Monday, 30 July 2007

The results of reading thrillers on a 4 1/2 hour train journey

The computer screen flickered into life, and a window opened, displaying a page of mysterious characters.
F was mystified. How ever would she decipher the code? She clicked on the browser icon and another window opened, the cursor flashing in the search engine tab. Quickly she typed (a skill she had picked up years ago on her Father's old computer), and hit 'return', holding her breath as the ancient Notebook re-paginated.

What appeared before her eyes caused her to gasp out loud. No! Surely not? Slow realisation dawned on her.

The entire text was written in French.

Of course: it all began to fall into place. She picked up the phone and dialled 'Paris, France'.
"Bonjour? Hello?" said the far-off voice on the other end of the line.
"J'ai vu le texte. I've seen the text. Vous avez le glossaire? You have the glossary?"
There was a long pause.
"Who wrote the text?"
The million-dollar question.
The other voice cleared its throat.
"The text was written by an ancient brotherhood, who have infiltrated industry throughout the world. They may not all know each other, but they are united by a common symbolology, incomprehensible to the rest of humanity. They may be recognised by their problemes de grammaire, grandmother problems, and their fautes d'ortographe, garden-drawing faults. Perhaps you have heard of them: they are known as Engineers".
Engineers! F had often heard stories of this mysterious sect, but she would never have imagined that they were active and thriving in the modern world.
The voice on the phone continued:
You have eight hours to decipher the text and solve the code. Only you can do it. Otherwise this ancient brotherhood will take over the world. You know Franklin D. Roosevelt? An engineer. Galileo? He was an engineer too. The sect is more pervasive than we ever imagined. We are relying on you.
F drew a deep breath, and began to type...

To be continued...

Wrocław Film Festival

Hurrah! You think. At last, this one-woman disaster area is going to pull herself together and write some thoughtful commentary on important cultural events!

I think you know me better than that by now.

It's taken me four months to start finding my way around Kraków. For the past ten days, my flatmates (with impressive stamina) have been hard at work tackling a film festival in Wrocław. Although the very thought of venturing outside the Stare Miasto gives me stomach ache (and that's not just from drinking the tap water), I drew a deep breath, threw some spare knickers in a bag and hopped on the 06.44am heading West- or North, my sense of direction isn't great at seven in the morning- to join them.

Finding my way around a new city was a very enlightening experience. I came to two conclusions:
i) All Polish cities have the same street names.
ii) I did well not to apply for a job in air-traffic control.

On to the films: when I met my flatmates they had a slight air of hostages who have recently been released from a dark place underground ('We're really tired of films'). I decided I had a lot of catching up to do film-wise, and we all headed off to various cinemas in town for the afternoon.
Being a glutton for punishment, I went for a French film called Jardins d'Automne, about a minister who loses his job and goes off rollerblading and brewing hooch in his bedroom. It was hilarious, sort of in the vein of the Italian Amici Miei trilogy.

For the Saturday late evening slot, an Art-Porn film called Destricted was causing a stir among festival-goers. My flatmates decided to brave the crowds and try to get in, despite the comment from one of their friends that there are places you can see penises without having to queue for an hour and a half (especially if you live in Kazimierz). [I think this is the same guy who refers to the cashpoint as 'The Wall of Tears'. Nice, I wish I'd thought of it]. Cue lengthy discussion about why it is easier for Polish men to talk about penises than tampons.
Incidentally, pharmacies in Poland: what about applicator tampons, hmm? Women of Poland, stand up for your rights! Demand applicators now!

This is deviation hesitation and repetition. Back to culture. Since I had yet to experience Polish cinema, I decided to forgo the best of upstanding Australian manhood and opt for a Pessimistic Polish Film instead, on the grounds that I could always meet my flatmates for a stiff drink afterwards.

Indeed, the film was pessimistic. But as compensation, my flatmates introduced me to Wisniowka (Polish cherry-flavoured vodka), and I enjoyed the best sleep I've ever had on a youth hostel floor...

Friday, 27 July 2007


My boss has been back from holiday this week, so I've had to re-learn the art of social interaction at work. Halfway through Monday morning, he looked up from the computer where he had been proofreading and exclaimed: 'This is all Mumbo Jumbo, isn't it?!'. And, not being an automotive engineer myself, I had to agree.
There's a children's game where you have to read a text, any text (e.g. the back of the cereal packet) out loud, replacing every noun with the word 'pants', all the while keeping a straight face. Occasionally terminology feels like that.

Today I went back to the Bad Obwarzanki Lady for a re-match. I smiled, greeted her, and ordered one apple and a small bottle of mineral water (this requires a different case ending. Very smooth). Before I got to the end she butted in with 'gazowananiegazowana?'. But by her tone of voice I could tell she was admitting defeat. I made sure to give the closest possible to the correct change, to indicate that I had understood (confusingly, the till in the kiosk displays three different figures, none of which are related to price. They may have some kind of cosmic significance that I am unaware of.). There was a certain amount of impatient tutting behind me, but I was too pleased with myself to pay very much attention.

Clothes are still a hot topic at the language school, proving revelatory in some cases ('At the weekend, Ben likes to wear a dress'). I can now describe from head to toe what I am wearing, including the colour plus one useful adjective from a list of six. I can also ask other people what they are wearing.
This skill will be invaluable if I ever decide to set up an X-rated chat line in Kraków.

And finally, I have discovered something I don't have to conjugate: the humble kiwi fruit. (in Polish: kiwi. Plural: kiwi).
I can like or dislike the kiwi, eat the kiwi or not eat the kiwi, live in a kiwi, give a present to the kiwi, go to the cinema with the kiwi and even take the kiwi for a walk.

If things don't work out with the Sacristan, the kiwi is going to become my new Best Friend.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007


Currently, there are very few situations in which I am absolutely forced to converse in Polish. Communicate, yes, but ordering pretzels is not going to widen my vocabulary very far, once I've exhausted all the different flavour combinations. It's hard to remember new words from one lesson to the next, if they are a bit obscure (like chmura: cloud. It even sounds cloudy. Especially if you say it after eating cheese).

So I have decided to step up my offensive on the monolith that is the Polish language. Short of going to live on a farm in a remote village in Western Silesia and producing sheep's cheese for six months (one of the less helpful solutions which have been suggested to me), there must be other ways to practice.

In my immediate social environment, there are only two people with whom I Absolutely Have To communicate in Polish: one is the lady who comes to clean the office once a week and the other is the sacristan at the church where I go to practice the organ.
I am going to become their Best Friend. But how to expand our discourse beyond:
Hello; How are you? Where's the key? See you on Sunday; (and in the case of the the cleaning lady: Shall I go? No, no stay where you are; followed by my looking increasingly awkward while she mops around me)?

Fortunately, the language school has come to the rescue again. At the moment, we are studying clothes and shopping. Having sneaked a peek at the next part of the chapter, I noticed a section on how to compliment people on their appearance. It's time to bring out the big guns, and I have selected a few choice pieces of ammunition:
- Podoba mi się twój krawat
(I love your tie)
- Masz świetnie dżinsy!
(Great jeans!)
And, my personal favourite:
- Ładnie panu w tym garniturze
(Sir looks frightfully dashing in that suit)

With any luck, this should provide an ice-breaker, and may even lead onto a new stage: Talking about the Weather (or, in Poland, complaining about the weather).

And the miracle?

Leaving the office yesterday evening, I was amazed to see a tram on ul. Bastowa mysteriously grinding to a halt, miles from any traffic lights.
And then, like Moses parting the Red Sea, a nun quietly stepped out onto the zebra crossing...

Friday, 20 July 2007


Krakow being the buzzing cultural hive that it is, and since the architecture (ok, in the town centre) has a vaguely Austrian-Italian feel to it, and everyone under the age of 30 speaks English, I tend to forget about its Socialist history and the fact that I am in Central, and not Western, Europe.

So it comes as sort of a shock to realise that a sizeable portion of educated adults are not familiar with the inside of a Starbucks, or its associative connotations (everyone complains about the coffee, but everyone goes there anyway; they crop up everywhere; the improbable juxtaposition of 'skinny' and 'muffin'; the secretly addictive properties of Frappuccino Mocha Light; the one toilet cubicle- caffeine is a diuretic for heaven's sake- etc.).
When I was on a placement in Paris in early 2006, there were four newly-opened Starbucks. On my return in January, there were at least fifteen, even in traditionally quaint districts like the Marais. So I'm sure it will come: McDonalds is thriving here (although given that Polish cuisine relies heavily on lard and frying this is not such a surprise).

My theory for the absence of Starbucks thus far is that, in the dying days of Socialism, in a last-ditch attempt to hold back the Tide of Capitalism, a forward-thinking government Nostradamus wrote an anti-American-coffee-bar clause into regulations governing commerce. The grammatical structure is so complex that it will take some future Indiana Jones of Polish legal translation to unravel it. Currently, Starbucks lawyers are poring over scraps of 1980s legislation, with the help of MI6 codebreakers and the Oxford university maths department (with Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou dashing around in the background, chased by a homicidal monk in spiky suspenders):
- Is that the locative case?
- No, must be the genitive feminine plural
- But wait- isn't it future perfective?
- So there is a future perfective?
- Sod it, let's go to Bulgaria.

I have two favourite Starbucks moments. Firstly, seeing a Frenchman totally floored in a branch opposite Charing Cross station, upon being informed that they served neither beer nor Coke, and that the bar was non-smoking. I didn't fancy his chances of getting a café crème either.
Secondly, when I tried to order a caffelatte in Manhattan, in my most pretentious Italian accent.
- Excuse me?
- caffelatte
- What?
- latte please
- Oh, you wanna lahtay...

That'll teach me.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Yoghurt, Harry Potter and the Bad Obwarzanki Lady

Earlier in the year I was able to sample the bounty of the French dairy produce aisle. Poland is also relatively unfriendly to the lactose-intolerant. However, here they have a strange custom of letting milk go off and then selling it as a kind of runny mouldy yoghurt (incidentally, the words for 'runny' and for 'rarely' in Polish are the same, so you have to be very careful in certain contexts about doing things 'not often' instead - as I learnt when my flatmates were making scrambled eggs. The potential for misunderstanding- and consequently carnage- is considerable).

On my way back from the airport last Thursday night, I decided to pop into the late-night newsagent across the street for milk and water. Having spent a week in Switzerland, I also decided it would be healthy to have some yoghurt to go with my muesli the next morning, and picked up a carton from the chiller. The sad thing is I actually spent quite some time perusing the various labels and trying to decide between natural or fruit, bits or no bits, etc.

In the first spoonful of cereal at breakfast the unmistakable tang of damp sports socks instantly revealed my error.

Currently my boss is away, so I am in the office all alone, churning out sentence by sentence on my elderly laptop computer and listening to my media library for company. It reminds me of the time when France Info went on strike and broadcast jazz standards for 24 hours to fill the empty airwaves. Or of the good old days when BBC2 used to switch off for the night. I have an irrational fear that when I take the headset off to go for lunch I will step out into a totally mute world.
Or is that just wishful thinking in response to the Peruvian pan-pipe cacophony in the Planty?

Enough of this, back to Food.
The centre of Krakow is crowded with little blue carts selling ring-shaped bread-twists (like a cross between a pretzel and a bagel, but far, far superior). These are called obwarzanki. Uwaga ['watch out', a word much used at the language school]: this is the plural. One single one is called an obwarzanek (I think). I believe there may be different plurals for two and three of them, so the only way to be totally safe is always to buy four or more at a time.
To make matters worse, case-endings are required when ordering food. I am having to learn grammar to avoid starvation: quite literally as if my life depended on it... Not to mention the fact that consumables are weighed in decagrams: so even if I get the grammar right my arithmetic is likely to fail me. As a general rule, I have avoided the meat counter so far, so as not to end up walking home with half a cow spilling out of my shopping bag.
Normally obwarzanki-sellers are perfectly used to stupid foreigners, so all you have to do is point and remember to say thank you.
Yesterday afternoon around five I felt a sudden carb-craving and decided to pop out to the cart across the road.
Tragedy! The stallholder had decided the heat was too much for him and had gone home! I raced down to the underpass leading to the station, where there are always people selling foodstuffs of various descriptions. No luck there either!
There was only one thing for it: I would have to brave the Bad Obwarzanki Lady in the kiosk by the bus-stop. The Bad Obwarzanki Lady has no patience for inarticulate Brits. And pointing does not work: she asks 'what? what?' until I want to slip down between the cracks in the pavement.
Tentatively I approached the hatch.
'Obwarzanek?' I whispered, pointing in the general direction of the window display.
My voice became a little weed withering away in the heat.
And- horrors- the Bad Owarzanki Lady began to pour out a rapid and angry tirade in my general direction (I caught the word 'mowić'- to speak), even as she wrapped the bread-based confection in question.

In my paranoia, I assumed she was berating me for not using the correct ending...

And finally: I have just become aware that a new Harry Potter book is about to be released (I am possibly the last person in the British diaspora). I will not be in the UK until August. How on earth am I to avoid spoilers and post-publication reviews and so on?? I shall have to boycott the BBC website for a Whole Month! Anyone who can procure me a copy before that time will be lavishly rewarded...

Incidentally, I have learnt to recount the yoghurt story in Polish, but it takes two hours and a lot of prompting, and requires a serious amount of liquid refreshment (rather like the fabled Golden House joke which no one would ever tell me).

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Nothing but mammals

I read an interesting theory once on why human beings developed language. Perhaps my memory is less than reliable, given that I ingested this piece of wisdom reading an Economist supplement on a slow Monday evening in the pub I worked at during my Masters year. I distinctly remember sitting perched on a bar stool, probably cashing in one of my one-for-yourself?-thanks-I'll-have-a-half-of-Stella tips.

It turns out that language evolved purely as a highly sophisticated way of attracting a mate: the verbal equivalent of a magnificent peacock's tail. In other words, the wider your vocabulary, the greater your pulling power. Anything we actually say is completely meaningless, since all human discourse is designed to build up to a joyful romp in the hay.
From the BBC World Service to the European draft Constitution via the Queen's Speech and the locative case: it all exists simply to enable people to make whoopie.

It dawned on me (fortunately the barstool was not very high) that I had just spent the past six years studying the birds and the bees. It would have been quicker (and much cheaper) just to spend a night at the appropriately-named 'SOS' nightclub in Tonbridge.
Which brings me to the present day. What am I hoping to achieve here? Will my ability to differentiate between perfective and imperfective verbs give me a better chance of producing attractive offspring? Surely it only increases my likelihood of producing Polish offspring? [The author of this blog would like it to be known that she has equipped herself with several phrases for declining quoi que ce soit in Polish, with varying degrees of politeness]

The one positive aspect is that next time I find myself sweating over a test translation, cowering in front of an audience or trying to work out the correct genitive plural declination so I can order a box of biscuits, I will take comfort in the fact that the whole linguistic exercise is simply a complex way of getting jiggy with it.

As an afterthought, if attractiveness is in direct proportion to linguistic proficiency, then the sexiest nation in Europe must be Luxembourg...

Friday, 13 July 2007

International Evening... with Dance

On the evening's programme the title 'International Evening' looked innocent enough, until you cast your eyes down to the next line '...with dance'.
After my experiences with karaoke the weekend before, I really should have known better. But I heard the words 'Scottish Dancing', and felt a sudden stab of nostalgia for the hairy legs, sweaty hands, flying sporrans and Bombay Sapphire of a St Andrews ceilidh session.
When I arrived in the entrance hall they were about to Strip the Willow. One man was unfortunate enough to be standing unaccompanied by the door. His name badge specified 'Republic of Moldova'. I grabbed his hand and dragged him into the fray.

We moved on to a Moldovan wedding dance, involving stepping in a circle from which men with handkerchiefs plucked likely-looking girls for a dizzying polka, followed by a kiss. Clearly designed to generate further weddings, this was the equivalent of the English reception-marquee moment where the DJ reckons on an average 10 pints (of Freixenet) per bridesmaid, and whacks on 'Especially for You'.

I had no success in scoring a Moldovan husband, and didn't have the good sense to leave the dance floor before the Spanish girls got to the CD player.

As a result, I was caught up in the Macarena, without even a paltry litre of sangria for moral support. As a British girl, I have to protest. My hips just aren't designed to move without the help of alcohol.

We proceeded to a Dashing White Sergeant, who very quickly dashed out of control, and continued to my all-time favourite, the Ukrainian Man-Snatching Dance. This is rather similar to Stripping the Willow, crossed with Oranges and Lemons: single girls sprint down the inside of the human tunnel, tearing some bemused guy away from his partner on their way. The abandoned demoiselle then has to dash to the end of the tunnel on her own man-grabbing mission.

Somehow, I managed to begin this dance as a man and end it as a woman. Methinks Tinky Winky is at play again...

Interpreting, part II

'Ladles and Gelatin,

I am extremely grapefruit for the warm red-setter I always receive here and I hope as the days collapse we will have the misfortune to make one another's aquarium, but first I would like to begin with an amusing antelope...'

This is what I hope is not coming out of my mouth on the rare occasions on which I have volunteered as an interpreter since graduation.

The reason for my foray into the world of departure lounges, German and the international Financial Times was to spend a week volunteering in a gigantic fairy-tale castle perched on top of a mountain overlooking Lake Geneva. The building is a former hotel, unchanged since F. Scott Fitzgerald, where you feel you ought really to spend your evenings flitting aesthetically between the arches of the stone balconies in a wispy dress, sipping a gin fizz, or tripping a waltz underneath the chandelier in the great hall, whilst waiting for the 1930s to come crashing in. I half expected to have to dress for dinner.
Or to find a body in a remote linen closet at the far end of the east wing on the fifth floor. I am sure I spotted M'sieur Poirot at breakfast on Sunday morning, examining the relative thickness of brioche slices ('Eh bien, Mademoiselle, your command of ze French it is Most Excellent').

This last comment sadly betrayed by my liaison performance:
- 'Une minute! Une!'
hissed my colleague, demonstrating narrow-minded French conformity to gender stereotypes. Clearly the Academie Francaise is in need of a few sessions with Tinky Winky et al.

German tactfully has a neuter gender, as I was reminded in a German workshop run by a tiny yet terrifying intern who turned out to be achtzehn jahre alt. Most importantly, I learnt 'Wie geht es dir?'- 'how's it going, dear?'.

On the final night there was a talent show, which I got to watch since it was all in either English or Russian (neither of which I understand).
Out of all the acts, the hits were:
- A dignitary from a local NGO being a thoroughly Good Sport and miming the Theory and Practice of sewing on a button (incidentally, somebody miming the action of sewing their trouserleg to their sleeve is not at all dissimilar to someone trying to re-enact the action of banging their kneecap on the bathroom sink using the office radiator...)
- A part boy-band - part folk group improvising on the Titanic theme tune, complete with nerdy Japanese boy on the piano, dishy South American boy on the recorder and re-enactment of the 'I'm flying!' scene on the dais under the chandelier.
- Ukrainian 'Miss Universe' in drag: three strapping Slav chaps with cheekbones you could spread butter on, wearing their girlfriends' sarongs over their jeans. Extracts from the relay from the Russian booth: 'No, Kostya, you went first... in... the sauna this morning...' and: 'There is no swimsuit round. This is an intellectual competition.'

Near misses were any songs that were reminiscent of the karaoke on ul. Grodzka...

N.B. the author of this blog would like it to be known that she is Thoroughly Professional in all her linguistic undertakings and is well aware of the difference between male and female. Except in that club in Leicester once: that was really confusing. And occasionally when reading Jeanette Winterson.

Leibe Gott! Was machen wir jetzt...

Naturally, the morning I was to spend five and a half hours jetsetting and looking chic in departure departure lounges dahling (at least that had been the plan), I woke up shivering and aching, having developed something akin to the bubonic plague from tonsils outwards. To top it all off I managed to bang my kneecap sideways on the edge of the bathroom sink whilst reeling my way unsteadily through my morning ablutions.
[author's note- I wrote this a week ago in the redundant 'addresses' section of my diary, when sitting in said airport lounge, and my mind is boggling at the logistics of the kneecap episode. How kneecap and sink managed to be in such close proximity with the force required to produce a bang is a mystery to me. I have been trying to re-enact the scene using the radiator at work, but to no avail.].

Of course, it started to rain almost as I stepped out of the front door. What's more, I managed to buy the pastry from the very bottom of the pile at the bakery stand: the one where the creme patissiere (or Polish approximation of it) had started to look translucent and slightly crusted at the edges. Clearly this pastry had been out late last night, had a couple of beers and tottered home from a sweaty session at Prozak via ul. Starowislna, singing football songs through a mouthful of kebab.

Today, even after three months of walking to work, I was about to send my carbon footprint into the red.
Perversely, I was more excited than anything about trying out my pre-GCSE German during the two hour changeover at Munich airport. Although 'Ich bin der Grosse Muzzy' turned out not to be the greatest success at passport control. And 'Die Prinzessin leibt der Gartner?!' did very little for my departure lounge chic.

I have always been cynical about national stereotyping. I've met happy Russians, disorganised Germans, punctual Italians, and even one or two friendly French people, and I like to keep an open mind (and a stiff upper lip) about such things. However, where airports are concerned it's another story. Compared to Krakow Balice, Munich was spacious, cool, efficient [author's note: any similarity to a car brochure is entirely work-induced and not her fault]. And this to extremes: automatically retracting hand towels anyone?
Not seeing my flight displayed, I went to the next gate to find out what was going on.
-'Sorry, I have to close the flight. I can't talk to you'
I was really too sick to behave badly and feeling desperately in need of my duvet, otherwise words would have been had. I moved on to the next gate:
-'Sorry, I can't answer your question. You have to go to the service desk. (All this was in impeccable English, of course)
The service desk was upstairs. I had visions of my flight taking off with one seat painfully empty, and my unclaimed suitcase circling around and around the baggage carousel in Geneva like the coconut Quality Street on Boxing Day.

Around forty minutes later I was roused from my daydream by 'Final and urgent boarding call for flight LH6439 to Geneva, Gate 83'. I leapt up and sprinted for the bus, scattering the free international edition Financial Times in a salmon-pink paper trail behind me.

In spite of my new-found enthusiasm for the wunders of the Deutsche language, it simply hadn't occurred to me that 'Genf' and 'Geneva' were one and the same...

Wednesday, 4 July 2007


On Friday, my boss left for a business trip in France. At the same time, both flatmates were buried away somewhere respectively cramming for dear life pre-exam and passed out on a 48-hour post-exam bender. I managed to pass the whole day without speaking to anyone (apart from the security guard in the mini-market across the road, who appeared to be objecting to my computer bag. I made indignant and ungrammatical noises in bad Polish and stormed out. Later I realised that he was probably trying to offer me a basket).

At around five-thirty, one of the interpreting students called to ask if I wanted to join them in a karaoke bar to celebrate the end of exams.

-Oh that’s very kind, thanks, but I’m going away next week and I really should prepare... lots of things to do... quiet evening in...

Two hours and four Tatankas later I was bellowing something to do with ‘paradise’ and ‘ganstas’ whilst making hip-hop hand movements that would have made Richard Madeley proud, in a red-lit den hung with felt to create a hot, tent-like effect. With hindsight, it was probably a desperate attempt at soundproofing.

Now, even if I do say so myself, I sing fantastically well after a couple of drinks. And I'm sure I'm not the only one. The same applies to speaking German, R&B dancing and telling amusing anecdotes to stand-up comedians in the Sussex Club (there was only one witness to the last item, and he has since mysteriously disappeared). Add a couple of percent proof and my talents just multiply (along with my willingness to share them).

My favourite solos, ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ and ‘Thank You for the Music’ were blessedly off the menu, to the immense relief of everyone from here to Tarnow.