Monday, 26 November 2007
Thursday, 15 November 2007
This is by far one of the most difficult, abstract and enjoyable projects I have ever undertaken. The following written documentation is a crude catalogue from a week of filming and production that has taken me from far South Eastern Poland to the capital of Slovakian Republic via Warsaw.
This city is by no standard the most desirable location for ‘Native English’ speakers (or so I had assumed), and so I was more than surprised to find a satisfied, contempt and cooperative team of staff in one of the oldest and largest language schools in the city. I checked into a budget hotel I found on the Rynek for twenty six zloty (about five pounds) a night and made my way to the YES School of English, which is located just off of the central high street. I was immediately welcomed by the Polish and English staff, who provided me with a program of lessons and interviews I would be able to shoot during my stay. After three solid interviews, filming a teenage intermediate group and devouring a cold egg sandwich, I made my way to the city centre and experienced what Rzeszow has to offer in the way of evening entertainment. It was not long before I came across a group of students in a local bar who were more than happy to express their feelings on film towards the city, as well as exposing their true, and rather expletive, emotions towards the governing Kaczynski duo.
Day two in Rzeszow was also most productive, after meeting with another native English speaker by mistake in a coffee bar I made my way back to the school where I interviewed a thoroughly interesting chap from Brighton who had found his way, almost by fluke, to this almost unnoticed Polish city. I then captured an EFL class with a group of army officers, then with a group of ten-year-old children after mingling with the staff and harassing everybody I met with my camera. It seems that whatever your position, whether it be director of studies, rookie teacher or documentary maker passing through, staff room etiquette is the same everywhere; as long as you speak to everybody at least once a day, you can feel comfortable with your social status…
I am still working one day a week at a private school in Bochnia and so there was reasoning behind my returning to Bochnia for one day, other than being utterly knackered. The cheapness of my Rzeszow hostel was reflected in the state of the bathrooms and bed sheets. I suppose I managed three or four hours sleep in the place, needless to say the one day I spent back at home was sorely needed.
Capital (Big and Grey)
Four hours on the train is all it took from my blustery hometown to the misty city of Warsaw. Upon arriving I made my way immediately to the Lingwista School HQ where I met with a most humble gent for an extensive interview before I checked into the Oki Doki hostel in the centre of the city. I was given a half an hour margin between checking in and interviewing the next teacher, enough time to cram a fistful of aspirin into my chops and munch on a cheese roll. The second interview at Lingwista also went very well, as did my meeting with the Director of Studies, who drove me to another branch of the school and gave me permission to interview her and then to film her class. She even drove me back to the hostel where I indulged in casual conversation and beer quaffing with three astounding Brits and a lady from Canada. Sleep on night one at the Oki Doki was sporadic.
I am currently learning how to speak Thai. Ipods are fascinating things in that music seems to have been pushed to one side, at least in my playlists, to make room for audio learning and debate programmes. During this trip however, I rekindled my love for combining stroll and song. While walking around Warsaw on my second day I filmed all over the city to the sounds of Death From Above 1979 and Tom Mcrae, which both made far more than ample companions as my new boots carved pretty new shapes into my feet. As daylight turned I made my way back to Lingwista where I met with yet another bubbly soul; I shot my first interview in Polish and then filmed her elementary adults class, which looked most dynamic on screen. With my ticket purchased for Bratislava the next day and my bag full of footage I made my way back to the hostel to indulge in social delicacy. Travelling the world, in a modern science, is a strange thing, or so I gather from the people I have met thus far. It seems common to spend just two days in one place at a time before moving on elsewhere and doing the same thing over again. I do not have a clue what this is.
The latest addition to the dorm I stayed in was a fellow from Belgium who I would pitch at being the same age as myself. We instantly began talking about Soulwax and I received an invitation to a private Polish party across the other side of town. We took a tram into the suburbs and met with his friends who shared their vodka with unholy pace. Two bottles later and we all darted back into town and swung by Bar Hotel and then to the Lemon Club. Daft conversation, swappings of email and sickly coloured cocktails glued the festivities together like animal mash to the spine of a good news Bible. I woke up with a start, bid my Flemish friend adjure and made my way to the station.
Capital (Small and White)
Worn and full of glee with my wallet full of pieces of paper inked with address and telephone numbers, I got to the station with twenty minutes to spare. My train took me southwest through Katowice and then the Czech Republic where I had to switch trains. It was there I met my only friend in the world from Kansas; we got the same train to Bratislava and made it to our Hostel by nine p.m. Upon throwing my bag down and getting acquainted with the receptionist, my new Kansasian chum and I made our way to a lively sports bar for some cheap food; after sampling a pint or two of Slovak beer we decided to have a brief stroll through the city. Bratislava is a very small place, and so when we came across a rowdy bunch of fat English thugs shouting and starting fights with the locals, my impression of the city did lessen. There should be some sort of restriction as to who should be allowed to travel to beautiful places such as this, surely. The clumsy ranting of these English morons ruffled my feathers in such away I almost felt like heading straight back to the hostel and avoiding the city centre at night entirely. I have nothing against taking advantage of cheap European beer and gloriously poised city streets, but surely an element of respect needs to be taken into account. It is not difficult to assume a factor of admiration for foreign culture and tradition, so getting mind mental drunk and brawling, abusing and fighting the locals should just not be on the cards. Damn you filthy brutes to hell, may your skin burn and blister while you writhe on your beer bellies in the ashes of my scorn for disrespect and racism.
We made our way instead to a bar just outside of the city centre where we met a Slovakian girl and a Polish girl who were drinking together. We quickly became chums and after another couple of drinks we paraded through the streets, speaking in Slovakian, Polish and English about how lucky we are to live in a time where the opportunity to meet and converse with people from all walks of life has been made so easy by cheap travel and easy-pass border control. And so we did drift from club to club, singing songs and cracking wise ones. The girls invited us to see 50 Cent in a couple of days. The gun toting rapper was playing in Bratislava as part of his European tour; it would have indeed been a sight to see. I got back to the hostel around five a.m. and I slept a few hours before rising and trailing the city for footage. The snow did fall in Bratislava, coating the pristine and glamorously twee city centre with a glistening white topping. I shot about an hour of footage and made my way back to the hostel in the evening where I met a chap from Brazil who was touring Europe. He was only in Bratislava for one night and so I invited him for some traditional Slovakian food at a restaurant in the town. We ate rice and vegetables, speaking about Sao Paulo and the English language, Brazil sounds like a fascinating place. After finishing our meal I turned down the offer of beer as my guts where still recovering and I made my way to the cinema across the other side of the Danube where I caught a late night showing of the latest Stephen King adaptation ‘1408’. It unsettled me. After walking for two hours in search of a school that is not even located in the capital, I found myself taking a bus once again across the Danube to the Bratislava School of Law. The school specialises in teaching English to students of Law and Mass Media, and the classes I shot and teachers I interviewed proved fascinating. Slovakian people seem to be most kind and open, which contrasted slightly with my opinion that they would be similar to the majority of Poles. Upon filming a presentation in the Mass Media English class, I received an invitation from a young Slovakian lady to join her and some friends for some traditional food at a bar in the centre after I finished filming for the day. I accepted the offer and soon found myself dining on ‘Haluszki’ with a most interesting group of lasses from all over the country. We spoke most of the time in English as the differences in Polish and Slovakian are more common than I might like to believe. My new chums invited me to stay at their flat as they had a spare room and so after gathering my belongings from the hostel I took a bus across town and found myself drinking mulled wine, smoking cigarettes and discussing Pete Doherty with five fine examples of the Slovakian Republic. We drank till midnight and listened to The Fugs, My Bloody Valentine and The Moulettes before falling deep into the arms of slumber.
I awoke at half past six and caught a bus back into the centre with one of my new companions, I made my way to Axxent school after grabbing a coffee and a fresh salad baguette and shot my first double interview. The director of studies and the school director along with her pet hound made fantastic subject matter and were a real pleasure to work with. It was a pity the second school I visited in the afternoon were in fact not ready for my arrival and could provide me with only one chetny teacher for the documentary. I was instead taken to dinner with the DOS, a lovely Slovakian lady who, although deemed me a weirdo for not eating meat, took me to a wonderful Indian vegetarian restaurant for something scrumptious. She apologised profusely for the mix up with the teachers and wished me luck as I left for the train station.
Shoulder Deep Within the Borderline
The journey back to Bochnia took twelve hours. I had to travel all over Slovakia and change trains at Kosice where I met a young Ukrainian girl with a hearing aid. We got a carriage together and although she was unable to speak English or Polish, and I unable to speak Ukrainian or German (her second language), we spoke for an hour. God knows what about. We sprawled and slept on the lengthy cushioned seats until we got to the Slovakian/Polish border. I have never seen such an unnecessarily shocking display of authority upon crossing the borderline. That poor Ukrainian girl was forced to empty everything out of her luggage, have the guards frisk her and go through her wallet, they asked her all sorts of mad questions which I had to translate to her with the little Ukrainian I could muster and then they took her into the next carriage where they grilled her, asked her to remove her jumper and then let her hair loose to match her passport photo… all this because she had no return ticket to Kiev. She spoke no Polish and was unable to respond to the power tripping guards who swore at her and grunted in her face when she did not understand. After half an hour of interrogation they decided she was allowed to cross and we continued our journey. She locked our carriage door and I went to sleep, setting my alarm for half past four in the morning. When the time came, I got my coat on and was challenged with the task of waking my new Ukrainian friend. She was sleeping on the chair opposite me and did not respond to my shouting her name. Instead I had to strategically nudge her arm until she woke, this was most awkward and I think I scared the Hell out of her but she had asked me to wake her as to not leave her sleeping alone in an open carriage… fair. I told her one-day I would make a short film about our journey and I left.
I got home at five twelve a.m. and slept until it was time to get up and teach. I made my way to work and taught for five and a half hours straight with no break. It was all a bit of a blur. Next week I am flying to Thailand. There are plenty of press releases out and about now as to my plans, courtesy of TEFL.net
Sunday, 11 November 2007
…I comprehended this advice while on my way to England this weekend for a family engagement. The chance to reflect on my thoughts was then fattened after I missed my flight back to Poland on Sunday after a nasty car crash on the M25 caused me to be four minutes late for check in. “There is no one that can help you now”, the overly pronounced and proud words from the stretched lass at the help desk still echo internally.
I woke up this morning dishevelled and wry, the pizza boxes from last nights random junk food binge laid scattered and torn on the work surface and the bag of milk in the fridge smelled like butter beans. The next few weeks are going to be intense and I will need to tidy up both my act and my kitchen if they are to go well. I took the mini bus into Krakow after corresponding with various language schools and affiliates in Slovakia, my next port of call across the border, and met with my subject for the day. It is not often that one meets a TEFL teacher of such great experience and practice who finds Krakow to be an uncomfortable place to work, so I suppose my new companion is an exception. The interview went more than swimmingly as we sat on the Planty around the back of the market square surrounded by brown and burgundy leaves. I was reminded as to the reasons I became so excited with TEFL in the first place and as to just how knowledgeable and spruce the industry can make a person, should they chose to take full advantage of their position that is. The film project has really started to grip me, and interviews such as today's truly punctuate my reasoning behind working on this project.
Sunday, 4 November 2007
To me: ‘I don't know how much you know about Cactus TEFL, but we are a TEFL course admissions and advisory service. We get a lot of enquiries from people who are new to EFL and want information on teaching in specific countries. I am putting together 'country profiles' that will feature on the website, and would really like one for Poland. I have attached one that I wrote based on my experiences in Italy so that you can have a look.’
From me: ‘Your project sounds very interesting and I would have no problem writing a profile for your website. I will try and get it done today but its a bit manic at the moment so it might not be ready until Monday or Tuesday, is that okay?’
To me: ‘Thanks so much for this, it's perfect! I really appreciate it.’
From me: ‘The article looks good! Would there be any chance I could get my name on there somewhere?’
To me: ‘I can certainly understand why you would want a mention on the profile and feel a little awkward about saying no, but we discussed mentioning contributors when we began this project and decided that for several reasons it wasn’t really viable. Perhaps I should have made this clear when you agreed to write something for us. .apologies for this.’
The article can be found here: http://www.cactustefl.com/jobs/TEFL/poland_info.php
Please email me with your interpretations as to what you think the moral behind this story is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, 21 October 2007
The pending chance of sponsorship for the documentary project on TEFL teaching has got me all flummoxed and curious. Since leaving Future Planet I have not had to deal with the tribulations of film sponsorship without the backing and support of my experienced colleagues. The drafting of contracts, the intricate detail and the eagerness to get started are driving me to work and spend hard on my new project, so much so that for the past fortnight, I have been unable to spend much time away from my video camera and edit studio.
It is not very often that friends and relatives are able to take the time from work and come and visit the salty baron lands of Bochnia, the bustling jerk of Krakow seems to have much greater appeal, and so when three old chums from Southend came to visit this week, I was more than disappointed to only be able to spend one evening with them in the twilight of the city. So fractured was I from a week of darting back and forth from place to place, shooting interviews, gallivanting around classrooms and pursuing new subject matter that I decided the weekend should serve only as an adventure and I should free myself from the clutches of the film project and the now monotonous traits of Bochnia.
I awoke on Saturday morning at six a.m. with a slight hangover and a bad idea. Without paying much attention to the temperature or my agenda, I packed a bag and threw some water on my face while ranting about my desperation to cross the Polish border for the weekend. My weary companion, still awash in the bliss of sleep, followed me graciously to the kitchen and joined me for a cup of tea. To say that I had thought my plans through logically would be a down right lie, but Joanna seemed to see some logic behind my rambling and agreed to join me on an escapade to Krakow in an attempt to find a bus that may take us to a foreign destination. It wasn’t until we opened the door that we realised Jack Frost had been in the night and had left more than his standard October snail trial. The ground was covered in glistening white mounds of snow, diaphanous and smooth like large piles of cotton wool. We walked down to the city centre and jumped on a minibus to Krakow, as usual our transport was rammed with people and we were forced to stand in our winter clothes and with our pack backs stapled to our torsos, this made it almost impossible to eat the two drozdzowkas we had bought for breakfast and so the one hour journey proved an immediate challenge to our agenda. I was however able to manoeuvre my body in such a way that I could squirm round and plug myself into my iPod as to not have to listen to the tired and bloated sounds of RMF FM which boomed at full volume around the minibus. I drowned the sounds of Polish election campaigning and sloppy remixes of solo Freddy Mercury songs with the latest ‘65DaysOfStatic’ album, which proved a dazzling platform to my inner monologue of complaint regarding just how troublesome it is to travel from this supposed commuter town to the nearest city.
We arrived in Krakow dishevelled and hungry, we munched on our breakfast and grabbed take away lattes from the Dworzec PKS café. Joanna spotted a bus leaving from Krakow in twenty minutes, which was bound for a small town on the south central Polish border. I have been to Cieszyn before and have revelled at the ease of crossing the border with no queuing or stupid questions, the transformation of Polish Cieszyn to Czech Cieszyn is an amazing thing to experience and worth the journey alone, and so with a little persuasion on my part, we decided to board the bus and take the three hour trek to the border.
The road works outside of Krakow are indeed dire at the present moment, and crossing the bridge to get over the Wisła is a gruelling task. The bus jerked and pulled back and forth for thirty minutes before we even left the city boundary, and once again I must confess that if it were not for the frivolous audio pleasure of my iPod, I would have become increasingly bitter with frustration. This time however, we were able to sit for the duration of our journey, taking pity on those that had to stand, but appreciating their patience. The sporadic and spicy sounds of ‘Love is Simple’, the new album by Akron/Family made the journey glide by peacefully, the gorgeous and confused genre bending of their music combined with the scenic snow covered views of the passing mountains, reminded the twisted cynic in me that not every journey comprises of sweating, heavy, air tight vertical abstractions through grazing traffic.
We arrived in Cieszyn exactly four and a half hours after departing the house in Bochnia. Although we had been sitting down for the last three hours, we both felt extremely tired and ready to find a warm place to sit and drink more coffee. The typical picturesque Rynek on the Polish side of the border was almost empty, which made for a nice photo opportunity and a banana break. We circled the market square hand in hand, marvelling at the brave gent sitting lonesome on a bench in the corner with a fistful of crumbs and a map full of hungry pigeons. The city was indeed so quiet that it came as a surprise to find that the Tourist Information booth was still, a nimble little Polish lady handed us a free map of the area and gave us directions to the train station on the Czech side of the border. She told us that Prague is beautiful by night and if we want to make the most of our journey into the country we should make our way to the capital.
I am an awkward man. For some reason I find it difficult to accept that the capital of a country is the most worth while place to be, this may be due to my jilted attitude towards London, it may be due to my several experiences abroad, or it may be due to the pretentious artist in me that just wants to do everything differently from everybody else. Nevertheless, baring the old ladies advice in mind we took to a small café on the road to the border, the eerie rhythmic keyboard noises gracefully protruding from the stereo had an immediate impact on us both and we agreed that we should proceed to grab a table. We found ourselves sitting on a pair of exceedingly comfortable armchairs at a mahogany table with the sun pouring through the large windows at the front, the coffee tasted good and the slender slim cigarettes we smoked made us feel like we were trapped in a Leonard Cohen song. We discussed our options, either way we were going to Czech but whether we should hit the capital or try something different was still a decision to be made. Upon leaving the café, we walked straight to the border, which is located on a bridge just off of the central avenue of the small city. We crossed with no problems and in a matter of seconds we noticed the dramatic change in scenery, the shops were more rustic and slight, the people were speaking a new foreign tongue and the streets even smelled different. This was mostly due to the sudden increase in Vietnamese restaurants about the place, filling the air with the juicy smell of fried vegetables and noodle dishes.
We walked the streets and located the Rynek, if anything the Czech side of the border was quieter than the Polish side, the cobbled streets and colourful residential buildings and clothes shops gave off an appealing and almost clay like feel, as if they had been built simply for the purpose of being. All the shops and market stalls were closed and so we decided that although we had completed our mission and crossed the border, we were not far enough into the country. We traced the rough guide we received from the small Polish lady at the TI and found ourselves at a rather sober looking Dworzec. The ladies at the ticket office were remarkably helpful and for some reason I was able to understand more of their language than Joanna. They informed me of a city about fifty kilometres from here that was well worth seeing. We got ourselves a pair of tickets and danced around the one swaying drunkard, spinning on the floor in a purple anorak. The train arrived soon afterwards and we were able to clamber aboard out of the bitter cold and take refuge next to an elderly Czech couple who looked on in curiosity as I pulled the Jon Snow biography ‘Shooting History’ out of my bag. Joanna plugged herself into the iPod and the train took us part of the way on our journey to Ostrawa, the third largest city in the country.
To get there we would have to change trains again at Ostrava-Kuncice and board the waiting train straight to the city. The lady checking the tickets, like all of the Czech people we had met so far, told us that she spoke Polish and then proceeded to speak to us in her native tongue, the languages are indeed similar but without a little preparation and advanced warning, it can be awkward. We managed to gather from the inspector that our train would be waiting on the platform as soon as we arrived at the next station and we would have to jump on it as fast as possible! This was made easier by her opening the door and almost shoving us out onto the platform at the appropriate time and the second train carried us the additional two stations to Ostrava hl.n. Upon arrival we journeyed straight to the city centre, passing through the airport-like train station and travelling the two-kilometre stretch to the Rynek. When we finally got there, I found myself to be too hungry to be taken back by the abundance of modern buildings splintered around the fabulous surrounding Czech architecture. Instead we headed to a large ‘nighthawk’ style restaurant tucked away in the corner of the Rynek. We were greeted by a bubbly bouncing Czech lady in a red, white and black frock, she spoke little Polish or English but made us feel extremely welcome, granting us a free pint each with our supremely crafted pizza. After wolfing down forty inches of stuffed crust delight, we asked the waitress if she could point us in the direction of the nearest hotel or hostel. She told us, or at least I think she told us, it would be tricky to find somewhere and we would have to take a tram to get anywhere suitable. We then proceeded to pay our bill and walk another two kilometres in the wrong direction after getting some dodgy instructions from a receptionist at the Imperial Hotel who tried to charge us one hundred and seventy Euros for a night. Our stroll through the city's industrial estate proved uneventful and frightening, when we finally came across a struck old gent who could point us in the right direction, it was gone eight o’clock and I was ready for bed. Upon finding a suitable hotel however, my mood did so rapidly change from bloated and pragmatic sleep face to primitive prancing party gazelle.
We found the Trio Hotel situated in the middle of a self proclaimed ‘party district’, smitten in every direction with over sixty pubs and nightclubs. We checked into our hotel and took a disco nap before chatting to the reception staff about the city. A gent in his early twenties with a tribal tattoo all up his forearm and a head full of spiked black hair, told us that this was the city all the Czech people from Prague come to to get away from the tourists and the staggering inflation of alcohol. He said that it was rare to find a Brit in these waters and that I should be pleased to be here, for this is one of the few untapped party resources of the Czech Republic. I paid the hotel bill of thirty seven pounds and went back to our giant apartment suite to locate Joanna. She was watching Czech TV on the couch and ready to hit the town.
We visited several bars up and down the strip, we danced to Flogging Molly in an Irish bar, unwound to smooth jazz at the Acid Club and jumped about like infants to Drum N Bass at The Sherlock Holmes Pub. The drink correlated with the modest price of our hotel room, the maximum we paid for a gin and tonic was one pound ten pence, while the Staropramen and Radagast flowed at way under a pound a pint. The most shocking factor of our radiant and financially comforting spree was that we heard no English or Polish outside of our own conversations. This seemed to be utterly bizarre when reflecting on the hordes of English that swarm to Krakow for cheap stag weekends and the like. How long will it be before Ostrava also becomes a playground hotspot for drunken revelry at the hands of the Brits and the Poles alike? Only time will tell.
In the mean time we managed to do the party district justice, we hit several bars and clubs and we managed a little dancy dancy to top it all off. Although our hotel was cheap, it was in the centre of the action and we were unfortunately reminded of our location throughout the duration of the night. We managed to get our heads down at some point in the small hours, and our slumber was only disturbed at around eight o’clock by my mobile alarm after we agreed to get up early and take some photos of the city as evidence before leaving for Poland by train. We checked out and circled the city once again armed only with a digital camera, the walk back to the train station proved a pleasure and the eleven pound Euro City ticket back to Poland proved a sexy reminder as to just how little money our random excavation had cost us. The train took us straight to Katowice where we changed for Krakow and found ourselves back on the Bochnia bus in no time. With buckets of minutes to spare, Joanna placed her vote in the town centre before we headed back home for some cous cous and onions.
By the time we got back it was around half past seven and we were both a little on the tired side. The journey was a beautiful statement as to just how easy it is to travel around Europe and the incredible adventures that the Central Eastern faction has to offer. As I write this, the ballots are being counted for the Polish election and I can’t help but wonder what kind of a difference the (new) government will bring to this fascinating continent…
Sunday, 14 October 2007
It was one week ago that I met with the RM Bochnia group in a strange building near the centre of town; it was one week ago that I endured several sessions of prayer and it was one week ago I witnessed an intense lecture on the negative aspects of Liberalism. I turned up to the meeting place a few minutes early in an attempt to compose myself and have a smoke before the transport arrived. I stood under the abandoned Hotel Florian just outside Bochnia town centre and waited for a signal from Big Ron as to where we were going to board the bus to Krakow. I got no call but I caught sight of a group of old ladies with brollies boarding a blue bus across the street, the bus was about the size of a builders van, with enough space in the back to illegally seat around ten people. I curiously lurked around one of the cracked exterior pillars outside the hotel before spotting the John Goodman character helping the women inside. I stubbed my fag out on the floor and warily walked over to the bus, JG saw me and extended his hand. I had previously stabbed my right palm earlier while washing a knife and the cut felt like it was gushing under the ruined soggy plaster. I offered JG my left hand to shake and he gripped my forearm warmly, nodding and smiling as he did so. He helped me on board as if I were one of the elderly ladies, the back end was already cramped full of festively plump women who looked up at me harmlessly as I intruded their social space. I was asked to sit between the two podgiest members of the group so that everybody could squeeze in, it did not feel good.
Within moments the bus was full of old women, and when I say full I mean that there would not have even been enough room for one of Santa’s little helpers to jam themselves into any corner should they have wanted to do so. There were four rows of people in the back end of the bus, one of which consisted of a sodden wood bench that was placed in the middle to aid the unfortunate soles who had to sit on the laps of frightened looking old ladies. As soon as the doors closed, the lights were turned off as not to attract the police, the windows on the inside filled with condensation and we began our journey to a large church in Krakow to take part in an all night prayer session.
Almost every eye in the back of that buss was focussed on me, I could not so much as move my arm from my knee without somebody either twitching violently or having a tutting fit. I considered my options, pondering as to whether or not I should remove the video camera from my bag, it would make for an excellent piece of footage. Just as I reached into my shoulder satchel just as it started, one of the bulky women in the next row along started chanting, at first it was difficult to make out what was going on, it sounded like a mating call to God. When the rest of the busload began joining her in synchronism I realised what was happening, the full recitation of the Rosary was about to commence. I was able to pick out a few words I understood while watching the hot air streaming down the windows. My heart deflated as the chanting proceeded to drown my every inner thought and suck every breath from my lungs like a sinister sagging squadron of succubae. After ten minutes the initiator lady stopped for air, she passed her thick wooden rosary to the next lady in line who began reciting solo, her prayers where then joined in chorus by the rest of the folk inside the bus. With sweat dripping from my brow and blood curdling in my veins, I new that the Rosary was heading my way, the only way I would be excepted into the clan and be able to film was if I recited something Holy, but by doing so I would be interfering in a clearly passionate ritual of the Catholic faith. The air was tight and I had to pinch myself as a reminder to try and draw breath from the clouded air, just before inhaling I was handed the thick wooden necklace of Christ. I took hold of it sincerely and prayed out loud to be set free from this bus, without thinking I subjected my conservative audience to a reel of blasphemous gibberish at a feeble attempt to win the right to film.
I stopped half way through my truly genuine attempt to connect with the mercy of the Heavens and realised that once again, every pair of eyes in the bus was fixated on me, even the eyes of the bus driver. The bus slowly pulled over to the side of the motorway and my entire body felt slippery, slippery like a slug. One of the ladies opposite me turned her head and recited a verse of the Rosary fluently in Spanish, Polish and then again in English, I looked at her blankly, utterly gobsmacked. I deserved it and everyone in the van knew it. The lady that initiated the praying then snatched the rosary from my grasp and instructed the driver to proceed, Big Ron looked at me in utter disgust, we still had another forty minutes to go to get to Krakow.
The rest of the journey proved to be of little ease, during the remaining three quarters of an hour I was forced to learn three verses of the rosary in Polish, from start to finish and then recite them to the rest of the group, the fact that I was involved in the journey meant that it was one hundred percent necessary for me to take part in prayer as to not curse the processions due to follow.
Although my situation may sound a placid and self-righteous reflection, I have never felt so condemned or outcast as I did on that journey. The situation I placed myself in was way out of my depth and although I am continuing with the documentary project, the decision has been made to eliminate all Catholic practice and worship from the filming stages. A definite separation needs to be made between the Religion that the Radio Maryja Family practice and the sweeping web of rumours, stories and charges that the seemingly majority of Polish people circulate. However, I plan to learn from my mistakes regarding the project so far and continue down a different path of documentation. The Radio Maryja Family are indeed a worldwide organisation and they are dedicated to following their faith as a Catholic organisation. So why is it then that the Polish section have such a fierce reputation?
Sunday, 7 October 2007
The idea behind the Radio Maryja project began after I heard several conflicting arguments regarding the organisation while in a local pub, on the one hand it was claimed that the Radio Maryja Family brainwash their listeners and viewers, of sister television station TV Trwam, using political propaganda and fraudulent tactics, the second point of view was that the organisation only pray on their own and anyone stupid enough to fall into the trap is asking to be conned. Both sides of the dispute reflected on negative aspects of RM and its founder Tadeusz Rydzyk. Both of these arguments were unfounded opinions, which could not be backed with specific evidence. Since listening to this debate and various others along the same lines, I have been on an pilgrimage with the ‘Family’ and have seen first hand what they represent and the incredible age range in their followers. On Sunday the 30th of September 2007 I was welcomed into the family fold by a representative and a small group of followers in Bochnia.
The Head Quarters
I had arranged to meet the organiser of the Bochnia group in the evening in order to gain permission to film and interview RM supporters. I was instructed to go to a building in the centre of Bochnia and await further information. I must admit that even though it was still daylight when I reached the building, I was feeling extremely vulnerable as the RMF have a history of being ‘anti-media’ and have often sued film makers and even television channels that have tried to record their activities in the past. Upon arrival I received a text message informing me of the whereabouts of the head quarters. I found myself walking up several flights of stairs and standing outside a Sajm government office, the door was open wide and a poster for the Radio Maryja Family was stuck firmly to the interior door.
I could hear several voices coming from a room next door to the office, it sounded like the room was full of people and they were discussing several private issues. One of which I am about to make public as I was afraid to disturb the meeting and hung around the office doorway. It seemed that one of the people speaking was telling the rest of the group about her husband who has recently gone deaf and is unable to listen to Radio Maryja, she said that her husband was afraid of going to Hell as he couldn’t listen anymore. The group’s combined advice was that he should try turning up the radio as loud as possible (!) and that he should also watch TV Trwam with the subtitles on. There was no real confirmation that he would not go to Hell. After about twenty minutes of listening to the most random of conversations and proposals I decided to pop my head around the corner of the door. I was surprised to find only five people in the room. The man I planned to meet (lets call him Big Ron) was sat on the right hand side of the table, he immediately stood and approached me, asking me why I am late. When I explained my reasons for not wanting to disturb the proceedings he grunted and requested to speak to me in private.
We took a pew in the ‘government’ office adjacent to the meeting room and Big Ron asked what I wanted. I have no intention of lying to these people as it would ruin the entire aspect of my project, and so I said to him that I was impressed with the Pilgrimage two weeks ago, however I was concerned with what Tadeusz Rydzyk said about the media being the devil. I followed this by informing Big Ron about my film history and the asked him as to why Father Rydzyk made this bold remark. My Polish has come along quite nicely since living in Poland, my interpretation of Polish analogies on the other hand is not quite up to scratch and so I was rather taken back by Big Ron’s response. He told me that the media is evil as it is tide with communism, he also mentioned several newspapers and television programmes that have given RM negative coverage. When I questioned this he gave me the following comparison: Imagine that you have two bad teeth that need to be removed, one of which represents communism, this tooth is removed without any anaesthetic and it hurts terribly. The second tooth represents something much worse than communism, something so disgusting that it has rotted the tooth away to the root. This tooth represents Liberalism. This tooth is removed with an anaesthetic and it most damaging because you can’t feel it happening. (Please write to me and give me your interpretation of this as it may shed some light!) It was at this point that I informed Big Ron as to my film plans, I told him I was very keen to capture events, marches and interviews of people in the Radio Maryja Family and piece together my findings in a documentary. To my surprise Big Ron clapped his hands and seemed very enthusiastic about my idea. He instantly asked me about my views on religion and I told him my Polish was not good enough to articulate my true beliefs.
Big Ron then welcomed me into the meeting room where I was introduced to the four other attendees, each one a new face. I sat on the left hand side of the table, opposite Big Ron, this placed me next to a dishevelled fellow in his mid forties with horrific body odour and a lady I would guess is in her early sixties, kept on touching my arms and asking if I was cold. To my right sat a rather stout chap who struck me as being a cross between Ronnie Barker, Lenny from ‘Of Mice and Men’ and John Goodman’s ‘Big Dan’ character in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’. At the bottom end of the table there sat a stara babka, the same lady I imagine was talking about her deaf husband going to Hell. And there I sat, amongst this group of social misfits in a room covered in RM and Trwam paraphernalia. I am by no standard criticising their beliefs or there ways of living (yet) as it was indeed I that made the choice to invade their territory.
After being grilled by a series of questions about England and my life history, the group began confessing their sins, which seemed very similar to a stereotypical AA meeting. I kept quiet and listened to their confessions before everybody stood and began to pray and chant, before I knew what was happening I found myself in a full recital of the Rosary. This scared me somewhat in that I was unprepared for such an act, it seemed far to close to a Catholic service and this is something I have respect for. Even though I was welcomed into the fold I was intruding on something I knew I should never take lightly. It wasn’t until we sat down and Big Ron started reading from the RM newspaper that I started to feel my presence was justified again. He read a column focussing on Liberalism and how the eruption of gay rights and immigration (!!) in Europe are works of evil and should be addressed immediately.
After an hour and ten minutes of praying, singing and discourse the group started to depart, each member leaving one by one until it was just Big Ron and I discussing plans for the film project. He invited me to an all night prayer procession in Krakow next Saturday, with hope that I will be able to film the RM troop in action. Although I accepted Big Ron’s offer I am still unsure as to where the cross over is from traditional Catholicism and The Radio Maryja Family. People have told me in the past that the RM private meetings are often the most aggressive and hate fuelled but once again, I found nothing to be out of the ordinary at all, as far as religion permits, bar of course the remarks regarding Liberalism. The more I am finding out about these people, the less I am beginning to question their ulterior motives, it seems that the rumours circulated by the younger generation are desperately unfounded and only made to arouse public interest in controversy in Poland.
I have decided to accept Big Ron’s invitation next weekend. Although I am far much more interested in filming the bus journey down to Krakow and the reactions that the RM Bochnia group may have to the tolerance of Liberalism in one of Poland’s biggest cities. I have no intention of staying for the full prayer session and sincerely doubt I will film inside the Catholic church, my plans are to spend as much time with the group as possible, steering away from their connections with the Catholic church and hoping to detail these connections through personal interviews only. In two months time I will be embarking on a twelve-day mission around Poland with two interested parties that will aid me in circulating some of the supporters and critics of the Radio Maryja family, who knows what our collective journey may reveal about this still ‘seemingly’ controversial religious group?
Monday, 1 October 2007
The four-week Cambridge University fronted language course I took in Krakow last year was one of the most intensive and strenuous learning curves I have ever taken. I have never been big on talking to large groups of people as the thought of which used to always seem terrifying. I grew out of this dehabilitating trait once I became used to standing in the centre of a classroom and teaching groups of students about key English grammar while being observed by peer teachers and marked by the director of studies on my performance. This was my initiation into Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), and taking CELTA turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. The course had such a huge impact on the adaptation to life on the continent that I decided to make a documentary film about the integration process of TEFL teachers and the effects they are having on their students and their new environment. I started filming for the project this week and the people I have interviewed and observed in action so far have been splendid subjects for this exciting new documentary project.
I am mostly interested in the impact that the TEFL industry is having on Europe, particularly with regards to the immigration, assimilation and the impact that native speakers of English are having on the countries they are moving to, as well as the effects that the students of English are having on the United Kingdom and Ireland. Over the past year I have been able to observe some of the effects TEFL teachers have made on Poland and how the Polish have reacted, this weekend was no exception, hopping from one extreme to the other I was able to observe just how a handful of teachers living in Krakow are able to make an impact.
After filming for the documentary I made my way to the centre of Krakow to meet with a group of friends who are working as TEFL teachers in the city. The plan was to initiate some new teachers into the frivolous drinking habits and irresponsible nightlife rituals that frequently take place among my close friends and former colleagues over the weekend. We met in the centre of town outside one of the large chain stores in the market square; it had been a while since we last met as it is tendency for teachers to work for summer schools outside Poland during the months of June, July and August. We walked down one of the various avenues off the Rynek and found ourselves in a regular haunt, a pub located in a dark alley and up a long flight of wooden stairs, hidden from the boisterous clans of stag party fanatics, boozing in the town centre. We each sank a series of beers and vodka shots while catching up with each other and generally causing annoyance to the Polish regulars. The new group of teachers we accumulated seemed to be into the festivities and celebrated their newfound love for the price of alcohol in Poland. After three or four drinks we decided to trek into the Jewish district of Kazimierz where several bars and clubs can be found on the popular ‘old square’. The drinking continued heavily into the night, and as our selected group of TEFL teachers started to disband into the murky streets of the Yiddish Quarter, the remaining few occupied one of the bright, stylish and flamboyant gay clubs in the area. Upon arrival however, we discovered that the dance floor was practically empty, which meant the watchful barman and his team of security guards observed the drunken antics of our TEFL squadron closely.
Poland is a rather intolerant country when it comes to race, religion and sexual orientation, which is somewhat disappointing. There are often online news stories written about anti-tolerance marches and aggressive right wing ‘Catholic’ gangs that preach their hatred and loathing for specified minorities. I am trying to explore the roots of this unchecked aggression in one of my documentary projects, but it seems that unless these thugs are in a march, group or gang they are determined to remain anonymous and difficult to locate.
The empty bar suddenly filled with a group of about ten girls, who joined the TEFL clan in dancing to cheesy pop songs of the early eighties and shaking their skinny hips to the likes of Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake and Vanilla Ice. It wasn’t until this point that the bar staff began to relax and soon started clambering onto the bar and bopping along to the beat of the drum, smashing glasses on the floor and causing a general ruckus. The girls then invited us to the biggest and most popular gay club in Krakow for more shambles. Only several of the TEFL team were sober enough to make it to the party, it was then we were to discover the girls plan to lure several of my TEFL troop into their lesbian lair of rude dancing and lust for laughs.
The gay club is located on the top floor of a party multiplex just outside the centre of town, we found the place to be busier than ever and it was here that I felt the most comfortable and united with the Polish people who speedily swarmed me. It was in a mass of sweaty bodies on the dance floor I was able to confirm that although TEFL teachers in Poland have a reputation for drinking and partying in the local pubs and clubs, the influence they have on the Polish people of the same generation is in fact rather small. The majority of clients in the club were thoroughly piefaced on super strong slammers, foolishly cheap lager and mysterious multi-coloured cocktails, unsurprisingly without the aid of a small group of teachers. After a nuance of boogie and a catalogue of vodka mixers it was time to leave. Living in Bochnia and having to wait another four hours for a train led me to stay in the city with a friend I met during my CELTA training course this very time last year.
After very little sleep, a breakfast of granary bread, cereal and coffee and a hot shower I spoke with my TEFL accomplice about his experiences in the industry since we took the intensive teaching course. Due to my friend being Australian, he told me that there were several employers that had problems with him not being an EU citizen and so he had to work several jobs cash in hand. Private language tuition also seemed play a large roll in his work, but the irregularity and cancellations of private one-to-one students make this line of work a real challenge. He told me of his love for Krakow and his reasons for staying in this fascinating city, it is not difficult to see why TEFL teachers choose to come back after the summer months to continue teaching here, it is a city that can provide all the privacy, social shenanigans and spontaneous day trips one could ever wish for. Baring this in mind it came increasingly difficult to understand as to why one of our fellow CELTA crew had decided to move way out of the city and buy himself a small farm on the outskirts of the region. I soon made contact with the man in question and jumped on a bus to the nearest town he would be able to pick me up from. Although the ‘tolerance’ level of the drunken youth of Krakow seemed to be extremely high, the forbearance that Polish villagers may have to a man of Pakistani origin living in their segregated community may be a little different.
The bus journey took me sixty kilometres north east of Krakow to a tiny town, it was there my chum greeted me and we made our way to his rundown farmhouse, which is an additional fifteen kilometres from the small town. I asked him about his experience in the area so far and I explained that I had even experienced problems in Bochnia as foreigner so I was prepared for a negative response. On the contrary I was informed of my friends account of his stay so far, it seemed he too was worried about the reaction to his arrival as it is clear he is foreign from the colour of his skin alone, but he proceeded to tell me he had never felt more welcome in a closed community before this. He told me that his new neighbours frequently cook for him and they are even helping him build his house! A little astonished I listened to my friend’s anecdotes about his quirky new buddies and how they all help him out. It wasn’t until we arrived at his farm that I realised just how sincere he was being, upon arrival I was introduced to an elderly couple who were working on building a new wooden garage, they were very pleasant and sung the praise of my friend as a neighbour. I was then introduced to an English speaking local journalist who lives close by and visits my pal frequently. My friend and I reminisce of our time studying for CELTA and he tells me how, although he is happy he did the course, he is pleased as hell to get out of the city of Krakow and to have found a new life and a new project. He told me he currently works as a science teacher in Wroclaw as his central occupation but that he spends every weekend at his farmhouse, his kingdom. The property is a wreck, the main house is falling down, the two large barns to the right are dilapidated and the wooden construction his friends are building is far from completion. Nevertheless he sleeps in his settlement and uses his neighbour facilities when he gets desperate for a shower or a good meal. Of course this is only a temporary arrangement he tells me, once the property is in full working order he will live here and make a living from growing crops and vegetables on the swathes of vacant land he has behind his assortment of buildings. The English-speaking journalist invites us for dinner at his home, where I am introduced to his wife and fed platefuls of fresh eggs, tomatoes, bread and cheese while we drink red wine and sip coffee. Not particularly fancying the idea of sleeping in my friends crumbling house, I stayed with the journalist and his wife, who treated me as one of their own and invited me to join them for breakfast in the morning. I hit the hay feeling almost a little jealous of my friend’s new lifestyle with some of the most tolerant and hospitable Poles in perhaps the most unlikely place.
I was woken to the sound of a pig being executed in a barn a few doors down, the sound was worse than a child screaming which enabled me to easily reinforce my reasoning behind deciding never to eat meat again. I then joined my hosts for breakfast, a feast of fresh produce collected from the surrounding neighbours, and we discussed Polish art and its ties with modern day politics over several rounds of toast and piping hot coffee. My hosts invited me back to visit whenever I like and drove me to the tiny town I got the bus to from Krakow. Although a little thrown back and fascinated by the unanticipated scenario my friend on the farm is now in, the journey back to Bochnia was a reminder as to why I could never live in a place of this nature; although the community may have seemed idyllic and almost utopian, it is so far away from anything, the possibility of a social life outside the area would be almost impossible. By the time I got back to Bochnia I was damned tired and ready for a good nights sleep.
The continuation of the TEFL documentary film continues next week at International House as a new group of hopefuls prepare to plunge into their first week of CELTA; for sure they will be nervous and perhaps even undecided as to where their TEFL journey will take them. However, it is clear to see from my experiences over the last couple of days that whether it be frequently exposing naked flesh on the dance floor of a gay bar, buying a farm in the middle of nowhere or just making a film about the whole thing, the life of a TEFL teacher is paved with scandal, opportunity and choice, it is down to the boldness and willing of the individual as to where their adventures may take them.
Friday, 14 September 2007
I was raised a Catholic; I was baptised very shortly after my birth and was frog marched to the front of the altar every Sunday at 10.00 a.m. to sing songs, recite prayers and confess my sins, which was not something I was particularly fond of. I did this until the rebellious age of fourteen, when even after taking my First Holy Communion and my Confirmation, I stopped going to church. I immaturely decided that there was no room for God in my life, and even if there was, I had no intention of sitting in a mass for an hour and a half, listening to a man tell me how much of a sinner I was. It wasn’t until much later when I realised that the act of going to church and attending mass brings comfort and joy to millions of people, and the feeling of spiritual cleanliness, Holy rapture and having faith is more important than the religious eccentricities I had told myself were pointless.
I wake up with a splitting headache and a bad memory of what happened to my last night, over the last few weeks I have had little time for social activities but last night seemed to open a gateway of absurdity in Bochnia. Regardless, I swallow a handful of aspirin, gather my camera gear and make my way to the train station where I am to meet the organiser of the Radio Maryja Bochnia section. His name is Andzej and he takes my hand firmly as he introduces me to the rest of the group and pays for my train ticket. He seems like a rather nice gent considering my hung over state and my bag full of electronics. There are only six of us heading up from Bochnia, which is a disconcertingly small number, but apparently some of the team are ill and can’t make today. We are on our way to Częstochowa, which is three hundred kilometres north west of Bochnia, to be part of a day of prayer and celebration. Tadeusz Rydzyk the director and founder of Radio Maryja Poland will be at the event, conducting the festivities and speaking about his organisation.
We arrive at Częstochowa after three and a bit hours on the train, I am strung out and on the verge of sleep but the rest of the team are eager to get involved. I walk to through the centre of the city with the Bochnia team; two young ladies, a chap a bit younger than myself, Andrzej the leader and an eleven-year-old boy named Jacek. We come to a clearing before we get to the Cathedral and I give Andrzej a hand in constructing the Radio Maryja Bochnia sign, which I carry and wave for the majority of the day. The Cathedral is a giant place, like a small Holy village in a park, there are thousands of people crowded around a small stage at the front, each of them as part of a community, waving their town banners and signs high in the hope that they will be seen on the large television screen under a rather graceful podium.
Friday, 7 September 2007
I arrived in Krakow with enough time to explore the city a little, make sure I knew where the venue was and to take a few photographs. For the last six days it has been raining continuously in the South of Poland so today’s display of wet weather was nothing of a surprise. The Loch Ness club opened its doors at six o’clock in the evening, I was able to chat with a few die hard fans that arrived early, I asked them about the support bands for tonight’s show and what they thought of Behemoth’s latest album. The majority of people I meet at these kinds of events seem rather jolly and light hearted considering their appearance; the entrance soon filled with a sea of black clad leather metal soldiers, eager to watch the first act of the evening. The line outside the doors assembled quickly, but instead of flocking with the rest of the heard, I met my mate Pawel. We grabbed ourselves a beer at a small bar near the venue and spoke of our mutual respect for the band we were about to see. The general vibe about the two unknown supporting acts was not particularly promising but nevertheless, after a cold bottle of Zywiec, we eagerly made our way to the now two-hundred strong line of people waiting to get in. The security guard at the entrance made me throw away the apple I had in my bag, which irritated me off slightly, but who knows what kind of chaos could be bred if the audience were allowed to take fresh fruit into the venue.
Loch Ness is not a big club, and that soon became apparent as the first act started and people from every corner began pouring towards the front of the make-shift stage. Rootwater, a Polish metal band from Warsaw, open things up by getting the crowd jumping around like loonies and testing the speakers with their nu-metal fused Polish jock rock. Their style is somewhat sadly similar to early Korn material; a style that I feel died and was buried along with the whole nu-metal era. But by the mawkish sound and onstage antics that Rootwater provide, they are in no danger of opening another floodgate of the genre and lets hope it stays that way.
I manage to sink two vodkas, befriend a Ukrainian fellow named Alex and get myself in a good standing position in the time between the first and second act. Danish thrash metalers Hatesphere are up next and by this point I am ready to see something hard, fast and angry. Behemoth have been one of the most talked about metal acts of the year so far, but if all they can muster are second rate nu-metal acts to support them on their homecoming tour, there is something wrong. Hatesphere on the contrary prove not to disappoint, their polished thrash capabilities are second to none in warming the crowd immensely for what is to follow. I count four crowd-surfers during their opening song, which is saying a lot for the size of the venue. Although they only have half an hour, Hatesphere plough through an eclectic set, displaying talent and prowess in thrash, doom and melodic death metal. As their show comes to a close, I manage to get myself right at the foot of the stage before Behemoth come on.
The venue is so cramped at this point that I’m pouring with sweat and gasping for air before the sound check finishes. People are screaming, jumping and punching their fists skywards even before the pentacle microphone stands, Apostasy flags, cast iron eagles and upside down crosses are brought out to decorate the stage.
The heat of the venue and the distinctive flashbacks of being trapped at the front of stage and pummelled in mosh pits, lead me to come to terms with the fact that maybe, just maybe, I am getting too old for this. As I am lured further away from the ever-erupting carnage at the front of the venue by the sweet serenity of cool air and a small gap in the proximity of my neighbouring metalheads, I am able to stand back and admire Behemoth for what they truly are. As the set finishes and the lights return to normal, the battled state of the audience sums up my thoughts entirely, we are in the presence of one of the most practiced, confident and entertaining bands on the underground music circuit. Behemoth are not only sharp, accurate and extreme in their methods, but they are undoubtedly in the prime of their game and have certainly left tonight’s audience gasping for breath and gagging for more.
Saturday, 1 September 2007
The harvest festival is one of the biggest events of the year in the eyes of the farming community; there are hay sculpting competitions, prizes for the tastiest baked goods, awards for the ripest fruits and vegetables and a series of dancing and singing performances by children from the surrounding villages.
Dzialoszice is a small town about sixty-five kilometres north east of Krakow, Poland. It could be compared to many small villages in England, there are a few small shops, an old church and a small green in the centre with several benches about the place. Aside from the occasional local event, not much happens in this part of Poland, which is perhaps why this area of the country does not attract many tourists. I arrived at the event with a few friends who were greeted by three monks and priest who were carrying a rather large loaf of bread, carved and crafted into one of the final Stations of the Cross. Although the scene was comprised of yeast, it harboured distinct gruesome detail and I don’t envy the man who had to tuck into that for his supper.
A series of sharp trumpet blasts announced the arrival of a battalion of elderly gentlemen in traditional costume. The group numbered around fifty men in total and they proceeded to lead the way to the main square, where a small stage had been assembled next to various tents and marquees. The harvest was declared open and I was invited to inspect the various attractions.
The bakery stalls fronted freshly baked cakes and bread that were served in wicker baskets by pretty young girls. The vegetable tables where remarkably laid out and manned by large burly Chłopy in aprons. I made my way to one of the smaller cake stalls where an enthusiastic village girl talked me through the various sponge cakes. She invited me to sample a few generously sized portions before making my decision as to which of the cakes I should purchase. I was more than happy to comply and when I finally made up my mind I was rewarded by a peck on the cheek and a knapsack of fresh cake, all for the price of about fifty pence. I made my way over to a ‘fruit and veg’ table where a toothless beaming fellow clasped my hand firmly and invited me to give his apples a squeeze. I ended up buying three juicy red apples and thanking the salesman for his assistance. I asked him where he was from and how he thought the festival was going so far. He said he was from Miechow, a town not so far away and that the harvest is always a treat, “as long as it does not rain like it does in England” he added with a gummy grin. He said that his stall has won the prize for best apples and potatoes for the last five years and he would be “very fucking surprised” if he didn’t win again this year. This statement ended in a giant guffaw before the man boldly moved onto his next customer, giving me a bold wink as he did so.
I have been living in Poland for a few weeks, but I have still not become fully adjusted to the intertwining of formal and informal language that is often used by people outside of the main cities like Krakow, Warsaw and Łódź. It is common practice for younger people to refer to their seniors as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. I made a conscious effort to maintain this formal form of dialogue with the man who sold me my apples, but he still persisted in swearing at me.
As I made my way around the event, I came across an alcohol tent swarming with middle-aged men. Grubby gents threw their empty cups and dead cigarettes on the ground while clambering over each amongst a haze of stale smoke and the stench of spilled beer. I made my way past the alcohol tent, a bouncy castle, trampoline and carousel swing to what seemed to be the most popular at the harvest; the tractor stall.
Husky men and women alike horded around tractors of all shapes and sizes; reving the engines, clambering on top of them and even getting under them. I know nothing about tractors and so I was unable to judge the most sustainable or the most efficient when my curious colleague asked me. I was soon ushered to the main square where I was introduced to Mr Stanislaw Nowak, a local foreign language teacher. Mr Nowak gripped my hand tight and greeted me. He looked warn out but confident and had a face that looked to be stretched, so much so that one of his eye sockets seemed to be trying to escape half way down his face. “What your name is?” he asked in a deep and aspiring voice “and what you think of Dzialoszice”. I told him how the harvest seemed very well organised and that I was particularly impressed by the confidence and friendliness of the local farmers. He chuckled slightly before asking me what I knew about his work. At this point it struck me that we were speaking in Polish and I supposed he was an English teacher, when I told him this he laughed manically “no” he said, “I am retired language teacher, I learn French and Italian”. He seemed like a fascinating gentleman and I wanted to know more about him. I asked Mr Nowak how he came into contact with foreign languages, particularly when living in such a small town. He proceeded to dazzle me for the next thirty minutes by telling me about an interesting theory of his. He claimed that the best way to learn a language was by learning several at a time, starting out with everyday words in a language like French and then translating them into Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. This seemed like a bizarre way to learn, and when I told Mr Nowak that one language at a time was enough for me, he laughed. “just like all the people” he said, “and this is why there is so much war”. Without warning he reached across me and grabbed the arm of my wife’s mother. This is one of my former French students he remarked, clasping her firmly by the arm. I happened to know that my mother-in-law speaks no French at all, but I chose not to make any remarks about this. Instead I asked the teacher and his former student to pose together for a photograph. Mr Nowak thanked me tremendously for taking the time to speak to him; he shook my hand and made a strange gesture with his good eye. I winced uncontrollably before I could thank him for his time. He vanished in the direction of the beer tent.
Several more trumpets sounded and I was ushered towards the centre stage for a prize giving ceremony. First prize was a large bottle of fruit liquor which was elegantly displayed by a member of the town council before other prizes were awarded. I hurriedly snapped away with my camera as men and women gracefully accepted their prices in traditional dress. The rugged fellow who sold me the apples won first place in his category while a group of teenage boys won a prize for their sculpture of a combine harvester made of out hay. The day was topped off with performances by various groups of children singing and dancing. From the desperately inappropriate techno performance to a song called ‘Lick Me’ by a group of village girls, to a gutsy rendition of traditional old Polish songs by a scruffy old farmer in a top hat.
I never saw Mr Nowak again but I will be sure not to forget his enthusiasm and his peculiar methods of language instruction. My interview with him was indeed fascinating although the most extraordinary thing was his comment about war, which was left hanging like a cat from a branch. There could have been some truth in his comments, for if more people took the time to learn how to speak foreign languages perhaps there would be more understanding amongst people of other cultures. So much so that events such as this, without masses of security, armed police and bomb squads, are not confided to small Polish towns but celebrated everywhere with understanding, respect and a mighty fine selection of Fruit and Veg.