Archive for December, 2007

The English Wave

Nothing to do with a flood of my countrymen heading Poland-ward but the physical action of moving your hand about in such a way as to express greetings or goodbyes. English people do it a lot and Polish people seem to do it hardly at all. It’s another one of those very simple cultural differences, like the passing on the opposite side thing, that has taken me an age to consciously notice.

For a long time I’ve had the nagging feeling that Polish people were rather stiff and ineffectual when it came to saying goodbye, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. As Jerry Seinfeld might have said – they just seemed to be bad parters. It was only after a short period in which the ever winsome A used to catch a bus home every night, and I often escorted her to the bus stop, that I became dimly aware of it. A quick kiss, and possibly a clutch of the forearm, and she would hare off to leap on the bus before it left without her. I would stand and watch her go expecting her to turn at the last minute and wave before boarding. She never did. I would linger for a few more seconds expecting her to duck down and give me a quick wave out the window. She never did that either. As her bus lumbered into the distance belching blue smoke I would shuffle off despondently, my hand unwaved, feeling slightly foolish. At the time, I didn’t think about it in this way. I wasn’t consciously aware that I was waiting for a wave; I just had the vague feeling that I’d been rebuffed. It was only some time later sitting on a train as it trundled out of Kraków Główny on its way to Warsaw that it struck me. A young girl was saying goodbye to her beau through the window. They mimed kisses, they tapped on the glass, they winked and slow-blinked (a classic Polish gesture), but they didn’t wave. Had they been English they’re arms would have been waggling around like rushes in a gale as a final gesture. Not a sausage.

Of course there’s a very good reason for the dearth of Polish waves (apart from the one causing right-wing newspapers in the UK to knot their panties). The reason being that Polish people have other perfectly good gestures that they use in preference. Let’s look at these one at a time (didn’t you just know a numbered list was imminent).

1. The Slow Blink
This has become so familiar to me that I almost don’t consciously notice it anymore. To perform the Polish Slow Blink lift your chin and tilt your head back slightly and curtly while closing both eyes slowly but momentarily. You should keep your gaze fixed on the departee throughout and wear the same expression you would when delivering a quick kiss, otherwise you’ll just look like a fool trying to swallow an oversized Polo mint.

The only problem with this gesture is that it’s also used sarcastically to mean “If you say so, but I think you’re completely brain dead.” If a Pole does this to you at anytime other than a goodbye scene, they’re extracting the Michael and one is perfectly justified in slapping them about a bit.

I should also note that it seems to be an exclusively male gesture. I don’t remember ever seeing a woman do it, but I could be wrong. Done correctly it makes you look cool, intimate, but not overly-concerned. I practice in front of the mirror all the time, but this is hard to do because one’s eyes are closed at the crucial moment if you do it right.

2. The Handshake
Any Brit who’s been in Poland more than 10 minutes quickly realizes that the handshake is used far more liberally and indiscriminately here than it is back home. This is true across much of Europe, but it still takes us islanders a fair while to get used to. In Poland you shake hands with people you don’t know, people you know well, people you know vaguely, and people you once saw on the bus, and what’s more you do it almost every time you meet them. To an Englishman the handshake is a gesture of considerable seriousness. You only shake hands with someone you are being introduced to for the first time, with an old friend after not having seen them for a long time, or with the same friend you are saying goodbye to expecting not to see them for a long time (even this is considered to be a tad excessive in some circles). The only other occasion on which handshaking is acceptable is as a peace-making gesture, as in the phrase “shake hands and make up.”

A Polish person refusing to shake hands. There are all kinds of cultural misunderstandings going on here; but they are footballers so it’s safer just to sit back and laugh.
Handshake refusal

The Polish handshaking rules cause chaos among Brits living in Poland. We can handle adopting these rules when interacting with the locals, but there’s a terrible temptation to carry it over to fellow countrymen here as well which causes a great deal of uncertain fumbling about and social awkwardness. Some Brits take to it like a duck to water and act as if they’ve longed to shake hands with everyone around them all their lives while others refuse to have anything to do with it.

Once again this is largely a male preserve and I think, although I’m not certain, that the handshake is more significant as a greeting than it is as a goodbye.

3. The Kiss
I’m not going to try going into this too deeply because it’s been written about ad nauseam in a hundred other places about numerous other countries (usually France in the case of British readers). Two kisses, three kisses, five kisses, whatever your poison, it just doesn’t work with Brits. We greet-kiss our Mums, our sisters, and our nieces, and that’s it. The main problem is that, outside of these three aforementioned categories, a kiss is essentially sexual for a British guy. Kissing your wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/significant other is a different thing from kissing your Mum/sister/neice and it’s very confusing when one is called upon to kiss a female friend. I never know what to do with my hands. Kiss your girlfriend and your hands go to her waist (at the lowest heat setting). When I have to kiss a female friend in Poland the hands just do they’re own thing and I’m often horrified to note that they’ve made straight for the hip. The brain is otherwise engaged in negotiating the whole ‘where to plant the lips’ problem and has no say in the matter.

(I tried searching for pics of “Polish kissing” but the Google results tended to concentrate on activities between scantily-clad women that threatened to keep me occupied for far too long. So I gave up)

And now the English list:

A. The Straight-Hand Wave
As I’ve been writing this I’ve realized that I’m writing entirely from the male perspective. What can I do? I’ve decided to abandon any pretense of being universal and just go with it. The Straight-Hand Wave is a typical male British gesture of parting. To perform: lift the right forearm at right angles to the upper arm and present the palm of the hand, fingers together and thumb separate, to the departee. Do not wave or move the hand and hold the gesture for a maximum of 2 seconds. At the same time turn your face in the direction you are going and do not make eye contact with the departee. To a Polish person I suspect this looks a lot like the gesture for “shut up, I’m not listening to you” which can cause problems.

I have no idea who this guy is, but that’s a classic Straight-Hand Wave in my book. Perhaps just a little too much eye contact.
Straight-hand wave

(Breaking news: As I was writing the ever beguiling A popped in unexpectedly for half an hour rather than wait for a tram in the cold. I showed her what I was working on and we chatted briefly about the office party she had just left. I showed her to the door, received a very nice kiss or two (hands on hips), and off she went down the stairs. Did she wave? Not a chance.)

B. The Half-Hand Wave
In British culture this is the classic goodbye wave performed by people who are very familiar with each other. It involves holding the forearm at a straight ninety-degree angle, as in the Straight Hand Wave, but the fingers are folded repeatedly and quickly into the palm. It has childish overtones and as such is only usually performed during family partings or goodbyes to lovers.

C. The Full-On Goodbye Wave
This is the big one. Leap in the air, wave your arm about as if it was on fire, waggle your fingers as if it was going out of style (I’ve never understood that phrase), and generally beam and gesticulate in the direction of the departee. Most commonly seen at concerts and during alcohol-fueled evenings out with university mates.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Polish person indulge in the big wave, except when Jan Pawel II was involved. Again, I could be completely wrong.

D. The Royal Wave
You’re probably not going to believe this but there is a particular form of waving that is exclusively associated with royalty (i.e. ER II). The Royal Wave involves the familiar right-handed angle of the forearm but the hand is clenched with fingers together and rotates at the wrist in a slow and, necessarily regal, manner. Nobody known where the blessed Elizabeth, head of our nation, got the idea for this wave but it was an absolutely genius invention.

Your actual Royal Wave from your actual royal. There must be a vid somewhere but I couldn’t find one.
Royal wab

Imagine unexpectedly driving slowly past a group of friends or associates on the street. The Royal Wave can be performed to great comic effect. It implies “I am being regally driven around while you hoi polloi are languishing on the pavement.” It’s powerfully connected with the car-myth that causes so much annoyance and physical injury in modern societies and about which I may one day get around to writing.

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When I moved to my current flat in October I was shocked to note that I didn’t have a thermometer outside the window. For those of you unfamiliar with the whole ‘living in Poland’ thing, let me explain. According to a law going back to the 17th century all Polish domiciles are required to have a functioning thermometer perched outside at least one window. The reasons for this are lost in history, but it’s something that I’ve long been in favor of. For us extreme-weather-deprived Brits it’s a source of endless entertainment. Imagine the thrill of waking up on a particularly Arctic morning, running downstairs, and reading ‘–15’ off the thermometer outside the window. It’s gives one a sense of danger and adventure reminiscent of the Spirit of the Blitz. The opportunity to wander around all day casually saying “It was just under negative 15 this morning” in an Frederick-Forsyth-SIS-operative tone of voice is completely irresistible. I was unable to do this until recently.

The omniscient A bought me a 6 zl thermometer as a surprise present the other day. The thing was out of the packet, assembled, and mounted on my slightly rickety window frame in a trice. I’m watching it right now. So far it’s been disappointing. We had a bit of the white stuff down here in Krakow yesterday and the thermometer refused to sink below –0.5. Of course that’s well within the range of normal snow-fall but it seemed colder to me somehow. A checked the weather forecast online and it reported that Krakow was between –1 and 1 degrees – which didn’t help at all. The red line hasn’t moved from the vicinity of –0.5/0 ever since. I don’t know what to do. Is the bloody thing faulty? Or do I just have massively exaggerated expectations? I could put the ba****d in the freezer to check, but that would mean taking it down from its precarious glue-based mount.

It’s a guy thing I know. We like to look at instruments, take readings, and check the time. Then we can furrow our brows and note inconsistencies or coincidences. We call it ‘science’ to give the whole thing a veneer of respectability. All I need now is a weather balloon, a mission, and a pack of huskies. I’d love to write more, but there are barometric pressures to be watched…

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I Call a BlogMeet!

It’s a little known fact that every year the best bloggers in Poland meet at a discreet and swanky location in order to give awards to each other, drink excessive amounts of whisky, and generally have a great time. The reason this is a little known fact is that I just invented it. But on the other hand, what’s to stop us?

I call BlogMeet 2008! We all converge at a particular place on a particular day and have our own awards ceremony. We can take over a small bar or restaurant for the evening, set up a little stage, have gold envelopes, a little entertainment from the various bands/cabarets/general weirdos that I’m sure we all know, and generally muck about pretending to be significant. Invite your friends, put a post up on your blog and people will flood in! Let the local press know and we can leverage this into national fame and untold wealth (possibly). I predict the presence of blog groupies.

Proposals for award categories:
Best Blog Including the Name of Vegetable in it’s Title (The Beatroot is heavily tipped)
Best Blog Authored by a Star Wars Inspired Character (Anybody here called “Darth…“?)
Best Blog Mentioning a Pet in it’s Title (Travels without…)
Best Blog About Jeziorki (How to choose…?)
Best Blog that Actually Involves Some Hard Work (It’s yet to be proved whether Pawel is a corporeal being or not, so this one could be controversial)
Best Blog Beginning with the Letter “W” (Thank god scatts renamed his)

…and many more.

I’m quite serious about this. Give me a modicum of encouragement and I’ll make it happen. I know it’s silly, but hey, you only live once or so I’m told. I’m vaguely thinking of Feb/March, Krakow or the Big Bad Wa Wa. As to a name:

Poland Bloggers Meet ’08

Suggestions welcome for names/award categories.

Do spread the news as you see fit.

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No, I’m not trying to set the record for the greatest number of hyphens in a post title, I’m referring to a brain fever that seized me the other day as I was writing “Eleven things you always wanted to know about Polish people and weren’t in the least bit disinclined to ask.” I’m afraid I was terribly rude and unfair about Polish manners. I’m usually unflinchingly positive about Poland and its fine people, mostly as a reaction to the almost instinctive negativity that I hear from Poles all the time. How to explain this baffling reversal? The demons of culture shock had their claws in me.

Culture shock is a very real and powerful psychological condition that affects people in bizarre and unexpected ways. There are all kinds of academic treatments of the stages of culture shock but mine is as follows. Imagine moving to a foreign country and visiting the same pub on three successive occasions, once in the first week, once in the 15th week, once in the 30th week.

1st Week: “Hey, this beer is really cool, and I love the way they’ve put a dash of raspberry juice in it. It’s so nice to have waitresses rather than having to queue up at the bar every time you want a drink. And they’re so relaxed. People really do live easier and slower over here, I can’t believe I didn’t think of moving here before – I can feel the stress oozing out of my toes.” Slumps in a contented manner whilst drinking in the scenery… and the beer.

15th Week “What the hell do you have to do to get served round here! You, yes you, waitress person, bring me a proper beer with NO raspberry juice in it and try and get it here in less than half an hour if possible. Bloody lazy swines. Nattering away about their skinhead boyfriends. They’re probably watering it down as we speak, I’m fairly sure this place is a Mafia front anyway. They’ll be damn lucky to get a tip I can tell you. Honest decent people dying of thirst…” Steam emits from ears as everybody within 50 feet is regarded with flagrant distrust.

30th Week “Beer please. No rush.” Leafs through Gazeta Wyborcza pretending to read but actually looking at the pictures. “So what’s going on… I know, Legia Warszawa got away with that one by the skin of their teeth… Andrzejki party? I’m there mate, what time?… NO I DON’T WANT TO BUY A ROSE AND IF YOU COME NEAR ME AGAIN I’M GOING TO BREAK YOUR F***ING LEGS…” awkward silence… “where the hell did THAT come from!?”

Stage three is the tricky one. You think you’re okay with the situation and you’ve learned to live with the oddities that annoyed the hell out of you in the first couple of months, but a new force rises from the darkest depths of your psyche. It’s a bit like the mental wiring that causes you to jerk awake just as you are falling asleep. Sometimes, without you realizing it, a primordial horror that you are being submerged, consumed, subdued by a foreign culture overtakes you and you just lash out in freakish and disturbing ways.

You’re at the stage where you can ape the locals, but are forced into the role of a child at the same time. Your behavior is a simulacrum of the adults, but you know it’s not the real thing and this is pretty hard to take for someone who might already have spent a great deal of time and effort to establish himself as a respected adult in his own culture. The ‘performing seal’ routine is a good example: reciting Polish words or phrases in your best accent to the acclaim of the group makes one feel rather like a four-year-old who has just learned to sing Ba Ba Black Sheep. Sometimes you just want to scream “What the hell do you people know anyway! There’s a big bad world out there that speaks English and I know more about it that the lot of you bumpkins put together!” Which is of course completely unfair, not to say inaccurate.

I’m afraid it was the stage three demons that jerked me into uncharacteristic rudeness the other day, and I apologize for it to any Polish readers. It was, of course, a discussion with the alarmingly wise A that allowed me to think this one through.

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When one becomes a blogger certain arcane powers are bestowed on one by the hidden kabal of semi-reptilian, semi-bovine multi-dimensional beings who own and run the interweb thingy. In a horrid and blood soaked ritual that takes place at a secret location beneath the janitor’s closet in E wing of the Googleplex the new blogger acquires several super-hero-like abilities. Among these are the power to believe that the entire world is probably interested in reading your inane rantings, the power to smile smugly whilst saying “you really should read my blog you know,” and the power to ‘see’ what other, lesser, mortals are searching for on the internet. Of course I’m taking a grave risk by telling you about this but I’ve taken the precaution of balancing an empty beer bottle on my doorknob and the whole place is rigged to blow at the touch of a cunningly concealed toggle (what do you mean you’ve never seen Conspiracy Theory?). If you’re a blogger and you don’t remember this, it’s all down to the MKultra-style mind-fiddling tricks they deploy. There is a cure, but you need large quantities of obscure intoxicants and a couple of weeks of free time to put it into practice.

By performing certain ‘clicking’ actions in a certain order on certain ‘screens’ that are known only to the initiate the blessed blogger may gain access to a certain sacred ‘document’ known as ‘blog stats’ (I wouldn’t expect you to understand – it’s pretty advanced stuff). Buried deep within this hallowed document is a paragraph headed “These are terms people used to find your blog.” Therein may be found vast and disturbing knowledge of the average web surfer. In other words, “these are the things that some poor sap somewhere typed into Google and then ended up on your blog.” I intend to answer some of these queries in full.

In no particular order they are as follows (all are completely genuine search engine queries):

1. “Are polish people generally short?”
I’m tempted to say, “Yes they are all generally short of change,” but I suspect that’s not what the questioner had in mind. I have to say I’ve experienced a bit of a revelation in regard to this point recently. The ever-delectable A (who will probably kill me when she reads this) is certainly of diminutive stature. For many months I took great pleasure in pointing this out to her by the simple expedient of holding objects at the limit of my tiptoe reach and observing that she couldn’t reach them without recourse to a step ladder. My how I laughed, until she discovered that a carefully placed blow with the knee tended to collapse my superior position. From the floor I observed, in my defense, that she was indeed remarkably short and, moreover, that knee strikes of that kind were explicitly outlawed by the Geneva Convention. “Look around you” she said “you’re the freak. Everyone else around here is my height!” And do you know what, she was absolutely right. The next time I went out on the street I had a good look, and it’s true. Almost everyone, especially the women, barely came up to chest height. I started to feel a little like Gulliver and took more care about where I was treading.

The short answer: yes, most Poles are short-arses. Or possibly I’m a freaky giant from freaky-giant land.

2. “Polish facial characteristics”
We’ve been through this one before. No, there are no unique facial characteristics that enable you to identify a Pole (unless you count scowling and staring). Most Poles believe that they can spot another Pole on the streets of London or Chicago just by glancing at them. I say once and for all that this is total nonsense. It’s all down to body language and clothes. I’m glad that’s finally settled and expect to hear no more about it.

3. “How to meet Polish people”
Go to Poland. Or Camden Town. Or Baron’s Court. Or Chicago. You won’t be able to move without tripping over them. I suspect the subtext behind this query is actually ‘how to meet gorgeous Polish women.’ Since almost all Polish women are gorgeous, it’s less of a problem than it may first appear. On the other hand there’s a big difference between ‘being on the same street as’ and ‘meeting.’ Chatting up a Polish woman on the street or in a pub is next to impossible, unless she’s previously spent six months in Camden Town, Baron’s Court etc.

4. “Are polish people rude?”
Yes. Next.

Ok, sorry I should I go into this a bit more carefully. When I first came to Poland I was appalled at the way people constantly barged into me on the streets. It took me months the realize that this was actually my fault. Polish people pass on the opposite side to English people, as they drive on the opposite side. Amazing but true. It was me who was barging into them. Once I had figured this out I smiled benevolently at pedestrians and marveled at the ease with which I was able to walk down the street. I was happy right up until the point somebody barged in front of me in a queue or blithely allowed a door to swing shut in my face. The simple truth is that ‘street’ manners in Poland are generally appalling. If someone doesn’t know you, fancy you, or want something from you they’re likely to treat you with about as much respect as they might a rabid mongoose. It’s a jungle out there. Once I had realized and understood this I began to ‘go native.’ I’m a fairly big chap and entirely capable of winning in a pavement game of chicken. Nowadays, if the local barge merchants don’t get out of my way they tend to end up sprawled in the gutter. This is particularly amusing if they happen to be frail young lasses in high heels.

If I may stray into seriousness for a moment I think the root cause of this is that Poles are extremely judgmental. If they don’t know someone and that someone isn’t dressed from head to foot in pure mink/stepping out of a Mercedes SLK/emerging from a government office at that moment they tend to assume that they are scum. Poles are hypersensitive to social divisions (read: money). In truth the national flag should be pure green, because jealousy and envy are the driving forces behind most social interactions. Poles will bang on endlessly about how courteous and hospitable they are as a nation, but what this actually boils down to is three things:
1. giving up your seat on the bus to a female who is either a) pretty or b) likely to give you a severe ear-bashing if you don’t;
2. inviting people around to your house and plying them with food and drink in order to demonstrate that a) you have expensive stuff in your house and b) that you can afford to ply people with food and drink;
3. sucking up to people who may be able to do you a favor at some unforeseeable point in the future (elsewhere this is known as bribery).

By crikey I’m in a wicked mood today!

5. “Poland shop cigarettes”
Yes, there are shops and cigarettes in Poland – often in the same place. Most of these cigarettes have, in fact, been smuggled across the Ukranian border secreted in the undergarments of Polish grandmothers, but this doesn’t effect the taste significantly. I once knew a guy who worked in a massive American Tobacco plant somewhere in Poland. He received 20 percent of his wages in the form of cigarettes and took great delight in distributing them with gay abandon.

6. “Did poland ever have any colonies?”
Hmmm… tricky one. Basically, no. Poland never had colonies in the same sense that France or Italy or Germany or Britain (ahem, largest empire in history, ahem) did. Having said that, for much of the Middle Ages Poland was substantially bigger than it is now and it’s kings ruled over huge parts of what are now the Ukraine, Belarus, Germany, and Slovakia. Much good it did them. Of course today large parts of north and west London could be considered Polish colonies. I’m just waiting for the Polish Protectorate of Baron’s Court to be declared. It will do us all good and I intend to apply for citizenship immediately (see 3 above).

Flowing from this is the perennial question about Poland’s geographical ‘bad luck.’ As I indicated above, Poland was doing screamingly well for a long time in the Middle Ages and was known as one of the richest kingdoms in Europe. Somehow everything went pear-shaped following the Reformation and Poland has been invaded, partitioned, or occupied about once every three weeks since then. The standard response to this poor showing usually refers to the idea that Poland is surrounded by “powerful neighbors” and was thereby “doomed” to repeated invasion and occupation. This is a steaming pile of horse phooey as far as I can make out. Almost all countries are surrounded by “powerful neighbors.” France is “surrounded” by Germany, Britain, and Italy but has somehow managed to get through the centuries without dissolving into a vague concept for hundreds of years at a time. Britain is “surrounded” by France, Holland, Scandinavia, and Ireland. Germany is “surrounded” by France, Scandinavia, and Poland. How come the Germans aren’t complaining that they’ve been subjected to consistent and unsporting invasion?

7. “Poles drink?”
Yes, I believe I have occasionally seen them do so. It was all pretty lilly-livered and unprofessional stuff so I don’t like to cause embarrassment by going on about it.

8. “Pictures of polish people”
I suspect that whoever typed this in ended up directed to my slightly wicked picture of the traditional Polish drunk. I do hope it didn’t put them off at all :P.

9. “Crazy polish women”
I’m too scared to comment on this, although I should point out that it turned up 14 times (I just Googled it and discovered there’s a YouTube vid titled ‘Crazy Polish WomAn’ which may explain a lot, although she’s clearly not Polish – she would have been armed if she was).

10. “Types of homes people of Poland live in”
Bizzarely this one comes up all the time. I can only imagine that there’s a school system somewhere that requires its students to write “600 words on the average domicile of the Polish person” or some such nonsense. It was the repeated appearance of this query that inspired me to write Where do Polish People Live, but the whole subject turned out to be a lot less interesting than I had originally envisaged.

11. “Jews responsible for World War 2”
Errmm… I think, on balance, that a couple of minutes considered thought generally points fairly strongly towards the conclusion that this is unlikely. I don’t say this often but – WTF!?

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