I never know how to react when English tourists ask me for directions. It’s usually done in a timorous tone and accompanied by gestures: “Old Town this way?” *nervous grin* *erroneous pointing.* I know what it’s like to be stuck in a country where you don’t have a clue about the language. My urge to relieve their stress is so strong that I immediately launch into an elaborate set of directions laced with colloquialisms, partly because I’m dying to use colloquialisms after six months of colloquialism starvation and partly because I want to convince them that I’m a bona-fide English speaker and, therefore, wholly reliable.
The effect is always unsatisfying. Colin (57) from Tyneside and his wife Barbara are not expecting a gush of helpfully native English. They are expecting blank incomprehension or an enthusiastic but poorly pronounced ‘Yes!” It doesn’t go in. There is no mental model for asking a random passer-by in Poland for directions and them turning out to be a fellow countryman. They look confused and suspicious. “So. Go this way. Yes?” I deflate. “Yes. Go this way.” In films people always say: “Ah, so you’re an Englishman,” and invite you for a gin and tonic on the veranda. In reality they put their hands on their wallets and suspect a con trick. Maybe I don’t even sound English anymore.
There are two holiday-rent flats in my building, often occupied by Brits. I frequently encounter perplexed English people on the staircase wrestling with malfunctioning keys, fuse boxes, or travel agencies. Since we are trapped together on a staircase there is usually enough time to persuade them that I am a genuine countryman, albeit a suspiciously weird one who has voluntarily chosen to live in Poland. Even in these cases the conversation doesn’t always go well.
Recently somebody took it upon themselves to systematically rip the casings off all the light switches in our stairway. This hero of civilisation also managed to remove the front from the button that electronically unlocks the street door from inside the building. The hilarious result is that the only way to get out of the building is to insert a pointed object into the exposed switch mechanism and jiggle it around until the unlock buzzer goes off.
“Do you have a key?” whispered the anxious young Brummie hovering in the hallway, his route to the delights of a Krakow evening blocked by a door that, inexplicably and without precedent, offered no apparent mean of egress. Mentally I rubbed my hands together: here was a chance to help a fellow Brit out of a particularly tricky impasse using my highly-developed local knowledge:
Brummie: Do you have a key, I can’t get out?
Me: Ah! No, you see you have to push this button and the door unlocks, but the button is broken (indicates thing on wall that looks nothing like a button).
Me: So what you have to do is stick something in there and wiggle it around until the buzzer goes off. I use this (takes folded business card out of pocket and inserts it into exposed workings of door buzzer)
Brummie: I see (backing away slightly and grinning nervously)
Me: (frantically jiggling piece of grubby bent cardboard in mysterious slot) It takes a while sometimes.
Brummie: That doesn’t surprise me.
Me: (still jiggling) Of course, you have to be careful not to use something conductive. or you could electrocute yourself.
Brummie: (now convinced he’s locked in a hallway with a deranged lunatic armed with cardboard) I’ll be very, very careful.
Me: (buzzer finally goes off) See, it’s simple when you know how (big grin that could very easily be mistaken for a symptom of mental illness)
Brummie: Thanks… (bolts out of building and presumably sleeps under a hedge for the rest of the weekend)
I’ve been here too long. At no point in this conversation did it occur to me that a bent piece of cardboard is not a normal way of dealing with electrical appliance failures. The thing has been broken for so long that I carry around an improvised tool to circumvent it. I have become Polish. I know there is probably a process that will eventually lead to it being fixed, but I have no expectation that this will happen in my lifetime. I can’t even be bothered to find out what the process is. I have learned to kombinovać without complaint. From now on I’m answering lost tourists with an uncomprehending shake of the head, I’m not sure they should trust me.