Reklama, Biedronka, Zapiekanka, Jabol, and Disco Polo

by alvinema

Jestem szalona. Translated in English to “I am crazy,” these words could describe my decision to travel over 1600 kilometres independently from Warsaw to Paris by a Eurolines bus. However, there is a different reason to why I’m starting this long rambling from the bus with jestem szalona. The verb “to be,” as seen in the phrases “I am…” and “you are…,” is necessary for basic communication in any language. Sometimes it can be difficult due to verb form irregularities. Before this summer, I have tutored many students in the subject of Canadian high school French. One stumbling block for many of these students is the French conjugation of être: “I am” translates to je suis and “they are” translates to ils sont (or elles sont if everyone in this plural group is female).

I am glad that I still remember French, even though I have not used this language often in the past two months. It gives me hope that I will not forget the 68 non-English sounding words that I have picked up during my stay in Poland. I counted 58 from my Polish phrasebook, five slang and curse words that are not found in this phrasebook, and five other non-Polish phrasebook words that summarize my entire Poland adventure. As you have perhaps noticed by now, my writing is not direct and I tend to manoeuvre around my points like the Polish epic poem Pan Tadeusz but without the literary wit, so any summary from me is still the equivalent of a five-hour lecture. But if I must prepare an originally concise Twitter status version of my trip, I would write the following words that were neither included in the Polish phrasebook nor the Lonely Planet Poland guidebook: reklama, Biedronka, zapiekanka, jabol, and disco polo.

Throughout my entire stay in Poland, I noticed a word that seemed to irritate Polish people more than an invasion of a bloodthirsty flock of mosquitoes at an evening barbeque: reklama. I had heard this word spoken in a seductively soothing voice quite frequently during my first week on quite a few radio stations, particularly RMF-FM because it played almost exclusively English songs and this blurb of Polish stood out, but I did not know what it meant. I also noticed a visual reklama notification after the conclusion of the UEFA European Championship matches that I watched on television in the first week of my stay with other WorldTeach staff at Makow Mazowiecki, a village two hours north of Warsaw, but I did not connect the dots. It was only with my first host family that I discovered reklama means “advertisement” and that it is mandatory for media outlets to notify viewers when another company is buying air time.

In Poland, there are other seemingly obvious disclaimers such as “SKLEP” for a general store. However, there are also many hidden places. In my teaching location of Stalowa Wola for example, a relatively new city of 75,000 citizens in Southeast Poland that is centred on its industrial factories (the name literally means “Steel Will”), I visited a bowling alley that is tucked away on the third floor of an ordinary house and I visited a cinema on the bottom floor of a block of flats. Clearly, there are no bright neon lights to highlight these places. Nevertheless, I enjoyed discovering these less-travelled-on paths and also, somewhat perversely, the unusually enormous collective disappointment that everyone in the movie theatre experienced when trailers and other reklamy (the plural form) appeared before the start of the film.

I will return to another discovery after a weeklong curiosity later. At the moment I am typing this sentence outside of Poznan, I just passed by yet another bright yellow and red ladybug shop. With over 16,000 locations, the Biedronka supermarket (though some stores are much smaller than the typical size of a supermarket) chain is quintessentially Polish, even if it is now owned by a French businessman. Although I understand that the average salaries in Poland are lower, the prices seemingly cannot undercut this store chain, which sells just about everything at a low cost. The variety of products on the shelves is exemplified when I saw UEFA European Championship footballs (it’s called “soccer balls” in Canada but I have gotten used to teaching British English by now) directly next to best-selling books, canned food, and camping supplies. The quality of the products is not terrible either. I appreciate the taste of the food that I purchased this morning (150 grams of blueberries, 4 rolls of bread, 1.5 litres of carbonated water, and 6 rice cakes for 9 zł; or roughly less than $3 CDN including tax).

Initially, I thought food would be expensive due to the 400 mL bottle of grapefruit juice that I bought for 20 zł at Warsaw-Chopin International Airport. With my fourth and final host family, I came full circle and drank about 20 zł worth of grapefruit juice – only that I consumed multiple glasses daily for nearly two weeks. While prices may be expensive at the airport, the prices of food at railway stations are substantially cheaper. In my first day, I was curious about the long halved open-top baguettes with cheese and tomato sauce with which many people walked around. Due to the fact that I was fed a ridiculous amount of food at the first hostel, where the staff there followed the adage “a guest in the house is like God in the house” or otherwise did not understand my poor pronunciation of nie dziękuję, I did not venture into any fast food stores. I am surprised that the Lonely Planet guidebook, upon reading the food section again, made several references to inexpensive “milk bar” restaurants but not kebab stores which, according to a student, ironically do not exist in Turkey.

The aforementioned baguettes that are sold in these kebab stores, or zapiekanka, are distinctively Polish. At the railway station where there are multiple kebab stores, one tube costs only 5 zł. My students were shocked to hear that I had never heard of this type of fast food before, though they were pleasantly delighted to hear that I have fallen in love with it. In fact, I finished a 70 cm tube of zapiekanka a few days ago, prompting surprise even from host family members who previously stated that my 57 kg build is borderline anorexic and I did not eat enough. My typical diet in my hometown of Vancouver neither involves copious amounts of saturated fat nor sugar, but rather complex carbohydrates from grains and other nutrients from vegetables. In the summer, I also tend to play tennis, football, and ball hockey quite frequently to stay in shape. Nevertheless, I can occasionally binge on eating due to this fact that my stomach is not filled with fat. There is a particular scientific method to the madness, as this phenomenon is evident with competitive hot dog eaters, which I have discussed alongside other American gluttonous stereotypes.

Because I have taken many social science and humanities classes in order to complete my Political Science degree, alongside my ethnic minority status which I cheerfully mock and celebrate, one long-running theme of my class deals with cultural stereotypes. My students, often late high school to university-aged with excellent English proficiency, are mature enough to have sophisticated discussions about a variety of different topics pertaining to life. Some of my students would be energetic enough to come to class on my teaching days of Monday to Thursday from 9 am until the school staff locks its doors and proceed to spend more time with me outside of the classroom setting. The original schedule of teaching 12 hours a week in separate student groupings was discarded in favour of “teaching” over 20 hours. There were times where I would provide longwinded lectures in the idealistic hope of being an inspirational figure…

But in reality, perhaps due to my experience as an on-call tutor with no clue what material my students would need to complete for homework, I would often go with the flow and keep conversations burning like the Olympic flame. Despite taking a specific Teaching English as a Foreign Language course which focused on rigid lesson planning, I mostly improvised my material based on student suggestions. Regarding improvisation, I showed a few episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and it culminated into acting out some of the skits in the last few classes. In particular, “Let’s Make a Date” (a dating type show where a contestant asks questions to a few bachelors who were given wacky roles unbeknownst to her) became a game that nobody wanted to end. A few students who were hesitant to speak English the first time they saw me turned out to be the most enthusiastic actors.

While I do not want to take the credit for transforming them, the overall atmosphere of the school made their steps forward possible. The headmaster of the school valued us like celebrities and even sent a couple of local news delegations to my school. One news delegation was expected, though I did not prepare for the interview and somehow I talked to the interviewer about zapiekanka. The other was unexpected, as only a cameraman walked into the classroom, snapped a few photographs, and wrote a news article laden with errors such as “an American student” of “young Asian beauty” from “Columbia University in New York” comes to teach in Poland through a “strict method.” I only discovered this article after I returned to school from my mid-summer conference in Gdansk, a Baltic port city about 11 hours away from Stalowa Wola. I suppose I could talk about Gdansk and all of the surreal castles, concentration camps, and culturally significant landmarks I have seen in more detail some other time, but much has already been written from other people about these places.

Building on the theme of discussing my five things that the Lonely Planet guidebook did not cover, I would frankly remember Gdansk fondly for jabol. The guidebook discusses the Polish tradition of vodka and the growing prevalence of beer, but for wine, Lonely Planet only mentions its historical unpopularity. The guidebook does not discuss the communist-era relic of cheap Polish fruit wine, with which I felt curious to experiment after a student the previous day brought it up when discussing the historical living conditions of his parents. Although I am not by any stretch a wine connoisseur, let’s just say that I did not find jabol as the “worst beverage ever” as another volunteer claims. Then again, my stylistic sense of taste, literally or figuratively, is different if not distorted. My style of writing, if you have made it this far into reading, is different too.

You may have noticed spontaneous allusions to certain issues and a theme of some sort that involves finding solutions to my curiosities. But to quote fellow Canadian Carly Rae Jepsen, who is a hit phenomenon in Poland, “Curiosity will never let me go.” The German police officer who just hopped on the Eurolines bus to check my Canadian passport would likely fit the mould too. The experience on this bus has been intriguing, as I have come full circle with my fifth and final point that is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The guidebook only mentions classical Chopin music and the rise of Polish hip hop in the 1990s, but nothing about the prevalence of English music on radio stations such as RMF-FM and nothing about the other trend of the 1990s: disco polo.

On the first day, an assistant to the WorldTeach program coordinator talked about this brand of Polish music with a not-so-subtle electronic beat overlaying cheesy lyrics. This brand of music is somewhat of a guilty pleasure for many Poles, as nobody admits to listening to it in their free time but at weddings or village barbeques, everyone would magically know every line of every song. Throughout the first week, I kept on asking, “Is this disco polo?” every time I heard a Polish song on the radio. Repeatedly, the WorldTeach coordinator said no. This topic, as well as the word reklama, lingered on my mind for the whole week until I met my first host family. One member promptly showed some of the most classic disco polo songs, and like love at first sight (a common theme in these songs), I was hooked. Not being a Pole, I find it easier to admit to watching Polo TV, attending a disco polo concert for over five hours, and participating in karaoke from these songs. Earlier on this long bus journey, I overheard another non-Pole profess his love for the song “Jesteś Szalona” by the group Boys. Coincidentally, that is my favourite disco polo song as well, perhaps because it was the first song shown to me and I kept on pronouncing it jestem instead of jesteś.

But maybe I am crazy after all.