Friday, October 13, 2006

Pani Babka and the Three Humiliations

Pani Babka is our neighbor. Her real name is Mrs. Benedictinova, or something like that. But we call her Pani Babka, which means Mrs. Grandma. She is in her 80s and the unofficial liaison between our landlord and us.

Here she is, wearing a black, flowered dress, in our backyard.

Aside from feeding Otto the Dog treats, which then causes him to stand and stare at her back door, thereby forgetting to poop in the yard and sometimes pooping in the house instead, she’s a good egg. She does not speak one word of English, but this does not stop her from conducting lengthy, one-sided conversations with me.

She’s got her opinions, but they are amusing and generally demonstrate a kind heart. For example, during the summer while the children and I were gone, she said to The Spouse, “You could offer me a cup of coffee once in a while, you know.” Point taken.

Another time, we were admiring her garden, and she said, “Well, it’s better than just waiting to die.” I came to these understandings partially by having The Spouse translate on the spot and sometimes by gathering a word or two and piecing together a meaning based on context later. But this method has risks, as I will explain.

She often putters in my yard, weeding and watering. It’s sort of like having a critical mother-in-law, except she genuinely seems to like to help out and, at 80-something, it’s better than just waiting to die. She’s got energy in spades. I have seen her in town waiting for the tram. She’s not in physically limited in any way I can see.

Recently, she decided that we needed window blinds. Our house faces west, and it was rather warm during the summer. Further, during a full moon, you can do counted cross stitch in our bedroom: it can be very bright.

So she announced to our landlord, one Pan (Mr.) Varga, that we should have blinds. Fine, he said. Just deal with it and I’ll pay for it. A window guy would come over and measure. Pani Babka, communicated all this information to me, usually at dinner time, probably because she could see that The Spouse (who speaks Slovak) was home. The Spouse’s view was generally, “Aw, man, I just got home . . .” But he always rose to the occasion and chatted politely.

We all agreed that not all windows required blinds: just those on the front of the house, and both sides of our bedroom. Baboo’s room has curtains heavy enough to enable her to sleep late on a sunny morning. She is also on a lower floor, and thus not subject to the blinding rooftop neon of Hotel Blue that shines directly on The Spouse’s side of the bed.

One day she announced that Window Guy would come on Monday afternoon to measure. So when he arrived, I prepared coffee (since I had learned from The Spouse’s faux pas) and put out some cookies. This was a hit. After all the measurements were noted, she and Window Guy sat at my table, drank coffee, munched cookies, and discussed someone’s chemotherapy-gone-awry (again, when I’m my own translator, the facts are anybody’s guess).

A couple of weeks passed, and, again, Pani Babka arrived at my door to announce that "Tomorrow afternoon at 3 o’clock, Window Guy would come to install the new blinds." I would not yet be home from collecting the children at school, so I offered her a key since she clearly intended to supervise the work. This she accepted, and then told me at great length either

1. That I ought to clean the windows first (not bloody likely as I don’t really care)
2. Installation would involve cleaning the windows.

Just in case, on Installation Day, I left out a bucket of cleaning supplies as I was more than willing to let Window Guy’s team use mine. I even explained to The Spouse that I was a bit foggy on what had transpired, but that whatever she said, it surely could not be a problem.

On Installation Day, I arrived home, children in tow, and could see from the front yard that most of the blinds were, indeed, installed. They looked good. But when I got inside the house, I realized Pani Babka had her own bucket and rags and cleaning supplies and was almost done washing the last window. This I realized because I offered her coffee and she said, “Not now, I’m working.”

An 80-something woman is cleaning MY windows because I am too slovenly (and probably slatternly) to do it myself. Oh, the shame. I spend several days considering some sort of token of my appreciation: chocolates, flowers, caviar? I had recently given her a bottle of wine. Perhaps she cleaned the windows because of that? Embarrassment consumes me.

Oh, but it gets worse on so many levels.

First, this week I arrived home on Tuesday at an irregular time to find Pani Babka and Pan Varga (and some young man I had never seen before) standing in front of my house considering Pan Varga’s investment.

I’m wondering if they were planning to go in without me, but figure the guy has a right to see what he paid for, and, further, I can make them all coffee.

“Come in,” I say brightly, opening the door, juggling my groceries, forcing Pan Varga and Mystery Youth to leap, as good gentlemen, to my aid. In we go only to discover that the dog has suffered a diarrhea attack from the front door to the back door.

I am mortified. I drop the groceries, pick up a roll of paper kitchen towels, and begin wiping up the floor. Pan Varga, Pani Babka, and Mystery Youth, just stand there, jaws gaping. They decide to leave me to my humiliation and go upstairs to look at the windows.

By the time they return, I have cleaned up the mess and filled a mop bucket with soapy water. While I stand there, with blue rubber gloves on my hands, apologizing for my 15-year-old dog’s delicate digestive tract, Pan Varga offers, not unkindly, to “take him.” Huh? Mystery Youth translates, “He could take him to Eastern Slovakia.”

Ohhh. To a “farm”?

Pani Babka is horrified. “He’s a family dog!” she says is a stage whisper.

They leave. I mop, weep, and consider my dog’s imminent euthanasia.

Second Humiliation
Sylvia is our neighbor on the other side. She’s an attractive, single mother with two small girls. When our babysitter housesat for us in August, Pani Babka gave her the scoop on everyone in the neighborhood, including what she considered the revolving door of men at Sylvia’s house. We have noticed that the hunky and gregarious air traffic controller who arranged for the installation of an air conditioning unit this summer and was a permanent fixture doing yard work on warm days without a shirt, seems strangely absent, lo these many weeks. We mourn his loss, even if Sylvia doesn’t.

Sylvia speaks English reasonably well. She snags me outside my front door the other day. “Mrs. Benedictinova asked me to tell you,” she begins, “That she washed your windows because they were dirty.”

Great. I’m sure now that the entire neighborhood knows not only that my windows are a disgrace, but that my children’s beds aren’t made, ever, and that I have, next to the piles of shoes and dirty gym clothes, an exploded suitcase in the middle of my bedroom floor.

The rest of the speech wasn’t bad at all really. “She doesn’t want any money, but if you ever have clothes your children have outgrown,” she continues, “she has a niece . . . .”

Ah, but this is good news! Do I have clothes! I have long had trouble giving things away. In fact, as Sylvia tells me this news, I have a stack of clothes upstairs that are too small for Skittles.

I gather up the clothes and deliver them immediately to Pani Babka. “I have toys, too!” I confide. She is thrilled. I promise to bring her things as the girls outgrow them, which, I explain, is on a weekly basis. (I just bought Baboo a pair of jeans in size 9-10 as I noticed the last pair, also a recent purchase, is already too short.)

Final Humiliation
This afternoon, Pani Babka waves at me over the back fence. “When can I come over and clean the other child’s windows?” she asks with all sincerity. “I want to thank you for the clothes. And it would look so much prettier.”


Blogger Chantal said...

Hilarious. I love how not speaking English has never stopped my Swiss neighbor from giving me lectures either. She's never cleaned my windows though. But gardening, laundry, she's done.

7:40 AM  
Blogger alanpaul said...

Found your site through writer abroad. I really enjoyed reading this. Will browse through rest of your site when I have a chance. Accept the small humiliations as a little price to pay for what sounds like a really nice relationship with a unique, kindhearted person.

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a gem!

9:09 PM  
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1:06 PM  

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