It’s December, which means that the festive season is almost upon us. And, in anticipation of the approaching cheer, merriment and goodwill to all men, I have recently roused myself from the semi-hibernation and general misanthropy that can so easily steal over the unsuspecting scribbler. In other words, I’ve been to a few house parties here in Krakow. And, all in the name of research, I’ve been able to observe a few things about the locals.
Firstly, vodka. A short sentence which, nevertheless, packs quite a punch. How to excuse yourself from the nth round of glass-raising and, in so doing, avoid a wobbly, mildly psychedelic vodka hangover the next morning? Be brave, be strong, look your Polish host/ess as straight in the eye as you are able to and repeat one of the following phrases: I can’t drink as:
(a) I’m driving;
(b) I always get ill when I drink;
(c) I have a note from my doctor;
(d) I’m working in the morning;
(e) I have a rare allergy to 90 proof Spiritus.
One or more of these should quickly transform a tableful of peer pressure into sober expressions of sympathy. However, should your willpower fold in the face of overwhelming Polish hospitality, then be sure to fill up on party snacks, but avoid eating anything sweet (this last being suspicious-sounding advice from my girlfriend, who perhaps merely covets my share of party cake. Any readers’ medical knowledge regarding the metabolic properties of vodka and cake will be gratefully received).
Another thing that is apparent to any foreigner who attends the odd soirée is that the typical Cracovian house party consists of Polish women, foreign men and, to a lesser degree, Polish men (depending on your particular social circle, of course). Noticeable by their almost complete absence are foreign women. I’m not talking here about the thousands of 19-year-old female Erasmus students who, after all, are far too young and cool to go to the same parties as Krakow Post columnists. No, I mean the professional 20- and 30-somethings (or 40-somethings, for that matter). They must be here, somewhere. Only, if they are, they don’t seem to go to parties.
I was recently at a very good party in a very nice flat hosted by a very nice Englishman who had hired a very good barman to keep everyone in very good, very nice gins and tonics, when a female Polish friend made the observation that, of the 50 or so guests, every single woman there was Polish and that every single man was a foreigner. Not only that but – a little disconcertingly – not one of the women had reached the age of 30, while none of the men would ever see that particular milestone again. I suddenly felt a little weird, as if I’d inadvertently stumbled into a 1990s expat/Polish dating agency’s annual dinner and dance.
But at least the international mix ensures many lively debates about cultures, habits and stereotypes. Personally, I’m far too much of a wishy-washy liberal to believe in cultural stereotypes, which is why I love having them confirmed by the people themselves. Ask any Pole at a party and they’ll all tell you: all the good plumbers are in the West and all the cowboys are in the East. Standards of driving, the vagaries of Polish customer service… apparently, it’s all true and not just expats moaning into their piwos.
Which brings me to the subject of this month’s Krakow Chronicles. Change. No, not you personally. I mean the notes and coins whose scarcity in Polish cash registers ought to be – if it isn’t already – a national disgrace. It is a rare day indeed when your ears will not be assailed by the curt interrogative “drobne?” (“change?”) as you proffer your readies by the checkout. You see, it was my honest intention, at those recent parties, to establish the reason for the apparent circular metal and folding paper shortage. However, my kind enquiries were merely answered by the shrugging of shoulders and sympathetic remarks of the “that’s how it’s always been” variety. Whether it’s 9 am Monday or 2 am Sunday, if you try to pay your 9.99 grocery cheque with anything more than a 10, the chances are the assistant will flick her eyeballs up to the ceiling (usually only figuratively) whilst clicking her tongue or indulging in some unintelligible mumbling, to make it quite clear that it is your fault, and your fault alone, that the shop will now be without change for the rest of the day.
However, considering the general lack of interest from my Polish party-going colleagues, it would seem that Why Don’t Polish Shops Ever Have Enough Change? is not in fact such an interesting subject for foreigners like me to moan about. Apparently, it’s just a fact of Polish life and one that we all have to get used to, like the fact that the English can never find a good English plumber and the Poles can never find a good Polish one. Plus ça change!