Wednesday 26 October 2022

The Angry Birds of Lublin

I have not read much Polish--just headlines here and there--since I fell ill at the end of September. The brief bout of what the stick afterwards told me was COVID seems to have left me reluctant to study. I would not say it was the last straw, but it has given strength to the little voice that says, "Why bother?"

And the moment has come to write about the trials and tribulations of studying Polish in Lublin, which contained not only the difficulties to which post-Soviet workplaces are prone, but the nastiness of fellow foreign students of Polish, most of whom were more than 20 years my junior. 

When I arrived at the student residence, after a long and solitary journey involving a plane and a train, the porter had no record of my existence. Although I was disappointed, I was not surprised. The organiser of the course had sent me emails about my studies only when he was reminded with a phone call. Years of experience of travelling in Poland led me to sit down and let the porter sort it out. He did. So far so good. 

But I had no internet connection, I discovered, and the porter couldn't sort that out, so I wondered what to do. As I was going up the stairs, a group of women in their twenties swept past me, chatting in American.   

"Girls," I said cheerfully in Polish and then, Polish deserting me, I foolishly said, "Are you Americans?"

"No," one shouted up the stairs scornfully, and I could have kicked myself. Five years of working online with Americans had made me forget the essential (and hypocritical) anti-American streak in Coke-drinking, Disney-watching, American-speaking European (and Canadian) life. Another said, more honestly, that they weren't all American.

Dropping the American theme, I asked them if they knew the wi-fi password, and they told me, in surly, suspicious tones, that I should have got it in "the email." 

And off they went. 

I have given this a lot of thought, and I suspect that was my Devastating Social Error Number One. Devastating Social Error Number Two happened the next morning, at around 6:30 AM, when I dropped a metal French press full of coffee in the small vestibule outside my door and that of the women in the next room. (We shared a bathroom.) I was tired, burned and furious with myself. From the other room, there was not a peep. I cleaned up--and there was a lot to clean up--and determined to apologise to my neighbours as soon as I saw them.

But I didn't see them for days, and when I did, they didn't acknowledge my existence. In fact, I only realised that one of them was my neighbour after I recognised the scarf hanging in the vestibule as belonging to the rainbow-haired young lady who had been flirtatiously contemptuous (I thought) at  a handsome young priest. (He was a seminarian, actually.) I was shocked, and it may have shown on my face, which would have been Devastating Social Error Number Three. 

Devastating Social Error Number Four was habitually turning off the light in the vestibule, for which there was only one light switch--by the hall door. I realised my mistake only when my rainbow-haired neighbour swept past me and turned it off as I was unlocking my bedroom door. 

"Hey," I shouted.

Slam went the hall door. 

This young lady, whom I will call Gerta, was American and had such a large, prominent and distinctive tattoo that if I described her, you would recognise her immediately upon meeting her. Therefore, I'm not going to describe her but leave this for a novel I will write in the tranquility of my old age. (Dye stains on towels left for Housekeeping will feature.) What I will say is that she didn't speak to me or respond to my greetings for two weeks. 

I was so rattled by this silent treatment that eventually I broke down and cried in front of my 22-year-old private tutor and sobbed out (in Polish) my feelings of isolation and rejection. 

Because it wasn't just Gerta. 

It was the Slovenian girl who asked, her voice dripping with contempt, why Polish- and Slovenian-Americans were so interested in Polish and Slovenian culture when, in Slovenia, it was more cool to be foreign. 

It was the American boy whose every word to me was a verbal eye-roll. 

It was definitely the young woman from somewhere or other in Europe who actually made an "ugh" noise at the back of her throat when I wished her a good day. 

It was also the Montrealer whose "I don't want to talk to anyone from the wrong part of Canada" declaration and jokes about "boobs" did not reduce his popularity with Generation Z an iota. 

And it was the female passerby who smirked when all Polish deserted me when I was downstairs trying to talk to the porter. 

It was also, in a lesser way, the organiser of the course who could not be bothered to add my email address to the list, or come up with an alternative list for those who would be at the school in August. Or for those who weren't university students. 

Every day for two weeks I was blanked and blanked again. I felt like the big ungainly fowl who interrupts the little birds by landing on their own personal telephone wire, only without the sense of humour.  

Because, even keeping in mind my active mistakes, I realised that the Most Devastating Social Error of All was being a woman over 40.   

(And in case you are wondering if they had all Googled me, I was there under my maiden name.) 

That I wasn't utterly miserable is thanks to the friendly personality of a half-Polish Italian girl in my homeroom (as it were) and, especially, a 50-something Polish-American civil servant I'll call Stan. (Hi, Stan!) The Italian girl and I didn't speak much outside class (she lived and lunched with Polish relatives in town), but she smiled and acknowledged my existence. Stan chatted with me and the other old lady in the dining hall, a melancholy Poland-loving Central European widow. It turned out that her melancholy was partly due to Gerta, who had been her great pal last summer, but was now blanking her. 

I am very grateful to Stan for enlivening a lonely time. His previous stay in Lublin was during the Cold War, and he told me all about what the city looked like then. Stan has family in the Tatras, near Zakopane; he told me about Goral hospitality and family ties and how his late grandfather, who spoke no English, gave him an American $20 bill. Stan really really believes in American democracy; he also told me about what he had done to preserve it. 

It was Stan who told me where the nearest weight room was and where the best cakes were. He also attempted to harden me up to the realities of life as the next-door neighbour of Silent Treatment Gerta by saying, "Are you going to let a 22 year old girl upset you that much?" That said, he was annoyed and disgusted by another a young American, a man who bragged so much and was so self-absorbed that he was positively iconic. You couldn't make him up. Stan couldn't stand him; I valued him as a future character in my next novel. 

And I will say this for Frank (not his real name): he was not an age snob. Although he never asked us about ourselves, he didn't make "ugh" noises or roll his eyes or blank us. And when (Week 3) I was exclusionary myself, asking Stan at the one lunch table of remaining students if he were free for cake later, Frank didn't sneer. As the group of students got smaller and smaller, he just asked whoever was left if he wanted to go out for drinks.  

Stan, a Democrat, looked up my workplace but was quite openminded about it, possibly because he had been cold-shouldered or cancelled for not always sticking to the party line. Apart from being Generation X and Catholic, what we had in common was a wistful desire to improve our Polish and the notion that it would be a great retirement plan to live in Lublin all year and study Polish every day. The teachers, at least, were very good, and Stan had not been as neglected by the organiser. For example, soon after he arrived, a beautiful young Polish girl popped up before him and announced, "I'm your angel!"

"Yes, you are," thought Stan, but it turned out that the angel's job was to make sure he didn't get lost, had everything he needed, etc. (Where was my angel? Well, I guess he was Stan.)

This post is for Stan, who told me to contact him when I wrote about the course. I suspect he was hoping I that I would lay waste to Frank, but I don't want to squander the rich possibilities of Frank, the millennial Rex Mottram, in a blogpost. Frank deserves a novel, and I'm sure Frank would agree. 

Meanwhile, now that I have gotten the Angry Birds out of my system, I think I will later write a happier blogpost about Lublin, this time stressing the loveliness of the actual Poles (except the organiser), the splendid cafes, and the delicious farewell supper I shared with Stan. 

In case you are wondering, Benedict Ambrose is also grateful to Stan. Once I got my wi-fi sorted out, B.A. had to listen to my trials and tribulations every night. "I had cake with Stan" was a nice break from "All the twenty-somethings hate meeeee!!!!"

Message for Stan: I first wrote about it here.


  1. I really do worry about the entitled attitudes of some young people. What a bunch of bratty brats. It reminds me of when I joined a women's gym. Never again. I have so much sympathy for you reading that. God love you and thank God for Stan. I hope those brats grow up one day. Sinéad.

  2. Long-time American reader28 October 2022 at 02:16

    I am so sorry that so many Americans were such jerks to you! I’m embarrassed on their behalf. NONE of those social errors you mentioned were actually errors at all, and I’m appalled at my compatriots’ terrible characters. Kudos to Stan!

    1. To underscore, they weren't all Americans! And America's image was rescued by Stan. I'm thinking this was not about America---unless that's where the ageism/youth cult came from and has spread. And it may have spread--or I hit the age tipping point! When I was in Germany as a 30-something, I felt perfectly welcome amongst the 20-somethings there, and when we were in our 40s, my husband and I got along quite well with Edinburgh University students: they came to our parties, we went to their parties. Mrs. McLean

    2. But now that I think about it, we still get along well with a few student-age girls in our community--and we ourselves have had a restricted social life in recent years. (Mrs McL)