Saturday, 26 April 2008


... I remember that I am a girl and not a language-acquisition machine.

Then I go into a shop with clothes in and take armfuls of pretty cotton summer dresses and cool linen slacks and things that I would never dream of wearing like little tailored shorts and shirts with darts and tunics and I go into the przymierzalnia and spend half an hour playing dressing up and despairing over my strange and disproportionate figure which looks skinny from one angle and chubby from another.

Is there any British woman who can manage the fitting rooms with any real success?

If you pick everything in size 38, for example, it'll all appear several sizes too large and you'll look like an extra on Little Orphan Annie. Yet you know that if you'd picked out 36 it would have clung to all the wrong places, causing angry red welts and handfuls of pudge to squidge out over waistbands.

Petite Anglaise frequently bemoans the state of her thighs. I am certain that she is as slim as a pipecleaner. The minute you move to France, you become elephantine. Simply by entering Promod or Jennyfer you inflate from a respectable UK size 10 to a 42-44 European size. Don't even go near the front of the rack, your tent-wear is to be found hidden far far out of sight.
Upon moving from Paris to Poland, I lost around 10lbs in imaginary lard around the general upper leg area...
Polish women are only the third skinniest in Europe, as opposed to the French in first place. So that's all right then.

Equally, on return visits to the UK the reverse effect takes place. Since good old Marks and Spencer shook up their measurements, British clothes sizes have inflated beyond all expectation. This makes you feel wonderful when you realise you can squeeze into a size 8. Then you get over-confident and try your luck with a pair of pre-pubescent-skinny jeans at TopShop.


I've also noticed that Polish women tend not to be awfully tall. This doesn't explain why shops produce trousers that are always several inches too long. Is it reasonable to expect the customer to invest in a pair of nine-inch stilettos before they can wear their purchases in public without tripping over?

Then there's styling. I've been a penniless student/stagiaire/freelancer over the past few years, so fashion has passed me by somewhat.
But, from what I can make out, the predominant rule is to wear your waistband as low as possible, and as tight as possible, so that parts of what are rightfully your hips spill out over the top (and so it rubs when you attempt anything athletic, and vaulting over farm gates/climbing in through windows becomes impossible). To cover up this disaster in the general flanks area, you must wear a long top (also to cover the belly fat pushed up over the waist band of your hipsters). This will have a waist approximately right under your boobs, á la Elizabeth Bennet, producing a fetching maternity-wear effect. Who cares, at least no-one will see your beer gut. Plus people will give up their seats for you on the tram. Win-win situation.

Down to foot level. Shoes are a perennial problem, particularly if you're an ex-pat who (in theory) has to fly home in a month with Easyjet baggage allowances. I'd love to buy the kind of pretty high-heeled sandals you only really wear once.
The trouble is, I actually walk to places a lot. And I don't like getting blisters.
Fortunately, we're still in a transitional season, and you can just about still get away with calf-high boots under your summer skirt. Tights, incidentally, are a waste of time. Buy them too flimsy, and you've put your hand through them the first trip you make to the loo. The only kind worth having are the ribbed, woolly type your mother used to send you to playgroup in. Perfect.

In any case, I'm not buying clothes any more. Any spare cash hanging around is going to be saved up for flights to places with interpreting purpose, or for loan repayments.

I intend to bypass fashion altogether and start a new trend for pyjamas during the day time. I think I'm onto a winner.

p.s. This morning, feeling rather the worse for wear after a Japanese 'cultural evening' (cue cartoon on the art of sushi-making... when I can see the paper again...), I sat down for a moment on a doorstep to clear my head. Unfortunately, a rather scruffy-looking man mistook me for a tramp and started haranguing me.

It may be time to consider the restoration of my sartorial elegance after all.


Last weekend, I found myself out with a large group of francophone foreigners, very obviously not of white Polish origin. It wasn't long before we were engaged in the nigh-impossible task of trying to find somewhere where ten people can sit down around a table on a Saturday night in Kazimierz.

We approached a likely looking place on ul. Wąska. There were posters in the window advertising a band playing live that night. One or two of us took a closer look, read the details and gave a wry smile:
- You know what, this might not work out so well.

The bouncer, seeing a large group of foreigners and clocking Indian and black faces among them folded his arms and shook his head:
- Not tonight guys. You don't want to go in there.
One of the group, a tall black guy from Martinique, hadn't seen the poster:
- Why not? Why can't we go in?
Bouncer: - What are you nuts? You want to go in there? Hit the road, go on.

We made tracks.

Lined up for that night was Skrewdriver: one of the first Nazi punk groups...

Can somebody explain to me - perhaps because I'm foreign and I don't understand these things - why precisely in this city we invite neo-Nazi musicians to play just metres away from empty synagogues, faded Hebrew inscriptions and other signs of vanished Jewish life?

Friday, 25 April 2008

The Great Escape

(I've done it! I've quit my stable office job to flit around Europe as a volunteer interpreter!


The Great Escape


The editors of this blog wish to apologise for the recent and continued reckless behaviour of the author.
The above individual has quit a perfectly good stable job to flit around Europe as a volunteer interpreter, in between bumming around Kraków to learn - of all things - Polish.

We find this eccentric conduct most reprehensible and wish to distance ourselves from such an irresponsible character.

Heedless of all sensible advice, the author will be flying to Paris under cover of darkness on Sunday night.

We have also heard rumours that she has started to play in a band.

Upon her return we are going to hide her keys until she promises to comport herself in a decent and commonsensical manner.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Pożegnanie z Krakowem

I am attempting to postpone the above...

... for the reasons specified below:

So if anyone wants English lessons, or a three-month couch surfer... you know who to call...

Random acts of Tourist Rescue before Breakfast

This morning the muesli tasted even more sourly, dustily revolting than Mr Nestle's usual efforts, and a second mouthful confirmed my suspicions.

The milk was off.

Had my flatmates been leaving the fridge door open? We're talking about two blonde art students in their (very) early twenties* who possess some cosmic ability to de-magnetize cupboard/fridge/oven door catches, leaving a trail of swinging portals in their respective wakes.

I spend my life banging my shins on chipboard.

[Now's not the time, but don't let me forget to write a post on the mysteries of young Polish girls from the country. They're not like us. For example, shortly after my old flatmates moved out and the new ones moved in, filmy twee curtains, which wouldn't look out of place in my Granny's flat, appeared over all the windows...I've heard these are called 'firanki'...]

I skipped the coffee and muesli and decided to brave the bad obwarzanki ladies that brood in the underpass by Galeria Krakowska. After short deliberation and much stooping (can anyone tell me why the hatch is always positioned around upper stomach/lower boob height? It is particularly hard to bend yourself down to this level and then try to catch the attention of the squat being glowering on the other side) I emerged bearing my plum pastry prize and made to go to the office.

Near the kiosk stood a young couple, both red-haired, and clearly not Polish. They were looking doubtfully at the pastries on display. The guy made a tentative attempt on the soft drinks fridge.

- Usually they do it for you.
I offered.
- Do you want a hand?

They looked at each other and then nodded why not.

Yes! My first Random Act of Tourist Rescue. From here it's just a short step to booth interpretation. Today the bakery, tomorrow the Council of Europe.

- Right, what do you want? I asked, briskly

- uh... I guess two croissants...
- Do you know what's in them? I reckon it's chocolate... hang on...
'Prosze Pani czy rogaliki są z czekoladą?
The woman assented impatiently.
- How many: two? Two.

- And... said the guy carefully ... 'An Ob-var-zhan-ek'
- Oooh well done! Dwa razy obwarzanek (i think actually they only wanted one. ah well). Nie nie, uhh... jeszcze kurosant.

- Would you get a bloody move on there's a queue building up!
Said the Bad Obwarzanki Lady crossly. Or something like that anyway.

- Przepraszam Panią ale...

- (to the guy): did you want water?
- yes, duzy woda, said the guy, who was getting into the spirit of things.

The lady behind the glass looked as though she might erupt at any moment.

- Eight zloty thirty; I said 'uhh Bon appetit'

and beat a hasty retreat.

Next I made for the newsagent's to get some fruit juice**. There was a young Indian guy at the counter trying to buy a tram ticket.

- Normalny, said the lady behind the counter: 'nor-mal'.

The guy nodded, looked embarassed, and handed over the cash.

Only then the lady launched into a huge spiel in Polish about where exactly to go, how to exit the underpass (not as simple as you'd think... it's under a crossroads by the station and there are at least four exits), where to cross the road i tak dalej ad infinitum.

Her victim reached for his phrasebook.

- She's telling you where the tram stop is. I butted in, starting to feel over-confident. 'Do you know it?'
- Yeah yeah, said the guy, and legged it while the going was good.

I paid for the juice and decided it was probably time to go to work after all.

*And yet we can't get anyone to fix the boiler.
**Blackcurrant actually. It's brilliant. Nice and sour. If you slip a shot of vodka into it you can get someone wasted and they'll never notice a thing.

Monday, 21 April 2008

No ice-cream in the mountains

Browsing the BBC languages site, I was relieved to find that I am not the only person who makes hilarious mistakes in Polish:

"Shiraz - i wino..."

My current favourite is to mix up 'upstairs' (na gorze) and 'in the mountains' (na gory). [I think...]

And let's not forget Tatanka bez lodów. It's much nicer that way (ice-cream doesn't mix so well with the apple juice).

And when we had Polish classes in Lea I would regularly arrive and say what I thought was Good Evening to the secretary - who would promptly collapse in giggles since 'Dobry wieczór' and 'Do widzenia' are awfully easy to confuse.

I think that's all but maybe anonymous Polish contributors can pick me up on a few things...

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Radio Nostalgie

It's cool to live alone. It's very hard to do in Poland. There's a book written by American Poles which says you know you're Polish when... you try to entertain forty people in fifteen metres squared...

When I first went to France I lived alone. It was the first time. I went a little mad. Perhaps I wouldn't have gone quite so nuts if I'd not had the radio permanently tuned to Radio Nostalgie. There was dancing. Here are some of my favourites: (good luck)

Serge Gainsbourg: Elisa

Elisa - cute. Check out the British accent on Ms Birkin. Pire que le mien...
'Cherche-moi des poux!!'

Pierre Bachelet, Vingt Ans:

I'm the one with the sunglasses on the right.
'J'avais vingt ans eternellement' 'C'etait des vacances en des chevaux!'

Edith Piaf, Milord:

'Laissez-vous faire Milord... venez dans mon royaume...'

Uhh... the song about 'ogórki'...

I know that rabbit!!

and finally Mme Sarko

Slightly concerned by the guy with the candle in the background.

Thanks for listening. It's been a good nostalgie trip for me.

I wonder what Polish songs I will be looking up on YouTube in two or three years time...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Here to Help

On an impulse, I interrupted my path to the checkout at Alma and headed to the back of the store to see if there was anything interesting on the salad counter. (It's a thrill a minute chez pinolona these days).

After pondering for several moments over various chopped things in mayonnaise, I plumped for something like 'sałatka rubenska' (it had ogórki in it, and I'm a fan. I might have mentioned this).

The woman behind the counter shook her head.

- Oh no, I don't think you want that.

I was a bit taken aback. Had I not said what I thought I'd said? (this happens often).

- Why not? I asked. 'What's wrong with it?'

- It's just not very good.

- Ok, what about that one, next to it?

- Uhh ... no that's not really so great either.

I felt discouraged.

- Which one is good then?

- Oh... pretty much all of them... Except that one. Try potato salad, egg salad....
Spatula in hand, she indicated several different trays loaded with obscure shapes slopping around in oceans of mayonnaise.

- Uhh... actually I'm not really so keen on mayonnaise...

The woman behind the counter looked understandably stumped for a moment (mayonnaise plays a major role in Polish salad culture) and then pointed me towards the tuna.

Tuna and rice. It seemed like a nice, safe idea so I relented.

Thank goodness for Polish customer service, saving me from my otherwise kamikaze appetite for weird Slavic stuff in unknown substances ...

Sunday, 13 April 2008


Dziś zrobiłam moją pierwszą awanturę w sklepie... po polsku.

Walking to school after church I wanted a bottle of water, so I ducked into a newsagent's on Bracka and picked up 50cl of Kropla Beskidu niegazowana.

- Two złote

I handed over a fifty-złotych note, having only just been to the cashpoint.

- 'I can't take that,' said the guy; 'don't you have two złote?'

I left the bottle on the counter and walked out in high dudgeon.

Three paces down the street I stopped, too furious to go on.
I simply didn't have the time or inclination to spend twenty minutes traipsing around the main square looking for a civilized retailer with the requisite small change.
The accumulated effect of almost thirteen months spent scrabbling for pennies, counting out and totting up those tiny little bronze coins, and being stuck in queues behind old ladies doing exactly the same thing boiled up inside me.

Summoning all the righteous indignation (not to mention vocabulary) I could muster, I turned on my heel and marched back into the shop.

- If you're not going to keep change in the till, you won't get any customers!
I challenged him.
The guy gave a wry smile.
- No, I don't have any customers. It's Sunday. The banks are closed. I can't get change.

Now I'm sorry to make the 'what sort of a barbaric country is this?' - UK comparison all over again, but honestly! In Britain, shops keep enough change in the float for the WHOLE weekend!
Because we know the banks are closed on a Sunday!
As a student checkout girl I would have got into all kinds of trouble for not replenishing my stocks of shrapnel in good time.

Shopkeepers of Poland! We are in the EU now! And particularly, excuse me, if your shop happens to be within spitting distance of the Rynek - which is always crawling with tourists bearing big crispy 100 złotych notes fresh from the Kantor.

I exploded at him.

I can't remember exactly what I said, but I'm pretty certain a lot of the endings were wrong. It definitely included the following:

- I am the customer! The customer is right! I know it's Sunday! I just went to the bank! Yes I UNDERSTAND 'zamknięte' means 'closed'!

We parted on extremely poor terms.

I bought water elsewhere.

And finally:

Extensive long-term research has shown that in Poland it is possible to obtain two different kinds of lavatory paper:
i) wild or savage paper: thick-grained, grey, scratchy and probably a close relative of corrugated cardboard
ii) domesticated paper: pastel-coloured, two-layered, disintegrating, cloyingly scented tissue.

Researchers say these results may be significant in the light of recent observations on the courting rituals of the classic Polish asshole...

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Love Part II

Talking with girl friends this weekend, love and relationships were the main topic of discussion.

[Guys, this is what women talk about All The Time. Be afraid.]

I'm full of admiration for people who can give relationship advice with any degree of certainty. I'm always rather at a loss to comment. Over the past year, I've realised that I have about as much chance of controlling this area of my life as I do preventing a piano from falling on my head. What is the point of following carefully-reasoned advice when you never know who's lifting a 9-foot Bosendorfer twenty storeys above you?
The only reasonable course of action is to keep walking forward and looking straight in front of you, and maybe if you become aware of a piano-shaped shadow hanging over your head, RUN.

Is craaaiiiizy, no?

Why is it that the factor which forms the basis of most major life decisions (which country to live in, who to move in with, even what career to pursue) is completely beyond our control by any rational means?!

You might meet the perfect guy, who ticks all the boxes, fulfils all the criteria, looks exactly like the kind of guy you're normally attracted to, and yet cast-iron guaranteed you'll fall for the guy you never thought you would, who's geeky and funny-looking and completely inappropriate.

The piano factor also means that one day the person you are crazy about will turn around and say

'I don't want you any more'

and you will hurt more than you imagined possible and be totally powerless to make it stop (or to stop it from happening again and again, for that matter).

Masakra Panowie.

I'm going to invent a cure. Without a science background, I realise this will be a struggle, but seriously, Something Must Be Done (that's been said before, hasn't it?). Otherwise, pianos will continue to fall, and people will continue to be crushed and to base their lives on a series of completely senseless and irrational events.

p.s. There's a super new posh Italian restaurant in ul. Kupa, run by Sardinians. So I'm hoping the Piano of Lurrrve falls on me soon, preferably in the form of a Swiss private wealth manager...

Friday, 4 April 2008


- Sit here, said the opthalmologist, - Head back

as she tipped a quantity of some unknown liquid into each eye.

- The first hour will be the worst - she said -

but after three hours or so your vision should return to normal ...

... Wait! I said, blinking helplessly ... Hang on! I've got to go back to work...

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


I speak good the Polish. I learn heem from a book.

The problem is, I don't always understand heem very well.

And this is where we enter the Denial Phase.

The Denial Phase comes when you've spent a year living in a place and making all the effort in the world to learn the language. You learn to like the food, you get hip and hang with the local kids, you drink your tea with raspberry syrup in winter, you laugh at that stupid advert with John Cleese... You can do languages. You are the interpreter (heaven help us).
You come to hate it when people speak to you in English. It makes you feel like a stupid foreigner, who hasn't been working their little cotton socks off all year to get their head round what is actually a mind-bogglingly complicated language. You don't understand everything, but you're damned if you're going to let them know that!

Below are two classic examples of the Denial Phase in the process of linguistic acquisition.

Scenario 1:
On Saturday a friend asked me- if I happened to be passing through town- to book tickets for the evening screening of The Bucket List* at Ars cinema.** I duly queued up and asked the guy for three tickets. Usually the trailers give the film's original title, so I always have to check the Polish title on the listings before I book. I hesitated a fraction of a second too long, and my pronunciation was just a little bit too dodgy, and the guy answered me in English:
- How many?
I snarled at him.
- Dobrze rozumiem po polsku!
He looked at me, taken aback, and continued in Polish (in spite of my mistakes), albeit very cautiously, as one does when there are only a few inches of reinforced plastic to separate one from a raving madwoman.
And he gave me a student discount: another bonus- everyone assumes young foreigners are here to study...

Scenario 2:
I sneak home for lunch on Monday and decide to pick up an obwarzanek from the stand on the corner of Starowiślna and Westerplatte. I order, the lady goes to fish out the required baked item with that metal prong thing, and as she bends down, she asks me a question, to which I give a neutral reply, having not caught what she said. She puts the bare pretzel in that little dish thing on top of the stand, and I go to fish out a plastic bag from the packet next to it.
- Ah, but I already asked you if you wanted a plastic bag.
- I know, but...
- Ah ha, you didn't understand (she looked so smug at this point)
- Actually I understand perfectly well! I said, crossly. 'There was a tram passing at the time and I didn't hear!'
- ah you didn't understand... (she was still tutting away to herself)
- There was A TRAM!

And the obwarzanek was stale. Which was somehow very fitting.

*A very sentimental film. But not as bad as Mała Wielka Miłość. From now on I am only going to see movies where people get stabbed violently. I have high hopes for Nadzieja.

** Pronounced the way you think it is. Sometimes hard to suppress the urge to follow it up with 'Feck! Drrrink! Gurrrls!'.