Wednesday, 26 December 2007


For the past three or four days (in between church and eating) I have been staking out the Polish Deli in Sevenoaks, fascinated by this new arrival in my old town. The shutters, however, remain obstinately closed. Ever since my Auntie Joy, with a conspiratorial grin, opened her fridge to reveal a tell-tale carton of Tymbark Premium Wisnia (z delikatnimi cząstkami)* sitting pertly inside the door, I have been determined to venture into this small Slavic enclave in Sevenoaks.

However, Poles know how to party, and the place has been closed since Sunday.

I can't wait to step over the threshold, holding my breath (no, not because of the meat counter) in anticipation of the treats I'll bring home to my blissfully unsuspecting family.
Will the doors open before the new year or have the owners gone home to see babcia? Will I pluck up the courage to say 'Dzien Dobry' instead of 'Hi' on entering? Will they have obwarzanki?

Will they let me pay in zloty??

Watch this space. Tomorrow may be the day...

*that's 'cherry juice with bits' to you and I.

Sunday, 23 December 2007


The first time you go into Sainsbury's after being out of the country for eight months is an ethereal experience. Particularly if you go at night, when it's dark outside and people in navy blue tracksuits have already started replenishing the shelves.*
Perfectly ordinary products seem amazing, such as Weetabix, fresh pasteurised milk and low-fat yoghurts (low-fat anything, actually). You rejoice over Marmite, spiral-bound notebooks and applicator tampons.
It's especially fun when you realise that the young couple in the Beers, Wines and Spirits section are speaking in Polish, and you hang around pretending to be interested in Green Ginger Wine so you can continue to eavesdrop.
After a few minutes, they approach a member of staff to ask a question, and you hover about, hoping for the chance to jump in and be a communications superhero.

Then you realise that all the staff are in fact Polish as well and you feel distinctly redundant.

Have you ever wondered why everything you put into a dishwasher comes out with specks of broccoli welded onto it? Even if you don't eat that much broccoli it's always the same: that tell-tale dark green flake dried between the prongs of a fork or on the rim of a teacup.
Perhaps the manufacturers add a special secret broccoli reserve to every model. I can see it now: the dutiful demonstrator loads the machine, opens the lid to put in the soap, and then opens a second lid and fills it with bits of crumbled broccoli florets.
There's even a special final cycle: heat-blast, to ensure effective bonding of broccoli to china...

*n.b. I did this job once. You get a lunch break at around 1.30am and they give you reheated chicken korma. At times like these, it is useful to have a strong constitution.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Holy Carp!

Yesterday I saw a carp being brained in Stary Kleparz!

I'm sorry I don't have a photo to immortalize the moment, but I was in the car at the time, it was early, and I was distracted by the sight of several babci fishing their Wigilia dinner out of a yellow paddling pool.

Traditionally, you should keep your carp alive until Christmas Eve itself, otherwise the fish won't be fresh. Some families with small children name and befriend their carp and then are unable to brandish the mallet at the crucial moment.

Rumour has it that Radio Trojka periodically plays a Carp Song about a carp who tries to survive Christmas. I have yet to hear it, but then I've been straying from Polish Radio in favour of Classic FM online. I know it's dreadful cheese, but I wanted to hear Christmas carols I actually had an outside chance of being able to sing along to.

Incidentally, does anyone know, from Carols for Choirs 3 (the blue one), that Rutter (or Willcocks)-arranged thing which starts 'In all towns and villages both far and near'? I found out that it's originally Polish. I am trying my very best to learn the chorus so that we have something else to sing in that drunken lull after the Queen's speech. Other than Five Goo-old Rings of course...

Wednesday, 19 December 2007


I don't normally go in for the socio-anthropological "hmm that's interesting" let's-observe-the-Poles type posts: 'What do Polish people eat?'; 'Weird things that Poles do on a Sunday'; 'How many Polish people does it take to change a lightbulb?"* and so on.

However, I can't seem to go anywhere without running into Polish yuppies.

Perhaps I'm just overwhelmed by all the Very Grown-up Parties, and I ought really to be quaffing pints with scruffy Erasmus students on the Rynek. So-and-so owns her own architectural design firm, someone else just bought a new car, this couple are building a house in *insert semi-suburban location outside Krakow* etc. etc. It's all too intimidating.

People seem extremely anxious to emphasize that Poles Are Not Poor. British friends and family are often concerned that I'm living in a hovel under the steel works, or scratching around on a dirt floor in a hut somewhere, and they seem to have the impression that all Polish people are longing for gainful employment as an *insert rubbish job like waitressing/taking out the bins and so on* plus the chance to practice their English and save a few bob by sleeping four to a sofa in Hammersmith.

Poland is Posh, people! Think about Karachi! Or Beijing! Or Mexico City! See what I mean?

Some people are keen to point out the various enormous houses on their street: this neighbour went to the States for four years to earn money to build his house, this neighbour went to Sweden and so on.
This is all very interesting, but really not necessary. I grew up in Sevenoaks, where, if you take your bike out on a warm afternoon in May and cycle around the wide lanes on the outskirts of the town, you'll see scores of enormous houses. At least, you'll see the hedges and the driveways. Rather than having gone to Sweden or the States for several years, Daddy (and possibly Mummy too) spent twelve hours a day glued to Reuters on four screens somewhere near St James' Square.
All this is characteristic lower-middle-class jealousy, largely because It's My Town I Was There First and because they probably bought their enormous houses from some posh yet impoverished local character that my Dad used to know, paying off their entire mortgage with their Christmas bonus and inflating the property market beyond all belief so that I can't buy a flat there.

Not unlike the bloody Brits buying up property in Kraków.

You even get yuppie students- like the ones at Durham or St Andrews. They eat sushi and buy nice wine (and recycle the bottles), watch art-house films and speak trendy English littered with London or Manchester-style colloquialisms (if you listen carefully you may hear a dropped 'h' or a glottal stop).

Sometimes it's just facade. I learnt that the guy whose posh PDA I commandeered to check the rugby results back in October is a surgeon and earns about half as much as I do**. Fortunately for him his wife has her own business and his parents own half the city. But it sort of shows something about appearances... or the fact that the most essential jobs often aren't rewarded... or about Poles relying on their parents (see Italy for details), etc.

Oops, I just realised I've copied this post from Dat Blog's musings on the Polish Bobo. I don't think that Yuppies are quite the same though. For those of you who didn't have to translate horrid dossiers on Contemporary French Culture at university, 'bobo' is short for 'bourgeois-bohème'. They are sort of faux-bohemians who have high-powered middle class professions but act all fey in a sort of mômes de la clôche way so that people think they are cool. For a taste of real Bohemia, please see any given bench in the Planty at around six in the morning. Bring your own Special Brew...

Incidentally, the French bourgeois-bohème is traditionally leftward leaning in values, while Polish and British bobos are shifting distinctly to the centre-right. As CG remarked, it's the style of doing things that's changed over here, not the content. David Cameron, anyone??

* i) I wouldn't know, all the electricians are elsewhere and the ones that stayed can't for example find their way up the stairs in our building
ii) At least four otherwise it's rude, plus a fifth person to propose a toast and pass round the orange juice afterwards
iii) Two: one to change the bulb and look henpecked and a second one to wear a purple beret and shake her umbrella until he gets it right
iv) Only one, so long as he conjugates it correctly.
vi) And for the traditionalists: CHANGE???

**i.e. not an awful lot...

*** I've realised that if you scan over the latter half of this post it looks as though it's all about BOOBS. 'Polish and British boobs are shifting distinctly to the centre-right'. In spite of all those babcia-owned bielizna stores. Don't worry, I'm on holiday from tomorrow. The system is suspended and normal, sensible service will resume shortly.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Gwiazdy tańczą na lodzie

Ever since I first even thought about coming to Poland, my inner lemming has been urging me to hurl myself over the great precipice that constitutes Winter Sports.
When I first mentioned 'snowboarding' to Car Guy, I was rather hoping that he would whisk me away to Zakopane and proceed to swoop down the slopes like James Bond in the beginning of From Russia With Love. Only without the cello and the pouting blonde chick.

- Do you ski?
- *nervous laughter*
- I thought all Polish families skiied?
- umm... I can... Why do you want to ski anyway??

Sensing a repeat of the dancefloor incident, I backed down.

However, he later confessed to knowing how to ice-skate. I suggested that this was because in the Good Old Days the Socialist authorities would pour water over the roads in winter so that children would have to skate to school, thus saving money on buses for the ministry of education. As revenge for my lack of sensitivity to the traumas of a 1980s childhood we duly went to the ice-rink.

There are two types of ice-rink in the world. The first kind start to sprout up outside shopping malls (Galeria Krakowska, the Rockefeller Center) and in parks (Błonia, Central Park) in the run-up to Christmas. They are full of wobbly occasional skaters, who've come after having a couple of post-work halves (Somerset House), and they often feature kiosks selling mulled wine, hot chocolate and so on (the one outside the Galeria has a Wedel 'Pijalnia czekolady'. It's very near the office, so I'm hoping it's not compulsory to skate before you're allowed to have chocolate...). This type of ice-rink is cutesy, festive, a little cheesy, and the music is soppy Christmas kitsch.
The second type is the Major Year-Round Ice Rink. Normally these are not such pleasant places. They tend to resemble an indoor football pitch combined with an aircraft hangar, and are often frequented by teenage boys (where do these guys come from? I have never met a teenage boy who would readily confess to a love of figure skating), who tear across the ice and slam into the barriers. The first time I went to one of these, aged around fifteen, the ice was evacuated at a certain point so that the staff could mop up several pints of blood (in Gillingham, take note).
Generally the music played is of the techno persuasion.
It is this second type of ice-rink that we went to.

I honestly thought it'd be ok, and that rollerblading would turn out to have been good training: alleviating my fear of slippery surfaces and so on.
Not so.
Although bemoaning lack of training and not having skated for upwards of 15 years (quick mental calculation), Car Guy quite happily managed a couple of easy laps while I was still plucking up the courage to let go of the handrail.

- See, you're getting better, he said after the next couple of laps, by which time I was about halfway round. We skated together for a bit.
- [in the same encouraging voice] Now you'll get overconfident and you'll end up on your arse.
Instantly I started to skid and grabbed at the side of the rink.

You really should learn how to stop now, was the comment a few laps later. I pointed out that I could stop, simply by not moving. And that given that I was travelling slightly slower than the pace of a Kefirek checkout queue, braking was really not a major issue for me. He responded by performing some swishy move and then skating backwards, to highlight my lack of proficiency.
At this point, there was a mysterious coded announcement and everyone starting skating in the opposite direction. Cue frantic sliding and windmilling movements on my part.

You will be pleased to know that we both survived the evening's exertions without falling over. The only major incident was a linguistic one: having learned how to say ice-rink I now have trouble distinguishing it from the word for refrigerator (ice and ice-cream are bad enough).
For example:
- Your dinner's in the ice-rink.*
But worse still:
- On Monday we spent two hours in the refrigerator. **

Thankfully it will soon be the holidays.

Oh and the title is the Polish equivalent of 'Strictly Come Dancing On Ice With Famous Pop Idols'. I don't think we'll be joining them any time soon.

*(twoja kolacja stoi na lodowisku).
(W poniedzałek byliśmy dwie godziny w lodówce).

Monday, 17 December 2007

Tree decorations

Pictures of the tree outside the office, as promised earlier. Although now there are fairy lights on it. My favourite is the existential reflective one at the bottom. Specially designed to reference French C19th Symbolism.
Enjoy. I'll write a proper post... sometime...

Saturday, 15 December 2007

British Christmas

To mark the end of term and the beginning of the festive season, the language school organized a special Christmas workshop for us, with seasonal tea and biscuits.

Naturally we started with a little festive vocab (albeit somewhat muffled by biscuit crumbs). This was an opportunity to clear up a few of the mysteries of Polish Christmas traditions. Such as how exactly does a twelve-course meal qualify as 'fasting' purely by dint of not featuring any meat?

Once this was all cleared up, it was time for 'a short presentation on customs in your country'.
Uh oh.
The snow is creeping its slushy way back into our lives, making people reluctant to leave their cosy homes in the evening, so we were few in number: a couple from Texas, a girl from Bulgaria, an American English teacher and me. Oh and three or four Poles who had been coerced into coming along after their English class finished.

I went last, and repeated a lot of the things that had already been said:

- We decorate the Christmas tree (yes, uh-huh); we go to church and sing carols (nods of recognition); we visit friends and give presents (right, right); on Christmas Day we have a huuuge lunch with turkey (mmm, yes);
- and, after lunch,
- yes?

- We switch on the television and listen to the Queen.

The Queen?

There was a politely interested silence, during which I could sense the others mentally backing away as they remembered I was an alien Brit with strange customs, not least of which was a bizarre attachment to the nation's favourite grandmother.

What does she say?

They were giving me that 'hmm... most interesting....' sort of look which makes you realise that you are splayed on a slide at the wrong end of the microscope.

I tried to explain: - She gives a sort of presentation (I don't have a very wide vocabulary yet).
- What, like a speech? What does she talk about?
- I don't know: the previous year, the future, that sort of thing.

- How interesting...

Friday, 14 December 2007

The Amazing and Wonderful Obwarzanki Lady

I now LOVE the Bad Obwarzanki Lady. The thaw began a while ago, when she offered me some helpful advice about the flavours of different apples, and I was delighted to have actually understood her.
From her kiosk she sells the most delicious sok jabłkowo-korzenny (spiced apple juice). It's a kind of pressed apple juice with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and the only thing I can really liken it to is New England apple cider.* If you combine it with a drożdżówka z śliwkami (plum bun- not a pastry), it tastes like Christmas.
I bought a bottle of the stuff this morning and didn't have the mandatory 5gr change.
- Don't worry. It's a bargain. You can give it to me next time.

- . . . *totally speechless*

NB. When I return to England for the hols next Saturday people will hate me in supermarket queues and at the bar. In Poland, change is worth more than the gold it is named after. The grumpy tattoo girl in the shop next door always says something like 'it'd be really cool if you could find the 8 grosze**'. Woe betide the customer who doesn't have change: floored in one fell swoop by The Mega-Watt Grumpy-Girl Scowl.

It seems that the concept of having a float behind a till is simply non-existent. Maybe checkout girls are rationed in the amount of shrapnel they're allowed to fling around.
I've learnt to prepare in advance. Now, as I'm approaching the till, I start fumbling in my purse and the bottom of my bag for change and counting out tiny brassy coins. Combine this with the moherowe baret and I'm instantly well on my way to fully-fledged babcia-hood. (Not to mention the fact that last Sunday the inevitable finally happened and I pulled out the 'super-octava' stop instead of the 'Flet minor' at the oh-so-appropriate 'Lord have Mercy'. Cue much tightening of trousers in the congregation. For those of you who don't speak music, that was really really funny.)
Incidentally the dearth of change never affects guys. Car guy always seems to have handfuls of the stuff jangling in his pockets. I have no idea how he gets through airport security. I think said pocket must contain a secret mint spewing out 2gr pieces. Next time I go to the supermarket I shall wear his trousers.

*nb, in the States 'soft' cider is non-alcoholic. I know, I struggled with the concept too.
** I'm sorry, I've forgotten how to conjugate it. Forgive me...

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

oops teeheeheehee wheeeeeee.....

Last night I went for some more Tandem action...

... and ended up liaising between some very confused (and fortunately anglophone) German and Polish students and an alcoholic socialist from Toulouse...

.... (no, really, what is the difference between la philosophie littéraire and la philosophie de la poésie?* And just how much socioloshizzle can one language geek take in the name of Native Speaker Practice?) ...

As I made my excuses- getting up early for work tomorrow- and left, I heard him saying Ah c'est ça la mentalité libérale: le travail, toujours le travail...
He's right of course: having escaped to Central Europe I ought to quit my job, write some poetry and start a band (

The private doctor I saw last week told me she was unable to refer me for physiotherapy etc since only state doctors can do this (there are 84-ish of them in Kraków as opposed to upwards of 200 private clinics).
To compensate, she prescribed what Wikipedia reliably informs me are horse tranquillizers, to be combined with muscle relaxants (previously used in the vicinity of the Amazon river for dipping poison-tipped paralytical arrows).
I tried them out this morning: I was dressed and ready for work before I took them. After taking them, it was another half hour before I left the flat, since I first had to knock my tea over, fall over the clothes dryer, lose my socks and drop my keys. I felt as though I'd had krupnik for breakfast. Upon arrival at the office, something was not quite right: I realised my sweater was on back to front.

On the plus side, I can now quite safely put away a couple of grzane wino on the Rynek at lunchtime without my boss noticing the difference...

* Send in your thèse, antithèse and synthèse on 15 sheets of A4 and then report to les Deux Magots for Gitanes, manif et guitare...

Monday, 10 December 2007


Someone has hung baubles on the conifers outside the office window. I promise to supply a picture as soon as I remember to bring my camera to work.

December is a confusing month in Poland. The sixth is Święta Mikołaj (sorry about the spelling and/or grammar), or St Nicholas' day. This is an occasion for anticipatory present-giving, which I was not aware of. Imagine the horror of being a Polish parent in December. Twice the agony of queueing in Hamley's (whatever the equivalent is here) for a Thunderbirds 'Tracy Island', a My Little Pony Dream Castle and so on*. Birthdays will almost certainly be banished until January.

Generally, there seems to be a healthy separation of Christmas and Advent here, although, as with Halloween, Anglo-Saxon elements are starting to filter through. Traditionally, you shouldn't decorate your Christmas tree (choinka, for the language geeks) until Wigilia (Christmas Eve), but logistics mean that lots of families now put them up a day or two earlier. I mean, who can face the whole tree routine (braving Homebase on a Sunday afternoon, dragging the tree into the house without treading on the dog, Is it straight? Is it leaning?- trying to follow the cryptic instructions for screwing it into the base without spilling soil everywhere, where on earth are we going to plug in the fairy lights??) on top of last-minute visits to godparents, turkey-stuffing, crib services (even when your kids are all well into their twenties), present-wrapping, midnight mass, not to mention dropping into the pub for a swift half or four to escape it all (one of the advantages of having kids who are well into their twenties) ...

Here is a timeline:

01 Nov: Chocolate Santas appear next to the tills in Empik

10-ish Nov: Lights go up in Galeria Kazimierz

30 Nov: Choinka outside main post office

01 Dec: Choinka on Rynek Głowny

05 Dec: St Nicholas Market opens on Rynek.

And here are some pretty pictures:

*I realise how much this sentence dates me.

Thursday, 6 December 2007


Today I learnt something new about working in an office in Poland. Our firm is small so we have an accountant who my boss visits once a month so that she can devise fun things for us to do.
This often involves filling out forms in Polish, which is another one of my favourite pastimes. Thank goodness I have an active imagination, or I'd never be able to make any sense of them.

Apparently, every Polish firm should have a daily register (to record absences and so on), which must be signed in person by every member of staff every day. The firm has been officially up and running for a year or so, and we have yet to start signing the register. As a consequence, my boss returned from the accountant's world of wonders with a plastic file of sheets decorated with a charming dual-column table motif. My name was at the head of one column and his at the other. Actually I have mislead you: there is a third column for the director's signature. This means that my boss's autograph will appear twice on every row.
This would be all well and good (I don't mind signing things. Especially credit card slips- Galeria Kazimierz, bring it on...), except that we have to sign retrospectively as well.

That is to say, we have to sign in for every day we've missed so far.

I have been here eight months.

And it's not just a question of allotting one morning to sit down and sign the whole month away, oh no. Woe betide the firm whose register is signed off in advance when the Inspectors come around! (I'd be worried - Inspectors in these parts are terrifying).

I suggested the best solution would be to allocate a special 'signing day' and then get a doctor's note to take the next three days off sick with repetitive strain injury. This was surprisingly well received. I'm starting to see how the system works.

Although it wouldn't work that well for me: I still have to register with a non-private doctor. But that's a story for another post I think...

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Honestly I really really haven't a clue...

I've been trotting along to the interpreting school in Kraków every Saturday on the grounds that I'm a native speaker and I'm free so it's ok for me to eavesdrop on their classes alongside the paying students. Plus I'm not exactly participating: I can barely understand the language let alone interpret from it.
At least I thought I wasn't participating.

The students are currently exercising their memories and improving their analytical skills by playing silly games like you get on Radio 4 at 6.30pm.
To my horror, one teacher invited me to join in. They were playing that snowball game- you know the one- where each person has to add another sentence, like 'I went to the supermarket and in my shopping basket I had...'
Only with Polish politics.
It was mystifying.
Halfway through I had to suppress the urge to call 'Mornington Crescent'*.
And of course guess who was at the end of the line and very nearly had to recite the whole darn thing.

uh... twelve party members... eleven nurses striking... ten nuns a-sieging... nine vetting procedures... eight mohair berets... seven students singing...

Anyone got a good idea for Five Goooold Rings???

It would have been a super move but possibly a contravention of the rules. I'll have to write to Humphrey Littleton.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Lubisz tańczyć?

I've been in Poland for nearly eight months now and only twice have I been dancing*. Maybe if my dance activities increased then my coordination would improve and my propensity to fall over would fall in inverse proportion.
Since I come from the Home-Counties-dahling and Daddy worked in a bank, I spent a fair portion of my early years being ferried between dance classes and rehearsals and the dreaded RAD ballet exams. I still have nightmares about standing stiffly on the wooden floor of a village hall, wearing a pink lycra handkerchief and trying to suck in both stomach and bottom and not choke on the dust mites whilst willing my hair not to start pinging out kirby-grips like some deranged porcupine, to the accompaniment of the Loudest Clock in the World and the scratching of the examiner's pen. ('Seems worried... Not Enough Turnout... Looks out of window too much seriously impeding sense of direction...').
These days, the notion of Unstructured Dance for Fun makes me freeze in terror, instantly aware of every muscle and every potential fault.

So my first Kraków dance experience was somewhat accidental. We simply went to meet an old classmate for a beer after our Polish lesson. (So many ex-classmates. All these people who win Polish- the final boss is really tough to beat- and get the big rocket launch like at the end of Tetris. Or they simply cheat by marrying Polish women...). After about an hour, his wife showed up with a friend, ordered vodka and Red Bull all round (so now you know: V & RB, favourite tipple of lairy football fans in Wetherspoons and of sweet young Polish girls) and settled in for the night.
Incidentally, I'm in a slightly confusing limbo as to the purchasing of beverages in Poland. In the UK I'm used to rounds (unless there are more than six of you, in which case carnage is very likely) or simply buying a bottle- of wine- between two or three people. In Poland, you either sip on a pint of beer (take note ladies...) or you go through the whole vodka-shots-and-juice palaver, which is a story for another day I think. Guys always offer to buy drinks, which leaves me in the awkward position of whether to assert my feminist personality and square things up by standing them a pint or two, or just to let it go, take advantage, and possibly be secretly considered a sponger.
An hour or so and several units of alcohol later we were in a charming locale called Gorączka. This is Polish for 'fever', and we know all about this now since the language school, with impeccable timing, has decided to teach us about parts of the body and sickness. I can also tell you that I have toothache, earache and the shivers, and can I please have a doctor's note? (very, very important if you don't want to lose your holiday allowance).
Now, in Polish clubs, things work in pretty much the same way as in England. You dance around your friends, around your handbag, around the guy with the huge bongo drum who seems to have materialised in the middle of the dance floor, and you avoid Sleazy Men Who Want to Touch your Bum (especially if they tell you they have three months to live. No joke. My little sister had to rescue me). All very familiar and easy.

My second dancing experience here was at an Even More Grown-Up Party last weekend. It was similar to the wedding in that the food kept coming, with dancing in between. It was similar to the last party in that I was definitely the youngest and scruffiest person there.
- Lubisz tańczyć? said the wife of Car Guy's colleague (possibly to escape my attempts at Polish conversation), and led us to the dance floor.
With horror, I realised that people were dancing to Pop Music in couples...

- Do you know how to dance? I whispered to Car Guy
- Well, yes, I mean, I can

We took a few tentative steps

- You have to let me lead though...

It has since occurred to me that dancing may be the solution to the lack of daylight and outdoor activity. Since the snow started falling, I've been burning a ton of calories just trying to stay upright, but honestly I'm finding it hard to get out and get active and I'm tired of being stuck indoors in front of the computer. I need something to placate my twitchy feet.
There appears to be a dance school on ul. Josefa- not too far from where I live. I'll keep you posted...

*Not counting the wedding in September.

Pisarka tego bloga informuje drogich czytelników że imaginacyjna kanapa faceta-którego-nie-wie-gdzie-się-znajduje-samochód jest najwygodniejszą kanapą w Krakowie i ostatny post nie stanowił narzekania.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Not tonight darling...

Stung by the review, I've held off the hardcore language posts for a while now. I think it's time to face the truth. Languages, linguistics, grammar and so on permeate my life to such an extent that it would be impossible to write a blog about living in Poland without the odd stray reference to verbal communication creeping in from time to time.

For example:
I'm hanging out at Car Guy's flat, watching bad films on the imaginary sofa.
Me - [something colloquial in English]
CG - OOhh that's nice, do you mind if I write that down? (opens computer)
Me - Sure. What would you say in Polish?
CG - Uhh; I'm not really sure, I suppose: [something incomprehensible in Polish with a lot of 'z's]. No, wait, you wouldn't really say that. I'd probably say this [zzwprwgrzszczłwrł etc.] unless I were working in which case I would say [żżżwszczśćłłó-ować]
Me - Right. I'll remember that then...

CG - What do you call those berries, the red ones that appear in winter?
Me - Holly?
CG - No no no not holly, small trees, you can boil the berries, they're healthy
Me - Not really sure. Something-berries.
CG - Always these berries.
Me - Can I have some of that juice? Oooh it's red, what is it?
CG - I don't know, it's berries; the ones you didn't know last time

Later still:

CG - [on phone] By the way, I started a berry glossary.
Me - Brilliant! [genuinely thrilled]

Answers on a postcard please...

Friday, 16 November 2007

On Mohair

This is the hat given to me by one of my visitors this week:

because I was wearing her spare one after leaving my own at the tandem place last Monday (distracted by intensive Italian cultural research).

Car Guy managed to hold out for approximately 48 hours before letting slip that it made me look like one of the Law and Justice-voting babcia army - the moherowe barety (mohair berets).
- It's not too bad, at least it's not a beret...
he said, totally failing to mitigate the situation.

Now I am in a quandary. Do I continue to wear the hat, cos it's winter and freezing- or do I need to search for more politically-neutral headgear?

Should I start a PETA-inspired campaign: 'I'd rather go naked than wear mohair'??

Please say no- snow was still falling thick and fast last time I glanced out of the office window.

(This of course makes it even harder to find the car).

Perhaps I should simply embrace my new-found mohair-ism, file my umbrella to a sharp point and jump in with the granny gang. No more being asked for ID in the off-licence, no more standing on the tram! I could quit my job and ask the Bad Obwarżanki Lady for an apprenticeship! Fluffy hairy freedom could be just around the corner...

Does the hat stay or go? I'm putting it to a reader vote, and I'd love to hear what both of you think...

New from Conjugation Corner:
I've finally realised that I've been ordering my drinks "with ice" but "without ice-cream" since I've been here. One more syllable and I'd have been ordering them without the refrigerator. Ah the beauty of an inflected case system.

And the fashion section:
Although the time has finally come to relegate the Birkenstocks to their rightful environment (indoors), staying upright continues to be a problem, for quite different reasons.
On the plus side, sliding about on packed snow is a fantastic core-conditioning workout. Joseph Pilates, bite me...

Monday, 12 November 2007

Characteristic British overreaction to a tiny bit of snow

We apologize but activity has been suspended due to adverse weather conditions. We hope to resume normal service as soon as possible (but not too soon). This is the Wrong Kind of snow, and there are leaves on the track.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

First snow

This morning, as usual, I leapt out of bed at 7.30am, made coffee and scurried along bright-eyed and enthusiastic to French class at the interpreting school. Oh all right, it wasn't exactly like that.

Last Saturday, when I went through this same routine, I scrambled up the stairs at the university to discover all the lights switched off on the second floor. I switched them on, thinking they must be saving energy (the only institution in Poland to think of doing so) and marched over to the classroom door. It was locked. They all were.

I went back down the stairs and tiptoed over to the porter's desk at the front door.

- Is the UNESCO school closed today?

- Yup. Rector's day.

(n.b. for me a 'rector's day' in a university context involves dragging Clement Freud around all 32 pubs in St Andrews' three main streets on a chariot. I do hope there's a wikipedia article for that because it's a long long story...)

At least this weekend the lights were on. There was a class going on, but it certainly wasn't French consecutive interpreting. I made a hasty exit, and wondered what to do with the morning stretching unexpectedly out before me. I thought I would walk over to the language labs and check the class hadn't moved there, and then maybe get coffee and go rollerblading.

The weather, as usual, had other ideas.

To travel between the two university buildings takes about five minutes on foot. Unless of course it starts snowing on the way.

Around fifteen minutes (and ok, three or four photos) later I was battling my way along the Aleja, head down into the wind, the front of my duffle coat caked in icy white fluff.

I'm beginning to wonder whether this stubborn attitude was a little misplaced. Surely quick thinking and a good turn of phrase are more useful in the booth than resistance to precipitation? As far as I know, the European Commission are not going to bundle you into a rain booth* if you get through the first two rounds of consec to test how quickly you get soggy...

In any case, the lab was firmly locked. I dripped puddles all the way up to the ninth floor and then got back in the lift and made my way down again (not without first taking in the impressive view of the blizzard-stricken city from the top floor window).

If you ever find yourself in Kraków in the snow, I recommend hot chocolate at Prowincja. Or Nowa Prowincja, two doors down. Warning: you may have to eat it with a knife and fork.

* cabine douche in French. Brought to you by Auto-Terminology of the Day...

Here are the photos:

Friday, 9 November 2007


Ok, not strictly about Poland, this one.
I've discovered this marvellous group on facebook (work is slow at the moment) which is something along the lines of translating the whole canon of English literature into limerick form. It was started by a couple of awfully clever chaps from Cambridge and it is hilarious.

Here are one or two examples:

The Hobbit

Our protagonist's small, but don't knock it
To that old dragon Smaug did he sock it
'There and back', but don't fret
It's not over quite yet
There's a sequel right here in my pocket.

The Brothers Karamazov

Daddy K gets bumped off by his brood(y)
Local wenches are making them moody
Ivan's cold, Loysha's fey
Some kid dies on the way
And poor Mitya ends up on Judge Judy.

("of course 'gay' would be the more obvious rhyme, but I'm pretty certain that's not what Dostoevsky was getting at")

Suite Française

Paree's bourgeois are fleeing the city
Occupational hazard: not pretty
Village feuds, mixed romance
Breed resistance in France
The translator gets shot, which is a real shame and probably not covered under AIIC regulations.

Anna Karenina

Happy families all look the same
Kitty S sets young Levin aflame
Mrs K's love is blind
She can't make up her mind
The 8.30 express ends the game.

War and Peace

With warring and dancing in fash
Aristocracy indulge their pash
For strategic ass-whipping
And Slav bodice-ripping
Plus Sonya looks good with a 'tache.

("Does anyone else find that's the only bit they remember?")

And why should the Poles get off lightly:

Pan Tadeusz

1812: Central Europe's a mess
Fam'ly feuds and revolts cause distress
In the midst of this mania,
Tad cries 'Lithuania!'
If only he'd had GPS.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The Foreigner's guide to Faking It in Poland

Suddenly I've become very popular. People are coming to visit me! Why they've all waited until the coldest months of the year is a mystery to me, but then Brits seem to be in blind denial when it comes to weather, probably due to the fact that in the UK we don't actually have any (unless you count rain in various settings: rain, some rain, more rain, pissing down, etc.). Personally I'm terrified by the prospect of not seeing daylight until March, but then again I've never lived in Glasgow.
There are a proliferation of guide books to Kraków (of which I like the Thomas Cook guide best- it has pictures and ghost stories, which is all it takes to keep me entertained), not to mention phrase books: but on the latter point don't even bother. You'll have just worked out how to pronounce 'excuse me' and it'll be time to go home.

So, on the basis of my broad experience so far, I've decided to write a short guide to faking it in Poland, for stupid foreigners like me. Please read, learn and inwardly digest before blithely hopping up the orange-painted Easyboardingsteps.

1/ Diet: If you are female, practice inhaling enormous plates of lardy stodge- such as pierogi, placki ziemniaczane and zapiekanki without batting an eyelid (or gaining an ounce). Douse liberally with extra lard or kefir (sour milk) for good measure.

2/Liquid refreshment: In the run up to your trip, reinforce your constitution by ordering your drinks in two separate components: spirit in a small glass, mixer in a large one. Gulp the spirit and sip the mixer. Naturally this will unbalance your consumption rate somewhat, but you'll get used to it. N.B. the one exception to this rule is gin and tonic. Don't do it. Ever.
Girls: learn to drink pints. For extra authenticity, add raspberry-flavoured ice-cream sauce.

3/Complain: About anything you like. Be loud and enthusiastic. Some good topics to get you started are- the weather; public transport; the government; the price of an obwarżanek.

4/Road safety: Practice waiting patiently at the pedestrian crossing, even if there is nothing coming, until the green man appears. Do Not on any account jaywalk, even if the road appears to be completely clear. I made this mistake a couple of times when I first arrived. Don't do it! Cars will coming flying around the corner out of nowhere and they won't even be looking for you (they're probably on the phone or listening to Radio Zet). Equally, do not step onto a zebra crossing unless you are Absolutely Certain that it's ok. Wait until a Polish person starts to cross. Better still, be a nun. Even trams stop for them.
Finally, remember that cars can come round the corner from the left when the green man is flashing, and that trams (with the law on their side) stop for no-one. Woe betide the innocent foreigner who gets her heel (or her rollerblade) stuck in the rails...

5/Chivalry: If you are under the age of 60, regardless of gender, practice the following move on the bus or the Tube in preparation for your trip to Poland:
When an elderly lady steps through the sliding doors, stand up, step to one side and offer her your seat. Be particularly aware of very mature females armed with umbrellas, sticks or large handbags.
This manoeuvre could Save your Life.

6/Conversation: In most areas you are likely to visit (i.e. the Rynek, the centre of town, McDonald's) people will speak English. However, should a Polish-speaking Pole engage you in conversation (this may well happen: watch out for fragrant gentlemen lurching towards your bench in the Planty and tiny batty old ladies sitting next to you at the bus stop), here are one or two useful fillers you can drop in at random, based on my experiences of Faking It In Polish* so far. All you have to do is gauge the tone and pick the appropriate category:

- 'no' the all-purpose. Meaning 'yes'. Naturally. Don't forget to nod. It will stop feeling weird after a while.

- 'naprawdę?!', meaning 'no kidding?!' Used by your tandem exchange to raise the tempo when you've just taken 15 minutes to tell him you like to watch TV at the weekend.
- 'Serio?' as above. Or below, I can't remember.

- 'na pewno' meaning 'damn straight'. Can be good or bad, depending on Polish sarcasm- I haven't fully worked it out yet.

If the tone seems positive:
- 'świetny!' meaning 'great!' (warning, often also sarcastic)
- 'rewelacja!' meaning 'fantastic'.
Probably best not to refer to this section too often however. You are far more likely to need the next one:

If the tone tends towards the pessimistic:
- 'Straszny!' meaning 'bloody awful'. This is used All the Time.
try also:
- Tragedia!
- Katastrofa!
- Fatalny!
- Koszmar!
- Jesusmarya!

All fairly self-explanatory (say no. 4 out loud and think of 'nightmare' in French). Your ability to sympathize on the Woes of this World will help you to make friends in no time at all and your stay should be a rewarding one (provided you avoid jaywalking and always offer your seat on the tram. I Mean It.)

*As usual please correct me. It may help explain a few discrepancies in my social interaction on a day-to-day basis.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Tandem and telly

It's been more than six months now since I arrived in Kraków, and things are starting to become a little clearer on the linguistic front, but I'm still not able to unravel whole sentences as such. Speaking to me in Polish requires a lot of patience and repetition.

In Paris, there were a number of French-English language exchange meetings with varying degrees of formality (the most organized one that I attended used set topics and groups of four, while the other extreme involved cramming upwards of 70 people into a 60m2 apartment for mint tea and cake-fuelled carnage in whatever common language you could muster). Most of them can be found in free expat mag fusac, although you have to get the paper copy to see any of the really interesting ads. I needed something similar in Poland.

Now, I love speaking Foreign but I've found it tough here: most young, educated, middle class people (who are the ones I tend to have most contact with) speak perfectly workable English and will switch over the minute you let slip that you didn't quite catch the last bit. The important thing is not to give yourself away, so I've been working on my fake Polish (involves listening, nodding, and inserting 'no,' 'no, właśnie', 'no tak'*, at opportune moments), but ideally I'd rather not have to invent two thirds of every conversation. That kind of thing can land you in trouble. I decided to take matters into my own hands again, and on Monday night I made my way to Kraków's one and only Tandem Evening. It was held in the basement of a pub (the 'piwnica'- from 'piwo'- thus a place for keeping beer) and consisted of several tables labelled with different languages.

I sat down at the empty 'Polski' table and waited.

On the English table they seemed to be having a ball.

After twenty minutes or so, by which time I had read the 'Guide to Tandem Learning' from cover to cover, it occurred to me that all the Poles were in fact sitting at the English table, practicing away. It was time to do some bargaining.
I approached, managed to croak: 'Jestem Angielką', and promised to speak The Queen's Own provided they would let me stagger through a few painful rounds in Polish first.

And it worked! I actually got to chat in basic Polish for more than a couple of sentences! (Although it's sort of like tennis where you're trying to get a rally going and speaking English is the equivalent of dropping the ball).

I lasted around an hour before slipping away to more familiar territory: Chatting to Italian Boys.
All those years of study and tuition fees have not been in vain (never take me for pizza).

By the way: I finally have television! (thanks for the reminder, prq, whoever you are...). Luckily, Car Guy managed to locate his vehicle for long enough to drive me to Media Markt on Saturday, where we spent a good hour or so while I mulled over whether it was really worth buying a Whole New (old-style cathode-ray) Television simply so that I could expand my vocabulary by watching Kinder adverts and bad sitcoms.

Of course it was.
Now I can lounge in front of 'M jak Miłość'**, get addicted to the angst-ridden love life of Warsaw yuppie 'Magda M', (why, when there are so many beautiful letters in the Polish alphabet... śżćąęłprzw etc.), be completely baffled by high-speed news readers, utterly frustrated by the Polski lektor (a form of dubbing which involves the same monotonous middle aged guy reading the Polish translation- Nb translation Not interpretation- of the script approximately three and a half seconds behind the actual dialogue) and find myself having to forcibly evict Car Guy, who immediately stretched out in front of the screen with that glazed-over look that my little brother used to get watching holiday cartoons as soon as the thing lit up.

Right now, they're showing 'Good Night and Good Luck' on TVP2. Sadly my flatmate has an unfortunate partiality to Radio Zet, a particularly awful Polish radio station, à la Capital FM, and I can't hear a thing.

*n.b.: 'no' is informal Polish for 'yes'. Gentlemen, this is Not An Excuse.

** equiv. 'L for luuuurve' baby. Not related to the above note about no meaning yes.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Wszystkich Świętych

Yesterday was a national holiday for all Saints' Day. Traditionally on this day Polish people visit the family graves and light lamps there. Not only family, as I discovered in the cemetery yesterday evening, but also on the graves of the illustrious departed as well as on war memorials. If a grave looks neglected, it's customary to light a candle there as well, just to make sure no-one gets forgotten (this means that occasionally empty plots and flowerbeds end up adorned with votive lights, just in case there happened to be someone lying there, to make Absolutely Certain that everyone is remembered).

It's not at all creepy, like Halloween, but peaceful and beautiful.

I'm not great at night-time photos, but here are my best efforts:

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

All Hallows' Eve

Poland is a country which is stubbornly resistant to cultural Americanization. How refreshing, says the girl who has celebrated Thanksgiving for the past five-ish years in a row. OK, initially it was due to dating Americans and subsequently it just seemed like a good idea- who can argue with a holiday that revolves largely around cooking, eating and slobbing out in front of the television?

Around this time of year back home, I'd merrily be donning my apron and blending the pumpkin pie filling (read 'taking it out of the can'), not to mention smearing on the vampy rouge-noir lipstick and hoisting up the characteristic pair of goth-style fishnets*.

I'll have candy and consumerism please!

In any case, I assumed that All Saints' Day was a picturesque Catholic holiday, unrelated to spooks and ghouls and the like. Wrong! Late this afternoon my boss's girlfriend (who is Polish) came into the office to chivvy him along.
- Are you going to any cemetery? she asked. I replied that I would maybe go to Rakowicki tomorrow**.
- You could even go tonight. Actually, it's tonight that the ghosts come.


- Of course. But don't worry. You just have to feed them. You can get special sweets, like this:
And she proffered a cellophane cone of nougat-style confectionery.

Now, naturally, my flatmates have gone back to their families for the long weekend, leaving me All Alone in the flat on what I have just discovered is the scariest night of the year after all.
I have All The Lights On and Eska Rock as loudly as possible on the radio (although right now they're playing some kind of pensive folk-type songs. Which are Not Helping).

I am trying to ignore the occasional clicks that the fridge has taken to making, and seriously having trouble not jumping out of my skin every time I get an alert from MSN messenger.

If only I'd remembered to buy the sweets...

*It's possible I actually do own a garment meeting this description. St Andrews is a bit small for clubbing so we had to find other ways to entertain ourselves (I mean Fancy Dress Parties- get your minds out of the gutter).
**I already know the Rakowicki Cemetery fairly well because I ended up there once after getting the wrong bus home from the language school. Actually, I took several buses to get there- not one of them turned out to be the right one to take me back to Starowiślna.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Super Optyk

Cisza pinolony trwa...
I've been lax about the blog for a while and now the word 'election' is but a distant memory (except in a rather lame yet naughty xenophobic joke relating to the Manggha Centre for Japanese Culture. What's that scraping sound? Oops, must be the bottom of the barrel.).

Talking of lame jokes, here's a good example:

A Pole goes for an eye test, and the optician asks him to read out the bottom line on the chart:

- Sure! S...Z...C... Hey- I went to school with that guy!

I've been having trouble focusing beyond the middle distance (very useful if I were acting in an ITV Sunday night detective series, but sadly not helpful for reading cinema screens, Departures boards, etc.). On the plus side, I can use my ever-increasing myopia to excuse my appallingly poor hand - eye coordination (although my foot-mouth coordination is pretty much spot-on). And if I take half an hour to find a place it's because I'm too blind to read the road signs. Absolutely nothing to do with my sketchy Polish reading comprehension.

Kids, what your mother told you was true. Don't read under the duvet with a torch, don't spend all evening in front of the computer screen chatting on Skype, and Never, Ever, translate Anything.

To cut a long story (relatively) short, I have to go to the optician. My boss told me there was an English-speaking one near the Rynek, so at lunchtime I stepped out into the rain to try and find it. I followed his directions, and, Success! There did indeed appear to be an optical establishment in the place he described to me. I pushed open the door.

-I've been in Poland six months... I began
-No problem, you can speak in English (an encouraging sign)
I asked her a couple more questions and then tried to book a test.
- Oh I'm sorry. Here we only sell glasses. We don't test.

Three doors down, I found another optician. The sign directed me through a passage and up some stairs. Wafts of early-90s Central European rock mingled with the damp smell of the carpet. Grainy posters photocopied onto yellow A4 advertised student discounts. As I approached the reception desk I thought of an auto-repair centre near Oxted where I temped once. The guy behind the desk was clearly not the English-speaking optician recommended by my boss. We established that I could obtain contact lenses without a prescription, and that I could book a test over the phone (i.e. Not Now) and then I backed out through the door slowly and calmly before clattering at top speed back down the stairs and out of the passage.

I have since decided to give up on my boss's directions and take matters into my own hands. I mean, I don't have to find an English-speaking optician, do I? Surely even my limited Polish skills can handle a simple eye test! It's just a matter of 'read the letters, focus on the red and the green, wiencej, mniej, lepiej', right?

How hard can it be...?

To be continued...

Thursday, 18 October 2007

O polityce

This was going to be a post about a disorder that is becoming increasingly common in Poland, known as 'dis-ortografia', whereby people are unable to tell whether a word ends in -ą or -om, for example. (Note that this couldn't exist in English because we do not have a phonemic orthographic system: where graphemes- letters- correspond to phonemes- groups of sounds which have the same meaning).

In other words it is a cheeky excuse for not knowing how to spell.

Dis-ortografic students get extra time in exams.

Anyway, I've changed my mind. The elections are coming up, and Poles are worrying about where to hide Granny's ID (so she can't vote Law and Justice- the current government), rather than how to conjugate it. Perhaps it's time to get my nose out of the dictionary and into the Gazeta Wyborcza.*
N.B. perhaps Conservative constituency parties in the UK might employ the ID-hiding method for the next leadership elections...

I have realised, after reading Justyna's latest post, that if I am going to try and speak authentic Polish, I'm going to have to learn how to talk about politics. I feel (momentarily) ashamed of my Anglo-Saxon - but mostly Anglo- reticence. Whatever happened to the teenager who stood up in school assembly to argue with the deputy head about uniform rules?**

But where to start?! Maybe I can practice on the Bad Obwarżanki Lady:

B.O.L.: Prosze?
me, conversationally: Dzien dobry Pani, poprosze butelkę wody mineralnej... i... co Pani myśle o korupcji na priwatizacji szpitalów?***

In all honesty, thus far Polish politics have not been a concern quite simply because my sole motivation in coming here was to get some experience in the profession and learn another EU language so that when I'm older I will get paid more and my kids will go to better schools.
But it turns out that I actually quite like Poland: I like the Bad Obwarżanki Lady, I like Car Guy, my flatmates, the Sacristan at St Giles and so on. And Polish grammar, to my warped little linguistic mind, looks like this:

It's chaos, but it's pretty...

If, like me, you are a total language-nut, try these to be getting on with:

Don't worry, I'll find some more...

*It has been observed that this blog contains Too Much Polish. The author resolves to moderate her self-indulgence in this respect. After all, she is not surprised to learn that not everyone finds the locative case as absorbing as she does. In fact, two floors up from her office lives an American TEFL teacher. He has lived in Poland for eight years and quite sensibly avoids the Polish language at all costs. Notably, he observed how irritating it was, on his latest trip home to the States, to Understand Everything. 'Like being able to read people's minds'. What a burden it is to be able to communicate. Thank goodness secondary schools in the UK have very sensibly put an end to this 'compulsory modern languages at GCSE-level' nonsense. After all, around 90% of all Poles under the age of 30 are able to communicate, at least on a basic level, in English. How fortunate, given that the average British adult, having studied either French, German or Spanish for at least two years, can get no further than 'Garçon!; 'Weissbier' or 'Donde esta la playa?'

Well, luckily Poland isn't a major player in Europe. Only 38.6 million inhabitants. And only an estimated 750,000 Poles living in the UK: a mere 1.24% of the population.
Good news for us inarticulate Brits, right?

**uuh... she got expelled... (and then moved to Poland and became a translator- let this be A Lesson To You, O rebellious youth of today).

*** This is supposed to say: 'Good morning. A bottle of water please. By the way- what do you think of corruption in the privatisation of hospitals?' But it probably says something entirely different. No-one said this blog was going to be easy. Take a tough pill.

Monday, 15 October 2007


Now I don't normally follow sport all that closely, but I do love rugby because just occasionally it provides me with an opportunity to Gloat Over The French, as is only right and proper.

Imagine my delight when, tuning into the Today programme on Wednesday morning, I found myself listening to the wailing and tooth-gnashing of several New Zealanders, who hadn't even considered that NZ might be knocked out early, stuck in Paris with unwanted tickets for the World Cup semi-final.

That was Wednesday: by Saturday night, the Polish 'Golden Autumn' ('Blue Autumn' possibly more appropriate given my general hue after an hour and a half of rollerblading along the Wisla in shorts) and a rather breathless start to the school term had conspired to make me forget all about the plight of the Kiwis* and the England-France match.

It was only once I was sitting on the bed with mascara still wet, trying to keep still so as not to make the hairdryer cut out (the circuitry in our flat is ever-so-slightly sketchy, which adds a fun, surprise element to basic everyday tasks such as vacuuming, computing and having the light on) and waiting for the doorbell to ring, that I realised the Battle must already be underway. Johnny Wilkinson could be running rings around the French and I'd never know!
Polish radio was out of the question- I can barely grasp the weather forecast (probably just as well- the prospect of winter is starting to give me the serious jitters and it's possible that if I had actually known that it would be minus one on Monday morning, I'd have been on the next WizzAir to Bari before you could say 'Ambre Solaire').
I tried the Radio Five live site.
- 'Streaming in progress...
The doorbell rang.

- Results? It's terrible, Kazakhstan are beating Poland... Rugby? No, in the football, what rugby?
The Poles seem singularly lacking in concern for oval-shaped sports and the Importance of Beating the French.
As a last-ditch attempt, I sent a desperate Skype message home, but to no avail. It was Saturday evening, around Silent Witness time. I didn't stand a chance.

An hour and a half later (punctuated by two stops for provisions- both shops had the radio tuned stubbornly to the Poland-Kazakhstan match- and a long, chilly walk in the suburbs) I found myself seriously out of my depth as the youngest person at a Very Grown-up Party. Unfortunately my Polish is still not up to phrases like: 'So... what keeps you busy these days?' or 'Aren't interest rates just murder?' (or even: 'Nightmare trying to find a babysitter'- although this is unlikely to be a problem in Poland, thanks to the babcia army).
- You must have some vodka- then you'll be able to speak Polish; urged the hostess.
I have already tried this method on several occasions and as yet have no consistent set of results (although that may be more due to the unreliable memory of the researcher- me- the next morning).
I managed to muddle through a couple of questions about working in Dublin, and then took refuge in English, and, unexpectedly, Italian.

By the time I finally learnt the results of the rugby (around midnight, by bullying one of the grown-ups into looking it up on his rather swish palm-top device), I no longer cared that I was juvenile in appearance, professionally rather scruffy and distinctly deficient on the communications side of things.
Whooping and dancing seemed to be the most appropriate course of action.

ps: There will be an election here soon. From eavesdropping on Polish friends I've learnt that Donald Tusk is Our Man. Please accept my apologies for the lack of pertinent political content in this blog. Although I managed to scrape through a Government and Politics A-Level (which largely involved memorising mysterious phrases such as 'single transferable vote', plus a rather thrilling paper on Marxist Feminism), back in my jolly school days, please do not expect any intelligent comment from me. At least not until I've got the hang of the basics (crossing the road, listening to the breakfast news, telling the shop assistant I'm Just Looking and so on).

*(A Singularly Comforting proper noun because it is totally uninflectable in Polish: biedny Kiwi; idę na rugby z Kiwi; oglądam sport z Kiwi; lubie Kiwi; nie lubie Kiwi; myślę o Kiwi; i tak dalej ad infinitum...)

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Directions part II

Finally we've covered directions at the language school (this is all in aid of learning the locative case).* I'm streets ahead (sorry) on this one, since people always ask me for directions (even Poles). Last time it happened I was caught with a mouthful of obwarzanek (and seriously, you try saying 'skręczić w prawo' without spraying crumbs and sesame seeds everywhere) and the guy eventually stopped laughing long enough to wish me smacznego before heading off in what I sincerely hope was the direction of ul. Dietla.

For this reason, when our Polish teacher produced a map of the town centre and asked us to direct her across town, she got slightly more than she bargained for:
Cross the Rynek. Do you see Empik? Take the street to the right of Empik. Go to the end of Sienna. Cross the junction. On your left is the tram stop. Take no. 74... or no. 22...

I did learn some exciting new expressions such as 'iść w kierunku Rynku' (try getting that one out after half a litre of Tyskie) and 'przejść przez ulicę', so I'll be hanging around the Poczta Głowna in my lunch hour, waiting to try them out on the next unsuspecting Pole who wants to know the way to the Station...

*If only I'd known this on the way to the party last Friday.

Monday, 8 October 2007

the Chipmunk effect

Why is it that any time I begin a sentence 'Proszę Pani...' or 'Proszę bardzo...', my voice rises by three octaves and the volume drops to a whisper?

How on earth am I to maintain a credible, professional image when I sound as though I've just inhaled a helium balloon?

On the plus side, the Bad Obwarzanki Lady is being Really Nice to me. Maybe in her world I've simply become the Weird Foreign Girl. Or maybe her cosmically-significant till-runes are telling my impending doom...


It was a beautiful weekend. Bright leaves underfoot, mist hanging in the air and teenagers (not to mention respectable adults acting like teenagers) snogging in the Planty.

I made record time around Ikea thanks to a pre-prepared list (Hah- take that cunning Swedish marketing ploys!), and my room now looks much cosier, with a new (proper) duvet and a rug on the floor. Oh and I have pans to cook things in now, but that's a minor detail. When my old flatmates moved out I realised exactly how much of their kitchen equipment I had been using on a regular basis, and decided it was really time to make one or two investments (the thought of trying to survive a below-freezing winter without tomato comfort-pasta fills me with panic).

Actually I began to feel a strange creeping sense of unease after winding around the bedroom sections and exploring cupboard spaces in the neatly set-up kitchens on display. In Kraków, as in Lakeside, Leeds or Edinburgh, Saturday afternoon sees families and soppy couples (like my sister and her boyfriend) pondering over gadgety things to clutter your kitchen drawers and squishy things to throw over your sofa. It's all very suburban and settled. The uneasy feeling grew. By the time the walkway wove around to 'children's toys', I was elbowing toddlers out of the way and diving between pushchairs in my haste to get to somewhere safe like 'gardenware'.

- Can I...

When Car Guy reached for my bags at the till I almost bit him.

-I SAID I can manage!

We made a very hasty exit.

N.B. After surviving my first Polish wedding, my second Polish housewarming was a piece of kremówka: nothing more challenging than students and guitars, the odd vodka shot and something about a gangster's paradise (see Karaoke).
I won't mention (because I promised) that the party started at eight, we arranged to arrive at ten and we finally found the place around midnight. Nor that getting there involved upwards of an hour and half in the car; asking for directions on at least five separate occasions (once from a taxi driver with GPS for heaven's sake); getting stuck twice at the same level crossing and doing the same reverse manoeuvre (much to the dismay of the drivers behind us) twice; stopping after an hour or so for KFC outside a petrol station (because being lost is hungry work); and finally Car Guy handing the phone to me:
- You do it. Speak English.
- Hi, we're at the petrol station; I began.

Neither will I mention that the walk home took fifteen minutes.

Friday, 5 October 2007

POLISH word of the day

Partly as an antidote to those Awful (and singularly unimaginative) Spanish/German/French 'Word of the Day' applications that have sprouted on my friends' Facebook profiles recently, and partly just cos it's funny, here is my Polish Word of the Day:


As uttered by one of my new flatmates when she almost fell over me pulling my trainers on in the hall:

'Idziesz joggingować?'

Conjugated jogginguję/joggingujesz/jogginguje/joggingujemy etc.

Polish phonetic spelling: dżogingować.
N.B. Foreign borrowings are almost always subject to Polish orthography e.g. 'dżem' and 'sejf' (work it out at home). Apart from anything else, this provides an excellent way of cheating at Scrabble.

Synonyms.. uh... 'Biegać wolno' (possibly?)

Context: 'Codziennie o wpół do siodmej, jogginuję nad Wisłą' (since my command of prepositions is still pretty sketchy, I do hope this means 'I jog along the Vistula' and not 'I jog in the Vistula'). Especially at 6.30 in the morning: I just don't have the constitution for that sort of thing.

As always, synonyms, variations and corrections (not to mention tea and biscuits and moral support in general) are very, very welcome.

Monday, 1 October 2007


I couldn't possibly give you a full description of the wedding I attended on Saturday. I wouldn't do it justice. The bride looked utterly exquisite and the ceremony was lovely. *

But we all know that what I do best is recounting tales of misinterpretation and malcoordination.

Fortunately, at a Polish/American vodka-soaked wedding feast there was plenty of the above.

On Saturday morning, I found myself travelling to the nuptials sprawled across an osobowy local train with a group of other guests in the form of several strapping great former US marines.

Having recently got the camera back, I tried my hand at a few arty shots of the fields from the train window (I was enjoying the 1950s-style of the carriage. Although retro had nothing to do with it: most local trains actually do pre-date Solidarity). During the one and a half hour ride I and a friend from the language school took the opportunity to practice with a phrasebook, much to the poorly-suppressed hilarity of the Polish girl sitting next to us (eventually she ended up diving in and correcting us. They just can't help themselves).
Please note that the train ride there took an hour and a half. The ride home the day after took Several Weeks.

Once arrived in the city I kept working the camera skills. It was a beautiful day, and I have some fantastic pictures of: the scaffolding on the cathedral roof; some tables with empty glasses on; the happy couple with people standing in front of them; the best man's back; the groom's family with the sun in their eyes and (my personal favourite) the church aisle carpet with a corner of the bride's train just leaving the frame.

If you're thinking of getting hitched, don't hire me**.

As well as being great at correcting grammar, Poles know how to throw a party. Me and language-school girl were very excited to be cultural observers and resolved to throw ourselves into food, drink and Practising with Real Polish People. I was sitting next to a francophone Pole, so there was a fair bit of franglais to go with the polglais. We gave Polish our best shot, in spite of having only half finished the locative case ('on, in and about', but only in regular conjugations).

A wedding party here involves at least three hot meals in a row. But don't worry. In between courses (and vodka toasts) you get to work off the calories with some energetic folk dancing and musical games. The best dance by far involved handkerchiefs, kneeling on the floor and kissing. This is much easier (and your dancing skills are much improved) once the empty vodka bottles at either end of your table have been replaced a couple of times.
There was also a complicated game involving the guy who catches- and has to wear- the bow tie (in this case one of the Marines, who had by this point removed his dress shirt: the groom's aunt observed that it had been a long time since she'd seen a Chippendale) and the girl who catches the bouquet. Fortunately my hand-eye coordination or lack thereof should ensure that I stay safely single for a while yet...
Afterwards we staggered off the dance floor for a nice hot bowl of barszcz czerwony and a cabbage roll, only to find that the Americans had moved in on our table and were interrogating our Polish neighbours.
- So the girls spoke Polish to you?
- yes
- were they any good?
There was a long pause. The guy tried hard- bless him- to look encouraging, but didn't quite manage it.

Needless to say, after a stressful week in repairs, my camera battery had sputtered out shortly after the first bowl of rosół. I left it for dead and decided it was time to embrace local culture of the clear, spiritual variety.
By the time I limped upstairs to bed, a good ninety per cent of the total presence on the dance floor was American. I was surprised and disappointed by the poor show put on by the Poles- allowing yourselves to be beaten by a group of Anglo Saxons.

Next morning I made it to breakfast but was unable to swallow any of the black tea that was handed to me and could only watch queasily as language-school girl (who must weigh in at seven stone max) tucked into bread, cheese, ham and chocolate cookies before heading off to the early train. I dragged my sorry carcass back upstairs, following the sound of American voices to a door at the end of the third-floor landing. With some effort, I pushed it open.
On the other side, six or seven ex-Marines in their underpants were sprawled across the leather sofas in the bridal suite (the bride had long since escaped to her parents' house). There was a full bottle of Johnnie Walker black label on the coffee table. I made for the spare seat on one of the sofas, but hesitated just a fatal second too long by the bathroom door.
- Oh you wanna puke? Go right ahead.
Gratefully I made a dive for the bowl.
As I emerged, another underclad American entered, picked up the bottle, took a long swig and left without a word.
The bathroom beckoned again.

In spite of the carnage the next morning, it was a bloody fantastic wedding, and I'm now gently trying to nudge all my friends into marrying Poles so I can go to another. My brother is coming to visit next month: maybe I can set him up with a nice Polish girl...

*In fact, the ceremony was conducted in two languages: Polish for the traditional bits and English for the important (i.e. legally-binding) bits, although there was speculation as to whether the bride had slipped any sub-clauses into her (Polish) vows...

**(although after 50cl of Bordeaux I can render a cracking speech in French: 'noooonnnn, je ne regrette rieeeennnnnn....' etc.).

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Not In My Back Yard

My Dad has managed inadvertently to become a Town Councillor, in pretty much the same way that I managed inadvertently to become an organist. This means that he has to trot along to various town planning meetings and represent the views of various groups of residents, generally on planning permission issues. From what I can make out, these groups seem to consist of people who are opposing something being built (or kept open late) near to where they live.

Now I love the South East of England: the weather is nice, the pubs serve decent beer and so on, but occasionally people can be prone to sudden losses of common sense.

What on earth is the point of a kebab shop which closes at 11pm?

Do people not realise that this type of food is only palatable after five pints of Stella and a round of Sambuca? And moreover, at that time of night the only other place you are likely to find enough grease to counteract the near-fatal hangover you are shortly to experience is on the hair of the teenage attendant at the all-night garage...

Drunk people need lard and sleazy Turkish guys need to sell kebabs: accept that fact and everyone is happy.

Living on one of the main streets that links the centre of town and Kazimierz to the residential districts on the other side of the river, (and moreover having discovered the hard way that Polish people Love to Sing) I find it difficult to feel much sympathy.

The Camera Saga, part one zillion

My camera has now become well-travelled in Kraków. It has made the trek out to the Kodak service centre no less than five times, come rain or shine. This comes at no small personal risk: the pedestrian crossing over the Aleja shows a green light for just long enough to cross one carriageway, but not quite enough to get all the way to the other side of the road, so you are obliged to sprint across the central reservation to make it to the other lane before the green man starts flashing.
It has been passed around helpful friends with different working hours, and has been shown to anyone who might have a vague idea about mechanics.
Today, I finally marched out to the shop in the sunshine during my lunch break. Victory! The shutters were up! Inside, the camera repair man sat: he was a smiling grandfather type wearing one of those magnifying visors like an old-fashioned watchmaker in a fairytale. I showed him where the problem was, and he seemed quite happy to let me muddle through in Polglais, only once or twice prompting me in pretty fluent English. He asked me what I was doing in Poland, thought it was nice (but clearly weird, from his look) that I was a translator, and was generally very charming.
I am to go back in a week.
I can't wait.

Not content with renovating her own kiosk, the Bad Obwarzanki Lady has had the two derelict huts either side demolished. Clearly this new progress on the road to world domination has mollified her, and last time I approached for apples and juice she was pretty pleasant to me.

Monday, 24 September 2007


Today, for some reason, the Polish nation as a whole has decided to cease speaking Polish as I know (or thought I knew) it. Instead they are communicating in something resembling a little-known dialect of ancient Outer Mongolian.

Either that or the checkout lady at Kefirek didn't put her teeth in properly this morning.

Sunday, 23 September 2007


A couple of months ago I wrote about my total failure to stay upright outside Tesco.

'Alma' is the other side of the Krakow supermarket coin.

Unlike Tesco, this place features soft, buttery lighting and tasteful displays of imported grissini, cantuccini and extra virgin olive oil accompanied by Dean Martin crooning over the sound system. The overall impression is a bit like Italian Waitrose done Polish-style (try and get your head around that one...).
From time to time I get creative in the kitchen, although if I'm eating alone it's just as likely to be Marmite on toast. Last night I got a craving for expensive imported items, which is how I found myself at the Alma fish counter (decagrams and lack of mathematical ability notwithstanding) ordering fresh tuna with the help of Car Guy (see 'Slander'), who has the dubious advantage of having been born Polish.
We watched as the junior fishmonger behind the counter carved away at the end of the tuna with relish.
- A bit thinner... I said nervously, as the first slice, weighing in at around half a pound, thumped wetly onto the chopping board. The boy began sawing anew.
Around halfway down the second slice we noticed the price tag.
- Hang on... how much is this?
- uhhh let's see... sixty zlotys (about ten pounds- which is fine and normal in West London maybe...)
Suddenly my appetite for tuna evaporated.
The boy had to go and fetch his supervisor to cancel the transaction, and we had to think of another fish to go with my tomato sauce.
Fortunately, this supervisor turned out to possess a wealth of knowledge on the flavours of various types of fish and methods of cooking them. Which I suppose is only right and proper in a fish salesperson, but was somewhat surprising given that as a general rule customer service is taking its own sweet time to catch on in this country. I tried to keep alert for useful adjectives and to look as though I understood most of what was going on.
After about ten minutes and some handy information on baking salmon*, I decided to take matters into my own hands:

- What about chicken?

Both car guy and the fish lady looked at me. The fish lady spoke:
- Or chicken, yes, chicken would go great with that.

We moved along to the meat counter.

Another great thing about Alma is that there are always free samples for tasting. Something is always on 'promocja'. This Saturday, they seemed to have excelled themselves. It began with kiełbasa near the poultry counter. Not usually a fan of Polish sausage, still I had to try one or two pieces just to be sure.
Near the freezer cabinets there were nachos and dip. A trip to the biscuit aisle was an excuse for hit-and-run scoffing.
In spite of all the distractions, we still made it to the checkout.
Cheese! We forgot spreading cheese.
- I'll go, I said, this is my local, I know where it is.
I was a cheese-seeking missile on a mad dash to the dairy aisle. At least, I was until I passed the German tasting table on the way back. Several minutes later I arrived back at the checkout, sheepishly rubbing away at the telltale chocolate smears around my mouth. Car guy was not fooled.
There was one customer in front of us.
- It's down that aisle. I said. You have time. Go. Go!
He sprinted off and returned some moments later with a small tower of cheese, ham and rye bread.

All was going according to plan until the checkout girl pointed out that I had omitted to weigh the vegetables.
- I'll go, I said, meaningfully,
- Mmph, said car guy, through a mouthful of sandwich, and set off once more.

When we finally stepped out of the lift on level two, the car was sitting forlornly and conspicuously by itself in the middle of the car park.

*less than useful when you have to use a chair to hold your oven door shut, rendering baking of any kind something of a fire hazard.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Impertinent questions, ice cream, directions

Our Polish class- no longer 'beginners' but 'been doing this for five months now so no excuses for still being pretty rubbish' has increased in number by two. It might be three, depending on whether or not we scared the Dutch guy away.
We are still working on the past tense: this is made more complicated than you'd think because each verb has two versions, depending on whether you did something often-frequently or only once (thank you W.S. Gilbert for a very effective illustration of the difference between perfective and imperfective). A favourite language school exercise involves taking a little picture card from a stack and describing the activity illustrated on it. This is useful because you can do it in the past, future, negative and so on. The framework question is 'How often did you ... last year?' e.g.:
- Last year, how often did you go to the cinema?
- Last year, how often did you go out to dinner?
- Last year, how often did you watch television?
The answer is 'daily', 'once a week', 'twice a month' and so on (i.e. often-frequently/imperfective). Unfortunately, one of the picture cards shows two faces in close proximity. What's that? we asked.
- 'Całowac': to kiss.
Scandal ensued. One of the new guys in the class, with a big grin, has taken to asking the girls how often they kissed last year, last weekend, yesterday evening and so on. The cinema picture is no longer 'jak często w ześlym roku chodziłaś do kina?' but
'jak często w ześłym roku całowałaś w kinie?' - how often did you kiss in the cinema?
The possible variants are endless. I can only hope that I have been kissed in interesting enough places...

For some reason (maybe because I have a deceptively harmless appearance), people always approach me to ask for directions.
Little do they know.
To begin with, I would listen calmly and then respond with 'nie wiem', 'nie rozumiem' or 'nie mowie dobrze po polsku'. However, now I can just about work out what the question is and where the place is. And, thanks to my Colloquial Polish CD, I am An Expert at telling people to go straight on, turn right and so on.
Today, as I was on my way back from the American bookstore, two middle-aged ladies asked me how to reach ul. Piłudskiego and the National Museum. To my surprise, I realized I knew what they were talking about. I couldn't tell you whether my directions were accurate or not (given that I usually need SatNav just to find my way to the muesli aisle), but there was definitely communication of some description, which is a small miracle!
Visitors to Krakow... watch out...

This weekend the sun came out and we had a short-lived Indian summer [in Polish this is known as a 'golden summer' because of the sunlight on the turning leaves and other sentimental things. I think the British name came about because the reddening foliage, coupled with the fact that the rugby's on, triggers a mysterious craving for chicken tikka masala].
On Sunday, having spent an hour and a half rollerblading up and down the Wisła without falling in, I decided that it was high time I tried out the famous ice-cream place on Starowislna (given that it's been just down the road all this time). This unassuming outlet is reputed to sell The Best Ice-Cream in the whole city, so normally there is a resigned-looking queue of people lined up along the street. In almost six months I've still not managed to acquire any kind of Polish stoicism in the face of queues, so up until now I have always passed this particular confectioner by.
Today, however was going to be the day.
As I approached the shop, I passed several cars parked in the street, each with one or two people sitting inside, vacant, beatific looks on their faces and melted ice-cream dripping down their chins onto the dashboard.
A certain amount of organisation is required if you want to frequent any eating-places in Krakow not designed for tourists.
Once inside the door of the shop, you realise you do not get to see the product. Recommendation by word of mouth should be enough for you. There is a list of seven or eight flavours, primarily forest fruits, on the wall behind the counter. You have approximately six minutes to translate them and decide what you want (although the size of the cones is generous, so you can go for several at a time) before you arrive at the till. There are two things to remember: number of scoops followed by list of flavours. It is a slick operation, and before you realise what has happened you are outside blinking in the sunshine with a veritable tower of frozen dairy product causing you some serious wrist strain.

Verdict: fruit flavours are definitely what this place does best. They have a sharp and tangy flavour (I had strawberry and blueberry) which a good foil for the slight sugariness. The berry ices have a smooth texture as they melt and are not sickeningly creamy, although the chocolate (ok, ok, I had three scoops, I couldn't decide quickly enough) was a bit icy. But more than compensation for this iciness was the fact that it contained chunks of real chocolate: decent stuff too, not that cooking rubbish.
Apparently in the winter they switch to doughnuts.

If you're reading this in the office, I do hope there's a decent gelateria on a corner near you...