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Overhearing Polish Posted by on Jan 24, 2009 in Culture

My trip to the islands (and I don’t mean the UK and Ireland here, though we did stop in London briefly) was delightful. I didn’t want to come back home. And Mister has started making plans of quitting the life as we know it and starting a new one on the beach in Antigua. Or maybe in St. Lucia. Or St. Kitts. He hasn’t made up his mind yet.

Normally, during my travels, I always run into some Polish people somewhere. Be it in Kolkata, or in Nepal, or in Dubai, or anywhere pretty much including Bhutan, there are fellow Poles to be met along the way. But not this time. In the Caribbean the closest to Polish that we got was a Slovakian wife on vacation with her British husband.

London, on the other hand, even though we only transferred between Heathrow and Gatwick felt just like Poland.

I have a confession to make here. I’ve never actually been to the UK. Back in the olden days I used to change planes at Heathrow every now and then, but that was it. And this time I’m not sure if commuting between Heathrow and Gatwick actually counts as “being” in the UK. Technically maybe – yes. But only technically.

Still, both airports felt oddly familiar. Polish could be heard everywhere. Now, I knew there were a lot of Poles working in the Kingdom, but I’d never realized just how many.

The woman at the Scandinavian Airlines desk, Agnieszka, upon seeing my passport the first question she asked was “Pani mówi po polsku?” But because I didn’t feel like translating for my husband I told her to continue in English.

The girl at Krispy Kreme, Monika didn’t say anything at all (at least not to me) when I pointed at the donut I wanted. She was too busy talking on the cellphone.

The waiter at Ponti’s, Łukasz was simply delightful. He owned the floor. He sashayed (because saying that he “walked” would be an injustice) between the tables and chatted with everyone in that curious mixture of Polish and English: “Proszę Pani… errrr… Madam, your coffee już coming.” We left him a nice tip. He was fun.

There were Polish women working everywhere, in every store and café and behind every counter, or so it seemed. There were Polish guys (many of them in hard hats) walking back and forth.

What surprised me was how careless they were when it came to talking about others in Polish. With almost a million Poles in the UK, don’t they think that some of their customers, even if they appear to be speaking English, might actually be able to understand them? That’s what happened at one of the places, which mercifully will remain nameless.

We couldn’t quite decide what we wanted and the girl behind the counter was getting restless. She had to momentarily pause the conversation with her co-worker and was not happy about it. When we finally made our selection and were about to pay, she remarked to her colleague, “No w końcu! Daj tej babie resztę i niech spierdala.” (Finally! Give this broad her change so she can get the hell out of here.) And then turning to me with a big smile on her face she added, “anything else?”

Needless to say, I gave her a piece of my mind. Po polsku.
What would you have done?

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  1. Ashley Moran:

    Haha, nice post. I think I would have been happy just letting her know I knew what she’d said. But I’ve had a similar experience, meeting Poles at random pretty much everywhere I go (mainly North-West England). Hopefully soon my vocabulary will extend far enough beyond the “k” word to know what they are saying 🙂

  2. Barb Lomnicki:

    Toronto boasts a population of about 150,000 people with origins from Poland. I think you can safely estimate at least another 50,000 people who, though born here, understand the language. Visitors from Poland don’t seem to understand that speaking in Polish does not provide then with some veil of secrecy when “sharing” disparaging remarks. I regularly give people dirty looks on the subway or other public places. To answer your question, I would have most definitely given that young lady a piece of my mind.

  3. Patricia:

    I think you should have given the girl a piece of your mind,In a nice way.
    She was rude to say something like that and then be nice.
    How sneaky.

  4. Anna O.:

    Well, Anna you are very streetwise lady. I am sure you will not withhold the you understand Polish nevermore.I imagine how did you feel after this (in fact unpleasant)comment.
    Anyway thank you for translate this comment.:)

  5. Anna:

    Hi Anna O,
    I normally make it very obvious that I understand Polish, in this case however, I was with someone who didn’t, and I thought it was only polite to continue in English, so he could understand me.

    Hi Barb!
    This used to happen in SA all the time. A couple of times it even happened to me the other way round, but at least I wasn’t saying anything disparaging at the time. LOL!

    Hi Patricia,
    that’s exactly what my guy does when people say something thinking he can’t understand them. He somehow managed to be polite about it, I’m the one who normally explodes.

  6. Lori:

    Hi, I love your blog. It helps me understand a great deal about how Polish works. I’m going back to Poland for the sixth time next summer as a volunteer English teacher. Your point about overhearing Polish is well taken. I often caution “all-knowing Americans” about not assuming Polish people can’t understand English. I remember one day driving to a school, and a person who has lived an urban environment all his life began making very critical remarks about the Polish farming methods. I kept responding back trying to refute his points — he was wrong, I’m an Iowa farm girl– and besides how did he know our driver did not understand English?

  7. Bronwyn Klimach:

    Every so often I understand one of these blogs 😉
    I have sisters-in-law who speak Polish together. I understand none of it – so why at times when I am around do they need to WHISPER????
    Hope you enjoyed your brief ‘visit’ to London and are inspired to return and see the many sites of interest on my doorstep.
    Kind regards,

  8. michael:

    I wouldn’t have commented on what she said, I would have been happy that I understood it but angry. I have been in a similiar situation at work but said nothing, my understanding of Polish woudln’t be so good anyway that I could accuse someone with 100% certainty that they said x, y or z.

    It is easy to be angry in a situation like this but it is complicated I think, she may have been only saying something that reflected her friends thoughts on customers in general etc.

    At the end of the day she behaved as well as the other people working in the airport except was silly enough to assume that you didn’t understand polish. Were the other people in the airport just smarter?

  9. tikula:

    Wow, that was just bad >.>
    Heh, but I’m really happy you said something to her. It’s so sad that people abroad start to connect Poles with rudeness… And the ‘k’ word too.

  10. Tina:

    I have a great way of handling situations like this. I say nothing about how rude they are. I merely thank them and wish them a good day in Polish.

    When I was a teenager, I rode the bus to town one day in Wilmington Delaware. There were two Polish women gossiping behind me. I had not idea about whom they were talking. I decided to have some fun. When I got up to get off the bus, I wished them a good day just before, walking out the door behind them. I looked back at them, and the mortified look on their face made my day. 🙂

    It fun to be polite to rude people.