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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.

It’s my birthday!

Yes, the day after Valentine’s. That’s a lot of years of receiving cards in the mail and wondering if they are one or the other. They’re always the other.

Anyway.

It’s my birthday! You may now heap adulation upon me.

Me; thirty something *mumble* *mumble* years ago. Yes I am wearing a handkerchief on my head. And yes I do still wear the outfit occasionally.

Me

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.

domofon3.jpg

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.

domofon1.jpg

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.

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.

minarets.jpg

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.

meczet_gdansk_1.jpg

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

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.

minarets1.jpg

Some interesting links:

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

The Wikipedia treatment

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.

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.