Once when I was driving through the Polish countryside, I didn’t slow down when passing through a tiny village. From nowhere, a policeman stepped onto the road and signaled for me to pull over.
It was the first time I had ever been stopped for speeding in Poland.
I’d heard lots of stories from Poles that you could get away with speeding by offering a small bribe to the policeman. Indeed, I knew one Polish sales representative who used to carry lots of promotional gadgets in the boot of his car and would offer them to traffic police whenever he got stopped.
But I had grown up in the UK where bribery is extremely uncommon – in fact, I’d never bribed anyone in my entire life – and honestly, I didn’t even know how to do it!
So as I walked over to the police car, I was full of doubts. How is this going to work? Am I supposed to make an offer? Can I haggle? Should I start straight away or wait until he goes through the formal procedure? But what if I try to bribe him and he arrests me!
Also, linguistically, bribery is a hard interaction to master. It’s based on lots of subtle words and expressions that dance around the topic so as not to make it explicit. At the time, my Polish was pretty basic and certainly not good enough to be clever. Indeed, in the stress of the moment, I’d even forgotten the polish word for bribe!
‘You were going pretty fast,’ the policeman said to start the conversation.
‘Yes‘, I replied, not wanting to deny it.
‘This is a built-up area. The speed limit is 50 kilometres per hour.’
‘And you were doing over 70...’ and he showed me the figure 73 on the radar he was carrying.
‘Sorry,’ I said and tried to look as if I’d just learned the biggest lesson of my life.
He paused for a moment.
It’s going to happen now, I thought. He’s established the facts, now he’s moving on to the resolution. Now he’s going to raise this very delicate topic of bribery. Get ready…
‘How about a warning (to może wystarczy ostrzeżenie)?‘ he said.
I’d never heard the word ostrzeżenie before and had no idea what it meant. But, blinded by my expectations, I wrongly assumed it was connected to bribery.
Play it cool, I said to myself. Try and pretend you know what you’re doing. I assumed that I would need to make an offer, but I had no idea what the going rate was. And what was worse, he probably knew that and would see it as an opportunity to take advantage.
So I decided to put the ball in his court.
‘How much does that cost?‘ I replied.
The policeman looked puzzled and slid his cap back on his head. Whoops, I thought, that surprised him. Maybe it’s his first time too?
‘Nothing!‘ he said.
‘Oh, right. I understand,’ I mumbled…even though I had no idea what just happened.
I walked quickly back to the car, still wondering what ostrzeżenie meant.
Some foreigners, when they are stopped for speeding, speak in English only, hoping that the police will give up in frustration. However, on the two occasions that I have been pulled over, I interacted with the police in Polish and they seemed to appreciate that a foreigner was at least trying to speak their language. I also learned some new expressions too.
As well as the Polish word for warning, I also learned the phrase ‘życzę miłego pobytu w naszym kraju‘ from a traffic cop.
The second time I got stopped, the policemen asked me where I was from, and it turned out his brother was working as a policeman in Scotland not far from my home town. At the end of the conversation, he told me to drive more slowly (fulfilling his duty as a policeman) but also wished me a pleasant stay in Poland.
Despite these two lessons, there are definitely more responsible ways to learn Polish, so I stick to the speed limit. I don’t want to push my luck, otherwise, the next time I might end up learning words like mandat or punkty karne!