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, April 30, 2007

another first

Marek holds his stick near the glowing coals and watches as his marshmallow browns around the edges. He follows my lead as I wait a little for it to cool and gingerly pull off the outer crust.

He puts the whole thing in his mouth and chews thoughtfully on his first taste of the grilled sugary treat.

'This, I totally get,' he says, happily, reaching for another marshmallow to toast. 'The attraction of chocolate is a bit of a mystery to me,' he continues as I roll my eyes, 'but this is so worth it.'

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Sunday, April 29, 2007


I really like this girl's music, plus I think she's incredibly beautiful, and her personal history, being born in Germany to a Nigerian father and Roma mother, then living in London, Paris and New York is fascinating.

All that makes it even more of a shame that her lyrics are such a mess. No, not all of them, but some of them...

In the catchy as hell 'Down on my knees' she sings this:

I loved you unconditionally
I gave you even more than I had to give
I was willing for you to die
Cause you were more precious to me than my own life.

The first two lines are ok, but then she gives you this 'hang on...' moment. She obviously doesn't mean 'I was willing for you to die' (cause that would be pretty harsh really if you think about it - I love you so much, go die) she means I was willing to die for you, or at a stretch, I was willing, for you, to die if she needs it to rhyme (technically die doesn't rhyme with life but this sentence is already too full of commas and brackets so I should really get back to the main point of this sentence, which was that...), that's the thing about songs, no commas.

My fave song on the album manages to string a few cliches together and come out with something original and honest and heart-breakingly sweet that ends with a funky little upbeat section. I misheard her though on one of my early listenings and thought one of the lines was I don't need to see, just need to look at you, which got me going 'if you can't see sweetheart, how are you going to look?' but actually she sings I don't need to sleep, just need to look at you, which makes (a little) more sense. Still, she follows that with Then I'll be awake, much more than any rest could do, which is, let's face it, a bit rubbish. Then I'll be awake, refreshed and feeling good as new is a little more grammatical, and if I took more than two seconds to think something up, it could even be a little less jaunty.

Is anyone following this? Briefly, I think this girl is just great, I only thought I'd bitch a bit because she is too perfect otherwise.

She has the most interesting accent too - begging comes out bahgin and love is something between lorve and lahve.

I think I'm done now.


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Thursday, April 26, 2007


She'd sounded so desperate on the phone, I could hardly refuse, and anyway, I didn't have anything vital planned for that evening so I told her I'd be there at 8pm.

It was almost exciting anyway, real work that could have a real impact, even if my involvement was my standard 'check the English' role. I looked up the address on a map and caught a tram, wondering if I knew the guy whose case this was all about.

When I arrived, two people I didn't know were in the office, legal books piled around them and looks of relief giving away how much they had been counting on my coming. They told me his background, his involvement in the conflict, and the extradition order that the letter we were writing to Strasbourg was hoping to block.

I got started on the translation of the first section, while the lawyer continued the original in Polish. His translator had to leave, but the girl who had called me would be in later. I took in the sense from the twisting language, and tried to straighten it out, make the details clear. The man concerned was in danger if returned, the human rights record of the country demanding him back put him at serious risk, he needed to stay in Poland to discover the outcome of his application for asylum.

Soon the first section was done, and I thought the final three pages would be equally swift to get through. The lawyer and I sat side by side, him suggesting a translation of his long winding Polish sentences and me trying my best to understand the legal Polish terms. After a while we just looked at one another and laughed. This was not working.

The girl who had called me originally rushed in around 9.30pm and took over from the lawyer. We made better progress, but the legal references required dictionaries and the Polish phrasing needed serious editing. Topped up with cups of tea and a box of chocolates someone discovered in a drawer, we made our way, slowly and being careful to be exact, through the rest of the text.

People have told me stories of when they were at work until midnight, and I always thought they were gross exaggerations. Now I realise it is actually possible they were telling the truth.

The letter finished, it was sent off to another lawyer for double checking, to be sent to Strasbourg the following day in the hope that the deportation would be halted.

I was elated at the chance I'd been given to join in, do something worthwhile. Then I felt a strange kind of shame. It's not a game, it's someone's life. I have no sense of altruism; it's all fundamentally selfish.

Doing things like that just make me feel better that I'm doing something to try and counter the awful things some humans want to do to other humans. It's still all about me though.

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Things that have made me smile in the past week

Two policemen are scribbling the details of two old homeless men in their little notebooks. They are standing around in a little group, questioning, writing. Suddenly, a gust of wind blows not only the two old homeless men's hats off, but the policemen's caps as well. For a moment all four men are chasing after their caps, running around laughing and cursing like maniacs. It's almost a bonding moment.


An old lady sits on a park bench, face turned towards the warm sun. She suddenly has a thought, rumages through her handbag and brings out a chocolate bar. There is a look of pure delight on her face as she takes her first bite.


A groups of pigeons are pecking at some crumbs. The boy pigeons are puffed up, dragging their extended tail feathers on the ground and cooing at the girl pigeons. One female, pursued by two eager males, clearly turns away from them both and tucks into a large pile of crumbs.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Sunday breathing

Yesterday we went for a walk in a new park. It's only new in the "I've lived in Warsaw for almost two years but rarely get this side of the river" sense, rather than actually being at all new.

It was interesting though. It's by the zoo, which may explain this giraffe sculpture/bird nesting area, and everyone was out, making the most of the sun.

We walked back across the river and it really is clear from the bridge how underused the river is as a potentially attractive site.

There are some little islands and sandy areas that could almost be called beaches on the praga side, then the neverending steps and cycle path on the old town side. Apart from the two boat cafes, there's nothing really set up by the river at all.

Once we got back to our side, we wandered through the old town, which is already heaving with tourists. I haven't been for ages, but one thing about the old town is that it never changes, except for the mini building sites that appear at regular intervals.

Thank God winter's over. The green levels in this city are being restored, and we can all start breathing again.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Spot the difference

One thing that makes me laugh in the local paper, other than the report on the piles of sand that have been blocking access to ulica Roża for a few days, are the photos announcing new babies.

They have a rows and rows of close-up shots of newborn babies' faces in black and white, and all it does is show how unbelievably similar newborn babies look. Sure, there's the odd one with an abnormally large head, or more hair than the others, or a little cap, but generally? Kind of the same.

Still, it is more entertaining looking for the odd ones out than spending time wondering how long those piles of sand are going to be left.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

April showers

So far April's been all about the sun. And the heat. And the walking about without a coat in sunglasses.

When the dark clouds gathered and the wind started up as I was walking back home through the park, I knew what was coming.

The odd drop spotted my coat and I thought 'it's just a drop or two.'

The wind started blowing steady rain in my face and I thought 'I'm almost home.'

The torrential downpour plastered hair to my face and I thought 'what's the point of carrying an umbrella around in your bag if you never get it out and use it?' I didn't though.

I got inside the flat, peeled off my soaking coat, and the sun came out.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

a restless imagination

That dog just won't stop barking.

He was making a noise this morning, when I put the washing to dry on the balcony, and his insistent yapping continued throughout the hours I was tapping away at my pc, mailing project contacts, arranging interviews and drafting articles.

He's a little dog by the sounds of things, probably a little scotty. They usually make that annoying noise. God knows why, because they run a mile if they see anything vaguely threatening. But while they are safe, they like to pretend they're the most impressive dogs in the world. Stupid things.

I wonder if he's by himself. If I were in the same flat as him I'd have got him to shut up by now.

Oh good, he's gone quiet.

No, there he goes again.

Maybe he's been shut up for days because his owner has gone away. Or maybe the owner's dead. Eew, no, or just fallen over, lying in an inaccessible place unable to reach the phone and the dog's calling for help for his beloved owner. That's possible, but maybe he's just at work. The dog's alone and bored. And barking.

Oh dear, he's stopped.

Maybe the dog's dead now.

The owner and the dog lying side by side in the corridor, slowly dying of thirst and hunger. Maybe I should go over there, door to door, checking which flat has the dog. But how would I know which flat? which dog?

This is stupid, I should be glad the dog's stopped barking. He was driving me mad.

He could just give me a couple of yaps though, just to let me know he's ok.

I'd be happy with just one or two, then he could stay quiet.

Oh dear.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Ooh devil day

I sit at my computer typing, the sunlight falling through the open balcony door. Outside the pansies wait to be planted and the daffs and crocuses sway in the slight breeze. A bird twitters, probably boasting about how much of my heather he (or she) has stuffed into his (or her) nest, and I don't even feel like throwing anything at it. Birds need my heather more than I do.

I go to the sink and start washing up, half listening to the radio that emits a steady stream of this strange language. A woman, a man, a group of laughing people, all speaking with szs and trzs, a stream of what used to be a blur of incomprehensible zeds that has now sorted itself out into recognisable words, and words I might not know, but can identify.

Someone walks through the courtyard and I hear her cough, then a faraway siren cuts through the quiet, reminding me of the city all around. I drain the rest of my tea, check the clock and see that I have to leave for work.

A shame, as there's nowhere I'd rather be right now, but in my Warsaw flat on a sunny morning. Even if it is Friday the 13th.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

How do you eat yours?

Marek's not a big fan of chocolate, something that is obviously as crazy as saying you are not a big fan of breathing. Anyway, I'm all about tolerance, so if he wants to strike out and say chocolate is not his thing, then who am I to call him a freakish specimen of humankind?

I had to get him to try Cadbury's creme eggs though, which I lovingly brought back from England a few weeks ago and saved throughout that tragic chocolate-free period of misery and hunger, otherwise known as lent.

I unwrapped one and offered it to him. 'You first,' he said, eyeing it with distrust. I took a bite of the thick chocolate, feeling it collapse into the gooey sugary centre. I showed Marek the white and yellow middle, and pointed out how clever it was, just like a real egg. He looked at me as if I were a nutter. 'What's it made of?' he asked. 'Sugar' I said, Marek's a big fan of sugar. 'Try it!' I pushed, handing it over.

He took a tentative small bite, then his face lit up with surprise. 'It's good.' he confirmed, taking another, bigger bite. He polished it off, and gave me a look that said 'you're not such a nutter after all.'

I knew he wasn't a lost cause.


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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

speedos and swimming caps

Since we moved into the flat six, seven months ago, I've been meaning to start going swimming regularly. There's a pool just a couple of streets away, and although I get a pretty much constant stair workout living on the third floor without a lift, I am not exactly what one would call fit.

I've never been a sporty person, and apart from the odd flirt with gym membership, I've been happy to justify my lack of time spent puffing round a park, or cycling up a mountain with 'but I walk a lot, I get plenty of excercise!'

Last night we went swimming and It Felt Good. The pool is just a modest thing, but as I had a modest goal of 20 lengths, it fit just fine. There were a lot of people though and I was a bit surprised by the organisation of it all to be honest.

You go in, get your ticket and take the locker key and bag that is offered to you. Before leaving the reception area, you then take off your shoes and socks, put them in the bag and give it to the cloakroom people. This is where you realise you should have brought flip-flops like the regulars, and you tiptoe past the sign that says 'people without flip-flops are stupid and will not be allowed any further because they didn't stick to the sytem,' smiling sheepishly at the stern-looking ticket seller with her whistle.

The changing rooms are pretty ordinary, lots of naked people wandering around looking nonchalant and the smell of chlorine seeping through from the pool. Then you go through and there are all these people ploughing up and down in their speedos and swimming caps.

The last time I wore a swimming cap I was eleven and at school in London. While having a swimming cap with big bold initials on it, made with thick permanent marker, is understandable (if a little feeble) when at school, having the same cap 15 years later is just plain pathetic. It still fits though, and as its been so rarely used, is in mint condition.

In England guys have swimming trunks like boxer shorts. In Poland you just get the speedos. I asked Marek about this, but he just shrugged and said they were better for swimming in than the shorts, which puff up with water. I guess Brits like to hide in the shorts, and Poles don't mind showing off their bumps. Ahem.

After a couple of lengths, I realised my swimming costume, while fine for lounging about on the beach, is not so good for actual swimming. The flimsy optional strap, which went round my neck, was not doing a very good job holding the rest of the costume up and I soon realised that breaststroke is near impossible with one arm, the other clasped across my chest, trying not to flash the divers practising by the edge.

I managed the 20 without getting too puffed or losing my costume, even doing a couple extra with Marek as he caught up, and walking home afterwards, I could feel all my muscles. They weren't complaining, just grateful I'd woken them up and given them something to do for half an hour.

I'll definitely be back, just as soon as I get myself a proper costume and some flip-flops.

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Monday, April 09, 2007


Easter Saturday was spent doing chorey things like cleaning cars, preparing enormous amounts of food and creating bouquets of flowers to be placed at various gravesides.

We also picked up random family members from the countryside and took our little basket full of eggs, sausage, bread and salt to church to be blessed. In ye oldene dayes they used to take ALL the food they were going to eat on Easter Sunday to church, but now they just take symbolic things. Much more sensible.

In the evening, as we celebrated the end of lent with a selection of beer and chocolate mini eggs at our temporary very large home, I told Marek about Easter in Britain; the Easter bunny and our Sunday morning Easter egg hunts.

The next morning, I saw the Easter bunny had followed me to Warsaw and I ran around like a little kid, gathering my eggs with glee. Bless the Easter bunny's cotton socks. He gave up after hiding a few in the kitchen, but maybe thatwas e due to the post-lent beer he'd been indulging in.

We went for Easter breakfast with Marek's family. After exchanging bits of a blessed egg with one another (you guys I'm not kidding, that's what they do) along with wishes, we sat down to a table piled with far too much food.

The family marveled at how I'd gone without chocolate for over 6 weeks (well, apart from that small failure on Ash Wednesday, first day of Lent, when it slipped my mind that chocoate biscuits had chocolate in them). I confessed to my dream the night before, where I'd had a huge slab of chocolate in front of me and was chopping it up with an enormous knife, ready to share around. I think the fact that I was willing to share proves this chocolate addiction is well under control.

Then, after we'd eaten breakfast, it was time for lunch. Unfortunately for me, lunch started with flaki, which in English is tripe. Otherwise known as nasty little bumpy bits of white chewy meat, in a soup that is infused with the stinky odour of that meat, which comes, interestingly enough, from a cow's stomach. Yum. It's not just the thought of where it comes from that makes me want to run away as fast as my feet can carry me, flailing my arms in the air and shouting 'bleurgh-eurgh-eurgh!' it's more the fetid, all-encompassing smell that accompanies the flaki. I asked for an extra small portion, managed to get a couple of mouthfuls down and then swapped plates with Marek, who had already downed his, bumpy bits of stomach skin and all.

Today, Easter Monday, it is tradition for boys to splash water on girls, in a primitive, playground-flirting kind of way. It's actually raining, so the boys will have part of the fun taken away, as all the girls will be soaking anyway, but if you're out and about in Warsaw today, be sure to take a brolly. The news yesterday had footage of the police from last year, confiscating buckets and water pistols from the 'hooligans' who have taken this tradition on with enthusiasm.
Luckily, Marek coming towards me with his hand in a glass of water doesn't quite fill me with the terror it would need to make me want for backup. Happy Easter!

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Three things I learned on Good Friday (none of which were particularly good)

1. Even if you pet the dogs, feed them, put them outside, make sure all the windows are closed, check all the exits and lock the house like the good house-sitter that you are, there's still a chance the alarm will go off for no apparent reason and the company will call the person you are house-sitting for (designated Person On Holiday) before you (designated Person In Charge). Twice.

2. If you are staying in a house that has six bathrooms, and you rotate, unless you do it in an orderly manner you will soon get confused about which bathrooms you've been to already.

3. It is actually possible to burn microwave popcorn.

I'm sharing this so you can all learn from my mistakes. Happy Easter.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

ufryzować się - to have one's hair done

I pushed open the door and a woman looked up from where she was sweeping.

'Er, I have an appointment for ten', I said and the lady smiled, 'sure, come in.'

She finished her sweeping and motioned for me to sit down. 'Julka made your appointment, right?'

I nodded and took off my coat, putting it on the rack above the three chairs set by the wall. The salon was small, intimate. After my last experience as an anonymous head on a conveyor belt, where people wash, snip and charge what seems like hundreds of times a day, the personal touch was welcome.

She tied the robe around me and I undid my ponytail. 'So, what are we doing?' she asked. Usually this is where I stumble and stutter, suggest half-hearted attempts at explaining my ideal cut, and fail when I realise I have no idea what that is.

'I was thinking something new,' I started off, 'much shorter, but...'

'How about we keep the length but add layers?' my new hairdresser cut in, her eyes screwed up in concentration. 'I think it'll look great, it's too long now but if we cut round here,' she grabbed a few strands, 'and chop up the fringe so it goes off to the side,' she swept my straggly fringe across my forehead, 'it'll look great!' she repeated.

'I just wonder about layers because my hair's so thin' I offered, but she brushed that concern aside 'you think this is the first thin hair I've seen?' I saw she was far better qualified to make decisions than me and willingly handed over responsibility.

After the wash and small talk, another woman walked in. She was the reason I was here at all - Julita's hairdresser. She welcomed me and asked the standard 'how long have you been here?' and 'what do you think of Poland?' questions. They were both friendly and open, willing to chat and not just about the weather or holidays...

After a while, in mid-snip, my hairdresser suddenly stopped, scissors held high and comb in her other hand. 'What's this?' she asked, pointing to her right shoulder, 'in English'. I couldn't help but smile 'er, shoulder?' I said, and watched, amused as she exchanged glances with the second woman. 'He was right,' she said getting back to work, and shaking her head. 'We're learning English with an English guy and he said it was shoulder, but the book said 'arm' and we believed the book.' I laughed, 'no, this is an arm' I said, demonstrating, 'and hand?' she asked. I showed her.

Julita's hairdresser went into the back room and returned brandishing her English book. 'Right' she said, smiling, 'you're trapped, let's do our homework'.

The rest of the appointment flashed by and when my new hair had been dried and styled, I was happy with what she'd chosen for me. 'Thank you' I said, running my hands through my newly cropped hair, 'it's really nice to have a new haircut.'

'How do you say that in English?' they chimed.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

He was going to be late, although he hadn't sounded at all apologetic on the phone. I'd gathered from his broken, heavily accented Polish that he had made it as far as the tram stop. Fifteen more minutes. I'd compensated for his despondency with bright fake cheer. No problem! See you when you get here!

Maybe going through with this hadn't been such a good idea.

The over-familiar text messages and flirty invitations had needed a firm response, but maybe I'd overdone it a bit. The text messages had definitely stopped. Well, he was coming for the interview and that was the main thing.

My interpreter arrived and cheered me up with stories of awkward dinners and late night drinking. She was hungover, but would provide me vital moral, and linguistic, support.

When he arrived I was all businesslike bustle, setting up the sound recorder and explaining how it would work. He was hesitant to begin with and kept trying to catch my eye, testing the water, seeing where we stood. I smiled, safe in the company of others, and he soon relaxed, chatting freely, the incomprehensible words washing over me, making me realise it was not such a big deal after all.

The unfamiliar tongue was punctured with understandable emotions. He told his story, banging his fist with emphasis, flicking his eyes at me sheepishly when talking about his wife and children. I watched the dialogue unfold, her questions, his answers. Her intonation and expression gave away her shock, and the way he leaned forward and creased his forehead showed the truth of his words. I watched as she questioned, wide-eyed and not wanting to believe. He raised his voice to make a point and she slowly shook her head.

The list of questions exhausted, he signed his consent form, handing everything over to me and my project.


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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

beanz meanz heinz and other stories

I was just browsing the shelves, marvelling at the choice of gulashy gloopy food you can buy in tins at the old supermarket inside Hala Mirowska, when suddenly I saw this:

Oh foul I thought, but remembering Marek's love of the red beans I bought them. I still think they are best eaten over a campfire when you are freezing cold and they warm you up, but they go ok with toasted sarnies as well. I guess. Fasolka indeed.


We went to the party of a friend on Saturday. He's now in Ireland, driving things from one place to another in a warehouse as far as I can make out. His farewell grill was a laugh though - one of those times when everybody is talking rubbish but it sounds good. I even danced with his dad (in Lent! Gasp.)


I have declared war on a bird. I used to think they were ok, birds. But this one is not playing fair. I think it's a magpie, but I can't be sure. There is one hanging around; its beady little eye follows me round all the time. But maybe it's something else. Something more cunning that waits until we're safely at work and then gets munching.

Figure one.

Why would you do that? 'Oh look, a nice yellow flower, I'll have some of that. Trphew! Gross, oh well maybe this one here is tastier. Pluh! Noooo....'

So then it moves on to these.

They used to be crocuses. Croci. Crocuses. whatever.

Grr. Bird.

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