Friday, 30 July 2010

And another thing

I forgot - there's one more thing you can do in Poland in the rain.

12/ Go and buy ice-cream from the legendary lodziarnia on Starowiślna. Take advantage of the fact that almost nobody else but you will be crazy enough to eat ice-cream in this weather, and get your ice-cream fix without having to queue in the street for half an hour.

I recommend chocolate, borówkowe, poziomkowe...

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Things to do in Poland in the rain

After two weeks of complaints about the oppressive heat, Poland has finally answered all of our prayers: on Sunday the heavens opened and rain has been pouring down ever since. It's dark, everything feels permanently damp, and I am constantly chilled to the bone, having packed only flimsy summer clothes and shoes.

For the umpteenth time, I appreciate what inspired the Slavs to invent vodka.

But before I drown my sorrows in apple Redds and chocolate, I'll share a little list I've been mentally compiling, of Things To Do In Poland In The Rain.

Here goes:

1/ Complain about the weather. It's a well-known fact that complaining (narzekanie) is a national sport in Poland. Roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

2/ Drink. I think this needs no further explanation. There's nothing like a few shots of ice-cold Wyborowa to make the world feel like a better, warmer, altogether more glowy place.

3/ Eat. Especially stodgy food, like pierogi, bigos, and other things that contain lard. This is to coat yourself with a nice layer of fat in preparation for a long, long, hard winter.

4/ Pretend your pop-out umbrella is She-Ra's sword. By the Power of Greyskull! Sword to Shield! (Na potęgę Posępnego Czerepu, mocy przybywaj! - ok not exactly the same thing, but the only one I could find on Wikipedia)

5/ Do your Polish homework. Brush up your biernik. Dust off your dopelniacz. Polish your Polszczyzna. No, you're right... I'm sure we can think of something else to do before it gets to this stage.

6/ Go to a museum. Poland's history is a long krwawy kalendarz of violence and tragedy. This has had a significant impact on present-day Poland... notably in the form of lots of cool museums. Try the Galicia Museum in Kazimierz or the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw for a start.

7/ Go to the optician, have your hearing tested, make an appointment at the dentist. It's cheaper here than in the UK or Belgium, and you get to learn new vocabulary for free. What's not to love?!

8/ Watch the entire first series of Teraz albo Nigdy on Onet video on demand. Or Magda M. Or Kasia i Tomek... you get the idea.

9/ Go and watch a pessimistic Polish film. You probably won't enjoy it as much as Teraz albo Nigdy, but you will feel more virtuous.

10/ Hide in the back room of Massolit, drink coffee, and read books you have absolutely no intention of buying, from sections you would never normally dream of checking out, like World Religions, or

11/ Sit at home and listen to Coldplay. Pour another shot of vodka...

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Moving on up

I think I've written about Polish yuppies before. A couple of years ago maybe.

I just spent the weekend in Warsaw, visiting my old flatmate* and hanging out with some of her friends. My flatmate moved to Warsaw to work for a consulting company and she rents a studio of a rather similar size and layout to the one I rent in Brussels.

We took the tram out to her friends' place in the suburbs. The sky was overcast, rain threatened, blocks loomed grey and relentless out of the dusk. Then, after about twenty minutes, the blocks thinned out and started to look tidier. Some of them were painted in pastel colours. Sloping gables were added and frosted-glass balconies.

We stepped off the tram and scuttled across the road after waiting several minutes in vain for a green light at the pedestrian crossing. The directions led alongside one of the blocks. There were no pavements alongside the roads, only - in some places - gravel edging rather weedy land which may or may not have been destined for landscaping or lawns at a later date. This was not a place for pedestrians. On the ground floor of the block we passed two banks, a hairdresser, a sushi restaurant, a dental surgery. We crossed another road and walked alongside another block (this one so new that some of the flats still had tape on the windows) until we reached the furthest entrance.

Inside, the block of flats resembled nothing so much as a smart hotel. The concierge was seated behind a smooth, gunmetal grey desk. We called the lifts which - in stark contrast - were still lined with chipboard (my flatmate's friend later explained that this was because people were still moving in heavy items of furniture and they didn't want to damage the inside of the lift).

Inside the apartment was immaculate (although the owners and their kitten had moved in only a week or so before), pre-furnished, fully equipped. We were awestruck.

We ate courgettes with mozzarella, fried chicken, garlic bread. Washed down with Polish beer of course. The conversation touched on the housing market, flat pack furniture, Warsaw, work. The same things that young professionals in London and Brussels talk about. Although in London there's now an undercurrent of tension - young people work long hours, everyone is concerned for their job, their mortgage, their student loans.

Why did this strike me so much? I suppose because in London no-one I know can afford a fully-equipped new build: in London, even half an hour from the city centre is still more or less in the city centre and therefore too close to be affordable. Also all the old-fashioned stereotypes about Poland: that people live in tiny apartments, earn peanuts, are strict Catholics who would never dream of getting a mortgage with someone without the social and moral security of a wedding ring apiece first. Oh and the firm conviction that all young professionals have, that determination and hard work are enough to get you a good job and a comfortable lifestyle and that anyone who can't manage this is just lazy. Rather like the French, back in 2007...

I'm not so sure on this last point. I feel that I'm very lucky finally to be able to do what I've wanted to do at least since leaving university.
- yes, said my flatmate - but you did work hard to get there.

Yes, I did, but I was also born in Sevenoaks, in a country where women are free to get an education, leave the house unaccompanied, wear whatever we like. In a region where there was decent state education in the form of grammar schools. Lucky, right?

* warning: it's in Hungarian. Frustratingly, Google Translate is no use at all...

Monday, 26 July 2010

The modern young woman's guide to dealing with emergencies. Part V...

... the noisy children's toy.

I think we can all agree that nothing is quite so appealing as a Toy That Makes A Noise. Better still - a Book That Makes A Noise. Especially the kind that Really Annoys Grown-Ups...

Let's imagine for a moment that our pioneering young heroine is subletting a nice apartment from friends of friends who happen to be away for the summer. Naturally she is extremely careful to keep it clean and tidy and barely dares to open a kitchen drawer for fear of breaking something. However, in spite of all her good intentions...

- Early evening. Our enterprising young woman returns from classes and tandems and coffees, throws her bags to the floor and flops onto the bed.
- dust clears.
- strange wheezing sound becomes apparent
- did I break the vacuum cleaner?!
- tries to locate source of strange wheezing noise
- it's coming from the hallway
- noise resembles a sort of Clanger-like in and out wheeze, starting from a low pitch, whooshing up high and then swooping down low again.
- traces noise to bookshelves in hallway
- what on earth is going on?!
- carefully draws out one book, then another
- noise continues
- throws caution to the winds and pulls out whole handfuls of books at random

- finally!!

- a toddlers board book about a baby aeroplane...
... with a round metal sound-effect button on the front.

- relieved, pushes button to make it stop

- wheezing continues

- pushes button again. Maybe it's stuck.

- wheeze continues

- tinkers around with metal button for a while. No dice.
- gets fork. Pokes around to try and dislodge sound circuit. Noise stops...

... and then starts again.

- Time to go out to dinner. Surely book will have worn itself out by the time she gets back?

several hours later...

- opens door...

- wheezing sound.
- picks up book and - very, very cautiously, holds it under the kitchen tap. Lets a couple of droplets drip directly onto the noise mechanism of the book, careful not to cause any actual damage to the book itself...

... wheeze continues.

- opens tap a little further. Water gushes onto book. Cardboard begins to swell. Noise weakens...

... but doesn't stop.

- opens patio door. Puts book on back step. Shuts door...

... wheezing still very audible.

- takes hairbrush. End of hairbrush handle is roughly the size of the noise mechanism on the book.
- steady-handed, and with a precision worthy of a bomb squad, raises hairbrush and hammers it down on the mechanism...
... nothing.
- hammers again, a little less carefully.
- nothing.
- hammers harder, twice in quick succession. Book is starting to look a little dented.
- Wait! ... blessed silence.
- Goes to bed.

 Three days later

- wakes to wheezing noise. It is one in the morning.
- hits book twice with hairbrush and shuts it in the tumble drier.

- promises self that she will buy the family a replacement book before she leaves...

*see parts 1-4 on gas leaks, getting locked out, moving house and losing bus tickets...

Saturday, 17 July 2010

One week

A week! It's been a week! And sadly my brain power is so zapped by five times four hours of Polish interpreting (not to mention language classes, tandem, cinema and plain old day-to-day survival) that I have been incapable of crafting the witty missives that I so hoped Kraków would inspire in me.

Instead, I've compiled an A-Z (well, roughly) of this week. Probably not even in alphabetical order...

Arbuz - watermelon. Essential for keeping cool in Polish heatwave. And definitely not from French* (which explains the bewildered looks at the fruit stand in Brussels when I asked for 'une arbouse s'il vous plait')

blada - look, by my standards this constitues a tan, ok?!

kabina - a hot little soundproof box where you put on a pair of headphones and try to piece together
something plausible out of the spider's web that constitutes Polish syntax.

kamieniołom - quarry, especially abandoned quarries formed into a beautiful, clear-blue lake in the middle of the city, surrounded by steep cliffs. It is absolutely forbidden to climb down the cliffs and swim and none of us would ever dream of doing such a thing...

lącz - meal eaten in the middle of the day, after classes.

Magda M - ok, ok, I gave in and bought series 4 from Empik.

piwo - something I can't drink anymore without getting migraines in the heat

upał - it's too bloody hot. When I visited in January, the thermometer on the wall showed minus 15 degrees and I had to go out and buy extra woolly socks to stop my poor toes freezing off. Now the temperature is in the 30s and I've just spent most of my Saturday languishing on the sofa with a packet of frozen spinach pressed melodramatically to my forehead. When I finally managed to stagger out to the pharmacy - swaying a little under the sheer weight of the warm air - I noticed a teenage boy loitering about on the street corner, dressed only in knee-length shorts, playing Polish rap** from his mobile phone. On my return, about twenty minutes later, he was still there, pacing about aimlessly, skipping between rap tracks, pale torso baking in the heat.
As I passed, I realised that he was probably trying to sunbathe...

*it's pasteque in French. I always forget this because I've never been in a French-speaking country in hot weather. I never, ever forget the Italian or Polish versions.
** plosive-heavy Polish consonants are perfect for spitting out angry rap lyrics: I can't believe this idea hasn't taken off more widely. The music is terrible, of course.

Friday, 9 July 2010

You know you're in Poland when...

... guys you don't even know carry your bag up the steps at the train station. With no prompting on your part.

I could get used to this...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

So very Sevenoaks

An apparently normal scene: a child refuses to hold Mummy's hand and stomps away, hot, furious tears splashing his cheeks. Yet another frustrating blow to his fragile four-year-old dignity.

NO, Mummy! I want SUSHI!!

I don't think we're in Kraków any more...

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A lot of faffing about

It's hot in Kent. Since I came back, many beautiful things have happened. There was a gorgeous fairytale wedding. There was a radiant sister and her new husband glowing with happiness and looking every bit as besotted with each other as the day they met*. There was a centenarian grandmother miraculously fished out of the gloom of dementia for one lovely wedding day. There was a New Boy who bought the last seat (first class) on the Eurostar to make it in time for the last two hours of the gorgeous fairytale wedding reception. There were gloriously sunny, cloud-free skies and one black and white springer spaniel utterly delighted at having so many strange new guests to play ball with.

And now?

Now I am at home, in Kent, listening to birdsong in the fading evening light, trying desperately to get through my To-Do list before skipping up the orange-painted easy-boarding-steps on Friday morning, racking my brains (and the for two to three speeches per day for the next three weeks.

I have visited a grandmother, drunk wine with friends in London (pretending not to be able to smell the stinking brown Thames lapping sluttily below the terrace), gone shopping far more than my work schedule (which is empty until September) allows, admired a fit-to-burst baby bump, gone for long, sunny, ravenous walks to country pubs (with closed kitchens) and subjected a New Boy (who is admittedly still far too new for this sort of thing) to a veritable legion of curious friends and relatives.

I feel calm here. My trip is organised, my flat is - mostly - organised, and now I just have to let things roll along as they should (apart from a few last-minute items on the To-Do list oh help).

I'm ready for you, summer.

Bring it on...

*obviously I wasn't there that day: it's a quote from the best man's speech.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


Seen on the back of a cubicle door in the ladies' loos of the Thameside Inn, near London Bridge:

'Staśka Rzondzi'

I was about to get out my correcting pen when I started to wonder. Is this really a case of dysortografia, or is it a deliberate mistake for stylistic effect: a sort of Polish 'I woz 'ere'...

... any ideas?