Poland 2007: Puławy, first week

Poland 2007: Tour the First, Puławy to Zakopane to Kraków

2008-05-28Poland 2007: Puławy, rest of camp

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I've scribbled "James looks like death" under Monday, and "Marek not particularly lively either." Lisa's lesson turned into indoor volleyball halfway through, and after lessons went with Tam to the police station to ask if anyone had handed in her phone. Which was met with an appropriate level of sniggering once they'd managed to articulate what they'd gone in for. Somewhat remarkably, the Polish staff (I think it was Błazej or Aldona) actually found Tam's purse a day or two later when they went back to Vabank – on the dance area or under a table – complete with cash and cards.

General advice of "don't taking anything important out drinking in foreign countries, just some cash for the evening and maybe an ID card if you look young" stands...

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Cooking moved onto doing variations on cake, with a basic recipe varied by adding fruit, jam, icing sugar, cocoa and chocolate icing on various days. It got quite popular, as from what I gather Polish cooking usually doesn't contain quite so much sugar. We learnt (and relearned) a fair amount of vocabulary for food, then eventually banned people who'd already done that recipe from doing it again to let others have a go... all in all, I think baked cheese scones and cake recipe saw us through over two weeks; I can't remember by now whether someone else did gingerbread and got it to work...

On Tuesday Paul's class taught him the Polish for "please don't molest me" (which I'm guessing is probably something like proszę nie molestujesz mnie) – as he was getting them to give and listen for directions using a blindfold. The kids seemed to be succumbing to the usual camp fatigue and sniffles by this point as much as any of the staff... not exactly helped by the weather. Just before we'd arrived temperatures were vying for hottest ever, with Mr Palka talking about times he spent in the desert with the army. It seemed we'd brought the unpredictability of British climes with us, with some days warm enough for open-air swimming and others like a monsoon season.

This was my birthday, which others were using as an excuse to book in at the mafia restaurant just outside of town (I'd passed on the pizza challenge... pizza's nice, but a family-size to myself – and real family-size, not the type you get in supermarkets – had proved a little too much for James the other week, despite a valiant effort. The "mafia restaurant" is an eatery a fair few Puławy locals assume is a front for money-laundering, as the prices are moderately expensive by UK standards and very much so by Polish equivalents...  apparently it sees trade at weekends, but most times we've been in we've been the only people in the place; it does make you wonder how they can keep the place staffed constantly.

We had a talent show / beauty contest with the kids to attend first, so most people met Karen at the restaurant and a handful of us stayed to judge. I was happy enough to stay, having been to the place before and not wanting others stuck with things in my stead, but got bustled out after what turned out to be just the first half. Błazej and Michaw were great with the younger ones, some of whom – such as Paulina, not technically old enough to be on the camp but one of Magda's students from where she teaches in Puławy – were clearly a bit nervous, and those who took part seemed to enjoy it even if it dragged a bit for those in the audience.

Wednesday revealed that the washing machine wasn't broken at all. Someone had just turned off the taps going from the sink to the back of it. For lessons we got everyone watching Iniemamocni (The Incredibles) and used that as stimulus material for designing superheroes and brushing up on descriptive vocabulary. This gave everyone – if they hadn't already – opportunity to do some coloured work to stick up on walls.

I think this was yet another in a series of rainy days that involved a film being substituted for sports in the afternoon, so Lisa went with Tam to Lublin to try to get her dad's camera fixed. Either that or it was an everyone-wants-to-go-swimming day and someone else had volunteered to do cooking, so I went to sit out with them and chat to Błazej about the lack of exercise and socialisation kids seem to get since videogames got popular.

After a late trip to Kaufland I managed to get some discs plus a cheap plug board and hook up a second computer down in the staff room – we had two boxes plus various peripherals, just not enough cabling. The admin passwords fell off (not as easy as it sounds, without a CD burner and with the floppy drive in one box knackered) and we had two machines that no longer blocked most of the sites people were trying to use. A bit of a shame we didn't work out the filtering was only client-side earlier, really.

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At some point (so let's say one of the days was Thursday as I can't remember) we were challenged and duly thrashed by the Polish staff at football and volleyball. Thursday was also International Evening, for which we did Spice Girls (Paul claiming not to be enamoured with the idea but bringing it up sufficiently often that it'd been picked several days earlier) followed by a crowd participation dance of Vindaloo. Mark and James stole the show synching as Ginger and Scary, though Paul's Sporty and Rodney's Baby were inspired castings and, well, Posh is meant to look wooden, judging by the old videos.

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After another hour or so of well-meaning racial stereotypes ("Chinese people have yellow skin and eat rice...") there was more sitting in the cold outside bars, though we did get pizza. Smok (the jazz club opposite Sabat) was closed for a function, so we ended up at K2.

Friday was Big Wash time for most of us, and despite the dark clouds the day was oppressively warm and humid. Sally got in touch and said Mr Palka was still looking for people to join us in the last week of camp, which was a nice gesture, if a bit redundant by that point in proceedings. The plan was still to go to Ukraine in the early evening, picking up cheap booze and cultural tack over the weekend. I was wondering if I might be able to get Transformers on DVD or anything else current over there.

The plan gradually dissolved. What the groups had done last time they went was stay in an inexpensive hotel, pay for the driver to stay with them and make a weekend of things. Magda had very helpfully checked out a hotel, but due to the season only a more expensive place that she knew of was available, so Mark checked out hostels. The driver was the same guy Paul, Mark and Steph had gone with previously, a guy called Andre who runs a minibus firm in town, speaks German, Russian, Polish and some English (often in the same conversation) and you wouldn't buy a used car from.

When he turned up, he announced that Ukrainians were cracking down on Poles taking foreigners over, and he wouldn't be able to take us over the border. What would be possible, it was claimed, was to get a bus – they were regular, apparently – for twenty złoty over to Lviv. Oh, and we'd have to buy a cheap multi-pack of condoms (i.e. bribe the guards by buying something unnecessary) at the border... though the rationale for that isn't entirely illusory – AIDS is rife in Ukraine.

That 'regular bus' turned out to be him trying to find a coach or minibus at a truck stop on the way to the border... then, when that bore no fruit, driving down the side of the traffic queuing for the border and negotiating with drivers. He'd done something similar to queue-jump the last time, apparently, claiming his passengers to be UN diplomats or similar. It wasn't to be. Whilst people passed the time by singing, dancing or waiting to be crushed by passing trucks (we were still parked where we blatantly shouldn't have been) the hunt continued. A guy with a van for 100 Euros turned into a guy with a van for 200, taking five at a time, and getting dodgier by the second. Then the stream of traffic to importune – much of which had been over-stuffed family cars or combine harvesters anyway – ran out for the evening.

We headed back, getting in pretty late/early and knowing there were going to be negotiations the next day. Whilst not a huge amount of money, paying full fare when the group had been sold an entirely false premise was a small point of contention. Jolanta (Magda's mom) did most of the talking and the situation ended on a two way gentlemen's agreement – the camp paid most of his fare (mainly costs for petrol, which made the point), chalking it down as a hospitality expense I think, and we agree to chip in on a party for Błazej and Sylwia whilst on tour.

Never again, although doubtless the people who've spent extended amounts of time in Russia would probably be more willing and less phased by anything.

Instead, on Saturday, most people went to Warsaw for the day. Paul and I finished off the exit test and downloaded a cam of Transformers, which finished up by a little gone midnight, then watched it and slept through most of Sunday morning (and also through the trip to Kazimierz Dolny, which had been rescheduled to then) before crawling out to get burgers at the hole-in-a-wall café next to Sabat.

Later there was a Randka w Ciemno evening (that's "date in the dark" or Blind Date) that we participated in but wasn't as entertaining as previous years – nobody was translating answers for the kids, and we were expected to pick answers from the selection given. We tried adlibbing a bit, but the feigned break in British reserve was saved for "What would you do for a boy to make him like you?" – option C being 'blowjob', which the Polish staff, it seems, had told the kids was a type of ice-cream... later it turned out this was probably also a private joke, owing to something involving Marek, a camera-phone and a temporary member of the Polish staff.

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Monday the sun finally reappeared and it was very hot by afternoon. The weather continued into a mini-heatwave on Tuesday, the entire camp going over to the outdoor swimming pool in the afternoon, so some people went to Lublin and became overly enamoured with the fountain in the shape of a goat, whilst the rest of us went over to the pool and sunbathed or dozed in the shade. Natalia, Mark's favourite student, managed to almost kill one of my good ones by pushing him into something – as it was, he had impressive scrapes the length of his back for what was left of camp. On the plus side, she was a bit more subdued for the next few days. Angela met up with some friends who were randomly biking across Europe.

The activity later was Polish Evening, Paul and me being co-opted into dancing as we'd done (or at least seen) the step dances before. Only about forty-five minutes this time, a couple of sketches, some music (a couple of the kids had brought violins), the traditional food was well-prepared and there wasn't a string game afterwards – see the 2005 write-up for full explanation of that. The Lublin crowd didn't make it back until after; until that point we thought they'd managed to miss the last transport back and there'd just be a handful of us taking classes the next day...

Wednesday was the last day of teaching, so people went through the previous test format with their classes and got sweets/snacks for them, before heading outside into the continuing warm weather. The English/Polish staff had another get-together in the evening, which I tried briefly to get through the locked door and music of and then gave up on in favour of a quiet night.

Exit tests went well on Thursday, Paul marking the essays this time around. The test was written at the start of the week, taking into account the subjects all of the classes had covered at least peripherally, with some new essay questions to make the marking less boring. "Write about your favourite teacher?" got some good responses, mostly about James (on every camp you get at least one person who becomes a minor celebrity) including "James will make a very good teacher one day" and "I probably shouldn't write this, but sometimes I think [James] drinks more than is good for him".

No afternoon activities were needed as the kids were preparing for camp weddings in the evening, so I went for a burger with James in case Rodney was hooking up with Justyna in their room. Marks went up late in the afternoon so that the kids could compare what they'd started with how they'd just done. Most had seen some steady improvement, which was gratifying since I'd gotten bored enough whilst writing the exit test to make it harder and throw in a few trick questions. Oral marks typically improve the most, purely because of intensive practise and knowing the staff by then. Later I got dragged off to the weddings thing to take Kamila (affectionately and not-so-affectionately considered by most of camp to be somewhat not all there, due to a habit of wandering off and trying to befriend wild/stray/mangy animals) down the aisle, as James had hidden and Mark refused to open the staff room door...

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Friday saw a relatively short closing ceremony, where we handed out certificates, the Polish staff handed out prizes for various activities that had run during camp, and we were presented with "traditional Polish gifts" from Kazimierz Dolny. The ladies got a flower holder, the guys/Karen a candle holder and Paul and myself hunks of rock salt.

Things were a lot more relaxed than they'd been on the original timetable, which Mr Smyrgała had suggested a week or so earlier be cut a day since they'd made bookings for us to leave first thing Saturday. As we said, we didn't want to it to seem as if people were unwilling to do Friday, but a later start to the tour or time to mark, pack and do washing were needed – previously, there'd been a day or two in Puławy before having to leave, whereas this time around changes to camp dates had thrown things a bit.

We went out as a group for a late lunch to a café people had seen earlier in the week, but found it closed. We then walked the long way around the river out past the town 'palace' grounds, got closer than is probably advisable to swans with young and ended up at a rather crap, over-priced restaurant shaped like a castle. Later (or possibly earlier, my chronology's a bit flaky by this point) Angela was seen off on a coach to Lublin for a wedding with her boyfriend's family.

I took a shot at getting an MP3/CD boombox from Carrefour, but they didn't have the model I was after on the shelves (one that would fit in my suitcase) and there was no way I was going to be able to phrase the question "could I buy the display model?" – plus that didn't have a remote with it. I did manage to establish they didn't have any out back (there'd been an offer on that model) but all-in-all it was one of those frustrating language barrier situations that involved a lot of smiling and hand-waving. Did get a proper rucksack then, though, as the foldaway I'd taken had started to tear.

We tried to go back to the mafia place in the evening, but it turned out to have been reserved for a wedding reception. Karen thought of another restaurant, but that too turned out to be booked, so we ended up in Vabank – inside, due to a thunderstorm that'd been picking up as we tried to find somewhere – for bar food. The music was rather off-putting (sitting next to the tiny dance floor) and killed conversation, but the eats were good. Afterwards some people went to Sabat, after which Tam, Lisa and Mark carried out their plan to sneak into the outdoor swimming pool. Mark hid their clothes (in revenge for them stealing his while he was in the shower earlier), forcing them to wander the streets avoiding police cars in their underwear, whilst Mark watched from the bushes before dumping the rest of their stuff and legging it...

In summary, then:

I like Puławy – it's an established site for camps, the organisers are very friendly and helpful, and the town has most things you could want fifteen minutes' walk away.

Having two leaders and a smaller group works well, as long as the members of the group are confident enough to handle a class on their own and support each other. It was also very valuable to have someone like Karen dedicated to the class with the youngest and least experienced students, able to communicate with them in Polish, and useful to have a number of us familiar with the town.

Definitely take a selection of children-friendly DVDs with Polish subtitles, as if there's a player they're handy if the weather turns too nasty to run outdoor activities.

The camp grounds have a basic site at http://www.bursapulawy.republika.pl/ and you can see some pics of the town's cultural bits at http://www.um.pulawy.pl/ or in its entry on Wikipedia – the square of Jana Pawła II is very close to the camp.


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