Archive for the ‘Poland’ Category

Krakow is stuffed full of architectural marvels. What’s not immediately obvious is that the whole lot is built of brick. There’s nothing wrong with bricks, let me hasten to add, but it is a bit of a con job. The buildings look as if they’re made of stone, but they’re not; it’s brick all the way down. I spent another productive Sunday wandering around Krakow collecting evidence.

A typical Krakow building. Looks like it’s made of stone, but actually it’s brick covered in a layer of sculptured render.

Another typical Krakow building where the deceitful layer of render hasn’t yet been repaired.

Now, as I said, there’s nothing wrong with building in brick but I do wonder two things:

1. Why go to the trouble of pretending that a brick building isn’t a brick building? Especially when major municipal buildings such as the main cathedral, Kosciol Mariacki, is plainly and openly brick-built?

Brick-built and proud of it.

2. Where’s all the stone? Wawel sits on a mound of (rapidly dissolving) limestone but most of it seems to be made of brick. There are limestone quarries within the environs of the city including the notorious Plaszow quarry – adjacent to the Nazi’s Plaszow work camp. Why aren’t most of the building built of stone with all this limestone lying around?… ok, actually that was about four questions in one.

Wawel: Poland’s heart is made of brick (mostly).

In case you don’t believe me about the limestone, here’s a picture I took of a stone in the wall of a monastery in Krakow. You don’t get many fossils in brick.

I look at other buildings in ridiculous, but oddly exciting, detail over on Polandian.


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I feel I’m getting close to the central mystery of the Polish character. I’m probably completely wrong in this belief but it makes me feel better so humour me. I’ve written recently about the strange behaviour of Polish people on pavements and on the road. I’ve written that I’m very confused by the way that Polish people seem to wander around in a daze without any awareness of the people around them and about the way that they drive as if they were the only person on the road. I’m starting to get the feeling that both of these things point to a fundamental feature of the Polish psyche.

Walking down an average Polish street I observe Polish people trying to walk through each other. It’s almost as if they literally cannot see the people around them, or if they can see them they treat them as ghosts of some kind. When people look into your eyes it’s with an expression of suspicion. For a long time I thought it was just me they were looking at this way, that my foreigness was somehow obvious from my appearance, but I don’t believe that any more. Polish people look at other Polish people with just the same latent suspicion they look at me with. Nobody trusts anybody. Everybody expects everybody else to be a bastard. I got a cold feeling down my spine when I finally saw this.

I remember some wise person making a comment on one of my posts somewhere that said something like “all Polish people believe that all other Polish people are idiots, anti-semites, drunks, thieves, or religious maniacs APART FROM the ones they know.” In other words the average Pole wouldn’t trust another Pole as far as he could throw him unless he was part of his extended family or clique of friends. If I meet an Englishman I’ve never met before my default position is positive; I’m expecting him to be a decent honest bloke. When a Pole meets a Pole he’s never met before it seems the default assumption is precisely the opposite. I find that kind of scary.

It explains a lot. People who work in shops are rude because they assume you’re an idiot or a thief. People fail to get out of each other’s way on the pavement because they assume the other person is a rude and uncivilized person and they are damned if they are going to give way to a rude and uncivilized person. People drive as if they were blind because they literally have no respect for the lives or limbs of the inferior people around them.

It can’t be that simple… can it?

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Developments are afoot

Nagging sense of boredom? Feeling tired, listless, and torpid? What you need is New Improved Polandian (now with added zing!)

Polandian is a new collaborative blog all about Poland. We sought out the funniest, wittiest, and cleverest people blogging about Poland… and then discovered that we couldn’t afford them, so we just got some bums off the street and gave them a computer.

Oh… and I’m on there too.

Get over there immediately! You’re probably missing something new and exciting right now!

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Shiny sparkly things

My landlord just installed The World’s Most Absurd Shower in my flat. My landlord is a top bloke and I won’t hear a word said against him, but he does have a terrible weakness for shiny sparkly gadgets. His wife doesn’t let him play with them at home so he’s constantly installing wildly impractical thingamajigs in my place. Many of them are of questionable taste and all of them are made of cheap plastic and go ‘beep’ a lot. The World’s Most Absurd Shower is, so far, the peak of this trend. I wouldn’t mind if he insisted on foisting a 42-inch plasma screen on me but no, I get a remote-controlled shower that plays Radio Maria at you and allows you to answer the phone whilst soaping your armpits. I’m not kidding, this thing is incredible. It has three different lights in it, including a bank of blinking blue LEDs (very tasteful), a radio that seemed to be permanently tuned to Christian talk shows, and a dozen different nozzles that can spurt water in unexpected places without warning. I have all of these things turned off all of the time. Apart from when I’m showing off it’s absurdity to visitors.

Pan Landlord loves all this stuff and is immensely proud of The World’s Most Absurd Shower. He insists on looking in on it whenever he comes round. Sometimes he invents reasons to come round just so that he can have a peak at it. He’s also immensely proud of the fact that it’s ‘Made in Poland,’ a characteristic that fills me with vague uneasiness in the context of a water-filled device plugged into the electrical main. Perhaps I’m being unfair.

Poland is full of these immensely tasteless and tacky bits of gimcrack. Lamps that play Chopin when you turn them on, clocks adorned with illuminated cuckoos, rotating plastic statuettes of Jesus, and a million other products of the fevered neo-capitalist mind. You can understand their appeal for a generation that grew up in the grey and non-shiny era of the 60s and 70s, but the tide of new money has fueled an alarming explosion of these things. One day they’ll be worth a fortune as examples of early 21st century kitsch.

Have to go now, my doorbell is playing number 3 of 16 random melodies and if I don’t get to it within 30 seconds I may be compelled to blow my brains out.

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Domofon etiquette

A domofon is what an English-speaker would call an entry phone. Domofons are ubiquitous in Polish towns and cities where almost everyone lives in apartment buildings of one kind or another. I’ve had a domofon in every place I’ve ever lived in Poland. On the face of it they are handy devices that allow people outside the building to let people inside the building know they want to come in. In fact they are instruments of the devil.

For British readers who are unfamiliar with the concept (few people in the UK have them) it works like this. On the external wall of the building, by the main door, there is a bank of buttons. Each button is labeled with the number of one of the apartments in the building and the name of its occupant. At least that’s the theory. In practice most of the people on these labels have been dead for 30 years, or have emigrated to Australia, or are serving long prison sentences. According to the label on my domofon button I am Joanna Kowalska; no idea who she is but I’m fairly sure she’s not living here with me.

Domofon entry buttons. Not the world’s most accurate source of information.


By pressing the button you cause a telephone-like handset in the relevant person’s apartment to ring. I say ‘ring’ when in fact it’s usually more of a heart-stopping shriek. When that person has recovered their composure sufficiently to climb down from the table they can answer the handset, ask who’s there and press a button to let them into the building, or not. A friend of mine who’s a Police officer usually shouts “OPEN THE DOOR, IT’S THE POLICE” which he thinks is hysterically funny. He may be right.

A typical domofon handset. Instrument of the horned one.


British cities are very unlike most cities in Europe in that we don’t tend to live in communal buildings. There is a very different concept of public space in an apartment building. When I open the door to my apartment there could be anyone outside on the staircase and there are all kinds of nefarious reasons why they might want to be there ranging from burglary to leaflet posting, the latter being by far the most common and heinous. If I didn’t make a weekly effort to clear the pizza delivery leaflets that arrive hourly I would have been smothered to death long ago. The trouble with the whole apartment-building-domofon concept is that there are all sorts of people who want to get into your building and the easiest way for them to do that is to ring every damned domofon in the place in the hope that somebody will press the ‘enter’ button without bothering to see who’s there first. My domofon rings (read ‘shrieks’) at all hours of the day and night. About one time out of a thousand it’s somebody I actually know. And no, there is no way to turn it off or down short of ripping it out of the wall. And yes I have been tempted to do that very thing on numerous occasions.

The chief culprits are as follows:

The pizza people
As I’ve mentioned, pizza delivery offers settle on my doormat in exactly the same way that January snow didn’t this year. They get into the building by pressing all the buttons and waiting for some sucker to hit the enter button. And while we’re on the subject why does every restaurant in Krakow serve Italian food? I’m sick of pizza and pasta.

The lazy button-presser
Hoody-wearing teens coming home to the parental nest habitually jab at the domofon buttons with fists or open palms causing them to press seven or eight buttons around the one they are actually aiming at. This is constantly and intensely annoying.

Drunken Brits
Brits who aren’t used to the domofon thing find it hugely amusing to press buttons at random in the middle of the night and then stand around guffawing when some rudely-awakened pensioner answers. I tell them to consider the opportunities for love-making with the self, but I know it does no good.

The potato man
Some oddball tries to sell me potatoes over the domofon at least once a week. I have no idea who he is and I have never bought any of his rotten skanky potatoes, but this doesn’t stop him asking me at some ungodly hour of the morning week-in and week-out.

Everybody else
It seems that pretty much everyone in Krakow has had a go at ringing my domofon at one time or another. Go away! I’m not letting you in! I’m letting no one in I tell you! I’m considering installing a boiling oil cauldron on my windowsill.

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Islam in Poland?

Wandering around Krakow the other day I happened to glance up at the roof line of a building I’ve passed a hundred times and noticed that it had an unusual feature. Perched on the sky line were three towers that looked for all the world like minarets, and the middle one was unmistakably a platform for the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) with an incongruously obvious Muslim crescent perched on top.

Those are minarets or I’m a Dutchman.


Islam… in Poland? I initially assumed it was an architectural folly. The whim of some 19th century aristocrat who had spent some time in the Middle East. But the middle minaret is just too functional looking. That door is real and the balcony is no mere decoration. Why would anybody go to the trouble, unless it was built for exactly the purpose it seems to have been built for?

Of course I’ve seen the occasional Middle Eastern tourist on the streets of Krakow (and we can guess that he or she is Muslim), even the very occasional hijab, but it never occurred to me that there might be an indigenous historical population of Muslims in Poland; the place is just so overwhelmingly… well, Catholic. I did a little googling. Turns out I was wrong.

A fellow blogger pointed out a YouTube vid the other day entitled “The History of Poland in 10 minutes.” In general it’s a dangerously inane piece of romantic nationalism (complete with stirring militaristic music and pics of chaps getting their heads chopped off), but it does mention a period of Polish history known as the Warsaw Confederacy that I wasn’t aware of before. The key feature of the Warsaw Confederacy was that it guaranteed religious freedom and consequently became the chief place of refuge for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims fleeing persecution and war in the 16th and 17th centuries. I know it’s hard to believe, but there was a time before Radio Maria. I began to wonder if there might have been an historical population of Muslims in Poland; especially in the south and east, so close to the historical and fervently defended border with the aggressive Muslim world of the past.

“Tartars” is the word. The Tartars are a Turkic people who originated somewhere in central Asia and settled all across southern Russia, the Balkans, and Turkey. By the time they arrived in what is now eastern Poland in the 14th century they were Muslims, and they have been there ever since. Poland’s Muslim Tartar’s were heavily involved in many of the nations’ critical moments from wars with the Teutonic Knights to the German invasion of 1939. The current population of Muslim Tartars in Poland is put at somewhere between three and seven thousand. Not a lot, but remarkable that they have survived with their faith intact at all. Here are some images of other Muslim Tartar mosques in Poland. Are there some similarities are am I mad?

The minaret of the Marcani Mosque in central Russia, one of the last surviving Tatar mosques in Russia. The conical roof, the iron balcony, and the spire topped with the crescent are very similar, if a little more ornate, to the Krakow example.

Marcani Minaret

The new Muslim Tartar mosque in Gdansk. Again a very similar roof and balcony.


Ok maybe not this one, but this is the oldest surviving mosque in Poland.

I would love to know more about this building in Krakow.

This is a full view of the building. It’s at the corner of Długa, Pędzichów, and Filipa.


Some interesting links:

History of Tartar Muslims in Poland</a>
Loyal Muslim Tartars in Polish history

The Wikipedia treatment

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Polish language snobbery

Another thing that’s bothered me for a long time, and there do seem to be a worrying number of things-that-have-bothered-me-for-a-long-time, is the Polish obsession with correct grammar. It’s very common to hear Polish people laughing at or criticizing other Polish people because of the way they speak Polish. I find this very odd.

I once new a guy who was half Polish-half English. He grew up in England and learned Polish ad hoc from his mother. He was very fluent and could easily engage in everyday conversation in Polish. Not a native speaker, but very good. Years later he married a Polish girl (of course) and lived in Poland. His wife hated him speaking Polish in company. I asked her why and she said “When he speaks English he sounds like a gentleman, but when he speaks Polish he sounds like a peasant!” I’m exaggerating of course, but she really did say this, and I could see that it grated on her nerves when he spoke Polish. It wasn’t because he had some kind of weird rural accent or dialect, on the contrary his accent was spot on and, in exchanging a few casual words, he would routinely be mistaken for a native. But his grammar my dear… tut tut… his grammar!

In the beginning was the word… and then much later it was translated into Polish (this volume is blue: A 😉 )

A Polish Dictionary

British people are well-used to the idea that your background and ‘class’ are obvious the moment you open your mouth. We have a bewildering multiplicity of regional and social accents not to mention another multiplicity of international English accents. After two minutes of conversation I can tell you that person A grew up in the northwest of England in a working class family, that person B grew up in a wealthy suburb of Edinburgh, or that person C grew up in a middle class Nigerian household. And I’m not particularly good at this. There are accents that are limited to a few square miles of land; grow up in Liverpool and you’ll sound completely different than someone who grows up literally 15 miles away in Saint Helens. There are other accents that are limited to incredibly small social groups; nobody else in the UK speaks English in quite the same way as the royal family for example. The thing is that, nowadays, nobody is seriously judged for their accent even though many of these accents involve non-standard grammar usages and, obviously, wildly different pronunciations.

In Poland there seems to be a very strong and clear-cut link between social standing and correct grammar and pronunciation. I assume this is because correct grammar and pronunciation are the clearest indicators of good education, and good education is the number one factor in social standing. In many ways I admire this attitude. It’s great that people should be judged according to their educational achievements rather than the family they happened to be born into. On the other hand it seems a tad harsh on those who don’t excel academically. As I understand it, and I could be completely wrong here, Polish philology is one of the most highly-respected degrees you can obtain at a Polish university. Studying the language you are a native speaker of is one of the most impressive things you can do academically. There is no equivalent in British universities. You cannot study English philology or, if you can, nobody would have the slightest idea what it meant or be impressed by it.

I’m amazed at the number of times I hear Polish people comment on other Polish people’s Polish. Visiting A’s parents a while ago I had a very vague conversation with A’s mother in which I understood about 20 percent of the root words she was using. A and her brother were rolling around on the floor because mum was very carefully and deliberately using hyper-correct grammar, all of which went completely over my head. At a wedding there was a groan when a certain priest stood up to read because he was known to ‘not speak Polish well.’ What does that mean? How can a native speaker of Polish not speak Polish well? I don’t geddit.

I might get to bottom of this mystery one day, but I doubt it.

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