Warsaw, Poland, 1991
I leapt onto the back of the tram as it left Plac Bankowy, my coat almost catching in the closing doors. I fished in my pocket for a ticket. Not finding one, I attempted to buy a ticket from the woman standing next to me.
Czy ma pani bilet?
Niestety, nie ma, she shrugged.
I checked my watch. Just enough time to make it to the consulting firm where I taught English.
I began to think about the day’s lesson. Basia, a consultant, was hoping to be sent to the States for training and wanted to learn more everyday phrases. At the last lesson, she and the rest of the students were intrigued by the many uses of the verb, to get.
W moim słowniku, istnieją trzy strony wyjaśnień! Basia exclaimed. I was surprised to hear that, but when I returned to my apartment I checked my own dictionary. Sure enough, there were almost three pages of ways to use to get.
I started to concoct a list — get sick, get busted, get high, get laid, get sold a bill of goods, get married, get invited, get off easy, get a loan. I didn’t know all these phrases in colloquial Polish, but I knew I could explain them.
As I thought of sayings, I watched the familiar sights of one of Warsaw’s main streets. On the left, the gray Dom Handlowy department stores (get a deal). On the right, the grayer Palace of Culture around which people from the former Eastern bloc sold clothes, television parts, and a random assortment of food (get ripped off). Unexpectedly, I saw some Gypsies start a fire in a trashcan to warm the dull February afternoon (get out of the way).
The ticket inspector boarded (got on) at the busy roundabout where Marszałkowska and Aleje Jerozolimskie intersect. He punched his ticket in the red validation machine at the front of the car and studied the unique pattern of holes it made. Some riders carefully preserved the tickets from their regular routes. As they stepped on, they would note the black identification number at the back of the car and then check their wallets for a previously punched ticket, hoping to cheat the inspector.
He began checking tickets. Bilet, bilet. His arm moved from passenger to passenger with the precision of a metronome. He casually glanced up the car. I grimaced when I saw his face (get nervous). Three months earlier this same inspector caught me without a ticket. After brandishing his notebook, he had, oddly enough, introduced himself.
Nazywam się Tomasz, he said as he took off his dark blue cap. He added that he found my red hair and fair skin exotic for Poland (get a life). I pretended not to understand the compliment, the invitation to coffee, or the threat of a hefty fine, which, as a foreigner I would be required to pay immediately. I acted confused and in English told him I didn’t understand Polish. I jumped off the tram without paying as it came to a stop, leaving him shaking his pen at me (get blown off).
This time, Tomasz noticed me at the back of the tram (get a good look at). Our eyes locked. I crossed my fingers, hoping my face did not betray the recognition his did. Anxious, I glanced out the window, calculating the distance to the next stop. The tram was at a stoplight (get stuck). A woman crossing the street was frantically grabbing her spilled groceries (get a move on). Not only did I not have a ticket, I didn’t have the fifty or so thousand złoty on me for the fine.
Tomasz quickstepped toward me (get caught). Proszę, bilet.
Nie mowię po polsku, I replied. I rarely admitted I spoke no Polish. I enjoyed people’s compliments about my fluency and their surprise when they discovered I was American.
Paszport, Tomasz smirked. I handed it over. He carefully scrutinized its visas and entry and exit stamps (get clues). Dziwno, że pani jest tak długo w Polsce i nie rozumie ani słowa, he said. Under other circumstances, I would have agreed it was odd that someone who had been in Poland over a year could not understand any Polish.
When the tram came to the next stop, Tomasz yanked me and a ticket-less middle-aged man onto the sidewalk (get pulled over). Tomasz asked him for identification. As the man reached into his bag to retrieve his wallet, Tomasz turned, gave me back my passport, and began, with a flourish of his ticket book and pen, to write out my fine (get revenge). The man began to run down the street. Uwaga! Tomasz yelled as he dashed after him. I instantly fled in the opposite direction. Tomasz whipped around, but the man and I had given each other enough of a head start (get lucky). I looked over my shoulder to see Tomasz throwing his cap and fine book to the ground (get a grip). I turned the corner, then slowed to a walk as I approached the consulting firm. I smiled thankfully at the man who held open the door.
About the author
Margaret Foley tries to pack light when she travels, but she always ends up bringing one too many pairs of shoes. She currently lives…Read the full bio
Issue 09 · May 2010
Table of contents
- From the editors
- Postcard Prose
- Travel Notes