Tag Archives: Polish

The shopping problem

I have only one wish in life: I would like a simple, efficient bedside lamp. Actually I have two wishes, but the second one is for a sitcom about former Arab dictators sharing a flat in Brixton (Hosni! Have you been eating my humus again!?), which would be much more difficult to organise. Or at least I thought it would be more difficult to organise until I actually started looking for a bedside lamp. I can’t find one anywhere.

There are two possibilities: either there are no lamps for sale in Krakow, or I’m looking in the wrong places. If the first is true, I’m going to start taking a lot better care of the lamps I have because they must now be worth a great deal of money. If the second is true, I will have to reconsider my prejudice that lamps should be sold in electrical appliance shops and address the possibility that they are, in fact, sold in gardening supply or hat shops.

I have made two extended trips to Galeria Krakowska in the past week, something that is almost as difficult to admit as it is to endure. On neither occasion did I find a lamp to buy. Home furnishing shops, the ones that smell of lavender and are impossible to extract wives from, do not sell lamps but they do sell endless varieties of candles and candle holders. Apparently, a return to burning wax or whale oil is currently the most accessible means of illuminating my bedtime reading.

The big electrical shop, a branch of Saturn, sells every imaginable electrical device apart from lamps and kilowatt range free-electron lasers. I toyed with the idea of buying a 48-inch plasma and playing a looped DVD of a switched on lamp with the brightness turned right up, but apparently nobody has yet released one – a gap in the market I will be leaping on.


21/2 hours of relentless 40-watt action (Bonus Director’s Commentary and Bloopers)

The real problem, and this is not the first time it has become apparent, is that I still lack of proper sense of how Polish urban spaces work. Put me down in a British town that I have never visited before and I am certain that I could find a lamp or a fish and chip shop or a copy of a street map in minutes – I just know what kind of streets to look on for the right kind of shops. I’m sure there are lamp shops out there, but I have no idea what they look like or how to find them.

This is a genuine and annoying problem that previously vexed me when I needed to buy a roll of parcel tape (W H Smiths), but it is compounded by the weird transitional state of the shopping experience in Poland. At first glance, it looks as if Poland has all the shops you could ever possibly want. In fact, at the shiny new Galeria end of the market, there is a superabundance of a very limited number of types of shops and almost nothing else.

In Galeria Krakowska, for example, there are seven or eight jewellery shops, all selling essentially the same watches and earrings, at least 30 clothes shops, also selling barely discernible products, and a dozen electrical shops selling slightly different forms of iPhone and laptop. The rest of the space is taken up with a couple of mega pharmacies, a supermarket and a branch of Empik. That’s it.

I know this is also the case in shopping malls elsewhere in the world, but the problem in Poland is that the glittery Galerias have been laid down on top of a highly impoverished strata of existing shops. Outside of them there are a few absurd hardware stores, an extraordinary number of wedding dress shops, endless second-hand clothes emporiums, the occasional bicycle shop and nothing else. Trying to buy an interesting or original birthday or Christmas present is almost impossible. It’s either standard high-street tat that you could buy anywhere in the world, stained glass angels and humorous Jewish figurines or a spanner.

I suppose what I’m really moaning about here is the lack of a broad bespoke luxury sector to cater to the whims of pampered middle-class folk such as myself – giant Stilton wheels, hand-made Faroe sweaters and things of that kind. With that humbling realisation in mind, I’m off to Ikea where I’m sure they have numerous lamps that will cunningly cater to my supposedly sophisticated eye for good design and solid workmanship at prices that can only mean Vietnamese sweat shops.

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Polish-English Translation Competition #13 (closed)

The 13th translation competition absolutely coincidentally comes out on the 13th day of month. Given the waning attention Polandian’s readers pay to translation competitions, I am of the opinion it is high time we came up with something that would freshen up the content of the page. Before it happens, the last portion of translation puzzles. Here we go!

1. dać komuś popalić – to give sb a rough ride (island1)
2. radość życia – zest for life (Steve)
3. urżnąć się – to get hammered (-)
4. mieć przechlapane – to be in a doghouse (Steve)
5. salwy śmiechu – peals of laughter (siudol)
6. dojść do słowa – to get a word in edgeways (Decoy)
7. przypaść komuś do gustu – to take one’s fancy (Kasia)
8. podciąć komuś skrzydła – to take wind out of sb’s sails (Kasia)
9. otoczka dobrobytu – spare tyre (island1)
10. nie zmrużyć oka – not sleep a wink (daa)

There’s not leitmotiv this time, hope you won’t let me down, most of the phrases are really easy.

Good luck!

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Book Review: The Ice Road

The Ice Road is a remarkable book both because it tells a little-known but important story of human suffering and because it does so in a way that doesn’t leave you wanting to slit your wrists. It is the autobiographical tale of 14-year-old Polish boy Stefan Waydenfeld and his family who were exiled to Siberia during World War II. The book traces their journey in the cattle wagons and goods trains of the Soviet Union from their home in Poland to a Stalinist labour camp in the frozen north and then on to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Persia.

The mass deportations of its citizens to remote and primitive corners of the Soviet Union during World War II is of monumental importance in the history of Poland. Between September 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in consort with Nazi Germany, and June 1941, when Hitler turned on Russia, the Soviet authorities forcibly exiled some 1.7 million people from the Polish territory under their control. They were sent to labour camps in the forests of northern Russia, to mines in Siberia and to arid regions of Soviet Asia. Precise figures will never be known, but it is estimated that about half of the deportees died from starvation, disease and the cold. Survivors and their descendants can still be found scattered across the fragmented Soviet empire today.

It sounds like a grim read, but it isn’t—the main reason that it isn’t being the fact that the author was a lively 14-year-old boy at the time of his deportation and, with the customary flexibility and innocence of youth, treated many of his experiences as grand adventures. The author himself explains this early in the narrative: “as is the privilege of youth, I lived my own life and only many years later; when I thought of our times in Siberia, did it strike me how ignorant I had been… of the sufferings of others and of the enormous difficulties of everyday life… I am almost ashamed to admit it, but at times I enjoyed my time in Siberia.”

The Waydenfelds were relatively lucky to find themselves assigned to an established logging encampment. A Russian inmate tells them: “You don’t know how lucky you are. When we were brought here twelve years ago this was virgin forest. We cleared it, pulled the roots out with our bare hands and built Kvasha where nothing stood before. Not many lived to see it finished.” They were also lucky not to have been sent to the Siberian mines with their horrendous mortality rates. It’s clear from Stefan’s narrative that they didn’t always have enough to eat, but nobody starves. Working conditions were harsh, especially in the minus-40-degree winter, but we don’t hear of anybody dying. It isn’t clear if this lack of tragedy is a result of the author’s confessed youthful solipsism or a realistic picture of one particularly fortunate fragment of the gulag.

There were certainly Boy’s Own adventures. Stefan recalls the thrill of bareback riding through the forests singing Russian songs and galloping from awakened bears, being sent alone into the wild to mark timber for the cutting crews, and an escape by raft that sounds too fantastical to be true. The raft episode marks a startling twist in the tale, and in history. Shortly after the Nazi invasion of Russia, Stalin released all deported Polish citizens and gave them a free pass to wherever in the Soviet Union they wanted to go—at least those that hadn’t already been shot in the back of the head or frozen to death. It was the kind of whimsical and hypocritical act of which only true dictators are capable, but it probably saved the Waydenfelds lives. A similar whimsy prompts them to name Astrakhan, a city thousands of kilometres away on the Caspian Sea, as their destination of choice.

This decision, about a third of the way into the book, is the start of a journey far more extraordinary than the one that took the family from Otwock to Siberia. It reads like an escape fantasy inspired by snow-crazed starvation, but it’s true and it was the experience of hundreds of thousands of Poles in 1941 and 1942. Stefan and his mother and father travel across the insane and panicked breadth of wartime Russia in cattle wagons, on luxury river cruisers, in buses and on foot. They live in unlikely sounding far flung cities like Chimkent and Yangi-Yul, glimpse the blue towers of Samarkand across the steppe, and bribe their way into and out of luxury and danger with alarming regularity. It’s an illuminating picture of a state in utter chaos where a few 10 rouble notes mean the difference between lice-ridden death and sleeping on feathers.

All along the way the Waydenfelds meet Poles like themselves making for rumoured Polish Army staging areas, many in rags, a few in luxury and all wondering what has happened to the officers—most of whom are in mass graves just outside Katyn. The book closes in a British refugee camp in the Iranian port of Pahlevi. Through epilogues and annexes we learn that Stefan later joined the Second Polish Corp and fought his way along the length of Italy. After the war, he married a Polish girl he met in Yangi-Yu, became a doctor and settled in London’s Kentish Town.

The Ice Road is not a sophisticated read, but it is a story you’ve never heard and would barely believe if history wasn’t there to tell you it was true. The book is published by Aquila Polonica—a publisher with the unlikely but laudable goal of telling “the greatest story never told… Poland in World War II” Read it, you won’t regret it.

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Polish-English Translation Competition #12 (closed)

If some of you, dear readers, wonder if the translation competitions will ever disappear from Polandian, I can assure you we have had more down than we have to go. We are actually winding down, hence short phrases to guess in this round.

1. niedoróbka – glitch (-)
2. zaścianek – a backwater (Decoy)
3. parapetówka – a house warming party (Basia z Szwecji)
4. rozchodniak – one for the road (Grze$ko)
5. wymówka – a cop-out (Basia z Szwecji)
6. zrzutka – a whip-round (Steve)
7. zapeszać – to put a jinx on it (-)
8. wykapany… – a spitting image (of sb) (Steve)
9. bajzel – shambles (-)
10. bebech – paunch (-)

Keep you answers short and simple!

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The New Building

I’m not dead, I’ve merely moved to Krowodrza. It’s similar to being dead, but the rents are higher and Internet access is less reliable. Although I am now just a few tens of metres beyond Aleje, this is enough to make me a suburban person. Us suburban people do not have access to 24-hours shops and are low on the list of priorities for Internet service providers. Netia promised to connect us within a month, but all they’ve managed to do so far is send round a Laurel and Hardy duo to cluck in a sceptical manner at the socket in my wall. Actually that’s not quite true, they also provided me with a mobile internet dongle that gives me a whole gigabyte of data transfer to lavish on a month of Internet use; putting this post up will probably eat half of it. Imagine what it would be like to be pleasantly surprised by customer service here, just once.

We were seduced by a New Building. After three years of living in a hundred-year-old kamienica in a flat with the kind of spiral staircase specifically outlawed by the Geneva Convention and average winter temperatures to rival Kamchatka we fell irretrievably in lust with a 50-square-metre-square pad with a balcony. I was always of the opinion that, if I was going to live in Krakow, I should be able to look out of my window and know I was in Krakow. Now I step onto my palatial balcony and look out on a scene that could well be Birmingham. I make myself feel better by fleeing into what seems like a vast kitchen and cooking scones.

The New Building is the acme of Polish urban ambition. It has an awful lot to recommend it. There are two lifts, one of which is large enough to take bikes, everybody has a balcony big enough to host ballroom dancing, and the heating comes on at October 1st sharp and will probably have us opening windows in February. People are far too polite, it’s as if we’re all permanently at a school open day where everybody says “Dzien dobry” and holds doors open all the time. The hardest thing to get used to is the guy on the door. He’s not there all the time, and I’m not really sure what his job is, but he wears a uniform and looks you up and down disapprovingly every evening. I think he’s supposed to be the building’s conscience.

Eventually I will get used to this strangeness and return to my habitual insightfulness.

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