Poland 2007: Miętne, first impressions and first week

Poland 2007: Miętne, end of week two

2008-05-28Poland 2007: Miętne, end of first week

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On Saturday we escaped to Warsaw, Maria helping us get a bus from the building site on the opposite side of the motorway (all services and schedules were affected by the construction, many technically not running at all...) We got into the city next to the Chinese market and rode the trams through to the old town, where we'd been able to book a couple of rooms in a cheap hostel right off the square. Warsaw's not the most exciting or least touristy of places – I really don't like the new town, which reminds me of most British cities and feels about as safe – but it was a relaxing weekend. Mick and I decided we wanted fast food more than sit-down fare and went and got felafel (sadly about as far from authentic as it gets) and had eaten and sat talking about college for ages before the others even got served at the place they settled on. We went back and ordered dessert with them, and Lizzy handled the street beggar who was working his way around the restaurant's customers by responding with a stream of Danish. Later some people went clubbing and the rest of us got some kip, particularly my sister (who hadn't been getting proper sleep during the week on camp.) People were getting very good at tending to our ill and crippled, though, keeping energy food and water around for when they regained consciousness.

The camp gave us some money towards food too, which was unexpected, as they'd apparently had a budget for some staff to join an excursion to Kazimierz Dolny.

Saturday we made a tram run to Arkadia, a huge American-style shopping centre out towards the new town. Paul picked up some computer speakers, and the ladies went window shopping. There wasn't really anything I was after, so I picked up a copy of Stwory Nocy (lit. something like "night creatures") and a small dictionary, to go with the fast food and lounging in a café area with cups of tea. It was an exercise in finding civilisation, basically. Sally got notebooks for people to jot down what they'd been teaching (surprisingly difficult things to get on-camp) and made a start on trying to sort out a teaching rota for the following week, as the kids had fed back that they'd like to get to know different staff and we had lots of new people due to arrive.

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Afterwards we parked ourselves in the train station café and waited for Anthony and Cat, with a second batch (Mark, Chris and Ally) joining us a bit later. Anthony revealed he'd built Sally up in his imagination as being quite different – as a forty year old lesbian slave driver, apparently – and we got the full story of what he and Cat had been doing at a two-week camp that had run before we'd arrived: their team leader had bailed on them just before they were due to depart England, so five or six of them had turned up and been presented with a bunch of kids, many from the local area and very young (we're talking under tens) to try to teach and been expected to run all of the other activities – Maria had also had a class herself to try to keep numbers manageable. Plus, of course, the fact two people from their party got assigned to a separate camp, after which they never saw them...By the second week of this they'd rebelled and refused to do quite as much, but as they hadn't had a leader or any idea what to expect hadn't simply refused initially as we'd done. Afterwards most of their people had gone travelling separate ways, but Anthony and Cat came back because it'd been established that way they'd come on tour with our group.

We hadn't been quite sure how anyone would take news that they shouldn't have been put in most of these situations, so it was nice to discover they were relaxed and chilled about just about everything – their initial team had bonded well, particularly with Maria, and it was much the same with the magically expanding and contracting group our lot had got going with the second. Anthony summed it up rather well later in a pub in Zakopane; the experience is so hectic, random and intense that you just pick back up with the next lot of people you find yourself in a similar situation with.

Mark, Chris and Ally eventually got to the right station and we made it back to the market in time for a coach out of there. Incidentally, if anyone's never been, there's an extensive warren of shops underneath the station – the convenience stores, news stands and other little shops seem to go on for miles, though I didn't risk going too far as it was already getting confusing which way was back. Even a bookstall with lots of trade paperbacks, which made me wish I'd waited to pick up Śmierć – the stock was in far better condition than the dinged and handled shelf of books in Kraków's Empik.

Tip for leaders: if possible, find out what the bus ticket prices are in advance then get it from everyone (or carry enough cash to cover a group for things like this) to help the driver. They'll be happier if they don't have to fiddle with individual change for ~20 people, most of whom can't follow what they're saying. Sally got talking to ours and he kindly dropped us off right at the camp when we got back.

My sister disappeared next morning, pretty much drained after the weekend, but there wasn't much needed doing apart from activity sheets and working out who was doing what – we had plenty of people. In the afternoon some of us signed up to get taught some Polish, wherein Vicky got to be smug about already knowing most of what they were telling her. Mark also seemed to have fun, and I picked up a few useful pointers, particularly about diacritics and which words would actually be most-used in conversation – paper dictionaries don't give you much indication of this, nor usually provide real examples for context.

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Mick had been doing Shakespearean sonnets with his top group, along with 21 Things To Do With A Cow. The latter produced some rather amusing posters, and prompted Paul to do a lesson the following week on 21 Things To Do With Mick. Group Ten were also getting regular 'homework' assignments, some of them being happier with this than others – though it has to be said they were rising to the challenges and offbeat topics, and Mick was undoubtedly the man best-suited to challenging them. He also got to do a bit of teaching with Chris, whose character can be well-illustrated by the container marked 'gunpowder' he brought with him across international borders and scared the life out of Sally and Maria with when he left it in the staff room kitchenette. Chinese gunpowder tea, but anything else wouldn't have surprised.

The evening activity was Capture The Flag, also known as Run Around Woods In Twilight And Beat Each Other Up – and indeed Group One did pretty well on their own initiative (I didn't see them after the first five minutes) but lost the flags they'd taken when set upon by a larger group. There was a lake in the middle of the wooded area, with an island in the middle of that, so one group worked out a way across and physically carried Mel (whose brainchild this endeavour was) over. Most of the kids seemed to enjoy it, and there was only one notable injury – which the guy bore with pride – plus very little real violence, although I think the Polish staff thought we'd gone completely insane. The "twists of coloured paper for lives" concept didn't work, as various people had predicted but, as everyone was quite happy either to run around or to get themselves out of the game and mingle, it didn't matter in the slightest.

Tuesday was sunny, and we switched to teach different groups for a couple of days. Groups Three and Four were a merged group due to them both having the conference hall as a classroom, and not really being as responsive as Group Two. Paul got Group One and they didn't entirely see eye-to-eye; he'd been getting used to Seven and Eight, and probably made the mistake of asking them what they wanted to do, which was nothing. Mark's group (Five) had a similar outlook, but then they had the reasonable excuse that their classroom was a cafeteria area with an open wall that regularly got used as a thoroughfare, which made getting work done without distraction pretty difficult. Vicky seemed to be experiencing Stockholm syndrome for Group Six despite the obscene comics they'd come up with for her a few days before.

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My camera died, or more specifically the compact flash card in it, completely failing to respond in any reader available even with low-level recovery software. I had copies of most of the "during" Puławy stuff that we'd burned to DVD a couple of days before leaving, but that took out a fortnight of photos. I can only guess that there was a weak connection in the card itself, as the current a camera runs whilst being switched on is negligible – though the latency involved in accessing a two-gig card about half full already (on an old Canon model; basically a disposable I got to travel with) possibly didn't help. Moral: backup more frequently or use multiple small cards.

In the evening there was a photo scavenger hunt, enough of the kids having brought cameras or camera phones for them to get into teams and take pics for a list of titles we gave them – things like "Poland", "unusual perspective", "five złoty", "human pyramid", "back to childhood", "camouflage", "do exactly what the sign says", etc. The entries were generally of a very high standard, which not only goes to show how quickly tech becomes familiar to a next generation of users but also that they're one that's grown up without the hassle of film needed to get good-resolution shots and which is more in the habit of learning by taking hundreds of them. [Insert parody of Monty Python's "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch, only about first-gen digital cameras...]

I decided that next time (if ever) I'd seriously consider bringing a laptop to a camp, as the fact we only had one machine between the lot of us was beginning to cause friction between the people who were trying to get resources for lessons and activities, those who were trying to keep in the loop about contracts / family matters in the UK, and those who were just goofing around given half a chance.

Wednesday I volunteered to go and do Lizzy's lesson with Group Five, doing something on computers as that was one of the things they'd volunteered as a topic they'd like to do. Since there were so many people to go around activities I got out of them and walked to Garwolin, trying three PC / phone / electrical shops within distance and get a replacement CF card but only finding SD ones. It took a couple of hours for a round trip, but wasn't too difficult to find and the town seemed friendly enough – short fragmented conversations begun with apologies for mangling the few phrases I could manage, but I got a helpful response at each place. Tip: if you've got language camp t-shirts or name badges it may help to wear them in these situations.

Later Mark, Chris and Ally tried to leave, whilst five buses for Warsaw drove straight past us (two did wave back). Getting back to camp, I discovered my glasses had gone entirely, and with the ground I'd covered they could've been anywhere. Despite getting them repaired in Puławy I hadn't been wearing them overmuch either before or after, as the new prescription I'd got wasn't adjusting well. To say that I was pissed off is an understatement.

Lizzy started teaching people the New Zealand Haka with a view to performing it at the bonfire we had scheduled a week after, whilst I tried to sort out my sister's crisis du jour– there was meant to be a film evening, but the copy of Step Up the kids had (Daniel brought a laptop and a considerable stack of media) was Polish dub. After a trip to the usual haunts we managed to get an original English-language version plus napisy po polsku, and Maria borrowed her mom's laptop to hook up to the projector; this, plus VLC and Steph's speakers, was a very workable ad hoc setup.

Meanwhile, I'd worked out that if I wanted to get out of Miętne, I'd need a bus from there to Garwolin to Puławy, to stay there overnight somewhere such as Hotel Izabella http://izabella.pl/ and get a 6am ATAS coach, try to rearrange National Express and then get from Digbeth to home... it was just about doable, though things could go wrong at each stage of the journey, and the whole Escape from Alcatraz plan was wiped from feasibility the next day by the discovery neither my sister nor myself had house keys on us, both parents and neighbours being away. I'm not sure if I'd actually have left had it proved easier to do so, as if it'd been easier we wouldn't have been stuck in the middle of nowhere.

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In the evening there was Scottish dancing, which we'd been practising for since the start of the week, with Lisa and Anthony picking what they thought were simple dances we could keep going for a few minutes. We got at least one of them right. Mostly. The kids took to it (as with most things) with alacrity, plus a surprising amount of competence considering they were using us as the example, and also really enjoyed the shortbread that'd been baked earlier. Mark even took the vice director for a spin on the dance floor.

Thursday brought the news that the Polish staff were unhappy with the timetable; instead of 2:30 to 4:00 for activities they wanted a mix of timeslots running until 5. The more annoying switch in timetable was fixed breaks during lessons rather than allocating short ones during the teaching period; it's much more useful to be able to put them in yourself, particularly with lower groups – they benefit from more time for explanations and examples, and starting with an hour straight is often more productive than a break earlier.

Both things, in theory, were intended to reduce the amount of time kids either had to be supervises or let roam the school, but in practise (as the times for activity slots didn't align) seemed to increase that same issue... it also meant the students were obliged to get signed off for three activity slots and end up doing stuff they didn't want to, and resulted in situations such as members of my group turning up for the debate slot and (surprise, surprise) not being able to follow anything that was said. On the plus side, the other staff group chipped in on organising some activities – such as a Polish sign language 101 that Sally and Vicky went along to and went down well.

The timetable changes worked their way out over the next couple of days; for the first debate Magda came along to chip in and Mick and I delivered an off-the-cuff presentation on media and other control mechanisms, under the title of "Are our lives being controlled?" Our class got the point, and running with the discussion that came up during it was fun, if a bit tiring to keep up. Sadly we didn't manage to work RATM's Killing in the Name Of into things and saved it for the end.

(A related point of contention was that extra rules had been brought into effect since the kids arrived – in the first week they'd been allowed phones in the evenings and curfew times weren't set. Understandably the older ones weren't happy with the change, nor being deprived of property as a sudden blanket rule. If rules like this are to be maintained, it makes sense for them to be consistent and introduced from the beginning – with information made available to parents before arrival – and to consider exceptions for older ones.)

Mark, Chris and Ally made a successful getaway by going into Garwolin to get a bus to Warsaw, or at least we didn't see them after the morning and assumed they had. On Friday we discovered that chainsaws could be hired from the reception desk, even though they didn't have cigarettes or most of the other things that they had price lists for. The desk did have picture postcards of Miętne showing the main local landmarks – the building we were in, a swimming pool and a small church – which several people were amused enough to buy for posterity.

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Things settled down with afternoon activities, because no-one could really argue with my sister to her faceand she'd given us permission to sign the kids off if they wanted to come and talk to us when we weren't running activities. By the following week we'd also instituted a regular 'common room' option for activities where everyone could come and bring cards / other games to generally chill out and chat with us.

The evening was an International Quiz. This was Lizzy stepping in to the rescue with an activity, to which my sister adds: Mel attempted to help with the questions, but had a few problems with geography… she made up for it by teaching her class the rules of rugby whilst wearing a suitably short skirt. The kids seemed to enjoy it (talking about the quiz again now) or at least seemed to enjoy drilling us for information when the rest of us wandered in and out of the lunch hall. It was around this point that Mike, Ali and Rich (more friends of my sister who happened to be in the vicinity of Central Europe and recklessly thought it'd be fun to stop by Miętne for a few days) turned up, which also went down well with the kids and added further international perspectives.

Several days later, Monika's quiz group handed in a list of (several hundred) answers that were mostly distilled sarcasm. I did say these kids were fluent...

Oh, and by this point we'd completely run out of paper for photocopying and activities, with the exception of stray sheets left over in classrooms, and had no chance of getting more until well into Monday.


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