there? Do you have any local reading – I have read at least one novel about a convict on Norfolk but can’t think what it was.

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    • Ah yes *blush* I did bring supplies, some in my suitcase and some in The Spouse’s. But we have also bought a couple of books, a terrific one about the success story of revegetating Phillip Island, which The Spouse says he will review on his blog and I can then reblog it on mine, and a novel called Fletcher by a NZ author, it’s packed ready to go home so I can’t give details, sorry.

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  3. I should read it. My parents came from Poland and one day I’d like to visit.

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    • It’s a good antidote to the images that we have mostly seen about the destruction of Warsaw.

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  4. I groaned in sympathy when I saw that reference to her struggles to be a vegetarian in Poland. My one and only experience of cuisine in that country is one I would not want to repeat. Having been told by my hosts that I was vegetarian they presented me with potato soup (so thick it was more like wallpaper paste) followed by something of the same colour and consistency but tasting vaguely of onions. Only the vodka (neat of course) helped me get through it ….

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    • It’s surprising, isn’t it? Meat being expensive in most countries, you’d think that there would be a wealth of meat-free recipes almost anywhere you go, but no, that’s not the case.
      As for getting a simple salad roll in an airport, dream on!

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      • There’s no such thing as a simple salad these days – it all has to come with superfood this and that

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        • Yes. The solution is to buy something to take with you, but on flights into Australia, you’d better have eaten it all because the biosecurity is fierce. We learned this long ago and ruefully leave everything behind us, recently even a nice jute bag for carrying groceries with, but still they quizzed us thoroughly. We’d ticked no to everything on the forms, but still we were asked whether we’d bought any guava jam. Really. I understand the need to keep bugs out of our agriculture, I do. Letting them in could cost us a fortune in lost exports of our clean and green produce. But seriously, jam is made by boiling the fruit until it’s pulp and adding some sugar and boiling it again for ages until it sets. What bug could possibly survive that? If there is a way that unopened jam poses a threat, they need to do a better job of explaining it to irritated passengers, especially when they’ve already filled in the forms to indicate that they have complied with the rules *and* already passed the Biosecurity Beagle’s Sniff Test.
          I bet the biosecurity team have lots of confiscated guava jam on toast for their breakfast…
          But you don’t dare argue with them or it takes you even longer to get through.
          Heathrow, by contrast, or anywhere in the EU, is a welcoming pleasure. We seem to be competing with America to have the most unpleasant, unfriendly, unwelcoming entry to our country.

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          • A friend once told me she always declares one thing – that way the queues are shorter and they’re usually waved through after a brief question.

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            • I find that it depends how bored they are at the time. If they’re bored, they’re zealously thorough.

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            • I think that used to be the case but I haven’t found that these days. I think it’s more as Lisa says – not so much how bored but how busy. If they are not busy, they’re bored and so …!!

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  5. I’ll have to look out for this one – I like the quotes you pulled and memoirs are my weakness (plus I’m ever on the lookout for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge).

    When I was on exchange to Germany (in the 80s), my host sister was vegetarian – practically unheard of in Germany at the time – in winter, there were no fresh vegetables, we ate sausages, cheese, bread and pickled or preserved vegetables. When she visited me in Australia she couldn’t believe the abundance of fruit and vegetables and at the end of her stay, laughingly reported that she had “got fat on vegetables” in Australia.

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    • Well, that’s a valid point… it’s much harder to live meat-free in countries with a long cold winter when you can’t get much more than potatoes and beets, and even those of course are from storage. From my experience the best vegetarian cuisine is from the sub-continent: I could happily live on a vegetarian diet of recipes from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka for the rest of my life.
      But I will confess that we spent our few days in Berlin without once eating German food. Berlin being the multicultural mecca that it is today, we ate Italian, French, and Spanish tapas, with no regrets about passing up on sauerkraut and sausage.

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      • Oh no, Lisa, when in Rome – and all that! I admit though that German food is a challenge. I commented to Mr Gums when we were travelling that German menus were confronting because we just aren’t familiar with their menu items – we recognise the names of French, Spanish, Italian, Mexican, Indian, Thai etc etc food because they’ve all travelled. But German food hasn’t so we don’t recognise it. We ate pretty much all German because I hate not eating local food when we travel but some was pretty heavy handed meat and potatoes. However I did have some nice panfried and poached fish dishes, and a couple of decent sautéed or roast meats. Veges and Salads were pretty plain but fresh and lightly cooked. The cakes of course are to die for, but my food intolerances meant they were mostly out – for me anyhow. We did eat at a Michelin Star restaurant in Weimar, which was good. Not quite up to one-hat Aussie standards to my mind.

        Anyhow, this book sounds interesting. I’ve spent a day in Poland so I consider myself quite the expert! Haha!

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        • In general I agree with you, but if the food is totally unappealing, I’ll make an exception … and now that I’ve been to Russia I’d have to say that apart from borscht and pancakes with caviar(!) I feel the same way about theirs too!

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          • Fair enough. I didn’t find it as unappealing to eat as it sounded. I didn’t have one sausage while I was there. Yes I can imagine Russia would be similar.

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