Friday, 22 June 2007

Circles and Triangles

Recent events (a vicious lurgy, a parental visit, lack of internet last weekend) have kept me quiet for a while. Huge sighs of relief all round. No longer! I am back, and speaking out for peace, democracy and the freedom to make an ass of myself in four different languages.

In my absence, I have managed to be responsible for destroying several acres of rainforest in the form of tissues (not to mention a lingering tang of Vick's vaporub wafting through the streets of Kazimierz), ruining the parental weight-loss diet and (almost) causing frozen turkeys to be fired into French jet engines- as opposed to defrosted seagulls. Clearly I've spent too long in Tesco, thinking of Christmas.

But you don't want to hear about any of that.

In Poland, there is a popular television programme for small children where four adults, dressed in babygros, with large false bottoms and mysterious television screens on their bellies, romp around a giant golf course. I'm sure you know the one. They live on toast and custard, speak slightly better Polish than I do, and play with oversized accessories: one has a ball, one a spotty hat, one... a handbag.
This display of sartorial elegance has caused a flurry of gender confusion across the somewhat conservative Polish government, as the handbag-wielding character in question happens to pronounce its gurgles in a rich baritone.

I would like to protest. A certain amount of gender-confusion is inevitable once you cross the language barrier and find yourself faced with the inevitable two doors on the other side of the service station forecourt. France and Italy are not too much of a problem: France is M and F and Italy (signori/signore) usually just has one door anyway, or a nice picture. German-speaking countries are slightly more problematic: H versus D. I know enough German to order ice-cream, tell people the name of my favourite pop group, and ask for the bahnhof. But not enough to prevent me from blundering through what is very quickly very obviously the wrong door, from time to time.
(Incidentally, my party-piece is: 'Leibe Gott! Ich habe mein portmonnaie im bus vergessen! Was machen wir jetzt?!' I am hoping that, exclaimed in the right tone of voice during a four-hour stop-over in Munich airport, this phrase will cause strapping young Teutonic types to rush over and buy me coffee.)

Only in Poland, however, have I stood in the corridor, totally stumped, listening helplessly to the opening credits of the film whilst trying to decide whether my feminine mystique was best identified by a circle or a triangle.

And finally:
Sticker seen on the the inside of a (unisex) cubicle door in a bar in Kazimierz:
'Ta toaleta promuje homoseksualism' - illustrated by a merrily dancing Tinky Winky.
Rather too much information, but entertaining nonetheless.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

The Pharmacist

The other night I came home to find one of my flatmates spreadeagled on the couch with a tragic look on his face. 'Don't come near me!' he exclaimed. 'I don't want to make you ill too'.

Two days and a small rainforest of Kleenex later, a particularly violent sneezing fit in the Planty confirmed my fears. Fortunately this occurred on a bank holiday, and a passing military parade provided a timely cover.

The following day I popped out of work to the Apteka across the road, making sure that I had my mp3 player poised over Harry Belafonte's 'Swing Sinora' in case of pharmacy-rage.
(Luckily the nun at the front of the queue was soon finished, and left before I had a chance to disgrace myself.)

Now, when I attempt to stagger to the end of a sentence in Polish, people tend to react in one of two ways: either they simply reply in English, however broken (even in MacDonald's, which is simply embarrassing); or they break into peals of laughter (like my flatmates, and most of their friends).
However, the pharmacist smiled, asked me where I was from (following my question as to whether there was Ibuprofen, and a sort of gesticulation about which was the best type), and whether I studied (bear in mind she had to repeat it several times before I understood), and then launched into ecstasies on how well I spoke, how marvellous it was that foreigners were learning Polish, and (I think) that her daughter spoke several different languages.
I lost the rest, but didn't want to shatter her illusions by bringing out my usual 'nie rozumiem' or 'nie mowie dobrze po polsku', so I just kept smiling and nodding, adding the occasional 'dobrze', 'oszewycie' for good measure, and she seemed delighted.
I finished with a slightly stunned 'dzekuje bardzo, do widzenia' and went out blinking and smiling into the sunshine, feeling a lot more Polish-speaking than I really deserve...

I have made another discovery about the phrase, 'nie ma', so beloved of Polish kiosk owners: it takes the genitive declination.
If this means nothing to you, you are very, very fortunate.

Monday, 4 June 2007


The language school I attend is really very good at ensuring that the misguided bunch of foreigners attempting to limp through their Polish courses have at least some form of social life. The last event involved oversized cheesy wotsits and 'wystko w porzadku'. This time, it was a special Polish picnic, to celebrate the beginning of summer with grilled kielbasa (smoky sausage) and gallons of polskie piwo, in the garden of one of the teachers, out in a suburb called Pokocim.
Together with two other Brits (actually ex-students of the school, either because they already know all there is to know about Polish, or because they despair of ever knowing it), we planned our trip out to the suburbs, charting tram times and line numbers and generally preparing for the journey into the unknown.

At least that was the plan. Polish weather, showing an uncharacteristically British streak, had other ideas.

Earlier that afternoon, the storm broke. I was high and dry on the ninth floor of the (slightly swaying) university languages building, sitting with headphones on while eight Polish interpreting students interpreted a speech about Ukrainian independence into Polish. There was an almighty explosion. I just managed to stop myself from bursting into 'Grandola, Vila morena' (the only revolutionary song I know the tune to), while the oblivious students continued talking until the end of the tape (exams are coming up, and people have priorities).
Rushing to the window, we saw that it was neither a new Chernobyl nor the Orange Revolution, but worse: torrential rain.

Determined to have my kielbasa and eat it, five twenty five (I can say this in Polish now, but it will take me half an hour to work out the conjugation, thus defeating the object somewhat) saw me standing at the arranged meeting place by the tram stop at the Theatre Bagatela.

We had only been on the tram for twenty minutes when the message arrived that the picnic had been cancelled due to poor weather.
- Now what?
- Should we get off the tram?
- I think it's stopping again soon
- Is it?
- Quick, get off, get off!
(Cue much scrambling and falling down steps).

Upon our return from this festive little joy-ride, we decided to go for sausage in Plac Nowy (and, in my case, a gherkin- I seem to be the only British person in the whole of central Europe who can stomach things that have been pickled in vinegar), and several beers, a more than adequate compensation for the lack of suburban barbecue. A date has yet to be set for the re-match: perhaps this time we can creep up on the weather and surprise it...