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Archive for the ‘Polish’ Category

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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I’ve made a breakthrough observation which might explain the Crazy Ivan phenomenon I described a while ago. For those of you who can’t be bothered to look back at the original post the Crazy Ivan phenomenon can be summarized as this: when walking down the street Polish people frequently and randomly stop and or suddenly reverse direction almost invariably straight into the person walking behind or beside them. I’ve been puzzling over this strange behavior for months.

Yesterday the warmth of the false Spring we’ve been experiencing down here in Krakow for the past couple of weeks slipped away in the night and the snows came back. Polish people instantly wrapped themselves in padded coats, scarves, hats, and fur boots as is their want, even though it was nowhere near cold enough to justify such sartorial extravagance. I noticed immediately that the incidence of Crazy Ivan encounters shot up. This was the breakthrough. When you’re wearing a hat AND a woolly scarf AND a voluminous hood you just can’t see or hear anything going on around you, hence you don’t know anyone is behind or beside you, hence you have no idea you will walk straight into them if you suddenly change direction. In other words you have no peripheral vision. I’m slightly disappointed.

Of course, this only explains the ‘walking into people’ part of the phenomenon, It doesn’t explain exactly why these people so frequently find the need to suddenly veer of in a different direction or start walking backwards. One day I will understand…

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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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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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Highly amusing

I came across these examples of ‘unusual’ sentences written by Polish students of English. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but they really are screamingly funny:

I felt shiver on my spinach.

I think that supermarkets are great creatures.

Another thing is the possibility to wear light clothes, uncovered shoulders and half-naked paunches, which alure the man-kind.

People want to read books, sink into their comfortable armchairs and sneeze.

History wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have to learn it.

Right now we have two dogs at home (a sheepdog and a puddle).

As a representative of ‘man-kind’ I can confirm that ‘half-naked paunches’ are indeed immensely alluring.

Thanks to The Poland Diaries for sharing this.

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Ten things I love about Poland

If you read the WordPress sign-up agreement carefully it clearly states that you must write at least one post every month that includes the words ‘Top ten…,’ or ‘Ten things…,’ in the title. This explains a lot about the content of the internet. Yesterday I received an email from WordPress admin that opened with the customary and chummy ‘Howdy’ but went on, in less friendly tones, to point out that I had failed to provide the obligatory ‘top ten’ post and, finally, suggested that heavy set men with Slovenian accents and oddly-bulging jackets would soon be calling at my house if I didn’t get my act together. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But seriously, I wanted to put some positive stuff up. It always amazes me how negative many Poles are about their country, and how easy it is to cause offence by pushing certain buttons. The following list tries to cover all the things I find enchanting, fascinating, admirable and just downright cool about this country. It does go on a bit I’m afraid, and I can’t promise there won’t be the occasional touch of tongue in cheek.

10. Getting sick in Poland
Poland is one of the best places in the world in which to get sick. I don’t mean proper internal-organ-failure sick, just the occasional heavy cold. Being ill instantly bestows an almost sacred status on the sufferer. Poles are the world’s greatest hypochondriacs (I’m sorry, but it’s true) and knowing someone who is ill is almost as good as being ill yourself. I have no idea where the Polish health obsession came from, but it’s clearly deeply entrenched. I suspect they’ve spent too much time over the centuries hanging out with limp-wristed Italians and effete Frogs (sorry, French people). Walk down a typical Polish street and every third shop is a chemists (apteka), and it’s probably open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. On Christmas Day lucky Poles rush to the local apteka to cash in the years-supply-of-Aspirin vouchers they got as gifts.

Two ladies cashing in their years-supply-of-aspirin vouchers

Apteka

Cough or sneeze at a bus stop and people will shuffle over and start offering advice as to what kind of medicines you should be taking. Sometimes they even take you by the elbow and start ushering you towards the nearest apteka or doctor’s office. The practical upshot of this is that, if you get a cold, everyone insists that you go to bed immediately and shortly thereafter begins proffering oddly shaped pills, bowls of soup, or shots of vodka in your direction. Vodka is widely believed to be a surefire cure for everything from a slight headache to major renal failure but it has nothing on the power of soup – there are about 14 different kinds of soup that are thought to address pretty much any kind of medical complaint you can pick out from a medical dictionary/unfortunately come down with. My late lamented boss (he’s not dead, just often late and highly lamentable) epitomized the English approach to illness when he gave me the following advice about colds: “Get yourself down to the shop, buy a bottle of whiskey, a lemon, and some sugar. Go home, drink the bottle of whisky and go to bed.” “What about the lemon and the sugar?” I enquired. “What the f**ck do you want those for?” he retorted wildly. It has to be said he was a little drunk at the time.

9. Polish Women
I know it’s a hoary old chestnut, but it’s true: Poland has the most beautiful, stylish, and downright sexy women on the planet. I have no idea how they managed to arrange this but it was a damnably neat trick. I’m afraid the next few sentences will be primarily addressed to my male readers, so any females out there may want to simmer gently whilst pretending to address some kind of nail emergency. You know how sometimes you’re walking down the street and a woman walks past who makes you gasp slightly and your eyes switch into automatic-tracking mode? This happens what, once a month, in most parts of the world? Here it happens about every five minutes. It can be extremely detrimental to one’s navigational skills. It’s not uncommon to see slack-jawed British tourists casually stepping into the path of oncoming heavy goods vehicles, their eyes fixed helplessly on the sublimely retreating form of a local girl. I’ve heard there’s a special ward in the local hospital where these poor chaps can be found swathed in bandages, heads still rotated to an unnatural degree, and eyes tightly squeezed shut for fear of burning out the optic nerve from over exposure to Polish girls in nurses’ uniforms.

Another innocent English guy helplessly fixated on a Polish nurse (just out of shot)

The perils of Polish beauties

The weird thing is that Polish men seem more or less oblivious to the super abundance of top-notch totty that surrounds them. I suggest a six-month stay in Essex or New Jersey to give them a sense of perspective. I have no idea if Polish men are as deliciously attractive to the opposite sex as their sisters are but I think it’s unlikely. Most of them look like recently released convicts to me (hang on, that could be a good thing…). Of course none of this has the slightest bearing on me because I have eyes only for A but, in the past, I’ve experienced the occasional bruising encounter with lamp posts, parked cars, and multi-storey buildings through not looking strictly in the direction I was going.

8. Polish Food
Many people are rude about Polish food, citing an overabundance of cabbage, but very few people who have actually been to Poland are rude about Polish food. Poles have about 947 different ways of baking, frying, boiling, roasting, or otherwise applying heat to various kinds of really, really good meat that result in the kind of meal that makes you sit back afterwards and wonder if there actually might be a god after all. I went to a Polish wedding recently and had carefully starved myself for three days in anticipation of the culinary delights that I fully expected to encounter. A week would have been better. After a preliminary skirmish with soups, massive platters of fried chicken and pork coated in various delicious things were delivered to the table. I was feeling quietly confident and secure in the extent of my starvation-induced appetite and tucked in with relish. I was putting away chicken legs as if I were collecting the set. About an hour later, dinner began again with equally extravagant portions of deliciousness. About an hour after that I began to sweat slightly as the next round of enticingly roasted meats were loaded onto the groaning table. It was the kind of occasion where you wish you had brought a spare stomach. Around midnight an entire roasted pig was wheeled into the melee. I had a substantial portion of one shoulder and then gently extended my belt to its greatest extent. If you’re vegetarian, stay well away. If you’re not, be prepared for the kind of simple but immensely sumptuous food that keeps coming and coming until you are forced to lie on the floor and beg for mercy.

Polish meat. I can give it up any time, honestly, any time I like…

A Polish meat fiend

7. Polish Public Transport
I don’t know about public transport in many parts of the world, but I do know about public transport in London and, compared to Poland, it sucks big time. Polish trains, buses, and trams are frequent, punctual, and take you pretty much everywhere. I have a pathological hatred of cars and am convinced that people will look back on our era in a hundred years time, shake their heads gently and say ‘what the hell were they thinking?’ in much the same way that we look back on slavery with slightly bemused incomprehension. Here’s an idea, let’s allow every average Joe and Gill out there to hurtle about the place at 60 miles per hour in half a ton of steel and glass. Dangerous? nah! Slight possibility of people cutting corners and occasionally reducing seven-year-old pedestrians to pulpy lumps? Nonsense, we’ll paint some lines on the road and have a system of magic lights! Any chance that basic human frailties such as having a bad day, not paying attention, getting pissed off for no apparent reason, or drinking oneself into a stupor might compromise the efficacy of these highly stringent safety measures? Nah, it’ll be fine! Excellent plan. I have one question for supporters of car transport: if it’s so safe, why do we teach our kids to go nowhere near roads and instill in them an absolute terror of cars? I’ll tell you why, because if you go near a road and you’re not in a car you are in real and present danger of being severely and terminally mangled by any absent-minded or arrogantly self-confident idiot who happens to be passing at that moment.

Anyhow, ranting aside, public transport in Poland is a great and good thing. The number one reason being that they have trams. Trams are immensely cool, it’s kind of hard to explain exactly why, but I’m willing to give it a go. For one thing, trams have absolutely zero respect for cars and have the kind of mass-to-weight ratio that makes their contempt count. I’ve seen trams casually shunting gleaming BMWs out of their way and felt my heart sing with joy. Gentlemen in baggy suits jumping up and down, purple with fury, as their pride-and-joy German boxes on wheels are gently but firmly shoved off the tram tracks.

A Warsaw tram demonstrates exactly how much respect it has for cars that get in the way. Cars 0, Trams 1.

Tram vs car

A tram is basically a train that lives in the city and travels only on city streets. Trains are inherently cool, and trains that shun the countryside and spends their whole lives roving up and down gritty urban streets are uber cool. In the good old days Polish trams were no-nonsense affairs with wooden seats, proper ringing bells, and doors that could take your hand off if you timed your exit incorrectly. There used to be proper ticket inspectors too – portly gentlemen in ill-fitting leather jackets who would sidle up to you at odd moments and demand to be bribed – sorry, I mean demand to see your ticket. Nowadays they have these new-fangled modern trams. The driver is shut off in a little glass cab so it’s impossible to reach over and press buttons on his dashboard when slightly inebriated. There’s even a machine selling tickets on the tram! In my day one had to walk at least 9 kilometers through the snow to find a ticket-selling kiosk that was open, or risk a hefty bribe (sorry, I mean fine) from the gentlemen in ill-fitting leather jackets. Never did me any harm, apart from that one time when I contracted pneumonia. The joys of clattering down a frosty street in a 1964-vintage tram constantly looking over your shoulder to check for ticket inspectors whilst wresting with batlle-hardened Polish grandmothers are not to be underestimated. Once, in Warsaw, I saw an articulated Polish bus literally come apart as it tried to round a corner too quickly. The bendy rubber part in the middle actually split and people were tipped onto the icy streets with expressions of extreme surprise on their faces. That’s the kind of excitement you want on the way to work in the morning. I’m quite serious about this.

6. Polish Pubs
When I first came to Poland there were about six pubs in Warsaw that one could reasonably expect to leave at the end of the evening without having received life-threatening stab wounds. The pub at the end of my street once got raked with machine gun fire as part of a gang war. They were all in the center of town and none of them could be reached via a gentle stroll from where I lived. As a Londoner I found this extremely upsetting and inconvenient. It’s a very poor neighborhood indeed in London where you are not within 10 minutes stroll of at least one or two decent local pubs. Last time I was in Warsaw, the situation had improved considerably. Krakow is rather better served, but again only if you happen to live within striking distance of the center of town. Apparently there are more than 370 pubs within the Old Town and Kazimierz, more than one per day of the year. Subtract from this figure the number of pubs that are stacked to rafters with wild-eyed Brits sucking down the happy juice, plus the number of pubs full of gentlemen in ill-fitting leather jackets drowning their sorrows about the shocking state of modern Polish trams, and the actual number of viable pubs is rather less, but still impressive. The odd thing is that it’s still extremely difficult to find a good one. The majority of Krakow pubs are in cellars. These are all very well and pretty to look at, but they’re terrible places to go for a quiet pint of an evening. The tobacco fumes are so thick that it’s quite hard to identify your own limbs at normal distances and they reek of sweat and hormones. Great stuff if you’re 19, but if you’re approaching the end of your second 19-year-term on earth it’s not quite so invigorating. Having said that, there are some gems. And a really good Polish pub is hard to beat, for several reasons. Unfortunately I’m not prepared to say exactly where they are in case they are flooded by hoards of my loyal readers (man, I make myself laugh sometimes).

5. Polish Education
Now I’ve dealt with the obvious, let’s move on to the slightly more thoughtful. Poles have a great and deep-seated respect for education, learning, and wisdom. I’m not going to go into any of the negative aspects of this trait because that’s not what this post is about – I’m concentrating on the positive. And there’s no doubt that it is an overwhelmingly positive national characteristic. The average 19-year-old school leaver in Poland would wipe the floor with the average 18-year-old school leaver in England in any test of knowledge, maturity, or dedication. Indeed, a huge number of British kids leave school for good at the age of 16 having received almost no qualifications. Most of them have ambitions of becoming gangsters, rappers, or – in extreme cases – gangster-rappers. There is almost zero respect for intellectual achievement in England. Staying on at school after the age of 16 or, even worse, going to university, is regarded with thinly veiled suspicion by the majority of British people. Writers, philosophers, film makers, composers, and academics are held in high esteem in Poland and their opinions are listened to with some respect. Similar figures in England are tolerated, but generally considered to be ‘a bit weird and untrustworthy.’ English people are immensely proud of the ignorance and poor educational achievements of their greatest leaders. It’s all to do with the national myth of the English amateur, which I may get around to explaining one day. It’s incredibly refreshing to spend time in a country where people don’t roll their eyes and look bored if you try and discuss anything more taxing than Paris Hilton’s bra size. Poland is stuffed with little cultural events, classic film shows, amateur music recitals and ever (shock horror) philosophical discussion. I think that’s great.

4. Polish Opportunity
This one will probably surprise some people, but it’s true – Poland is a land of almost infinite opportunity. There are two reasons for this. Number one, the vast majority of the population are entrenched in very old fashioned thinking about the way things should be done, which means it’s very easy to stand out from the crown and be innovative (if you’ve got the guts). Number two, industries and services that have existed in the West for decades are still only just getting a foothold here, which means there’s a very small class of entrepreneurs and that it’s surprisingly easy to get access to the best and most interesting people. In London there is absolutely zero chance of, say, an aspiring graphic artist meeting an executive from a top advertising agency. Here it could, and does, happen all the time (as long as you’ve got the guts).

3. Polish Adaptability
Again, this might come as surprise, but it’s true. Poland has been absolutely and completely revolutionized in the past twenty years, and it’s Poles who have done it. From a very low base in 1989, Poles have created one of the fastest growing and most adaptive economies in the world almost entirely through the sweat of their own brows and the drive of their own ambitions. Warsaw is sprouting shiny new corporate headquarters at an astonishing rate, Krakow has been almost completely overhauled and looks a hundred times better than it did ten years ago, Wroclaw feels like a prosperous town in West Germany, and in Gdansk one could easily imagine one was wandering the streets of some northern Danish or Dutch town. I know there are still problems and there’s a long way to go for many parts of Poland but please, people, have you ever seen Peckham, or the northwest of England, or the outskirts of Paris.

Ninety percent of this didn’t exist when I first came to Poland 10 years ago. That doesn’t include the trees.

Warsaw skyline

On top of this, millions of young Poles have shown that they can go abroad to England or Sweden or Ireland or wherever and impress the hell out of the locals with their intelligence, hard work, and good humor – if that’s not an example of adaptability I don’t know what is. Send a hundred average British kids to work abroad and seventy percent of them would run home to mummy, collapse, or die from PlayStation deprivation within a week. You should all be immensely proud of the way the Polish people have responded to the challenge of radically changing times and the next time I hear a Pole complaining about how useless and feeble Poland is I’m going to smack him upside the head with a copy of Przedwiośnie.

2. Polish Seriousness
All kinds of people complain that the Poles are ‘too serious’ or ‘never smile.’ This is a complete pile of steaming horse phooey. Poles are among the most humorous and cheerful people I have ever met. Actually, that’s a lie – in fact I’ve never come across any nationality that isn’t immensely humorous and cheerful in the face of adversity (or indeed in the face of a complete lack of adversity) – it’s a basic and immensely precious characteristic of all human beings and Poles are no different. All it takes is to understand the humor. Americans tend to think that Brits are tightly buttoned and humorless whereas, in fact, we’re laughing our arses (sorry, asses) off pretty much all the time. Japanese people are having a riot day-in-day out – although you wouldn’t guess it from the way they are portrayed. Germans are shedding tears over their own private jokes on a regular basis and even the Frogs (sorry, French people) are generally quaking with mirth from dawn until dusk. The problem is, we just don’t get each other’s jokes. I don’t mean the kind of jokes that begin with ‘a rabbi, a priest, and a penguin walked into a bar,’ I mean the real jokes – the ones that consist of nothing more than saying a certain word in a certain way in a particular situation. The first time I understood Polish humor was watching a documentary on British TV about Polish people living in Lithuania (or one of those Baltic places). Heaven knows why the BBC felt it necessary to make such a documentary, but they did, and I’m eternally grateful. They were following the story of an elderly Polish spinster and her unmarried son who lived in the same ramshackle house in Vilnius or some such place. In one scene they pair were having afternoon tea and discussing how terrible their lives were. They had a pot of tea and one piece of cake. The son said ‘I’ll have the cake, you lived through the war so you’re used to having no cake’ and scoffed the lot in a couple of mouthfuls. I was laughing my anglo-arse off as the BBC commentator soberly lamented the breakdown in respect that had resulted from the unfortunate couple’s isolation from their homeland. The scene cut at that point, but I would bet folding money that mother and son were rolling around on the floor shortly thereafter. It was presented to us as ‘just another tragic scene from impoverished Eastern Europe’ but in fact it was a moment of glorious human humor in the face of adversity.

I kind of went ‘off message’ there, but I felt it was important to confuse the hell out of my readers at this point for no apparent reason. My point was that Poles are no more serious than anyone else. Many foreigners perceive them as being serious because, number one, they don’t understand the particularly dark and ironic form of humor that tickles the Polish fancy and, number two, Poles have absolutely zero respect for the kind of fake cheerfulness that blights Western service industries. I went into a branch of Virgin in London a couple of months ago and the poor bastard behind the cash till had been coached to ask everyone ‘Did you find everything you needed?’ with a massive grin plastered all over his face. Exactly how do you respond to a question like that? ‘Well, actually I was hoping to find the solution to world peace and a cure for cancer on the third floor, but apart from that, yes, I had the time of my life.’ Actually, I fixed him with a particularly hard stare and stalked out in a foul mood. In a branch of Gap I was asked a similar question, so inane that I don’t actually remember the details, to which I replied ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak English’ in English, and then left. Give me a gaggle of sklepowa in a local Polish shop anytime. They demand exact change, sigh deeply at requests for extra reklamowka, and laugh openly at your attempts to pronounce Polish words. I always leave with a secret grin on my face, and not just because I enjoy being ordered around by older women wearing aprons.

While we’re on the subject of older women wearing aprons I’d like to say a few words about the infamous Babcie (pronounced something like bab-chee). ‘Babci’ literally means ‘grandmother’ but it’s widely used to refer to ladies of certain age who patrol Poland’s streets wearing massive fur coats and woolen hats and carrying deadly walking sticks. These guys are not to be messed with. They’ve lived through blitzkriegs, shortages, martial law, and dozens of winters that would spell the premature death of many a softened Westerner. At bus stops it’s advisable to stay well back if you see a pack of them making for your bus – get in their way and you could be looking at 2 to 3 months in intensive care. They have ninja-like shoving and barging skills and can floor a paratrooper with one swift jab of the walking stick. They never, ever, take off their fur coats, but I’ve heard rumors that they wear 40 to 50 kilos of solid steel armor plating under there. Machine gunning them just makes them mad and heavy artillery causes them minimal inconvenience. Babcie are the moral guardians of Poland and have absolutely zero hesitation about voicing their disapproval of anyone/anything around them. I’ve been subjected to Babcie judgment a few times. It usually comes as a ‘voice out of nowhere’ that makes you swallow deeply and look around in a slightly panicky manner. At the cash till in a large supermarket I was fumbling with money and had put a 50 zl note in my mouth to hold it as I looked for change: “Take that money out of your mouth! You don’t know where it’s been” came the voice of the Babcie. Walking along the street on my way to work: “You’re walking too fast, you’ll kill someone!” came the voice of the Babcie. Standing hatless in the park in winter looking at the beautiful snowfall: “Buy a hat! You don’t have enough money for a hat!?” came the voice of the the Babcie. It’s a deeply alarming experience I can tell you. Many Poles are rude about the Babcie but, believe me, you’ll be sorry when they’re gone. I love them all.

A hunting pair of Babcie circa 1981. The photographer was a very brave man, god rest his soul. Note the deadly ‘walking stick’ perched within easy reach *shudders*

Babci

1. I’m a foreigner!
A few posts ago I mentioned that Polish people almost always ask ‘What do you think of Poland/Polish people’ within five minutes of meeting a foreigner. The second question that inevitably pops up is ‘Why did you come to POLAND?’ with the emphasis very much on the ‘Poland.’ The implication being that there must be a hundred better places in the world to go, or that you must be slightly insane to voluntarily come to Poland. Well, here’s my answer: I like it! Most Polish people are full of humor and good-natured generosity – although I also like the ones who lie unconscious on the street or the a Babcie who push you into the gutter when trying to get onto trams ahead of you – there are far worse people in the world, believe me. As a foreigner I can appreciate the beauty, history, and reality of Polish cities without the veil of disappointment and distrust that seems to blind many of the people who were actually born here. I’m sure the countryside is great too, but let’s not go crazy here.

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