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AN AMERICAN DEV IN POLAND, Part 4

Combination travelogue / dev journal chronicling my three-month stint working on DYING LIGHT for Techland in Wrocław, Poland.

Driving away from the airport, I thought, Okay! Now I’m going to see what a foreign country looks like first-hand! Awesome! I mean, I had already seen a foreign country, but it’s kind of hard for me to think of Canada as the same kind of foreign as Poland. I didn’t really know what I was expecting to see that would make me think, “Wow! How bizarre and fascinating! I would never see that in the States!” but I was sure I’d know it when I saw it.

Instead, I saw…a city. Not a huge city; Wrocław struck me as being about the same size as Chattanooga, Tennessee, the nearest metropolitan center to my house in Georgia. The language was, of course, wildly different, and there was plenty of it visible, on road signs and billboards and businesses and the sides of buses. But the cars drove on what, to me, is the proper side of the road (not the left side). Ordinary people waited at bus stops, for very not-bizarre buses. We passed open fields, and houses, and restaurants, and more than one establishment labeled “Monopolowy,” which puzzled me for a while until I found out that that basically means “liquor store.”

In short, apart from the language, Wrocław could easily have been a city in Florida. Or Ohio. Or a bunch of different places in the U.S. I didn’t know whether to feel disappointed or comforted.

One thing that did strike me as strange were a number of trees we passed that seemed to have large, round, green growths here and there along their branches. They looked kind of Seussian – as if someone had taken a regular tree and added big green Dr. Seuss tail-puffs to them. I asked Ashley if he knew what kind of trees those were, and he didn’t. It took me a couple of weeks before I thought to ask one of my Techland colleagues, who explained to me that the trees themselves were normal, but that the Seuss puffs were actually mistletoe growths. Maybe that’s a common sight in some parts of the States, but it was a new one on me.

Once we got closer to the city center, I noticed the second unusual feature, which tended to appear on larger structures such as offices and blocks of flats: the citizens of Wrocław go in for color on their buildings in a big way. A mint-green apartment block sat next to a cheerful pink office, across the street from a mustard-yellow restaurant…and the buildings just kept going like that. Not every single structure was decked out in pastels, but the motif was very common, so much so that it gave me the feeling of being in a really huge coastal community. (Wrocław is nowhere near a coast.) The same kinds of colors you might expect to see on beach houses along a street called Ocean Avenue were spread throughout the city, sometimes even in enormous, two- or three-tone stripes, like massive pieces of art.

I would eventually learn that this love for color arose, like many features of modern Polish culture, from the communist era. When the communists were in power, no color was allowed. That statement sounds bizarre to American ears; there was no color? How could there be no color? But that’s the way it was. Almost everything was gray. Clothing, buildings, vehicles, none of it featured any bright shades of anything, except maybe white. But then, once the communists got the boot, the Poles rose up collectively and said, “We can have color now? Okay…stand back!” And one of the first things they did was decorate the living hell out of the outsides of their buildings.

And I’m not saying that the colors you see driving the streets of Wrocław are garish or tacky. Quite the opposite. It’s a beautiful city, and makes most American cities look plain and boring. I just wasn’t expecting them.

Maciek Binkowski (MAH-check Bin-KOV-skee), the Lead Game Designer on Dying Light, told me a lot of stories about the time when Poland was transitioning out of communism and, with some trepidation, embracing capitalism. He said that some stores began carrying shopping bags that were bright red, and that some of the citizenry were so taken with this vivid color that they’d proudly carry these shopping bags down the street, just to show them off. It didn’t matter what they’d bought; the color was the important thing.

I had been taught, along with every other American student, about the evils and bureaucracies and ghastly inefficiencies of the Soviet Union, and had heard tales of people having to stand in line for five hours just to get one roll of toilet paper. But hearing accounts like this from someone who actually lived through it and saw the fall of the Soviets gave me a sense of perspective that I had never experienced before. I ended up having quite a few such gains in perspective during my time there.

Ashley and I arrived at our flat, located at 35 Bajana Street. Or, as it’s properly stated, Bajana trzydzieści pięć. As I mentioned previously, I knew I’d have to get that address memorized, because I was sure I would be saying it frequently, either to cab drivers or to random people on the street if I got myself lost. (It’s not hard for me to get lost.)

Bajana sounds like bye-YAH-na. No problem.

Trzy…well, there’s not really a good way to explain how that sounds in English, but I’ll give it my best shot. Trzy is Polish for “three.” If you look at it sideways, you can see how the two words share a common root, somewhere way back there in linguistic history. Rz together in Polish sound kind of like the “sh” in “shoe.” So you put a “t” on the front of that, and you get… “tsh.” And that goes right into that damn “y,” so trzy sounds sort of like “tshih.”

Adding dzieści to trzy turns “three” into “thirty,” and it sounds like JEESH-chee.

Pięć is Polish for “five,” and sounds very much like the English word “pinch.”

So 35 is pronounced, more or less, tshih-JEESH-chee pinch.

I don’t know how many times I had this conversation…

Me: Dzień dobry. Do you speak English?

Cabbie: Nie.

Me: Okay. Ahem. Um… bye-YAH-na tshih-JEESH-chee pinch?

Cabbie: Ah! Bajana, tak tak tak!

And off we’d go.

That comes up a lot in Polish conversation: tak tak tak! Yes yes yes! It fills the same basic niche as, “Right, right, gotcha,” or “Totally, yeah.” It also sounds like someone knocking on a door, and it makes me happy.

We paid the cabbie (and tipped him), gathered up our luggage, and Ashley led me into the building – and immediately, right inside the door, up a flight of stairs. And then up another flight. And another flight. And another flight.

“Okay, this is it,” Ashley said.

Pant, wheeze, pant,” I replied.

The keys to the flat were unusual. They looked like science-fiction versions of old-fashioned skeleton keys, and when we put them in the lock, we had to turn them four full revolutions to open the door, disengaging four separate deadbolts. I felt very secure there. I asked Magda later if keys like that were normal, and showed mine to her. She said, “No, that’s weird. I’ve never seen a key like that.” So don’t expect science-fiction skeleton keys if you go to Poland. (But don’t be surprised, either.)

Once we got inside, I found myself standing in a flat that was, by American standards… really nice. It had hardwood floors throughout, very modern cabinets and appliances in the kitchen, a whirlpool tub and a separate enclosed shower in the bathroom, and a pretty spacious balcony. Ashley let me have the bigger of the two bedrooms, since I’d be staying longer, and it took very little time for me to settle in.

One thing disappointed me, but only a little, and another thing just sort of puzzled me.

The first was the lack of air conditioning. I was born, raised, and still live in the South, where it gets stupidly hot and humid and the air swarms with insects, and air conditioning is just a given. So at first I didn’t like it that the flat had no A/C, but I quickly realized that the weather very rarely gets hot enough to need it, and that the bugs in Wrocław are so scarce you can just open a window without inviting in teeming hordes of winged blood-suckers.

The second was the washing machine. It was covered in tiny little abbreviated Polish letters, and I never did really figure out how to use it properly; I just put my clothes and the detergent in and hit “ON.” It worked well enough. What surprised me was the absence of a dryer. That’s another given in the States: you buy a washer and a dryer. They come in pairs. That’s just the way it is. But not in Poland, as I discovered. Very very few people in Poland use dryers at all, and instead just hang their clothes on drying racks. It’s very common to see a system of pulleys and lines strung up over a bathtub, so that it can be hoisted up out of the way when someone’s bathing, and then let back down to use for drying purposes.

Still. No A/C and no dryer were hardly serious impediments. Once I’d explored the flat and freshened up a bit, Ashley said, “Hey, let’s go outside, and I can show you what’s around the building here.”

Of course it only took about five minutes, even with Ashley right there, for me to get completely lost. It’s a talent I have.

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