Imperial Delusions

My first flat in Poland looked over a bunch of ramshackle huts arranged in rows. I asked my landlord what it was and he said it was a bazaar.

Being British, I grew up hearing and reading tales about our former empire. The adventures of British explorers, soldiers and administrators are popular and describe a world full of strange lands, exotic peoples and quirky cultures. It might be a bit misleading in the 21st century, but I was taught to associate foreign lands with Kipling’s the Jungle Book, the Arabian Nights and the search up the Zambezi river for Dr Livingstone.

So when I heard that there was a bazaar next to my block, my mind raced to ancient Persia, flying carpets and Ali Baba.

When you go to a foreign country, you expect things to be unfamiliar. Yet sometimes, those expectations can go too far and you discover that reality isn’t quite as weird as your own imagination.

So assuming that a Polish bazar was not unlike an Arabian bazaar, I decided to play it safe. For about a month I didn’t go anywhere near it just in case I got tricked out of all my zloties by a snake charmer.

When I finally did venture into the bazar, with my camera ready, it was a great disappointment. There were no oriental silks, no fortune-tellers, and no persistent camel salesmen – just lots of market stalls selling vegetables, shoes and pirated Cds.

No Ali Baba, only Ali Babcia!


Another time, a friend suggested we meet at 7pm ‘by the pavilion next to the park‘. I showed up an hour late!

Why? Because I was looking through my imperial lenses again. Because I was looking for a fancy, exotic-looking building near the park. You see, in English, a pavilion is an elegant, often historic building that is used for leisure activities. In Brighton there’s an ornate building called the Royal Pavilion with domes and minarets that was modeled on Indian and Muslim architecture.

So for an hour I wandered around the park, like Livingstone in Africa, looking for splendid neo-colonial palace.

With this goal in mind, I completely overlooked the squat, flat-roofed building in one corner of the park. Whatever that was, it wasn’t a pavilion.

Eventually, I called my friend and she explained it was at the west side of the park. I went to the west-side. Still couldn’t find a pavilion. Called again, asking for more directions. In the end, we had to stay connected while my friend guided me to the pavilion as if I were blind.

I soon learned that in Poland a pawilon isn’t very exotic at all. It just a type of shopping centre in the middle of a housing estate. Just a glass-fronted, concrete box where the local chemists, grocery shops and dry-cleaners are.

No minarets, only mini-markets.

So for a while my colonial imagination confused me a little in Poland, and it took a while to calibrate my expectations to reality.

Yet language also played a part. It was the names given to particular places and buildings that gave me the wrong impression:

  • A galeria doesn’t exhibit paintings?
  • A bar mleczny doesn’t sell milkshakes?
  • and a pasaż doesn’t go anywhere?

If they’d just used dom handlowy instead of pawilon, I might have recognized it at once!

Oh and besides not getting used to its architectural appearance, I couldn’t get the pronunciation of pawilon right either.

To this day, I still say ‘pavilion’ instead of ‘pawilon‘ … for some reason, I just can’t get my tongue to make the switch.

So whenever I pop out to buy some bread or potatoes, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s in India, riding an elephant through a sea of natives towards the gleaming marble domes of an exotic, colonial palace.

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