Thursday, April 12, 2007

Great Brzegspectations

The conference room at the Besel electric motor factory in Brzeg is a comfortable, bright and clean space. It's the sort of room two countries would use to harmonise bra sizes, or a place where an actor could give a bitchy off-the-record interview with a gossip magazine.

In one corner is a stand on which sits a variety of electric motors - all seemingly identical but different in staggeringly complicated ways. On one wall is a map of modern Europe. Through the window lie the factory gates, where matchstick workers trudge home after their daily toil. My student sits opposite me. He has finished his shift but remains for 90 minutes to practice his English. My ignorance of engineering, Polish culture and Polish history delights him. He wants to tell me everything.

He typically talks for 89 of the 90 minutes - the perfect student. Once he starts talking he doesn't stop. He's like one of the machines in his factory. ('This machine,' says the foreman to the visitors from Warsaw, 'can pump out 15 English sentences per minute'). I choose my first question carefully, because it will be the topic I hear about for the next 45 minutes. But whatever the starting topic is, his mind is irresistibly drawn to Polish history, and the second half of the lesson he talks of Hitler, the Battle of Britain, Yalta, the Communist Era, but mostly Stalin - Stalin above all dominates his thoughts. The tangents that lead him to Stalin are remarkable. "Brzeg has a high unemployment rate. Under the Communists we had full employment. Of course, we also had Stalin." "This factory was bought by an Italian company. Stalin wasn't Italian."

But as he mentions Stalin, I interrupt.
"Rafal," I say, "I'd love to talk about Stalin again, but I have a question." His eyes widen slightly. I let the pause last for a few seconds. "You work in a factory and that. Electrics. I need a sort of adaptor thing, so I can plug my English things into Polish sockets."
He understands. He makes a phone call. "I know where you can get them," he tells me. I pick up a pen to take the address. "Let's go," he says.
"Go?" I am stunned. "Go to buy them? Now?"
"Yes, we should have time."

He drives me into the centre of Brzeg. We go into a phone shop. There is a queue. Rafal ignores the line and goes to the front. "Good day. This is my English friend Andrew. He needs a phone adaptor." This isn't going to work, I think to myself, I tried this already. It doesn't work - they don't sell them in that shop. The queue doesn't appear to resent me. We leave.

We race to another shop. On the way we are nearly hit by a blonde woman driving while smoking and putting on lipstick. She smiles at us. She has two children in the back of the car. "Did you see that?" asks Rafal. He stares at me for no less than ten seconds - while entering a roundabout. I have a vision of my mother being informed of my death. A man is telling her that my presence in the car was a mystery, and that the lorry which hit it was undamaged, though the driver dropped his phone after the impact.

I open my eyes and we are in a sort of general purpose electronic peripherals store. Rafal ignores the queue again, and the shopkeep hands him two plug adaptors. "They will solve your problem," the man says to me in English. Rafal insists on paying for them.

He drives me back to the factory, then drives home, twelve zlotys poorer. I roll the adaptors around my hand and wait for the other teachers to finish.

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