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On British Irreverence

December 18th, 2011

I have recently re-watched the British animated film “Father Christmas” (1991), which is based on two graphic novels by Raymond Briggs – “Father Christmas” (1973) and “Father Christmas Goes on Holiday” (1975).

As on the first viewing of the film, I was amazed at the subversive interpretation of this classic children’s character – Santa is a grumpy old man, who likes his liquor and complains about his job. He goes on holidays to France, then Scotland and Las Vegas, where he over-indulges on drink, food and partying before returning home to read his post and prepare for his busies day of the year. We never hear him say “Merry Christmas” – instead he calls it “Bloomin’ Christmas” – and that’s the curse word (milder version of “bloody”) he uses in every sentence in the film.

Raymond Briggs Father Christmas

Brigg’s Santa is not unlikeable and he has a good heart, but he is depicted as much more human than the St Nicholas I had grown up with in Poland. Watching this animation, my reaction was a totally mixed one including disbelief (are you for real?), confusion (but you can’t do this!), amusement (this is funny!), guilt (I shouldn’t be seeing Santa’s naked bottom!) and awe (you couldn’t get away with this in Poland!). It also brought home the fact that, despite seeing myself as an open-minded person, I have been brought up with a certain model of the world and that it is hard to see beyond that experience.

This irreverence and taboo breaking seems to me a very British thing: from King Henry VIII’s break up with the Catholic church to comedy shows of today (“Father Ted” is a good example) – Brits seem to be always questioning authority and testing the limits of what is allowed and what isn’t. “Father Christmas” made me realise that there is a big difference in mentality between Britain and Poland, with the latter one desperately trying to hold onto its national heroes and traditional figures of authority (political, religious or cultural) and maintain their special status – above everyone else. In Britain, nothing is really off-limits – one can make jokes about the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Church, the politicians and Santa Clause. After all, we are all only human!

“So jump up on my sleigh and we’re all on our way to another bloomin’ Christmas!”

Raymond Briggs - Father Christmas




Adventures with Bilingualism

November 19th, 2011

Kasper is now 3,5 years old and his linguistic explorations continue to amaze and entertain us in both languages. I speak mostly Polish to him, while the shared language at our home and in the nursery is English. It is proving more and more difficult to keep the two languages separate, but also to use Polish consistently on my part. The English-language surroundings are becoming more prominent, as Kasper is becoming increasingly more interactive, conversational and interested in socialising with his peers (as well as snails, dogs, cats, sheep and any other creatures we encounter on a regular basis).

Kasper’s vocabulary is expanding every day and his sentences are becoming more complex and grammatically correct. Since starting the nursery, his English stock of phrases has been enriched by typical play/interaction vocabulary, which indicates acquiring new social skills of negotiation and rule-making:
-What colour do you want? (dividing up the toys to ensure everyone knows whose in charge of which train)
-That’s wrong. This way! (verbalising rules of the game)

At the same time, he is learning to express his feelings (-Kasper is very cross! or in Polish – Kasper gniewa) and his wishes (-I don’t like that! or in Polish –Nie lubię. Coś innego (Something else)).

Kasper continues to mix up both languages, although he will make entirely English or entirely Polish sentences. He will also make phrases using both languages and inflect English words with Polish endings (e.g. meerkatów, even though he knows very well the Polish term “surykatka“). His grasp of grammar in both languages is becoming more and more apparent, however, it also reveals the limitations of learning Polish mainly from one source of language. Kasper often uses the feminine form when referring to himself (Polish verbs contain this information in their endings, while English ones don’t), and would say –Zrobiłam / Posprzątałam / Wstałam…I am trying to signal to him that there is a difference between the way boys and girls express stuff, but hope that he will naturally pick up some cues from his Polish cousins.

Kasper likes to repeat new words and Polish pronunciation poses no difficulty to him, but sometimes he gets the words wrong. Recently, as a result of learning the word “policja” (the police) and Alicja (my name) – he started mispronouncing “ulica” (street/road) as “ulicja”, a word he previously used correctly. When practising the correct pronunciation, he sometimes loses his patience with me and mocks me and my didactic tone of voice. Similarly, he used to be able to say “babcia Jadzia” referring to his Polish great grandmother, but in recent days has started saying “babcia dziadzia” (it’s easier), which I find hilarious (sounds like he was saying “grandfather’s grandmother”), but also a little embarrassing in front of my grandma.

We have just spent some time in Poland, which I think charged his Polish language batteries a bit. Kasper managed to communicate very well with my family, although confusions are still inevitable and we, the parents, remain the only people on the planet who really get the more obscure utterings and references in this 3,5-year-old’s code, whether in English or in Polish or both.




Fry’s Planet Word

September 20th, 2011

I am looking forward to a new programme by Stephen Fry on world languages: Fry’s Planet Word. It will be shown on BBC2 from the 25th September.

In a recent interview Jonathan Ross described Stephen Fry as the most desired party guest, and I must agree. I would love to be sat next to him at a dinner party – he is definitely a Renaissance man and I doubt he has time to sleep. Not with all the blogging, twitting, writing, filming he seems to be doing.

By the way – here is Stephen Fry’s website – which I do find really cool and colourful – just as Fry’s life seems to be.

Stephen Fry's website




This is a rather amusing story of one of my favourite radio stations and how I got to know of its existence. Nowadays, I listen to it online on my laptop or through my wifi radio and I love it just the same as the first time I heard it. This is a story of true love at first hearing, followed by a heartbreaking separation and a happy reunion after years.

After my graduation in Poland in June 2004, I joined my husband to be in the UK and we started off living in a very central area of Brighton. We were flat-minding a lovely little apartment in the first few weeks while searching for somewhere else to live in the long term. We were driving back home one evening when we picked up this fantastic radio station that really mesmerized us. Very quickly we found it on our home radio and just marvelled at the great music taste of the DJs and the programming. It played everything from jazz, blues, chanson, world music, film music and classical, often in playful sequence with original track immediately followed by a sampled version or around some theme. We were intrigued by the fact that the station was French (neither of us speaks any French) and played music non-stop with only short news updates and introductions. Most of the DJs were female with very sexy and velvety voices.

Alas! After we moved into our flat in Brighton’s ‘posher but duller’ twin – Hove – we were out of range of our mystery radio station. Had I known this, I would have negotiated a 10% discount on rent…

Soon after this, I read a whole article in a Brighton newspaper about the radio station FIP (France Inter Paris), a niche French public station broadcast from Paris, whose radio waves mysteriously cheat the laws of physics and reach Brighton of all places (but not Hove!). After two FIP-lean years, I discovered to my great joy that FIP could be played online from their own website with all track titles provided live, and a few years later I upgraded the sound quality thanks to my wifi radio. Whenever I put FIP on, I feel like I am joining a celebration of musical eclecticism or embark on an expedition of musical discovery.

In the meanwhile, I learnt that FIP was illegally re-broadcast in Brighton for seven years by its most avid fan who installed two transmitters in the area. This continued until 2007 and a closure of the pirate station by Ofcom to the dismay of many Brightonians. Nevertheless, Brighton continues to reverberate with the Parisian sound with a local appreciation society Vive la FIP keeping up its regular DJ nights and get-togethers for the fans of the station.

Bonne écoute!




Certified Translation: the UK Way

November 24th, 2010

One of my most bizarre experiences as a translator took place some time ago not so long after my move to the UK. An agency asked me to translate a marriage certificate, which then needed to be certified by an affidavit. I had to check in my dictionary what an ‘affidavit’ is and found out that it is a formal statement sworn in front of a notary public. It seemed so far departed from Poland, where to become a sworn translator you not only need the right qualifications (a relevant degree), but also have to take a rigorous competence exam organised by the Ministry of Justice. After that you receive an official stamp and can certify your own translations, which is required in case of most official documentation (marriage, birth certificates, etc).

Photo courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski

Photo courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski

I arranged a meeting with a notary public who was also the ‘taker of oaths’ and brought my translation with me not sure what to expect of the whole process. The notary’s office was based in a house which could have been taken out of a Dickens’ novel. I was ushered into a room where I waited for the notary, who soon turned up wearing his black robe and looking rather distracted. He looked at my translation and the original text, marked them as page A and page B and then offered me the Bible (sic!) to put my hand on. Amazing! I felt like in an American court movie, while at the same time thinking that I might as well be swearing on Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.

He pronounced:
‘Do you swear that the text A is an accurate translation of text B?’
‘I do’ (pharyngeal swallowing sound). He scribbled some sort of signature underneath my translation.
‘OK, please pay £16 at the reception.’
‘But wait a minute! How about some sort of official stamp?’
‘Oh, she wants a stamp. There you go’, he sounded amused, like he was pampering his little niece by letting her play with his stationary.
‘And receipt??’ I really panicked here. I was wondering what evidence there was of me obtaining the ‘certification’ that I could present to the agency who hired me.
‘Oh, the receptionist will give you a receipt. Good bye!’ and he disappeared into the back rooms of the house.

I paid and collected my receipt (which I still have as a keepsake) and left with total confusion and disbelief. The agency was very happy with the translation and they did not question the affidavit. I guess it must have still had the aura of credibility bestowed on it by the notary public’s magical powers to turn a translation into an accurate translation. Cross my heart and hope to die!




This post is now slightly overdue, but just wanted to comment on one aspect of living abroad – voting from abroad.

Back in July this year, we had a presidential election in Poland, obviously quite a serious one following the tragic death of the president and many other high ranking officials in a plane crash in April.

I was listening to the radio on the election day and heard of Polish families living in the United States travelling for hundreds of miles in order to be able to cast their vote in the large US cities. Compared to that my 15 minute bus trip to the Polish Embassy in Berlin was such a trivial affair – not really worth mentioning. It did make me wonder however what I would do in such situation and if my patriotic feelings were strong enough to warrant making a much bigger effort (not to mention the expense). The answer, is no, my emotional attachment to the Polish political machinery has its limitations, and rationally thinking – there is enough Poles living in Poland to allow them to make those decisions themselves.

However, this does not stop me from voting whenever possible – I did vote in London in 2007 when to my horror I discovered the biggest queue ever going round the Polish Embassy building in London. It took me 5 hours to finally get to vote, but somehow once there in the queue with fellow Polish voter-wannabes it felt impossible to back out. Also, it was probably the one time when I really felt part of the Polish community in Great Britain and derived some comfort from that. It felt good to cast my vote that day – particularly as it did bring a change of government – and it reminded me why we shouldn’t take our civil rights lightly or for granted.




This is now long overdue, back in May I promised a sequel to my earlier post What Poles Could Learn from the Brits, and here it comes – the chance to retaliate and pick on the Brits, or “Angole” – as we call them in Polish slang.

Fiat 126p - Polish 'Maluch'

Going through my list of points to mention in relation to this, I can’t help but think that they all seem to revolve around the ‘fun’ department. Now, Poles may be a melancholic and disgruntled folk on an every day basis, but we sure know how to have fun when it comes to it. For example, parties held at home are so much better than pub get-togethers. Yes, you do have to make some effort preparing them and with cleaning up, but the atmosphere is also so much better. And no one worries about catching the last bus at 11pm – that’s when the party really gets going. At 3am, any sofa or armchair is as good as your own bed, so why not stay for breakfast as well…

Polish parties can also be completely spontaneous. You drop in at your friends after work for a quick chat, and before you notice the table magically fills with some nice nibbles and snacks (Poles are good at making party food out of nothing), a chilled bottle of vodka and you find yourself talking until the early hours about life, the universe and the meaning of friendship.

Not far off partying, is dancing. Brits could definitely learn from Poles how to dance. It is one of the most important social skills for every man (particularly for men, as it comes more naturally to women) to learn a few basic dance steps. Guys who can dance (as in, lead their dance partner) are really in high demand amongst women and so they would only be doing themselves a favour by changing their reticent British attitude. It is somehow embarrassing in Britain for men to dance, but excellence in swinging with your beer glass just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Talking of beer, I am a great fan of the British ale, even though it does take some getting used to. But when it comes to lager beer (Polish equivalent of ‘piwo jasne‘) the Brits have just no clue. Carling? Fosters? That’s perhaps good for rinsing your teeth, but surely not for enjoyment as an ‘alcoholic’ drink? Why take a bland beer from Australia (brewed under license in the UK) as one of your staple pub drinks, when you could be importing the best from the masters of brewing on the ‘continent’? Germany, the Czech Republic or Poland would be far better suppliers of good quality lager. The trouble with the Brits is that drinking beer in this country is not about enjoyment, refreshment on a hot sunny day or the quality of taste – it is about the number of pints you can manage per hour. No offence to my British friends, there are of course exceptions.

Another observation that springs to mind, is the question of elegance. Poles tend to be more elegant than Brits in general, but also dress up for many special occasions to mark their importance. Christmases, Easters, birthdays and baptisms all warrant putting on a special dress in a woman’s case, or wearing a suit and a tie in a man’s case. In Britain, the only occasion where I have seen people make a real effort to dress up are weddings. Don’t you all British girls and women just die waiting to show off your evening dresses a bit more often? Is a Christmas family dinner nothing more than yet another meal so ‘I might as well wear the same T-shirt that I had on when washing my car this morning’? Brits should definitely learn how to make special occasions special.

OK, I think I am done with my tirade. Got it off my chest and I feel much better now. I hope none of my British family members and friends take any of what I have said above personally. I love you as you are and you have welcomed me in your country, but as an expat I do miss Polishness and want to celebrate what is good about it. Just like you would miss you baked beans for breakfast in Poland.




One of the perks of a freelancing job is the possibility to choose where you want to live. Although in practice this is always more complicated than just packings your bags and moving, within the European Union it is actually viable. So, we have decided to exploit this opportunity and for the last two months we have been living in our favourite European city – Berlin.

There are many good things about Berlin (the weather is definitely not one of them), but to us it has always had the appeal of being situated half-way between the UK and Poland. We have calculated that the journey time door-to-door is probably the same when taking the train to Lodz or when flying to London. This is somehow fairer to both families and balances the sense of guilt for not living a street down from one’s parents evenly between both spouses.

The extra bonuses are Berlin’s vibrant cultural scene, great architecture, high ceilings, Christmas markets, currywurst, doner kebabs, warm rolls from the baker and our dear friends who we get to see on a regular basis. Oh, and one more thing. The state subsidised Kindergarten costing roughly ONE TENTH (yes 10%) of what it would cost in the UK.

So this is an interesting question: why does the German government think it is good to encourage new mums to return to work (full-time or part-time, any capacity is supported) when they feel ready and the UK government thinks it is good for you to hand over your whole salary (or most of it) to private childcare or else sit on your bum all day (metaphorically speaking, that is) or work at nights if you are lucky enough to have a profession which allows that?

The latter would be my fate if we continued living in the UK. For the past few months, I have had a fair share of working late nights translating as this is the only time for me to focus. This is not good for me nor my health, and it hardly leaves any time for my partner. OK, it is my choice, you can blame me for having professional ambitions or being greedy and not appreciating the hard work of the childcare workers who need to be justly remunerated for this hardest job of all. I apologise for wanting to progress and wanting to pay more taxes… I did try though, I have been on a waiting list for a crèche located conveniently for my UK work for over a year now. Maybe we get a place when Kasper is 16 years old and is ready to move out from home anyway…

Childcare subsidy costs are certainly contributing to Berlin’s financial dire straits. For a few years now we have been hearing that the city is bankrupt, but somehow it keeps going and there is no news on cutting down the support for young families. In turn, it allows me to increase my work output, pay higher taxes and keeps me a happy citizen feeling useful and good about myself. Yes, talk about making savings on medical cost of treating apathy and depression among women and cut divorce rate by 25%. Isn’t this bill worth footing after all?

One thing I will say that I miss about Britain while in Germany (apart from good tea) is children’s BBC channel. This is British culture at its best – the quality of the programmes is top notch and they are well pitched at the youngest and highly selective viewers. I owe thanks to CBeebies for the precious moments of reclaimed time when I had a chance to enjoy a cup of tea or have a little doze early in the morning.

Thank you CBeebies!