Wednesday, 26 December 2007


For the past three or four days (in between church and eating) I have been staking out the Polish Deli in Sevenoaks, fascinated by this new arrival in my old town. The shutters, however, remain obstinately closed. Ever since my Auntie Joy, with a conspiratorial grin, opened her fridge to reveal a tell-tale carton of Tymbark Premium Wisnia (z delikatnimi cząstkami)* sitting pertly inside the door, I have been determined to venture into this small Slavic enclave in Sevenoaks.

However, Poles know how to party, and the place has been closed since Sunday.

I can't wait to step over the threshold, holding my breath (no, not because of the meat counter) in anticipation of the treats I'll bring home to my blissfully unsuspecting family.
Will the doors open before the new year or have the owners gone home to see babcia? Will I pluck up the courage to say 'Dzien Dobry' instead of 'Hi' on entering? Will they have obwarzanki?

Will they let me pay in zloty??

Watch this space. Tomorrow may be the day...

*that's 'cherry juice with bits' to you and I.

Sunday, 23 December 2007


The first time you go into Sainsbury's after being out of the country for eight months is an ethereal experience. Particularly if you go at night, when it's dark outside and people in navy blue tracksuits have already started replenishing the shelves.*
Perfectly ordinary products seem amazing, such as Weetabix, fresh pasteurised milk and low-fat yoghurts (low-fat anything, actually). You rejoice over Marmite, spiral-bound notebooks and applicator tampons.
It's especially fun when you realise that the young couple in the Beers, Wines and Spirits section are speaking in Polish, and you hang around pretending to be interested in Green Ginger Wine so you can continue to eavesdrop.
After a few minutes, they approach a member of staff to ask a question, and you hover about, hoping for the chance to jump in and be a communications superhero.

Then you realise that all the staff are in fact Polish as well and you feel distinctly redundant.

Have you ever wondered why everything you put into a dishwasher comes out with specks of broccoli welded onto it? Even if you don't eat that much broccoli it's always the same: that tell-tale dark green flake dried between the prongs of a fork or on the rim of a teacup.
Perhaps the manufacturers add a special secret broccoli reserve to every model. I can see it now: the dutiful demonstrator loads the machine, opens the lid to put in the soap, and then opens a second lid and fills it with bits of crumbled broccoli florets.
There's even a special final cycle: heat-blast, to ensure effective bonding of broccoli to china...

*n.b. I did this job once. You get a lunch break at around 1.30am and they give you reheated chicken korma. At times like these, it is useful to have a strong constitution.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Holy Carp!

Yesterday I saw a carp being brained in Stary Kleparz!

I'm sorry I don't have a photo to immortalize the moment, but I was in the car at the time, it was early, and I was distracted by the sight of several babci fishing their Wigilia dinner out of a yellow paddling pool.

Traditionally, you should keep your carp alive until Christmas Eve itself, otherwise the fish won't be fresh. Some families with small children name and befriend their carp and then are unable to brandish the mallet at the crucial moment.

Rumour has it that Radio Trojka periodically plays a Carp Song about a carp who tries to survive Christmas. I have yet to hear it, but then I've been straying from Polish Radio in favour of Classic FM online. I know it's dreadful cheese, but I wanted to hear Christmas carols I actually had an outside chance of being able to sing along to.

Incidentally, does anyone know, from Carols for Choirs 3 (the blue one), that Rutter (or Willcocks)-arranged thing which starts 'In all towns and villages both far and near'? I found out that it's originally Polish. I am trying my very best to learn the chorus so that we have something else to sing in that drunken lull after the Queen's speech. Other than Five Goo-old Rings of course...

Wednesday, 19 December 2007


I don't normally go in for the socio-anthropological "hmm that's interesting" let's-observe-the-Poles type posts: 'What do Polish people eat?'; 'Weird things that Poles do on a Sunday'; 'How many Polish people does it take to change a lightbulb?"* and so on.

However, I can't seem to go anywhere without running into Polish yuppies.

Perhaps I'm just overwhelmed by all the Very Grown-up Parties, and I ought really to be quaffing pints with scruffy Erasmus students on the Rynek. So-and-so owns her own architectural design firm, someone else just bought a new car, this couple are building a house in *insert semi-suburban location outside Krakow* etc. etc. It's all too intimidating.

People seem extremely anxious to emphasize that Poles Are Not Poor. British friends and family are often concerned that I'm living in a hovel under the steel works, or scratching around on a dirt floor in a hut somewhere, and they seem to have the impression that all Polish people are longing for gainful employment as an *insert rubbish job like waitressing/taking out the bins and so on* plus the chance to practice their English and save a few bob by sleeping four to a sofa in Hammersmith.

Poland is Posh, people! Think about Karachi! Or Beijing! Or Mexico City! See what I mean?

Some people are keen to point out the various enormous houses on their street: this neighbour went to the States for four years to earn money to build his house, this neighbour went to Sweden and so on.
This is all very interesting, but really not necessary. I grew up in Sevenoaks, where, if you take your bike out on a warm afternoon in May and cycle around the wide lanes on the outskirts of the town, you'll see scores of enormous houses. At least, you'll see the hedges and the driveways. Rather than having gone to Sweden or the States for several years, Daddy (and possibly Mummy too) spent twelve hours a day glued to Reuters on four screens somewhere near St James' Square.
All this is characteristic lower-middle-class jealousy, largely because It's My Town I Was There First and because they probably bought their enormous houses from some posh yet impoverished local character that my Dad used to know, paying off their entire mortgage with their Christmas bonus and inflating the property market beyond all belief so that I can't buy a flat there.

Not unlike the bloody Brits buying up property in Kraków.

You even get yuppie students- like the ones at Durham or St Andrews. They eat sushi and buy nice wine (and recycle the bottles), watch art-house films and speak trendy English littered with London or Manchester-style colloquialisms (if you listen carefully you may hear a dropped 'h' or a glottal stop).

Sometimes it's just facade. I learnt that the guy whose posh PDA I commandeered to check the rugby results back in October is a surgeon and earns about half as much as I do**. Fortunately for him his wife has her own business and his parents own half the city. But it sort of shows something about appearances... or the fact that the most essential jobs often aren't rewarded... or about Poles relying on their parents (see Italy for details), etc.

Oops, I just realised I've copied this post from Dat Blog's musings on the Polish Bobo. I don't think that Yuppies are quite the same though. For those of you who didn't have to translate horrid dossiers on Contemporary French Culture at university, 'bobo' is short for 'bourgeois-bohème'. They are sort of faux-bohemians who have high-powered middle class professions but act all fey in a sort of mômes de la clôche way so that people think they are cool. For a taste of real Bohemia, please see any given bench in the Planty at around six in the morning. Bring your own Special Brew...

Incidentally, the French bourgeois-bohème is traditionally leftward leaning in values, while Polish and British bobos are shifting distinctly to the centre-right. As CG remarked, it's the style of doing things that's changed over here, not the content. David Cameron, anyone??

* i) I wouldn't know, all the electricians are elsewhere and the ones that stayed can't for example find their way up the stairs in our building
ii) At least four otherwise it's rude, plus a fifth person to propose a toast and pass round the orange juice afterwards
iii) Two: one to change the bulb and look henpecked and a second one to wear a purple beret and shake her umbrella until he gets it right
iv) Only one, so long as he conjugates it correctly.
vi) And for the traditionalists: CHANGE???

**i.e. not an awful lot...

*** I've realised that if you scan over the latter half of this post it looks as though it's all about BOOBS. 'Polish and British boobs are shifting distinctly to the centre-right'. In spite of all those babcia-owned bielizna stores. Don't worry, I'm on holiday from tomorrow. The system is suspended and normal, sensible service will resume shortly.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Gwiazdy tańczą na lodzie

Ever since I first even thought about coming to Poland, my inner lemming has been urging me to hurl myself over the great precipice that constitutes Winter Sports.
When I first mentioned 'snowboarding' to Car Guy, I was rather hoping that he would whisk me away to Zakopane and proceed to swoop down the slopes like James Bond in the beginning of From Russia With Love. Only without the cello and the pouting blonde chick.

- Do you ski?
- *nervous laughter*
- I thought all Polish families skiied?
- umm... I can... Why do you want to ski anyway??

Sensing a repeat of the dancefloor incident, I backed down.

However, he later confessed to knowing how to ice-skate. I suggested that this was because in the Good Old Days the Socialist authorities would pour water over the roads in winter so that children would have to skate to school, thus saving money on buses for the ministry of education. As revenge for my lack of sensitivity to the traumas of a 1980s childhood we duly went to the ice-rink.

There are two types of ice-rink in the world. The first kind start to sprout up outside shopping malls (Galeria Krakowska, the Rockefeller Center) and in parks (Błonia, Central Park) in the run-up to Christmas. They are full of wobbly occasional skaters, who've come after having a couple of post-work halves (Somerset House), and they often feature kiosks selling mulled wine, hot chocolate and so on (the one outside the Galeria has a Wedel 'Pijalnia czekolady'. It's very near the office, so I'm hoping it's not compulsory to skate before you're allowed to have chocolate...). This type of ice-rink is cutesy, festive, a little cheesy, and the music is soppy Christmas kitsch.
The second type is the Major Year-Round Ice Rink. Normally these are not such pleasant places. They tend to resemble an indoor football pitch combined with an aircraft hangar, and are often frequented by teenage boys (where do these guys come from? I have never met a teenage boy who would readily confess to a love of figure skating), who tear across the ice and slam into the barriers. The first time I went to one of these, aged around fifteen, the ice was evacuated at a certain point so that the staff could mop up several pints of blood (in Gillingham, take note).
Generally the music played is of the techno persuasion.
It is this second type of ice-rink that we went to.

I honestly thought it'd be ok, and that rollerblading would turn out to have been good training: alleviating my fear of slippery surfaces and so on.
Not so.
Although bemoaning lack of training and not having skated for upwards of 15 years (quick mental calculation), Car Guy quite happily managed a couple of easy laps while I was still plucking up the courage to let go of the handrail.

- See, you're getting better, he said after the next couple of laps, by which time I was about halfway round. We skated together for a bit.
- [in the same encouraging voice] Now you'll get overconfident and you'll end up on your arse.
Instantly I started to skid and grabbed at the side of the rink.

You really should learn how to stop now, was the comment a few laps later. I pointed out that I could stop, simply by not moving. And that given that I was travelling slightly slower than the pace of a Kefirek checkout queue, braking was really not a major issue for me. He responded by performing some swishy move and then skating backwards, to highlight my lack of proficiency.
At this point, there was a mysterious coded announcement and everyone starting skating in the opposite direction. Cue frantic sliding and windmilling movements on my part.

You will be pleased to know that we both survived the evening's exertions without falling over. The only major incident was a linguistic one: having learned how to say ice-rink I now have trouble distinguishing it from the word for refrigerator (ice and ice-cream are bad enough).
For example:
- Your dinner's in the ice-rink.*
But worse still:
- On Monday we spent two hours in the refrigerator. **

Thankfully it will soon be the holidays.

Oh and the title is the Polish equivalent of 'Strictly Come Dancing On Ice With Famous Pop Idols'. I don't think we'll be joining them any time soon.

*(twoja kolacja stoi na lodowisku).
(W poniedzałek byliśmy dwie godziny w lodówce).

Monday, 17 December 2007

Tree decorations

Pictures of the tree outside the office, as promised earlier. Although now there are fairy lights on it. My favourite is the existential reflective one at the bottom. Specially designed to reference French C19th Symbolism.
Enjoy. I'll write a proper post... sometime...

Saturday, 15 December 2007

British Christmas

To mark the end of term and the beginning of the festive season, the language school organized a special Christmas workshop for us, with seasonal tea and biscuits.

Naturally we started with a little festive vocab (albeit somewhat muffled by biscuit crumbs). This was an opportunity to clear up a few of the mysteries of Polish Christmas traditions. Such as how exactly does a twelve-course meal qualify as 'fasting' purely by dint of not featuring any meat?

Once this was all cleared up, it was time for 'a short presentation on customs in your country'.
Uh oh.
The snow is creeping its slushy way back into our lives, making people reluctant to leave their cosy homes in the evening, so we were few in number: a couple from Texas, a girl from Bulgaria, an American English teacher and me. Oh and three or four Poles who had been coerced into coming along after their English class finished.

I went last, and repeated a lot of the things that had already been said:

- We decorate the Christmas tree (yes, uh-huh); we go to church and sing carols (nods of recognition); we visit friends and give presents (right, right); on Christmas Day we have a huuuge lunch with turkey (mmm, yes);
- and, after lunch,
- yes?

- We switch on the television and listen to the Queen.

The Queen?

There was a politely interested silence, during which I could sense the others mentally backing away as they remembered I was an alien Brit with strange customs, not least of which was a bizarre attachment to the nation's favourite grandmother.

What does she say?

They were giving me that 'hmm... most interesting....' sort of look which makes you realise that you are splayed on a slide at the wrong end of the microscope.

I tried to explain: - She gives a sort of presentation (I don't have a very wide vocabulary yet).
- What, like a speech? What does she talk about?
- I don't know: the previous year, the future, that sort of thing.

- How interesting...

Friday, 14 December 2007

The Amazing and Wonderful Obwarzanki Lady

I now LOVE the Bad Obwarzanki Lady. The thaw began a while ago, when she offered me some helpful advice about the flavours of different apples, and I was delighted to have actually understood her.
From her kiosk she sells the most delicious sok jabłkowo-korzenny (spiced apple juice). It's a kind of pressed apple juice with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and the only thing I can really liken it to is New England apple cider.* If you combine it with a drożdżówka z śliwkami (plum bun- not a pastry), it tastes like Christmas.
I bought a bottle of the stuff this morning and didn't have the mandatory 5gr change.
- Don't worry. It's a bargain. You can give it to me next time.

- . . . *totally speechless*

NB. When I return to England for the hols next Saturday people will hate me in supermarket queues and at the bar. In Poland, change is worth more than the gold it is named after. The grumpy tattoo girl in the shop next door always says something like 'it'd be really cool if you could find the 8 grosze**'. Woe betide the customer who doesn't have change: floored in one fell swoop by The Mega-Watt Grumpy-Girl Scowl.

It seems that the concept of having a float behind a till is simply non-existent. Maybe checkout girls are rationed in the amount of shrapnel they're allowed to fling around.
I've learnt to prepare in advance. Now, as I'm approaching the till, I start fumbling in my purse and the bottom of my bag for change and counting out tiny brassy coins. Combine this with the moherowe baret and I'm instantly well on my way to fully-fledged babcia-hood. (Not to mention the fact that last Sunday the inevitable finally happened and I pulled out the 'super-octava' stop instead of the 'Flet minor' at the oh-so-appropriate 'Lord have Mercy'. Cue much tightening of trousers in the congregation. For those of you who don't speak music, that was really really funny.)
Incidentally the dearth of change never affects guys. Car guy always seems to have handfuls of the stuff jangling in his pockets. I have no idea how he gets through airport security. I think said pocket must contain a secret mint spewing out 2gr pieces. Next time I go to the supermarket I shall wear his trousers.

*nb, in the States 'soft' cider is non-alcoholic. I know, I struggled with the concept too.
** I'm sorry, I've forgotten how to conjugate it. Forgive me...

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

oops teeheeheehee wheeeeeee.....

Last night I went for some more Tandem action...

... and ended up liaising between some very confused (and fortunately anglophone) German and Polish students and an alcoholic socialist from Toulouse...

.... (no, really, what is the difference between la philosophie littéraire and la philosophie de la poésie?* And just how much socioloshizzle can one language geek take in the name of Native Speaker Practice?) ...

As I made my excuses- getting up early for work tomorrow- and left, I heard him saying Ah c'est ça la mentalité libérale: le travail, toujours le travail...
He's right of course: having escaped to Central Europe I ought to quit my job, write some poetry and start a band (

The private doctor I saw last week told me she was unable to refer me for physiotherapy etc since only state doctors can do this (there are 84-ish of them in Kraków as opposed to upwards of 200 private clinics).
To compensate, she prescribed what Wikipedia reliably informs me are horse tranquillizers, to be combined with muscle relaxants (previously used in the vicinity of the Amazon river for dipping poison-tipped paralytical arrows).
I tried them out this morning: I was dressed and ready for work before I took them. After taking them, it was another half hour before I left the flat, since I first had to knock my tea over, fall over the clothes dryer, lose my socks and drop my keys. I felt as though I'd had krupnik for breakfast. Upon arrival at the office, something was not quite right: I realised my sweater was on back to front.

On the plus side, I can now quite safely put away a couple of grzane wino on the Rynek at lunchtime without my boss noticing the difference...

* Send in your thèse, antithèse and synthèse on 15 sheets of A4 and then report to les Deux Magots for Gitanes, manif et guitare...

Monday, 10 December 2007


Someone has hung baubles on the conifers outside the office window. I promise to supply a picture as soon as I remember to bring my camera to work.

December is a confusing month in Poland. The sixth is Święta Mikołaj (sorry about the spelling and/or grammar), or St Nicholas' day. This is an occasion for anticipatory present-giving, which I was not aware of. Imagine the horror of being a Polish parent in December. Twice the agony of queueing in Hamley's (whatever the equivalent is here) for a Thunderbirds 'Tracy Island', a My Little Pony Dream Castle and so on*. Birthdays will almost certainly be banished until January.

Generally, there seems to be a healthy separation of Christmas and Advent here, although, as with Halloween, Anglo-Saxon elements are starting to filter through. Traditionally, you shouldn't decorate your Christmas tree (choinka, for the language geeks) until Wigilia (Christmas Eve), but logistics mean that lots of families now put them up a day or two earlier. I mean, who can face the whole tree routine (braving Homebase on a Sunday afternoon, dragging the tree into the house without treading on the dog, Is it straight? Is it leaning?- trying to follow the cryptic instructions for screwing it into the base without spilling soil everywhere, where on earth are we going to plug in the fairy lights??) on top of last-minute visits to godparents, turkey-stuffing, crib services (even when your kids are all well into their twenties), present-wrapping, midnight mass, not to mention dropping into the pub for a swift half or four to escape it all (one of the advantages of having kids who are well into their twenties) ...

Here is a timeline:

01 Nov: Chocolate Santas appear next to the tills in Empik

10-ish Nov: Lights go up in Galeria Kazimierz

30 Nov: Choinka outside main post office

01 Dec: Choinka on Rynek Głowny

05 Dec: St Nicholas Market opens on Rynek.

And here are some pretty pictures:

*I realise how much this sentence dates me.

Thursday, 6 December 2007


Today I learnt something new about working in an office in Poland. Our firm is small so we have an accountant who my boss visits once a month so that she can devise fun things for us to do.
This often involves filling out forms in Polish, which is another one of my favourite pastimes. Thank goodness I have an active imagination, or I'd never be able to make any sense of them.

Apparently, every Polish firm should have a daily register (to record absences and so on), which must be signed in person by every member of staff every day. The firm has been officially up and running for a year or so, and we have yet to start signing the register. As a consequence, my boss returned from the accountant's world of wonders with a plastic file of sheets decorated with a charming dual-column table motif. My name was at the head of one column and his at the other. Actually I have mislead you: there is a third column for the director's signature. This means that my boss's autograph will appear twice on every row.
This would be all well and good (I don't mind signing things. Especially credit card slips- Galeria Kazimierz, bring it on...), except that we have to sign retrospectively as well.

That is to say, we have to sign in for every day we've missed so far.

I have been here eight months.

And it's not just a question of allotting one morning to sit down and sign the whole month away, oh no. Woe betide the firm whose register is signed off in advance when the Inspectors come around! (I'd be worried - Inspectors in these parts are terrifying).

I suggested the best solution would be to allocate a special 'signing day' and then get a doctor's note to take the next three days off sick with repetitive strain injury. This was surprisingly well received. I'm starting to see how the system works.

Although it wouldn't work that well for me: I still have to register with a non-private doctor. But that's a story for another post I think...