One of the arcane secrets of being an alien in Warsaw is knowing when to use Polish and when to switch to English. Both can be very effective, or not, when used at the right, or wrong, time.
Take for example my recent trip to the Marriott hotel to order the Christmas turkey dinner. I arrived at the counter and explained in my very best Polish that I wanted to order a turkey. She asked if it was for Wigilia and I said no, it was for the first day. “No, we’re closed” was her reply, followed by that look and silence that means – GO AWAY. Clearly a change of tack was needed if I was to feed my family on Christmas day so I switched to English and asked the same question, also reminding her that we’d spoken earlier on this subject. After that, nothing was too much trouble. The dinner is ordered and will be picked up midday on the 25th, even though the hotel is closed.
Talking to policemen, not that I’ve had to do so recently, is also far more effective in English than Polish. Just mention “stupid foreigners” and Manchester United and for the most part you’ll be waved away.
On the other hand, try speaking English with anyone in a government office, the meldunek police, the tax police, the passport police, whatever, and see how far you get. A stern look and a “sod off and leave me alone” (po polsku) is the best you can expect.
In the work environment it’s the same deal. It goes without saying that all foreigners prefer to speak English than Polish – except those foreigners who’s Polish is excellent in which case they prefer to show off and speak Polish! But for the Polish biznesmen there is a divide between those who enjoy using English and those who hate doing so. Interestingly, this is quite often nothing to do with their ability to speak English but more to do with their attitude toward foreigners doing biznes in Poland. Psychologically perhaps something to do with power or having the upper hand? Those who enjoy speaking English are very often most enthusiastic and will go out of their way to use this language. Of course this again is not so much to do with being nice to Johhny Forgner but more to do with helping themselves learn English. Nothing wrong with that.
The longer you spend in this country, the better you’re able to judge those occasions when speaking English is the best approach and those where only Polish will do. There’s no question to my mind that having both available is a big advantage, more strings to your bow.
Annoying are those who answer you in English (or German if you’re in Breslau, Danzig or Pozen) despite you having asked a question in perfectly understandable Polish. I find that a little disrespectful, even if many of them are just trying to save time or help you out.
Mixing the two languages is a lot of fun. A phrase I’ve been waiting to use but never had the occasion is “For the love of God, Bogumiła!”. I need to employ a really bad project manager called Bogumiła before I die. :-)
Worrying, I find, are those occasions where I’m on the receiving end of a lecture about how bad Poland is, how stupid/annoying Polish people are or how shitty it is living in this country….etc etc etc. Surprisingly, these outbursts are not restricted to foreigners but can quite often come from Poles themselves. For the most part, in my experience, this is Poles who have left the country and are living/have lived abroad or Poles who used to live in a small Silesian mining village and are now married to a Dutchman, living in a large villa on the outskirts of Warsaw and driving an expensive car. I can’t decide which is the worst of these scenarios, they’re both pretty nasty to deal with as there’s an assumption that because I’m foreign and speaking English then I must surely agree with them. Despite what I write on here sometimes, I don’t agree with them and for the most part I tell them that. How to lose friends and not influence people!
Perhaps the worst possible dilemmas though are those when you know you are getting some advantage because you are foreign and speaking English. You’re getting something that a Polish person speaking Polish might not get. I suppose the Christmas turkey is a small example of this although to an extent I have to believe that the Marriott knows that the 25th means more to me than to a Pole. Hence, a Pole can get a turkey on the 24th but I can also get one on the 25th. There are worse examples though. It is possible for example, that we were able to rent the place we are now living because of me being English and the owners being Austrian. They have said as much in the past about not trusting Polish people. Having listened to some of their stories about building and running this place, they have clearly been given good reason not to trust Poles but does that make it any better? My wife, child and “new family” are Polish after all, so should I be taking advantage of these situations or should I be making a stand on behalf of all Poles?! I really am torn on these issues. I have the feeling, to be honest, that many Poles in the reverse situations where Poles have an advantage over me (which must be plentiful), wouldn’t think twice before grabbing with both hands and who cares about the Angol. On the other hand, it just doesn’t seem right. My innate British sense of fair play and decency I suppose. So, on the whole I take the advantages I’m offered but then don the cilice belt and hair shirt when I get home, the home I might not have if I were Polish!
In cases like that of our landlords I often wonder which came first – the bad attitude towards Poles or the being treated badly by Poles? I’ve always treated the Polish people around me as I would any other nationality, including Brits. I’ve had some bad experiences but no more than should be expected. I have my issues with many things Polish but no more than I have with things British, probably these days, less so. I have found in return that I’ve been treated well by the Polish nation and people. It may be that I’ve just been lucky, but I don’t think so. I think for the most part, if you start out with a bad attitude towards a nation or its citizens then you’re usually going to get what you deserve. What do you think?