Guest Blogger – Matt

Today Poland, my country of origin, celebrates International Children’s Day with family days out, fun fairs, sweets and ice-cream. As a nod towards this tradition I planned to write a Proud Mum Moment sort of blog today. Just as I was mentally pencilling in my opening line, an email came from my son, with his own blog piece. He does not publish anywhere (yet?), he calls what he does a ‘subscription only’ blog. Without further ado, I give you Matt’s blog piece. Proud mum moment after all.

Dear Reader,

Thank you for joining me on my exploration of London’s Communities. This is my first piece. Your thoughts always welcomed.

A Roll of the Polish Dice

What: Piątki Przy Planszy – Friday Polish Board Games
When: Every other Friday
Where: Lewisham Polish Centre, Waldram Park Rd, Forest Hill, London SE23 2PP
Cost: Voluntary donation of around £2 for room use
Number of attendees: 15-20
Food and drink: Bring Your Own

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Organised by: London Polish Cultural Group – Meet Up Group
Community Type: Social, Cultural, Language

Crowd: Friendly, welcoming, mainly 25-40 years old, professional, all Polish-born, English speaking skill is variable, not all that keen on board games, easy-going, some geeky (remember it’s board games), and entertainingly chatty.

Possible to make new friends…? A small core group of 4-5 seem to go frequently enough to be friends. You would certainly know a few faces after a couple of visits.

Skills Required: Polish Language
Learning Potential: Polish language learners: come one, come all!

If only…? There were pictures online of what to expect, i.e. which games.

Inclusive: 0.5/5 for non-Polish speakers… 4.5 for everyone else.

Welcoming: 4.0/5

Overall Rating: 3.0/5

In a tweet: No-thrills, simplistic, good fun route into London’s Polish community. Basic level of Polish required, liking of board- and card-games recommended. Come as an outsider and leave feeling part of a hidden little group.

Linkhttps://www.meetup.com/kulturalny/events/259707102/

My experience:

“I knew I’d stumbled upon something special when I felt surprised to still be in the UK.

This happened when I had popped out to the Co-Op across the road to pick up some beers. I was suddenly surprised to be hearing everyone speaking English. My ‘holiday-mode’ had already kicked in by this stage.

I’d come from the Meet Up group across the road in the Lewisham Polish Centre. The evening’s event was the playfully alliterated ‘Piątki Przy Planszy’, which translates to ‘Polish Board Game Fridays’ to give the Slavic rendition a run for its money.

I’m not an active member of the Polish Community – at best a passive observer over the years who guardedly kept his distance.  Occasionally I’d dip my toe in Polish school on Saturdays, a holiday to the Polish mountains, and another one-last-attempt at reviving the language. One more linguistic dash was in store that night I suppose.

The night began when I arrived late to a room full of Poles, huddled around three sets of tables. Someone whose name I promptly forgot shook my hand, welcomed me and then motioned me over to the table playing the most active game. It looked very simple too. This was ideal, the more rules a board game has, the less inclined I am to play it.

I sat down and watched those around me play. I remained almost mute.

I knew I was about to speak more Polish than I had since my Babcia’s funeral.

The language skills I had to offer weren’t much, so internally, I was preparing to instantly bemuse everyone with my grammatically broken drivel.

Imagine a long-jumper preparing to leap knowing his thighs were tied together.

Drum roll… The big reveal came … and went as I threw out a few Polish phrases: anti-climax. Nobody pretended to notice my mistakes, but they were pretending. A couple threw the occasional suspicious glances at me.

I crawled my way over a few minutes of conversation in this more foreign than not language.

Then, to be fair to my table of board gamers I showed my hand. I explained I was British-born, in London, to a Polish mother, and have repeatedly picked up and given up the language over the course of my 24-year-long lifetime.

So the expected rough landing was not so rough at all. That said, I did get a few doting mothers telling me in their (broken) English that I spoke very ‘cute Polish’.

***

There were some 15-20 players there, mainly 25-40 in age, the age tail-end drifting off around 55.

The atmosphere was hushed on the table pressed into the corner, a drawn-out battle of complex stratagems and wits. This was taking its course through tokens and figurines exchanged over a board with a Viking-themed landscape. Those around the table held themselves in thought like chieftains of old as they considered their next moves. On the other table, a Scrabble variant was being played with applaudable concentration.

We played a game with dice and dominoes first, that fortunately needed few words to be spoken. One only exclaimed missed opportunities and amusing clashes of hands: “Hopla! … Ojejku!” I would join in the chorus, keenly aware that my enthusiasm found its expression cloned from what I could remember of Babcia shouting when playing board games with me some 15 years earlier.

The Lewisham Polish Centre had once been a priest’s home. It is housed in a tall Victorian house, just off Lewisham in a mainly residential area. The downstairs area was where we played, a small ground floor cum salon, populated with identikit school tables and chairs. It felt homely as an estranged aunt’s house might.

It took quite a while to get round to the “what do you do for a living?” realms of conversation. This was welcomed on a Friday evening.

I learnt to play Tysiąc – a card game which apparently “every Pole knows.” Seeing that my three instructors around the table spanned two and a half generations, there was some weight to that claim.

A few rounds into the game, helped by a generous portion of Whiskey and Coke from the player to my right, my language skills started to flow back. I was able to worm my way through sentences ever faster: with more bravado but no fewer mistakes.

That was the backstory to my geographical confusion in the Co-Op. I felt fully enveloped by the Polish hub in Lewisham. So much so, that asking for my three beers in English felt laborious. The twisting of familiar sounds, “ffaankyuu”, was enjoyably strange. Maybe it’s the whiskey talking, but I had a good time.

***

By the end of the evening, I’d made it ‘inside’ the community. A base level of Polish eased the journey to be sure. Gone were the stereotypes I secretly harboured of London Poles… oh, what a cliché to end on.

After talking about mountainous holidays, the best Polish eateries in London and many things in between, I had become comfortable in this seemingly closed group. Looking back, it was a group of casual Friday-nighters, sharing memories of a country, which they once called home but now resembled a holiday spot.

Here it was too that the atmosphere of holiday and home mixed, and it took little more than a board game.

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