Friday, March 24, 2006

Choo choo boo boo

Imagine seeing the first steam engine in 1804. What power! What speed! The great big iron horse coming from places unseen to take you off to new adventures. How exciting! Thoreau viewed the railroad as a turning point in human history.
When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion... it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!
Granted he didn't use it much, but he recognized its importance.

I take the train at least once a week, usually twice. I've taken all kinds of trains here in Poland, from the lowly osobowy to the chic Intercity and I've discovered that no matter how much you pay for passage, we all leave our manners in third class

Case 1: The Osobowy

The osobowy train is the budget train here in Poland. This untranslatable little word means something like "the people mover." That's what it does--with brutal efficiency. If you've ever wondered what a sardine feels like when he's in the middle, then the osobowy train is for you. The benches are assumed to sit two people, but when there are four people packed in and facing each other (especially when said passengers have brought luggage), you begin to wonder whether we are getting larger as the years go by.

Under such brutal conditions, you'd expect people to work together to find solutions to our common problems. Maybe by, say, putting luggage somewhere out of the way. As in not in the aisle, which is only about a foot and a half wide, anyway. Perhaps you'd scoot yourself near to the window to indicate that the seat next to you is empty.

Of course, none of us do this. We leave our junk in the aisle and we sit ourselves right in the middle and kind of lean forward in an effort to occupy all four seats at once. We feel like we deserve it. We paid for our ticket and we demand our comfort and space.

Case 2: The Pospieszny

This train, often called "the fast train" in the tourist books, is the bread and butter of Polish transport. These little guys will zip you anywhere you want to go, stopping every 30 minutes or so. No reserved seats, just like the osobowy trains.

The adventure starts on the platform. Everyone stands about, spending their last few minutes with the boyfriends or girlfriends. The brave peek their heads out and look in both directions to see if the train is coming. The persistent peek their heads out and look in both directions to see if the train is coming--every three minutes. Some poor folks are so lost that they don't even know on which side of the platform the train will arrive, so they do the peeking ritual on both sides.

The lights!! The cars!! It's coming!! When the train first turns the corner and is coming towards the platform, everybody suddenly starts walking towards where they think the front of the train will be. That is, if the train is going from Szczecin to Warsaw, you'll suddenly find yourself in the middle of an eastward bound stampede. Why we do this, nobody knows. Why not just space out on the platform and wait til the train stops before aiming for a door? I just don't know.

Then the doors open. Large packs form at each one. The ones in the back start to push in. The poor folks on the train trying to get off have to push their way through the eager soon-to-be passengers. And yes, that little old lady DOES have six pieces of buggage and no she can't lift ANY of them and yes YOU must help her.

Once you make it through the bottleneck (I usually just wait for the end. Someone's gotta be last) it's time to find a seat. But wait!! We are human beings! When we enter the train, we do not just take the first available seat. In accordance with the electrons we are made of, we desire to be equidistant. We simply must wander up and down the aisle and look for the compartment with the fewest people. Nevermind that the compartment will be filled up anyway, we need to be first.

That is, unless we can prevent the compartment from filling up. Here's a little trick that dupes the amateur rider every time. Someone goes into an empty compartment, turns off the lights, and closes the curtains, giving the outside world an image of impenetrability. In a country where most people aren't taught to question authority, a red fabric curtain might as well be a brick wall. And when an intrusive foreigner dares open the door and ask for a free seat, he's greeted with pressed lips and quiet aggression.

The ride is decent unless you happen to share a compartment with someone's dog. Yes, it happens.

Case 3 : The rest

I lump the remaining trains into the same category. Not because they are so similar to each other, just that in comparison to cases 1 and 2, they might as well be airplanes.

There are actually three classes of trains in this category: the express, the Eurocity, and the Intercity. The express is nothing special. It's a pospieszny with seat reservations and one or two fewer stops. But sometimes the seats are a bit more comfortable and these trains are never as crowded. The Intercity train, as the name implies, goes from major city to major city, with no stops in between. It's the Benzo of the trains. I think I've been on it once. The upstart business men like to order their Intercity train ticket by name, "Yes, I'll have the Lech to Warsaw Central tomorrow morning." And those types always get a faktura VAT (fancy receipt for tax reimbursement) that takes an extra 10 minutes.

Then there's the Eurocity. It's the Eurocity across the German border. The most popular one in Poland is the Berlin-Warsaw express. I take this train once a week to Konin. Every week I'm exposed to raw human depravity.

The cars on this train don't have compartments. They've got an aisle down the middle with two seats on each side, like an airplane. You might think that this train would be well-organized. You'd be sorely mistaken. Reading the seat numbers on one side, walking from the back of the car to the front, might go something like this: 1,3,5,9,12,23,15 and so on. And no, I'm not kidding (much).

Such a non-linear numbering method doesn't help people find the right seat. And of course once we get on the train we look for our seat and find someone in it. OK. No big deal. Just find another seat. There are about 150 of them. But the second you sit down (I bet you can guess it) there's someone looking at you and trying to conspicuously look at the seat number above you. They won't say anything, they'll just insinuate. So you get up and find another seat. Repeat two or three times. Eventually, you're in a seat and the train moves on.

I'm just as guilty as anyone else. With this post I just wanted to shed some light on how little we've progressed since Thoreau saw the big iron horse carrying humanity off to the next level. Our technology has advanced, but we're stuck on the Titanic.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Poles in the UK

As one of the few EU countries to open its borders to workers from the new Member States, the UK has benefitted from an influx of primarily young Poles and other central Europeans prepared to leave their homes and families and take advantage of the opportunity offered to them in the UK.

There's quite a lot of hysterical ranting from the British gutter press about the new workers 'coming over here and taking our jobs' but the UK has really benefitted from the arrangement and other countries, most recently Spain, are following their lead and inviting the new members to be a *proper* part of the EU club.

I went to London at the weekend with a couple of Poles and saw evidence not only of the new generation of Poles to have taken up residence in Britain, but met some Poles who have been in the country for 40 years.

Marek's great-Uncle was in the RAF and is now a British citizen. 'They didn't want to, but I had fought for them and they had to let me become British' he told me, with a twinkle in his eye. His late brother-in-law was a Catholic priest who came to England and built up a Polish Catholic community in Ealing. We went into the church and heard the end of a mass, in Polish. I scanned the notice board which was crammed with posters for events, a mix of English and Polish. We walked past the kitchens, serving soup and Polish dishes to a group of pensioners.

Later we went to Fawley Court, a Christopher Wren stately home in Henley-on-Thames in which Marek's other great-Uncle, the Catholic priest, had lived and worked. The house and main park had been bought in 1953 by the Congregation of Marian fathers, who started a school for Polish boys and started renovating the estate. We met a very jolly Priest who ate Polish-style dinner with us, teased me and Marek about the absense of any wedding plans, and showed us round the museum and house.

I never realised that Polish was going to be such a useful language to learn but in the four days we were in London, we met Polish tourists and Polish hotel staff and heard Polish being spoken on the streets. When we walked down the road we saw signs for Polish beer, newspaper racks for Polish papers and were told about Polish shops. Forget the Chinese, I reckon the Poles are going to be the superpower of tomorrow.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

It’s about football

That’s right, American football. So if you’re one of those – like so many I meet here – whose eyes glaze over in a funk of boredom at the mention of the sport, than you can safely skip this post.

Warsaw’s local American football team, the Warsaw Eagles, will be playing their first match six days from today. I know most of my p3ers out there know about this, because as a player/coach on the team, I’ve been crowing about next weekend’s tournament at the past few meetups, and one of our members will hopefully be writing about it in an upcoming local publication.

For me, coaching this team (that’s been my main role) has been one of the most rewarding expat experiences I’ve had in my near five years here. I’m the only American on the team. The ONLY one. That includes the head coach, who is British. That gives me an interesting perspective.

Growing up, I had football all around me. Autumn weekends were chock-full of college and pro American football games to watch and listen to on the radio, and my father was there to explain the basics for me. Heck, my mom was too. Players on the University of Michigan’s team or on the Detroit Lions were local heroes. In the States, it is nothing for a group of kids to have a pick-up game in somebody’s back yard after school – everybody knows how to play because everybody else knows. This is culturally-transferred knowledge.

And so it was easy for me to learn to love American football. I started at age 10.

It’s much different for the men (from 18-30ish) and kids (14-17) that I play with and coach here in Poland. These guys never had anyone to explain American football’s rules to them. There is absolutely zero American football culture here – you can hardly find a TV channel that carries the Super Bowl, much less regular season games. Getting involved in soccer is much easier, there are plenty of teams and games to watch, it’s all over, and professional football players are revered.

Still, despite no one around them understanding or even remotely interested in American football – once they find this game, they play.

What this experience has taught me is that there are elements to American football which can not be replaced by participation in any other sport. There is no logical reason for 40 guys to show up on a Sunday morning in an empty soccer field with two feet of snow on it to practice a game unknown to all of their friends and family, with no hope of monetary reward or even being respected for their abilities, except for pure love of the game. American football, for the right kind of man, is intoxicating. These men have drunk, and they know that there is no better taste than that of a tackle or a touchdown.

And that encourages me. What I said earlier about soccer notwithstanding, Poland is relatively dry of participation or interest in sports in general. Sometimes I see a big farm-fed Polish kid walking down the street and want to scream: “That boy’s a left tackle!” – because he will surely never play soccer, and probably won’t play rugby. But American football gives kids like him the chance to be valuable members of a team. American football has something to offer Poland.

American football will never be as popular here as the European sort – at least in my lifetime. But that’s ok with me. I see how in countries like Britain and especially Germany, where soccer is kin to religion, American football enjoys a significant following.

And that’s a situation that could happen here within my lifetime. I think Polish kids are absolutely starving for sports – for an American like me, the lack of emphasis on athletics is shocking and depressing. Maybe so few kids play because kicking a soccer ball just isn’t as satisfying as hitting the man across from you. Too many Polish kids these days have pent-up aggression that they take out in the wrong ways. American football can also act as a positive conduit for a young man’s rebelliousness.

So that’s one way in which this expat has found he can contribute something to this country, which has given him plenty in its own way.

As far as what I said earlier about American football becoming as popular here as it is in Germany, we’ve still got a long way to go – but next weekend’s international tournament is a start. If you want to do something a little bit different this weekend, come on out and cheer us on.

Warsaw Eagles website

Polish American Football Association website

Go Eagles!

March 25/26, 2006, WARSAW

Academy of Physical Education – Warsaw, 34 Marymoncka St., rugby field

main event of which will be the first ever in Poland International American Football Tournament

Teams taking part in the tournament: Søllerod Gold Diggers (Denmark), Pardubice Stallions (Czech Republic), 1.KFA Wielkopolska (Poland) and Warsaw Eagles (Poland)


Saturday, March 25th

9.00 – 11.00 1) Søllerod Gold Diggers - Warsaw Eagles
11.00 – 13.00 2) 1.KFA Wielkopolska - Pardubice Stallions
13.00 – 13.20 Official Opening
13.20 – 15.20 3) Pardubice Stallions - Søllerod Gold Diggers
15.20 – 17.20 4) Warsaw Eagles – 1.KFA Wielkopolska

Sunday, March 26th

9.00 - 11.00 5) Søllerod Gold Diggers - 1.KFA Wielkopolska
11.00 - 13.00 6) Warsaw Eagles - Pardubice Stallions
13.00 - 13.20 Tournament Summary

During the American Football Days in Poland a mini-tournament of Flag Football – contact-free version of American Football - will also be organised.

Furthermore, all the spectators are welcome to join numerous football workshops.


Friday, March 17, 2006


I was reading a
bad poem
written by
an expat
about how
Polish shops
never have change
and was about
to chuck the book
into the trash
when I heard
the lady
behind the counter
scream "PIĘĆ GROSZY!"
with no proszę.

But really, the poem was awful. "The Cry of Nie Ma" Give me a break.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Polish blogs united!

I have come across a few new blogs in English, writing about Poland.

For instance, two blogs I have found that do political/economic stories mainly, but other stuff too. Eurogoeseast is run by Piotr. His last three posts have been about the depreciation of the zloty – wondering why you’re getting less at the kantor? – a story about Law and Justice called Crying Wolf (you get the picture) and one called Polish plumber strikes back about protectionism within the EU. Well written blog by someone who seems to know what he is talking about.

Our man in Gdansk, part of the Three Monkeys Online group, is good because he reads things like the viciously satirical NIE magazine, run by the infamous Jerzy Urban. And he will even have a look at Rzeczpospolita for you, too. He has also posted on the Balcerowicz controversy and much more… He is currently obsessed with George Clooney movies.

A curio was brought to beatroot’s attention by top Polish language blogger, kurczeblader. She calls it AmericanLove. It’s Polish-English blog by the Polish wife of an American marine who has just been posted to Iraq.

Back to current affairs - another new blog, Republic of Dreams, is shaping up nicely. I think it's by a Polish-American. His last post is about how the many bomb scares in the capital last fall could have been the work of the Polish secret services, trying to influence the results of the presidential election! Good stuff.

Monday, March 06, 2006

jeszcze snieg

It just keeps falling and falling and falling. Every few days I gaze out my window and think, "Now this must surely be the end of winter." But by 4pm the ground and my jacket are again covered by white, fluffy, cottony snow.

And people seem to be taking it quite well. There's been no real complaining (!) about the persistent winter. Just a shrug of the shoulders and an "oh well."

This will be a great spring, I hope. It's been a long winter.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

I'm a threat to national security

First I went and saw Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney's film about the McCarthy interrogations of would-be communists in post-WWII America. Then I read about Morrissey being interrogated this week by the CIA because of remarks he made about President Bush being a terrorist himself. Then, finally, tonight, while walking along Niepodlegosci, two of those tall, dark and wrapped-in-day-glo-vests police men came walking towards me with their little black books in hand. I've always wondered why they stopped innocent looking people on the street and now I got to find out the hard way.

The short cop started his spiel, and as I stared at him blankly pretending not to understand him, I listened to what he had to say to me. "By order of the former mayor and current President Kaczynski, it is our duty to check individuals throughout Warsaw for their proper papers and documents, to make sure everyone is welcome here and for the safety of the people of this great city."

I was shocked. As he continued further I interrupted and said, "Przrepraszm, nie mowie po polsku, mowie po angielsku?" And now they were shocked.

Lots of awkward expressions and grunts of English came out of the taller officer, as he was trying to explain why I needed to show my passport. I said I didn't have it with me, only a driver's license.

"Would that work?"


"Why do you need it?"

Lots and lots of fumbling...then he finally asked how long have I been in Poland. I said for about one year, then the other officer's eyes widened and he blurted you must know Polish then and went off on me about the rules and regulations for foreigners staying here. I had to slow them down and said, look, I'm here teaching English, my job doesn't require me to know your language. Boy were they frustrated with me, so to lighten things up, I said, "Well maybe you guys can help me out... I'm getting married this summer and am looking for wedding rings at jewelry stores along this street. The one up there was too small, any idea if there are more down this way?" ;-)

It worked, they laughed, smiled and offered that they didn't think there were any more stores to the south. The tall one was still trying so hard to tell me why I needed my passport but I was trying my best to convince them that I'm not a threat to the people of Warsaw, unless they feel that the increased use of English in their country is a dangerous thing! ;-)

The funny thing is, is that I'm illegal again.

You EUers got it made!

See you in the deportation cell!


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Polish ski lifts

I tried to breathe deeply. Marek twisted his head towards me and asked if I was ok. 'Yes, fine! Just don't move too much' I screeched as the rope slowly pulled us up the mountainside. My ski seemed to have formed a deep attachment to Marek's and kept sliding over on top of his. I concentrated on keeping both feet facing forward and staying relaxed. Something wobbled. 'Argh! Don't!' I cried. 'I'm not doing anything' Marek stated calmly. But I was no longer relaxed, my hand gripping the bar upon which we were perched and my skis taking on lives of their own. 'I'm going to fall again!' I realised as my ski took me away from Marek and the lift's path. 'What are you doing?' He asked as I landed on my bum. I gave him a sour look and looked back down the mountain. 'Carry on, I'll meet you at the top.' I generously offered.

I still had both skis attached to my feet so got myself out of the way of oncoming skiiers and slid back down to where skiiers joined the lift. The man helping people get started tried to ignore me. I helpfully made frantic gestures in his direction. He gave in and with a lot of pointing and shouting above the noise of the machinery, communicated his wish that I go round to the special queue-avoiding gate and wait for further instructions.

As I waited by the gate, avoiding curious gazes from people in the queue, a second lift employee started unscrewing one of those huge convex mirrors from a random post. The first man shouted out his name and gestured to me. The second man glanced over at me and asked the first man something, I guess along the lines of 'why should we? it's her own silly fault'. The first guy then replied, presumably explaining how I'd fallen and proposing that I should be allowed another go free of charge. The second guy looked dubious about this proposition so when he walked towards me, still with the enormous mirror in his hands I gave him a big smile. (In my experience smiling at people helps more often than not.)

I think I may have overdone it with the smiling.

As he approached, he got this twinkle in his eye and when I asked if it would be ok to have another go, held up the mirror so I could look at my own reflection: 'Only because you are an angel' he proclaimed at the top of his voice. I eyed him nervously. 'Słucham?' I thought maybe I'd misunderstood his Polish. 'You are an angel so you can go again' he repeated. I giggled nervously, darting embarassed glances at the queue, and an eye at my dishevelled state in the mirror. 'Er, yeah ok thanks...'

He let me through the gate and stood next to me, still trying to show me my reflection and repeating my angelic status. I just sort of mumbled and blushed under my ski hat. Finally it was my turn and I grabbed the bar of the lift gratefully. I didn't look back.

It worked though, the threat of the angel man with his big scary mirror was all it took. I didn't fall off another lift again for the rest of the holiday.