Of old ladies, dogs, and public transport

Richard Harradine-Robinson (aka Kalisimba) wanted to tell us a thing or two about his experience of living in Poland. We’ve given him a platform, and just enough rope to hang himself with. Enjoy!

I’ve lived on and off in Poland for the past 10 years and I decided recently to call this fair country – ‘Poland the paradoxical’. To give you a quick example:

In 2005 the voivodship of Podlaskie was named ‘the green lungs of Europe’

Fair enough, you might think, given the extensive lakes, forests and arable land – then you check out the major industries of the region and discover that 4 out of every 10 cigarettes smoked in this country is produced here by a well-known tobacco firm. I could go on, but I thought I’d tell you about old ladies, dogs and, public transport in Warsaw.

Firstly, the dog issue. Now, like any Brit, I like dogs… but I should qualify this statement by saying “I like dogs which are relatively well trained by their owners.” After some research, I found out that the majority of dogs in the centre of Warsaw are owned either by the elderly, or the poor, or both. Again so far so good. No-one is going to deprive the least privileged members of society their only means of solace. Then again, after some research, it turns out that a large proportion of these people were brought here after the war in the reconstruction of Warsaw from the eastern parts of Poland and were essentially peasants and farm workers and now occupy flats provided by the local authorities at peanuts rent. They are reluctant to move even when offered large amounts of money from developers.

Now farm animals aren’t treated like pets, as in the UK, but as guard dogs and are housed outside in all weathers. So these people acquired their guard dogs and promptly moved them into 40 sq.metres of shared living space. Rottwielers, German shepherds, and recently and more worryingly, breeds like the pit bull.

Now the logic goes that a dog has to guard, so if it barks at all hours of night and day…ergo..it’s doing its job !! Neighbours, I hear you say, what neighbours the dog brigade reply.

I was walking back one Sunday morning from the apteka through a green square near my flat in the centre where two old ladies were nattering away while their equally yappy little dogs were playing around. One of the little blighters spotted me and launched itself into the air and made a bee-line for me post haste, showing all its fangs. As it leapt up to sink them into me, it met my uplifted foot on its derrier and howling , returned to its owner. She swore at me in Polish promising all sorts of retribution, ‘till I firmly pointed out that I would be formally complaining and the lady in question could expect a hefty fine for letting her dog off the lead and attempting to attack me. That shut her up.

The same old ladies (not so many men for some reason) seem to occupy the buses and trams en masse during the rush hour in the morning. I have not been able to work out why there are so many at 6 and 7 in the morning, and all expecting to be seated, but there they are, monopolizing the system. They don’t like traveling by the quicker and more convenient method of the Metro—probably because half the student population of Warsaw is going to 8 o’clock lectures. So as my job involves advising a government minister, I suggested to him the government would do well to adopt a scheme like London, where discount passengers i.e. Pensioners and students would be obliged to pay full price at peak times. I thought this a perfectly sensible answer to the capital’s increasingly overloaded transport system. There was a horrified pregnant pause while he eyed me incredulously.

“But that would be discriminating against the old and the young” he eventually gasped.
“Quite correct” I said, “got it in one… or two rather” I smiled.
“No, you don’t understand. We can’t restrict their travel. Sometimes it’s the only entertainment they get”
“Well good, they can get their entertainment outside of rush hour”
“No, you see, a lot of them have to get to the doctors.”
“What at 6 o’clock in the morning ?”
“Yes, they are trying to beat the queues”
“I thought you said it’s their entertainment”
“That too. And a lot of them dont sleep very well and so they use the transport system to keep themselves occupied.”

This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a major capital city’s transport system being used as an antidote to insomnia. And, of course at the heart of the problem is everybody seems to start at the same time, unlike the UK. Another hangover from communism?

And on a slightly more serious note, there is a major problem with housing in Warsaw, and I’m not talking about the high prices. Look at any city in the UK and you’ll see how the inner cities are no- go areas because of high rise council estates in the centres where poverty and crime go hand in hand. Then take a look at Al. Jana Pawla II around the Hala Mirowska area. On one side of the street you’ve got the glossy new office complexes, shops and restaurants built by Skanksa, and on the other, pensioners displaying the contents of their 40 sq. metres for viewing and sale set out on an old towel on the pavement. Visiting businessmen are quite rightly confused with this dual image of cutting edge modernity and poverty side by side. And it’s this public housing poverty that creates a mentality of “It’s not mine, so I wont take care of it” referring to everything from dog shit to dumping rubbish. And the new, young middle class who are paying a fortune for a downtown newbuild apartment don’t like the old, poor relics next door. Human nature, alas.

Thought I would leave you with a lovely story from the ministry which sums up the misguided fervour of public officials.

Recently, a foreign delegation arrived and were due to continue down to Posnan for a conference. So the director of one of the departments dispatched some underling to the Central train station to get reserved tickets for the Express with a proviso to only get the best seats for the 10 or so dignitaries. Which he promptly did. And when the foreign businessmen were given their tickets and asked to embark, it turned out the ticket office lady had given them all window seats… in different compartments!

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21 thoughts on “Of old ladies, dogs, and public transport

  1. I will always hate communism for creating two generations of people who are incapable of possessing love or respect for their surroundings or neighbors.

  2. michael farris says:

    I’d have a huge amount to say about this, but will restrain myself.

    First, if you have the ear of those in government please, please, please don’t just try to import solutions that work somewhere else.

    Second, about the metro. Why did they adopt the awful show-a-ticket-every-time you use it? It doesn’t fit with the rest of the system. Rip out the turnstiles as in Budapest and Prague* and have lots of canaries to check people’s tickets. Much more convenient for honest travellers.

    *yes, this is inconsistent but Prague and Budapest are also central european cities that have some stuff in common with Warsaw.

    I for one think that economic segregation of housing that the young upwardly mobile or nouveau riche so long for is horribly destructive. When rich and poor live around each other they both behave better. Short of creating special poor housing projects (the first step in creating no-go areas for police) is an awful, awful idea.

    Brad, communism didn’t last long enough in Poland and was disliked enough so that its role in shaping people was pretty limited. If you want to blame some philosophy or institution for attitudes that you dislike (general disregard for the social contract and lack of consideration for others) look for another institution that plays a part in shaping young people’s values, encourages a private (and not social) conscience and that has generally been widely respected in Poland.

  3. scatts says:

    Not being an early traveller I’ve missed the 6 o’clock public transport thing, but the rest I know only too well.

    I have to say that I love the contrast. I find it very refreshing to see both sides of the Hala Mirowksa area coexisting and it will be a poorer day when the place is solely occupied by the yuppies that are presumably “supposed to be there”.

    Classic train story.

  4. some dude says:

    Just how would paying normal fare in the rush hours work?

    Most students buy month tickets, most old ladies stock up on daily tickets.

  5. Reason says:

    Nice verbalization of your insights. I liked the train story. I have done business in Poland off and on for 18 years and what you said about the train tickets is so true. For some reason here, generally, people don’t seem to be able to ‘connect the dots’.

  6. darthsida says:

    @ Brad

    You seem to have two chief options:

    1) admit that Communism was so destructive that no lustration (vetting) after 1989 (unlike in the Czech Rep or Germany) has remained destructive force in Poland (then, why be astonished?)
    2) admit that Communism cannot be blamed for everything (especially as post-1989 Poland will soon be as old as the non-communist 2nd Republic).

    Either way, babcias remember times without Communism and students remember no Communism. (Not to mention that by “Communism” we really mean “Socialism” and by “Socialism” we really mean “Soviet way of life”.)

    @ general

    A former 6-to-2 worker, I confirm: the eld generation would occupy much of the commuting space aboard means of public transport. Reasons: (1) old habits, old wisdoms (“early bird catches the worm”), age-related insomnia, (2) necessity (yes, it is true, one may have to catch a 6 o’clock queue to meet doctors high noon), (3) prudence (failing if collective): “when I get on bus early, it will not be crowded yet”. The fact that you get your rides free when you are of certain age and that you don’t have a car are contributing sub-factors.

  7. guest says:


    Richard yes this is really a problem with the damn dogs and the poor people living next door to the polonia palace hotel for example.
    They have no money to renowate their “kamienica” ,and now every 2nd house in the city centre has a big advert ,when a renovation/money is needed.
    BTW, it was extreme in the communist times where an university professor often lived next door to a coal mine worker… just watch the movie “alternatywy 4”.

    But the good thing is, that the younger generation also hates all the things you mentioned. So there is some hope that it will change pretty soon ,when the old and drunk people land in the powazki area in the next 5-10 yrs or so….

    I mean, just compare Warsaw 1982-1992-2002-2012 and you will see that the difference is really huge. So there is some hope.

  8. Thanks, but I’ll blame it on communism (rather than commies). And “Lustration” might have been a good idea in 90-91 but we’re halfway through 2008 now. That horse left the barn a long, long time ago.

    Seriously though, the bottom line is that I’ve never seen so little regard for one’s surroundings or neighbors. I don’t know what the reasons are but the results are obvious.

  9. some dude says:

    This is bull*beep*. This is probably the last chance to do the lustration properly and punish the guilty. But we digress here.

    I do not even imagine what “regard to surroundings” might mean. Is this the same as being nice to people?

    In my opinion it’s because there is no concept of ‘local’ ‘government’ in Poland. And I don’t mean the election of voivodships or the sejmiks. No, I mean it on a very basic level. People in districts do not organize, they don’t care about the local communities. Who knows the actual name of their dzielnicowy, burmistrz or their representative in the council?

    Granted, it may be different in villages where everyone knows that sołtys is a right bastard, but in my experience in the cities people don’t care about their osiedle, dzielnica or even city, they just assume that the executives ought to come from Warsaw.

  10. Jolanta says:

    Brad: And so will I.

    I do believe that the almost absolute lack of care and respect for the housing estate, the district, the street one lives in and for somebody else’s property is our communist/socialist/Soviet heritage. However, slowly but inevitably, it has been changing of late. I think I have already mentioned somewhere here that me and my neighbours:

    sweep the street
    pick up the litter
    tend the no man’s land behind our fences (we plant flowers and so on)
    constantly remove dog excrements from the pavement
    regilarly go litter hunting in the nearest area.

    From the average passer’s-by point of view we are probably mentally deranged human beings or outright freaks. To those with a kinder disposition we are highly entertaining aesthetic maniacs.
    I have been abused many a time because I ASKED an adult or a child not to collect flowers from some of the little outside gardens; I have been shouted at when I asked a dog owner to take the dog a 100 meters away (to the park) to do its business; I have been looked at with utmost suspicion while picking up the litter from the tarmac etc.etc.

    Richard: I live on the way to the local park-cum-dog toilet and I can assure you that numerous dog owners in my part of Krakow are middle class and definitely well-off. I know a lot of people in this area and I can assure you that 99 per cent of those young and successful have never cleaned after their pet because they simply do not see the need to do it. I have recently gone for a walk with a friend of mine, a well-to-do and respectable lady, who simply pretended that the dog did nothing wrong (of course there was no guilt on the dog’s part). She was so shocked when I said, “why don’t you …”.
    When I was visiting a cousin in Warsaw last year I saw middle-class people from a new, fenced off estate, walking their dogs outside the boundaries of the estate and letting them defecate in a small public green. Evidently, they did care about the cleanliness of their luxurious abode and only of that.


  11. geez says:

    Is city living in Poland really all that much different than city living anywhere especially in regard to some people not being the least bit considerate of other people?

    I live in a rust belt city in the US in a mixed ethnicity, mostly white, working class neighborhood.

    The neighbor behind me has a dog that yaps away at 6 am every morning and wakes me up. Not so bad because I have to get up at 6:30 everyday anyway and at night the dog doesn’t yap after 11. And otherwise the same neighbors are pretty quiet.

    About once a week there’s dog shit on my tiny front lawn. There are also piss burns as well.

    Too many old people on public transportation? Hey, just send them to ethical suicide parlors. Jeez.

    Poor people on the streets selling crap? That sounds absolutely menacing. I don’t see how anybody can or should have to be exposed to such indignities!

    Let’s face it. Poor and elderly people are truly such an inconvenience to caring, altogether neighborly yuppies that something simply must be done.

  12. darthsida says:

    => Geez
    You’re right :) Let’s garage-sell all the old people.

    => Brad (and Jolanta?)
    I am sure many unpleasantries can be blamed on ‘communism’, however it will not explain social misdemeanours by people too young to remember the previous system — or those too old not to remember some better system — or those who fought communism in the once so millionous Solidarnosc (etc.).

    => …
    Dogs? A by-comment:

    There was this column (in GW?) one time by Kazik Staszewski (whom until then I would take for a reasonable man). It was about dog droppings and that there should be more police or city guards to hunt and fine those care-free dog owners, because – Kazik maintained – the law that is not enforceable is not respected and when it is not respected it is generally bad. (To boot, Kazik would let his dog leave its droppings too, until fines should become clear and present danger for the easy-goers.) I don’t have a dog, yet the reason I do not leave my human droppings in the street is not that I know that cops should not catch me.

  13. guest says:

    In Germany if you have a dog you have to pay taxes. And for example if a dog bites a child on the street ,the police/veterinarian will kill the dog immediately.

    In Poland if a dog bites a child nearly to death the dog is in “observation” and can bite an other child after some weeks… (there was such a case in the praga district some months ago)

    That’s just a stupid law. period.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Good article!:)
    The one comment I want to make is about dogs. In the UK, unfortunately, the problem with the irresponsible dog owners and both people and pets being attacked by dangerous dogs is on the increase. Here’s some statistics.

    In the town where I live I often see dogs wondering around without a leash, let alone a muzzle. Dogs droppings on pavements are not totally uncommon here either… The difference is you can actually have a normal, polite conversation with most dog owners here and ask them to clean after their dog or hold their dog so that you can pass by with your kids, without hearing all sorts of insults…

  15. anglopole says:

    sorry, it looks like I hadn’t logged in before submitting my comments and am appearing as ‘anonymous’…

    greetings to all from Anglopole:)

  16. island1 says:

    Hey anglopole, why doesn’t your name link to your blog? It should in WordPress, maybe you haven’t got it set up correctly.

  17. Anonymous says:

    the idea that students should pay full price during rush hour is terrible, the point of giving a special discount to students is so that they (having little income or even relying on their parents to support them) can go in the morning from their homes to their schools and study there, obviously enough they have to show up when the lecture starts and not an hour or two later.

  18. […] but there is one thing that intrigues me. Guest writer, Richard Harradine-Robinson, recently wrote of Poland being paradoxical. Take a look at the above lists, the caring nature of the good list and […]

  19. Anonymous says:

    Thanks you all for your comments, critical or otherwise, on the piece I submitted to Polandian and I hope it will not be the last thing I write as there is so much to discuss and hopefully bring into the forum.
    Watch out for a blog which I hope the guys (and gals) at the editor’s office will print on the progress that Warsaw is making towards preparing for the Euro 2012 championships.
    There were some really useful insights into the ongoing problem of civic responsibilty in the capital city which I’ll attempt to address in the 2012 blog because the issues overlap. (not dogs, but pride in the city). Thanks to all. The comments about the elderly poor I take to heart, and I must confess to feeling somewhat ashamed sometimes at my own anger/ lack of sympathy for this beleaguered section of society as they have, most of them, looked the evil in the eye as it were, and have a righteous sense of grievance that others don’t recognize the sacrifice they made in the face of the two major evils of the 20th century; the Nazis and Stalinism.
    I try to inject a sense of humour into some of the issues and if I seem to advocate an ethnic cleansing of students and old people, it’s done in the Monty Python spirit of ” where’s the granny hiding in these 3 bushes. Bang. Not that one..let’s try the next”. Till the next installment..
    Richard Kalisimba ( by the way, I was born in Kenya hence the Swahili handle)

  20. […] spatial awareness | by polandianguest Richard Harradine has been a guest writer on Polandian before. Undeterred by the terrible reviews and the way his old friends just stopped talking to him, […]

  21. […] but there is one thing that intrigues me. Guest writer, Richard Harradine-Robinson, recently wrote of Poland being paradoxical. Take a look at the above lists, the caring nature of the good list and […]

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