An American Dev in Poland, Part 1

1 - "What's Warsaw Like This Time of Year?"

My involvement in Dying Light had its roots in Prototype 2, a game developed by Vancouver-based Radical and published by Activision. I was lead writer, and one of the producers was Anthony DeLuca, an awesome (and awesomely tattooed) fellow who always made sure I was well-fed during my numerous story-conference trips to Vancouver.


Some months after Prototype 2 shipped, Anthony left Activision and took a job at Warner Brothers Interactive. I stayed in touch with him—perhaps dropping the occasional broad hint that I’d enjoy working with him again—and went on about my business, writing other games and comic books and such.


Fast forward to, I believe, November or December of 2013, and Anthony reached out to me. Warner Bros. would be publishing a game called Dying Light, he said, and he thought it would be right up my alley. Techland, the developers, were looking for an American writer, and Anthony wanted to know if he could put me in touch with one of their producers, a guy in Vancouver named Marcin Chady.


“So it’s a Canadian studio?” I asked, revealing my shameful ignorance of all things Techland-related.


“No, they’re Polish,” Anthony said. “But the work could be done remotely.”


That was music to my ears. The only thing I love more than writing is writing in my pajamas.


So I got on the phone with Marcin and had a great chat. He was working for Techland’s Vancouver studio, but the primary studio was in Poland, six hours ahead of my East Coast location. The Techland brass had decided it would be easier for Marcin to talk to me from three hours behind than for them to make a trans-Atlantic call from six hours in the future. I don’t guess I can fault their logic, but it turned into a literal game of telephone; I’d talk to Marcin, he’d relay information to Poland, they’d tell him what they wanted me to know, and he’d get back to me with it.


It took a while for all the ducks to get in a row, is what I’m saying.


At one point, Anthony asked me in an email if I’d be okay with doing a bit of work on-site. I said, “Sure, I love Vancouver!” And I do—I’ve often thought that I could live there without much trouble. The whole city just looks so clean. As if the citizenry regularly goes outside and scrubs everything with toothbrushes.


When Anthony wrote back, I was having dinner at a restaurant with my wife and my parents. “No no,” Anthony said. “Not Vancouver. This would be in Poland. But it probably wouldn’t be for more than two or three weeks.”


I was not expecting that.


A little background on me: I grew up in a tiny little rural Southern town, and while I’ve spent a decent amount of time in big cities, I’ve never lived in one. Part of me always feels like the country mouse when I’m in New York or Los Angeles. And while I’ve traveled to Canada on numerous occasions, up until that point I had never been overseas.


But I’m a freelancer. And freelancers have a really freaking hard time saying no to anyjob, much less one that might let them go on what felt like an honest-to-God adventure. Plus my wife Tracy, who is perfect, said, “When else are you going to get to go to Europe on someone else’s dime? Of course you should do it.”


So I told Anthony and Marcin that sure, I’d be willing to spend two or three weeks in Poland. “What’s Warsaw like this time of year?” I asked, because I had seen something on-line about Techland being in Warsaw. “Oh, it’s not Warsaw,” Marcin said. “You’ll be going to Wrocław, which is good, because it’s nicer there.”


The trip didn’t take place immediately, though. Techland’s brass (in Wrocław) still had to figure out how to fit me into their apparently quite intricate workflow. So I waited around for another two or three weeks, and then got another email: “Hey Dan! Would you be willing to do a couple of months over there?”


Now, my wife and I have a deal, which arose from a trip I made to Novato, California in 2012, working for 2K on The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. I was out there for six weeks, and Tracy and I realized the length of time we can spend apart before we both start to go a little nuts is four weeks. So I told Techland that, sure, I could do two months, but I’d need a week’s visit home in the middle of it.


They agreed, and I started packing.


Completely inappropriately, as I would come to find out.

2 - "There Aren't Enough Vowels"

A few weeks before my first trip to Wrocław, I decided I’d better learn a few words of Polish. I’d been told that most of the people I’d be working with spoke English, and would be more than happy to use my native language; likewise, most Poles under 35 spoke at least some English, since it had become common in Polish schools following the fall of Communism. (Before that, Russian and German were the two most frequently-chosen foreign languages in Poland. I think that was sort of a case of “know thine enemy,” since there is no love lost between the Poles and either of those countries.)


But since this was more than just a quick trip—I’d actually be living in Poland for a couple of months—I figured it would be for the best if I weren’t completely ignorant of Polish. The last thing I wanted to do was show up in Wrocław and behave like a stereotypical insufferable American. I was pretty sure that, no matter what, I’d wind up doing or saying something unintentionally that would make the Poles grit their teeth at my dumb ass, but I wanted to prevent as much of that as I could.


I didn’t really have time to attend classes—not that Polish classes are easy to come by in the Chattanooga area anyway—so that left me with a few online options. One of them, and I knew it was probably the best one, was Rosetta Stone, but I didn’t know anyone who’d used it, and its not-insignificant price tag left me fearful of buyer’s remorse. So the technique I settled on to get me through the absolute basics, and I mean basic on the “yes/no, please/thank you” level, was Google Translate. I put the app on my iPhone, delighted that it had a feature that would speak the words aloud once it had translated them.


(At this very moment, my aggressively multi-lingual Techland co-worker Magda Kiąca is experiencing an uncontrollable eye-rolling episode, caused by the very thought of anyone anywhere using Google Translate for anything. I can hear your eyes rolling, Magda.)


Rolling eyes or not, though, at a very basic level Google Translate works pretty well. Thanks to using it, I learned…


“Yes” is tak, pronounced with a long A, like “tahk.”


“No” is nie, pronounced kind of like you’re making fun of someone, like “nyeh.”


“Hello,” “good morning,” and “good day” can all be accomplished with dzień dobry.


Dzień isn’t too hard—it basically sounds like “jin.” I’m sure that’s not 100% technically accurate, but that’s how I always said it, and no one corrected me.


Dobry is a little tougher. The “r” is surprisingly similar to the r in Spanish, like in tres. The tongue does a little flip that gives it a sound halfway between “r” and “d.”


The “y” at the end, however, gave me endless fits. Tons of Polish words and names end in “y,” and while it’s always pronounced the same, that one pronunciation proved to be the hardest bit of the entire language for me to get straight. Sometimes I’d hear people say it, and I’d swear it sounded like “ee,” as in the last two letters of “bee.” Other times it sounded like the double-o in “book,” or the last part of the French word “deux.” I finally figured out the key to it: you shape your lips as if you’re going to say “oo,” but instead you say “ih,” like the short “i” sound in “tip” or “rip.”


Not that it mattered. Hardly anyone actually said Dzień dobry. If you greet someone, you say Cześć. That’s the Polish version of “Hi!” and it sounds like “chehshch.”


That string of letters is not a typo. It starts out with “cheh” and then adds a “sh,” like the first sound in “shoe,” followed immediately by a “ch,” like the first sound in “chocolate.” You run those two sounds together. That construction appears all overPolish – the “sh” followed immediately by the “ch” with no space in between.


The first time I showed my wife Tracy some written Polish, she cocked her head and said, “There…there aren’t enough…vowels.”


And by English standards, that’s very true. The Polish word for “book” is książka. It’s pronounced “kshawnzhka” – or, to break it down a bit more, “ksh-awn-zh-ka.” Polish puts consonants together in ways that English doesn’t, and it can get intimidating.


But I digress!


“Thank you” is dziękuję, which sounds like “jin-koo-yuh,” and “thanks very much” is dziękuję bardzo. Bardzo basically means “a lot,” and sounds like “bard,” with that hard, flippy “r,” followed by a very straightforward “zoh.”


Conversely, “you’re welcome” is proszę, which sounds like “pro-sheh.”

 

Or at least it does in common conversation. The “ę” is supposed to sound like the last part of “down,” except the “n” is very soft, which makes it come across as vaguely French, but no one I talked to pronounced “proszę” that way. If you want to say, “You’re very welcome,” you can tack “bardzo” onto the end: Proszę bardzo!


Okay. So.


Since I had “yes,” “no,” “hi,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” down pretty well, I figured I’d better learn at least one complete sentence. That sentence, I decided, was going to be, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Polish.” In Polish, that sentence is Przykro mi, nie mówię po Polsku. I practiced that over and over and over until I felt as if I could say it in a reasonably natural manner.


Once I got to Poland, though, those words had an unexpected effect.

3 - "English?"

In preparing for my first trip to Wrocław, my primary Techland contact shifted from Marcin Chady to people in Techland’s HR department directly.


Matylda Siuta became my primary contact, followed by the previously-mentioned Magda Kiąca. Magda’s not in HR – officially, she’s the localization director – but her English is very nearly flawless, so Techland decided she’d wrangle me once I got there.


Anyway. Matylda told me that the flat I’d be staying in was a two-bedroom, and wanted to know if I’d mind sharing it for the first three weeks with another visiting developer: a fellow named Ashley Blacquiere, who worked with Marcin Chady in the Vancouver office. “Ashley spent a month here on another visit,” Matylda said, “so he’ll be able to show you around. If that’s okay with you.”


That was more than okay with me. As I’ve said before, this was going to be my first trip overseas, and while I was excited to go, a part of me was scared witless that I would:

a) Get hopelessly lost (I hate being lost)

b) Wind up breaking a law I didn’t know about and get arrested

c) Offend someone so grievously that I’d get fired and sent packing.


So the thought of having someone there who not only knew his way around, but also spoke English as his native language, offered me a great deal of comfort. Matylda introduced me to Ashley via email, and he very graciously agreed to answer any questions I might have.


I had questions.


I think I wrote Ashley two separate book-length emails, asking him about everything from the quality of the drinking water to whether or not I needed to bring my own toilet paper to how the public transportation system worked. (A guy who worked with my brother-in-law told me that Polish toilet paper was more like wax paper, and that I’d better make sure I took some real TP with me. I don’t know when or how he got his information, but the Polish toilet paper I encountered was indistinguishable from the American kind.) Ashley answered every question and did his best to put my mind at ease.


So, at the beginning of April, with my biggest suitcase jammed full and my trusty laptop bag over my shoulder, I headed to the airport. I flew Delta up to Dulles, and from there switched to Lufthansa for the trans-Atlantic flight.


I would now prefer not to fly any airline but Lufthansa if I can help it.


It takes between seven and a half and nine hours to fly from the United States east coast to Germany, where I was scheduled to change planes again, but I really didn’t mind the time too much. The kind of service you get in coach class on Lufthansa rivals the service I’ve had in first class on domestic airlines. The seats are decently comfortable, they have a huge selection of free movies and TV shows to watch in the back-of-the-seat-in-front-of-you monitors, all the meals and snacks are free, and you get a glass of wine following dinner. Plus, and this made me chuckle, the flight attendant in my section was the most stereotypical (in a positive way) German woman I’ve ever seen. She was tall, fit, gorgeous, blue-eyed, and very very blonde. I never caught her name, but I bet it was something like “Gretchen.” 


I landed in Munich. Over the course of my whole travel-to-Poland experience, I ended up connecting through Munich, Frankfurt, and Dusseldorf. Munich and Frankfurt kind of run together in my mind; they’re both really big, really modern, and remind me very much of shopping malls. I got the impression that someone had built a couple of really big malls, and then said, “Hey, why don’t we let people fly in and out of here, too?” (Dusseldorf is much, much smaller than the other two, but just as modern.)


Anyway. I was supposed to meet Ashley at the gate for the connecting flight to Wrocław. I got there first, and spent a while wandering around and looking at the vending machines that took Euros. I didn’t have any Euros. One of the things Ashley had assured me of was that there were plenty of ATMs in Wrocław, and that I could get Polish currency without any trouble, so I was just relying on plastic until I got there.


Poland is a member of the European Union, but has chosen not to convert to the Euro, for economic reasons that exceed my understanding of economics. (That’s a pretty low bar.) Poland’s unit of currency is the złoty, which is pronounced “z-wo-tih,” except the “o” is like the o in “golf.” It’s got kind of an “aw” sound. And there’s that troublesome “y” on the end. So it’s really kind of like “zwawtih.” A lot of these sounds I’m attempting to explain don’t exist in English at all, so these are as close as I can get to their proper pronunciations. In any case, złoty means “gold,” which is plain enough.


Ashley came sauntering up to the gate about half an hour before we started boarding. He’s a tall, wiry Canadian, and was even nicer in person than he was over email. I had more questions, and probably repeated several I had asked him already, since I hadn’t slept in a whole bunch of hours at that point and was beginning to get punchy. He answered everything readily enough, and in short order we were out on the tarmac, climbing up into a little commuter jet.


Techland wasn’t able to seat us together, but it was only about an hour and a half flight from Munich to Wrocław, so we didn’t bother trying to swap seats with anyone. The guy I was sitting next to was from Wrocław, and spoke pretty good English; he struck up a conversation with me, and seemed very interested in my whole I’m-here-to-work-on-a-video-game story, and started giving me tips about how to get around the city. One that he was very insistent about was that I should never tip a taxi driver in Poland. “It’s just not done,” he said. I’m pretty sure he was messing with me. I always tipped my taxi drivers, and they always seemed grateful (and not surprised).


Ashley and I arrived at the Wrocław airport, got our bags, and as we were leaving he pointed out an ATM, so I stumbled through my first-ever European ATM experience. I was not accustomed to dealing with conversion rates, but the US dollar is worth about 2.75 PLN, so any false starts I made were mitigated by the illusion of getting more money than I had asked for. I happily put my brightly-colored 50-złoty bills in my wallet and followed Ashley out.


A line of taxis waited outside the terminal. Ashley confidently approached the first one and asked, “English?” The driver shook his head flatly: no. Ashley grinned at me and said, “Okay, we’ll see how this goes.” I wasn’t too worried, because Matylda had given me the address of the flat, and I was prepared to show it to the driver on my phone. That was soon to become the next thing I’d learn how to say in Polish: my street address. I was like a little kid, prepared to feel all accomplished and grown-up once I’d memorized my address and phone number.


But Ashley knew the address, and said it out loud in Polish, and the driver nodded, and off we went.

4 - "We Can Have Color Now?"

Driving away from the airport, I thought, Okay! Now I’m going to see what a foreign country looks like first-hand! Awesome! I mean, I had already seen a foreign country, but it’s kind of hard for me to think of Canada as the same kind of foreign as Poland. I didn’t really know what I was expecting to see that would make me think, “Wow! How bizarre and fascinating! I would never see that in the States!” but I was sure I’d know it when I saw it.


Instead, I saw…a city. Not a huge city; Wrocław struck me as being about the same size as Chattanooga, Tennessee, the nearest metropolitan center to my house in Georgia. The language was, of course, wildly different, and there was plenty of it visible, on road signs and billboards and businesses and the sides of buses. But the cars drove on what, to me, is the proper side of the road (not the left side). Ordinary people waited at bus stops, for very not-bizarre buses. We passed open fields, and houses, and restaurants, and more than one establishment labeled “Monopolowy,” which puzzled me for a while until I found out that that basically means “liquor store.”

In short, apart from the language, Wrocław could easily have been a city in Florida. Or Ohio. Or a bunch of different places in the U.S. I didn’t know whether to feel disappointed or comforted.


One thing that did strike me as strange were a number of trees we passed that seemed to have large, round, green growths here and there along their branches. They looked kind of Seussian – as if someone had taken a regular tree and added big green Dr. Seuss tail-puffs to them. I asked Ashley if he knew what kind of trees those were, and he didn’t. It took me a couple of weeks before I thought to ask one of my Techland colleagues, who explained to me that the trees themselves were normal, but that the Seuss puffs were actually mistletoe growths. Maybe that’s a common sight in some parts of the States, but it was a new one on me.


Once we got closer to the city center, I noticed the second unusual feature, which tended to appear on larger structures such as offices and blocks of flats: the citizens of Wrocław go in for color on their buildings in a big way. A mint-green apartment block sat next to a cheerful pink office, across the street from a mustard-yellow restaurant…and the buildings just kept going like that. Not every single structure was decked out in pastels, but the motif was very common, so much so that it gave me the feeling of being in a really huge coastal community. (Wrocław is nowhere near a coast.) The same kinds of colors you might expect to see on beach houses along a street called Ocean Avenue were spread throughout the city, sometimes even in enormous, two- or three-tone stripes, like massive pieces of art.


I would eventually learn that this love for color arose, like many features of modern Polish culture, from the communist era. When the communists were in power, no color was allowed. That statement sounds bizarre to American ears; there was no color?How could there be no color? But that’s the way it was. Almost everything was gray. Clothing, buildings, vehicles, none of it featured any bright shades of anything, except maybe white. But then, once the communists got the boot, the Poles rose up collectively and said, “We can have color now? Okay…stand back!”


And one of the first things they did was decorate the living hell out of the outsides of their buildings.


And I’m not saying that the colors you see driving the streets of Wrocław are garish or tacky. Quite the opposite. It’s a beautiful city, and makes most American cities look plain and boring. I just wasn’t expecting them.


Maciek Binkowski (MAH-check Bin-KOV-skee), the Lead Game Designer on Dying Light, told me a lot of stories about the time when Poland was transitioning out of communism and, with some trepidation, embracing capitalism. He said that some stores began carrying shopping bags that were bright red, and that some of the citizenry were so taken with this vivid color that they’d proudly carry these shopping bags down the street, just to show them off. It didn’t matter what they’d bought; the color was the important thing.


I had been taught, along with every other American student, about the evils and bureaucracies and ghastly inefficiencies of the Soviet Union, and had heard tales of people having to stand in line for five hours just to get one roll of toilet paper. But hearing accounts like this from someone who actually lived through it and saw the fall of the Soviets gave me a sense of perspective that I had never experienced before. I ended up having quite a few such gains in perspective during my time there.


Ashley and I arrived at our flat, located at 35 Bajana Street. Or, as it’s properly stated, Bajana trzydzieści pięć. As I mentioned previously, I knew I’d have to get that address memorized, because I was sure I would be saying it frequently, either to cab drivers or to random people on the street if I got myself lost. (It’s not hard for me to get lost.)


Bajana sounds like bye-YAH-na. No problem.


Trzy…well, there’s not really a good way to explain how that sounds in English, but I’ll give it my best shot. Trzy is Polish for “three.” If you look at it sideways, you can see how the two words share a common root, somewhere way back there in linguistic history. Rz together in Polish sound kind of like the “sh” in “shoe.” So you put a “t” on the front of that, and you get… “tsh.” And that goes right into that damn “y,” so trzy sounds sort of like “tshih.”


Adding dzieści to trzy turns “three” into “thirty,” and it sounds like JEESH-chee.


Pięć is Polish for “five,” and sounds very much like the English word “pinch.”


So 35 is pronounced, more or less, tshih-JEESH-chee pinch.


I don’t know how many times I had this conversation…

ME: Dzień dobry. Do you speak English?

CABBIE: Nie.

ME: Okay. Ahem. Um… bye-YAH-na tshih-JEESH-chee pinch?

CABBIE: Ah! Bajana, tak tak tak!


And off we’d go.


That comes up a lot in Polish conversation: tak tak tak! Yes yes yes! It fills the same basic niche as, “Right, right, gotcha,” or “Totally, yeah.” It also sounds like someone knocking on a door, and it makes me happy.


We paid the cabbie (and tipped him), gathered up our luggage, and Ashley led me into the building – and immediately, right inside the door, up a flight of stairs. And then up another flight. And another flight. And another flight.


“Okay, this is it,” Ashley said.


Pant, wheeze, pant,” I replied.


The keys to the flat were unusual. They looked like science-fiction versions of old-fashioned skeleton keys, and when we put them in the lock, we had to turn them four full revolutions to open the door, disengaging four separate deadbolts. I felt very secure there. I asked Magda later if keys like that were normal, and showed mine to her. She said, “No, that’s weird. I’ve never seen a key like that.” So don’t expect science-fiction skeleton keys if you go to Poland. (But don’t be surprised, either.)


Once we got inside, I found myself standing in a flat that was, by American standards... really nice. It had hardwood floors throughout, very modern cabinets and appliances in the kitchen, a whirlpool tub and a separate enclosed shower in the bathroom, and a pretty spacious balcony. Ashley let me have the bigger of the two bedrooms, since I’d be staying longer, and it took very little time for me to settle in.


One thing disappointed me, but only a little, and another thing just sort of puzzled me.


The first was the lack of air conditioning. I was born, raised, and still live in the South, where it gets stupidly hot and humid and the air swarms with insects, and air conditioning is just a given. So at first I didn’t like it that the flat had no A/C, but I quickly realized that the weather very rarely gets hot enough to need it, and that the bugs in Wrocław are so scarce you can just open a window without inviting in teeming hordes of winged blood-suckers.


The second was the washing machine. It was covered in tiny little abbreviated Polish letters, and I never did really figure out how to use it properly; I just put my clothes and the detergent in and hit “ON.” It worked well enough. What surprised me was the absence of a dryer. That’s another given in the States: you buy a washer and a dryer. They come in pairs. That’s just the way it is. But not in Poland, as I discovered. Very very few people in Poland use dryers at all, and instead just hang their clothes on drying racks. It’s very common to see a system of pulleys and lines strung up over a bathtub, so that it can be hoisted up out of the way when someone’s bathing, and then let back down to use for drying purposes.


Still. No A/C and no dryer were hardly serious impediments. Once I’d explored the flat and freshened up a bit, Ashley said, “Hey, let’s go outside, and I can show you what’s around the building here.”


Of course it only took about five minutes, even with Ashley right there, for me to get completely lost. It’s a talent I have.

Part 5 - "I Don't Speak Polish"

The flat Ashley and I were staying in was part of a pretty large cluster of apartment buildings. He pointed in various directions once we’d gotten back down to the street. “Down there is the bus stop. Then, over that way, if you go past that building and hang a left, is the train station. And back this way is a little self-contained mini-mall, and past that is the tram stop.” He led me through the warren of tiny streets that connected the parking lots around the blocks of flats and showed me the mini-mall. It was called Tęcza, which means “rainbow,” and is pronounced kind of like TEN-cha.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, I was completely disoriented. If Ashley hadn’t been there I probably wouldn’t have been able to find my way back to our flat.


That disorientation would have happened no matter where I was, though. It had nothing to do with Poland. I’d get lost like that in Houston, Texas (and I know I would, because I have).


Beside the point!


Our flat’s location was really kind of ideal, as far as getting around the city. Walk out the front door of our building and turn left, and I got to the bus stop in about two minutes. The buses ran really frequently, something like every six or seven minutes during the work week, and the best one to get me where I needed to be was the 136. The 126 would do, also, but it took a longer route.


Walk out the front door and turn right…and then walk about a third of a mile…and you get to the train station. The passenger train took me even closer to work than the buses did, but they only ran twice an hour, so if I screwed up the schedule, chances were I’d be late for work.


Head out to the two-minutes-away bus stop, turn left, and walk maybe another quarter of a mile, and you’d get to the tram stop. The trams didn’t go anywhere near Techland, so I couldn’t use them to get to work, but they did go straight into the historic city center, which I’ll probably spend a whole post on later. All in all, if I wanted to get somewhere in Wrocław, some way to do it was reasonably close to the flat.


The trams and trains were all electric, too. I wasn’t too surprised to see electric trams; they weren’t that much different from what you might see in San Francisco. But I never thought full-size trains would run on the same kind of power. Shows what I know about trains.


I had a minor adventure the first time I walked down to the train station. Ashley wasn’t with me, so it was up to me to figure out exactly where to go and what to do. The building itself is tiny, about the size of a residential home, and what you’re supposed to do is walk in, go through a big door and down some steps, along a short tunnel, and back up some more steps to the platform in between the tracks.


I didn’t understand that, so I wandered through a couple of rooms, and then outside, and back in to another couple of rooms, where I finally encountered an elderly railroad employee. He had some things to say to me in Polish, the gist of which, I’m pretty sure, was, “What the hell are you doing back here, this is the private office, you moron.” I apologized in English. He took some long-suffering pity on me, showed me where the stairs to the tunnel were, and said I needed to give my ticket to the conductor. I actually recognized the word for ticket – bilet, which sounds like bih-LETT – so I could piece together everything else he was saying.


I thanked him in Polish. I said “thank you” a LOT in Polish, and I’d like to think my pronunciation was decent: Dziękuję bardzo. Jin-KOO-yuh BARD-zoh. As soon as I said that, the man’s whole face lit up, and he actually grinned. “Proszę bardzo,” he said. PROH-sheh BARD-zoh. “You’re welcome.” I hurried into the tunnel before I could embarrass myself any further.


It was on a different train ride, not long after that, that I first experienced the effect of telling an older Polish person, in Polish, that I didn’t speak Polish.


There are two ways to pay for public transit in Wrocław. The first way is by buying individual tickets. You get on a bus, or a tram or whatever, and go to a little machine about halfway back along the vehicle’s length, where you slide or tap your credit card and select what kind of ticket you want from a touch-screen. It pops a little paper ticket out to you, and you turn and put that into a separate machine that validates it with a stamp.


The second way is to buy an UrbanCard. You get an UrbanCard by riding a tram to a little office downtown and paying around 90 złoty to get a plastic card the size and shape of a credit card. You have to apply for the card beforehand, and I think they’re only supposed to be available to either students or dumb-ass foreigners like Yours Truly. But once you get the card, you can ride any public transportation in Wrocław as much as you want to. You don’t even have to do anything when you get on the bus or the train or the tram; you just board and take a seat (or stand if there are no seats, which happens a lot; public transport there is pretty popular). If, and it’s a big if, there is a ticket-taker in the vehicle with you, he or she will ask to see your ticket. You hand them your UrbanCard, they tap it on their little portable ticket-verification machine, hand it back to you, and you go about your business.


Well. There was a ticket-taker on the train one morning.



She looked to be in her late forties, a compact woman with a very no-nonsense demeanor, and she spoke to me in Polish. I had no idea what she said, but I had seen her taking other people’s tickets, so I pulled out my UrbanCard and handed it to her. She tapped it on her machine and said something else to me in Polish.


Summoning up my best pronunciation, I said, “SHIH-kraw mih, nyeah MOO-vee-awn po PAWL-skoo.” (In actual Polish, as I’ve mentioned before, that’s Przykro mi, nie mówię po polsku, and it means, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Polish.”)


Exactly as if I had said, “You know what, it would be great if you could talk to me in Polish for the next minute or so,” the ticket-taker launched into a huge stream of Polish that I had zero chance of comprehending. That’s when it dawned on me: because I had said “I don’t speak Polish” in actual Polish, she assumed that I COULD speak Polish (despite the actual words I had used), and she had what sounded like a lot of questions for me. In English, I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” but she was undeterred. The stream of questions kept coming, and it was obvious she was getting agitated with me. I tried my best to figure out what she was asking, so when she paused for me to answer again, I said, “Uh…I’m going to the next stop?”


With a disgusted sigh, she handed my card back to me and walked away. I felt pretty rotten for disappointing her so thoroughly.


Anyway. None of that public transportation stuff mattered the next morning when it was time to head to Techland, because Ashley said, “Hey, want to walk to work? It’s not that far.”


To my eventual, profound regret, I said, “Sure! Let’s go!”


Now, I knew Poland was a lot farther north than my home in Georgia, but it was already April, and for some reason that I still don’t understand, I had decided that it wasn’t going to be that cold. I think a big part of my failing is that I did not take into account the amount of walking I’d be doing. Normally I drive a car. I park in front of whatever building I’m going to, and it takes maybe twenty or thirty seconds to walk inside. If it’s chilly, so what? I’m not outside that long.


But in Wrocław, public transport was my only option. And while it took only two minutes to stroll down to the bus stop nearest my flat, the stop closest to Techland was a good fifteen minute walk from their front door. The train let me off closer, but it was a solid ten minutes to get to the train station from my flat, so either way I’d be spending some time out in the elements.


And walking the whole way? That took a half an hour at the bare minimum.


Also, Ashley is Canadian. He’s accustomed to temperatures much, much colder than the ones we faced on our way to work that morning, so he just ambled along, perfectly happy, in a T-shirt with a flannel shirt over it. My dumb ass had neglected to bring anything like a heavy coat; all I had was a couple of hoodies. I hadn’t even brought the toboggan-style hat that I normally wear in the winter because my head gets cold easily. So the more we walked – and particularly when we got up onto a highway overpass – the colder and more miserable I got. The wind howled up into my hood and made my scalp so freaking cold it hurt, so I wound up cinching the hood almost completely closed, like freaking Kenny on South Park. Ashley was sympathetic, and too polite to laugh openly at me, even though I no doubt presented quite the comedic spectacle, like some kind of nerdy cyclops.


I don’t know that I had ever been happier to report to work than when the black-and-red Techland building hove into view.

6 - "Open Sesame"

The Techland building looks a bit out of place. Its red-and-black color scheme puts it on the futuristic side, in sharp contrast to the narrow, roughly-paved street that runs past it. That contrast gets even sharper when you walk down that street and turn a corner, where the road opens up onto a dirt-and-gravel parking lot. 


I always used public transportation in Poland, but the neighborhood where I lived, as well as the area surrounding Techland, had no shortage of cars. I had thought before I went that I would see lots of strange, tiny little European autos in Wrocław, and I totally did. Lots of Daewoos, too – Daewoo is a very popular manufacturer. But among the Citroens and Skodas and Peugeots and Opels were a healthy number of cars you might see on any street in America. I regularly passed a Mercedes dealership and a Lexus dealership on my way to the city center, and one of the Techland producers drove a shiny new Chevy Camaro that looked exactly like Bumblebee’s car form in the Transformers movies.


Then there were the cars made by manufacturers familiar to me, but with unfamiliar models. For every Kia Sportage or Volkswagen Golf, I saw a Nissan Qashqai (which, to be fair, is basically a Rogue), a Hyundai i20, or a Ford Ka.


I remember reading about the development of the Ford Ka, ten or fifteen years ago, I think. The plan, originally, was to create a car that was small enough and cheap enough for the general populace of China to own. I don’t know if it ever caught on in China, but the Ka is all over Wrocław. It’s comically small, shaped sort of like a deformed drug capsule, and yet I saw them on every street in the city, running like sewing machines.


I also saw a large number of Fiats, which gave me a surprise: Fiat actually makes some good-looking cars. Cars I wouldn’t be embarrassed to drive, unlike the God-awful hideous little 500s that have invaded the States. Give me one of their larger, SUV-ish vehicles and I’ll be perfectly happy to tool around town in it. I wish they sold all those different models in America. Instead we’re stuck with the crappy little 500 cracker-boxes that, commercial endorsements aside, Jennifer Lopez would never be caught dead in.


Anyway!


Upon arriving at the Techland building, Ashley delivered me into the very capable hands of their office manager, Hania Obradović. I was quickly given to understand that Hania could make me or break me at Techland, and that I’d better get on her good side. That was not even close to a problem, though, since Hania was unfailingly nice to me and always willing to answer my dumb questions. She was also kind of a knockout, which I mention for reasons which will become clear shortly.


Hania turned me over to one of the Human Resources people, Dorota Kozłowska, who was just as nice, just as helpful, and also kind of a knockout. I glanced into the HR offices, where a handful of, you guessed it, very attractive women sat at their desks; they all smiled and waved at me.


I was beginning to notice a trend.


Dorota gave me a whirlwind tour of the place. Techland has no use for large bullpen-style work spaces; instead, the building is divided into I couldn’t even tell you how many rooms, each of which accommodates between six and a dozen employees. So Dorota took me to each of those rooms – there were, I don’t know, a thousand of them – and, as I stood in the doorway of each one, she introduced me to everybody.


The whole experience is the blurriest kind of blur. Dorota didn’t really try to tell me individual names, but she did mention which department each of these rooms housed, and at the end of the tour I felt as if I knew exactly as much about Techland as I did at the beginning. At each room, Dorota launched into a stream of Polish; I knew she was referencing me, because I caught my name, and after a few of these intros, I started to understand more or less what was being communicated. Dorota would say a bunch of stuff, and someone in the room would ask, “Can he speak Polish?” to which Dorota would answer, “Well, he knows how to say please and thank you.” And everyone in the room would just sort of eyeball me with varying degrees of skepticism.


So at the ends of these introductions, I’d summon up my best smile and say, “Cześć.” It felt like using a magic word, sort of like “Open sesame,” because at that point the skepticism vanished and almost everyone smiled back at me and said, “Cześć!”


At one of the rooms, God only knows which one, Dorota and I walked in and a beautiful medium-sized dog came walking up to give me a tentative sniff. Awesome! I thought. They allow pets at work! I love it when offices do that. Rather than say “Cześć,” I immediately dropped to one knee and held out a hand, beckoning to the dog, because I’m a huge sucker for dogs and cats. But the dog apparently found me wanting, because she turned tail and walked back to her owner. So I stood up sort of awkwardly and greeted everyone. I couldn’t tell if they thought I was an idiot, but I sort of felt like one.


While I had zero hope of remembering anyone’s names, I did get a good look at the employees of Techland, and a few things stood out to me.


1) There were quite a few more women working there than I had ever seen at a dev studio before.


2) Everyone, men and women alike, were tall and fit and thin and good-looking.


3) I kind of felt like a troll in comparison.


Now, by American standards, I am completely and utterly unremarkable. I’m basically Average White Guy #6 – right at six feet tall, brown hair, brown eyes, skin pasty enough that when I say I’m a professional writer it surprises no one. If I walked down the street in any given town in the States, no one would glance twice at me. I like to think I look okay for a 43-year-old bookish type, but I’m not in fantastic shape, and I’ve got some soft around the middle that I’m not very fond of. Hey, who doesn’t?


The Poles don’t, that’s who.


I’ve been in plenty of dev studios in the States, and some in Canada, and it’s usually not difficult to find people who appear as if they spend most of their time sitting on the couch and eating Cheetos. At Techland, out of two hundred employees, I might have seen two or three people who could possibly have qualified as being slightly overweight.


That was my first real feeling of being the kind of American the rest of the world expects to meet.


The second came a couple of nights later, when Ashley and I were watching a TV show on my computer.