In war films and novels, spies often try to learn a foreign language so perfectly that they can pretend to be a regular citizen in that country. However, despite years of intensive training, learning the minutiae of the target culture, one little slip up is enough to reveal the spy’s secret identity. For instance, in Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds, a British spy in Germany speaks perfect German and almost fools a member of the Gestapo. However, when ordering a round of drinks, he shows the number three by holding up three fingers rather than two fingers and one thumb. This little piece of British body language gives him away and the Germans arrest him immediately.
So I began to wonder what little aspects of Polish language and culture would a spy have to learn in order to pass him or herself off as a Pole? Alternatively, what little aspects of Polish society might be potential traps for our spy, causing him or her to slip up and reveal that they are not actually Polish?
Landing in Poland
Our spy needs to stay alert as soon as the plane approaches Poland. While he might be worried about border control, his problems start a little earlier than this. When the plane touches down safely, some Poles begin to clap. I’ve never known why they do this. Is because they are relieved that they didn’t crash, because they are so thrilled to be on Polish soil, or are they giving the pilot a round of applause for flying well? I’ve no idea, but whatever it is, to pass himself off as Polish, our spy has two choices – (1) applaud and thereby pretend to be a Pole from an older generation who doesn’t have much experience of flying, or (2) look embarrassed, thereby pretending to be a younger Pole with more flying experience. If he looks surprised, then it’s obvious that he’s not Polish.
The Napkin Test
The next place where our spy needs to be alert is in a Polish milk bar. His cultural training will hopefully have taught him that a milk bar doesn’t sell milk and it’s not a bar, but it’s when he sits down that issues might arise. In Polish bars there are usually napkins on each table. These thin squares of paper are arranged in a triangular fan and held in a small stand. The challenge is to take one without pulling out the rest. I’m amazed by Poles who, without even looking, gracefully pluck out a napkin from the centre while carrying out a conversation. I’ve been in Poland for years, but I still haven’t mastered this, and have to lift out all the napkins, unfold the bundle, remove one, fold them and put them back in the stand. I can imagine the sweat on our spy’s brow as he reaches for the napkins, knowing that if he pulls the wrong one, all of them will spill out and his identity will be revealed to the entire milk bar.
Likewise, he needs to be careful with the salt and pepper pots. Unlike in the UK, where a pot with one hole contains salt and a pot with three holes contains pepper, it’s the other way around in Poland. If he ends up shaking pepper onto his chips, then he’s a dead man.
Suppressing British Impulses
It won’t be easy, but our spy will need to suppress intense British impulses during his stay in Poland. This will be especially difficult concerning tea. Firstly, he needs to break the mental association between tea and time. In Poland, you can drink tea whenever you want and there’s no specific tea time in the late afternoon when you must take a break for tea. Secondly, if he really has to add milk to his tea, then he mustn’t take offense if the waiter brings warm milk. No matter how ghastly it is to put warm milk in tea, he’ll just have to pretend to enjoy it.
No matter how much prior training he gets, it’s still going to be a challenge to queue like a Pole. The first thing he needs to know is when not to queue. If he just has a question, then he shouldn’t wait in line, but instead barge straight to the counter, interrupt whoever is being served and loudly ask his question. Politely waiting in line to ask a question is a dead giveaway that he’s a Brit.
Body language is another potential telltale sign that he’s a spy. A true Pole looks a little anxious when queuing as if someone is suddenly going to jump ahead of them. This is especially important if you’re standing in a line. Here you should constantly encroach into the personal space of the person ahead of you. If this results in physical contact, whatever you do, don’t apologise. That would be a clear signal that you’re British.
Of course, our spy needs to get his clothes right if he’s going to blend in effectively. One thing he needs to bear in mind is the amount of clothing. If he wants to look Polish, especially in winter, then he needs to wear as least twice as many items of clothing as he would in the UK.
For Poles this attachment to multiple layers starts in childhood. One thing that did surprise me about the Polish winter was the amount of clothes Polish children are forced to wear. This is fine if it’s minus ten, but if it’s plus five degrees, do they need to be dressed like an arctic explorer? One shock that most Poles get in the UK is when they see young children wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops… in winter. On the whole, this difference is harder for a Polish spy in the UK than a British one in Poland.
A spy needs to meet other operatives and exchange messages in public places. What potential issues could arise? First of all, there’s time-keeping. If you agree to meet your Polish agents on a park bench, don’t give them up for dead if they are 10 minutes late. In Poland, 3 o’clock lasts from 3.00-3.15, so it’s possible to be 15 minutes late and still be on time.
The next question is what to carry with you so that you look normal. Poles buy huge quantities of flowers, so if you’re carrying a bunch of flowers, any one observing you will assume you’re on your way to someone’s house, a church or a grave. But our spy will need to be careful – Poles always buy an odd number of flowers, so if he’s carrying a dozen red roses, then they’ll be for his own grave!
Our spy should also bear in mind that Poles have a long history with clandestine and conspiratorial activity, so don’t try to outsmart them. Fortunately, for our spy, firanki (net curtains) never went out of fashion in Poland, so he can simply rent an apartment opposite some key location and do all the spying he wants from the window!
Referring to Oneself
James Bond doesn’t go undercover, he’s not that type of spy. However, his way of introducing himself would actually lend itself to being an effective agent in Poland. ‘Bond, James Bond‘ mirrors the way a Pole will often say ‘Kowalski, Jacek‘ when introducing himself in a formal situation as opposed to the British way of saying the first name followed by the last name.
Another potential pitfall when referring to yourself is not to overuse the word Ja. Hopefully, our spy has paid attention during language lessons and learned that Poles incorporate the pronoun into the verb and just say jestem or mam instead of ja jestem, ja mam etc.
Personally, I’d fail this particularly test as I’m guilty of saying ja too often. My wife laughs every time I explain away my poor Polish by saying ja-aaaaa jestem Szkotem. As well as sounding like Sean Connery when I elongate the ja-aaaaa, it gives away my foreignness both in form and content.
The Departure Gate
In the unlikely event that our spy survives all of the potential pitfalls mentioned above, there’s one last test before he can board a flight to safety.
In an airport, just before a flight is called, you can tell which passengers are Polish and which are not just by looking. How? Well, all the non-Poles will be sitting, waiting for an announcement that the plane is ready for boarding. All the Poles, however, will already be standing in a queue, waiting to board. Our spy, to avoid being caught, will need to stay alert. As soon as the first Pole decides that it’s time to board, he needs to hurry to the boarding game and join the emerging queue with the other Poles. Then, and only then, might he complete his mission successfully.