Archive for January, 2008

Wine, women, and song

I’d like to say a few words about the buying of wine in Poland. A surprising number of people have told me that Poland is in a ‘transitional state’ when it comes to alcohol consumption. It’s passing slowly and painfully from a ‘vodka’ culture to a ‘beer and wine’ culture thereby bringing it in line with the ‘civilized’ peoples of western Europe. I say ‘surprising’ simply because one wouldn’t expect such an obscure subject to come up in general conversation quite so often, but it does. Exactly why the drinking of beer is described as a new thing in Poland I haven’t quite managed to figure out since the big breweries seem to have been going strong since the nineteenth century, however, that’s neither here nor there.

There are three places where one can reasonably expect to be able to buy wine in Poland (assuming the Pope isn’t in town, in which case there are none); the supermarket, the local off-licence, and the poncy wine shop. For non-British readers I offer the following translations: an ‘off-licence’ is the British name for what the Americans would call a liquor store and anyone else would call and alcohol shop (commonly known as the ‘offie’ in British slang); a ‘poncy wine shop’ is a wine shop frequented by ponces. There are quite a few poncy wine shops in Krakow (ok, ok, it’s a shop that sells wine and nothing else) but they are far too easy and no fun. There’s a very good one on the main square in Krakow where the staff have been specially trained to stare at their customers in a witheringly disapproving manner.

Buying wine in the supermarket is a bit like renting pornographic films at the local DVD shop. You are required to slip unobtrusively through a set of swinging doors into a secretive and slightly shameful enclave. It makes you feel very grown up and degenerate. Small children hang their arms over the barrier and wonder what the adults are doing in there pouring over strange bottles with an odd gleam in their eyes. You pick your wine off the shelf and take it to the special cashier within the enclave. She eyes you suspiciously, rings up the cash, wraps your wino in paper and plastic, and hands you the receipt. It’s very important to keep this receipt because when you go to the proper god-fearing cashier at the front of the shop to pay for all your other non-shameful purchases, she will want to look at it. I have no idea why. The first time I was faced with this situation I did what everybody does with receipts and promptly dropped it, or stuffed it into a pocket, or otherwise disappeared it. This was a bad mistake. My goodness what a hoopla ensued. The default assumption was that I had snuck into the wine enclave, snaffled a couple of bottles off the shelf, wrapped them in paper, put them in a plastic bag, and then tried to sneak them through the cash desk by cunningly placing them on the conveyor with all my other stuff. I almost got away with it too.

Now I’m used to it I actually quite like the system. In the UK you pick up wine in the supermarket with no more thought or palaver than you would pick up toothpaste. I quite like the danger of the Polish system. Can you keep hold of that all-important receipt? Will the security guard believe you? I also quite like the way other people queueing at the cash till eye your tightly wrapped bottles and wonder if you are a straightforward drunk or a sophisticated type capable of picking out proper wine. They will never know.

Having said all that, buying wine in the supermarket is nothing compared to buying it in the local offie. Open-all-hours alcohol shops in Poland are actually extremely well-stocked with wine, not to mention a hundred other kinds of intoxicating liquids. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to get at them. The average Polish off-licence is a narrow shop strictly divided by a counter. The customers are on one side of the counter while the sklepowa and all the booze are on the other (depending on the area bullet-proof plexiglass may be involved). Walk up to the counter and the resident troll says “What do you want?” or words to that effect. “Red wine please” opines the innocent customer. The troll rolls her eyes and gestures over her shoulder at the two-to-three hundred wines for sale. “Which?” she asks. Now that’s a tricky question when the wines in question are a good two meters away and it is therefore impossible to read the labels with any accuracy. Also you have to consider the fact that there are a dozen people standing behind you in the queue who may or may not be raving alcoholics with the patience of four-year-old children.

Fortunately the Poles have come up with a cunning system for coping with this fundamental flaw in the wine-selling business; “Sweet or dry?”; “Semi-sweet or semi-dry?” All wine-buying decisions come down to this. The proper response is “Yes. I would like a semi-dry wine for about 20 zloty.” You are then handed a random bottle that vaguely matches these parameters. Note that one should always say “semi-dry” if one doesn’t want to be equated with teenage alcohol experimentation (wisniowa anyone?) and that 20 zloty puts you safely outside of jabola country. Exactly how vintners make money from this arrangement I have no idea. For the customer the results are diverting and occasionally pleasant.

The women? There is only one A.

The song? I was listening to T-Love ‘I Love You’ (Polish version) when I started this. And no, I am not a wise man.


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Crazy Ivan

In the depths of the mid-January blues I have, nevertheless, managed to come up with a pointless and probably insulting generalization about the Polish people. I’ve decided to wholeheartedly embrace generalization both because it’s funnier than balanced reporting and because it fits in nicely with my inherent laziness.

In the 1990 movie The Hunt for Red October the eponymous Soviet submarine performs a maneuver described by the American heroes as a “Crazy Ivan.” The so-called Crazy Ivan move involves stopping dead in the water and spinning around by 180 degrees to point in the opposite direction. The idea is to spot sneaky American submarines that may be quietly following them (as indeed they are). I’ve just realized where they got the idea; the Crazy Ivan is standard practice for Polish pedestrians.

I get caught out by this at least 17 times a day (I’ve also decided to embrace flagrant exaggeration). Walking down the street the person in front of me will suddenly stop in their tracks and lurch of to the right or the left or backwards with absolutely no warning. I walk fast, and this means I have to take drastic evasive action, such as diving sideways into oncoming traffic, or risk a collision. I have no idea what lies behind this extraordinary behavior. Are they suddenly distracted by something visible only to natives? Is it some kind of genetically-inherited method of detecting and disabling following foreigners? Is there a Krakow bylaw that forbids walking in one direction for more than 50 paces?

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7-things-about-me meme

I’ve squirmed and vacillated about this one ever since Flowers on a Friday tagged me last week. I’ve never been the victim of a meme tagging before and, at first, I was apprehensive about the idea. I felt a little afraid and thought about calling the police in a plaintive tone of voice. There’s something about being co-opted into a mass wave that makes me squeamish. It smacks of the chain-letters that used to plague my Mum many, many years ago. But then I thought ‘hey, I might get higher blog stats this way, and that’s a good thing – right?’

According to the rules I should “Share 7 random and/or weird facts about myself” and then “Tag 7 random people at the end of my post and include links to their blogs.”…

I doubt there are seven interesting things about me that my readers (all three of them) don’t already know and the idea of “seven random people” is frankly laughable since I’ll probably struggle to reach that many…

Anyway, as a wise man once said “I’ll try anything once, including incest and yada yada yada…”

1. I don’t have a washing machine, but I know a woman who does.

2. I am firmly committed to the belief that Rapid City is actually the capital of the United States and I defy anyone to prove me wrong. This fact was imparted to me in a revelation via the touch of His Noodly Appendage.

3. I’m probably in big trouble with my girlfriend because of 2.

4. I am the Stig.

5. I believe that the only feasible destiny for the human race requires colonization beyond the Earth… blimey, an honest one slipped through.

6. I’m extremely poor at sharing personal information and beliefs.

7. I have an evil twin brother named Rodriguez. Fortunately he’s long-lost.

I choose (in alphabetical order):

1. 20 east (no, it can’t be answered in photographic form)
2. Darth Sida (that’s called a ‘spanner in the works’)
3. Dat Blog (can you resist?)
4. Don’t Eat the Fruit (fire up the spell-checker)
5. Travels Without My Spaniel (damn, she’s witty)
6. W-wa Jeziorki (‘Hodge Two’ still makes me laugh to this day)

and (not in alphabetical order):

7. The Beatroot (that’s right my friends; I’m going after the big boy)


7.5. Polish Press – who can’t really take up the gauntlet on his own blog and is therefore invited to respond in the form of a comment on mine (please).

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This is kind of an ‘Elephant in the room’ issue. Anybody who blogs in English about Poland is aware of the Beatroot. He’s the Cory Doctorow of expat Polish blogging (astonished to note that ‘Cory Doctorow’ is accepted as a properly-spelled term by WordPress spelling software while ‘WordPress’ isn’t!)

Exactly what is his(?) secret. The guy posts about a Polish NASA and gets 60 comments within hours. How’s it done?

Anybody here commented on his blog or, more amazingly, had him comment on theirs? Is he maliciously ignoring us, or are we maliciously ignoring him? (only scatts I think has a blogroll link to him).

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At the Battle of Waterloo Lord Fordyce of Crote had the misfortune to be struck by a cannon ball that severed his left leg below the knee. He turned to the Duke of Wellington and said “Gad Sir! My leg’s off. That’s going to make it damn tricky to play cricket.” Trapped beneath the peak of K2 by a four-day blizzard Sir Hugh Bermondsey recorded in his diary “Still chilly out. Cursed bad luck we forgot to bring that extra 6 ounces of tea. Leg fell off from frostbite this morning.” Surrounded by an entire division of Japanese infantry on the Burma peninsular Corporal Bert Allsop of the 9th London Rifles spent six days in a foxhole with the enemy only yards away. On the morning of the seventh day he poked his head above the parapet and shouted “‘Ere, any of you Nips got a lighter I could borrow, only the bleedin’ flint’s gone on mine?”

Why am I spinning these tall tales? Because I promised to write a post about the much misunderstood, and occasionally maligned, notion of British reserve and coolness. The easiest way to open a window onto this complex phenomenon, which lies at the heart of the British self image, is through the internationally known cliché of the stiff upper lip. In case you’ve never heard of it, let me explain. In the 1940s and 50s it was almost impossible to have a conversation without including the words “stiff upper lip,” I know – I’ve seen the movies. Any kind of adversity or misfortune was automatically responded to with phrases such as “Never mind lad. Worse things happen at sea. Chin up, stiff upper lip. Keep a straight bat and you’ll be fine” followed by a curt nod or, in extreme cases such as the loss of a major body part, a short pat on the upper arm (where present). Reluctance to display emotion in the face of extreme misfortune (or extreme good fortune) is the first key element of British cool.

Is this because we’re unemotional and icy-hearted creatures? No, in fact it’s because we’re exactly the opposite. The British are sentimental, romantic, and softhearted to an absurd degree. We are hypersensitive to the suffering or joy of others to the extent that it’s actually unbearable. We’re also extremely polite and, consequently, don’t like to upset others by pouring our own emotions out for all to see. Also, we don’t like wasting time on the bleedin obvious. As the wounded airman lies in his hospital bed hovering on the point of death his wing commander says “Chin up lad, we’ll have you up and about and chasing skirt in no time” meaning “You know you’re dying and I know you’re dying but if I actually come out and say it that would be a hell of a downer for everyone and I would end up as a useless emotional wreck.” “Right ho skipper” croaks the wounded airman “I hardly ever used that half of my body anyway” meaning “I know that you know I’m dying but thanks for not mentioning it and bringing me down.” We can’t let ourselves go emotionally because the result would be an utter chaos of weeping, wailing, and shouting bedlam like, I don’t know, Italy or somewhere.

A classic British wartime poster. In my opinion the “Keep calm” part is superfluous.

Keep calm

The stiff upper lip is a cornerstone of British civilization. It’s a social code that allows us to comfort and sympathize with each other without actually going through the tedious business of saying so. The only area in which the stiff upper lip breaks down entirely is in the British relationship to animals. For the stiff-upper-lip policy to work, both sides must be able to say the right things. Animals can’t. This is why the, allegedly, cold British are completely helpless emotional wrecks when it comes to the question of suffering animals. David Stirling, founder of the SAS, shed not one tear nor uttered one anguished cry during four years of unbelievably stressful combat behind enemy lines in North Africa and Italy. When his pet Labrador died, however, he cried like a baby and took to his bed for four days. This story isn’t actually true but any British person would accept it’s likelihood without blinking. The same thing applies to children.

The second key element to British cool is understatement. This is what makes British cool golden. The idea is that in extreme circumstances one deflates the anguish or horror of the situation by relating it to a mundane or domestic situation. This is what I was getting at in the examples that opened this post. Leg off – how will I play cricket?. Freezing to death – I wish I’d bought more tea and, by the way, parts of my body are falling off. Imminent death by bayonet charge – damn, bloody lighter isn’t working. For reasons that I am completely incapable of explaining the British have a pathological hatred of the grand gesture or the intellectual stance. In cliché-land an example would look like this:

Walking toward the guillotine Pascal and Peter are given the chance to say their last words:

Pascal (comedy cliché Frenchman): I die for the liberty of France, for love, and for the glory of freedom!!
Peter: Do try not to get blood on the shirt. I only had it laundered Monday.

Pascal is saying… well actually I don’t know ‘cus I’m not French, but that’s the kind of thing a British person would expect him to say. Peter is saying “You may be about to cut my head off but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you know that this bothers or even interests me in any way.” We are essentially intensely private and stubborn bastards. This is why the idea of identity cards and carrying your passport around in your pocket appalls us so much. It’s just not on. When it is eventually foisted on us, however, we won’t riot or shout in the streets – we’ll find some quiet and inoffensive way to make it mean nothing and carry on as usual.

The taste for understatement extends to every level of British culture. Vernacular British English is littered with phrases of understatement that we use without even thinking about them. “Not bad” is high praise, “Not bad at all” is probably the highest praise you can get. “A bit chilly” becomes properly pertinent when the temperature sinks below -20. “A little damp” is best used when you are up to your neck in a millennial flood.

By the way all these things apply ten-fold to positive situations. There is no greater pleasure to a British person than to experience a massive stroke of good luck, such as winning a lottery, simply because it gives them the opportunity to say something understated such as “Oh yes, it’s really quite nice” or “Now I can buy that hatchback I always wanted.”

The Death of British Cool?

1. The Death of Diana has been widely and frequently touted as marking the end of the kind of stiff-upper-lip understatement that I’ve been discussing, and not without good reason. The public outpouring of emotion that accompanied the funeral of the former Princess of Wales was utterly revolutionary and highly confusing in Britain. It was our Kennedy moment. Everybody remembers where they were when they heard the news and everybody remembers being bemused about the reactions we saw on TV. In fact I think the whole thing fits very neatly into the accepted cannon of British behavior. Diana was seen, especially at the time of her death, as an innocent, slightly lost, child-like figure. In other words, she was outside the normal range of stiff-upper-lip territory. If it had been Prince Charles in that car instead of her we would have had a deeply satisfying formal funeral with shovelfuls of understatement and straight-backed saluting. It would have done us the world of good. But because it was the child-like, informal, confused, ex-princess we lost it big time.

Diana, former Princess of Wales. An innocent according to the rule of British cool.


Compare the Hyde Park IRA bomb of 1982. Soldiers were killed yes, but the thing that made this one stand out above so many others was the slaughter of the horses. Ask any British person who was around at the time and they will remember the horror of half a dozen dead horses covered by tarpaulins on the street, while a hundred other outrages are forgotten (I’m blubbing like a four-year-old just thinking about it).

Slaughtered horses covered by blankets and jackets. The dead people have been taken away.


2. James Bond. Many non-British people assume that Bond is the epitome of British cool. In fact he’s just a psychopath. The whole point about Bond is that he’s emotionally burned out. He’s not being cool, he’s just incapable of feeling. This is what makes him such a compelling figure for the British. He’s the prefect Englishman (deliberate lapse into regionalism) but fatally flawed. He can use a woman as a bullet shield because be just doesn’t care. He acts exactly as a cool and understated British hero should but we can see it’s actually horribly, eerily, because be can’t feel anyway. To a thinking British audience he’s kind of like a zombie – just like a living person, but no empathy. Bond, the screen hero, was invented in the 1960s at a time when the British were going through a tremendous identity crises. The empire was disappearing and Britain was trying to come to terms with being a medium-sized economic power rather than Empress of the Waves. Bond was the perfect and uncanny personification of this period. The fact that he has become an international icon is completely beside the point for us. The recent films have been a source of acute embarrassment for every right-thinking Englishman. Bond has cried at the death of girlfriends and screamed at other emotional discomforts. Horrible, horrible, horrible… The new Daniel Craig incarnation shows promise of perhaps getting back to the point, but we shall see.

Bond. The psychopathic, atypical British hero.


Notes and Queries:
1. Everything I’ve said here is immediately and completely vulnerable to counter-examples. As polishpress mentioned in a recent comment, these are our ‘cultural scripts.’ This is how we imagine ourselves responding to extreme situations and, more importantly, this is the kind of behavior that automatically wins respect in British culture. Are we actually like this? No, of course not, but this is what we wish we could be in a perfect world and the ghosts of this fantasy effect us everyday and in every way.

2. The death of British servicemen is not to be taken as an event of lesser importance than the death of British servicemen’s horses but the latter seemed to me to have a greater emotional impact. I don’t know what that says about either.

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Save the Darth!

Some of you may or may not have received a slightly cryptic email from Darthsida last night. The fact that it was cryptic may not have surprised you (what else would we expect from Darthie), the fact that it essentially announced his imminent retirement certainly should have. The truth is that Darthsida is on the verge of packing it in, of hanging up his sinister blogging cape and calling it a day. I, for one, would be extremely unhappy if this were to happen. How many other English-language blogs written from the perspective of a Polish person do you know? I don’t know any. It’s all very well for us native speakers to bang on amongst ourselves about the oddities and wonders of life in Poland, but it’s all a bit hollow if we don’t get some feedback from Poles, or have the opportunity to read the other side of the story.

Head on over to Darth’s blog right now and deluge him with positive comments. He’s feeling under-appreciated and confused.

Save the Darth! The force is strong with this one.


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Learn Polish on YouTube

I’m not big on resolutions. In fact the last resolution I made was a millennial resolution not to make any more New Year’s resolutions. I’m quite proud of the fact that I stuck to that one for seven years but, all good things must come to an end. I caught myself in the early hours of Jan 1st 2008 resolving to learn some Polish. I mean properly learn. Not just picking up odd phrases and words to do with buying beer and then trying to assemble them into ungrammatical sentences to fit any occasion. Naturally, being a lazy devil, I turned to the internet first rather than doing something sensible and time consuming such as walking over the road and booking a course of “Polish for Foreigners” at the local school. By the way, why do they insist on calling it “Polish for Foreigners?” I find it faintly insulting. English language schools don’t advertise “English for Foreigners” no matter where they are. Why do they have to bring up the “foreigners” part at all? I’m not sure I like being marketed to as a “foreigner.”

Anyway, I’m getting off the point. A google later and I was intrigued to discover numerous links to YouTube vids that suggested they could teach me Polish. And what did I find? As Frank Poole said “My God, It’s full of stars!” I’d like to share three of the best with you.

1. Learn to speak Polish with Zosia!

A tempting invitation. Zosia turns out to be about 15, but she’s clearly a natural. She knows exactly what she wants to say and has rehearsed in her mind exactly how she’s going to go about it. The intensity of her expression when she does the “and again” slow repeats is just priceless.

10/01/08 Zosia asked me to take it down. Who am I to refuse? You can still find her on YouTube though.

Anyway, Zosia has loads of vids on YouTube but only three others have anything to do with learning Polish. The best one is “Eyebrow Show” in which she appears to have gone completely insane but which demonstrates some wicked eyebrow control.

10/01/08 Zosia asked me to take it down. Who am I to refuse? You can still find her on YouTube though.

For some unknown reason Zosia has inhibited embedding, which is a shame. I’ve tried to get round this by nefarious means but who knows how long that will work. Enjoy this star of the future while you can.

2. Learn Polish with Idadeja

This girl has to be the most laid back voluntary teacher I’ve ever come across. In complete contrast to Zosia she clearly hasn’t given a moments thought as to what she’s actually going to say once the camera is rolling. “Let’s start maybe with the body parts” is probably one of the best early lines in a YouTube vid I’ve ever come across. It certainly made me sit up and take notice. It all goes quite well until we get to the cheeks, which sound oddly pronounced to me (ok, ok, to A actually). Once we get beyond the face and head however the whole thing breaks down and suddenly we’re into the colors of random things lying around on her desk. A floppy disc is initially identified as being the color of a flip flop, but she rallies and laughs it off with admirable fortitude. A is convinced that she’s not actually Polish because she gets the word for ‘cheeks’ wrong in a weird way, and it has to be said that her YouTube profile says she’s from the States. On the other hand, she speaks English with a Polish accent. Who knows.

In Idadeja’s second outing (it may not actually be her second, but it’s the second one I came across) she seems a little depressed at first but soon sets us straight by announcing that she’s suffering from period pains. In a slightly lackluster performance she runs us through Polish numbers from 1 to 20. Nothing new for me here I’m afraid, I mastered these playing poker back in the 90s. There is a another one in which she promises to teach me all about fruits and vegetables, but I haven’t seen it yet.

3. Learn how to speak Polish with xwtfitsalexx

Strange name, strange girl. I admit, for the first 30 seconds I thought she was the densest of dense Valley Girls, but then I got it. She’s actually pretty funny. I like the way she backs herself into difficult explanatory dead ends by saying “because” all the time: “To start off you have to know how to say ‘Hi’ because… well… everyone says ‘Hi'” or “…give me all your money, because that’s just handy.” There’s a pretty sharp comedy brain in operation behind this character. The comments on her vid indicate that a lot of people didn’t get this, and she actually uploaded a disclaimer vid in which she says ‘It was a joke you moronic retards’ but in far more polite terms. Oops a touch of Polish sensitivity on show I think.

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