Archive for November, 2007

Eskimos live in igloos, Japanese live in paper houses, and the English live in country cottages festooned with roses, but where do the Poles live? Most westerners probably visualize grim Stalinist blocks as the standard abode of the Pole, and it has to be said there is a degree of truth in this, but the whole story is a little more complex and interesting. There are three basic forms of housing in Poland; the Kamienica, the Blok, and the Dom.

The Kamienica
Kamienica (pronounced Ka-mee-en-eetza) is a tricky word to translate. Basically it means a pre-World War I apartment block in a town or city center. These are the pretty four or five story building that line Poland’s lovely medieval city squares and make up much of the housing in its old city centers. Anyone who’s been to any historical European capital, apart from London, would recognize them. In the best parts of the most tourist friendly towns they have been meticulously restored to chocolate box standards and are dripping with baroque decorations on which winter snow can perch prettily. Few people can afford to live in these and most are given over to hotels, fancy restaurants, and trashy nightclubs. In the less fortunate towns and outside of the golden tourist zones of Krakow, Wroslaw, and Gdansk, there are thousands of these buildings in a less happy state of repair. Usually they are romantically dilapidated and have intriguing entrance halls with peeling paint that hint at happier and more decadent times. British tourists raised on a diet of home improvement shows and tales of foreign property investment can be seen standing outside them drooling. Fantasies of snapping up a rundown city center apartment for next to nothing dance behind their eyes.

A kamienica (the pretty kind)


The occupants of a typical kamienica tend to be ‘diverse’, to put it politely. My friend D frequently warns against the purchase of an apartment in a kamienica on the grounds that they are chiefly occupied by babcie, drunks, bumpkins, and car thieves — he’s known for his liberal and understated views. He does have a point though. Many of the people living in these prime slices of real estate have been there all their lives and got them in the first place through apparently random assignment by the communist authorities. The Kazimierz district of Krakow, for example, is stuffed full of medieval and 17th century buildings that can cause the average property developer to eat his own trousers in excitement, but until ten years ago it was one of the poorest and most crime ridden parts of the city. Kazimierz was the original Jewish quarter of the town and was tremendously prosperous for centuries. At the end of the second world war when the Jews had, ahem, ‘gone away’ the authorities assigned the empty apartments to the hordes of impoverished and desperate people who were streaming in from the countryside. Many of them had spent the previous four years in the forest hiding from Einzatsgruppen johnnies and their fun shooting-people-in-the-back-of-the-head game. It’s not uncommon to find that many of the apartments in these buildings are occupied by wheezing old gentlemen with flamboyantly red noses and an extensive collection of empty vodka bottles. They haven’t worked since 1974 and the gas, water, and electricity were cut off some time in the late 80s (I’m not exaggerating here). They spend their time huddled in one corner of one room of a 90 square meter apartment waiting to die. Their families are also waiting for them to die of course so they can flog the place for bundles of loot to the nearest neo-German property developer and get the hell out of the city (see The Dom). There’s some kind of irony in there somewhere.

Another kamienica (the less pretty kind) from this guy


There’s a kind of quiet war going on over the kamienica. The descendants of the wealthy families that originally owned the kamienicas, many of them now living in the States, started popping up after the fall of communism and pointing out politely that they would quite like their property back please. When this failed to produce results they hired extravagantly expensive Chicago lawyers and said it again, a little more loudly. The new Polish political elite, with their hunger to embrace the free market, had a degree of sympathy with them but also had one eye on their electorate whom, they suspected, would be less than happy about being turfed out of their homes so that a rich American could overhaul them and become slightly more rich in the process. The end result was that laws were introduced making it next to impossible to evict people, even if they hadn’t paid their gas bill since 1964. Dozens of expensive and protracted cases went through the Polish courts (the very idea makes me shudder) and lots of families did, eventually, get ‘their’ property back. In the vast majority of cases, however, the drunks are hanging in there. Toned and hungry-looking property types purr past in their Mercs occasionally, waiting for the old guard to die and fall off their perches. The day when the last kamienica is renovated and prettified and the last drunk is carted off from his traditional sleeping position, slumped across the front step, is the day I leave Krakow.

I live in a kamienica, as all foolish foreign bohemian types aspire to. The locals are far too sensible to fall for this and tend to live in the grey but perfectly serviceable blocks that lie a little further out from the center. My building has all the typical features one should expect from the classic kamienica; it’s cold, there are drunks sleeping on the stairs, and the plumbing was last overhauled in the 17th century. The electrical system is a source of endless entertainment and periodic bracing shocks to the system. Jiggling the bedroom doorknob causes the lights in the kitchen to flicker in a festive manner and one has to be extremely careful when opening the fridge. On the plus side I have access to a communal attic that has a ladder leading to a skylight from which one of the best views in Krakow can be observed. Of course you have to move quietly otherwise the resident babcie will be down on you like a ton of bricks demanding to know what you are up to creeping around in the roof space in a highly suspicious and foreign manner. All kamienicas also have cellars, but they scare the bejeezus out of me for all kinds of reasons so I can’t tell you what goes on down there.

I once knew a guy who lived in one of the very few kamienicas that survived the razing of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1943. Every Tuesday hordes of Israeli school kids would be bused in from the airport under heavily armed guard to see how their ancestors lived in the bad old days. They regarded him with thinly disguised hatred and chucked the occasional rotten egg at his windows even though he was English, and therefore righteous and innocent. His girlfriend used to ply the local 12-year-old hoodlums with beer and ice cream in the hope that they would refrain from stealing her car stereo. Those were the days.

Coming soon: The Blok and The Dom


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The Kosa controversy

Some time ago in a post entitled Weekend in the Country I suggested that the scythe had been introduced to Poland in the 1930s and that this was rather shocking since the rest of the world had apparently been using them since the Middle Ages. An avid and insightful reader, who goes by the name of Jolanta, has suggested that this was a bunch of misinformed nonsense. It seems she is right, much to my shame, and has provided impeccable evidence to prove it.

Exhibit 1: Kościuszko pod Raclawicami (Kosciuszko at Raclawice), a painting by Jan Matejko, 1888. (Fragment)

Kosciuszko pod Raclawicami

These guys definitely have scythes, although they’ve cunningly been converted into devices for stabbing Russians. It just goes to show you shouldn’t take the word of white-haired old gentlemen wielding viciously sharp blades. Having said that, the second guy from the left does bear an uncanny resemblance to A’s grandfather…

Exhibit 2: Badge of the 303 “Kościuszko” Fighter Squadron (1940–46)

No. 303 “Kościuszko” Polish Fighter Squadron

Definitely crossed (adapted) scythes.

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Born yesterday

My second niece was born a short while ago! In fact it was yesterday, since I’m writing this a few minutes past midnight. This is her first day. Or rather yesterday is her first day since I’m one time zone to the east of her at the moment. It got me thinking, how many days have I had so far? One swift Google later and I found this handy application. The shocking answer: 13,782 days! Apparently it will be my 20-millionth-minute birthday late in February next year. A sobering thought. I have to try and remember not to be sober at the time.

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Shopping in Poland

One of the major drawbacks of being alive is that one has to keep buying stuff. Food, socks, laptops, inebriating liquids etc., the list is endless. Of course, it is possible to bypass the whole buying process by becoming a full-time hoodlum or living off the land, but both options are essentially far too much trouble to be worthwhile. We’re stuck with the massively tedious and time-consuming business of getting money and, even more boring, buying stuff. Fortunately, living in Poland can alleviate the terribly dull procedure of exchanging currency for goods, at least partially. I highly recommend it to anyone suffering from shopping fatigue, consumer sag, or buying torpor.

In the good old days, as any Pole will tell you, it was practically impossible to buy anything here. The average Polish worker habitually carried an empty briefcase around, just in case he came across a shop that was actually selling something. The briefcase would then be stuffed with as much soap, toilet paper, tins of sardines, or illuminated figurines of the Pope that it could carry in the sure and certain knowledge that such useful stuff could readily be bartered with neighbors at a later date. Those days are long gone, although the average Westerner still expects to see glum queues outside of offal shops and is generally disappointed when they fail to materialize. Fortunately there are still many hangovers from those days in the average Polish shopping experience. I’m going to break this down into sections – partly because it makes it easier to read and partly because I’m lazy and it makes the whole thing easier for me.

It might be empty, or there might be two dozen smoked kippers in there.

Polish briefcase?

The Market
One of the great things about Central Europe and Poland in particular is that they still have proper markets. There’s a massive open air market about 10 minutes from where I live, known as Stary Kleparz, and another even bigger one about 15 minutes away, known as Nowy Kleparz. Although you can buy pretty much anything there from plastic colanders to novelty Santa hats it’s essentially a hard-core fresh food market of the kind that would have green-whellied foodie types in the UK jumping up and down with excitement and splashing drool everywhere. The vast majority of this stuff has been plucked out of the ground or sliced off the still-steaming corpse of a pig just a few hours before. This is all very fine and wonderful and I’ve never had anything from there that didn’t taste absolutely fabulous but there is the babcie issue to consider. As I think I’ve mentioned before the babcie, which technically means ‘grandmothers,’ are the ladies of a certain age who patrol Poland’s streets with lead filled handbags and what could politely be referred to as a ‘conservative’ attitude. I’ve heard that the new term for them is ‘moherowe barety,’ which means ‘ladies who wear mohair berets.’ It’s a term that’s whispered with much the same level of fear and respect that the Mujahideen use when mentioning the Parachute Regiment. Stary Kleparz is babcie central. It’s the Death Star of babcie kind. There are hordes of them milling about in there. It’s a brave man indeed who ventures into Stary Kleparz between 8 and 11 in the morning when the babcie are out in strength. They are at their most dangerous when hunting down the odd slice of coconut fancy for morning coffee or a sack of bleeding offal for their dinner. I’m not joking here. It’s by no means uncommon to see a babcie trundling down the street with a plastic bag full of unidentifiable animal parts dripping blood all over the pavement. Heaven knows what they do with the stuff, and I hope I never find out.

Stary Kleparz, one of the finest… Jesus Christ!! Look out, I think she’s seen us!!

stary kleparz, krakow

Most of these markets consist of cosy little stalls and enclosed kiosks stuffed to bursting with all kinds of tasty or odd stuff, but the best part of a market of this kind is the way that it spills over into the surrounding streets. Depending on the time of year the pavements leading up to the market are lined with an assortment of babcie, yokels, and drunks selling everything from second hand bras to buckets full of walnuts to blatantly ripped off car stereos. The desperate, down-on-their-luck, and the just plain clueless spread old bath towels on the floor and lay out their pathetic wares on the off chance that someone might want to buy a malfunctioning 1974-vintage calculator, or a pack of chewed playing card with all the Jacks missing, or a slightly bent teaspoon. It’s tragic really. You often see 70-year-old guys who’ve obviously cycled in from the countryside at 5 in the morning hoping to flog their plastic bag full of (admitedlly delicious) blueberries or mushrooms or respectable ladies down on their luck who are being forced to offload fancy clothes from some dimly remembered and deeply unfashionable decade.

The Kiosk
We don’t really have kiosks in England, although they’re common across most of the rest of Europe. For the benefit of my UK readers, let me explain. A kiosk is essentially a little box on the side of the street that serves the same function as a newsagents in Britain. It sells cigarettes, sweets, newspapers, and bus tickets, plus a few oddities such as folding combs, dodgy porn magazines, and 9 mm handgun ammunition (ok, I made the last one up). The average kiosk is about the size of a garden shed, although some are more like phone boxes and a few are luxuriously spacious. The customer is required to crouch down and poke his or her head through a little window in order to ask for stuff. This is always an intriguing and slightly exciting moment. Usually one can see just the midsection of the person inside and nine times out of ten this is a slightly frazzled middle-aged woman or a crusty old fool wreathed in tobacco smoke, but just occasionally it’s a lithe young thing putting in a few hours to pay for her degree in psychology (and it always is psychology – god knows what they do with their psychologists over here but they seem to need a constant and generous supply of new ones). It’s one of the few occasions in life when it is acceptable, nay unavoidable, to directly address a young woman’s chest. Clearly I need to get out more.

Your actual Polish kiosk.

Polish kiosk

In the good old days, about which I have more to say than is healthy, kiosks were more or less the only places where it was possible to buy bus and tram tickets. This was a bit of a problem if you happened to need a bus or tram ticket outside of kiosk opening hours. In Warsaw there were one or two in the center that stayed open beyond normal shop hours to serve those crazy unnatural types who may have decided to have an evening out, but they were absolutely besieged. It could take half an hour to queue up and buy a tram ticket home, by which time you could have walked it anyway. It was usually far less hassle to jump on the tram without a ticket and hope that the inspectors were asleep or open to bribery, which of course they always were.

The Night Shop
In Warsaw they have Sklep Nocny, which can be translated as ‘night shops.’ A night shop is open 24 hours (theoretically) and the only reason to be open beyond, say, 12’ish is to sell alcohol to drunk people, which is exactly what Sklep Nocny are for. Usually they are just normal looking shops, the only difference being that they are still open at 3 in the morning and are generally packed with drunken fools buying Snickers bars and bottles of vodka. Some Sklep Nocny have a kiosk-like system where they close the shop at about 11 but still have a little hatch through which you can be served alcoholic beverages and packets of pretzels well into the small hours. These are usually manned by clueless security guards who have been lured into a customer service role with the promise of an extra 20 zloty in the pay packet and as much vodka as they can drink. This rarely makes for a happy buying experience. Ask for anything other than a major brand beer or bottle of vodka and the guy is lost. By about 2 in the morning he’s lost and three sheets to the wind. Any kind of disagreement can result in the hatch being slammed shut, often while you are still trying to point at something inside. Usually the whole process breaks down into a Kafkaesque nightmare as the drunken customer in front of you tries to explain exactly what he wants to the drunken hatch guardian. Arguments rapidly escalate into highly ineffectual fisticuffs (it’s hard to box through a twelve inch opening even when sober), followed by colorful and inventive insults, followed by hugs and raucous laughter, by which time both parties have completely forgotten who was trying to buy what and the entire cycle starts again.

A fairly typical sklep nocne, during the day…

sklep nocne

There don’t seem to be any Sklep Nocny in Krakow — there are certainly shops that are open 24 hours, but they don’t call themselves Sklep Nocny and they don’t have quite the same atmosphere.

Local Shops
The local shop is more or less dead in England. The High Street of any town in England could be replaced with the High Street of any other without causing surprise or offense — they all consists of the same range of interchangeable chain stores, mini-supermarkets, and fast food joints. Not so here. There are a whole range of extraordinary and odd local shops that seem to survive in strict contradiction to the laws of logic and commerce. Among my favorites are a tiny, tiny gardening shop right in the center of town many miles from the nearest house with a garden, a shop on my street that appears to sell nothing but fruit juice and oddly shaped pumpkins, and a second-hand clothes shop that doubles as a translation agency. The amazing thing is that dozens of almost identical and apparently useless shops seem to survive with little or no customers. As I think I’ve mentioned before there are about a dozen pharmacies within a ten minute walk of my front door (I swear, I’m not exaggerating) which, even given the Polish predilection to hypochondria, seems a trifle excessive. Ladies underwear shops are also incredibly common. I don’t mean the kind that sell flimsy things to newlyweds, I mean the kind that sell fearsome looking corsets and whale boned bras rated on the Richter Scale. I’ve never seen anybody in any of them and they all look as of their windows were last dressed in 1947.

The best local shops are the grocery stores, or ‘spozywczy’ (now there’s a word for Scrabble buffs). These are equivalent to the local mini markets familiar to anyone in any part of London or any other major English city, except they’re not staffed by the kind of guys who call you “boss” and never ever seem to sleep. There are hundreds of spozywczy of varying quality and convenience but they all have certain factors in common. Fruit juice is a big thing in Poland. Any spozywczy worth its salt will devote at least half its floor space to fruit juices. There are dozens of brands and a bewildering range of mixtures; blackcurrant and coconut, banana and fig, cherry and orange and, worst of all, apple and mint – there is nothing more disturbing that taking a big gulp of what you assume to be apple juice only to find that its been adulterated with chewing gum type mint flavouring. Of only slightly less importance is mineral water — almost exclusively local brands. Polish people have absolutely zero faith in the H20 that comes out of the tap. Instead they go to the local shop and pay for exactly the same water that’s been bottled before it’s been through the filtration plant. There’s always a meat counter too, where one can by all manner of sliced, minced, hacked, pumelled, or lightly stabbed pieces of pig or chicken. Beef and lamb are practically unknown — the whole country is a Muslim’s nightmare. Bread is the the fourth staple, much of it having the consistency and flavour of baked cardboard. The little space left over is generally stuffed with chocolate, biscuits, and vile-tasting cakes.

Nobody in this country has change. I have absolutely no idea why this is the case, but it is certainly and universally so. Buy anything in any kind of shop and the cashier will plaintively ask if you have the exact change whilst surveying the empty coin slots of her till drawer. I don’t think I’ve even bought anything, or any collection of things, that rang up at a simple round number and neither have a I ever handed over a crisp round-figured note without being asked for small change. A friend of mine went into a branch of a major international supermarket about five minutes after it opened in the morning and was asked if he had change. If a major company like Tescos can’t arrange for its shops to have sufficient change when they open what hope do the rest of them have? I’m so used to the daily change hassle that I automatically delve into my pockets before getting to the till. I do the same thing when I’m back in England, a country where change grows on trees and is freely littered about the streets. Cashiers look at me warily as I scramble to assemble £1.87 in pennies.

Polish shop girls will do almost anything to get their hands on what you’ve got in your trousers.

Polish drobny

Interestingly there are in fact two places in Poland where there is always change. One is my trousers and the other is a certain kiosk on Basztowa street. For some reason my pockets are always bulging with the stuff. I’ve developed thigh muscles the size of tree trunks carrying it about. This is despite the fact that I’m constantly shoveling fist-fulls of coins over shop counters. When I’m feeling unappreciated I like to go into the nearest shop, hold out and handful of change and say “here, help yourself to this little lot” to the shop girls. They flock round like hungry and appreciative doves and I leave a couple of minutes later with a couple of crisp new notes, a lighter step, and renewed sense of self-worth. I’m sure it’s not good for my soul but I like to think I’m helping to keep the economic wheels turning.

As to the magical kiosk on Basztowa, it’s owned by a particularly fierce babcy whom I suspect may be their queen. I’ve never been asked for change there, I’ve almost lost my arm a couple of times but I’ve never been asked for change. Come to that I’ve never seen this particular kiosk closed either, and I mean ever. Even on November 1st, when everything is closed, it was open. The more I think about it, the more I come to suspect that it might be some kind of gateway to the babcie underworld.

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