Archive for September, 2014

Poland: gorning, books, transport, doors

September 16, 2014

It is polite, and useful, to know a few phrases of the local language, even if you don’t speak any more of it. My Polish right now consists of “Hello!”, “Thank you (very much)!”, “Goodbye!”, and a few random words, most of which I don’t know how to pronounce.

The Polish for “Sorry!” is przepraszam; I don’t know how to say that.

The problem is, when you start an interaction with a cheerful Dzien dobry!, you then quickly have to employ an “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Polish!” — because hey, if someone says hello to you in Poland in Polish, it’s a good guess that they speak Polish. And I’m not sure how to say the thing well enough to be understood, but clunkily enough to not be mistaken for a native with a head cold.

Or, well, you can easily imagine your native hellos and goodbyes, and how they could be said in tones that would be very inappropriate. Leering. Sneering. Snooty sarcasm. The like. How do you avoid these, when the totality of the interaction is hello and goodbye while sharing an elevator?

Also, you do find yourself gorning a bit for effect. Say, once you’ve acquired the sausage, looking aside for a moment, as if trying to remember something, and then coming out with the thank-you-very-much, saying it perhaps not quite as well as you could, while smiling hesitantly. And oh, do the meatmaid’s eyes light up!

…I have no idea what to call the sausage and cheese desk’s attendant and sausage-scale-operator. “Meatmaid” is probably not it.


There are more bookshops in Poland than in Finland, I think. In absolute numbers, of course; but also relatively.

Most of the books they sell are in Polish — some don’t have anything at all in English! Shock! Grief! — but the Polish titles are interesting, too. There seem to be a lot of Polish fantasy writers; I can’t say anything about their quality, but their covers do kick ass with +2 Boots of Posterior Punishment.

I even saw a translation of S. T. Joshi’s Lovecraft: A Life in one shop, and only got away by telling myself that that would not be a good primer for learning the language — and then closing my eyes and running in the direction of the door.

I keep being kicked in the head by Poland being a market of 30 million, instead of Finland’s 5 million; I think maybe I’ve never really realized how limited the number of titles translated into Finnish is.

But of books in English: I’ve found two horrible sinks of money already.

One is the American Bookstore in the Arkadia shopping center; I think they’re closing that branch in November, so that partly explains their crazy prices. They offer new paperbacks for 5 and 10 zl — like for a literal buck or two! And their selections are made by someone with good taste, that, that is, a taste much like mine. (Except that they have a combined shelf for history and, uh, politically-motivated current events narratives, and the second really leans to the right.) (Their website is kind of unhelpful on their locations; and on Google Maps there’s a ghost of a store on Novy Swiat that I don’t think exists anymore. I hope the shop gets back on its feet and keeps a location somewhere in Warsaw; they have a great catalogue and, not surprisingly, a staff that speaks very good English.)

The other place is Ksiegarnia MDM (at Koszykowa 53, I think), and is more your standard current-titles bookstore, distinguished by its great and varied amount of books in English. (I think “ksiegarnia” means “kirjakauppa” means “bokhandel” means “Buchhandlung” means “honnya” means bookshop; there are words you just have to know.)

Haven’t had time to find any used books shops yet. Then again, when you can buy, e.g., a brand new pocket Polish-English-Polish dictionary for 4.99 zl, and 4 zlotys are about one euro or a dollar, there’s no pressing need!

As for Polish authors — eh, since I don’t read Polish, I prepared for this transition by buying a Stanislaw Lem and an Andrej Sapkowski. The former is a classicist of satirical science fiction; the latter is 90s fantasy about swords and dragons and intersections of those; not quite as bleak as Martin, but sort of R.E. Howard-ish.

Then I’ve of course bought the two-volume God’s Playground, a History of Poland, written by Norman Davies, because everyone seems to agree that that’s the best history of Poland there is, and that includes some Polish schools. (And many years ago, when I was abroad for my first mathematical conference, the conference happened to be in Poland, and a recommendation for this book is the one thing I remember of the guide’s speech during our afternoon excursion: “if you want to know more, read this”.)

I haven’t started that history book yet; I somehow left Ksiegarnia MDM with a copy of Tuf Voyaging by this Martin or somebody, and I’ve been reading that. Great stuff.


There are nine letters in Polish that are not found in your general English alphabet. One of them looks like a struck-through L.

It’s pronounced like W because fuck you foreigners, that’s why.


There’s a buttload of buses and trams going in all directions in Warsaw, and a north-south line of metro and a second west-east line that’s apparently going to be ready any day now.

These all use the same ticket, available in a scary variety of durations; and if you have a photo of yourself you can fill this form online, and a day later pick up an official, free Warsaw City Card.

That card doesn’t do anything, but it can be loaded with, say, a 90-day ticket, and then you just swipe it to get into the metro, and smile smugly while keeping it in your pocket to get on the buses and trams.

There are inspectors; in three weeks of quite casual tram-ing and bussery and metrofaring, I’ve had my ticket checked twice. (Or if those were not inspectors, then I haven’t realized how they scammed me yet.)

There’s a website (also an Android app) called Jakdojade, which is excellent for finding out how to get from A to B when the clock shows C. You just plug in the street addresses or place names, and boom! it calculates several transport combinations for you, tells you which stops to get in and out on, and how many stops are between those and what they’re called, and shows a map.

If you had the time (we mathematicians thought over coffee), you could easily get hold of the coordinates of all bus and tram stops and metro stations, and then divide Warsaw into pieces by the closest transport entrypoint. (That must be a part of what Jakdojade does, I think.) I think the pieces, at least in downtown, would be quite small.

There’s some kind of a measure of urban ease of travel lurking there, but I’m not applied enough to find it. Maybe if you took, say, ten thousand randomly distributed point-pairs in Zone 1, and the same number of random hours of the day, and asked Jakdojade how long it would take to get from one to the other… you would have a denial of service attack.

Or you could find the place in Warsaw from which it is, on average, the quickest to get to anywhere else in Warsaw. (I’m supposing that’s the Centrum metro station.) You could, uh, create a deformed map that showed not physical distance but travel distance; these are common with metro maps, but you could do it for the aboveground city, too!

And I’m saying “you” because I’m too lazy.


So this new mathematical place has a doorman. Who is most of the time a doorwoman, so maybe I should say: a doorperson.


No, that sounds like a creature from some dodgy expansion of Dungeons and Dragons.

“A doorperson has the appearance of a normal no-good blackguard, but any melee attack on it causes the attacker to hit whatever target is on the other side of the doorperson. If that space is empty, the attacker stumbles through and ends in that space him- or herself. When a doorperson is slain, it drops a key. They key is worth 50 gp and will open locked doors.”

What I am saying is, if I was a doorguy, I would last in that job about three days before I started a betting pool with the other doorcharacters over who comes to work before whom.

“Well, professor A is very regular, and quite early. Assistant B is all over the place. His average arrival is later than A’s, so he’s kind of a risky bet… but he has a deadline this week so I’m willing to gamble he’s going to be in early.”

Then after a week there would be a scandal; shaky cellphone video of a doorkeeper slipping a graduate student a twenty and saying “Come to work early, tomorrow. Ask no questions. This may be a new incentive thing, or the professors might be monitoring you. Or this can be just for a doorman bet, you know, ha ha ha.”

I’m in Poland now

September 16, 2014

I’m in Poland now; have been here since late August. While in Finland, I was kind of mum about what university I was in, exactly; this was mostly just paranoia.

Now, since this city has several universities in which mathematics is done, and I think several other institutions of the same sort, not all of them lodges of the Society of Unaussprechliche Geheimnis Eulers, I think I’m willing to say I’m in Warsaw.

Because, uh, if I didn’t say that, blogging about my daily life here would be kind of difficult IGNORE THE HUGE LANDMARK AT THE BACK OF THIS PHOTO.

(What I’m thinking of when I say “huge landmark” is the Palace of Culture and Science, which is both huge, a landmark, and a huge landmark. Seriously, when you see it over the trees from the park next to it, you think “Oh, that’s just some clock tower”, and then you wonder how that clocktower starts twenty stories up.)

Warsaw is so far a nice place and the Polish people are nice and friendly. If they have been anything else, then I have not noticed because I don’t speak Polish. I’m not yet sure if I’m going to change this; I obviously know the polite nothings, dzien dobry and all that.

I’ll be here for a year at least. More if I feel like it and can find funding, or it they start finding the bodies of those hitchhikers back in Finland.


I’ve been repeatedly advised that the tap water is not good for drinking. Locals boil it; I’m not quite that casual yet, and buy these huge 5-liter canisters of ordinary water from the closest shop. And when you lug 5-liter canisters around for a few weeks, you will find the closest shop. It’s a stone’s throw from the front door of my apartment building — heck, it would be a stone’s drop away if I lived in a different corner. (But dropping stones would not be polite. Not even if there were banknotes tied to them; what would they do, try to lob the canister up at me?)

Now. Since Polish tapwater is dubious, they have a huge market for bottled water. Or, at least, a huge market compared to that of Finland, where undrinkable tap water is a national news headline. (Not kidding; a while ago there was a problem with the pipes of a town, and it was in the evening news for as long as it lasted — “are for the third day advised to boil the water before using”, said in tones of incredulity and concern.)

This means Poland has available the greatest thing ever: water with flavor.

Not regular normal water (woda) which is boring and even when bottle-pure tastes kind of like shit because I’m used to tastes; and not carbonated (gazowana) water, which tastes like boiling shit. Just normal water, with a hint of apple, or peach, or some berry added to it.

That’s seriously the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted, at least partly because of the psychological factors. It is presumably healthy, or at least health-neutral, and also tastes good — what is this wizardry?

However: there are bottles side-by-side on the shelves which are identical except for one word in tiny font somewhere on the label. Some say “gazowana“. Others say “niegazowana“. In Polish, “nie” means “no”, and “gazowana” means “the boiling anal fluids of Lucifer Satan”.

I’ve been burned several times.

Once, I bought a sixpack of two-liter bottles of some football-branded water, lugged them home, got out the cooking pot, opened the first bottle—

Fizz! Bubble!

That day I also learned that you can cook pasta with carbonated water. It looks really disturbing, but the end result is edible.


Shopping is not really that difficult, because it’s not that different. You don’t read the packaging all that much anyway, do you? Just don’t be fussy, and don’t buy the flour with the pictures of clean clothes on it.

(Though there are times I have been very happy for insisting on a Polish mobile plan with Internet access. Google Translate is, after the flavored water, the best thing I know of right now.)

(Though I’ve heard the smoothest way to get over language problems is to get a local girlfriend or boyfriend. This is great, but I haven’t found that shelf yet.)


I’ve been stuffing myself with fat Polish sausage for—

And we have entered the zone of the double entendre.

No really, the butcher’s desks at the local shops are nicely varied. My mouth’s made of cardboard and sandpaper so I can’t say anything smart about the quality or the variety, but it’s nice to go to the desk, drool at the dozens of choices, point, and say “Four!”

Better still, when the price then is four zlotys or something — one euro, or a little over a dollar. I’ve been joking for weeks now that in Finland and in Polish, the prices are the same — but in Finland they’re euros and in Poland zlotys!

In case that “joke” needs more explanation, it suggests everything is four times cheaper in Poland. This is not entirely untrue.

For example: A 1 l bottle of Coca-Cola costs 3.83 zl; I don’t remember the Finnish price, because you do not put a price on the black water of life, but I would be surprised if it wasn’t around 4 euros.

Oh, and bottles? Plastic bottles, formerly of lemonade and water, piling up in profusions? There’s no bottle return system; they all go in the trash. This is causing problems because I have by now a lifetime habit of collecting empty bottles in the same place, in the hopes of getting a small amount of money by clunking them then into the returns machine, found at the doorside of every grocery store everywhere.

So now I have this forest of bottles, that I occasionally and sullenly glance at, and then harvest a few to fill the trash bag, feeling as if I’m doing something wrong.

Maybe if I found a big shipping container and a Baltic cargo ship… do you suppose the Finnish returns machines would accept these bottles — is there a special barcode or something?


More to come, soon.