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

Poland 2007: Miętne, end of first week

2008-05-28Poland 2007: Miętne, first impressions and first week

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The short version: if you're thinking of going to an APASS language camp in Miętne, seriously consider whether you mind being cut off from civilisation other than a couple of small grocery stores and an early-closing bar. Cabin fever amongst some your team is pretty much guaranteed, and be prepared for time and work expectations that your contracts are there to protect you from. More positively the kids were lovely, but I wouldn't go back without a team leader (and possibly other people) I knew well, which probably says it all.

The very short version: Miętne is Poland's answer to Royston Vasey. At some point you will want to leave, try to and probably fail.

We got into Garwolin on Sunday afternoon, not seeing much more of it than a bus stop. Paul had been exchanging texts with Maria, our translator and contact, so we were met very soon afterwards and driven the short distance to Miętne by the camp director in a couple of round trips.

To be honest, we didn't know what to make of Maria to begin with. Things rapidly improved within the first few days once we got a fuller story, but we were met with comments like "You will be tired. You will be very tired." and "They will have you working from [x] until [y] in the evening." We gave clenched grins, said that she'd love my sister and would talk everything over later, and got ready for war. We had a good few hours before the others were due in from their ATAS coach and connecting trip, so there was time to settle in and take a look around where we were.

(In case you're thinking: "they sound like a load of stroppy bastards" – okay, that isn't an entirely unfounded charge, but Paul and myself had just finished leading a camp in Puławy, and have been with APASS enough times to have a fairly clear idea of what the placements entail. More to the point we know that the contract (signed by camp directors) says "Hours: 24 hours rest on arrival; 4.5 hours student contact per day; 5-day week (weekends optional)". Everyone always does a fair bit more because they want to and get on with the students, but it is – I can't stress enough – optional. Not regimented or timetabled, by choice, etcetera.)

We got issued with rooms to dump stuff in temporarily (expecting them to change  when everyone else got in) and found that they were very pleasant indeed. The building of the complex in Miętne was organised by a philanthropic Ukrainian millionaire – in the 80s, I think – and is mostly en-suite double rooms. The interior's a testament to the tastes of decades gone, and it seems to get used as a conference centre and hotel-of-sorts during the rest of the year. It accommodates around 300 boarders and another 200 day-students, apparently, though that must be taking into account other buildings on the site we never saw.

I got the key from the director for the room Maria had mentioned had a computer in it (about the limit of useful Polish I know) and we discovered Room 6, the English staff room over the years language camps have been running in Miętne. It still had a table of resources with folders from several years and a stack of National Geographic issues going back to the 60s. There was also a new-ish decently-specified computer (Vista, TFT monitor, DVD burner, card reader and office inkjet.)

I probably managed to offend Maria by pointing out that we couldn't really give the test she'd prepared to kids because it contained mistakes. (Later we found out it'd been something management had got her to make up on the spot a few weeks earlier for the last lot of students they'd had. Later we found out many things, not least of which is Maria is lovely.)

Fastened to the back of the suggested entry test was a timetable for the teaching days. Sally had it off us to scribble on, but it included something like four hours through to lunch, a few more hours of afternoon debates and other supervised activities, then fixed evening events. It got passed around a bit, people said "it's not happening" (and variations on this theme), and the collective mood was restively upbeat. The way most of us there at that time looked at things, we'd done the camp and tour thing in the month preceding and were perfectly happy to leave if there wasn't compromise.

An extra bit of fun was discovering that the camp expected a quick morning entry test the next day, with meetings with classes to follow in the afternoon. One of the things APASS is quite strict about is the day of rest after people arrive – after more than thirty hours on a coach with no real sleep, it's good for neither students nor staff if those who've done the trip are engaged in anything other than sleeping it off. It tends to get waived for team leaders so that they spend the following afternoon working out details with the director of the camp, and a few people might help out in the afternoon and evening so that entry tests are marked and groups sorted by the following day, but it's unreasonable to expect everyone to be bright, perky and up in time for breakfast.

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Anyway, we figured it was time to get out for a bit and explore. A short walk along the road from the entrance of the building found a street of houses, two small shops (closed, but saying they'd be open later, which for a Sunday was a good sign), a bar, a garden centre, some other type of shop, and then we hit the border of a neighbouring town, which I'm fairly certain in remembering correctly as Michaiłσwka. There didn't seem to be anything more within a short distance of the border, and a motorway went over the point where the towns joined. We found a bus stop on the Miętne side and took photos of the timetable, already giving thought to an escape route for weekends or if negotiations with management went sour. Actually, we tried catching a bus to Garwolin, figuring we could probably get one back later or walk it if not, but several minibuses with signs for it drove past. When one did stop – to let someone off – as we were giving up, Lisa ran and would've gone by herself if she'd been quick enough.

In the end, we went back to the small bar and got frytki (deep-fried, not microwave chips) and drinks, talking things over. We'd heard a few things about Miętne being quite remote before we came, when my sister got in touch with people who'd been previously. It didn't do a lot to prepare us. Afterwards, we checked out the general store for ice cream and snacks (noting that they also sell beer, but not spirits) before heading back to camp. We also established there weren't any cash points.

There were a few kids milling around, and signs were more had been turning up and were off settling into rooms; it wasn't long before the rest of our people arrived. Some did look pretty shattered and in need of twelve hours sleep followed by a slow start. We handed Sally the timetable we'd found with fixed grins and lots of meaningful eye contact, and there was some scrawling over things with red pen.

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This was the first time I'd met most of the new people, though Steph R had told us a bit about her sister and Paul/Mark/Steph had expounded on the others back in Puławy. New people were Darragh (Steph's s/o), Vicky (the other Rowse), Mel and Lizzy (jointly introduced by most people, like 'thunder and lighting' and other forces of nature) and Vicky G, who'd come with us a couple of years ago and run family placements with Sally the year before.

Filling the role of randomer was Mick, who subsequently turned out to be someone I'd met across a few pubs in college when his band – Council House Tina – supported us as Airstrip One in the Mitre in Stourbridge (and possibly the Flapper and Firkin.) (This was back in the day when a few promoters were hoping for lightning to hit twice where Ned's Atomic Dustbin formed.) He also studied at Aber, so the weird synchronicities were piling up pretty rapidly.

On the long journey over he sat next to a guy who produced a bottle of vodka five minutes after the coach pulled off and kept poking Mick's arm, pointing to Vicky and muttering "barzo piękna" (from these notes I've no idea which Vicky this was in reference to, but with hindsight it's an interesting thought that this might have left a subliminal impression on Mick.) (Sally says it was the other one, and also wants me to develop a sense of tact for the rest of this write-up. Hope springs eternal, dear.)

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Paul switched rooms to go with the Rowses into a two room + kitchenette flat, or as he put it, "twins! blonde twins!" and apparently was well-behaved enough that they didn't kick him out. So Mark and Sally took the double room we'd had (she needed someone to feed her sugar and caffeine in mornings if her energy levels were low) and I nabbed one of the several singles.

Food turned out to be good, less camp-style and more real meal; this was also our first glimpse of the way facilities were divided between the camp we were on and the others operating simultaneously – through a curtained wall of windows you could see another dining room and the students/staff from that one, which we later found out was a specialist sports camp for disabled kids. There wasn't any interaction between camps, but each one was designated different buildings and 'owned' certain facilities, with other areas (such as grass outside) being rented from a central authority. This would lead to some extremely bizarre prohibitions later in camp.

The next day we ran entry tests, discovering that some of the students had actually been at Puławy in 2005 – more had been to Miętne in 2006, and returned to meet up with people they knew. The vast majority could hold a conversation at some level, though I was picking out what I assumed would be my group already... marking was also straightforward, with the oral and essay portions gaining a higher weighting as results were generally good on the grammar concept questions. As noted elsewhere, it's fairest if one person on your staff marks the essays, as it's quite subjective.

Midday there was some more exploring and looking through resources in the staff room whilst the timetable was being "negotiated" – actual gist of which being that Sally and Maria had been shouted out for about forty-five minutes, and my sister had agreed to do some of the evening activities (herself, if necessary.) We also found out that some other Brits had been there earlier, two had gone to travel for a week and would be coming back at some point – the camp's thinking being that they wouldn't teach but could instead run all of the evening activities. Oh, and apparently they'd been doing the timetable the camp had proposed. It also turned out, later, that their group had originally had two extra people who signed up and travelled with them, but the director re-allocated to the adjacent non-APASS camp. (Something that especially needs mentioning in the official reports, as it's categorically Not On to do that.)

Sally adds: I think I was still just trying to be nice at that point. Subsequent meetings saw my knowledge of the conditional tense in Polish come in handy – 'This is the contract, either we stick by it or we're going home.' That kinda scared them.

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In the evening we had an introductory panel where we briefly introduced ourselves and did some team-building exercises culled from my sister's days teaching air cadets – people linking arms back-to-back and trying to follow instructions to move, making baskets to allow eggs to be dropped without breaking, who can build the highest tower with 12" of sellotape and a handful of newspapers, etc. Considering Sally had had all of fifteen minutes prior warning to finalise the activities (after being told something would be sorted that didn't materialise) it seemed to go down very well as an ice-breaker, although there were few glances in askance at the eggs.

We found out next day that the camp had been expecting about half those turning up to be older, qualified teachers, with some students in the mix as teaching assistants. Thus there'd been some puzzlement during the introductory evening activities, when most of the group got up and said that they were students. A suggestion for future years: if the English staff get some notice about the programme for an evening, it'd be possible to liase with a translator and get at least an itinerary written down so that the less-fluent kids and non-English speaking staff could follow along. I'm sure things like this would help quite a bit with integrating staff teams.

What apparently happened at Miętne for the previous six years was a guy called Stewart had led a group of friends who were teachers or lecturers, with a smattering of students sent by Mr Palka each time. The friends kept going back; we rather suspect the same students didn't. Because APASS would have received positive reports from most people there, and because most people never send back anything at all, the organisation wasn't aware of any private arrangements. We also found out that previous camps didn't have an official translator – enough of the group apparently spoke Polish to make it unnecessary.

It's not as simple as saying the previous group sold any newbies down the river – after all, they did keep going back themselves. Six years is plenty of time to work out your own way of doing things, as well as having a body of resources and activities to reuse. On the other hand, people weren't getting what they signed up for, and it's hard to believe no-one was put upon, particularly judging by the experience of the people we met later who'd been running a mini-camp for a fortnight before we showed up. A friend of Sally's who went in 2005 (though she didn't find out about the coincidence until getting back to the UK) corroborated the 9-8pm timetable.

At some point, Maria actually got accused by some of the Polish staff of not speaking enough English to accurately relay what we were saying back to them, despite my sister being with her in most of the meetings and discussing most of the subjects with them in Polish. Nor did the sisters who were giggling about Steph and Darragh at the first evening meal seem to realise that Steph could understand most of what they were saying... Vicky G similarly has a fair amount at her command, having studied for a while and having the hands-on experience of looking after a family's kids whilst the parents were staying over with an older one in hospital during a placement in Lublin. Put it this way, the group weren't neophytes for purposes of getting across basics and there wasn't any legitimate reason for people to be having at a go at our translator, much less her own team doing so.

My primary class (One) were a bit unenthusiastic at times but personable enough; they certainly knew far more English than I know Polish, but processed it in a similar way, trying to pick words out of sentences to get an idea of what was being said. Anyway, they could handle basic questions (with the usual technique of repeating things and varying the words used to give more of a chance to grok meaning) so as an ice-breaker we started off making a group poster using words they liked and came up with the Counter-Terrorist Daisies. Later they turned out to have immense vocabularies when it came to the type of weapons you get in first person shooters.

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Over the three weeks a wide variety of afternoon activities were run, including the usual stuff such as sport and cooking (there was a kitchenette attached to the staff room and an oven in the Rowses' apartment) but also lots of debates, crafts (Maria having taught a lot of art) and other languages – the kids teaching us Polish, Vicky getting talked into doing Spanish, Lizzy some Danish, Sally Japanese, etc. Music was also in abundance, from singing to drumming (courtesy of Mick, who also ran origami with Chris.) I don't seem to have scrawled many notes for the start of the week, so bear with me if the chronology dissolves any further than it already has...

On Wednesday the afternoon debate on animal testing went on for an extra hour and a half on general topics, which became a running theme – it was usually the same group of half a dozen or so who turned up, and always made for interesting conversation. Most had a working knowledge of international politics and were curious about how Poland, migrants, etc. are perceived over here, plus the regional differences between English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh. Lizzy was able to add Denmark, Paul Austria, and other people chipped in countries they'd spent some time in. Plus we got the questions they didn't want to ask their regular teachers, such as the differences in inflection between "can't" and "cunt" – whereas pronunciation in Polish is quite regular, English has a lot of common vocabulary that doesn't follow phonetic patterns. It's also difficult for learners to judge the gradient of strength slang and curse words have – what's fine for banter between friends but someone could take the wrong way, things not to say around grandparents, etc. Vicky and I did something similar with groups One and Two when we got them to bring music they liked and went through and unpicked the colloquialisms, idioms and contractions until everyone could follow exactly what it was they were listening and singing along to.

One novel idea for gaining an authentic accent we encountered was Karolina's, who'd modelled hers on Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter. (I've just typed Daniel Radcliffe into Google to check the spelling, and the three examples it's giving me at the top for Image Search all have him naked or at least bare-chested. I'm guessing Karolina is very happy for the existence of Equus.)

By this point we were making plans for the weekend; there were some people from the previous camp we kept hearing about due to be in Warsaw, so it made sense for us to make that a destination. Friends of my sister were also due to be in the area, after travelling around many different parts of Eastern Europe I can't recognise from their photos. More friends of my sister were also due to randomly be in the area the weekend after – which seems baffling, but if you've already travelled across several countries a detour to the middle of nowhere in Poland probably seems quite short.

Thursday dawned, and a couple of my group had decided that what they were doing was too easy and would I please move them up? Ironically, this came in the form of a note I got handed because it didn't seem they reckoned they could put the point across in conversation... anyway, I had a word with my partner in crime and we decided it'd be better to mix in harder scaling tasks in than swap the groups around any more – having a boy/girl split and combining for some tasks was preferable to having mixed groups but the girls saying less.

The afternoon debate was an open forum, an hour-and-a-half mostly talking about conditions in Poland, and in the evening there was a disco to which some of our staff went. (The conference hall was tricked out with quite a good speaker system.)

Friday we merged classes for the morning to do tasks on music and menus, picking apart lyrics from a couple of songs volunteered by the kids and paying particular attention to explaining slang terms. They got through the menu task (fit the items to the descriptions, some of them more cryptic than others) quickly and we played Blockbuster as a reinforcement game for the vocab. Meanwhile, one of Paul's class suggested to him (in German, which they'd presumably found out he speaks fluently) that they elope and make babies together...

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Afternoon activities were replaced with Sports Day, organised by Mel, who's an amazingly active person considering her own self-introductions tend to feature the word 'broken' a lot. Hopefully less-so now, as by the time I get around to putting this on the site a crack team of carpenters should have fitted her with new knees.

The event was held on the rough track out back – apparently we were allowed to use that but not the football field inside it – and the weather drizzled in authentic British fashion for half an hour before starting, but slacked off enough for us to go forward with things. The kitchen ran out of bottled water at the start of the day, with supplies not due until the following week, so we did a run to fill bottles with tap water – Natalia, Monika and Ela reckoned it was 'probably safe' to drink. We got back just in time to be greeted by the surreal scene of a steamroller heading up the running track towards the runners and Mel shouting at construction workers in Russian. There are only blurry photos of this as people were, I think, a bit too surprised to consider recording it for posterity. The kids shrugged and said "this is Poland." Anyway, vehicles kept going over the track, so we abandoned some stuff and held three-legged runs on the clear side, then basketball hoops and ping-pong-ball and spoon races somewhere safer altogether.

It was all shockingly good-natured whilst simultaneously being very competitive (apart from with the older geekier sorts, but we were having a conversation about the dominance of American English in programming languages.)


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