Am I still English?

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?

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).

Brummie: Ah…

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.

Tagged ,

55 thoughts on “Am I still English?

  1. Brad Zimmerman says:

    A while back some yob with a hatch (really) smashed the glass in the three entrance doors to our block. The glass in the doors was promptly replaced which must’ve cheesed off the hatchet yob cause he was back ’round a night or two later and got the middle door’s glass – the door we always use. That was months ago and the door’s glass, gaping and dangerous, was left until it was repaired last week. The repair itself was quite a shock so I immediately thought someone had finally finished the job and just knocked the rest of the glass out.

  2. Interesting, Mr Island !

    Reading this your topic about raising question of your nationalality got my mind on our new President here….’Is He Still Ukrainian’ ! [sorry]

    I believe you must do as you say from now, whenever you meet tourists there in Poland, simply shake head and pretend ‘no understand’ Because part of travelling to other nations of foreign language is the getting lost and language barrier, it makes tourists work harder on their trip, and gives to them the ‘wake up call’ that they not ‘back home’ now. Also it give to them much to speak about and share with their people when they return to their nation !

    Or at least, that what is says me in 1 my book I have about travel :-)


    Rivne – UKR.

  3. Malcolm says:

    I live in a Polish tourist town (close to the mountains) and oftentimes I am asked by Polish, German or Russian tourists for directions. I always answer in English, without fail.
    I especially love the reactions of the Germans (after they have used some combination of broken Polish/German) when they hear a response in English. I think it just multiplies the confusion.
    I also get some people looking at me as if I were an idiot – ‘how can an English speaker not know where Hotel is?’

  4. scatts says:

    It is sad, isn’t it. Poles don’t want free advice because they think there’s some kind of catch involved and foreigners don’t trust you either! We should just concentrate on talking to ourselves.

  5. buraklol says:

    in some sense poland is the ideal country for hackers ;)

  6. island1 says:

    We have exactly the same. Two panes of glass smashed and shards still clinging to the frame three weeks later. I suppose I could do something about it, but isn’t that what we pay building maintenance charges for?

  7. island1 says:

    I look forward to reading your next post on the subject.

    BTW, do you have the word ‘kombinować’ in Ukrainian, or an equivalent?

  8. Bartek says:

    If you learnt how to cope with wrecked installations by using a piece of cardboard and get on with it, if you embraced the concept of combeenovuch, it seems Polish shortcomings are contagious.

  9. 4 OJ 4,5 says:

    Is a Kaczynski still a Kaczynski?

    Well, it looks like the high road isn’t about to be taken.

    Surprise, surprise.

    Was there anybody here who really didn’t think he would run?

    Is there anyone here who has any illusions about how he will campaign?

  10. Bartek says:

    4 OJ 4,5 – did Island1 or any of us commenters mentioned the election campaign?

    We’re here talking about some other idiosyncracies, this time quite harmless.

  11. Tomasz says:

    Remember the post you wrote about the strange man using two lighters, one with gas and the other providing the spark? You’re getting the gist of it and will be doing the same in no time!

    On a serious note, you’ll find that “kombinowanie” can be extremely useful and make you more of a DIY person which is healthy for your wallet and for your ego. Just remember to buy a new lighter if you’re going to visit the Isles. And to shave that moustache you woke up with one day and which you found extremely fashionable.

  12. 4 OJ 4,5 says:

    Well, the thread about the crash and the election got sidetracked for multiple comments about Polish slang. I didn’t realize I could get my pee-pee smacked for straying from the main subject, especially given the importance of the news. So sorry, Mr. Bailiff, Sir, and mea culpa many times over.

  13. Jeannie says:

    I’m just wondering why 1) there are no hidden cams in the foyers directed at these glass/ entrances in question; 2) the maintenance people just leave dangerous things hanging (I’m supposing there are no liability laws) but still … and 3) don’t the police do anything?

    You could start a Neighborhood Watch group. I know it sounds funny, but really if it’s done right, you might be able to catch/curtail this thing. It takes a neighborhood to stand up to thugs/vandalizers.

  14. Well, you get to know me a little now Mr Island, yes ? I always writing on topics I am without clue about, yes ? So, it of the high possibility that travel is my next topic to write, never done it, probably never will, therefore I have no experience in such, oh yes, sounds very much like Marina’s kind of topic to write about !

    This Polish word you say me we do not have exact word to replace it in Ukrainian language.



  15. Decoy says:

    I tend to just be too much of a nice guy and when someone asks directions in English, I’ll just answer normally and politely.

    However sometimes if I get the question “Do you speak English?” my sarcastic side wants me to answer “Why, I shall endeavour to portray my thoughts in this language or yours, struggling manfully with the tenses and conjugations – but just cos I’m a nice guy”

    Although, I would love to pull off something like in this video, which I always find funny…

  16. scatts says:

    We shall most likely give the other twin an airing as the campaign gets into gear so we can all save our condemnation for then.

    But you’re right, no reason why your hijacking is worse than others.

  17. former dweller says:

    Well, well well. SUPRISE !!!!! jaroslaw is running for president. what a despicable scumbag. He and Dziwisz tried to make the Smolensk crash into a heroic matyrs mission all in the name of politics( they both denied the Wawel burial was thier idea). Europe will be laughing at Poland again( and again, and again, and again etc) It is time for that most corrupt institution ( the catholic church) to get its bloodied hands out of politics. Shame. shame. former dweller

    p.s. can somebody please come foward and “Out” Jaroslaw. not that there is anything wrong with being gay.

  18. scatts says:

    We certainly seem to be getting more than our fair share of bullshit (spam) comments on this post. Did someone turn the spam monster off?

    You can’t see them because I binned them but I promise they were here!

  19. scatts says:

    You need to get all this out of your system now because when he’s President the secret police will come get you for comments like that!

  20. Nika says:

    Wow, Island1, you really sound Polish to me… ;P I wouldn’t be able to deal with it this way :) Congrats :)

  21. Paulina Zimmerman says:

    We both laughed very hard at the link. That’s a fantastic little video. I’ve just asked Brad if that’s something he would be willing to do one day for my amusement :)

  22. Jane says:

    It is indeed frightful to become Polish! ;)

    But to be entirely honest, it is just normal that you “change” into people you’re surrounded by, it would be hard not to.
    Still the way you write about it is absolutely brilliant!

  23. adthelad says:

    Unfortunately, I do.

  24. guest says:

    island, now you neeed a pornstache.

  25. YouNxt says:

    I’m wondering how people feel about Poles incorporating english words into their vernacular. Linguists would probably say that this is a natural thing, and perhaps it is, but Polish is such a rich and beautiful language. I would hate to see it go the way of Orwell’s newspeak (seems this is already happening in the U.S – Twitter anyone?)

  26. Basia z Szwecji says:

    It’s hard to avoid that language changes, Younxt. It is natural that we adapt it when we use it. It usually works out ok in the end.

    I have a favourite when it comes to incorporating Swedish into my Polish. In my family we perfectly well know that vacum cleaning is odkurzac in Polish. However, there is this Swedish adaptation “damsugowac” (from dammsuga) that fits so well into beeing adapted into Polish that when I use it I don’t even reflect it is an adaptation since it sounds so very Polish in my ears. :-)

    As for Enlish words used in Polish, my mum used to be very upset with words like “businessman” (Polish spelling?) and other modern borrowed words.

  27. newsaddict says:

    I think you are still English if you dress English style. This means wearing brand name and moderately expensive clothes very scruffily.

    When I lived in Lithuania in the 90s, it was easy to spot a westerner. They would wear better, brand name clothes, but usually very untidily,with scuffed shoes, unzipped jackets and a general slouching gait.

    The Lithuanians, and Poles when I visited Poland, wore cheaper, Chinese or Turkish market clothes, but they fitted beaatifully and were ironed lovingly. Jackets and coats were zipped or buttoned up, hats were worn in autumn and winter and shoes were always spotless.

    Recent visits to Poland and its idiot kid brother Lithuania have shown 10 years later that more people are wearing global brand name clothes. However, the foreigners still stand out for their expensive but uncared for clothes and unbrushed shoes. The Poles stil make sure their clothes are on straight.

  28. wojciech says:

    Oh, yes we incorporate english words into Polish. But we are adding cases to the word in order to confuse future English expacts ;-)

  29. wojciech says:

    PS. I suppose “Kombinować” is a borrowing too, but I’m not sure if it is from Latin or English or some other… Look what we have done with it:

  30. island1 says:

    In fact there is a camera, but I just assume it is fake or not attached to anything.

  31. Stefan says:

    Well, straying from the main subject and manipulating the conversation in such a way that eventually everything is down to politics, and all the evil of the world is Kaczynskis’/Russians’/Germans’/Americans’ (choose the current option) fault is typical of Poles! 4 OJ 4,5, are you Polish? If not, you’re making fast progress towards becoming one of us ;)

  32. Stefan says:

    Jamie, you’ve just discovered how pleasant it’s to conform to an annoying situation. Then you’ve done something yet more “Polish”: instead of going to someone in charge and get them to fix the broken pane, you chose to complain in public. Welcome on board, lad! You already think the Polish way ;)

  33. Stefan says:

    Scatts, I know what sarcasm and a good joke is. I have to add that I’m not going to vote for Jarosław K. and have never supported Law and Justice. But could you explain why this occurred to you? I remember the time when you could have been arrested for criticising the authorities and their friendship with Russia. Can you give me an example of anything like this under the Kaczynskis (when they both were in power)?

  34. Bartek says:

    Island acts like a resourceful, not grumpy Pole. Instead of griping about the broken button he found a way to get it round without asking a caretaker or whoever else to fix it!

  35. adthelad says:

    “Tymoszenko nie unikała rozmów o prolongacie umów na dzierżawę Rosjanom baz wojskowych na Krymie.” – read this today in rzepa. ‘Prolongacie’???? przedłużenie i think, unless they mean extra long professional underpants. Dear oh dear!!

  36. adthelad says:

    Slander, slander, slander. You’re obviously part of the Niesiołowski school of politics Sorry Polandians, but such comments just need slapping down.

  37. adthelad says:

    “Island acts like a resourceful, not grumpy Pole. Instead of griping about the broken button he found a way to get it round without asking a caretaker or whoever else to fix it”…because he knows it’s a waste of time. Definitley major traces of Englishman in Poland there :)

  38. adthelad says:

    prolongata – polish word – I’m dumbfounded!!

  39. Bartek says:

    I’d say przedłużenie, but prolongatais used quite frequently, e.g. in banking and has nothing with common with any kind of long johns, underpants or any other type of men’s underwear.

    Wherever we begin, we end up discussing Kaczynski or linguistic :-)

  40. scatts says:

    It occurred to me thanks to the various and at times frequent stories of how Lech’s lawyers, or other gangsters in his employ, were reputed to be on their way to slap someone for being rude to him or generally saying something about him he didn’t like.

    There’s a post on Polandian somewhere about it. There were a lot of people who thought the President should attack people who says things he doesn’t like. I thought he should have thicker skin.

    I honestly can’t remember the details of the last incident.

  41. Stefan says:

    You’re absolutely right that the Kaczynskis were oversensitive about their dignity but suing someone is something different from sending the secret police to arrest him.

  42. adthelad says:

    there was an incident when a down and out was teken to court for abusive laguage towards the President and there’s still a case that’s live even though L.K> is dead. Both actions brought by others and not at the initiation of the President – he didn’t even know about them when asked.

    p.s. hope everyone realises my comment below was a response to formerdweller.

  43. Stefan says:

    Well, he became a master of ‘prowizorka’ (stopgap, makeshift), which easily turns permanent in Poland.

  44. Stefan says:

    “because he knows it’s a waste of time.” As Americans say “squeaky wheel gets the grease”. If you bother the estate management long enough, you stand a good chance of getting what you want. This, however, does need time. The other way is to make friends with someone in the management. This may be very helpful ;) Never give up! :D

  45. Grze$ko says:

    I wonder if the reaction you get from your countrymen is caused by the shock of the fact that that someone may actually recognise them.
    I will throw myself into murky waters of generalisation here, but Polandian seems to thrive on generalisation.
    The British in Krakow seem to be noisy, drunk, obnoxious and rude. Lulled by what they perceive as a complete anonymity (being surrounded by illiterate, hairy bunch of natives) they express their views about places and people freely, often in loud voices followed by a 100dB outburst of laughter.
    Imagine their shock when they realise that someone actually understands them and maybe, just maybe comes from the same cave back on the island and maybe, just maybe could tell someone about their merry time back in Krakow.
    It’s just a theory, but so is gravity.
    On the subject of kombinowanie I can say that the ability to kombinowac has saved my life (metaphorically of course) a few times while living in Australia to the absolute amazement of the locals. They could not believe that simple-does-it and things can be done without calling the council, police and a royal commission.
    There’s a heart warming story taught in Oz’s schools about the brave Brits discovering the continent and on one of their trips running out of tea and biscuits which, lead to a near death of the group. There would be nothing surprising about their ordeal if it wasn’t for the fact that they were travelling along a beach south of Sydney. It took Aboriginals to show the gentlemen that they could catch birds and eat fish to survive…
    Island, welcome to the world of resourcefulness.

  46. chris mcg says:

    Sometimes when I’m in Poland and I havent had a conversation in English with anyone other than my wife for a while I find myself wandering the streets hoping to hear a snippet of English.
    I then hang around and/or stalk that person until my brain has had its fix before I slink away into the fug of half understanding and ponglish replies that is my life.
    If you ever find yourself being followed by a strange looking scotsman straining to hear your every word its probably just me or psycho. Either way you should be afraid:-)

  47. island1 says:

    Hey, Bartek has a face!

  48. island1 says:

    I see you’ve picked up a healthy dose of Pom loathing down under :)

    I must write something about British stag parties one day; it’s a widely misunderstood subject.

  49. island1 says:

    I display similar symptoms whenever I’m back in the UK, except in my case I find myself irresistibly drawn to help desks in book shops where I ask dozens of questions about books I don’t really want, just because I can.

  50. Grze$ko says:

    Loathing?! What makes you say that?
    I thought the deal was give some, take some…
    Generalising is sometimes fun. You seem to have mastered the “loathing” of the Poles, if that’s the word you want to use for it.

    As the tone of voice rarely comes through in text, let me just say all above was written with my tongue firmly in cheek.

  51. island1 says:

    No offense intended or taken.

    I often run into this problem when writing about Poland: criticism of anything in Poland is taken as criticism of Poles. I see a strong distinction between the two:

    Poles: Smart, resourceful, resilient people
    Republic of Poland: A bit rubbish (through no fault of the Poles)

  52. Grze$ko says:

    Very strongly disagree!
    Through fault of the Poles, no doubt in my mind.
    I’ll risk being pecked to death here, but looking from a time and distance perspective, I concluded that as individuals we are OK or better in many respects. As a nation however we are quite silly really (I am using the word silly as I do not actually want to be packed to death). Historically we “work well under stress” but give us a few war-free years and we’ll do anything to ruin what we have. We do it proudly with a pomp and attempt to make the rest of the world feel sorry for us in the process.

    And the funny thing is that it was actually you who used the word loathing in relation to Poms.
    Give some, take some I say. Don’t get high-horsey when the tables turn.
    There was no loathing of the Poms in my reply to your, great may I add, post, just a comment on how the Brits are perceived by yours truly.

    Oh how very Polish! We are almost having an argument… home sweet home!

  53. Pawel says:

    Jarosław is not gay, he just used to have sex with men:) LOL
    (when he still could)

    Well at least its not impossible.

    I heard from a well respected gay university acedemic, who said his friend – an older gay guy who was active in the Warsaw gay scene in the 80s – J. Kaczynski was openly having fun with men that way.

    He could be one of the not-so-rare cases of gay homophobes.

    There’s an interesting study about the connection homophobia and homoerotic arrousal. Mentioned and linked form here:

  54. domingo says:

    Guys, have mercy, this is pathetic…

  55. Pawel says:

    I don’t know why hypothetical being gay in Poland is considered as some… accusation? Being gay is nothing wrong.

    It is wrong, and hypocritical, to be gay AND support homophobia. Like these American politicians:

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