Saturday, 27 June 2009

Polish word of the Day #09222: Duszno

Summer in Kraków: like that song, you're hot then you're cold, you're yes then you're no, you're in then you're out....

... and you have No Idea what to wear.

Yes, Monsoon Season has hit Poland. Lightening ricochets across the evening sky and we fall asleep to the distant rumble of thunder, only to wake up to the clatter of rain on the window. Nothing has been dry for weeks: indoors smells of damp towels while outdoors smells like musty soil.

Summer is a sartorial minefield: with a glance to the grey skies above, you pull on thick jeans and a scarf, only to be puffing and sweltering by the time you reach the end of the street. If you go out in shorts and flip-flops, guaranteed the heavens will open the minute you head for home. If you're not sweaty, you're shivering: either way you're soaked. For the first time since I left university, trench foot is becoming a serious concern.

- It's... I don't remember the English word... duszny; said a Polish friend. I replied 'stuffy' - but it's not stuffy. Stuffy is when you play hide and seek and end up shut in the wardrobe for half an hour. Stuffy is a euphemism for 'why did we have to have beans for tea? Please for the love of God let's open a window!' Stuffy isn't quite what we have here. It's damp, the air is thick and heavy, muggy, close, sultry, stifling, devoid of anything resembling oxygen...

And it's not just here: floods are sweeping across Central Europe - according to BBC News, Reuters, Gazeta Wideo.

As another friend said: If I'd wanted to live in a country where it rained every day for the whole of June, I'd've stayed in Ireland...

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

New pizzeria in the neighbourhood

Following huge losses in the recent European Parliament elections, many major players in the European left-wing have had to find new employment:

'Lekka Pizza Rewolucyjna'... no wonder I only got a 3+ in my Polish history exam!

A little bad punning my friend?

... 'Dla CHE go nie?!'

Sunday, 21 June 2009

They think it's all over...

... it is now.

Wednesday - exams finished, final school trip cancelled, remnants of more than a couple of wsiekłe psy still dancing around the old bloodstream bearing witness to the past 24 hours of post-exam release.

Back to the old freelancer life - a full day's work without stepping out of the front door (or changing out of my pyjamas), at least six dirty tea mugs in the sink, a leisurely jog before lunch, an afternoon trip to Alma for expensive pickled things in jars and stinky foreign cheese, rounded off by a relaxing evening at salsa class.

Or so I thought.

With about fifteen minutes to go before the end of the lesson, our instructor called a halt and started to explain to us that we'd reached the end of the beginner courses and it was now time to move on to the next level, the 'Open' class.

Fair enough. We'd spent the whole evening trying to learn a particularly complicated figure involving two spins and a 'butterfly' (it took me a long time to work out that the names of these moves are actually English). It had been a long week and my head was reeling, with Polish grammar, Polish vodka and French translation.

But wait... what was he saying now?
- I'll dance with the girls, and Ola will test the guys.
I caught the word 'egzamin'
- Excuse me, but do we have an exam tonight?!
It would seem so.
- But... I didn't know! I haven't studied!!

The hall rang with the by now oh-so-familiar sound of Polish laughter.

- Spoko, nie stresuj się!
(these are the two most ominous phrases in the Polish language. With the possible exception of 'Ale... wie Pani co...?)

Of course the instructor danced with me first. He spoke very fast, the music was loud.

It went a little something like this:
raz, dwa, trzy... pięć, sześć, siedem...

- Put your elbows down! You're going to do some damage to some poor guy!
music, raz, dwa, trzy...
Keep the turns neat and quick!
more music
- Try to dance in a straight line!
pięć sześć, siedem...
- You know what... maybe the Open class would be a bit hard for you. I think you should repeat level 3.

Guess what? I've learnt something. Polish grammar is easy. Polish vocabulary is not too hard either. Polish exams... a piece of cake.

But salsa? Now that's really tough.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Exams are over!

(Post-exam resolution no 1: learn to tap-dance before I hit thirty)

Monday, 15 June 2009

Polish Word of the Day #: Sesja

'Sesja' is Polish for 'lots of exams all at the same time'. Yes, it is related to 'session', full marks for observation, have a biscuit.

Sesja started last week with The Easiest Polish History Exam Ever (sample questions included 'Who was Karol Wotyła?' and 'Name Poland's neighbouring countries' - there was a map on the classroom wall), in which - with impressive lack of attention to detail - I managed to get the lowest mark in the class.

Then there was the literature exam: basically a short interview about a certain topic in Polish literature last century. I chose Wisława Szymborska over Gombrowicz, but it was a close call. And that was ok too, really: Ironic Literature Lecturer turned out to be on our side after all and was kind in his questions.

This morning, all the other subjects (except speaking) were examined in one fell swoop. From słuchanie, via gramatyka, through słownictwo, to a little czytanie z rozumieniem and ending up with the dreaded pisanie. Nothing to do with peas.

That means it's the end of the course (apart from the small matter of an oral exam tomorrow).

I'm sort of pleased. I mean - in some ways it's good to be a student again, but not when you don't get the fun bits of being a student (like not working). Besides which, there are two things my compulsive competitive little inner straight-A student hates: being wrong and losing. In Polish I'm always wrong, and I'm losing all the time. It's very disheartening.

Now the course is over, I can concentrate on the bits of Polish I like: reading, listening to Trójka (which I can almost, almost understand without trying, except the news, which is always read like an express train in any language anyway), going to salsa classes, going for piwko or coffee, doing tandem (much less pressure if you've already agreed you're both going to make mistakes) and just being here and enjoying the lovely city of Kraków. No pressure, no losing, no frustration. OK, slightly less frustration.

Now there's just that little oral exam tomorrow. Think happy thoughts. No frustration, no losing, winning all the way...

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Noc Teatrów

You rotten lot! Why didn't anyone tell me last night was Noc Teatrów? What, I have to find these things out for myself now?? Whaddya think I am, flippin' Cracow Life?!

Luckily, yesterday afternoon I went for coffee with a friend, who then invited me to a cabaret in the evening.

- So, hang on, the cabaret's in English?

So it turned out.

- How much is it?
- It's free: some theatre night festival or something.

Distinct 'ping' of a penny suddenly dropping.

I've never made it to Noc Teatrów before: last year I wasn't in Kraków, and the year before... I have no idea where I was. In any case, it's slightly more complicated than the better-known Noc Museów: you usually have to ring up and reserve in advance (Polish link here), which is less foreigner-friendly, and - as I just found out after a quick flick through Google - it's not very well publicised in English.

So I was really pleased to finally have the chance to experience it first hand.

We got tickets, through a friend of a friend who knew someone in the troupe, to the English cabaret in Cafe Moliere on Szewska. You know my policy on linguistic immersion and on avoiding the English language like that acquaintance you forgot to send a Christmas card to but we were with other anglophones and it was fun, so why not?

The cabaret was actually excellent: emphasis was put on presenting stereotypical Polish traditions through audience participation, which began with a round of (admittedly not full-strength) shots of something and evolved into a big congo-style Polonaise, via competitive singing (with the audience divided into Nowaks and Kowalskis* - I did say stereotypical) and dressing-up of one very good sport as a Szlachta noble.

It was very different from my first Polish cabaret experience, about a year and a half ago in Loch Camelot.
The Camelot cabaret involved a lot more actors, a pianist, and a series of very clever and apparently hilarious songs.

A well-meaning Polish friend invited me to help me become acquainted with Polish culture. Having been in Poland for only six months, I managed to catch the odd word here and there.

My friend was having a whale of a time.

- Oh this is very funny, you know what, it's an in-joke because there's this writer... hang on, they're starting again, I'll explain it to you at the next break... (undisguised mirth).

I was left in the dark.

I'd like to go back and try again, now that I feel I've learnt a bit more of the language: maybe I'd understand a bit more this time. And if not... Camelot has an excellent selection of drinki to help with my cultural experience.

* Grammar corner: uh... Kowalscy and umm... Nowakowie??

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Live and let... Lviv Part III

Because I went out last night in the mistaken belief that my translation was due tomorrow morning at noon and not at 10am (thank God for 2am panic email checking reflexes);
because I naively assumed that I get to have bank holidays like the rest of the world (show me one holiday in the year - apart from Christmas - where more than two countries coordinate to get the day off at once);
because I've spent the day translating marketing blurb for insert name of multinational French corporation here and that actually requires right-brain creative activity rather than just numb, hungover typing...

... I'm going to pass on writing a proper post in Real Prose and simply put up some pretty photos of Lviv. Or Lwów. In any case, both versions provide equally classic punning opportunities in English.

Monday, 8 June 2009


Or 'Why I wish I had voted in the European Parliamentary Elections'.

I opened the browser to write another 'how to flirt with a feminist' post, but then I started reading the news (dutifully comparing vocab across the board, aren't I good?) and realised that I would rather express my reactions to the election results: the flirting post will keep another day.

Yes you heard right, ultra-feminist blogger Pinolona did not go to the ballot boxes to exercise her democratic rights (Emily Pankhurst, suffragettes, hunger strikes, guilt, guilt, guilt). She wasted her opportunity and here's why:

1/ To be able to vote in Poland I would have had to have registered before April 27. I discovered this in early May, when people started talking about Euro-elections.

2/ I could have voted in the UK, had I registered before May 27, by:
a) postal vote - going to the post office in Kraków and queuing takes an average of an hour/an hour and a half out of my working day, and please bear in mind that this already includes a four-hour block of classes in either the morning or the afternoon. An extra hour or so lost in the afternoon means an extra hour or so at work in the evening. Combine this with the scanty reliability of Poczta Polska and my vote was unlikely to have made its way to South Eastern ballot boxes by Sunday.

b) proxy vote - not sure about this one: ideally I tell my proxy how I want them to vote for me and they tick the appropriate box. In reality, my proxy probably has his or her own theories about choosing the democratic representative of my best interests, and I'd rather make the decision myself...

Now - don't touch that remote! - I actually think the European Union is by and large a Good Thing. So I'm annoyed that I missed my chance to take part.

Why am I so convinced it's a Good Thing?

Firstly, here in Kraków I've had the chance to meet plenty of students and young professionals from outside the old U of E: Americans, Japanese, Ukrainians, Australians, and I've heard their woes over visas. I don't want to have to trek to Warsaw and have my lungs x-rayed and my criminal record checked every time my visa expires. I'd rather not have to make a trip to Slovakia (lovely location though it is) every three months simply to get a new tourist visa.
As a student I got to work in France for a year through the British Council and I spent a brilliant five months in Italy living off a generous Erasmus grant and... um... studying (in between drinking pinot noir and slurping up linguine). I'm also aware that if I had been an 'EU student' rather than a mere 'English' student I would have paid the same tuition fees at St Andrews as the Scottish students (i.e. significantly less). What's not to love?!

In my adult life, I've never worked in the UK other than on a temporary basis during and immediately after my studies. Why should I go back there? It's wet and grey, and apparently full of BNP voters. No thanks.

Then there's the roaming issue - ok, it's expensive, but thanks to MEPs fretting over their mobile bills, it's not as bad as it might be. My only major bugbear is that Polish pay-as-you-go deals haven't quite got it right yet. It'd be nice, for example, not to have to switch off my data package when I switch on roaming, Mr Simplus GSM, are you listening?

And what about the euro, always a controversial subject? I'm divided over this one: on the one hand, given that Europe is still split into 27 very different economies, I suspect that it's better for each unit to be able to devalue and trade their own currencies as they see fit. On the other hand, most of the companies I work for pay in euros, my bank account is in pounds (since I haven't been resident in the euro-zone since early 2007) and I spend in zlots. Where's the sense in that?

Was there more? Oh yes. Charlemagne's column in this week's Economist notes that what the European Parliament does 'comes under the heading of important but boring'. I would be inclined to agree with that. The language professional who goes by Pinolona's real name regularly translates communications relating to the minutiae of European technical regulations. This is definitely not the stuff of action thrillers, and indeed many people complain in the UK that EU regulations are over-fussy. I'm not one of them. If I'm going to live in Poland, France or Italy, I want to know that the milk I buy in the supermarket is pasteurised to the same specifications as it would be in the UK. I'd like to be certain that the structural bearings in my apartment block are certified to the same standard in all four countries.
There's a market economy aspect too: if Poland comes up with an intellectual property stamp that has to be displayed on all goods sold in this country, well then as a foreign content supplier I'd want to know how to get hold of that stamp. Moreover, should one Member State decide that all products sold within its borders should display a national standard only available in that country, manufacturers from other states should be able to say 'look - hang on, how do we get hold of this standard, and aren't you effectively discriminating against the free movement of goods and services?!'
Not to mention the internet: should I decide to indulge in a little online poker, I need to know that as a consumer my rights are protected regardless of where the site's server may be located.

I digress, and no-one is listening any more.

But still, I look at the British results showing UKIP in second place and two new BNP members, and I wish to goodness I'd got my act together.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Toast za wolność!

If you have been buried in the desert for the past couple of weeks, or vacuum-packed into a giant jar of pickles, you won't have heard that yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the first free elections in Poland, which took place on 04 June 1989.

Basically - if like me you learnt about the end of Communism from the fall of the Berlin Wall onwards - a trade union called Solidarity started to stir up trouble in the shipbuilding city of Gdańsk in the early 80s. This eventually led - albeit with a savage detour in the form of Martial Law - to round table talks between the Communist powers-that-were and the Solidarity-led opposition, which resulted in the concession of almost-free elections in June 1989. 'Almost' in the sense that only one hundred of the seats in the Senate were actually up for electoral grabs. Other Central and Eastern European countries watching on the sidelines thought 'hang on, that's not a bad idea' and soon followed suit, kicking off a chain of events which then resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism altogether.

If, like my parents, you actually watched the news in 1989 rather than - like some of us - spending your time climbing trees, learning to cartwheel and running Matchbox cars down the stairs to the detriment of the hall carpet, you probably didn't need to to be told that.

Anyway, these were the first free elections that had been held in Poland for fifty years (one of our lecturers brought in twenty-year-old pamplets explaining how to vote for first-timers) and, knowing how much we all love party political broadcasts, pre-electoral canvassing, queues at the polling station and fiddling about with postal votes, I'm sure you can imagine why the Poles were so happy no longer to be deprived of this form of entertainment.

Yesterday was an occasion for Massive Celebration.

And in practice?

12 noon: huge excitement during lessons (the school is opposite Wawel) because Grodzka is blocked off by armed police, waiting for Tusk, Merkel, Tymoshenko et al to arrive.

5pm: our contemporary culture lecturer brings us fragile Solidarity paraphernalia and a huge basket of Polish strawberries. She tells us that these are to go with the free champagne that we will be able to drink between 8 and 8.20pm at certain establishments in the centre of town, in a toast to freedom.

6.30pm-ish: I get to listen to Andrzej Wajda talking about censorship and the future of Polish film!!!

8.10pm: Me and my flatmate try to find a place to toast freedom.

8.12pm: We arrive at Nowa Prowincja. People are crammed together in the doorway. We decide that this means there must be something good going on, but we can't get in.

8.13pm: We go round the corner to Spokój.

8.14pm: The atmosphere is awesome! Spokój is full of young Poles (most of whom, admittedly, probably have an even fuzzier memory of 1989 than I do). We stand near the bar and a woman hands us shots of vodka. Everyone raises their glasses and drinks to freedom. We join in singing 'Sto lat'. Someone hands us more vodka, this time with a red layer of raspberry syrup to symbolise the Polish flag.

8.21pm: We return to Nowa Prowincja. People are starting to leave and we manage to find our way inside. Someone hands us roses. We find out - from the label - that Róża Thun (top of the PO list for Małopolska in the European Parliament elections) has been speaking here. Someone hands us some red liquid in a vodka glass and the rest, as they say, is history...

Here's to you, Poland!

(the video basically shows people toasting the anniversary and briefly looks at the idea of making June 4 a public holiday)