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.).