Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Wheels on fire

After a week or so of fine weather, my boss has started cycling into work instead of taking the tram.
He does it very professionally, with a change of clothes, special shoes, lights and helmet. This is because 'you can't just hop on the bike in the morning'. I feel rather guilty and say nothing, thinking of the four years I spent in St Andrews doing exactly that, usually with head-on rain (if not salt spray) and cross-winds. The extreme of my cycling folly involved a rather wobbly trajectory down Abbey Street after rehearsal with a good 25cl of chinon blanc sloshing around my insides, an electric keyboard under one arm and twelve rolls of Kitten-soft swinging from the handlebars.
Last reports say my bike is gently rusting away outside the library. Faithful companion, I salute you.

Being unable to shift a longing for the breeze in my hair, the road beneath my wheels and misguided insects careening into my eyeballs, I rather frivolously 'invested' in a pair of rollerblades.
After my experiences with balance and coordination outside Tesco, I ought to have known better.
I've now been four times to practise up and down the path along the Wisla, and I have made an important discovery: asphalt is not smooth!
I can now chart every bump, node, crack and change in surface texture between Galeria Kazimierz and St Norberts Abbey. Small children on bicycles and joggers- old, fat joggers- frequently overtake me. Still, I'm taking no chances, and the knee pads, elbow pads and wrist guards are staying firmly in place, although the statistical chances of a fatal accident at speeds of under 2mph are low. A special kind of panic is generated when I find myself having to go into the cycle lane to overtake pedestrians: what if a bike should come silently whooshing up behind me? How do I get back into the pedestrian lane without crossing the path of one of them?

I'm proud of our efforts with eco-friendly transport. We must be the lowest-carbon translators in town. Our specialism? Automotive engineering...

My boss's cycle lamps actually reminded me of something which happened to me back in St Andrews. I never managed to keep a set of lights for more than about a month without them being pilfered by some young hoodie (read 'first year med. student') outside the Whey Pat Tavern after training. So I was frequently stopped by the police, whose presence in such a quiet town was impressive (although this never stopped my bike lamps from disappearing).
One evening, I was peacefully puffing and wheezing up Abbey Street with several kilos of fencing equipment lashed across my shoulders, when a large van swerved out of the darkness in front of me. My habitual stream of post-Romantic French poetry was cut short when I drew up on the inside of the offending vehicle and saw that it was driven by two policemen.
- I'm afraid we're going to have to ask you stop. You can't ride without lights after dark.
I was already late for training.
- Well how about a lift then?
The first policeman was just muttering something about insurance, when his colleague leaned over from the driver's seat:
- Where is 'training'?
I explained where the Sports Centre was.
- Oh that's just on our way: hop in the back
And they came round to help me in with my bike, while I took a seat on one of the benches and grabbed a helpful loop hanging from the ceiling. There was an amusing barred-effect window between the front cabin and the back benches. We were halfway down Argyle Street when the phone rang:
- Flic, where the hell are you?
- Are you sitting down? Sit down. It's an interesting story...

Monday, 28 May 2007


I have inadvertently managed to become the organist at Krakow's American Catholic church, in spite of being neither American nor a Catholic (nor- in truth- an organist: I'm a pianist who went through an "organ phase" in my final year at St Andrews, rather than just using caffeine to get through the exams like everyone else).
It happened entirely by accident on my part: in fact, since moving to Krakow my life has taken on an aleatorical slant, so that I am constantly surprised by things not turning out quite as I might have expected. I think this is due to a combination of culture shock, and the fact that the Polish language and I do not entirely understand each other yet.
My life is like practicing tennis against a slightly uneven wall and never being quite sure which way the ball is going to bounce back.
In any case, one week, when there was no organ music in church, I offered to stand in occasionally when the regular accompanist couldn't make it: only it turns out that there is no regular accompanist. I talk too much, this is my problem. Just go around, opening my big mouth, getting myself into trouble.

So this is how I found myself sitting in the organ loft with the number one best view during the sermon on Pentecost Sunday.
Now, apart from an embarassing habit (inherited from my mother- thanks Mum) of occasionally bursting into tears during particularly rousing hymns or church services, I tend to be fairly down-to-earth about religion (editor's note: for 'down-to-earth', read 'spends a lot of time in the pub at Walsingham'). However, last Sunday, I was really struck by Pentecost and the disciples 'speaking in tongues'. Perfect, I thought, finally the Bible talks about the responsibility of linguists:

“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?

And yet they don't even mention the poor interpreter sweating it away in the Mesopotamian booth...

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Museums and soup

This weekend brought a particular sort of Krakow quirkiness, even by my standards. On Friday night, a mysterious free tram appeared, like the St Andrews phantom ice-cream van, to rattle its ghostly way between Huta and Wawel, carrying cultural pioneers in search of enlightenment (read "drunk students in search of free entertainment").

This was the Night of the Museums, a rare opportunity for people who don't get out of bed before lunchtime to visit cultural exhibitions in the middle of the night.
Although Friday night these days normally sees me curled up with a cup of tea (or at least beer in a tea cup) and a good book by 10pm, I decided to venture out and see if I could improve my mind at an exhibition or two.
The special tram proved to be more spectral than I thought, and after twenty minutes of waiting I realised I would have to plot my own route around Krakow's exhibitions. I started by wandering across the Rynek to Bunkier Stzuki, where I immediately bumped into the only friend of my flatmates who speaks French rather than English. With (slightly self-concious) glee we embarked upon the singularly pretentious pursuit of Talking about Art in French.

By far the most bizarre exhibit was a film of a bust of the artist's own head and shoulders in some pinky-brown, marbled stone. Only with the arrival of her cat, who set about licking the nose of the statue with a vigour enhanced by an uncomfortably loud soundtrack did the actual nature of the 'stone' become evident.

Leaving the Art Bunker behind us, we moved round to Collegium Maius, one of the ancient buildings of the Jagellionian University. The former professors' apartments, containing exhibits, but otherwise unchanged for centuries, were open to meanderers. As ancient university accommodation goes (and believe me, I know) it looked pretty cushy.

On Saturday afternoon I went to Plac Nowy for a taste of Eastern bloc life in the soup queues at the Kazimierz soup festival. The soup stands themselves were hidden by the crowds, so I (rather foolishly) went with mob rule and planted myself at the end of the longest queue. As I had already discovered at the pharmacy, queueing here is an entirely different sport. One person usually equals five plus a pushchair, and any amount of that indignant humphing- which characterises the stereotypical British single-file version- will go unnoticed.
After about half an hour, I managed to procure myself a bowl of (actually delicious) thick, yellow soup.
Queuing was an easy game compared to the task of finding an empty space at a trestle table without slopping any soup out of the flimsy plastic dish it was served in.

An interesting weekend altogether. I may not have achieved total cultural enlightenment, but I got free food, which is the second quest the eternal student.

Now where did I hear that ice-cream van?

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Woman behaving badly, part II

Another confession to make, I'm afraid. The crimes of your humble correspondent just keep mounting up. All is not lost! Save yourselves and avert your eyes from this tale of shame!

On Saturday morning I found myself with a semi-urgent pharmaceutical requirement. No problem in the 24/7 UK society, but, the minute you set foot on the other side of the channel, you regularaly find shops closed at illogical hours. In France it's banks on a Monday. Bakeries shut for one day a week, on any given day, practicality notwithstanding. And woe betide the British Erasmus student in Italy who runs out of lavatory paper at noon on Saturday: the supermarkets will not re-open until 3 o'clock on Monday afternoon.

From midday on a Saturday, shops in Poland start to roll down their shutters, at 1, 2 and 3pm.
Waiting at the tram stop, on my way to a class at 12.30, I found myself with ten minutes to spare and decided to risk the chemist's shop on the opposite corner.
In front of me in the shop were an elderly babcia and dziadek, minutely inspecting and then rejecting one bottle of vitamin supplements after the other. After five minutes of foot-tapping had elapsed I could feel my left eyelid start to twitch from glancing periodically over the road at the tram stop.
A young-ish couple entered the shop, followed a couple of minutes later by a middle-aged nun. I'm not yet able to distinguish one order from the other- I suspect this will come at around the same time as full understanding of the uses of the Polish instrumental case- but she had a high sticky-up wimple on.
I had four minutes to go, and was considering making a dash for the door, when the dziadkowie finally made their purchase and left.
-Prosze; said the pharmacist, and instantly the young couple stepped forward in front of me.
Three and a half minutes to go, and it was all too much. Unfortunately, the column in my vocabulary book marked 'Righteously indignant Polish to use when queueing' is as yet under construction, and I have found that the best I can do is mutter loudly and darkly in English, which at least gets me noticed.
I put on my darkest look (not hard given the circumstances), and swore as loudly and as colourfully as I could muster, throwing in the word 'rude' several times for good effect.
No-one noticed.
Apart from the nun, who glared at me as I stormed out with as much dignity as I could muster, before turning tail and sprinting across the road with a minute and a half to go.

Now you know the truth. You are following the adventures of a degenerate young person who swears at nuns.

ps. I have learnt a special new Polish phrase: 'nie ma'. This means 'there isn't any', and is especially useful if you happen to work in a cafe, pharmacy or corner shop in Poland.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007


After having exhausted the pleasures of watching the water go round and round the new washing machine, I realised it was probably time to buy some soap suds and get stuck in. This, and other minor emergencies (a distressing lack of yoghurts, muesli and the fundamentals of sandwich-making) prompted me to action. It was time to tackle Tesco.
Since the first time I stood forlornly outside Carrefour in Brittany (having not realised that French buses don't run over lunch hour), continental hypermarkets have made me feel like an alien landed in a strange new world, dazzled by the vastness and the hum of a thousand neon striplights lining fragrant and loaded chiller cabinets.
That and my total inability to decide between butter in a blue wrapper and butter in a white wrapper with a cow on the front. Multiply this by about 15 (Crunchy or fruity muesli, tuna in brine or tomato, etc, etc, etc.) and throw in the fact that you have to stay on tram 22 Almost til the End of the Line, and you can see why a trip to Tesco is something of an undertaking.
I won't go into detail about the experience itself, except to say that Polish Tesco is sufficiently different from English Tesco for me to have been absolutely overjoyed to find a tin of Italian chopped tomatoes with exactly the same label as they have in the UK.

As I was crossing the car park with my seven loaded carrier bags, I spotted my tram approaching on the other side of the busy main road.
Now I've relocated several times over the past year or so, and I'm not known for my punctuality, so it's not unusual for me to be found running after some form of public transport, carrying half Hulk Hogan's own bodyweight.
Unfortunately this time disaster struck. In my mad dash across the grass, my shopping bags and my legs tangled themselves together, and I tripped over the kerb, sprawling headlong into the slip road, scattering tomatoes and muesli bars and pickles onto the asphalt.

Fortunately, fashion dictates that loose trousers are to be worn beneath skirts this summer.

I managed to make it onto the next tram and sat quietly, with juice from my burst jar of gherkins slowly trickling its pungent way down the carriage.

Quote of the week comes from a Polish student I met at a Tandem (language exchange) meeting:
- 'So did you choose to come to Poland, or were you forced?'

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Washing machine

Since I moved to Krakow a month and a half ago I have been without a washing machine. As you are probably reluctant to imagine, things are starting to become fragrant. Finally, on Friday afternoon, a brand-new machine arrived, and when I came home from work it was nestled somewhat incongruously amongst the side cupboards of our Highland log-cabin-style galley kitchen. The son of our landlords (who went to school with my flatmates) came round to eat cheesy pizza and celebrate the occasion. We held our collective breath (and not just our noses) as the first sounds of water rushing through pipes reached our ears, like the sweet babbling of freedom in summer meadows (belied by a smell resembling damp PE kit now permeating the appartment). We were transfixed by this vision of otherworldly technology.

ps, Good news! I spoke Polglais in the bank and managed to communicate for a full three exchanges before the cashier decided to call over her English-speaking colleague. If languages were lawn tennis, that would be 40-love to me!

Thursday, 10 May 2007

faux pas

Following an hour and a half of extra Polish classes this week, I have now become acquainted with the Instrumental Case (and consequently am one up in grammar terms on the BF, who only knows Latin. Yes!!). The instrumental is where you change the ending of an adjective which describes who or what something is (just bear with me, it'll lighten up in a minute), e.g. 'he is an English student'.
Our teacher played a little game with us, suggesting a name (e.g. 'Michael Jackson') so we could identify the nationality and profession. Now, I am dreadful with names, and was doing appallingly in comparison with my classmate. Of course, I'm not a competitive person, now that I've left school and nobody is writing report cards for me any more, but I Hate It when other people (especially male people) score better than me.
After various French actresses, German politicians and American dentists, the teacher pronounced 'Lech Kaczynski'. Eager to score some points by knowing a Polish person, I leapt in without looking:
-jest polskim aktorem... ?
She gave me a strange look:
-no. This is the Polish president.

I have made a step forward in my quest to practice social Polish: the other night my flatmates had some friends round to watch a popular Polish series about a lawyer called Magda. During the commercial break an advert was shown, where a man is sitting on the sofa next to his somewhat wrinkly canine companion. The guy goes out of the room, eats a Polo mint or something and comes back, with such fresh breath that the dog, in delight, leaps up and kisses him full on the mouth.
The perfect opportunity to slip in a casual 'what a charming dog!'.

I am now going to start hanging around televisions, waiting for the right moment...

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Robbery in the Planty!

Yesterday the sun was shining, so I went out to buy myself an obwarzanek (special bread twist- a cross between a bagel and a pretzel) and wandered through the Planty looking for a place to sit and sunbathe. The Planty park is a ring of lawns and trees which follows the old city walls. I finally settled on a bench in a small square, opposite two mothers chatting and a couple of toddlers staggering around like miniature drunks.
Now, the Polish lessons are going ok, but I've still not had many chances to practice. There are plenty of people with charming dogs but the opportune moment to compliment them never seems to arise.
As I was finishing my pretzel, one of the toddlers tottered over to my bench. At last! I thought. A chance for my first casual social interaction in Polish with a real Polish person! (albeit one who is less than three feet tall). The small Krakovian gurgled and placed both hands on the water bottle I had left standing on the bench.
-Woda! I said, conversationally. The small person gurgled again, seized the water bottle firmly and started to toddle away, chuckling to itself.
I got up and followed it, gabbling: 'prosze, butelka', but my tiny assailant took no notice. Finally, I was able to prize the water bottle gently away from the young delinquent (managing to slip in 'dzienkuje bardzo' and 'pa pa' for the sake of extra practice), to the great amusement of the two apologising mothers on the other bench.
Don't believe what they tell you about Krakow being a safe city: a life of crime begins younger than ever here. And remember what your mothers told you about talking to strangers in the park, however small and innocent they may appear...

Thursday, 3 May 2007

bank holidays

It just so happens that, in the week I am about to sign my contract, finally tying myself into a Proper Job, there are two bank holidays. May the 1st, of course, and the 3rd, which is a special Polish constitutional holiday. There are red and white flags on shop fronts and flying along with trams (ever so slightly reminiscent of the St George's cross monstrosities that fluttered on cars last summer until Portugal booted us out of the world cup).
I've been here a month and two days now, so I've had time to find a place to live and settle in. Now one day off is nice when you are new in town, but two is just depressing, particularly as I haven't seen my flatmates for a full 48 hours now, and I can only imagine that they are lying catatonic in some fantastic student heaven somewhere enjoying quantities of beer, music and sex in the way that only students in continental Europe can.
I decided to tackle the bank holiday blues in typical fashion: by going on a long long walk in the sunshine. I have now climbed two mounds in Krakow. There are three of these altogether, and the third is in Nowa Huta, so I'm waiting for my flatmates' mate to get back from holiday before exploring this particular elevation. (Nowa Huta being somewhere to avoid by night, and indeed by daylight.) It turns out that the one I climbed today (Kopiec Kosciuszki) is a special constitutional monument, and so entrance was free. And the whole of Krakow, plus a French school party, was taking advantage of the fact. I'd love to show you some photos, but, unless some wealthy blog-fan decides to donate digital photographic equipment, you'll just have to wait until my film has been processed (assuming of course that the CD-ROM drive in my elderly laptop manages to read it).
Long walks in the sunshine only last so long however, and ice-cream was disappointing for a girl who's been spoilt by Stefano's in Sesto Fiorentino, so I gave up and stocked up on Tyskie, a local brew, and very nice thank you. Off to the 5 zloty cinema in a second, I think, hoping the beer will have helped me decipher the subtitles...

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Controversial new Polish joke about the EU

So a Highlander is minding his own business looking after his sheep when a man approaches him and says:
-If I can guess the exact number of sheep you have there, can I take one away with me?
-Sure! says the highlander, incredulous
-Ok says the newcomer: you have 200 sheep exactly
The highlander is impressed and grants his wish
-But hold on a minute, he says: If I can tell you exactly who you are, can I have my sheep back?
-Of course, says the other man.
-You are the European Commissioner for farming, says the Highlander
-Wow- the Commissioner is impressed- How did you know that?
-You took my dog.

Disclaimer: the author of this blog would like to dissociate herself from the sentiments expressed in this joke. She is sure the commissioner is very good at his job.
Ditto the comment about 'bloody Americans' in the previous entry.