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, July 31, 2006

The day we went to Woodge

On Saturday I finally made it to Łódź (pronounced Woodge. I promise, it is).

My guidebook told me it used to be the centre of the Polish textile industry and that before the war it was a city with one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Neither of these claims to fame hold true any longer.

Today it is, quite frankly, very obviously poor. Even on the famous (ok, relatively famous if you're someone who's heard of Woodge) Ulica Piotrkowska, buildings with amazing architecture have been left to disintegrate and only one in four or five has been renovated to show its former splendour and hint at the pride of the city's residents.

The beautiful buildings reminded me of Poznań, but they had a thick layer of neglect and sadness surrounding them. The people too seemed uncared for, looking out from windows over crumbling balconies and sipping from cans on the streets.

We were in a group and had a friend's wedding to attend so we spent an hour or so in a Polish church watching them make their vows, then threw rice, presented our flowers and took pictures of the newlyweds. The rest of our time we separated between Ulica Piotrkowska, various eateries and drinkeries, and checking out Manufaktura.

Manufaktura is one solution to the problem of the old decaying factory buildings. They've been transformed into an enormous shopping centre, typical of the malls springing up all over Poland. I'm often tempted to join the universal condemnation of the consumerism that seems to be taking over this country, but in places like Woodge, where the wealth of the old days has gone and left such obvious poverty, I couldn't help but see some value in an investment that has created masses of jobs in the buildings that used to provide the city with work and is sure to encourage tourism.

Also, they have some fantastic fountains, where we got to see this little guy having the time of his life...

We drove back through fields where farmers were harvesting the hay. A toothless old woman in a headscarf led her cow across the road by a chain; a group of men sat shirtless, cans in hand by a roadside shop; a tractor moved slowly across the fields.

The differences between city and country life seem exaggerated in Poland. It really strikes me every so often.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Queen Becca

I've always slightly envied the Queen. Not for her fame or fortune, not for her hats or corgis and certainly not for her neverending appearances and charity dos. I envy her two birthdays.

I mean how great is that? Two birthdays! Two occasions when you feel special, without the inconvenience of ageing a year at each celebration.

Well guess what? I came to the right country. The Poles are all queens! (I bet the homophobes love that label I've just attached to every single Polish person.) Each person has an actual birthday (no, really?) and then they celebrate their name-day in addition. Each day of the year is attributed to several names and when yours comes round you get presents and people drink vodka and sing 'sto lat' all night. They're saints' days as far as I can make out, but they don't sit quietly in the back like in the UK (ignoring the globally renound St. Patrick's Day of course) - calendars, even buses, announce whose name day it is on a daily basis.

Today was the name day for girls called Julita, so we were with Marek's sister Julita all day, drinking vodka and eating cake. The good life.

That's all very well and nice for them I thought when the name day phenomenon first came to my attention. Shame I'm English and my name isn't Dorota, Agata or Justyna. Rebecca doesn't have a name day. Guess again! My name day is coming up...

For those of you who don't know the months in Polish (imagine that!) I'll help you out. Sierpień is August in Polish. My name day is in August (w sierpniu), to be precise on the 30th (trzydziestego sierpnia) Notice how Sierpień changes to sierpniu to sierpnia. Oh yes.

One month to go! Get your vodka and singing voices ready.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006


A couple of nights ago I had a dream where I discovered that I was eight months pregnant (I just looked down and oh! look! huge pregnant belly). Although that wasn't so much of a surprise (I tend to accept whatever my dreams throw at me without much of a fight) I suddenly got very annoyed with myself because I realised I'd never attended any ante-natal classes, where they teach you all about the birth and how to survive without throwing things at the father's head to relieve the pain. I remember thinking 'oh well, I've seen it plenty in films, you just have to keep breathing.'

That was weird.

Then I realised, it's hardly surprising. Everyone around me is popping sprogs like its going out of fashion. The people we're buying the flat from have one on the way in a couple of weeks, a colleague of mine is going to be a dad in a few months and Marek's boss had this little cutie on Sunday...

It may also have something to do with the fact that pregnant women are waddling all over Warsaw at the moment, presumably avoiding going on holiday with the rest of them in case the baby arrives before it's supposed to. There are lots of pregnant Poles, after all they are paying women to have children here now...

Phew, and there I was worrying that my subconscious was trying to give me some kind of message. No babies here! The next one I can coo over will be beautiful little Esme in England in a couple of weeks.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006


I think it must be terrible to be a minion in the European Commission; one little wheel in the huge machinery that keeps the EU ticking over.

After my internship there I saw how it couldn't possibly be my kind of work... good pay sure, but difficult to get a sense that your work is having an impact, that it isn't just getting swallowed up into the system, lost in a sea of papers and reports that nobody ever reads.

Of course, SOME people manage to do an excellent job, SOME people bag themselves a position dealing with trade agreements between the EU and ACP countries (that's African, Caribbean and Pacific countries people, keep up). SOME people have been in Jamaica since Friday, having massages on beaches and free pina coladas while pretending to prepare for a Very Important Conference.

Now that kind of job I wouldn't mind. Need an assistant Dad?

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Monday, July 24, 2006

In which I moan a bit and feel sorry for myself

We got there early, and talked as we sat in the waiting room. A lady I'd never seen before came and invited us into her room. 'That's fine', I told myself, 'my usual lady has obviously gone on holiday, this other one is bound to be just as good.'

I sat in the dentist's chair and M followed me in, explaining his role as emergency translator. The dentist turned to me with a smile, 'what can we do for you?' she asked and I explained how it was the last in a series of appointments, filling my surprising number of (undetected despite regular checkups in several countries) holes with shiny white fillings.

She took a quick look and said that there were two fillings left to be done, and that we could do them both together straight away. I settled back, expecting her to start with that normal role call '6-5-missing 4-3...' and whatever else it is that dentists tell their assistants to write down, but to my surprise I heard the drill.

'Ok, don't panic' I said to myself as the drill started boring into the tooth, 'lots of people don't opt for anaesthetic, it'll save me a bob or two and maybe it won't be that painful...' a needle of pain shot through my tooth's nerve, into my jaw. I thought about changing my mind and made a conscious effort to breathe and unclench my hands, which had somehow found each other in my lap and were gripped tightly together. The drill continued, and as a new bolt of pain shook my body so that I almost lept from the chair clear into the air, I came to my senses 'uurghahouuuu' I attempted through a mouthful of drill and sucking tubes. She removed them for me. 'Could we try this with...' 'anaethetic?' she finished, which was a good thing because in my confusion and pain the Polish for anaesthetic had hidden itself firmly at the back of my brain and was refusing to come out. 'Yes please' I replied, calming my breathing and trying to stop my top lip from quivering.

She got the needle out and started sticking it in all around the tooth. 'Ow!' I thought, quietly in my head, and willed her to be more gentle. She didn't wait for the anaesthetic to kick in before the drill started up again, and when she hit the nerve again, causing another involuntary jump from yours truly, she exchanged looks with her assistant that plainly said 'oh for Christ's sake, no one's this pathetic!'

It was pretty clear by this point that I hated her. No, hate's a bit strong but I did mildly detest her. She completed the drilling, filled the holes and did all the finishing off with none of the care and patience shown by my previous dentist at the surgery. A (very expensive) clean and polish later I was free to go.

Thankfully that was the last dentist appointment until my next checkup. Urgh. Hate drills.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Pianist

The problem with historical atrocities is that once the facts have been absorbed and processed, we, or I at least, tend to get desensitised. I hear about the madness of the past, shake my head, possibly even get an ache in the pit of my stomach, but the next day it is no longer part of my life. I focus on me and those around me, always with the knowledge of historical events, but more concerned by the current causes for concern.

Yes, the holocaust killed millions of Jews, but at this very moment women are being raped and innocent people are being killed around the world.

Once in a while, something happens to jolt me out of my focus on today's world and bring the past into sharp focus, making me realise the horrors of fifty years ago in a way so vivid and terrible that I gasp out loud and try, without success, to comprehend how people can do such inhuman things to other people.

I watched Roman Polanski's 'the Pianist' the other night. We are in the process of buying a flat in a building on the edge of Warsaw's former Jewish Ghetto, and someone had mentioned that the bridge from the small ghetto to the large ghetto, which was very close to the building in which we will be living, was featured in the film.

The film is amazing. I knew how people suffered, I knew how many people died, I knew how the Jews were taken from Umschlagplatz to extermination camps, I knew all that. During the film though I felt it. I experienced it.

There are some truly shocking moments, and the knowledge that such things actually happened, makes it all the more painful, but it is a true masterpiece. It deserved the Palm d'Or, the Oscars, the Baftas, it deserved all of them.

Watch it. I'll lend you the DVD.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

I think I may have mentioned this before...

It's the first rule of blog: Don't write about your work.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006


I remember pushing the heavy door open and climbing the stairs to their welcome. Friends in tow, years since our last meeting, they were overwhelming in their generosity. Backpacks were downed and iced drinks pressed into our hands.

Fussing over the child of old friends, we were fed and entertained, asked about our European adventures of that summer. Conversation sparkled in the hands of this distinguished old Frenchman, who spoke impeccable English through a cloud of cigarette smoke. It didn't seem strange that a couple in their sixties should be giving lunch to a foursome of weary teenage travellers, at a final stop in Paris before heading home.

I remember his intelligent eyes and friendly chuckle. He was one of those people who sticks in the memory; a positive, warm man. I haven't seen François since that summer all those years ago and learning of his death from lung cancer last week was a real blow. If I made a habit of praying, I would pray for his widow and their son. As it is, I'll be thinking of them at his funeral today.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Just passing on what I heard...

Apparently, tomorrow is International Day of Action Against Homophobic Persecution in Iran

Not a catchy name I'll grant you, but it falls on the anniversary of the public hanging of two gay teenagers in Iran, a horrifying, shocking reminder of the human rights violations some people face.

If you're around...

Warsaw -- Location: Candle-light vigil, 22 Królowej Aldony street Time: 9 P.M. Contact: Lukasz Palucki,

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Berry picking and gender stereotypes

Once a fortnight or so, we go to see Marek's family out in the country. I say 'out in the country' but actually it's just half an hour from the centre of Warsaw.

When I first came to Poland, the trips were nerve wracking, I'd spend the journey busy preparing different phrases in Polish, and worrying if we were arriving without presents.

In those early days Marek would leave me, tongue-tied and bewildered, in the kitchen with the girls, while he went off to help his dad in the greenhouses or in the garage, or I'd follow him round like a puppy while he cleaned the car or fiddled with his bike.

There was always something to do, but I always felt a bit lost. How was I supposed to fit in with this happy family, where everyone knew their roles and got on with their thing? Marek's mum would take pity on me and, ignoring my offers to do the washing up, would show me how to make a new cake, or get me to peel the potatoes for dinner.

At that time, my desire to be useful and avoid making waves was stronger than my desire to fight against gender stereotypes.

Over the months, the situation has eased. My Polish has improved and I no longer face Marek's dad's jokey comments with a blank stare, I can return the digs with a wink of my own. Marek's mum still asks me questions about the prices of vegetables in 'the West', but instead of inanely nodding along to dismissals of other EU countries as 'expensive' I can start discussions about other considerations like the higher wages.

If the others are busy with their jobs I find things to do. I help Marek and his dad with the 'men's work', I help his mum and sister with the 'women's work' and I find my own work. More importantly, I can relax. I can breathe. If the washing up needs doing I do it, but if the sun is shining, I sit in it with my Polish exercises or a book, fighting off the dogs, who follow me round the garden, tails wagging now that they know I'm the one who can't bear to shout at them if they jump up and dirty my clothes.

This weekend, while Marek cut the grass, his sister made a cake and his parents worked in the greenhouse, I wandered around the garden. I was just thinking what a shame it was that the cherries had finished, when I noticed the berry bushes. I spent the next hour picking berries. Redcurrants and blackcurrants. Great piles of scarlet and deep purple, ripe to bursting and sweet on my tongue. I picked and I picked, and the fruit was greeted with a chorus of happy surprise.

I may forever associate berries with a feeling of belonging.

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

On a quand même bien rigolé... Zidane et Trézéguet

This is the funniest song I've heard in a long time. Seriously, if you speak a little bit of French and have a spare moment, find the song to download and have a listen. It's about the infamous Zizou incident and is based on the tune of the French WC song that was mainly 'Zidane y va marquer' but cunningly transformed into 'Zidane il a frappé, Zidane il a tapé'.

I'm sure we all agree that Zidane acted like a bit of an ass, whatever provoked his chestbutt, and that he wasn't much of a role model in that particular game, although he was still made man of the competition or whatever (since the football finished, all the details have begun slowly oozing out of my brain... Poland played Germany you say? really? That must have been an interesting match...) BUT this is one funny song.

My favourite bit:

Barthez n'a rien arrêté
C'est pourtant pas compliqué
Les sponsors sont tous fâchés
Mais Chirac a bien parlé

Classic. It also has quite a beat - sure to be a summer hit.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Green eyes

You know the people I envy the most? More than the ones with the big houses and fancy cars, more than the ones with steady jobs and a reliable income, more even than people who can be covered in mosquitoes without being bitten a single time (although only just more than them)... The people who don't sweat.

I mean it. This weather is killing me (and the Poles tell me I'm fitting in very well with their moaning culture - 'it's too hot, it's too cold, it's too wet...') but every time I get on the bus or tram, I see one of THEM.

The girl with her thick long hair skimming her tanned shoulders, legs crossed and not the slightest indication that it's 35 degrees and we're crammed into a hothouse on wheels. I stand behind her, my hair sticking to the back of my neck, t-shirt clinging damply to my back and position myself right under the sun-roof in an attempt to benefit from the slight flow of air.

Or the guy in shorts, tight t-shirt unmarked by patches, sunglasses on a face that's as dry as the day. No rivulets of sweat running down his forehead, no material sticking uncomfortably to his thighs, no need to constantly wipe the back of his neck with a hankie.

How do they do it? I feel like immersing myself in a bath of ice water and not coming out until Sunday (when temperatures are supposed to drop dramatically). Don't get me wrong, at first I was overjoyed - a proper summer! But I just can't deal with it going on for so long and with such a lack of air conditioning, especially when surrounded the people who never sweat.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Polish Political Pleurgh

Oh, and I know everyone's writing about this (well he is and he is anyway) and as my grandmother always said 'if you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything' I was going to keep my mouth shut, buuuuuuuuuut I just don't get it. It's so wrong.

You just can't have identical twins in the top two positions of a country. It's seedy and corrupt and all 'oh, look what a surprise, after saying we wouldn't do this, how about we do it anyway?' Newly-appointed Jarosław doesn't seem to agree...

There is a certain risk for the president and prime minister to be brothers, that was the major roadblock," he said.

But for various reasons, we came to the conclusion that, at this time, putting forward a different candidate - of which we have many good ones - would be a worse way out than recommending me.

Why? Especially if he thinks 'we have a great many good' other options. No, Jarek. No.

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Final Football Four words

France should have won.

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What did you do on saturday night?

The car trundled along the dirt track twisting its way through the trees. Marek turned to the passenger seat and reported on our progress; '2500m, what now?' The guy in the passenger seat glanced at the paper covered in a grid of boxes, each containing a direction. 'After 2500m we take the track forking off right for another 1000m.' The car went right and we continued on our way. 'Ok, around this corner, then we go straight on.' We turned the corner and advanced upon a very unwelcome sight. The five of us exchanged glances and I took a deep breath. Up ahead was a miniature traffic jam. A skoda had stopped behind a land rover. In between the cars was a tree that had fallen across the track. The land rover had obviously managed to get over the tree but the skoda, like us and the heavily pregnant friend following in a car behind us, was stuck.

We were in the middle of the countryside near Poznan, on our way to a party. This was no ordinary party though, we had been told to meet someone an hour earlier at a petrol station and receive our directions - a grid of symbols and distances with no address and no map. The directions took us on winding roads through cornfields, on roughly beaten tracks through forests and now, up to a fallen tree that was blocking our way.

We had no idea where we were and each direction on the grid followed from the previous one so it was vital that we get to the other side of the tree. The skoda drivers were local and thought they knew a different track that would bring us round to the right point, so we decided to trust them and follow. Unfortunately for us, once we had all turned around, argued about the right way to go about it, vowed that we were not opening the emergency envelope that we had been provided with and cursed the fact that we weren't in an ATV, the skoda had disappeared in a cloud of dust.

The next half an hour was spent getting ourselves deeper and deeper into the woods, searching for any clue that we were on the right track until we found ourselves back in a little village we had passed some time ago. After another bit of arguing and asking locals for any help they were prepared to offer, we were scooped up by one of the party organisers, who took us to a point further along the route, and allowed us to complete the journey on our own.

When we finally came upon a house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by an army of jeeps and land rovers we knew we had finally made it. The off-roading nuts who were giving the party greeted us with cold beers and demanded that we tell them the extended story of our adventure.

A little while later, we were drawn outside by an enormous cloud of dust racing towards the house, a pirate flag waving in the wind and the sound of tremendous machinery coupled with a deep insistent horn. As it approached, we saw this huge amphibious tank thing. This was not the kind of party I was used to.

I'm not a fan of army things. I'm not generally impressed by big guns, or powerful engines that make lots of noise, but this beast was pure fun.

As the rainclouds rolled in the dusk was lit by lightening. We rode around the surrounding fields on a course of hills and sudden drops. We screamed with the speed and laughed at the rumbling power, then we went round again. It beats rollercoasters let me tell you.

The rest of the party was usual party stuff. Drinking, dancing, talking. I suddenly decided that I'd had enough of speaking Polish and made the delightful discovery that if you just start speaking English to people they deal with it pretty well. Once the sun had come up over the cornfields and we'd grabbed a couple of hours sleep, I was greeted in English by everyone I came across, including one guy I could swear I had never seen before, but that's parties for you.

If I invite you to a party in the future, get your jeep and compass ready.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Our Warsaw Holiday

After an afternoon spent snacking on popcorn and cream soda, we lounged outside our temporary home, the dark held at bay by a single candle.

I recounted my day that had consisted entirely of reading in the garden under the shade of the fruit trees, and a pleasant half hour with the hose soaking the bright flowers and giving the new grass its share of water to recover after the day's scorching sun.

He told me the latest office news, offering bits of information which I gobbled up greedily after my lazy day of no contact with living creatures other than the dogs. They are the reason for being back in this house, this large American house with its root beer and hershey's chocolate.

We talked and sipped beer, relishing the evening's cool after the heat of the day and swatting at mosquitoes. I had my legs up, feet on his armrest and his hand rested on my knee, comfortable and relaxed, the stars and unfamiliar surroundings giving the impression we were on a real holiday.

We returned to our favourite topic of conversation, our new place, and discussed paint colours and furniture.

Afterwards, walking about the house, locking doors and setting alarms, I thought of the residents, on a holiday the other side of the world. I compared our compact future flat with their vast expanse of rooms and thought about how it is too big for real life. My real life at any rate.

For now though, it's just perfect, a holiday without the inconvenience of travel.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

This football stuff will finish soon

I thought I was done with the World Cup, but after last night's match I just have to say DID YOU SEE THAT???? Jeeeesus, that's the way to win a place in the final, get to the last two minutes of extra time when the soul-destroying prospect of penalties seems inevitable and then wham! wham! slide two in before the other team has a chance to recover.

Still, double bummer for England fans as most of them seem to have wanted Germany to win. They've now lived through two crushingly disappointing matches whereas I just get to smile a little at the people who blasted me for supporting Poland. Allez les français!!!

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

1/10 paid 9/10 to go

The lawyer's voice droned on and on and I followed M's finger tracing the words of the contract. Every so often my eye snagged on a word and I would marvel at the Polish language's ability to place so many consonants together. This was swiftly followed by admiration for the lawyer who, despite her gravelly monotone, managed to skip lightly over the szs and czs, not tripping and stammering as I would have done.

I stopped my daydreaming and snapped to attention as she turned to me. 'This is the paragraph that states that Pani speaks Polish and did not require a translator. Did Pani understand everything?' I felt the blood rise to my cheeks as I looked her in the eye and confirmed that I had understood. It was no lie, nor even a stretching of the truth - we had gone over every word the previous evening, M explaining and translating the bits I didn't get.

We continued with the contract and I did my best to concentrate. It had been emailed to us the previous day and I'd printed it out on the back of some old English lesson handouts that had never been used. When the seller brought out his documents, neatly filed in plastic covers of different colours, and stored in labelled folders, I eyed our copy, dog-eared and splashed with melon juice, with a certain amount of embarassment.

We finished the read-through, signed the contract and called the bank to make the transfer: 10% of the apartment's price as a deposit while we find the rest. Finally, it was all complete. Hands were shaken all round and M smiled at me. 10% is ours, soon we'll have a whole flat.

As we shook hands with the seller he congratulated us. 'Now don't forget' he said as we turned to leave, 'we shall expect you about once a week until the final contract is signed.'

'What for?' we asked with questioning smiles.

'To clean the part of the flat you already bought,' he said and winked.

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Just to clarify...

I've changed a few things about the blog: No more flickr badge, no more blabbering profile, no more unnecessary details.

Simple reason: I was a teeny bit scared.

Longer reason: When I started this blog it was just a bit of fun, a way of keeping my family and friends in touch with my life in far off Warsaw. When I got my first three readers I was over the moon.

In the year that followed more and more people seemed to come across the blog and then come back. That was a little intimidating at first but flattering too and I carried on regardless, gushing about the Poles, making my daily observations about the oddities of living in yet another country and generally sharing a bit too much information about my life.

The stats now have started to scare me a bit and a couple of people have suggested that I may want to hold back a bit on the private details (we don't want to attract TOO many weirdos now do we?) That's not going to change the things I write about, it's just going to mean a few more initials instead of names, holding back a few details and maybe a bit less look-at-me-ing (but not much).

It is all my fault of course, if you write about stuff on the internet you have to assume people will read it, but to be honest I wasn't aware that there were so many people who had so little else to do. I didn't think anyone would be interested.

A determined person could easily find private details about my life, but I've just decided to stop shoving them in your face (and I'll save you determined people the bother - there's nothing worth knowing).

Right, now that's clarified, we'll get on with it shall we?

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Saturday, July 01, 2006


'Is that the English fans singing?' M's dad asked, peering at the tv screen. 'What are the words?'

I confirmed that it was English fans and that they were singing the national anthem. M translated 'God save the Queen' into Polish.

M's mum walked into the room in time to hear the end. 'Which Queen?' We explained. 'Really?' she asked, an impressed look on her face. 'She must like that. All those people singing for her.'

She walked back into the kitchen and I heard her telling M's sister the news; 'English football fans sing about God saving the Queen' she relayed.

M's Dad shook his head in wonder. 'They love their queen.'

I focused on the match again, trying to imagine the kinds of places my English friends would be watching the match from. I was pretty sure I was the only one watching from the Polish countryside, a lone Angielka among Poles.

The match dragged on and on. No goals. We managed to have dinner while keeping one eye on the match; remark on the fact that it was a Catholic country against a Protestant one; wince at the missed attempts by the English side; discuss various topics centred around the English including their apparent inability to excel at team sports; tut disapprovingly as Rooney made a fool of himself and got sent off; sigh at the inevitability of penalties and take a deep breath before the first was attempted.

When our goalie kept going the wrong way and theirs kept saving, the end was hardly a surprise.

I sat on the edge of the sofa, M's hand squeezed in mine, watching the tears run down the faces of players and fans alike. M's mum even came in to see if I was ok.

M, however, seemed somewhat oblivious to the emotion and disappointment associated with England having been knocked out of YET ANOTHER World Cup. He turned to me with a twinkle in his eye; 'looks like the Catholics won...'

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