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Essential Phrases – part 1 Posted by on Jun 9, 2009 in Culture, Vocabulary

Take any random phrasebook (any language will do) and look inside. You will see a whole bunch of very useful expressions that, no doubt, are essential to your survival in a foreign land.  Phrases such as: “Where is the national museum?” (Yeah right, like you are really going to understand the answer. A lot easier to look up the museum on google maps before you leave home) or “Can I have it in red, please?” (at H&M you can find it yourself, and if you’re the type who frequents high end stores, chances are the staff will speak some English, even in France) or “I’d like to exchange these traveler’s checks” (just use a bank card, will you?).

But one essential phrase is usually missing. It was included in some of the older editions of a certain phrasebook series, along with such useful sentences as: “Do you smoke pot?” and “Where can I buy drugs?” but needless to say, those phrases disappeared from the book’s subsequent printings.

The phrase I am talking about here is “Where is the bathroom?”

I read somewhere it’s one of the most useful phrases that one can (and should) learn in a foreign language. People with PhDs actually had to conduct proper scientific studies to determine that. But that’s people with PhDs for you. They don’t get out much (and I know what I’m talking about, I’m married to one). Because if they had, they would have known just how essential this question is without wasting a truckload of cash in research grants to figure it out.

In English, the question is more or less straightforward. When you ask, “where’s the bathroom?” you can be almost 100% sure you will be directed towards a place featuring a toilet bowl.
But not so in Poland (and many other countries in the world).

If you ask for “bathroom” – łazienka, as in “Gdzie jest łazienka?” (Where’s the bathroom) you may end up in a room with a bathtub and a sink, but not the porcelain stuff you so desperately wanted to use. Because it just so happens, that in most (not all, but in 2 out of 3) Polish flats, a bathroom and a toilet are two separate little kingdoms. One is for washing and baths, and the other – for the other stuff.

So if you want to do the other stuff, ask for “Gdzie jest toaleta?” (Where’s the toilet?).

In public places, if you ask for “łazienka” chances are people will look at you funny. Poles are imprinted to think of “łazienka” as a place where you either wash yourself, or do the wash (that’s where most people have washing machines too – in their bathrooms).

So, in public places, remember to ask “Gdzie jest toaleta?” and get some small change ready. Yes, in many places in Poland you have to pay for the privilege of doing your business. The going rate seems to be 2,50PLN these days. Though I’ve seen a 3PLN toilet too, somewhere in Warszawa, I think.

If there are polite Polish euphemisms for the place, such as “restrooms” or “ladies’ room” in English, I can’t think of any right now. I’m sure that our awesome readers will chime in with something, but remember – I said “polite” euphemisms. Because “gdzie jest kibelek?” (where’s the loo), and the like, are not what I had in mind. OK?

PS. Yes, you can also say “Gdzie jest WC?” but remember to say “WC” the Polish way – “voo-tse”.

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  1. isabella:

    I remember using “ubikacja” as a child. Is it no longer a polite term?

  2. Kuba:

    I remember the term ‘wychodka’ was used when I grew up years ago.

  3. pinolona:

    Yes and then you have to work out whether you’re a circle or a triangle! Very tricky to remember to begin with 🙂

    (ps I asked for the ubikacja on a Ukrainian night bus once and nobody seemed offended. Needless to say, there wasn’t one)

  4. michael:

    When I found one I was asked pisuar or the other option which I don’t remember, pisuar was cheaper than the other option :-), 2 different rates.

    What is the other option? Thanks.

  5. pinolona:

    ‘pisuar’ is from the French ‘pissoir’, and for some reason I have never been offered this option. Although if it’s cheaper, I may try to persuade the pani at the gate to let me through – I hate paying to use the loo, what else are you supposed to do?!

    I guess if we’re going the French way, logically Option 2 would be lej szyjot…

  6. Michal M:

    You don’t hear this word used too often in this sense these days, so asking for the location of the “ustęp” usually will get a chuckle or an odd glance 🙂

  7. Margaret Phillips:

    Just picking up on the idea that if you ask, “Where’s the bathroom?” in English, 100% would understand. In the United Kingdom, most of us (but probably not 100%) would just about realise you mean the toilet, but here too, the facilities are not always together and we would definitely think of “Where’s the bathroom?” as an amusing, quaintly shy way of asking, peculiar to the US – ( and Canada?) We usually do ask “Where’s the toilet?” – or loo, as you pointed out. There is also the old-fashioned, “Where can I spend a penny?”, relating to the days we had to pay too. Paying is not peculiar to Poland, it’s common all over Europe, including a few places still in Britain.