Touring foreign territories is always an amazing experience. It is also an amazing opportunity to meet interesting, friendly people, and offend them by accident. This month’s story covers faux pas, cultural oddities, and the probably bizarre perspectives of someone who grew up in a colony faced with a land so layered with history.
Poland is a country full of stories. It’s a country whose boarders have altered, waxed and waned, and even vanished entirely at one point between the two world wars. It’s a place with a tumultuous past, featuring invasions from neighbours on all sides.
In Wroclaw, day two of the Feb 2014 tour of Poland, I stood on a wooden stage in the murky lights of Club Lykend with my hand shielding my eyes from the glare so I could see the faces of the audience. They were a friendly crowd. Good natured and fun. Toasting each other around tables and giving me their undivided attention as soon as I began to play. We were in the city centre, where people have a lot of choice in terms of what is on, so I was pleased to have such an engaged set of people there. Both the town and the people had already made it a wonderful day. We’d driven in past century old buildings. Unloaded gear through tunnels of sagging stone that functioned as the entrance point to the car park. We’d wandered through the city centre, alive with students and tourists. I was still in awe of it all, which put me in the right place for attempting on-stage humour in a language I am still embarrassingly bad at.
photo: Sławek Niedlich
By the end of the show though, my on stage banter had still been mainly English, punctuated by the few sentences I knew in Polish, and a farcical demonstration of my ability to count to ten. Considering how hard I find Polish I still thought that was something of an achievement, and the applause and laughter from the audience gave me a boost in confidence to try more of what i knew, but it was near to the end of the gig.
Wroclaw, for those who aren’t familiar with it’s history, once belonged to Germany. There are a lot of towns in Poland that once belonged to some other country - in fact there are a lot of places throughout Europe with a stories like that. As a result though, the residents often live with the shadows of the past. Some of those shadows are painful. Others are more neutral - like the televisions in the hotels which show German channels as well as the usual Polish ones. A lot of German tourists visit Wroclaw because of family ties to the city. The television factor was handy for me at least. Given my inability to follow anything but the simplest children’s programmes in Polish, I had actually been watching the German ones. Having lived in Germany for 7 years I could relax and understand those. It was possibly that fact - or perhaps the fact that when I fail to come up with words in “foreign language 2”, my brain reverts to “foreign language 1” that set me up for what was to happen next in Club Lykend.
So, I am standing up there in front of this very accepting and wonderful audience, who live with a history I can barely comprehend having come from a colony myself. By now they have given me an encore and don’t want me to leave the stage. I’ve still only used a half dozen sentences in Polish, and want to ask them what kind of song they would like to hear as an encore - “Industrial or Folk” - those words I can muster, but follow-up is everything. I stumble over “we can vote on it” and then want to say “those who want a more folky song, raise your hands”. The first part of that sentence goes ok… I think. For the part about raising hands I feel my brain flutter and panic. I rifle through my tiny vocabulary to find the right words, but go into a sort of fly-on-the-wall mode. That’s what happens when I panic. I ended up watching myself there, on stage in a town with a history of invasions and leaders bargaining with the lives of its residents, a naive woman from the colonies where everything is always happy and sunny and superficial. I looked out over that sea of friendly faces who can smile and share a joke despite the fact that their forbears had experienced terrible things at the hands of the Germans, the Russians, the Ukranians, you name it.
My mouth opened, and said to them:
There is a moment of stunned silence - like people are trying to decide if I could seriously have said that. I get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that comes when you know you just did something unalterably stupid. Then the laughter came. Cheers even. A woman in the corner contemplated saying “bitte nicht schiessen” (I know this as she told me afterwards ;)). They actually encored me again. I still can’t believe how forgiving some people are, and how good humour can transcend the most embarrassing moments ever.
After the show several of the audience members came to the merch desk and had a chat. More laughter as they explained to me the total faux pas that that comment was. I was relatively gobsmacked that they hadn’t written me off for it - and even more amazed that it became a great discussion between a bunch of people interested in history and human experience. Sometimes the stupidest things in the world lead to good experiences in the end. Krzyiek, my booker, and from Poland himself, had a mischievous glint in his eye throughout the whole discussion.
"That went well, you know. Maybe you should say it again in Warsaw tomorrow"
"No fuckin way" was my reply.
As with any mistake so greviously amusing, it becomes a “thing” on tour. Krzyiek proceeded to ‘take the piss’, as we say in New Zealand, for the rest of the eve and the next day as well. Little did he know, faux pas transcend all nationalities and cultures. His time would come soon enough.
above: another faux pas. This is the image I posted to facebook on the morning of the trip. It is actually a picture of PRAGUE!
Day three. The drive to Warsaw was a long one, but not as long as it might have been. Many of Poland’s highways are so new, we were one of the first cars on them. Krzyiek hadn’t driven them before, and not because he didn’t drive about a lot.
"Some the highways we will drive on were not here when I toured UK Subs a few weeks ago" he informed me. It explained why everything looked so new. And why we passed so many bridges that spanned valleys or other highways but that weren’t connected up to anything. It was a little surreal, and we were tired. I drifted off in the passenger seat.
When I woke we were driving through forest. My neck hurt from the odd angle I’d fallen asleep at, and I leaned my head on the window. A face flashed past. It looked garish, and overly made up, but I wasn’t awake enough yet to look back behind us. By the time I was more alert, we were still driving through forest. Thick and mature and occasionally punctuated by track marks where rest stops for truckers had been set up, or where parts of the forest itself had been driven into and milled. Up ahead, on one of those muddied tracks into the forest I saw another woman. White boots with tassels. Made up. Short skirt. She didn’t have her thumb out, nor did she do that undulating-your-arm thing that hitchers do in Poland. We passed her, and my stare was met with a scowl.
"Is she lost or just really bad at hitching?"
"Neither" muttered Krzyiek.
Less than a few minutes on there was another woman, similarly dressed. She shuffled her weight foot to foot like she was waiting for someone.
"Why are all these women hanging out in a forest in the middle of nowhere?"
"Can’t you tell by how they’re dressed?" was Krzyiek’s reply.
And what is weird is, my brain had actually gone there - at least inasfar as the thought “that dress makes that poor woman looks like a hooker”. It was as if context, clothing, and the way people stand will always come together to give you the clues you need. Regardless of how strange that context is, or what country you are in.
"They’re hookers? Seriously?"
"Hookers in the middle of nowhere?"
"Bloody hell. How did they even get there? And who picks up hookers who randomly materialize in the middle of a forest?"
Krzyiek proceeded to explain that it was all arranged by phone.
"What, like ‘meet me in the darkest depths of some huge national park, where noone can hear me scream’?" I inquired.
"It’s pretty scary eh" Krzyiek agreed.
And despite the lamentable state of those women’s plight - many of them are Romanian and fleeing backgrounds of poverty to try anything they can, no matter how dangerous, to make a fresh start - the only thing that keeps you awake on long drives is really humour. It was a lot nicer to think of Forest Whores, as we named them, as some distant, X-rated RPG relative of Dark Elves or Cave Dwarves. The forests of Poland are sadly devoid of the latter. But we did have an experience with a Road Hog: a truck driver who was so angry at us passing him that he followed us terrifyingly close until we were scared enough to pull over into a gas station.
Krzyiek got out to sort the petrol. I stayed in the car.
"We can wait a while till that crazy guy is gone" he said. I stayed put, still shaken. I was happy where I was in the car.
"You should probably get out and spread your legs" he said.
It took me a while to explain what that meant, as I couldn’t stop laughing. We were even now, he declared, red faced. I had said something offensive to my own audience, and he had just used a line on one of his own bands/musicians that was probably the standard text used back in those forests.
The tour continued, and not without instances of hilarious embarrassment, but in those first few days, we had both set the bar fairly high.