Les gens qui ne rient jamais ne sont pas des gens sérieux

Be who you are and say what you mean, those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind

Monday, August 28, 2006

A story for Marek

Two years ago today an English girl was driving a German-registered, French-made car around the Northern, Flemmish area of Belgium. Next to her was a Polish boy, who spoke to her in French, peppering his phrases with the odd English word he remembered.

They stopped along the way to buy little tasty tomatoes, big chunks of mozzarella and a crusty baguette. The lady served them in Dutch and smiled at their attempts to thank her in her language.

Back in the car, the pair drove until they could drive no further, a barrier of water stretching out into the distance. Wasps joined the picnic on the beach and the only way to escape them was to run into the glittering sea, gasp at the cold sharpness of the water, and, taking a deep breath, dive right in.

They didn't know each other well, just well enough to fill the day with sunny laughter.

I still smile at the picture we took that day.

I love our mixed up nationalities and languages that bump and jostle against each other. I love our shared enthusiasm for new places and people. I love the way I've been accepted into your life in Poland.

Happy Birthday Maruś! Many happy returns. Don't worry, you're not that old yet...

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

I'll be back

So we bought a flat right? Right. And we have started on an ambitious decorating drive right? Right. And it's all perfectly timed so that by the time we have to leave our old place (today) the paint will be dry and the new place all clean and ready for us to move into right? Wrong.

It'll take another couple of weeks and until then we'll be sleeping on a friend's floor.

Blogging will have to (shock! horror!) take a back seat to the rest of my life while I'm homeless and (more importantly) internet-less.


I will be back.

Until then I'll leave you with a story for Marek, which you shouldn't really read until Monday but I won't tell if you don't.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

A remembered episode

I pulled my heavy bag behind me as I forced my way onto the packed bus. Tripping over suitcases and large holdalls (this was the airport bus after all) I managed to tuck myself and my bag into the aisleway.

I felt a tap on my arm.

'Excuse me Pani, do you have anything to eat? Anything, anything at all...' a small wizened old lady was looking up at me, a bulging carrier bag in one hand and the other stretched out ready to accept whatever I had to offer.

Unusually for me, I didn't have any sandwiches packed for the journey, just a free can of sugar-free coke that somebody had thrust into my hands as part of a promotion. At least it won't rot her teeth I thought to myself.

'Sorry, I have nothing to eat, just this to drink', I said, handing her the can and realising I couldn't even offer her any change as my wallet was empty following the appeals of a Roma young mother the evening before.

The lady peered at the can and stored it in her plastic bag. She thanked me and went to sit at a seat that someone had vacated. She was sitting next to a youngish guy, who looked startled when she started talking to him, but eventually relaxed and just nodded occasionally, looking at her in an amused manner, while she chatted away.

A window seat became available and when nobody made a move towards it, I hauled my bag in first and sat, crushed against the glass, knees against my bag.

When the man sitting next to me got off at the next stop, the lady to whom I'd given my drink stood up, shuffled over and sat down next to me. She fumbled in her bag and produced an empty aspirin packet.

'Excuse me Pani,' she started again, tapping my arm and showing me the empty packet, 'do you have any change so that I can buy some more medicine?'

I turned to face her. "I only had a drink, and I gave that to you already' I reminded her softly.

'Oh.' She didn't look surprised although she clearly had no recollection of any such transaction. She turned, frowning, towards me. 'Did I thank you?' she asked, a troubled expression on her face. 'Oh, yes' I reassured her quickly, 'you thanked me.'


We were sitting by the door, behind the glass panel and I could see my new neighbour clearly in the reflection. She was younger than I'd first assumed, but frail and grey all the same. Her clothes were mismatched and too warm for the current weather. She gave off a musty odour, an unwashed smell of hair and old sweaters. She was muttering to herself and fishing in her bag again.

I watched as she carefully retrieved a sugar sachet and started shaking it, sending all the grains to the bottom. I was half expecting her to get out a teacup and saucer, but she didn't. She just sat, shaking the little packet and whispering under her breath. She was totally engrossed in her task and felt the bag regularly with her fingers to see if the sugar was all in one place. Once she was certain she knew where every grain was, she slowly tore open the sachet.

So much for worrying about her teeth I thought, as she suddenly popped the whole lot in her mouth, got up and, gripping her carrier bag tightly, stepped off the bus.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Develop your building career in Ireland...

So the Irish were here recruiting for Polish contruction workers, Polish NGOs are working hard to convince those Poles who are already in the UK and Ireland to come back, and rumours from Italy claim that slave gangs have been murdering Poles who rebelled against the terrible conditions.

Poles, like everyone, just want to earn a decent wage, and are prepared to risk certain things to get it.

I'm not sure what point I am trying to make, but it all seems noteworthy.

Not sure about this though:

So as long as the emigration continues unabated Poland will continue to export its criminals to reduce crime rates and import capital from the West that will be used to stimulate the economy and increase tax revenues. The overall effect will be to enable the government to better promote its policies by showing how the country is benefiting under its rule.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

The honest truth

'So how's it going?' I ask Vicky, fellow bridesmaid at my cousin Cath's wedding a few years back, but now sporting a wedding ring and balancing a six-month old boy on her hip.

'Great!' she replied, untangling her son's fist from her hair and putting him down on a rug.

With all these babies around, I was getting increasingly worried about broodiness and decided the time had come for some horror stories.

'Tell me about the birth,' I demanded. 'Was it the most painful experience of your life?'

Vicky turned to me, her eyes solemn and face overcome with a serious expression I was not used to. 'The worst part,' she started, 'was the frizz'.

I frowned, not having come across that particular birthing expression, 'er, what?'

Vicky soon explained, "I had a water birth you see, and the water not only turned me as wrinkly as a prune, but made my hair go all kinky!'

Seriously? The worst part? Once she'd started though there was no stopping her...

'Honestly Becca, if you have a water birth, remember the hair straighteners. I don't think they're officially allowed in hospitals, but give it a go anyway, it's a nightmare otherwise.'

'The other terrible part was the timing.' she continued, 'When I was going back to the ward, it was visiting time so all these people were standing round while I came through with my big hair and makeup all down my face.

'Hang on a sec Vic', I interrupted. 'You had make-up on?'

'Of course!' She looked shocked, and then her face relaxed 'oh, not the full works, but I couldn't go without my mascara. Another problem for water births as it turns out.'

I giggled. 'You're telling me, when your contractions started you were putting on mascara?'

'Yeah, once I'd shaved my legs. Now THAT's not easy with a bump.'

I couldn't hold in the laughter any more and felt awed by the power of selective memory.

No horrific screaming, splitting flesh or seemingly never-ending pain, just shaved legs, frizzy hair and streaky make-up. A modern birth for a modern mother.

It's ok though, I checked with Cath and she remembers thinking she was going to die during her labour, so I'm not in any rush to join in.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006


'That's a pretty bracelet' my grandfather said, leaning over better to see my wrist. I brought it up to eye level so he wouldn't have to bend. 'Thank you,' I said smiling at him, 'the baby likes it a lot, she can grab it and play with it because it's on elastic.'

'Yes, very nice,' he continued 'bright colours'. I thanked him again and added, 'I like things that sparkle like this, not very sophisticated but good fun.'

'Buy it for yourself did you?' Grandpa leaned back a bit and studied me. 'Oh, no, Mum and Dad got it for my birthday last year' I said, noticing the slight confusion in his eyes.

'Hm, very good, very good.' He was looking even more lost now, did he remember what we were talking about? Was he wondering how to get out of this conversation that was headed nowhere?

'I'm just wondering' he confessed, an apologetic smile on his lips, 'who you are.'

My heart stoppd beating and I suddenly noticed a dull ache at the back of my throat. 'Oh, I'm Becca.' I said brightly, smiling at him and hoping the shock was not shining through. 'Gareth's daughter.'

'Hmm,' he mumbled, smiling thinly at me and looking around him as if he'd only just noticed how many people were standing around him, 'right.'

I knew it would happen. I just wasn't prepared.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Time flies when you're under 5

In the eight months that have passed since I was last in Cumbria with my extended family, this little mite...

has grown into this beautiful little girl...

I really have to visit more often.

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Friday, August 11, 2006


I have discovered a possible reason for the Poles' dislike of my nickname Becca.

Double c doesn't exist in Polish so Becca would be heard as Beka.

Beka is the third person form of the verb Bekac.

Rather than translate Bekac into English, I thought you might appreciate a sentence using the word...

'Becca beka' is Polish for 'Becca burps'.

And on that note I'm leaving for a few days... talk amongst yourselves, and prepare for lots of gushing about babies when I get back - I'm off for a family party in the deepest darkest northerly part of England. Toodle pip.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

The perils of living in a house that is not your own

As we drove down the road and neared the house, I noticed a bundle by the gate. As we approached, it turned to look at us and I realised with alarm that the bundle was one of the two dogs we were dog-sitting.

We pulled up beside the house and my heart was suddenly at the bottom of my stomach. The driveway gate was wide open, and both dogs were gazing mournfully out onto the road from the driveway.

When we had left five hours earlier, the gates (all three) had been closed, the dogs in the garden and the alarm set in the house. I stroked the dogs and made my way up the stairs, checking the windows and garage doors for sign of a forced entry. Nothing.

I tried the door but it was still locked, and when I unlocked it, the alarm was still set. What had happened?

The first thing was to try and shut the gate, a big double door affair, electronically operated and still standing wide open. I scanned the kitchen and my eye fell on a small remote control hanging on a key-hook. I pointed it at the gate, pressed the button and a little red light came on, but the gate didn't budge.

I dropped the remote and went down into the garage to see if there was a switch there somewhere. After poking around a bit, not finding any likely looking switches I went back out front. I came out into the garden and saw a car pulling up outside, sporting the logo of the security company that provided the house alarm. Two burly men got out.

'What happened?' I asked the first man, which clearly threw him as he'd been about to ask me the same thing.

'We got back and the gate was wide open but there was nobody here and the alarm was still set' I explained, holding on to one of the dogs, who had taken a disliking to the man and was barking furiously at him.

'We responded to a panic button call', the man said, 'wasn't that you?'

I looked guiltily at Marek, 'er, that was us trying to find a way to shut the gate...' I said as meekly as possible.

'You don't know how to shut your gates?' the man asked, clearly more than a little confused.

'Oh, we don't live here' I said cheerfully, 'we're just looking after it while the owners are on holiday.

'Where are the owners?' he asked with a grimace.

'The States...'

He groaned, 'I need to see your documents.'

The first man wrote our details in his little notebook, while the second tried (unsuccessfully) to befriend the dogs and I jabbered away in the background (I don't know how it could have happened, at least now we know not to touch the little remote controls, thank God the dogs were still here when we got back, I wonder if this has ever happened before...)

The heavy gate suddenly swung shut and Marek emerged triumphant from the house. He had found the right switch.

We were warned that if the company couldn't contact the owners they were obliged to contact the police, who would then call at the house.

As they drove away, in the little security car I tried not to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

My parents have funny names

A month to the day after we'd signed the initial contract and left our deposit, ensuring ownership of 1/10th of the property, we found ourselves sat around the same polished table, listening to the same notariusz reading out slightly different formal Polish sentences.

It was only a month later but the weather could not have been more different. We had sweated through the first meeting, the sun beating through the window, but this day was wet and grey; jackets were back on and shoes were worn over socks for the first time since the summer began. For some inexplicable reason, the secretary had brought us all a glass of water, despite the fact that the first meeting had been long and refreshment-free. That didn't bode well.

I was feeling slightly light-headed as there had been no time for lunch and all I'd consumed had been a coffee when we met the seller just before the formal meeting, in the Wedel next door. We'd crossed a line at that meeting - he suggested we use the familiar form of addressing one another instead of the formal. I breathed a sigh of relief - it is the one thing I really hate. Why can't we all be ty instead of Pan and Pani?

Again the droning voice, again the verification that I'd understood. Then I managed to give the Poles a taste of their own medicine.

'In Polish contracts we use your full names, and then identify you (from all the thousands of people with my full name in Poland...) by adding the first names of your parents.'

'Yes, ok, Penelope and Gareth.'

The notariusz looked up at me with an incredulous expression, peered at me over her glasses and asked me to repeat.

I tried not to giggle. 'Peh-neh-low-pee' I said, speaking slowly 'and Gah-reth'.

She handed me a piece of paper and I wrote the spelling for her. She muttered the names under her breath and I gave her a grin. 'Now you know how we feel when we meet people named Grzegorz and Zbigniew' I thought to myself.

The minutes turned into hours and we made it through the full contract. There was another coffee break, which I filled with a rich thick hot chocolate, and a tense wait for the bank to make the transfer from our account to the seller's.

We left the office four hours after we have entered: light-headed with hunger, but sporting grins from ear to ear.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Good things come in threes

1. Random strangers stop me in a park and throw all the insurance information I need into my hands.
2. Our flat purchase goes through without a hitch and is now ALL.OURS.
3. My application is accepted and the lovely people at the EC will be giving me a few thousand euros to follow up my refugee project for the next ten months in Warsaw.

Nice. Nice. NICE.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

A little note... all those who get a little thrill out of buying a new pair of shoes.

Buying a flat gives you a WAAAY bigger buzz, and I think I'll get even more use out of it.

It's ours!

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Friday, August 04, 2006


I had ten minutes until I was due to meet Marek after work, so I sat on a bench in the park opposite his building and got out my book.

I was a little unsure of whether it was wise to sit on that particular bench, as the last time I'd been reading in the same spot, I was accosted. Out of the corner of my eye I'd seen a couple of people approach, and heard male laughter. One figure came towards me and before I knew it, was sat next to me, an arm flung around my shoulders as I, surprised and a little unnerved, turned to him with a 'wahthafuh?' and the second guy took our picture. Turns out I am a Warsaw tourist attraction...

Anyway, this time there were just a few normal-looking people wandering through the park on their way home so I settled down and started reading.

I hadn't been reading for long when I spied a couple of men with clipboards, walking towards me. I sank down in my seat in a vain attempt to disappear and held up my book, demonstrating the fact it was in English. I also said very loudly inside my head 'I'm a foreigner, do not even THINK about coming over here and talking to me'. I obviously should have transmitted the message in Polish because they came and sat next to me on my bench.

I eyed them warily and the guy sitting next to me shuffled RIGHT into my personal space and gave me a wide grin.

'We just have a short questionnaire, does Pani have a couple of minutes to answer some questions?'

I groaned inwardly, 'well, er I'm not Polish...' I started,

'That's ok!' he said brightly,

'I may not understand all the questions...' I continued, sneaking a peek at my watch to see whether it was time to meet Marek yet.

'It's very simple' he said, ignoring my feeble protests 'and it won't take long.'

I gave in and he started with the basics. What is my name? What age bracket do I fall under? What do I do for a living? How much do I earn? (Here I got into the long saga of my EVS project, the temporary job I am doing for (very little) money and my plans for another EU-funded project) Does my work provide me with any insurance? (Ha! As if! Judging by experience so far it provides me with pocket money in return for hours of work in a stuffy asbestos-laden office - oops, am I breaking my don't-blog-about-work rule?)

The man almost gave a whoop of joy when he heard my insurance-free existence.

'So if Pani fell over on the street and broke her leg, she would have to go to a public hospital and join the queue' he said, forehead furrowed with concern.

'Er, yeah I guess so, or go to a private place...'

'And pay hundreds of zlotys!' he finished triumphantly.

'Yes, that's right.'

It was about this point that:
a) I realised he was going to try and sell me insurance; and
b) I briefly considered the possibility that my internet usage was being monitored by Polish secret services and information being passed on to the relevant people, as the very night before I had been searching for some kind of health insurance. My EVS coverage finished long ago and I don't like the uncertainty of no cover. Then I snapped back to reality and reminded myself that I live in EU member state Poland and not Soviet Russia.

I agreed to his phoning me to arrange an appointment at his office and apologetically took a call from Marek who was waiting for me. As we shook hands and parted ways I thought that would be the end of it.

A week later I got the call and pretty reluctantly agreed to a meeting. I went expecting a small office, Polish-style disorganisation and shady-sounding deals. I was pleasantly surprised.

The office turned out to be a branch of a well-known insurance agency, and the guy brought allong his colleague, the lovely Mr. Singh, to explain everything in English. It's affordable and covers everything I need.

After a fruitless search on the internet, it looks like my insurance needs are going to be filled following a chance meeting in a Warsaw park.

Things fall into your lap sometimes.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Boo's Birthday

Yep, a whole year.

If I wasn't packing boxes in between appointments with the notariusz and bank, while simultaneously proof-reading documents and preparing for another stay in Wilanow I might have attempted some kind of round-up post.

Probably just as well.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

44 + 62 = today

At five this afternoon, the peace of the bank in which we were signing endless mortgage documents was shattered.

Over the rustle of paper and hum of the air-conditioner, alarms and sirens rang out. Cars and buses stoppped in the streets and people stood silent and still.

This is why.

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...or maybe the vodka.

'So you really like Poland?' Marek's mum searches my face for clues. I nod in what I hope is a reassuring way, 'yes, I like Poland' I confirm.

She puts down the tea towel and faces me, an expectant smile on her face, 'what do you like best?'

'Oh, you know,' I scour the room for clues, finally offering a feeble 'everything.'

'The food' M's sister offers, I smile, 'the language' M's mum adds with an amused snort, 'me!' M's dad suggests.

Most definitely the people.

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