Thursday, January 12, 2006

Another slice of life, PROSZE!

I sensed the need to input some fresh material. So now another "slice of life" Aaron post.

I love milk bars. I love milk bars for the same reason I love blues music: they're both forgiving. No matter what you've done, no matter what crime you may have committed, the blues is there for you. No matter in what station of life you find yourself, no matter how much money you have, the milk bar is there for you. They both provide nourishment.

I wish every visitor to Poland could go to a milk bar. Best food in the country for insanely low prices. The experience is something like this:

You walk in. You see a long line (it feels good to say line knowing that most of the people reading this will cringe) of people from all walks of life but mostly students and the homeless. They are all gazing at the big sign with the prices. These places are--I believe--partially subsidized by the government, so the prices are weird. Tomato soup, for example, wil set you back exactly 1.07 zl.

Once you get to the cashier, you feel a bit put off. She may not even look at you. She spends most of her time looking at her register. She just gives you a "prosze" or, if she's in a bad mood, a "słucham". You then mumble out your order in the best Polish you can. For me, it's like this:

Ja, uhhh, prosze, uhhh, poprosze pee-err-OH-gee, prosze, i ZOO-paa po-me-door-OH-ve.
She then furiously taps out your order on the cash register and tells you an obscure number (yesterday it was 5.63). You give her the money and she yells for the next person in line to come up.

You step aside and look confused. When is the food coming? You see other food, but none of it is yours. You grap a plastic fork and knife and a piece of flimsy wax paper, er napkin that is and wait.

She reaches through a small hole in the wall and extracts a plate with two rolled-up pancakes. But you didn't order pancakes. You are confused even more. She lathers them with whipped cream and pours some red gelatinous substance over them. Then the yell.

What? What was that? Before you know it, some balding, stinky old man with hair coming out of his nose edges his way past you and takes the pancakes, moving very slowly to make sure he doesn't drop them, as he has done on many past occcasions.

You understand. She takes the food from the kitchen, places it on the counter, and announces its presence to the entire bar. OK. You get it. You wait a bit.

Three minutes later, your food comes out. Or part of it. Maybe you get the soup first, maybe you don't.

But it's all worth it once you sit down to eat. The food is amazing. When people think about authentic food, you realize, they are talking about this. Your soul warms up. Your glasses steam up. You are content.

So here's a proverbial toast to milk bars!


At 1/12/2006 12:53:00 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

Hilarious read. I love milk bars, too! I couldn't survive my student time without them.
If you are in Poznań, go to 'Pod Arkadami'. Classic.

At 1/12/2006 05:19:00 PM, Anonymous Kirk said...

Great post. Nice writing. You couldn't have captured the experience any better. I'll have to put "Pod Arkadami" on my "places-to-go" list.

At 1/12/2006 07:25:00 PM, Blogger beatroot said...

I love milk bars. I love milk bars for the same reason I love blues music: they're both forgiving.

That'sa nice line. So presumably, your favourite milk bar would be a 12-bar milk bar!

At 1/13/2006 08:59:00 AM, Blogger Michael Farris said...

There's a really goos bar mleczny in Wrocław on the street in front of the train station about two blocks east. A few doors further down, however, is a private place that is only a little more expensive and serves the world's! best! pierogies! (and homemade tasting barszcz).

Cultural note. Many (though not all) Polish people would find the cashier lady quite polite enough (though she'll seem hostile to many English speakers). Polish people tend to not pay much attention to things like intonation or intention, just including the right polite words makes you polite. An indifferent or even snarly sentence with 'proszę' added in is more polite than a friendly one without.

At 1/13/2006 10:26:00 AM, Blogger Aaron Fowles said...

Pod Arkadmi = heaven.

As per the Polish finding the cashier quite polite enough: I disagree. They wouldn't find her polite enough, they just don't care. In a language with polite forms and in a culture that is so indoctrinated in politness, the words become hollow and meaningless. A mere repetition of forms. So politeness has become hollow and empty here (not without exceptions, of course).

For example, the proszę I received from the old man on Christmas Eve inviting me to sit next to him at the big long table was worlds apart from the proszę I received from cashier lady which was more of a demand.

At 1/13/2006 10:58:00 AM, Blogger Michael Farris said...

"They wouldn't find her polite enough, they just don't care."

And what precisely would the difference between those two concepts be? I pretty much agree with the rest of the paragraph, it's saying much the same thing I was, just in a different form.

In terms of public politeness, Americans especially care about delivery, whereas Polish people are more concerned with observing the proper formulas. Private behavior is a little different (here most Polish people like flourishes and a personal touch and Americans especially ... are stuck with the same banalities and a pleasant delivery we use with cashier ladies).

Back on to milk bars, I never was into the experience that much except one extremely hungover morning where Pod Arkadami saved my life (at least digestion) with tomato soup, boiled potatoes and several strawberry cocktails (koktajl = a kind of fruit/milk drink for the uninitiated).

At 1/13/2006 08:11:00 PM, Blogger The Wendy Lady said...

Politeness is very much dependent on cultural awareness (e.g. Indians use a falling intonation on questions that can be construed as rude by Brits, see Gumperz 1982). (yes, I'm a linguistics geek, why do you ask?) I've gotten to the point where I just assume cashiers are being polite & I'm just not culturally aware enough to know it, rather than assuming they're being rude to me because I'm butchering their language.

And thanks for giving me a new place to eat lunch!

At 1/13/2006 10:09:00 PM, Blogger beatroot said...

Towo ladies from the BBC came to Warsaw last year (or maybe it was the year before - can't remember) to record a programme for Radio 4 called the Food Program. It was about Central European cookery. A friend of mine who was fixing everything up for them here asked me to come along and take them to a milk bar. I LOVE milk bars. What a great institution! Subsidised food for the poor (and university students, and me...). and they are a breed indanger of going the way of the do-do. Anyway, so we took these two nice middle class english ladies to the milk bar near Warsaw Uni - affectionatly knicknamed the cockroach. and the foody food critics absolutly loved it!


the BBC ladies gobbled it down. and then one of them was suprised that the place wasn't licenced for alcohol. So she said: "Well, do you think they would mind if we brought a bottle in?'

Somehow I don't think they really understood about milk bars. But it just shows you how good the food can be in these places.

and about rude ladies at kasa - I pity you Americans. You are so used to service. That's because you have always had lots of retail and services competing with each other. Here in Poland, during commies, if there was one butcher selling one sausage then you were lucky. Butchers didn't have to be nice to people to sell their sausage. They had all the power. and it appears that many shop and catering workers still have not tuned into the fact that if we don't like the service, then we can go somewhere else.

At 1/13/2006 10:37:00 PM, Blogger Michael Farris said...

"I've gotten to the point where I just assume cashiers are being polite & I'm just not culturally aware enough to know it"

Exactly right I think, I just wish it didn't take me such a looooong time (and so many undignified verbal scuffles) to realize it.

Also, IME Polish people don't necessarily appreciate or trust American style service, finding it out of place or suspicious.

At 1/17/2006 02:56:00 PM, Blogger beatroot said...

It used to be like that in Britain. If anyone came up to us in the shop and said 'Can I help you', we thought they were about to mug us, or something.

And I, like you, have had some undignified scuffles in shops about this. And you may be right, perhaps it's just a cultural thing and they are all being very very polite when they completly ignore my pleases and thank yous, hellos and goodbyes...

At 12/05/2008 09:56:00 AM, Blogger mar-la said...

oh man, I just randomly found this post and you are so spot on. You definitely captured the intricate beauty of the milk bar. The best barszcz in Krakow is at Bar Targowy. Hands down. Even better if you're incredibly hung over, of course. Thanks for writing this.


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