Thursday, 28 May 2009

... tylko we Lwowie: Lviv part II

Rynek Główny, Lviv, shortly before seven in the morning:

Picture the scene: early-morning sunshine floods the cobbled market square. Barely a soul is in sight. The only sound is the swish-swish of elderly street-sweepers, clad in neon tabards and wielding I-kid-you-not actual broomsticks.

Chairs are stacked upside-down on top of tables on cafe terraces, and no bar or restaurant shows any sign of opening its doors before the clock strikes nine.

Two Polish guys and one British girl stand at one corner of the square, with rucksacks, staring up at the kamienice and blinking in the sunlight.

- Hej! Do you know why they only have three windows?

A slim, dark-haired man in a threadbare jumper, asks us conversationally, in Ukrainian. He has the weathered tan of someone who spends a more time than most people outdoors.

- Could you repeat please?
- Ah, you're Polish. Do you know why some of the buildings have only three windows and others six?
- No, but...

He picks up speed, gesturing extravagantly and peppering his speech with Ukrainian expressions which I am unable to understand.
... did you know there used to be a tax on windows and balconies, so the more windows you built, the more wealthy your family would appear... Come on, come on, this way!

Our Lwowian gentleman of leisure leads us off the main square down a side street. I hesitate, but one of the guys gestures to me to follow - it's ok.

On the left, we pass a bar, which I later learn is called Gas Lamp. Sticking out of the wall is a bronze statue of a man sitting beside a desk, with a spare chair.
- Look! Sit down, take pictures!

Before we can stop him, our new friend has crossed the street and is standing at one of the big wooden gates leading to a Lviv courtyard. He presses the code and a small door clicks open.
- Come in! Come in! Look!
He opens up a small hatch in the wall to reveal an old iron electricity box, dirt-encrusted and laced with cobwebs. The embossed letters read: 'Własność Miejskiej Elektrowni'.
- Polski! Look! Polish!

Obediently we take photos. Suddenly, a lady in overalls bursts out of the courtyard and shoos us angrily back out of the door. As we trip over the kerb, our guide points down. We peer at the gutter.
- Polish drains! Look! Take pictures!

Before we know it, he's urging us down the street again, further into the cobbled heart of Lviv's town centre, to a small crossroads, where he stops and points up at the tall town house on the opposite corner.
- Look, 'rudy kot', czerwony kot: see the Masonic signs.
We squint up at the building and note pentacles on the wrought-iron balcony. I am sure there are more Masonic signs to be picked out, because our friend expands at great length, but I am unable to understand the wild swerves of his fast Polish, which careens in and out of the Ukrainian language.

Eventually he pauses for breath and looks back at us, shyly, a strange canny look in his eye:
- I don't suppose Państwo would find it in themselves to make a small contribution to a mere humble...

We slip him a couple of notes.

Just for the entertainment value, he was worth it.

to be continued. Even more...

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Wschód słońca - Lviv part I

Health warning: This post is not recommended for anyone answering to the description of 'Pinolona's Mum'. Any such readers are advised that... - oh look over there, the kettle's boiling!

Ukraine-Poland border, some time between 2 and 4 am:

The night bus to Lviv has been waiting at the border for approximately eleven years. Suddenly and painfully the cabin lights snap on.

Pani Ukrainian Border Guard slowly makes her way up the aisle of the bus, carrying a stack of passports in one hand, systematically staring each passenger hard in the eyes, scrutinizing the passport photo, and glaring once again at the unfortunate traveller, before finally handing back the document.

She reaches my seat, and looks at me long and hard. Then she looks at my passport again, and looks back at me for what seems like an age. Although I have nothing to declare and absolutely nothing to hide - that I can remember - I start to feel nervous.

- Okulary!

She asks me to remove my glasses, in heavily Ukrainian-influenced Polish that I find hard to understand. I never wear contact lenses when travelling and I never wear glasses when having my photo taken, so I suppose I bring these things upon myself.

Pani Ukrainian Border Guard stares at me again, and back at the photo.

- Now the fringe!

In the photo I don't have a fringe. In real life I do. I suppose that is to be expected as well. My driving licence has a fringe. Obediently I push back the offending tresses.

Pani Ukrainian Border Guard frowns, concentrating hard.

- Now smile! Like in the photo!

It's all too much. I begin to giggle.

- Date of birth!

Now I don't know if you've ever tried to quote your date of birth in Polish at four in the morning. It's not the sort of thing that just trips off the tongue.

Suddenly I realise that I am a foreign girl with a funny accent, who can't even conjugate her own birthday, travelling across the border at night in the company of two Polish men. I would be suspicious of me too! Maybe I should be! Maybe I have done something wrong after all! I let slip another nervous giggle.

- Why is your passport so old? Why did you change it in 2001?

I try to explain that I used to be on my Mum's passport, and then I had my own for five years, and then I had to get a ten-year one, but she seems unconvinced.

- Repeat your date of birth!

I make slightly less of a hash of it this time, and remember to use genitive instead of locative.

- Dowod osobisty!
- umm... prawo jazdy?

I'm hoping she'll accept my driving licence as a personal ID card.

-Nie! Nie ma Pani dowodu?

You see - I try to explain - in the UK we don't use ID cards. We just don't have them.

-But what is your ID?

Well... my passport.

- No! That's your international ID. What do you use inside the country?

- We don't have them. Nie ma dowodów! Nie potrzebujemy.

At this point the Poles begin to chuckle. How can a British girl, in this part of the world, explain that she simply doesn't need to carry a personal ID card when she pops down the road for a pint of milk? For a brief moment I feel an unfamiliar flush of national pride.
I hand over my driving licence. Pani Ukrainian Border Guard examines it, compares it to my seven-year-old passport photo and - still appearing unconvinced - finally agrees to let it drop.

As she moves on to the seat behind mine, I try not to look at the pistol tucked into the back of her belt.


Ukraine-Poland border, some - considerable - time after 4 am:

The bus finally pulls out of no-man's land and -somewhat jerkily - swings back onto the road.

We push back the curtains and a wan grey light seeps into the coach.

Rolling Ukrainian pastures stretch as far as the eye can see and the rising sun blushes shyly through the dove-soft clouds.

To be continued...

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The modern young woman's guide to emergencies. Part 4: bus tickets

Overheard in the changing rooms at the salsa school:

- So, you've got your ticket [to Lviv] then?
Pino: - Yep! Right here!
rummages in rucksack
- definitely, somewhere in here...
starts to remove objects from bag
right at the bottom, here...
takes out black-bound WHSmith diary, groaning at the seams: diary exhales cloud of old ATM receipts and email addresses on fast-food napkins, but no bus ticket
just a second, maybe it's at the back somewhere

not Pino: - You do have it, right? I mean, I gave it to you... we're all adults, so I mean I thought it would be ok.

Pino: No, absolutely, I have it Right Here...
- maybe it's in my other bag
tries hard to disguise Serious Doubts
I'm normally very responsible, I don't normally lose things (liar)

not Pino: I thought you had a different bag with you last night?

Pino: Yes, that's right, absolutely, it must be in that one...
not convincing anyone

... only... I don't want to worry you but... this morning I definitely cleared out some old papers from my bag. And then... I put them in the bin (train of thoughts spirals out of control) and then... I Took The Bin Out!
- Excuse-me-I-have-to-go!

On tram:

Pino's mind: Did I take the bin out? Wasn't the communal bin outside almost empty this morning? That means they'd only just collected the rubbish! That means they won't have come for today's yet! So there's a chance I might find it! Interrupted by visions of self diving head-first into communal bin to retrieve lost ticket.

Fifteen minutes later:

Stumbles up stairs, drops keys, opens door, crashes headlong into bedroom, spots handbag under pile of back issues of Polityka...

Ticket is in bag!!


[Oh Crap I haven't packed yet!!!!]

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Wycieczka na Wschód

Elements of a perfect school field trip:

- Starts at very-early-o'clock in the morning: lots of students standing outside school eating pretend croissants by 7 Days. Several people nearly get left behind.
- Although our teacher instructs us very emphatically to stay awake and look out of the window, we all fall asleep almost as soon as the coach starts moving.
- There is approximately one public toilet in the whole of Małopolska.
- Someone spills orange juice on the coach and the driver goes ballistic, almost abandoning us in Biecz (wherever that is).
- It is fun to climb up bell-towers in wooden churches!
- It is not fun to eat only ice-cream all day and pee in a bush.
- Polish people who do guided tours of churches speak veryfastindeed.
- Predictably, when you visit a historic church, the caretaker will try to encourage you to get married there.
- Trying to find a place to eat in a group of eleven will take forever. Add an extra half-hour to forever for each additional person.


A Big Polish house, like what they build in the country. Looks as though it only has three levels instead of the customary four.

Inside the synagogue at Bobowa, former centre of Hassidic Jewish life, now a place of pilgrimage.

Wooden church of St Michael the Archangel in Binarowa, dating from about 1500. Gosh that's old.

The paintings inside date from the 16th century

Vestry painting

Painted interior of the church

Cerkiew (Orthodox church) in Kwiaton, former settlement of the Lemkos or Rusyns (cue lots of angry comments from Real Łemkowie because I got it wrong again). Slavic cultural history is cool.

Inside the church - which smelt strongly of Ronseal wood preservative. Now re-consecrated as a Catholic church, since the original Eastern Orthodox congregations have long since moved on.

An Orthodox lapidarium - no actual graves, just the tombstones, which were rescued and restored. The Łemkowie and their families are long gone and the gravestones were rescued from various centres of Łemko or Rusyn culture and are currently undergoing restoration. The inscriptions are in Cyrillic and the language is apparently a cross between Ukrainian and Polish. It's fascinating. I wonder who they were, where they went, and where their descendants are now...

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Kryzys tożsamości

One field trip to the eastern depths of Malopolska* and some new acquaintances later and I've decided to take a more philosophical attitude to the whole Polish learning process. After all, what does being good at something mean? It means being useful to other people. And life's too short to be useful. Somebody pass me a cold beer.

Talking of not being useful, I have been attending a literature course.

I started attending the extra classes because translators and interpreters should always be aware of the intricate cultural references underlying any text and/or speech as well as reading the news in four different languages Every Day even the bits that aren't really interesting... oh all right, I needed extra credits to get my diploma, and I quite like reading.

The course is called 'Historia literatury polskiej XX wieku', and the entire thing is in Polish. Our lecturer is small and voluble and given to twisting out direct, challenging questions with an ironic smile. I suspect he despises us for hurling ourselves against the unforgiving edifice of the Polish literary opus. Or he pities us for our naive belief that we will ever penetrate Polish culture.

On the other hand, there are a lot of pretty Hungarian girls in the class so maybe he's just in it for the banter.

In any case, this semester has been a traumatic struggle through the twentieth century, starting with war poetry, the Warsaw Uprising, moving on through the Holocaust via Tadeusz Borowski's Proszę państwa do gazu before finally tripping up on the hermetic prose of Witold Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk.

This particular volume is only 120 pages long. I am on page 28. This is after three weeks. I couldn't explain exactly why I didn't understand it: most of the words themselves seemed clear enough. But the paragraph-long sentences, the stream-of-conciousness style dialogue, and a disproportionate proliferation of words ending in -ż made it harder than usual to decipher.

In desperation, we decided to go and watch the play, conveniently showing at Stary Teatr last week. The goal: to understand as much as possible, bearing in mind that the actual content of the dialogue probably isn't all that important.

This is what happened:
Act I: Gombrowicz (the main character, not the man himself) on stage with suitcases. Deckchairs. We understand that he has moved to Argentina. We also understand that war has broken out in Poland. So far so good. Although maybe not so good on the war front.
Gombrowicz asks for money from three confusing old men who toast each other a lot, plus one diplomat.
Gombrowicz has to get in with famous and decadent Argentinian writer with a penchant for attractive young boys.
Some other things happen. A lot of people are on stage, talking fast in Polish.
Mild nudity.

Curtain down

Act II:
We lose the plot completely, but there is a sparkly curtain plus lots of topless boys in white trousers, so it doesn't seem to matter so much.

I gave up and asked a Polish friend to explain it to me.

- Actually, that's an interesting question: there isn't really a plot as such, the main point is Gombrowicz playing with language. Why on earth do they want you to read that?!

I showed up at literature class on Tuesday afternoon spoiling for a fight.

The lecture consisted of a snap survey on who had read the book, who had been to the theatre and what did we understand. Having established that the answer to this was 'very little', our lecturer went on to explain the plot and its relation to the concept of Polish national identity. He then turned to one of the Hungarian girls.

- What does it mean to be Hungarian?
She answered, and the question went round the class, while I did some very quick thinking. Not quick enough though.

- So... what does it mean to be British?
- No, wlasnie, nie wiem.
- fife o-clock?
- no... nobody drinks tea at five.
- the Queen?
- ...
- well, why didn't you just fill in the Channel, instead of going to all the trouble of building a tunnel?
- That's easy: we need something to keep the French out!
- So being British means not being French?
- Yes! That's it.
- And Princess Diana?
I tried to explain that this was simply a trick caused by the tabloid press, but my powers of Polish expression failed me.

The discussion went on a bit longer.

The lecturer indicated me to the other students.

- So here we have it: it's sad isn't it? Empire, post-colonialism and now the British can't even express their own identity.

I tried to protest:
- But we've learnt from that! In Britain we're really tolerant!


- well... uh ...ok. We're tolerant to everyone except the French. But it's a joke, ok?!

I am not yet well acquainted with Witold Gombrowicz, but I suspect that the concept of a British person failing to express their cultural identity in Polish is very appropriate here.

* The Polish characters on my keyboard for some reason aren't working with Firefox.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


I have had enough of this język polski.

I have had enough of never being right and failing on a daily basis.

I am frustrated with studying intensively for five months only to find that - instead of moving up to the next level - I am simply moving up 'a bit higher in the same level'.

I am tired of feeling inferior and trying to suppress my complexes (does that word even mean what I think it means any more?) about my pronunciation and my inability to express myself, because there are More Important Things Than That.

There are things I am good at! There are! There are! Really! I have a value as a person!

Why am I still swimming against the tide/running up the down escalator/banging my head against the same brick wall over and over again?

(and don't even get me started on interpreting. Don't go there. I mean it.)

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Exercises in vocabulary

This is a 'vocabulary-building' exercise from one of the textbooks we use in school. It caused some hilarity, and I'm short on materials. The title means 'what do we do in the bathroom?' Answers (with justification) in the comments box please).

Ćwiczenie 137: **

Co robimy w łazience? Niepotrzebne wyrazy skreśl.

kąpać się
......................raczej 'pić'... mmm cold Tyskie, hot shower, bliss.
brać prysznic..... take your life in your hands and play the 'try to squirt out the flame on the boiler' game.
kupić ...................or indeed barter. Normally for toilet paper, in student dorms
rysować..............why not?! See 'czekać' below.
czesać się ...........not to be confused with 'cieszyć się', which is when you are happy about it.
kleić ....................for example, peeling the label off the soap & sticking it on the wall of the cubicle.
zakręcać włosy
................that's what they put the magazines in there for.
prać ....................only when the washing machine isn't working
gotować ............yes! Marshmallows, on the pilot light of the boiler.
golić się
.................unfortunately yes. With pitiable results.
wygłupiać się ...and how!
śpiewać .............altogether now: Ohhhhhh what a beautiful mooooorrrning! Ohhh what a beautiful daayyyyyy.....

The answer to all of the above is 'jak najbardziej!'. Except for no 1, to which the answer is 'częste mycie skraca zycie'. Or 'what on earth do you think they invented underarm deodorant for?!'

** I don't know what the stars are for. It was like that in the textbook.

Friday, 8 May 2009


This is my third consecutive May in Poland (words like 'glutton' and 'punishment' spring to mind) and yet I've never quite got to grips with Juwenalia , the annual student summer festival.

This year, however, I'm a registered student at the Jagiellonian University (known as 'UJ', pronounced - with English spelling - as 00h-yacht) with a real legitimacja and everything, so I want to take advantage of the festive times.

I know that there have been concerts all week, on a temporary stage outside the student halls of residence - which thankfully I do not inhabit - but apart from that I've never really worked out what it's all about.

I asked a friend from salsa class.

- Well... everyone gets the day off on Friday, no classes at all.

Bonus! Although I quite like our Friday classes: they start early so there's usually not too much of a crowd, and it's conversation class: not as mentally taxing as grammar (besides which, Pani Kinga often has sweeties in her handbag).

- Ok, but what's actually happening on Friday?
- Well, the students dress up and we march to the Rynek, and then they hand over the keys of the town to us for the duration.


- So what does that mean?
- Students rule the town! We get to make the rules for a day and basically we can do what we want.
- Great! But what does that actually mean? In practice I mean?

She thought for a bit.

- ummm..... oh! It means you can drink from an open can of beer on the Błonia!

The Błonia is a huge triangle-shaped common to the west of the city centre. Needless to say, open-air drinking is forbidden in Kraków, with police cars regularly patrolling the banks of the river at night.

Well this is great news - and there's no more time to lose!

I'm off, to exercise my limited sovereignty over the beautiful city of Kraków.

plik! fiizzzzzzz...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Secret Lodziarnia

Walking home in the late afternoon sunshine, I passed a tiny ice-cream place, not long out of winter hibernation.

Curious, I stepped inside and ordered a scoop of borówkowy (blueberry - but don't start, because we could be debating this one for ages).

And it was actually pretty good: real bits of fruit (as well as seeds) and a delicious berry-tartness to foil the creamy dairy flavour (as opposed to the Słodkie Wenztl blueberry, which tends to be bland). It was even - dare I say it - reminiscent of the famous ice-cream on Starowiślna. Without the queues.

It's on Madalińskiego, just off Rynek Dębnicki: polecam. Smacznego!