Czy pani mowi po Angielsku? (Do you speak English?)

Yesterday I returned from Poland.  It was a good, although fast, break from life in Armenia.  I also learned a thing or two about another culture.  And I even realized how far I’ve come in my own life in recent years.

Let’s make no mistake that life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is one that is chosen.  Along with that comes benefits and repercussions.  We all know when signing up that you miss out on things like the holidays.  For us, it’s worth the sacrifice.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy or fun.  Two years is a long time, especially in a foreign culture.  Some volunteers might be revered in a small village in southeast Asia, while others might be subjected to steely looks and suspicions in post-Soviet countries (ahem).  Both situations take their toll and have positive and negative characteristics.  We choose our fate in that we decide to join Peace Corps, but the fabric of the experience is largely up to chance outside of our control.  So, with that we live our daily lives, trying to integrate as well as possible without going completely native, trying to have some sort of impact on just one person in the community, and trying to maintain sanity while doing the aforementioned.  The keyword here is trying.  It takes a lot of effort, much of which is subconscious and is the reason you find yourself exhausted at 9 p.m. even though you “didn’t do anything today.”  One of the best, most confusing, most difficult, joyous things you can do is take a break from the daily trials and go somewhere completely different.  Best because you need the time away.  Confusing because you are likely going to another foreign culture and not your own.  Difficult because you do, at the end, have to go back to your cold apartment, or hot hut, or whatever it is you have, and try to shift back into the gear you were previously in without stalling the engine.  Joyous because life is a journey and you’re lucky to be a PCV and an American.

If I can make a sweeping statement based on 2 years away from home for Christmas, it’s this:  Christmas never feels quite like Christmas when you’re in a foreign country.  I do believe there is a sliding scale.  That is, you can approach a feeling of Christmas if you’re in the right country and it is similar to your native land.  In Poland it felt a lot more like Christmas than it does in Armenia.  Let’s do some comparing.


Armenia (RA):  Crappy tinsel, cheap santa faces, and a few random lights appear in the middle of December.  Trees in homes appear right before the new year.

Poland (PL):  Basic lights adorn a few houses in a very reserved way.  Candles can appear in the windows.  There may be a Christmas tree seen in public places, like a train stop.  I’m not sure when people start decorating.

America:  Say no more


RA:  The crappy decorations start appearing sometime in December.

PL:  You can see some Christmas cheer, but not always, and it’s very…how to say…tastefully done

US:  You’re lucky if they wait until after Halloween to start bombarding you with cheer

Gift Giving

RA:  Dzmer Papik may or may not give a very small present to people.  There is virtually no gift exchange.

PL:  Gifting can be done while singing songs and is usually something like chocolate, books, and personal care products

US:  Again, say no more

I could go on, but I won’t.  I think you get what I’m getting at here.  In America we do things to the extreme.  I always kind of knew this but never really realized it or understood it.  Okay, sometimes it is awesome to do extreme things.  For example, we don’t just send a couple volunteers to Canada for a few months.  We send them to the armpits and buttcracks of the world for 2 FREAKING years!  No one else in the world does that.  And if they do, they copied it from us!  We didn’t just launch into orbit.  We reached the moon.  We didn’t just invent computers and the internet – we revolutionized the world with them.  Our extremeness flows into almost everything we do, from extreme eating to extreme working (workaholics).  It’s kinda just the way we are.

But SOMEtimes I think the extreme goes too far.  And if I may (please don’t label me a heretic or accuse me of treason) I think we could tone it down a bit for Christmas and be okay.  It has this life of its own that is a little bit scary.  Anyway, I digress.

So, it was nice to experience a Christmas with an amazing family in a foreign setting.  The coolest traditions that I saw were very fulfilling.  The first was going around the room to each person, shaking his or her hand, and sharing some personal wishes for that person while you grasped each others hands.  It often ended with a hug or kiss and the sharing of your little Jesus wafer things.  The second was the way gifts were opened.  Rather than ravaging through a mountain of packages and then wondering if that pile of moving wrapping paper on the floor is your trusty dog, your little cousin, or perhaps a toy with a mind of its own, they take turns.  The whole thing is very deliberate.  Before opening a package, you should sing a carol.  Carol books were distributed so everyone could sing along.  Even I was able to make a good stab at it despite it being in Polish.  They were surprised that I could sing in Polish.  It’s cool what you can do when the alphabet is the same.  Anyway, I sang some songs in offkey shaky English which was appreciated.  It was nice to take a long time opening things, and really I began looking forward to the singing after every song.  Once I was in the bathroom upstairs while they were continuing.  I could hear them singing together through the walls and it was a beautiful thing.

Opening gifts with Aga from one of her sisters: "Smacznego" or Bon Apetit - A sunnyside up egg made from candles!

Now you’re wondering, “Gee Kevin, do you hate America or what?  What’s so wrong with our Christmas?”  No way!  Actually, I love our Christmas.  I love all the movies, the plethora of songs, and the excitement.  I just get a bit tired of the commercialization of the whole thing and think that there are some cool traditions they have in other countries that perhaps do a better job of capturing the spirit and meaning of the season.

I had a great time in Poland and felt rested, relaxed, and (kind of) ready to go back to Armenia.  As I said goodbye and sat in my train alone, I stared out the window reflecting on the week that passed.  After an hour the conductors came to check our tickets.  There was a bit of a snag apparently.

Due to my lack of Polish language skills, I was nervous when I handed my ticket to the conductor.  He looked confused.  Then he began speaking to me in Polish.  I used a couple phrases I know to explain to him that I don’t understand and don’t speak the language.  Another younger conductor informed me in broken English that I was actually on the wrong train.  I wasn’t headed towards Warsaw, where I needed to be to catch my flight.  Instead, I was heading to the German border.

There are many possible reactions to this situation.  I fear the Kevin of a few years ago would have been on the verge of tears and not known what to do or how to escape the situation.  But luckily I have been in Armenia for almost 2 years now and am so used to things going wrong or just not going at all that it was just like, “Okay, what can I do?”  I had no phone to use, no language skills, no idea where I was, and no idea exactly what to do.  And I had a plane to catch in 7 hours on the other side of the country.

I got out at the next stop.  It was surreal to find myself in some little Polish village, all alone, not able to speak.  I trudged into the train station and stared at the train schedule.  Confusing is a good word for it.  I have only ridden a handful of trains in my life.  Reading a train schedule in Polish was a bit above my skill level.  I went up to the cashier and asked her in Polish if she spoke English.  A curt “no” was the answer.  I braced myself and dug down deep into the gesturing and communicating skills I have gained in my time here and we had a nice little experience where I got the time of the next train to Warsaw, decided I wouldn’t make my plane, and then bought a ticket back to Poznan (where I had come from).

I was fairly certain during the whole thing that I was going to miss my flight.  Actually, I was 100% sure of it.  There are only a few trains from Poznan to Warsaw.  And I needed to get there in time to take a bus to the airport, go through security, and get on the plane.  The train I was supposed to be on was the perfect train for me.  I didn’t think there would be another one leaving Poznan in time for me to make my flight.  Sadness, nervousness, and a bit of anger all tried to come flooding in to my body.  I tried my best to just block those out and think as clearly as possible.

When I got to Poznan I ran through the train station to the ticket windows.  I found the youngest cashier (young = most likely to speak English) and waited in her line.  Sure enough, she spoke English.  It was 5:27.  As I looked up at the schedule, I saw a train to Warsaw leaving at 5:30.  My heart sank because I knew I didn’t have enough time to make it.  If only I had been there a few minutes earlier…

“The next train to Warsaw leaves in…just a moment!!  Go to the platform and ask the conductor for a ticket!  You don’t have time.”  Thank God she spoke English.

I ran as best I could with my suitcase through the crowded station.  “Do Peron 2,” the sign read.  “To Platform 2,” I thought in my head.  I reached the platform and saw 2 identical trains.  Both silver, large, and with “Berlin Warsaw Express” painted outside.  I frantically started asking if the first train is going to Warsaw.  No.  Then I ran to the next.  It was going to Warsaw.  I got on, in disbelief, hesitantly.  Getting on the train meant making the decision to go wherever this train was going.  If it was wrong, I would miss my flight.  I asked another passenger frantically, “Warszawa??”

“Nie…Poznan!”  No, no, no.  You don’t understand me.  How can I make it more clear…then I remembered the curt ticket lady saying “Do Poznanu” and also the sign with “Do Peron”.  So I tried “Do Warszawa???”  “Tak!!”  Phew.

I found the conductor.  Somehow he spoke English too.  And he said it was no problem to buy a ticket on the train later.  So I found a seat and sat down.  Literally within 2 minutes of getting on the train, the whistle blew and it left the station.  Later he came to our compartment and explained he would only take Euros.  I had Polish money and dollars.  Uh oh.  But, he took credit cards too.  And my credit card went through without problems.  The final hurdle was cleared.  I would make it to Warsaw on time, catch my flight, and save hundreds of dollars not having to buy a new ticket.  All this by a factor of 2 minutes.

The combination of shock, slight panic, running around, and then again shock that I was going to make my flight was intriguing for me.  I don’t know how, and I got pretty lucky along the way, but it all worked out.  I attribute that to my time in Armenia and my experience here.  I don’t see it everyday but there has definitely been a transformation in the way I think and behave in abnormal circumstances.  It’s also funny how when you lower your expectations you can be grateful when simple things go your way.  There wasn’t a happier person on the train, on my bus, or on the plane than I was.  I just couldn’t believe I was actually there.

Come visit again tomorrow for a recap of the year 2011.

Seeing the tree at Chopin International was the biggest gift of all


2 Responses to “Czy pani mowi po Angielsku? (Do you speak English?)”

  1. Wayne Burt Says:

    Kevin, an absolutely enjoyable read. If your life were made into a movie, I would be the first in line at the premier.

  2. icenugget Says:

    Very kind words Wayne! And thank you for being a trusty reader.

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