Most Poles who work retail speak enough English to fool you. All the normal phrases: â€œWhat would you like?â€ â€œSorry, we donâ€™t have that.â€ â€œSame again?â€ These all come from their mouths with fluency, and they understand most basic phrases tourists would say just as perfectly. As an American traveler with only a limited grasp of Polish, these English sentences can be hallucinatoryâ€”suddenly youâ€™ve found someone who speaks English, and who you can have a conversation with! But once you ask that further, non-commerce related question, the response is invariably, â€œNie rozumiem.â€ [I donâ€™t understand.] or â€œPrzepraszam.â€ [Iâ€™m sorry. or Excuse me.] or â€œNie mowiÄ™ po angielsku.â€ [I donâ€™t speak English.].
So it was that on my third and longest trip to KrakÃ³w, Poland, I found myself hungry for conversation, for connection, for anything. My Polish was (and is) not good, and though I could speak enough to get what I wanted at those places where English wasnâ€™t even a third or fourth language, I was lost in terms of having any sort of conversation with Poles in Polish. Times when I was lucky, Iâ€™d sit close enough to a small group speaking Polish and manageâ€”not to translateâ€”to understand the basic subject of what they were talking about because I could pick out the words wieczor [night] and czwartek [Thursday]. Suddenly I basked in the knowledge that these people were speaking about where they were going to go on Thursday night.
Or that on Thursday night the elections would be taking place.
Or that tonight the guy was going to go out with a girl named Thursday.
I was inordinately proud.
There were days when I would only be speaking English to those in the service industry, those people whose job it is to make you feel welcome, at home, cared for, unworried.
At least, that was my expectation, but in Poland there is no culture of â€œhappyâ€ service people. When you walk into a store, a salesperson doesnâ€™t automatically come up to you and ask what you need, no one says hello, and itâ€™s quite possible you may stand for minutes without any of the people who work there acknowledging your presence. On my first trip to Poland in 2003, my initial shopping experience involved going into a store, being ignored, and leaving, figuring that they clearly didnâ€™t want my business if they didnâ€™t care enough to even see what I wanted.
Later, I found my reaction strange in that Iâ€™m annoyed by the constant hovering that happens in most U.S. stores. If I walk through OfficeMax to buy printer ink, I may be accosted three or four times, even when it should be clear to anyone that my determined stride and fixed direction demonstrates that I know exactly where Iâ€™m going and what Iâ€™m getting.
It is just that, being raised in the U.S., where service involves smiling even if youâ€™re not in a good mood, it took time for me to adjust to the shock of people actually showing their feelings. People in the U.S. food service industry especially, since tips are so important, are trained to smile at veiled insults and excuse bad behavior because the customer is always right and a tip is more likely if the customer believes he or she is always seen as right.
My third time in Poland, I was aware of this difference, and I had mostly grown to appreciate it. I could walk into a store, putz around, not buy anything, and never have to deal with a salesperson who was actively trying to sell me something. Iâ€™ve heard theories that this difference is due to Poland being part of the Soviet Union, and that when the Soviet Union still existed, you didnâ€™t have a choice of what to buyâ€”you had to buy what was available. The people who ran shops were in power, as much as they could be under that system. They didnâ€™t have to be nice to you since they knew, and you knew, that you needed what they had, whatever it was. What this translates to today is the attitude that thereâ€™s no need to try and sell something to the customer, since if the customer wants something, he or she will buy it.
However, thereâ€™s one aspect of commerce where I always look for friendliness: In cafÃ©s. I do most of my work in cafÃ©s, whether writing, grading, reading, watching people, daydreaming, and maybe Iâ€™m getting a little broad in the definition of work here, but the short of it is: I spend a lot of my creative energy in cafÃ©s. I like being surrounded by other people, and I draw energy from noise, from conversations, from the constant flow of people. For all of this, you may have noticed, Iâ€™m mostly an observer. So where does the friendliness I desire come into play?
The direct friendliness I look for is in the staff. I adopt places, grow loyal to them, and hope, through my constant reappearance and attention, that they show some notice back at me. Mostly, thatâ€™s through smiles, or small conversations engendered by the fact that I return every day and stay for hours at a time, but it can also come into play through free stuff or, more treasured, being included in the life of those behind the counter, being in on jokes, a development into proto-friendship.
Iâ€™m not sure if achieving my goal is easier in Poland or the U.S. In the States, the default setting is friendly, and itâ€™s hard to tell whether that friendliness comes from genuine interest or whether itâ€™s a pose, and behind his eyes the counterperson is doing his grocery list or counting the number of pores in my nose. In Poland, the hardship is in reaching a friendly state, since the workerâ€™s job is really just her job, she doesnâ€™t care if you know it, and when the bartenderâ€™s not serving you a drink, sheâ€™ll be playing cards with her co-workers and friends over at the end of the bar. The awareness of friendship is easier in Poland because thereâ€™s not much hiding of emotionâ€”if someone is acting friendly to you, chances are pretty good thatâ€™s because they actually find you interesting.
And I didnâ€™t manage to do that for, say, six of the nine weeks that I was in Poland. Iâ€™d chosen the wrong places to be loyal to. I didnâ€™t speak enough Polish. I wasnâ€™t secure in my writing, in my life, in what the hell I was doing overseas spending money when no job cradled me there and none was promising a warm bed back at home. I was lonely, and loneliness is the mind-killer.
Without a group of friends, without a social life, without even friendly faces who generally seemed pleased to see me upon entering a cafÃ© (â€œHey guys, itâ€™s Norm!â€), I was unprepared for the social and societal shutdown that is Christmas in Poland. A person I had started to talk to on-line, but wouldnâ€™t meet until after the holidays, warned me about Christmas. She told me to stock up on food and drink, everything I would need for three days, since everything closes.
It doesnâ€™t sound like a long time, and itâ€™s really not. But when you go that long without seeing anyone else, the time is interminable. I prepared by buying soups, pierogi that Iâ€™d boil or fry, meat and cheese and bread, and purchasing enough video games to last me through the small hours. I wasnâ€™t sure what to expect: depression, starvation, loneliness. It was the first time Iâ€™d ever spent Christmas away from my family, and the first time Iâ€™d ever spent it alone. I mean, really alone. I mean, everything closes by 5 pm, at the latest, on Christmas Eve, and most places never opened. I walked the streets as they shut themselves down and ran into other foreigners; one large group of German tourists took advantage of the empty streets to be given an undistracted tour of KrakÃ³wâ€™s Old Town. When the light had completely faded and the streets were filled only with the wind, I went back to my rented flat, where it was so cold I either huddled in my bed, reading, or was at the desk on my computer with an electric heater crouched like a dog at my side.
The days passed. I didnâ€™t break down crying. I didnâ€™t lament the fate that left me without friends or family around me. Since it had been my own deliberate choice to go to Poland at this time of the year, lamenting would have simply led to the crying Iâ€™d avoided. I managed to keep busy reading, and playing games, and writing, writing more, almost, than Iâ€™d done since Iâ€™d arrived in KrakÃ³w.
Still, I often found myself looking out the fourth floor window onto the intersection below. The streets were dusted with snow. They were empty under the dayâ€™s gray skies. They were empty under the nightâ€™s streetlights. Every so often Iâ€™d hear voices and see a lone couple. Or a family would be returning by car from an obligatory holiday visit.
I donâ€™t remember leaving my apartment. I barely left the room that held my bed and the desk, except to make food or use the bathroom.
Though I hadnâ€™t thought the solitude bothered me, when the last day of isolation came to a close I was looking forward to sleep, already dreaming of where to go first, and what Iâ€™d eat, and who I might see.
I was eager to get back into the world of the living, the breathing, the everyone-outside-myself. On Thursday, when all avenues of commerce were open again, I laced my boots up, wrapped myself in all two layers of clothing I hadâ€”heavy jacket and t-shirtâ€”and ventured into the world. I said, â€œDzien dobry!â€ [Good day!] and â€œPoprosze to.â€ [I want that.] and â€œJak siÄ™ masz?â€ [How are you?]. Sometimes, fooled by my mastery at pronouncing a few phrases, the tip of a conversation would come tumbling back to me, an incoherent avalanche of syllables that Iâ€™d smile through, happy for any other voice to enter my ears.