Another note on the physical characteristics of the Poles: what Americans would consider “piercing blue eyes” are super-common there. And I don’t mean just “blue,” I mean “Paul Newman blue.” Blue that makes you stop for a second and think to yourself, “Holy crap, those are some really blue eyes!” Yeah, over there, that’s just plain ol’ blue.
Not that everyone in Poland is blue-eyed – brown eyes are not at all uncommon, and I saw some green eyes as well. But in the States, brown is by far the most frequently-encountered eye color. It’s pretty uncommon to find someone of African, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic descent whose eyes are not brown, and a giant chunk of the populace here who would check “white” on a census form also have brown eyes, Yours Truly included. I don’t have hard numbers, but I’m guessing the percentage of Caucasians with intensely blue eyes in America is somewhere between ten and fifteen percent.
In Poland, I’d say it’s more like forty percent. Maybe fifty. I saw amazing blue eyes everywhere I looked. I remember passing a little old man on the street one day, this squat little dude who looked as if he’d spent the last fifty years doing hard manual labor, with a deeply-seamed face and knuckles swollen with arthritis. He glanced up at me, and Bam! Movie-star blue eyes!
Of course, the incidence of Brad Pitt-level peepers in Poland ties in with another of my first impressions: the country is just absolutely filled with white people. White people everywhere. White people as far as the eye can see. Over the course of three months, I saw exactly twelve people of African ancestry, two Asians, and zero Hispanics. And I’m pretty sure the only reason I saw the Black guys and the Asian guys was because I had to walk past the IBM building to get to Techland, where they were visiting on business.
Growing up in America, we really only have one neighbor that exists in our minds as “foreign” – Mexico. Yes, we’re aware that Canada is another country, but Canada and the States have way more similarities than differences, and in general it’s not much of an issue who goes across what border which way.
Mexico, on the other hand, is a massive, complicated, thorny issue that I don’t have the time or the expertise to discuss intelligently here. But because most Americans stubbornly cling to the idea that we only need to speak one language, and because (for now) most Americans are Caucasian, and because we have screwed up the immigration situation with Mexico in a truly profound way, Mexico registers to the typical American as a foreign country.
Other than Canada and Mexico, though? Our neighbors are trillions of cubic meters of salt water.
Plus we’ve really only been serious about this “being a country” thing for 239 years. (As opposed to the Poles, who’ve been occupying one patch of land in Central Europe for a couple thousand.) My point is, thanks to geography, it’s easy for us to think that our way of doing things is the only way. Not only because we’re relatively isolated, but because few foreign powers have ever challenged us on our own soil. (Again, as opposed to Poland, which has been completely taken over, carved up, and handed out to other European nations no fewer than three times.)
Foreign neighbors and the lack thereof aside, though, what we have gotto remember is that we are a country of immigrants. If the Native Americans had had even a shred of immunity to smallpox, all those merry European settlers would never have left Europe, and North America today would be just as full of Native Americans as China is full of Chinese people. Tragically, though, they didn’t, and North America was left wide open for wave after wave of immigrants, from all over the world. The old stand-by saying is that we’re a “melting pot.” I sort of see the country as a patchwork quilt. But however you see it, the fact remains that, with the exception of the remaining Natives, every single person who calls him- or herself an American has origins in another country.
Poland? Not a nation of immigrants. Poland is full of Poles, and not much else, from what I could tell.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; it’s just very different from the experience of being an American, and it’s a difference that I had never fully considered before. Every single person I knew growing up had at least a little knowledge of where their ancestors came from. Most of the time it was right there in the name; MacTaggerts came from Scotland, O’Briens came from Ireland. Fasolo was Italian and Fong was Chinese and so on and so forth, and you could encounter any and all of that growing up in America, especially if you lived in a larger city. That’s just the way it was—we all got started somewhere else.
In the Southeastern U.S., that ancestral makeup usually included a lot of Irish and Scottish. The upper-crust of New England sometimes brag about being able to trace their family back to the Mayflower; it’s a point of pride to know from what country your people originated.
There’s no question of that for the Poles. They’re from Poland. Of course they are. And people in Wrocław can take a tram to the Rynek, or City Center, and enjoy a plate of pierogi in a building considerably older than my birth country. I don’t think enough Americans realize how newwe are. Our country has a lot of money, and a lot of political power, and we throw that around and wear big foam fingers and shout, “USA! USA! We’re number one! We’re number one!”
When, on a global scale, we just got here.
A few nights into my first week in Wrocław, Ashley and I were relaxing at the flat. As it turns out, Ashley is basically a gourmet chef. He let me know that he enjoyed cooking, and that it was just as easy to cook for two as for one, and that if I wanted to have what he was having, he’d cook some meals that I could share. I responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. We came to an arrangement about grocery expenses, and I ended up having some fantastic meals.
So after dinner, we’re sitting in the living room watching something on my computer. (The reason we weren’t watching the TV that came with the flat is the subject for a whole other post.) At some point there was a news segment, and it showed one of the World Cup games, focusing on the side of the stadium filled with Americans. As you’d expect, a lot of the fans were shouting, “We’re number one! We’re number one!”
And it hit me: I was sitting there in the same room with a guy from another country, watching as my fellow citizens boasted about being the greatest country in the world.
I felt like such an ass.
I didn’t say anything about it, I don’t think, and Ashley didn’t bat an eye. He didn’t seem at all upset, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was because he’d heard Americans boasting for so long that he’d come to expect it.
Back in high school, and I’m sure this will come as a huge shock, I was a giant nerd. I never competed in sports, but I did compete in a few academic competitions, one of which was a team trivia challenge called “Toss-Up.” We’d have different tournaments every year, and go to various local colleges and compete against teams from other high schools. One of those teams, every time they got a question right, high-fived each other and hooted and congratulated themselves.
Everyone hated those guys.
Sitting there, watching giant foam fingers waving around, I felt as if I were on that team.
There’s a lot to like about the States. I’m happy to live here. I just think we could do with a little more humility.
(Although, when I related that “We’re number one!” incident to one of my co-workers at Techland, he said something that blew my mind even further: “We actually kind of admire how much confidence you guys have, to feel like you can make that statement.” I don’t know. I’m still pulling for the humble.)
This post got away from working at Techland and into political waters a lot faster than I meant it to.
Once Dorota had concluded my whirlwind tour of the entirety of Techland, she handed me off to Magda Kiąca. (That last name is pronounced Kee-AWN-tsah and, unlike most Polish surnames, has no meaning, or so Magda told me. The name “Wojciechowicz” – I think I’m spelling that right – means “Son of the Smiling Warrior.” Kiąca? Nothing.)
I had written back and forth a few times with Magda before leaving the States, and was happy to meet her in person finally. She emerged from the HR office and shook my hand, a pretty, smiling, sort of dizzying collection of abundant curly hair, stylish glasses, and floral-print leggings. (She might not have actually been wearing floral-print leggings that first day, but she did wear them a lot, so that’s part of my visual imprint of her.) She was also very tall. I’m certainly no slouch, coming in right at six feet, which is a good three inches higher than the U.S. national average. Magda looked me dead in the eye when she had on flats, and many days elected to wear four-inch heels.
Have I mentioned that the Poles, in general, made me feel really short?
Magda’s spoken English was just as near-flawless as her written English, and she led me upstairs to the second floor to introduce me to the rest of the people I’d be working with on a day-to-day basis. At some point I asked her if everyone’s English was as good as hers. “Mostly,” she told me, “but Rafał doesn’t really want to talk directly to you, because he says his English is terrible. So you’ll communicate with him through me, I guess.”
The Rafał in question was Rafał W. Orkan, a noted Polish novelist and Dying Light’s lead writer. (The name is pronounced RAHF-ow, the “ow” rhyming with “cow.” It’s the Polish equivalent of Rafael.) I didn’t really know how to react to the news that he didn’t want to talk to me directly, but I’m pretty good about going with the flow, so I just followed Magda and didn’t question anything.
At the top of the stairs she gestured at a couple of doors over to the left. “That’s the Boss’s office.” You could hear the capital B in her voice. “Paweł Marchewka. The next one down belongs to Paweł Zawodny. He’s the one you report to.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering how I was going to keep everyone’s names straight.
There is a fascinating phenomenon in a lot of European countries: you don’t get to name your kids just whatever you feel like. There is a government-approved list of names, and if you have a kid, you are required to pick a name off that list. I’m pretty sure this is designed to preserve cultural and historical integrity, but what it leads to is a whole slew of people with the same first names. A glance at the male employees listed in the company directory for Techland looks something like this:
Basically, if you’re walking down the street in Poland, and you pass a group of four or five guys, you can shout, “Hey Paweł!” and one of them is going to turn around. Is it confusing? Yeah, a little, but it’s also given rise to another fascinating phenomenon: almost every guy has a nickname, and these nicknames are used in everything from casual conversation to official memos. I never encountered any women with nicknames myself, but I did encounter enough Magdas that it wouldn’t have surprised me.
(Another note: “Paweł” is the Polish equivalent of “Paul,” which is also basically the same name as the Russian “Pavel,” but the L-with-a-slash-through-it changes the pronunciation sharply. Pawełis pronounced PAH-voe. Except that last syllable is not “voe” to rhyme with “toe.” The long “o” sound, like in “toe” and “coal,” does not exist in Polish. Instead, the “o” in Paweł takes on a sort of British lilt. Imagine the stuffiest, most proper King’s-English British academic librarian saying, “Oh, my,” and you get pretty close to the “o” on the end of Paweł.)
Some examples of this lots-of-similar-names-yielding-unique-nicknames:
Paweł Zawodny is commonly called “PZ,” pronounced “Peh-Zet.”
Paweł Selinger is known as “Szliniu” (SHLEE-nyoo), which arose from a college buddy getting too hammered to pronounce “Selinger” properly. (That’s Seh-LING-ger, by the way. Not SELL-in-jer, as I first tried to say it.)
Adrian Ciszewski, our Executive Producer, is called “Pyza.” That’s pronounced PIH-zah, not to be confused with “pizza,” and is Polish for “dumpling.” I never worked up the nerve to ask him how that came about.
Paweł Marchewka, trumping all the others, is simply called “The Boss.”
Anyway. Magda led me down the hall to a little room in a corner, and introduced me to the people I would quickly come to think of as Our Cast of Characters.
First was the man himself, Rafał Orkan. Rafał stood, smiled politely and shook my hand, and immediately returned to his desk. Magda was right; he didn’t seem to want to speak to me very much. But he did seem perfectly nice otherwise, and presented a distinctive image, with an ever-present flat cap on his head and a missing front tooth. He was also tall and thin and fit-looking. I got a lot of practice holding in my gut.
Next was Ania Jabłońska, a (here comes a shock) tall, thin, pretty girl with ever-present bangs. Ania hadn’t studied as much English as the rest of the Cast, so she wasn’t as comfortable with it as Magda; she and I communicated just fine regarding work stuff, but thanks to that language barrier, I never got to know her as well as I would’ve liked. Ania was the liaison between the Narrative Department and the motion-capture video production team, which left her looking worried a lot of the time through no fault of her own. (Jabłońska is pronounced Yah-BWOYN-ska. Rather than being another of the Smiling Warrior’s children, the name refers to apples, or apple trees; “apple” in Polish is jabłko, and sounds like “yah-BOO-koh.”
The last Cast member I met that day was Michał Małecki – MEE-how Mah-WET-skee – one of the newer writers, and a former civil engineer. Michał was one of the few guys I met at Techland shorter than I was, though not by much, but he was just as fit-looking as everyone else. He was also shaven-smooth bald and had an awesome goatee. I worked with Michał on dozens of side-quests in the first month I was there, and I swear, the man had the patience of Job, putting up with all my stupid questions.
There was another writer, Alek Sajnach – SIGH-nahk – but he was on vacation the week I arrived. He did come back the following week, but I hardly got to know him at all, because very shortly after that he left the company. As I understand it, he climbed a rung on the Video Game Narrative Ladder and is now lead narrative designer at another development studio.
I got settled in at my desk, which was right next to Magda’s. (I learned later that my desk used to be Ania’s, and she got booted out of it to make way for my dumb ass. Sorry, Ania!) Magda told me that she would have a list of things for me to accomplish at the beginning of each day, and as I got tasks completed, I was to send them to her and cc Rafał. I asked, “How did you get lucky enough to be stuck acting as the foreign guy’s supervisor?” She said, “I’m not your supervisor! PZ is your supervisor! I am merely facilitating things. And relaying messages.”
Given the few times I actually spoke to PZ over the course of my visit, I feel safe in saying that Magda was my supervisor.
What they had me doing to begin with was “naturalizing” dialogue. Rafał and Alek and Michał had written a ton of stuff, and while it was in English, they wanted me to give it a pass to make it sound natural, like something an American might say. (They referred to what they had written as “Ponglish.”) The process looked like fun to me, so I dug in.
Right after lunch, a tall, willowy, attractive woman with dark hair came zooming into the writer’s room and launched into a barrage of the fastest spoken language I had ever heard. Now, I’ve heard some fast talkers; Spanish in particular lends itself to having one word flow into the next, and when a Spanish speaker gets excited, it can become what I’ve heard referred to as “machine gun Spanish.” Well, this woman put every example of machine gun Spanish I had ever heard to shame. Listening to her speak Polish was like standing in front of a running jet engine. Once she had left, zooming out just as fast as she had come in, I asked Magda who she was. It turned out that I had just had my first encounter with Małgorzata Mitręga, Techland’s outsource manager. “Małgorzata” is the Polish analog of “Margaret,” but she commonly goes by the shortened version, “Gosia.” GO-shah.
It would take about six weeks, but eventually the Narrative Department would get moved to a larger room next door, and Gosia would join us, becoming another member of our Cast of Characters.
I got back to work, my ears ringing.
On either the second or third day, I had wheeled my chair over to Michał’s desk to ask him another stupid question about a side quest, when an athletic-looking, smooth-shaven-bald guy with those improbably blue Polish eyes walked in, said hello to everyone, and spoke to me in Polish. I tried to sputter out my tried-and-true phrase, “Przykro mi, nie mówię po polsku,”but I screwed up and said the first couple of words in English.
Immediately, in damn near perfect American English, he said, “Oh! You’re the guy!” and stuck out his hand. “Maciek Binkowski,” he said, grinning. “It’s so great to meet you!”
Which is how I met one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
Over the next two weeks I began to settle into something kind of like a routine. I say “kind of like” because, outside of my job at Techland, I had very little idea what I was doing.
Allow me to break down a few things that took me off-guard…
I was really looking forward to watching TV in Poland. I knew American programming was popular there, and I figured taking in a bunch of English-language shows and movies with Polish subtitles would be a great way to absorb some of the language. Turned out, not so much.
I have to learn languages by seeing them written. If I see a word written down, and practice saying it a few times, I can begin to pick that word out of native-language conversations; the first word I remember recognizing, in the break room at Techland, was Wtorek– VTOR-ek – which is Polish for “Tuesday.” If I haven’t seen the word written, though, I’m hopeless at understanding it, and for the first month I was in Wrocław especially, all the spoken Polish I heard just kind of washed over me like a long series of ocean waves.
Well, as it turns out, you can only get that English-language-with-Polish-subtitles thing going with a fairly modern cable box setup, or maybe a smart TV. I had neither of those things. The flat came furnished with a perfectly functional 19-inch television set strikingly similar to the one I had in college in 1991. The cable just fed directly into it, and when I finally found a channel showing an American movie…
…there was a male voice reading all the dialogue in Polish, right over the existing soundtrack. I’m not saying it was dubbed in Polish. I’m saying the regular movie was playing, with Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker riding around on a boat and talking audibly to each other, but overthat, some guy had the script, and was reading all the lines in Polish. Just one guy, reading every part. Talking over the actors.
It made it impossible to watch the movie. In fact, if I may be so bold, it was annoying beyond belief.
Pretty soon I asked Maciek what the deal was there. He explained that what I had witnessed arose from the communist era; the TVs people had back then were too small, and the resolution was too bad, to support subtitles. TV stations also didn’t have the money to pay for full-on dubbing, and so the solution they settled on was to have one person read every line in Polish as the actors said the same lines in English. These readers were known as “lectors,” and actually started to get pretty popular in their own right. It was not uncommon to have a favorite lector. And since everyone in Poland grew up with this (and understood what the lector was saying), nobody thought twice about it.
I watched TV on my computer from then on. The wifi signal in the flat was really good.
Polish grocery stores
The thing to keep in mind when buying groceries in Wrocław is that the clerks want you to come in, get your stuff, and get the hell out as fast as possible – or at least, that was the impression I got. I also got the impression that they didn’t care for my ignorant, non-Polish-speaking, awkward foreign ass. I swear, if and when I return to Poland, I’m going to bribe someone who speaks English to accompany me on my grocery expeditions, just so I don’t piss off the clerks anymore.
The stores themselves, at least the ones I went into, aren’t that much different in general concept from American grocery stores. Shopping carts, aisles of categorized food, freezer section, etc. That part I could handle. But when you get to the front, you unload your cart, park it in a special little nook at the end of the counter, and then bag your own stuff as fast as you possibly can, so that when the clerk presents you with a total you’ve already finished. Also, in most places, you either bring your own bags or you buy some when you get there; I didn’t see all that much in the way of free bags.
I learned quite a few phrases and some sentences over the course of my stay, and felt very comfortable with please and thank you and see you later and such, but I never learned what the clerks always asked me when they were done ringing me up. I’m pretty sure it was something like, “Do you have a club card,” or “Do you have any smaller bills,” or maybe “Do you have correct change, by chance?” In every instance, I had to mutter, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Polish,” and then suffer their withering glares as they made change.
I ended up eating out a lot.
Polish hamburgers and pizza
In the States, I’m afraid we have become complacent in our hamburger pursuits. The pitiful, sloppily-assembled, tastes-like-it-came-out-of-a-microwave specimen you’re likely to get at a Burger King is a good example of this. Does it qualify as a burger? Sure. Does anyone really enjoy eating it? I have a hard time believing so.
In Poland, the hamburger only arrived in 1991. Before that it was just something people had heard about. But McDonald’s got there, and the Poles got a good look at the hamburger, and I’m pretty sure a lot of them said, “Hmmm…we can improve on this.”
I say that because every single burger I ate in Wrocław was big, perfectly cooked, juicy, and delicious—so much so that I would feel totally comfortable calling them “gourmet” burgers. They were a little different from American ones, but only in that they tended to be more mayonnaise-based and not so heavy on the ketchup. (Poland does a lot of things really well, but in my limited experience, we’ve still got them beat on ketchup.)
Two things to know about burgers in Poland: first, nobody calls them “hamburgers.” They’re just “burgers.” Second, you can get a “burger” there with your choice of protein; if it’s a more or less round sandwich consisting of bread, condiments, and some kind of meat, by God it’s called a burger. So when I ordered a burger at lunch, I was asked, “What kind? Beef, chicken, fish?”
It never occurred to me to ask if I could get a ham burger. That’s a shame I’ve learned to live with.
Polish pizza is even more different from the American strains. That’s not to say that it isn’t good; I very quickly discovered that I love Polish pizza. I was just surprised at the toppings. The crust is pretty much the same, but I was not expecting corn to play as central a role as it often does. I was also not expecting to enjoy a pizza topped with sliced kielbasa and pickles, but let me tell you, that thing was awesome.
Magda and her boyfriend, whom I soon came to refer to as Tall Paweł, invited me over one night to hang out, drink beer, play video games, and eat pizza, in no particular order. The place they ordered from had a number of specials, and to my amused surprise, all of the specials were named after American states. The only two I tasted were the New Mexico, which had a healthy dose of jalapeño slices on it, and the Mississippi, which had…tuna. I don’t know that I’d order the Mississippi on a regular basis, but I sure as hell ate the slices offered to me.
“We’re aware you’re not going to find any tuna fish in the Mississippi River,” Magda told me drily.
ALSO: The truth about Rafał Orkan’s English skills
For the first two, maybe two and a half weeks, I sat about six feet from Rafał, and he never spoke to me. He’d readily speak Polish to the other people in the room, and to Gosia when she made one of her whirlwind visits, but the most I ever got was the occasional very brief email. It’s not that he was unpleasant to be around; there just wasn’t much communication. I knew Magda had said he wasn’t comfortable with English, but I spoke basically no Polish at all. I wasn’t about to judge anybody harshly.
I don’t remember exactly what it was that finally broke the ice, but one day it became necessary for Rafał to talk directly to me. And his English turned out to be…just fine. I mean, sure, he had an accent, and now and then he’d stop for a few seconds to think of the right word, but he had severely downplayed his linguistic abilities, and could talk to me without any problem. That made me very happy. Not only because it was a good thing to communicate directly with the lead writer, but also because Rafał is just an all-around awesome guy. We had quite a few discussions about Polish history, and historical re-enactment groups, and the nature of Polish surnames, plus he introduced me to a category of music that I had no idea even existed: Polish folk metal.
If you’re into distorted guitars and a hot blonde who could give Chester Bennington a run for his money, check out a band called Percival Schuttenbach. You’re welcome.
Around three weeks in, I started hearing people talk about where they were going for Easter. Ashley had left by then, returning to his home in scenic Vancouver, so I had the flat to myself. I asked Magda and Michał about all the people traveling for the holiday, and they indicated that it was customary to return home and spend Easter with your family. Basically, everyone at Techland was going to clear out for a long holiday weekend.
Okay, I thought. I’ll spend that time working on other projects and watching Netflix on my laptop. No problem.
In the States, Easter isn’t exactly a big deal. It’s not a small deal; it’s a major holiday, and gets a lot more attention than, say, President’s Day or Arbor Day. (Jeez, we have a lot of holidays.) But no one makes as big a deal about it as they do Christmas or Thanksgiving, or even Independence Day or Halloween. Growing up, the typical Easter thing to do was to go and get a new set of nice Sunday clothes. My family was (and is) devoutly religious, and went to church every Sunday anyway; on Easter Sunday, we just did it in new clothes, and then maybe had a nice lunch.
I had not comprehended yet that Easter in Poland is a big deal. In fact, it’s a Big Deal.
…No, more like a BIG DEAL.
Nope, that still doesn’t do it justice. It’s a
Imagine Thanksgiving on steroids. Imagine a full-on Thanksgiving feast, except three times a day, for three or four days straight, with the entire family in attendance, and you’ll start to comprehend the importance of a Polish Easter.
So, on the Wednesday before the holiday, I was about to leave work one afternoon when Maciek met me on the way out. He and I had hung out a couple of times. We hadn’t gotten to know each other superwell, but it was obvious that we got along, so he decided to walk with me as I made my way back to the flat. The weather wasn’t too bad, and we ended up foregoing the bus and just hoofing it over toward Bajana, talking about Dying Lightand other games and what we were doing with the story.
About three quarters of the way there, he said he was going to go to a nearby mall, so we decided to part ways. Just in passing, he asked, “So, what are you going to do for Easter?”
I said, “I guess I’ll just hang out at the flat, mostly.”
He stopped dead in his tracks. “You’re not going home?”
“Nope, I won’t go back to the States till this first month is over.”
“You’re going to spend Easter alone?”
I grinned. “It’s okay! Truly. I’ll catch up on some stuff.”
Maciek seemed kind of floored that that was my plan, but he shook my hand and headed off toward the mall. I walked the rest of the way back to the flat, thinking no more about it.
About an hour later, I got a call on the cell phone Techland had lent me. It was Maciek. “Listen,” he said, “I’ve talked to my parents, and we’d like to invite you to come and spend Easter with us.”
Now I was floored. “Dude, you don’t have to do that!” I said.
“We want to. I told my mom about you being here by yourself, and she’s totally on board with you spending the weekend with us.”
After a few more protestations, and then a couple different versions of “Are you sure?” I finally said, “Well, then yes, I’d be honored. Thank you!”
Which began the Great Bigos Adventure.
A question occurred to me the day after I accepted Maciek’s invitation, so I called him after I got back to the flat, following another eight hours of naturalizing side quest dialogue.
“Maciek? Hey, it’s Dan. So, uh… does your family speak English?”
I was asking, not because it really mattered to me whether they spoke English or not, but because I was trying to gauge the amount of embarrassment I would feel upon trying to communicate and failing. I don’t know how common a feeling it is, but every time I’ve tried to talk to someone and not been able to understand what they were saying – whether they spoke another language, or just a dialect of English I couldn’t comprehend – I’ve always felt like the most colossal of idiots.
Maciek assured me that, while neither of his parents spoke a word of English, both of his sisters did, and so did their significant others, and they would all be joining us for the Easter holiday.
With that knowledge in mind, I put aside the last of my hesitation and really started to get excited about the trip.
It was planned to be quite the long weekend. As I recall––and there’s a reason my memories may be just a tad fuzzy, which I’ll get to later––we were set to leave Friday afternoon, and would return to work on Wednesday of the following week. We’d be taking a train for the five-hour journey up to the small town of Barlinek, in the northwest of Poland, not too terribly far from the German border.
Maciek explained that Barlinek had, at one point, been a German holding, and was actually considered a resort town; so much so that they called it “Little Berlin.” When Poland reclaimed the territory the town occupied, they kept the meaning of the name, but changed it to Polish: Berlinek. (The “-ek” suffix, I came to understand, is a common form of diminutive, sort of like the English practice of turning Bill into Billy or Tom into Tommy. That’s how Maciej – “MAH-chay” – became the less formal Maciek.) Anyway, after a bit of time had passed, the Poles decided they didn’t like having the name of a German town as part of one of theirs, so they changed the spelling to Barlinek.
With bags packed, Maciek and I left the Techland building and walked down to a nearby bus stop. The bag I was carrying was actually a very nice hiking backpack that I borrowed from Magda. My little carry-on bag was too small for a long weekend, and I didn’t want to take my monster suitcase, so Magda took pity on me and lent me a bag perfectly suited for the trip.
Maciek coordinated with his wife on the phone as we walked, so that we were able to catch the specific bus she had already boarded, and the three of us rode into downtown Wrocław and made our way to the train station.
Maciek’s wife Monika (Moh-NEE-ka) is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. She has dark hair, really really green eyes, and a ready smile; her English actually sounds kind of British, thanks to time she spent in the UK; and when I first met her, she was impressively pregnant with their first child. She’s also spent years studying Krav Maga.
Between that and Maciek’s black belt in Aikido, I’m thinking their kid is going to feel extremely safe growing up.
We got onto the train, hurried down its length to the appropriate car, and picked out some good seats. This was an open car, with rows of seats like you’d find on a bus or an airplane, rather than one with individual rooms, but that didn’t bother me. The seats were comfortable, the car was clean and smelled good, and other than a forty-minute delay for some mysterious reason, the trip went really smoothly. Maciek and Monika and I talked the entire time.
One of our frequent topics of conversation, not surprisingly I guess, was language, and it was on that trip that I gained what felt like a significant insight into the nature of English. I’m a huge fan of author Bill Bryson, and I can’t recommend his books The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way and Made In America strongly enough. Bryson touched on something in The Mother Tongue concerning naming practices in the New World – namely that, when the Western Europeans got to America, they tended to take a very straightforward approach when assigning names to things. “Oh look, it’s a bird! And it’s blue! What should we call it?” “How about ‘bluebird?’” “Perfect!”
The thing is, I had not realized the extent to which we take this practice of boiling things down to their absolute most basic components. Since that conversation with Maciek and Monika, it’s become clearer and clearer to me that English is just incredibly basic, all the way across the board. As I told Rafał Orkan and Gosia Mitręga later on, it sort of made me feel like a caveman.
I mentioned the “bluebird” thing to Maciek, and that led to us thinking of other such examples. They weren’t hard to find. All over the language are terms and names simply made up of the most straightforward descriptors possible. “Doorknob.” It’s a knob attached to a door. “Steering wheel.” It’s a wheel you use to steer. “Off-ramp.” “Table saw.” “Keychain.” The list goes on and on.
It made me think of the episode of The Simpsons when bartender Moe Szyslak objects to the word “garage.” “We don’t use those fancy French words around here!” he says, and when asked what he calls the place where people park their automobiles, growls out, “A car-hole!”
It didn’t just come up on the train trip, either. One day in the Techland writers’ room, Gosia had bought a bottle of a popular Polish soft drink called Tymbark. (I tried Tymbark once. It comes in a variety of flavors, I think, but the one I got featured the dubious combination of apple and mint, a flavor pairing that Magda assured me was tasty and refreshing. With all due respect to Magda, that was my first and last sampling of Tymbark.) The Tymbark bottle was sealed with a cap that, at first glance, looked like a regular Coke bottle cap, the kind you pop off – except that it had a pull-ring, sort of like beer cans used to. Well, Gosia tried to use the pull-ring, but it broke, leaving the soft drink bottle tightly sealed. She started looking about for something to pry the lid off with, and I said, “Surely somebody around here has a bottle opener.”
Gosia stopped what she was doing, looked at me incredulously, and said, “You call it a bottle opener?”
(She eventually got the lid off using another prime example of this phenomenon: a staple remover.)
See, the thing about Polish versus English is that it’s much, much older, and has had time to become a good bit more refined. It’s also had time for the grammar to get (by English standards) really freaking complex, but I’ll get to that in a later post.
Take a word like “thunder.” Every English speaker knows what the word means, but there’s nothing about it that inherently describes the meaning. It’s not “sky booms,” or “weather explosions,” or “thing-that-follows lightning.” It’s just its own word, carrying its own meaning. Well, from what I could gather, most words and names in Polish are like that. Koszulka is Polish for “t-shirt.” Does the word koszulka literally mean “lightweight shirt with short sleeves and no buttons?” …Honestly, I don’t know. But I doubt it.
Toward the end of my time in Poland, a bunch of Techland people wound up at a bar in the city center, and over the course of the conversation, wine got mentioned. Someone asked me the English name of the thing you use to remove the cork from the wine bottle, and I said, “Oh, it’s called a corkscrew.” Gosia was sitting right beside me, and she clinked her beer bottle against mine and said, “Corkscrew? Seriously? Here’s to your language.”
Anyway, back on the train, after we’d had a number of laughs at what I was beginning to think of as my rudimentary language, Maciek had a thought about something else. “Okay,” he said, “what do you call the thing that you install on a house, it’s a long rod, and it’s meant to draw lightning away from the house and ground it.” I guess he could tell from the look on my face, because he broke into a big grin and said, “Don’t tell me it’s called a lightning rod?”
Practically every day now, since I’ve been back in the States for several months, something new springs out at me. “Coat hanger.” “Ceiling fan.” One just hit me today, and once I’d thought about it, it sounded like something a five-year-old would have come up with: “Getaway car.”
Feelings of language inferiority aside, the trip was a joy, and several hours later we pulled into the little station where Maciek’s father Andrzej met us. (Andrzej is the Polish equivalent of Andre, and it’s a little tricky to pronounce correctly. It’s like Andre, but after the “d” there’s a very light “zh” sound. I called him “Mr. Binkowski.”) The four of us piled into his Citroen, and off we went, traveling along much more rural roads than I had experienced thus far. I couldn’t really see much, since it was well past dark, but Mr. Binkowski was very friendly, and with Maciek translating, we chatted comfortably until we got to their house.
Maciek’s mother’s name is Teresa, which isn’t pronounced all that differently from the English name Teresa. She was waiting for us, along with Maciek’s sister Alicja (Ah-LEETS-ia, the Polish equivalent of Alice), Alicja’s husband Rafał, Maciek’s other sister Ewa (AY-va), and Ewa’s boyfriend Dudi. Dudi and I were the only two non-Poles there; he’s Israeli, and while his English was pretty good, he and Ewa communicated primarily in Hebrew, which she speaks fluently. I think Dudi knew about as much Polish as I did.
As soon as I walked in and everyone greeted us, Rafał said, “Maciek, what were you talking about? Dan is very handsome!”
I burst out laughing, along with everyone else, and felt right at home immediately.
Maciek’s parents’ house is a very nice, not overly large, two-story home, with a basement out of which Mr. Binkowski runs his business. Having your business in your home isn’t too uncommon in the States, but I saw it all over the place in Poland. All kinds of businesses, too – Mr. Binkowski sells computer and office supplies, but I also saw auto repair shops and, if I read the sign right, a clothing store.
Maciek told me that his dad had built the house himself, by hand. I’ve heard people here say that, but when they do, what they usually mean is, “I bought all the materials at some place like Home Depot and then assembled them all myself.” Not so with Mr. Binkowski. Polish buildings, houses included, tend to be built out of concrete blocks. None of this wood framing business with brick or stucco or siding on the exterior. No, the walls of Polish structures, both interior and exterior, are usually stacked cinder blocks, and as far as sturdiness goes, they’ve got typical American houses beat hands-down.
But Mr. Binkowski built his place when Poland was still under Communist control, and resources were scarce. What he did have access to were concrete, and some wooden forms for pouring new cinder blocks. So Andrzej Binkowski MADE THE FREAKING BLOCKS HIMSELF and then built his house by hand. Maciek told me he only had one set of forms, so he’d pour some blocks, and when they were dry he’d take them out, pour another set, and lay the first set while the second one was drying. Then take the second set out, pour a third, and so on and so forth.
Building that house took a while. Talk about a labor of love. I was kind of awed.
Over the course of the weekend, the Binkowskis made me feel totally at home and utterly at ease. Mr. Binkowski wanted to know a lot about America, so with Maciek translating, we talked for a good four or five hours, spread over several days. I was more than happy to answer questions about highway speed limits, and gas prices, and the prevalence of firearms, and – this was a popular topic in a lot of places in Poland, actually – America’s involvement in the Middle East.
I’m not a Gulf War scholar. I mean, I have a broad understanding of what’s been going on over there for freaking ever now, but I’m not one to break down every last specific event and cause and effect. I mostly just apologized on behalf of the States for acting on bad information. Mr. Binkowski seemed satisfied with that.
As I’ve mentioned before, Easter in Poland is an EVENT. Mrs. Binkowski basically cooked what we would consider an entire Thanksgiving meal, three times a day, for three days. Well, that’s not completely accurate, because on Sunday we drove waaaaaaay out in the country and had one of those meals at Maciek’s cousins’ place. But breakfast, lunch, and dinner were huge, extravagant, freaking awesome displays of culinary expertise every single day, and I loved it.
When Tracy and I got married, her mom realized that I would eat pretty much anything put in front of me, and that I enjoyed trying new foods. This delighted her. I think Mrs. Binkowski felt much the same way when she saw me eat. Everything she brought out of the kitchen I was eager to try, and from Friday through Sunday, I just tucked my ears back and dove into Polish cuisine.
Some of the dishes were familiar to me, and would not have been at all out of place at any American holiday meal. Maciek and I actually helped in the preparation of a huge batch of bacon-wrapped chicken wings, which came out perfectly, if I do say so myself.
Then there were familiar dishes, but done with a Polish flair. At one point, Mrs. Binkowski brought out trays of deviled eggs, but these were deviled eggs topped with items I wasn’t familiar with, and they had been prepared to be gorgeous as well as delicious. I’m serious, these things were art. I almost felt bad eating something that looked that pretty. Not bad enough to keep from eating five or six of them, but almost.
And the pierogies…oh my GOD, the pierogies. (A side note – it irritates a lot of Poles when we refer to these scrumptious little ravioli-like creations as “pierogies,” because the word “pierogi” is plural. The singular is “pieroszka” – peer-OSH-kah. This is probably similar to how Italians feel when we talk about a panini sandwich, since “panini” is Italian for “sandwiches.”) I had eaten some authentic Polish pierogi in a restaurant in the Wrocław city center, but the ones Mrs. Binkowski prepared were really REALLY authentic, and I literally lost count of how many she made that weekend. At least three hundred. They went fast. You can stuff pierogi with a dazzling array of different ingredients, but I think my favorite kind was the most traditional: potatoes and onions. Amazing.
But then the food veered off into completely unfamiliar territory, which made me the most excited. One of the dishes, the name of which I don’t recall, was a savory gelatin-mold type thing made with chicken broth, in which several different kinds of vegetables and chunks of chicken were suspended. I guess it was sort of like chicken soup Jell-O, served cold, in individual serving-sized molds. I ate mine with gusto.
The most intriguing of the new foods, though, was a dish called “bigos” – BEE-goss. It was a little bit like cole slaw in consistency, but served hot, and was made from fermented cabbage, sausage, and forest mushrooms. I loved the bigos. As I was spooning out my third helping, I said, “I cannot stop eating bigos,” which got a big laugh from the table. This was on Sunday. That will become important later.
Also, on Sunday, I learned what Easter baskets are actually for.
Now, in the States, Easter has always been a confusing holiday. Yes, we all know it represents the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but just as prevalent in the public awareness is the Easter Bunny – a sort of mascot, I guess? – and Easter eggs, which you’re supposed to decorate and then hide so that children can try to find them.
Why? Who knows?
What exactly do rabbits and eggs have to do with Christ’s resurrection? No one ever explained it to me. But I did get an Easter basket every year, to put all the eggs in that I found during the Easter egg hunt. And also to put candy in, because kids get a lot of candy on Easter. For some reason.
No, none of that makes any sense. (I suspect the rabbit and the eggs are there because Easter takes place around the time of a pagan springtime fertility festival, and how better to represent fertility and new life than rabbits and eggs, but I haven’t done any research on that, because I’m kind of lazy.)
In Poland, on the other hand, the Easter basket is where you put small samples of the foods you gave up for Lent. You then carry the basket to a church, where a priest blesses the food, and you take the blessed food back home and eat it at the beginning of the official Easter Meal on Easter Sunday.
Now THAT makes sense.
I got to carry the basket part of the way to the church.
Anyway. Sunday came to a close, and I crawled in bed in the Binkowskis’ spare room, having done my absolute best to eat everything in sight for the last three days. I was pretty sure that I had gained somewhere between five and ten pounds in one weekend, but I didn’t regret it. Everything was right with the world.
I realized something had gone wrong when I sat down at the breakfast table Monday morning and discovered that I had no appetite. I managed to get down an egg and a piece of toast, but no more than that, and before the meal was even finished, I had to excuse myself and go lie down. My stomach hurt, I was nauseated, my head felt really weird, and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath completely.
The bigos had struck.
I think the Binkowskis were sort of incredulous, to begin with, when I didn’t want to get out of bed. I had been perfectly healthy the whole weekend, walking around town and having animated conversations and, as I’ve mentioned before, eating everything in sight. Now, all of a sudden, I’m complaining of not feeling all that great and actually turning down food. They probably just thought I had some indigestion.
The first hint they had that something was actually wrong was when Maciek walked into the spare room where I was stretched out on the bed and said, “Why did you bring that bucket in here?”
I tried to explain that I was feeling rotten and nauseated, and that I was afraid I might need the bucket, even though the downstairs half-bath was only a few paces from my door. Maciek might have thought I was being dramatic.
After about an hour, though, when I failed to get out of bed, Alicja brought me a thermometer and said, “Here, let’s see what your temperature is.”
Now, everything I had encountered in Poland to this point had been just as advanced and modern as the stuff I deal with in the States, if not a bit more so. But it was still a foreign country, and it’s not as though I had comprehensive knowledge about the way every last thing was done there. So when I said, “Um…and that’s…an oral thermometer?” what I was desperately thinking was, “Please don’t let that be a rectal thermometer!”
Alicja gave me a funny look and said, “No, you put it under your arm.”
That was a huge relief, even though I was acutely embarrassed (about avoiding a different kind of acute embarrassment).
Anyway, she handed me the thermometer and left. I dutifully tucked it into my armpit, waited till it beeped, and while I was squinting at the reading, Maciek walked back in. “So,” he said cheerfully, “what does it say?” I’m pretty sure he was expecting to hear that my temperature was totally normal and that I’d be hopping out of bed shortly.
I’m terrible at Fahrenheit-to-Celsius conversion. I know 20°C is a pleasant spring day, and that 0°C is freezing and 100°C is boiling, but beyond that I get kind of lost. So when I said, “39,” I wasn’t really sure what I was saying.
Maciek’s smile disappeared in a hurry. He took the thermometer from me and said, “That’s…not good! That’s serious!” He left to tell the rest of the family that something actually was wrong with me.
The rest of Monday is kind of hazy. At some point, I got moved from the spare room into one of the upstairs bedrooms, because Eva and Dudi had to go back to Israel and left the room vacant. “Besides,” Maciek told me, “it’s a nicer room, you’ll be more comfortable there.” I wasn’t really comfortable anywhere, but I didn’t argue.
What I most wanted to do, as I recall, and not to be overly graphic, was bring back up everything I had eaten. Not just from that weekend, either. I had the urge to spew everything I had swallowed for the last month. My stomach desperately wanted to engage in some vigorous spring cleaning…but I couldn’t. I tried, several times, either leaning over the bucket or stumbling to the bathroom, but alas, all my heaves were dry.
The same cannot be said for things moving in the opposite direction. My gastro-intestinal tract seemed to have taken on a mind of its own, and its fondest wish was to spend as much time attached to the porcelain throne as possible. I gained a new appreciation for Polish toilet paper.
Maciek and Monika and I were supposed to take the train back to Wrocław on Tuesday, and return to work on Wednesday. By Monday evening, I had started to doubt the practicality of that, but I was trying to sleep as much as possible in hopes of feeling rejuvenated and ready to go Tuesday morning.
Yeah, not so much. Monday night, I experienced something I had never even come close to before: fever dreams. Near as I can tell, from around midnight to about five in the morning, I utterly and totally forgot who I was. All my life I had heard people say they were “out of their heads,” but that night I left my head and didn’t even look back. I became convinced that I was a patient in a huge, Gothic insane asylum, and that the government was using all of us patients as guinea pigs in some kind of secret experiment, and that I had been there for years and had no hope of getting out.
I woke up a little after sunrise, and it took me a solid half-hour to persuade myself that I was just a sick guy lying in a bedroom. If I never have a fever dream again as long as I live, it’ll be too soon.
Maciek and Monika came in to check on me around eight that morning, and when they saw that I wasn’t feeling any better, they decided to call a doctor. I knew something had to be done, but I was still making unpleasantly frequent trips to the loo, and I really didn’t relish being upright and away from the facilities long enough to go and sit in a doctor’s waiting room. Imagine my relief and astonishment when Maciek said, “No, no, don’t worry – the doctor’s coming here.”
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Polish doctors make house calls. It felt like a minor miracle.
Dr. Saleh showed up that afternoon. He was born in Lebanon, but he’d been in Poland for years and spoke Polish fluently, though Maciek did mention he had a fascinating accent. What he did not speak was English, so Maciek stayed in the room with us to translate. Dr. Saleh was, to my eyes, delightfully old-school. He came in with his little black doctor bag crammed full of medicine, and had his stethoscope around his neck, and I think I started feeling better as soon as he walked through the door.
He took my temperature again, and checked my ears and eyes and throat, and at one point started palpating my abdomen while listening to it with the stethoscope. He spoke to Maciek, and Maciek said, “He says your liver is in great shape. You can smoke and drink as much as you’d like. …But he also says you’re too fat and you need to lose weight.”
I tried to sound weary and resigned when I said, “Tak, tak, tak.” I was sort of hoping to make Dr. Saleh laugh, but laugh he did not. Of course, I’ve been told that my American accent makes all my spoken Polish sound sarcastic, so maybe he thought I was blowing him off. I don’t know.
Through Maciek, Doc asked if I objected to getting a shot. I wanted to stop feeling rotten as soon as I possibly could, so I told him I was fine with shots. I was thinking I’d get it in the shoulder, but I should’ve known better; he motioned for me to roll over, pulled down the sweat pants I was using for pajama bottoms, and in went the needle.
So, yeah. Maciek Binkowski saw my butt. That happened.
Anyway, Dr. Saleh also gave me three or four different kinds of medicine to take – painkillers and fever reducers and stuff for my mad dashes to the toilet – all of which he had there in his black bag.
WHY CAN’T DOCTORS IN THE STATES MAKE HOUSE CALLS?? IT WAS AWESOME.
But then he also said that I absolutely should not travel that day, and should only try it the next day if I was feeling much, much better. I thanked him profusely, and he left. I went to sleep.
The rest of Tuesday is blank for me.
I awoke Wednesday morning, after a night of blissfully dream-free slumber, feeling much, much better. I wasn’t at a hundred percent, and when I looked in the mirror, I had gone from my normal milky-pale to something more like translucent, but my stomach had settled down and I was breathing normally again. Mr. and Mrs. Binkowski had been pretty worried about me, I think, and seemed profoundly relieved when I came downstairs and was able to laugh and joke and, most importantly, eat some breakfast.
Eva and Dudi had already left, and while I was asleep, Alicja and Rafał took off as well, so it was just Maciek’s parents I said goodbye to. I thanked them for everything, and reassured them that I was feeling okay, even though Maciek kept joking about having poisoned me. Mrs. Binkowski drove us to the train station, and gave me a big hug before we boarded. I kind of felt like I was leaving a home I hadn’t realized I’d had.
The trip back was uneventful, and my health stayed healthy. I didn’t even have to run to the tiny little bathroom at the end of the train car.
The next day at Techland, I discovered word of my illness had spread. It was pretty obvious something had gone wrong, since I had missed a day of work, but everyone wanted to know exactly what had happened. I told them that I couldn’t be sure, but that I suspected I had picked up some sort of hostile bacterial thing from eating bigos.
To a person, the response I got was, “Oh, you ate bigos? Yeah, that’ll happen.”