23 December 2009

I Am A Patron Saint In Greenpoint

Today I had one of my blonde moments. Or was it an absent-minded professor moment? Or should I blame it on my age? After all, I'm in, or near, Alzheimer's territory.

Whatever the reason, my mental lapse caused me to miss an appointment with Anna, my hairdresser. I was supposed to see her at 2:30 this afternoon, but for some reason I thought it was 3:30. When I arrived, she was cutting someone else's hair and was booked for the rest of this day--and week. So I've scheduled an appointment for the day of New Year's Eve. At least I'll start 2010 with nice hair!

Anna works for Zoe's Beauty in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I always enjoy going to the salon-- and to the neighborhood, which is the main Polish enclave in New York. How long it will remain so is a good question: When you walk Manhattan Avenue, which is the main commercial strip, you see actual or wannabe hipsters perusing the windows full of Polish foods, videos and books. A few stores have signs in Polish, but not in English.

I went into one of them to buy some chocolates. Yes, the Polish make some good dark chocolates. As I don't drink vodka or beer (or anything else with alcohol), those chocolates have become my Polish drug of choice. The E. Wedel and Wawel brands seem to have a particularly nice taste and texture. It's a good thing the packages are illustrated: Sometimes they're printed only in Polish!

Anyway, when I went to pay for the chocolates, the young female cashier talked to me in Polish. I smiled in a somewhat embarrassed way. She knew right then and there I wasn't from her country. "Sorry! I thought you were..."

Ironically, she was actually more pleasant toward me when she realized I'm not Polish. And she was more polite with me than she seemed to be with the Polish customers. That, of course, is the opposite of what one normally expects in encountering people who speak a language different from one's own. What I find even stranger is that it's not the first time I've had such an experience in Greenpoint.

After buying the chocolates, I went to a little Polish restaurant called The Happy End. I highly recommend their white borscht and pierogies, and that's what I had there. As I was spooning up the soup, a man about ten years younger than I am sat beside me and started chatting me up in his language. I gave him my sad little "Sorry, I don't speak your language" smile--which seemed to make him even more intent on talking to me. He switched to English, which he actually spoke very well. "What are you doing for the holidays?"

"I'm going to see family," I lied. I've used that line to abort a couple of attempted pick-ups in my time.

"Oh. That's good. What about after the holiday?"

"Well, I'm going to work. "

"What's your name?"

This time, I told him the truth. That really got his attention. Apparently, Justine (which is spelled Justyna in Polish) is a sort of patron saint, or something like that, to the Polish. At least, one of my Polish students told me that. She said that Justyna led Polish forces in an ultimately unsuccessful insurrection against their Russian and German occupiers. I remarked that it sounds a lot like the story of Jeanne d'Arc. My student agreed, but added that in a way, Justyna is even more important to Poland than Jeanne is to France. "At least France still existed when Jeanne fought," she said. "When Justyna came along, the Polish people didn't have their own country."

If I recall correctly, some time near the end of the 18th Century, Russia and Prussia conquered and divided Poland, which would not become an independent country again until some time after World War I.

Anyway...I told that man in the restaurant that I am in the neighborhood often, and perhaps we would bump into each other again. "I hope so, Justyna." He enunciated my name, making sure that I heard it as a Polish name.

A couple of weeks ago, I mused on whether I should be Russian because their writers spend so much time describing women's eyes and I've been told that mine are beautiful. Now I'm starting to think that maybe I should be Polish. After all, I seem to look more or less the part. And Polish men seem not to mind big-boned, strong-willed women. Most important, perhaps, is that I seem to have the right name. Who'd have guessed that in changing my gender--and my name--I'd become a sort of honorary Pole?

Then again, would I have to change my last name to Valinottiniski? I don't think I'd like that. I'll stick to being an interloper in Greenpoint.


Filigree said...

Funny, I know the neighborhood you are describing very well, especially the weird feeling of seeing "hipsters" walking along streets with Polish store signs. I am still waiting for Brighton Beach to become the next hip neighborhood.

Your observation about the store clerks being nicer to English speakers is spot on. This is non just a Polish thing, but a pan-Eastern European thing. In most E European cultures, it is not normal to be overly friendly in commerce-based interactions, at least not until you get to know the customer better. But at the same time they are aware of the cultural difference, whereby American customers do expect service to be "friendly".

This leads to the funny dichotomy you described. Say, if a Russian-speaking customer comes into a Russian deli, the person behind the counter will not alter their facial expression one bit and will say, in Russian: "Yes?" or "What do you want?" or "What do you need?" - all of which are perfectly normal things to say to a Russian potential customer. But if an American walks in, they will attempt to smile and say, in English, "How can I help you?". In Russian (or Polish) "How can I help you?" would sound downright unnatural in that context. Maybe in a very posh clothing store or Investment Banking firm they would use that term, but not in a grocery store.

As for the men's behaviour... Well, that is another topic entirely : )

Justine Valinotti said...

Filigree, thank you for your comment. I hadn't realized, until now, that what I experienced is a common denominator of Eastern European cultures. Now that I think of it, I have also had similar expereinces in Brighton Beach, which is often referred to as "little Odessa by the sea."