Monthly Archives: September 2011

Polish progress report

This post is intended to comfort me as much as provide a realistic assessment of my gains in this area.  Just looking at the title makes me feel better.

Progress. I often doubt it but know that it must be happening, simply because my Polish can’t be getting any worse. I collect words and deposit them in  little notebook where I promptly forget about them, until I wake up at 3 am in a frenzy of nocturnal lesson planning (which happens much more often than I’d like). Then I find myself sometimes going through this hoard of new vocabulary like a miser counting his money. It soothes me, this sense of acquisition. I have a thing  I can do something with. I have even, on a couple of very memorable occasions in the last few months, made somebody laugh. This is a heady and wonderful experience and makes me feel cheerful for days.

The other thing which has sparked this linguistic reflection is that I have finally enrolled in Polish classes. I have to admit that part of my motivation for this was a burning desire not to be the dumbest person in the room for a change, and to find some people to speak Polish with who do it as badly as or worse than I do. So I’m simultaneously disgruntled and complimented to find that I’ve been enrolled in the class with the Ukrainians and Belarussians, who pick up Polish quicker than herpes and who actually have a chance of learning to speak without a trace of an accent.

The course coordinator, having her doubts that someone with a name like Ross-a-merry Moo-ray could speak a word in her hermetic language, began a surreal conversation with me, in Polish, asking me why I was insisting on speaking to her in English  and opening with “Why don’t you want to speak to me?” She then took my look of mystification as evidence that I was unable to hold my own against the Ukranians.  When she had come to her senses and could identify the language we were speaking in, she explained that usually Anglophones who know some grammar and can fill in their placement test can’t actually say anything when the time comes to talk.  Evidence of the power of expectations on communication.


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Złota Polska Jesien

The first time I heard this phrase (which means “golden Polish  autumn”) from our friend Maciej, I looked at him in wonder- what nonchalant poetry he was producing, especially for a cynic. My admiration lasted from the time of this conversation, some time in August, to the beginning of September, when golden Polish autumn began in earnest and I discovered, during my committed eavesdropping, that it’s the oldest cliche in town and indeed nobody can mention autumn at this time of year without these modifiers.

And it’s true. It’s a beautiful and melancholy time of the year, and goes some way towards compensating for Too-Green Polish Summer and Brown- and- White Polish Winter, towards which we are accelerating at an alarming pace. In September we lost 90 minutes of daylight, but the city is bathed in sunshine. I haven’t lived through a whole European autumn before, or at least not with this degree of meteorological consciousness, and I find it lovely and disturbing. Riding back from Pruszków via Kabaty on Sunday, we passed 500 metres of stalls selling nothing but squash and pumpkins, blazing in  a whole spectrum of orange glory. The capsicums are red and heavy with the summer’s rain, the sunflowers are seeding, the corn is fat and yellow.

This time last year we were in Iran, feasting on a bounty of walnuts and pomegranates and Marcin was a couple of weeks away from breaking his wrist for the first time in the last twelve months. He’s now rehabilitated from the second, Polish  break enough to ride around Warsaw in a desperate  frenzy of last-minute outdoor activity before it starts raining.  Ah the cycle of the seasons.


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Forbidden Warsaw

Waking last Sunday morning  to a perfect autumn day, with a rather pleasant hangover that made me sensitive without being paranoid, I decided to embark on two projects which I have been considering for a while- a series of photos of signs around our area forbidding various activities, and a trip to the Royal Palace, which is free on Sundays.
I have noticed, over and over again, these signs informing anyone who can read of a seemingly endless variety of restrictions in our hood. All of these photos were taken in the 500 metres between our place and the Plac Zamkowy.
As we strolled along, combing the walls for fun-forbidding exhortations, I wondered if I was being unfair. Perhaps this sort of thing exists everywhere in such quantities and I just happen to notice here, my eye sharpened by unfamiliarity?
But when we got to the Royal Palace my suspicions that Warsaw is especially excessive in this department were confirmed. There were no signs, but as we drifted from one room to the next we soon became aware that instead of  written warnings, each room had its own guard, whose job was to prevent anyone from doing anything. These women (they were all women) strode about, bosoms preceding them; with their sensible shoes and gimlet eyes they patrolled the hallways like nurses from some 1950s mental hospital.
Apart from “no flash”, they are unable to communicate their vital information in any European language apart from Polish. This does not prevent them from barking at a herd of hapless Spaniards with a penchant for lounging, “Don’t sit on the windowsill!”   And when the Spaniards don’t stand to attention,  “Don’t lean either!”   Their victims depart warily, looking over their shoulders as if moving out of the range of some dangerous animal. They don’t know what’s been said but they know it wasn’t friendly.   We are reprimanded for stroking the stucco and standing too close to a Canaletto.  We respond mutinously with a whispered curse and perform a sort of moonwalk, intended to make it look as if we’re moving away as we lean even closer.
On the way home, we capture “no parking on the manhole cover.” A thoroughly successful outing.

No playing instruments

No playing football

No playing football (1950s version)

No parking or washing cars

No parking (or standing)

On the grounds of the local school almost everything is forbidden, but it's hard to get a clear shot through the three metre fence

No walking your dog

Sitting on this inviting plush stool in the Royal Palace is also not allowed

Don't park on the manhole cover

And finally, a mundane Private Property, Unauthourised Entry Prohibited


Filed under observations on Polish society

In the warm embrace of the tax office

After almost 5 months in Poland, I finally have the last document in my arsenal- my NIP, the equivalent to a tax file number. This is in addition to my residency card, PESEL, Polish marriage certificate, the decision on my residency application, a bank account and so forth.   I have lately become  brave enough to deal with the ministries alone so I catch the train to Pruszków on a freezing day which rivals the worst that the Australian winter has to offer, defiantly underdressed because it’s only September and I refuse to wear a coat. This is the wardrobe equivalent of avoiding the lowest gear on the bike, saving it for some extreme emergency and maintaining the fiction that you always have something in reserve.

In the tax office in Pruszków, I declare my business. I have kept my own surname rather than taking Marcin’s, out of a blend of feminism and pragmatism. One of the factors (though not the main one) in this choice was the difficulties for Australians in pronouncing Polish surnames. So imagine the cruel irony of hearing the functionary behind the desk calling up to her colleague in room 213 and saying “yes, yes, let me give you the name…Ooohh, it’s a strange one,” and hearing myself described as Ross-a-merry Moo-ray.

In room 213 I am greeted brusquely by a cross-eyed woman ( jedno oko na Maroko, i drugie na Kaukus – a geographically specific description which means  ‘one eye on Morocco and the other on the Caucasus’. In Australia it would denote an entirely different defect) who tells me she can give me my NIP but I have to wait in the hallway. And after half an hour of reading the advertisements on the noticeboards for tax-deductible donations to people needing expensive medical care (not funny at all and I hope to be able-bodied for as long as I live here) I am allowed to return and am finally given the magic number.

Going home, I feel a degree of elation at my victory, along with the smugness of someone who has been fully legitimised. Life in Poland is characterised by a nagging sense of insecurity- can I stand the winter, can I afford the dentist, am I making any progress with the language? Somehow the achievement of the NIP provides  a partial counterbalance to this undercurrent of anxiety.

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Last week we had our first overnight visitors- friends from Berlin, and in fact my oldest friend in the world who I have known since I started high school when I was 11 years old. I have to confess to finding it a more difficult experience than I had expected, though I loved their company and the opportunity to feel silver-tongued again for a few days.

The first thing was that I felt unexpectedly responsible – for the surliness of the natives, the saltiness of the bigos, the sheer impossibility of crossing the road to get to the Wisła without assistance from Bear Grylls. Conversely, I also swelled with pride when they declared the city much less ugly and communist than they had expected. When the sun came out and shone for three days so hard I got sunburnt for the first time since arriving here, I beamed too like a proud mother whose child had done some complicated trick.

A thing you only see when there's visitors in town- the view from the Pałac Kultury

But I also had trouble shifting between worlds, as if any legitimacy I might have here relies on utter submersion in Polishness. We have more or less shifted to speaking only in Polish at home and I don’t have any contact with other foreigners, so my entire social life takes place in Polish.  I read in Polish and watch television in Polish. The only people I speak English with are my students, between certain hours and in certain locations.

So having to translate anything back and forth between the two languages sent me into a frenzy of confusion, and reminded me that it requires a whole different set of nerve connections in the brain that I haven’t acquired yet, and probably won’t unless I do some serious work on it. When I took a look online to try and discover why this might be so, all I could find out was that  interpreting requiresthe development of specific skills in managing competing demands on limited cognitive resources. ”  This I could work out for myself, as I stared slack-jawed at whoever was talking to me and wondered if I actually spoke any language at all.


Filed under migrant life, observations on Polish society

Apologies to the Baltic

Last weekend I finally decided, after a whole summer without swimming once, that the Baltic was better than nothing, and we went with Marcin’s parents to Krynica Morska. It was their 40th wedding anniversary and they were off to spend two weeks at a sanatorium being frozen, pummelled and poked with electric cattle prods in the interests of their health. We tagged along for a long weekend.

I had low expectations, having been to the Polish seaside once about 4 years ago in July. It rained the whole time and we took a ferry trip to the aptly named Hel, where a crowd of agitated Poles pushed and shoved to make sure they didn’t miss the boat. Once there they bought themselves icecreams, though it was about 10 degrees, and trudged damply up and down the beach in their raincoats, pretending they were having a good time.

So I was understandably cynical about the charms of the Polish coast, especially considering that the odd day of sun is momentous enough to make the evening news. I was carrying a beanie, a down jacket and a Goretex coat, as well as some toxic insect repellent to stave off the expected plague of mosquitoes (which I somehow imagined would survive the anticipated subzero temperatures.)

In any case- I was wrong. For three days I lay on the beach in the sun behind my paravan- not, as you might think after reading “The God of Small Things”, a low-caste Indian, but a piece of cloth rolled around a couple of sticks which can be staked out as a defence against the wind. Everything in the atmosphere was hypnotic- the szum of the waves (this word is so apt it has taken over from all other possible vocabulary items), the slow wingbeats of the gulls scanning the still surface of the water for  food, the heat of the sun. I was  trying to read Kapuśćinski’s “Emperor” but kept on falling asleep.

The sea threw up its torn and battered treasures at the waterline: jellyfish, little pieces of amber,  broken driftwood rubbed smooth at the edges, scraps of algae. The Poles lay out in the sun, baking like satisfied walruses in attitudes of slack-mouthed abandon which indicated that they were probably as close to ecstasy as they were likely to get in this world. It was apparent that nobody had been getting in their ears about the insidious nature of melanoma cells, or indeed the perils of large waistlines.

These three golden days, snatched out of the jaws of winter, were worth every painful second of  the very long bus trip back from Gdansk, not to mention the other very long bus trip from Krynica to Gdansk, the whole process taking about 12 hours. I retract all my former stereotyped and inaccurate opinions about the dubious glories of the Polish seaside and consider I have stored a little bit of grace and warmth for the hard months ahead.

My daily camp

What can I say? It was nice

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A couple of weeks ago I received a care package from a friend in Australia, with a supply of forgotten treasures- Timtams, books, English TV serials. Little did I know that it would turn out to be a Pandora’s box.  Having watched season 1 of The Wire  in a week and eaten the whole tube of Vegemite, I turned to reading  the book of  Australian short stories she had sent me. I’m ashamed to confess it but these were my priorities.
At first I felt nothing but a sort of harmless nostalgia at recalling a whole landscape and vocabulary that I had forgotten over the past 2 years – nightie, creek, paddock, dunny, bush. I thought, with a sort of muffled pleasure, ” Ah yes. I have my own place, somewhere .”
But it wasn’t an entirely safe game. I was reading Nadia Wheatley’s story “Women’s Business”,  unsuspecting, after working my way unharmed through a grim Helen Garner, a hilarious Hal Porter, and a wry Elizabeth Jolley.
  ” I was jumping from bare foot to bare foot on the hot asphalt path, keeping a lookout for enemies,” I read (utterly innocuous, compared to the Helen Garner), and something terrible happened.
I felt Warsaw disappear outside the window, the real, corporeal city  which I have been learning to love over the past few months becoming as insubstantial as smoke. Like all unpleasant experiences for someone unaccustomed to them, this blow of what must have been homesickness was not as all as I had expected.
 I found myself, without warning,  in some horrible migrant’s limbo: can’t go on, can’t go back. There was no deep longing. Instead I felt a profound and awful sense of exclusion from everything, compounded by a hacking cough and a paranoid sense that the world was an  unsavoury and hostile place.
This lasted for two days or so while I coughed green mucus and wept over my inability to produce even a moderately comprehensible, moderately assertive email in Polish, while Marcin assisted with constructive criticism (“that’s unreadable”) and head-patting (“everything will be alright”, though it patently wouldn’t).
Anyway, it passed. I was partly horrified by my capacity for mood swings and partly reassured by my conformity to established stages of culture shock. I have apparently (after 4 months- a late bloomer) reached stage 3 – the ’emptiness or rejection phase’. According to the literature, the next stage will be the Conformist Stage, where I will “start to understand and tolerate cultural differences.” I’m looking forward to it.
And lest it sound like an extreme nervous breakdown, here are some (rather attractive) pictures of the world which is replacing the things I have left behind, and an assurance that everything is, as promised, alright.

A dramatic evening on Plac Pilsudskiego

On the square in the old city

I'm still not used to sights like this

The statue on the corner, taking a rest

In the old city


Filed under migrant life