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: