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Postcard from Nottingham

Tomasz Siuta, who teaches English in XXVI Secondary School in £ódŸ, won the first prize in the British Studies web pages ‘Identity’ competition in 2001. This is his account of how he enjoyed that prize: a ‘Culture Matters’ teacher training course at New College Nottingham, June 25 – July 6 2001

Warsaw, 12 May 2001, Prize-winning Ceremony

Tomasz Siuta with Dr. Jeremy Eyres, Director of the British Council Poland


Brace Yourself

On Sunday 24 June after a swift customs control at Okêcie airport I boarded a Boeing 757 and took my seat next to the window. An assuring voice instructed me how to cower in an unlikely event of engine problems and how to inflate a life jacket in case we crash-landed in the sea. After this disturbing introduction I settled down to admiring fluffy clouds below us. Soon, grinning flight attendants served lunch consisting of a pork ham and cheese sandwich which I watered down with a cup of British tea, and for dessert I got a muffin. After two hours we touched down at Heathrow airport and after a short interrogation at the immigration officer’s desk I got a visa. The weather in England proved to be a nice change from Polish chills and rain. For the first time this summer I had a chance to sport a sleeveless shirt.

Cockney and Nottinghamese

Having bought a ticket to Nottingham, I got on the coach where the only available seat was the one next to the driver, who magnanimously let me take it only if I didn’t snore. I assured him I didn’t, which meant I could admire the views from the privileged seat. Soon it turned out there were two drivers: one from London and the other from Nottingham and during our three-hour journey they made innocent jokes about the passengers and each other. It was my first pre-course lesson on linguistic differences between native speakers of English. I can tell you they didn’t speak the language I teach in school.

On Handfasting and Pets

On the coach I got to know a nice lady who was heading for Nottingham to attend her daughter’s wedding. The woman was despairing a bit since her daughter, who was brought up as a Protestant, and her fiancé had opted for a pagan ceremony called Handfasting. My newly-met acquaintance turned out to be a real British lady because not before long she started letting me in on her cat’s condition and began reciting poems from the feline-related book ‘The Cats of the Tribe’.

First Hand Knowledge

On arriving in Nottingham I was collected by my future teacher trainer, Adrian Tennant, who hailed a typical black English taxi and took me to my host family. To my surprise it turned out the family had Polish roots as the owner of the house (who was unfortunately in hospital at the time of my stay) was born in Pabianice, later migrated to Germany and finally settled in England. The house I was supposed to stay in had many tenants: a French girl who came for a several-week work placement, a Libyan student who studied English in the building I would soon have classes in, numerous friends of the family who let out rooms here, and of course four cats which were allowed to go anywhere they wanted in the house. I got there just in time for 6 o’clock dinner. Naturally we started analysing differences between Polish and English cuisine and I found out that the dish called mincemeat doesn’t contain any meat. For the first time in my life I ate apple pie with custard (it’s a small muffin with apple filling onto which you pour a sort of  pudding and heat everything before serving). During my stay there I had a chance to taste a quiche (a tart filled with savoury mixture of eggs, cheese and vegetables), poached eggs (you cook them in boiling water without their shells), bacon and eggs and drink tea á la Briton, i.e. with milk.

Every evening the lady of the house wanted to be alone because BBC 1 broadcast the famous older-than-the-hills British soap opera ‘Eastenders’. I, on the other hand, would anxiously wait for 10 p.m. as that was the time when Channel 4 showed Big Brother. It was the second edition of this reality show in the UK (well, if we don’t count a week-long celebrity edition in-between, in which famous British personalities were closed inside the Big Brother’s house to gather money for charity organisations) and just like in Poland, it attracted as many supporters as opponents. After watching the programme several times I came to the conclusion that public British TV is much more liberal as it allows for sexually related situations and very often provokes them itself.

There were frequently many visitors to the house I stayed at. Once there was a nutritionist from Scotland who associated Poland with cheap beer. On another occasion came my landlady’s grandson named Blue (Can you believe it? In Poland you are asked to justify it if you want to call your baby ‘David’ because social clerks are reluctant to register children with foreign-sounding names) and many times the house was visited by my landlady’s friend who taught in a local primary school. I was really interested in the reality of British state schools and I learned that when a pupil misbehaves he or she is sent to detention, where they are given some extra homework to do, or, if they repeatedly do so, their teacher books a place in the detention for a few days in advance. One evening I listened to a  fascinating lecture on the colloquial expressions used by Nottingham citizens given by my landlady’s middle son (while I was there he was attending a teacher training course as he dreamt of going abroad to teach English). What follows is only a sample of the Nottingham argot:

My host family and I

  1. Instead of saying ‘What’s going on?’, they ask ‘What’s going off?’.
  2. When someone grumbles a lot and is bad-tempered they call such a person ‘mardy’ (I first came across the word while reading ‘Sons and Lovers’ by D.H.Lawrence, the renowned Nottingham-born writer)
  3. As a form of greeting they say ‘Yo’awright?’ but they don’t expect you to dwell on your problems.
  4. From now on don’t ever say ‘I’m tipsy’ but ‘I’m frazzled’ or ‘I’m off my face’.
  5. People in Nottingham don’t go to the cinema, they go to the flicks.
  6. If something takes a long time, it takes yonks.

Different But Not Strange

New College Nottingham, ‘Culture Matters’ class

I came to Nottingham to attend a 10-day ‘Culture Matters’ course for teachers of English. There were 23 participants representing 9 countries - Spain, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Greece, The Czech Republic, Italy and Poland – 18 women and 5 men, teaching English in different parts of Europe. On the first day, during a 90-minute introduction to the links between culture and language I learned, among other things, that:

  • the phrase full monty, which now in the post-Full Monty film era means striptease, used to mean everything, the works, the lot and was used in phrases like a full monty sandwich
  • pub grub is the food you eat in a pub
  • pub crawl is the activity of going from one pub to another
  • there are 48 words /phrases in English to talk about rain (later with my host family we managed to identify only 15, including 2 I hadn’t heard before):

-          It’s chucking it down.

-          It’s driving rain. (this one is used in one of Bon Jovi’s songs)

At the end of the class we got our first homework assignment, i.e. check what our host families knew about Poland and keep a diary in which we would note down the things that struck us most in Nottingham. I completed the first task on the same day. My host family knew surprisingly a lot about Poland: they named the capital city; the Pope; neighbouring countries; the world-famous former president; and they were able to tell me some historical facts. As for the latter assignment, well, it was more time-consuming but already that day I managed to gather a handful of local peculiarities :

Half of my group taking a walk

  1. The fact that they really do like talking about weather all the time.
  2. There are no sockets in bathrooms, which makes shaving by means of an electric razor a bit challenging.
  3. The British have rugs in bathrooms, which is not very hygienic if you ask me.
  4. The much-talked-about separate taps for cold and hot water very quickly teach you how to use your brain when you wash.
  5. The British are so kind they even thank bus drivers for taking them where they want.
  6. Bus drivers don’t give you change if you buy a ticket from them.
  7. There are green double-decker buses in Nottingham, which means that London does not set fashions for the rest of the country after all.
  8. All shops are closed at 6 p.m.
  9. You can’t leave a museum without going through a gift shop.

One day after classes I grabbed something to eat for lunch and sat down in the Old Market Square. There were many people there as this is the most-frequented place in Nottingham. Suddenly a man who was sitting next to me broke off a conversation he was having with his friend and out of the blue started talking in high voice about his belief in God and about his experiences with religion. I was really shocked to hear him talk about his family problems to complete strangers in the heart of the city. It looked like Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, but still I found it strange. When he finished, the Nottingham preacher distributed leaflets with his views on life, the troubled story of his family and the times when masses in his church took place.

On another occasion we dealt with differences and examples of customs, habits and manners concerning different nations. Take washing-up, for example. The only thing our two nations have in common when it comes to this dreadful chore is the fact that we use washing-up liquid, because the British don’t bother to rinse dishes at all.  I don’t want to bore you here so if you want more detail on this please look at the riveting Bill Bryson book Notes From A Small Island, in which this American writer describes humorously his impressions of Great Britain, and to the well-known How To Be An Alien book by a Hungarian writer, George Mikes, who hilariously describes things he found shocking when he first set his foot on British soil.

On a Lost Generation

One time we had a guest speaker from Australia, the country where when you flush the toilet the water goes the other way round, who told us many shocking facts from the past of this continent. You may not know it but Australia has had a very racist past in which apartheid was practised and where indigenous Aboriginal people lost almost all their land and suffered many prejudices. They were unable to vote until the late 1960s nor were they granted citizenship. The authorities used to go even further in limiting their freedom, i.e. they tried to breed out the Aboriginal people altogether by taking their children away from their parents and giving them up for adoption to the white citizens of Down Under. Nowadays many people from that so-called Lost Generation speak publicly about their tormented childhood, but there are also people who admit that if they hadn’t been brought up by a white family they would have had limited chances of getting on in life.

Three teetotallers in front of the oldest pub in UK

On Robin and Byron

After classes together with my group we would occasionally go sightseeing. Since classes took up most of my time I managed to see only a few places advertised in guidebooks. Nottingham Castle, situated high above the city, is not what I call a breathtaking experience, well maybe apart from a black-humour exhibit of peculiarly shaped caskets, especially a casket for a skier. The Museum of Nottingham Life at Brewhouse Yard, which is located below Nottingham Castle, interestingly presents a glimpse of life in the city over the last two hundred years. My personal favourites were caves behind the museum, which were used as dwellings in the old days. Since the weather was scorching and stifling we gladly made our way to the supposedly oldest pub in Britain called The Old Trip to Jerusalem, which dates back to 1189.

Robin’s new follower

I couldn’t miss Nottingham’s most popular visitor attraction ‘The Tales of Robin Hood’. It’s a museum where you relive the legend of Britain’s most famous outlaw. Although I think that the tour is a bit overpriced and tailored rather for elementary school kids, I had a great time practising archery (it cost me one pound extra) and I was as proud as the Sheriff of Nottingham’s peacock when my instructor (who called me ‘Sir Tomasz’, that’s what I call the power of the pound sterling) presented me with a certificate stating that my shooting skills were like those of a ballad singer. I scored 13 points at four attempts. Not bad for a foreigner.

Ever since I saw the film with Jason Connery I had been dying to see Sherwood Forest, a former royal hunting area and the magical place that witnessed the magnificent adventures of Robin Hood. Unfortunately when I got there I thought that ‘forest’ was too big a word for that place. It is a much thinned out terrain which is perfect for jogging, lazy rambles or cycling tours. The magic and mystery have long gone.

Sherwood Forest

But the place that still possesses its mysticism (well if you pretend not to see the anti-Mad-Cow-Disease straw mat at the entrance to the estate) is Newstead Abbey, the former home of the romantic poet, Lord Byron. It is situated 12 miles north of Nottingham but it’s well worth the trip. It’s a beautiful historic house set in a picturesque landscape of gardens and parkland. It was founded as a monastic house in the late 12th century, became the Byron family seat in 1540 and was a private country house until 1931. I strongly recommend exploring the medieval cloisters, splendid Victorian room settings and the private apartments of Lord Byron. And, as the guidebooks extol, Newstead Abbey’s formal gardens are the perfect place for a relaxing stroll along paths that meander past attractive lakes, ponds and waterfalls. The local restaurant as usual tries to whisk a substantial amount of money out of your pocket so if I may suggest something, take a packed lunch with you.

Looking for inspiration at Newstead Abbey

Shakespeare Is Alive

I can honestly say the highlight of my stay in Britain was a one-day trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare who is currently, almost 400 years after his death, considered by Hollywood directors the most popular screenplay writer ever. By the way, did you know that Shakespeare never spelled his name the same way twice in any of his surviving six signatures, even employing two spellings on a single document. His contemporaries were even more approximate in their renderings, leaving us with eighty-three different spellings of his name. Curiously, the one spelling Shakespeare himself didn’t appear to use was ‘Shakespeare’ (excerpt taken from Bill Bryson’s book Made in America). If you happen to be in Stratford-Upon-Avon you must buy a ticket for the Shakespeare Heritage Trail. For 12 pounds (it’s worth every penny) you can visit five houses connected with William Shakespeare or his immediate family. The houses are located in and around the city and they take you on a fascinating and informative tour into Shakespeare’s life.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace is the first house you visit and as the name suggests it the place where the playwright was born. Knowledgeable and helpful guides (I must say that it was the first time ever that I was fully satisfied with a guided tour) will answer all your questions and satisfy your curiosity as far as Shakespeare’s childhood is concerned. I learned that the canopy over beds was put there to stop all kinds of bugs falling onto your bed sheets from the thatched roof, and not, as I thought for many years, for ornamental reasons only.

Baby William is crying inside

One guide let me in on the secret of short beds. People in Tudor times used to sleep in an upright position but if you want to know why, you have to cough up twelve pounds and ask for yourself. The biggest surprise that I came across in the house was a Shakespeare look-alike guide. No make-up or fancy dress, mind you. The man looked exactly like the author of Hamlet. When my friend from the Czech Republic told him he looked the spitting image of you know who, he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘ I’m aware of that but try not to let it go into my head’. Unbelievable. When he asked me where I was from and I replied ‘Lodz’, he bridled at it and said, ‘Don’t you mean ‘£ódŸ’?’, with a perfect Polish accent. Who said that the British don’t speak foreign languages?

On Frogs and Butterflies

Then I went to Hall’s Croft, named after Dr John Hall, who married Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna in 1607. John ran a successful medical practice treating many patients, rich and poor, and the house has a collection of medical instruments, although they looked more like tools of torture to me, that he used in his surgery. Another helpful guide enlightened me on the origin of the phrase ‘to have a frog in one’s throat’. You may know that it describes a difficulty in speaking caused by roughness in the throat but what you probably don’t know is that it comes from Dr Hall’s way of treating patients with a sore throat, i.e. he would simply put a living frog on a string into the patient’s mouth and it would supposedly clear the throat of any blobs. It makes one wonder where the phrase ‘to have butterflies in your stomach’ comes from, doesn’t it? The house is situated close to Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried.

15th century surgery

In Nash’s House (named after Thomas Nash – the first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth) you may admire the collection of 17th century oak furniture and tapestries as well as visit the upstairs museum that traces the history of the town from Roman times to the 20th century. Behind the house there is a picturesque Elizabethan-style garden where, together with other participants, we took a dozen pictures of colourful flowers and shrubs.

One mile from Stratford-Upon-Avon is Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the picturesque home of Shakespeare’s wife, before her marriage. This thatched mid-15th century farmhouse lies in the village of Shottery and continued to be home to descendants of the Hathaway family until the 19th century. Right there I discovered the etymology of many common English phrases. I will mention only a few of them not to spoil the fun of discovery when you get there. When you go on holiday you look for a place with full board or half board. Well, in the old days a table was covered by a movable board that was used to put plates on. Other expressions with this word include a board game, board room, Chairman of the Board, do business above / under board. If nobody wants you (especially if you’re a woman on the wrong side of twenty), we say that you are left on the shelf. It comes from the fact that in Tudor times women slept on shelves (I know it sounds funny but you need to go to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage to hear it for yourself) and were entitled to sleep in beds only if they married. Maybe that’s the main reason why they married so young. All in all, the cottage is a treasure-house of facts, phrases, stories and artefacts from when Shakespeare was dating Anne Hathaway.

The last of the five houses is Mary Arden’s House, named after Shakespeare’s mother, who lived here in her childhood. It’s a spectacular place with frequent demonstrations of falconry (a falcon keeper told me that sometimes her birds escape for a few minutes to hunt a chicken in nearby farms, not to get out of practice I suppose), and also contains Shakespeare’s Countryside Museum and a real blacksmith’s forge.

Last drink...

Let’s Go Out to Church

Well, all’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare wrote. My stay in Nottingham came to an end although there were still so many places I wanted to go to. Our farewell party was held in a pub, or a church turned into a pub to be precise. Those British are so resourceful. The minute a church loses followers it is redecorated and beer pumps are set up. Sitting in the church/pub, blasphemously sipping a drink, looking at the beautiful stained-glasses representing religious figures I thought to myself that I must disagree with our course teacher trainer who said that other cultures may be different but they are not strange. The British are strange to us Poles as well as we must appear strange to them with our constant complaining about health problems, massive red tape and summer hot water shortages. It is a positive thing, though. Why else would we want to travel the world if not to find out how other nations live?

Proud as peacocks


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