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jamie stokes
25-11-2010 (06:36)

The art of Polish complaining

The ability to complain bitterly and at great length is an important skill in Poland. When you start to learn Polish one of the first verbs they teach you is ‘narzekać.’ It’s right there on page three, just after weather and professions: “This is Pan Kamiński. Pan Kamiński is complaining to his wife. Pan Kamiński’s wife is a lighthouse keeper. She does not like fog.” It’s all useful stuff.
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The reason narzekać is so close to the front of the book is because complaining is a valid Polish response to the question “Jak się masz?” which they teach you on page one. It’s important to tell British people this because when we ask other British people how they are, we don’t expect them to actually tell us. Long ago, when I was an innocently enthusiastic student of Polish, I tried using “Jak się masz?” on a friend. I wasn’t expecting a five-minute monologue on the state of his feet and the imminent collapse of civilisation. I didn’t understand a lot of it but, thanks to page three, I was able to correctly identify it as complaining.

Once I understood that complaining was not just accepted but actively encouraged, I decided to incorporate it into my social interactions. Results were mixed results. On the first day, all went well. I complained that my tea was cold, that my back was aching and that my sock had a hole in it. The Polish people around me seemed to enjoy this enormously. They responded with little complaints of their own—a sore throat here, a broken heel there—and I rolled my eyes in sympathy. I congratulated myself on my cultural awareness and resolved to continue the experiment.

On the second day I got a bit too ambitious. I tried complaining about bigger things, like the fact that my train was two hours late. There was silence for a moment, and then 17 people started shouting about how Poland hasn’t had a chance because of 50 years of communism and the Betrayal at Yalta, which was personally my fault. I rapidly changed the subject and tried complaining about bad driving instead. This also turned out to be my responsibility because I had assassinated General Sikorski. I had planned to complain that my block hadn’t been renovated since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but I was worried it might lead to a revelation that I had also been responsible for toppling the Hapsburgs. I don’t need that on my conscience

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On the third day, feeling very ashamed by my complicity in Poland’s ills, I made a point of being nice about everything. The results were not encouraging. “That’s a beautiful new office building,” I observed. “Ha!" came the immediate reply, “It’s hideous. Politicians work there and the are all thieves!” I tried complimenting a new road, but was quickly told that it was, in fact, a disaster because the contractor was corrupt and it would almost certainly fall apart in the next six months. Confused, I decided to consult a taxi driver. Taxi drivers are usually the virtuoso complainers of any culture. “I hear you are English,” he said, “how can you stand to live in such a screwed up country!” “Oh, I can’t complain,” I replied “and I mean that quite literally.”

Jamie Stokes

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