The trip to the British embassy

I was looking forward to my trip to the British embassy. According to every spy film I’ve ever watched an embassy is supposed to be the sovereign territory of the nation it represents. Also they have secret basements housing jet-propelled mini-helicopters. I have no idea if this is true, but since when was reality more important than what we learned in the movies. Theoretically this means it should have been like a little trip to the homeland. Of course, given the fact that the round trip to Warsaw took me seven hours, I could have visited the actual homeland more quickly by just flying there and back, but certain bits of paper I needed were in Warsaw.

I fondly imagined I would be ushered into a book lined study by a retired sergeant major where I would have a cosy fireside chat with a Sir Humphrey Appleby look-alike. We would ostentatiously drink tea with milk, munch jammy dodgers and roll our eyes about Poland without a hint of justification. I was a tad disappointed. Her Majesty’s Civil Service appears to have taken the view that the best image to present to the rest of the world is a recreation of a British dole office rather than, say, anything else. There were far more bolted-down plastic chairs and “assault-proof service positions” than I had expected and far fewer leather-backed chairs and book-lined studies. I had a heart-sinking moment. Poland’s bureaucratic offices may be famously shambolic but at least they don’t treat all members of the public as probable knife-wielding loons.


Sir Humphrey Appleby: notable by his absence

I approached the thick perspex buoyed by the expectation of a chat with a fellow countryman. No matter how good a Pole’s English might be, which can be very very good indeed, it’s never the same as talking to a fellow Brit. Assuming he’s not Scottish. I was a tad disappointed again. There didn’t appear to be a British person anywhere in the building. The receptionist was Polish, the security guard was Polish and the women behind the bullet-proof glass were Polish. The “service providers,” as I’m afraid they are probably called, were of that rare and strangely annoying breed of Pole who have practiced their pronunciation to the point where they sound like terminal laryngitis sufferers. Why do people do this? It’s impossible to learn an accent you didn’t grow up with and, frankly, why bother to try.

I wish I could blame the unhelpfulness of the strangulated ladies on Polish genetics, but it was clear they had been mercilessly trained in a modern British version of unhelpfulness that required them to refer you to the embassy website every other word. It was intensely annoying.

Me: Hello, I would like to get hold of document A.

Laryngitis lady:
Have you looked at the website?

Me: Yes I have.

Laryngitis lady: Makes a ‘give me documents’ gesture having decided that speech is no longer necessary.

Me: Erm… here you are.

Laryngitis lady: Are you prepared to pay?

Me: Yes, but can I ask you a couple of questions first?

Laryngitis lady: Have you looked at our website?

Me: Yes. It was very nice. Thank you. Could I ask you a couple of questions?

Laryngitis lady: Everything is on the website.

Me: That may be true, but given the fact that I’m standing in front of you and not currently looking at the website perhaps I could ask you instead?

Laryngitis lady: The website is very comprehensive.

Me: Would it help if I pretended I was holding a mouse and clicked on your face?

Laryngitis lady: There is a frequently asked questions page.

Me: (sigh) Okay, I will look at the website.

Laryngitis lady: Stamps things fiercely and randomly questions my mastery of the English language as applied to the filling in of forms

Me: How long will it take to receive document A?

Laryngitis lady: There is a section on the website about delivery times.

Me: You do realise you could have answered that question with half as many words and 100 percent more information by just telling me.

Laryngitis lady: Thank you, that will be an extraordinarily large number of zlotys please. If you need our help again do not hesitate to look at the website.

I’m sad now.

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41 thoughts on “The trip to the British embassy

  1. Gabriela says:

    Believe… in their website you WON’T find the information you need, no matter how hard you try.
    “(…) but at least they don’t treat all members of the public as probable knife-wielding loons.” This like a endemic sensation you have in every embassy and in every consulate in every part of the world.

  2. Sylwia says:

    “There didn’t appear to be a British person anywhere in the building. The receptionist was Polish, the security guard was Polish and the women behind the bullet-proof glass were Polish.”

    From what I hear it’s exactly the same in London nowadays, so this still holds truth:

    “Theoretically this means it should have been like a little trip to the homeland.”

  3. ahajduk says:

    It feels so familiar. Except I was visiting Canadian embassy in London. But “everything was on the website” (NOT) and a very large amount was in British pounds.

    However, they are way funnier. Lady on a bottom floor (which has almost unlimited power on who gets in/out) cannot answer any questions (since the answers can be found on the website..). Luckily, you can state your question on a pink form which you can leave with the lady on the bottom floor. Unfortunately, in order to pick up the pink form you have get to the 1st floor, which obviously means you have to go through the same lady. So, now your options – you be nice/no questions asked to the lady and get to the 1st floor where all cases are handled OR, well, you be nice/no questions asked, get to the 1st floor, fill in the pink form, get back downstairs, leave it there, wait 2 weeks for meaningless response. How cool is that? :)

  4. Scatts says:

    I have to speak in defence of the ladies behind the bullet-proof glass. Whenever I’ve been there they have been most helpful and rather cheerful with it. They do have rather affected accents but what can one expect when working in the heartland of mother English?

    I suspect you have encountered “the other Warsaw” and those were summer laryngitis ladies, borrowed from the urząd cos tam for a couple of months and given no training beyond “read the website”.

  5. news says:

    When living in a certain Central European country, I once met up socially with the British deputy vice-consul (or maybe the vice deputy consul). As he admitted, the British Embassy is, as you identified island, is actually a pretty grotty arm of the Britosh civil service. The ambassador and one or two other top people will be career civil servants, wear pinstripe suits and regularly attend meetings with government ministers, meet the Queen, or at least Prince Edward, when they come to visit, occasionally be interviewed on local TV, and host the Queen’s birthday garden party.

    Below this, every embassy is staffed by a handful of third consuls, vice consuls etc, whose job description, and working environment, resembles the Job Centre, a City Council housing office and the Dept of Social Security roled into one.

    As you also identified, there are very few British people employed at the embassy, personal callers coming to deal with bureaucratic affairs are met my ¨locally employed staff,¨ who deal with the boring details of visas, marriages, birth and death certificates, etc etc.

    However, now that you are a famous blogger – I am sure that is at the top of the ambassador’s media briefing, or it will be after this – I expect you will get that invite to the Queen’s Birthday reception in May, and then you will tell us about a delightful garden party, cucumber sandwiches, free wine, beer and port and discreet chats in the ambassador’s wood-lined study.

  6. EmigrantkaUK says:

    Ooops! That sounds truly rubbish and in a full on Polish style… Would that imply that Polishness is contageous?

  7. mjn says:

    I had a very similar experience last year while visiting the Swedish embassy. No information, no help and definitely no friedliness. I was so annoyed I blogged about it, in Swedish, and within 10 minutes I had 30 something visitors from people on Swedish foreign ministry and government websites. One of whom left a cheeky anonymous comment (IP-logger FTW!).

    Anyway, it seems that the embassies have combined the worst of the “oh-no-not-another-annoying-person-that-wants-something” Polish bureaucracy tradition with the Swedish (and English?) “rules-are-rules-and-I-cannot-do-anything-that-is-not-on-my-list-of-duties-so-please-go-away” mentality.

    Embassies are a pre-stage of hell, except for people who work there. An uncle who is vice-ambassador at a Polish embassy seems to highly enjoy the experience…

  8. island1 says:

    I just realized I’ve probably doomed any chance I had of ever receiving document A.

    Sylwia: I was going to make that observation but I didn’t want to be cheeky.

    ahajduk: Those crazy Cannuks!

    Scatts: Odd ‘cus you warned me about the security woman who I found to be charming.

    News: My OBE is almost certainly in the post.

    mjn: Those crazy Swedes! They still think ‘tak’ means ‘thank you.’ :)

  9. Ewa says:

    ImigrantkaUK – no, it just shows that Poles are as human as the rest of the world. Why do you assume Poland has a monopoly on bureaucracy and sulky civil servants?

    Island – Have you had the pleasure of paying our friendly Honorary British Consul in Krakow a visit yet? He’s at the sharp end of the British diplomatic service…

  10. Scatts says:

    Ah yes, the security lady is the exception as she’s not behind the bomb-proof enclosure and is therefore more ‘on edge’ as she’s exposed directly to all terrorist threats.

  11. island1 says:

    Ewa: I have not yet had that pleasure.

    Scatts: I thought she looked nervous, but I attributed it to normal womanly fear at what she might find in my trousers.

  12. Bob says:

    Strangely enough I had an excellent experience at the US embassy. I had very detailed questions about the social security system and some documents I had received regarding my future (hopefully it is not bankrupt by then) social security payments. The guy (Polish) I spoke with was better trained and more knowledgeable than any that I had spoken to back in the US. If he did not have an answer he was honest and said he would research it and get back to me. He did so with great detail and at a very acceptable pace. I was more than impressed.

  13. yellerbelly says:

    Last time we were in there, the ladies were very helpful. But that’s because we pressed a blue-eyed baby against the bomb-proof window which made them all gooey. One of them even ventured out from behind her counter to touch it. I could have trained the baby in mini-martial arts for all they knew.

    Still, they were much more helpful than any of the local Tax offices. They really are a nightmare to deal with.

  14. island1 says:

    Oh well, looks like it’s just me then.

  15. Funny that the Polish Embassy in London is staffed by Poles while the British Embassy in Warsaw is also staffed by Poles.

    If it were the other way around…

    POLE IN LONDON: “Ekskiuz mi, aj łud lajk to enkłajer abałt mi ZUS kontrybiuszons – ar zej ap tu dejt?”

    POLISH EMBASSY STAFF: “Hang on, luv, wot’s yer REGON an’ NIP an’ PESEL, eh? Just run them into the ol’ system… ‘alf a mo… Yeah, ‘ere we are… Says you owe ZUS twenny five fouzand four ‘undred and eighty five zlotys. Must be true, eh, that’s wot it sez on the screen…”

    POLE IN LONDON: “Ju ken tejk jor połlysz sołszal sekjuryty system en szaw yt łer ze san dołnt szajn!”

    POLISH EMBASSY STAFF (getting shirty): “Ah’m not paid to take no verbal abuse, pal! Oi, Dawn, call s’kewr’ty, double quick! Got some smart aleck ‘ere reckons there’s somfink wrong wiv the system!”

  16. kuba says:

    When I went to the American embassy in Warsaw it was staffed by both Americans and Poles.
    The only problem was parking on the streets.

  17. Bob says:

    Kuba – that’s one of the continual hangover’s from poor planning and not forward thinking. How many multi-story car parks are there in Warsaw (that are not connected to a hotel or shopping center?) A city of this size should have ample parking but it does not and probably will not in our life time – they never seem to connect the dots in this country.

  18. inda says:

    I just noticed that I have lived my whole life being convinced that this kind of treatment is specific for Eastern Europe: Romania, Hungary, Poland, countries I have experience with.
    Now, a stereotype have been shredded.

    I sometimes wish to have this kind of job, where I can easily tell to clients: ‘check the website, call a different office, use internet, google is your best friend and stop bothering me with stupid questions’ without getting fired.

  19. MaterialGirl says:

    I wasn’t in British Embassy, though I was in GB before 2004.
    I was in American Embassy (no, not for visa begging, I have got your visa in my ass) though I wasn’t in USA.

  20. MaterialGirl says:

    Michael Dembiński,

    you speak also with bad accent in polish, though you speak quite properly (you know many words in polish).

  21. news says:

    If this sort of stuff happens in Poland as well, maybe the British staff at the embassy are too busy with their extra curricular activites to deal with personal callers.

  22. Pawel says:

    it would have taken you just half an hour if you decided to fly to Warsaw from Kraków…

    you can’t be sure if it get you fired until you try…

  23. MaterialGirl – ‘polish’ is what you use for boots and floors. ‘Polish’ is the adjective pertaining to Poland.

  24. yellerbelly says:

    We had a problem in the UK when my soon-to-be wife wanted a work visa pre-2004. Delays, excuses and numerous unproductive phone calls later, we decided to write to our local MP to ask for his help. Being the nice chap that he was, he wrote a quick, sharp letter to the Embassy and it was sorted before you could say “I’m-an-illegal-immigrant”.

    Or in the MP’s case “I’ll-resign-before-there’s-any-more-questions-about-me-cleaning-my-moat-on-parliamentary-expenses”.

    Full story here:

  25. island1 says:

    Michael: Have you thought of touring with this act :)

    Inda: Civil servants are the same everywhere. Stereotype shredders, that’s what we are… kind of

    Material Girly: How do you know what Michael’s Polish accent is like? I think we should be told.

    Yellebelly: I see you move in elevated circles. Should be expect “Yellerbellygate” headlines in the near future?

  26. MaterialGirl says:

    Michał Dembiński,

    we both know what I mean by “polish” (in mind – language). It’s only internet, where I usually write in hurry. In official letter I will try harder with big letters/capitals and correct tenses – the word of the scout. :D It’s natural that it’s hard to loose wrong accent when you are not a child. But it’s stupid and childish to laugh from the others especially when you are doing the same!!! I didn’t expect it by you!!!


    I heard him.

    I sent my jackals to bring me the last KrakowPost and you like always overdid with talking big about yourself (this part with that what made you sophisticated and brought you popularity between women). :D
    And immortal balloon! What a pity, that Americans didn’t spike it! ;)
    But I like the story with Museum of Technics (or sth) and the soapopera watching staff! :)

  27. MaterialGirl says:

    Michał Dembiński again,

    I expect that you teach now island1 that he should write Material Girl not Girly and Yellerbelly not yellebelly!!! :D

  28. PMK says:

    Ain’t that a bitch?!

  29. Mick says:

    The last time I was in the British embassy in Warsaw I had to hold a bible in my hand and swear to the Queen that I have never been arrested or published in any way. Now, this is quite normal you might say, but for a Catholic from Northern Ireland it wasn’t funny in the slightest. I thought they were pulling my leg so I laughed. Needless to say the woman was NOT amused.

    I have since only used my Irish passport for documents. The Irish embassy is a lot more ‘user-friendly’…

  30. Mick says:

    That should be ‘punished’

    I’ve never been ‘published’ ;-)

  31. @Material Girl – I would pull Jamie up for writing yellebelly rather than Yellerbelly if I saw the same mistake tediously perpetuated in thousands of ‘English’ language documents sloppily prepared by people who assume that because proper adjectives don’t begin with a capital letter in Polish, they don’t do so in English either. (And for the sake of fairness, many of today’s txtspking British youth has dispensed with proper grammar, spelling and punctuation.)

    Still, a merry aside.

    As to But it’s stupid and childish to laugh from the others especially when you are doing the same!!! I didn’t expect it by you!!! (I think the preposition you were grasping for was from), my comments are:

    1) Feel free to mock me. PLEASE! I’d be delighted to have my Polish accent held up to ridicule, because then, I could learn and improve. Rather than take umbrage. (To take umbrage – obrażać się. A rare word in English. They are a people whose self-deprecating sense of humour is indeed a national treasure.

    2) Mocking foreigners’ English accent: I refer you to Monty Python, and Fawlty Towers; neither silly. nor childish, but defining British humour.

    3) My parents speak with this accent after over sixty years living in London. So I mock them too!

    4) Loosen up, why don’tcha!?

  32. PMK says:

    Mick—They really made you do that? Would she have been less amused if you started extolling Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, and Bobby Sands?

    A ballot in one hand, and an Armalite in the other. <-I always liked that “philosophy” I guess. (More of a motto than an actual practice.)

  33. island1 says:

    Bartek Uśniacki: Brits certainly make fun of accents all the time, each others and foreigners speaking English. It’s very rarely intended to be offensive. My point was that I don’t understand the obsession among some Polish students of English to get the accent right. First of all there is no correct accent for English, and secondly, beyond a basic level, it isn’t necessary for understanding. In Britain we’re used to hearing different accents all the time – class accents, regional accents, foreign accents etc. They might have a laugh about the way you pronounce a certain word, but they know somebody else will laugh at the way they pronounce “bath” or contract “the” to “t'”. It’s not a big deal.

  34. No such thing as a correct English accent, but Polish (where each vowel has but one value) speakers need to be aware of the multiplicity of values that each English vowel sound has. Try saying “Back”, for example. (No, not beck, BACK) To make the ‘a’ sound, your jaw has to really stretch open, something that no Polish vowel sound calls for. So if your facial muscles are not used to that effort from early childhood, you’ll not be able to do it without conscious effort and practice.

    Why is this important? Because of the danger of being misunderstood.
    Look at words like fear/fair/fur or full/fool/fuel, for example, which sound quite different to the British listener, and which mean different things. “Fur trade coffee? You trade coffee for animal pelts?”

  35. Scatts says:

    I would like to tell you of my bosses recent, ongoing in fact, experiences with the British Embassy but it’s personal stuff so I shan’t. Suffice to say he is not entirely complimentary about the way his issue has been handled and from the sounds of it he’s completely justified.

    Problem was exacerbated by the consul moving office mid issue-resolution and seemingly downing tools for as long as it took to make the move.

  36. Sylwia says:

    I had once a very Polish experience with the Polish embassy in Prague. It looked exactly what a Polish embassy should look a few years after the end of communism – people, furniture, attitudes et al.

    A friend and I went there because after just a few days in Prague it appeared that we ran out of money (we were high school students). By ‘ran out of money’ I mean that we didn’t even have for a metro ticket or a roll, not to mention a ride to Warsaw. We were admitted to the ambassador himself, who gave us a lecture on Poles abroad and how everyone comes to him for money because we’re all irresponsible. Then he gave us the money.

    A half an hour later, fully determined to prove the Polish ambassador right, we decided to spend the money on one more night in Prague. The next morning we had just enough korunas for a shared plate of knedliki outside of town. Hitchhiking took us back to Poland.

    Thank goodness no one told us to look up ‘I ran out of money’ on their kombinować FAQ list.

  37. Ania says:

    My only embassy experience was the US embassy in Warsaw when I wanted a student visa for my senior year. It all went pretty quickly but abruptly? (obcesowo). No American smiles but also no obstacles.
    My Father’s experience when he visited a friend in Chicago was much worse, as a man of fourty back then he had to show his hands to prove he was not a worker and a potential ‘illeg’. Good thing he already were an entrepreneur, because he got to be all lofty on them. If his hands had been rough, who knows?

  38. adthelad says:

    Correct accent – no, authentic accent – yes. However, Michał is right there is correct pronunciation. It just takes a good ear and not many people have one. My dear wife Iza has a fantastic ‘ear’ for music and hence for language.

    Michal’s example is perfect except not entirely precise. I notice that that most common Polish ‘tone deafness’, with regard to the ‘a’ sound is not as suggested between back and ‘beck’ (as I’m inclined to think the ‘e’ sound is more school taught when learning to say ‘a’ in the ‘ej’ form, and then applied across the board, than a result of natural polish pronunciation), it’s the difference between back and buck. So, and Iza puts it down to being lazy, i.e. reverting to kind, she sometimes says hut instead of hat. Strange thing is it never happens with certain words. She’ll never, for example, say cut when she means cat.

    As a matter of interest the English language has 33 vowel sounds unlike 6 in the Polish (a, e, i, o, u, y,). You can argue about the concept of ‘imaginary nasal vowels’, ą and ę, with this guy :)

  39. Sylwia says:

    LOL So how do you read wąwóz, węch, siąść, robią?

  40. Harry says:

    I once called the consultate to ask for their help getting my TRC in the time laid down by Polish law. The woman on the phone told me that they didn’t do that. I pointed out that their website said they could. She said that they wouldn’t. I asked for her name. She asked why I wanted it. I said I wanted to know exactly who I should complain about. She said her name was “Consular Section”. I asked if that was her first name or her surname. She said “First name Consular. Surname Section.” I wrote to the Head of Mission to complain about the refusal to help and the obvious lie told to me. It was only in her third email to me that the Head of Mission finally apologised for a member of her staff lying to me.

  41. aika says:

    “fear” is quite easy. Try “fair” and “fare” ( ^_^

    Apart from the vowels we also have a major problem with “th” (some people pronounce it more like “d”, other like “w” or “f”, the most surprising – like “z”) – it requires using one’s tongue in a completely new way. However I imagine learning one “th” is still easier than learning all “ż”, “sz” etc. in mature age.

    Another surprise awaiting a Pole is that when he finally learns to pronounce “r” somewhat similar to English natives, it turns out that quite often he shouldn’t pronounce it at all, leaving just a suggestion of something “r-like” (like in “source”). Now THIS is difficult, as in Polish “r” is a very dominating sound, giving flavour to most our swear words.

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