Tuesday, 5 April 2016

A Gripping Polish Sociological Thriller

It's not really Polski Piątek, but I must share my experiences of a fascinating Polish book that lays bare the nature of Polish society. I found it in a rather gritty public library yesterday and was wholly absorbed for an hour and a half. Written by a sharp-eyed genius named Elżbieta Zubrzycka, this 50-page volume is called  Jak przechodzić przez ulicę?, i.e. "How to cross the street" (2014).

Jak przechodzić  (roughly pronounced YAK p'sh-HOAD-geesh) instructs Polish children in survival skills, particularly how not to be maimed or killed by Polish drivers. If you have ever been to Poland, you know how particularly important such skills are. It's not that Polish drivers are homicidal maniacs. It's just that every trip across town or across the country is a competition among all Polish men as to who among them is the most manly. Manliness is still a big deal in Poland; Polish men have not yet been liberated by their NATO allies from its confines. This, however, is outside of the book's purview. No doubt this is a strategic omission, so as to discourage the next generation of Polish boys from joining in the Great Masculinity Contest.

The book impresses upon Polish children that they must be very careful in crossing the street and that
they cannot trust drivers to see them or to stop. Very charmingly, it devoted pages to illustrating why. In one panorama of a crossing, it notes that this driver is putting on make-up, that driver is roaring with laughter at a joke he heard on the radio, this driver is crying because he is taking a sick puppy to the vet, this driver is very tired, this driver has just heard over her phone that her child is sick, et alia, et cetera. In one particularly dramatic page, a car is depicted as having run over some sand scattered in the road and crashed. One child onlooker is very amused by this accident, while the child behind her looks quite perturbed.

This critique of adult fecklessness extends to adult pedestrians, including a drunk man who is in danger of bumping others into the road. The fear of children being bumped, knocked or even dragged into the road permeates the book. Apparently it is dangerous to stand on the edge of Polish sidewalks, not only because you might be hit by a car mirror or cargo, but because an eddy of wind could carry you into the street.

The Great Masculinity Contest is alluded to insofar as children are told to ignore older children who try to entice the Polish child into games of Chicken. Even if a fellow child calls you a "Tchórz" (coward), you must not run into the street when cars are passing.  The reader is frequently told he or she must think for himself or herself and, in relation to Polish drivers, "Zadbaj o siebie!" (Take care of yourself!) Fans of the imperative mood will find much to love in this book.

But despite the book's mistrust of Polish drivers, it poignantly assumes the trustworthiness of quiet, slow-moving Polish adults. If the child is truly afraid of crossing the street, he or she is advised to find any adult who is not in a hurry and tell them of his or her predicament. The child must speak politely, loudly and distinctly so that the adult understands what they want. The book asserts that every adult will be happy to help the child cross the road. This is, of course, a contrast to books of Anglo-Saxon manners that assume  9 out of 10 adult strangers want to hurt children in some unspeakable way. However, it cannot be denied that Poles love their nation's children more than Anglo-Saxons do, or at least that Poles believe this.

At 50 pages, the book is comprehensive on the subject of the reasons why drivers cannot always see children in time to brak, the various kinds of dangerous activity to be discouraged on sidewalks and the many temptations children must resist. The latter include following a ball, a dog or the leader of a group of running children into the road. Zubrzycka seems to have a special distaste for Polish group-think: "Zadbaj o siebie!" could be seen as a post-Communist political motto.

After four and a half years of lackadaisical study at night school, the beginning readerof Polish can expect to master this volume in no more than two hours with the help of a Polish-English dictionary, skipping the adult-directed afterword, naturally.  In order to help such readers, I will append a glossary to the end of this post.  Ogólnie mówiąc, "Jak przechodzić przez ulicę?" is well worth your attention not only as a bold work of Polish sociological literature, but as crucial guide to surviving a trip to Poland.


szosa---road, highway
przejście dla pieszych pedestrian crossing
ostrożnie carefully
wyraźnie distinctly, clearly
przećwicz master!
brzeg edge
popchnąć to push off
zaczepić  to catch
ładunek load, cargo
wir whirl, eddy
przeszkoda obstacle
nawamiać encourage, persuade
tchórz coward
nie naśladuj do not imitate!
kałuza puddle
rozsypany (adj) scattered, spilled
w pędzące rushing
sanie sleighs (another hazard in Poland)
hamulec  car brake
kierownica steering wheel
przyzwyczajony do tempa accustomed to the timing, and yes, 3 Zs. Outrageous, I know.
wtem suddenly
(za)hamować slow down, brake
dbać to take care
zadbaj o siebie! take care of yourself!
oni popełniają they commit (i.e. make, e.g. mistakes)
na szybę through the windshield
oślepiać blind, dazzle
odbłaski reflectors (e.g. on bicycles)
śmiać się do rozpuku  to roar with laughter
worek sack, bag
poprzednik leader, i.e. chap in front
wyłącyać switch off
zelazko iron (for ironing clothes)
zataczać się to stagger (here, when drunk)
zagapić się to not pay attention*
oceń judge!
jak postępują how they are behaving
przepychać się push, elbow way through

*A small vandal took literally the book's invitation to draw an example of this, depicting a lady with a child and a baby in a pram at a crossing daydreaming about a man. The man is clearly labeled "Tato" ("Daddy"), a poignant insight into Edinburgh life--at least for Poles.

Important Update for Edinburgh:  The percentage of the adults standing at crossings in Leith Walk who will understand  if you say Chcę przejść przez ulicę is no more than 75%.

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