Sunday 7 December 2014

The Silly Little Hares on the 26 Bus

Living in a multicultural city like Toronto can be exciting for the young, but exhausting and dispiriting for the old. The social links are weak, one culture's ordinary behaviour is potentially confusing and offensive to another, and "home" is somewhere else, if only the past. For me, the apotheosis of multiculturalism out of control is my parents' neighbourhood bus in winter. jammed full of miserable-looking people bursting into terse speech to their mobile phones, completely incomprehensible to everyone except, perhaps, five other people on the bus. It's Babel, the next day. 

Foreign-to-me behaviour has included a furious-looking Russian playing Russian folk-pop at a high volume on his phone, and a Pakistani or Bangladeshi man shoveling snow across the street from the bus stop in thin traditional Pakstani clothing. Once a sad-looking elderly man asked me, at that bus stop, if I spoke Russian.  I have blue eyes, so the odds were pretty good.

Therefore, as B.A. was quick to point out, I am not a fan of  mass migration or hyper-multiculturalism. One of the things I love about Scotland is that the vast majority of people are Scots, with a shared culture, shared expectations, shared language (English), and a lot of social cohesion. Ironically, I myself am a foreigner, although as a Canadian of Scots ancestry, many people do not think of me as a foreign foreigner, just a colonial, almost British. 

And again ironically, I rather enjoy the exceptions that prove the rule to Scottish monoculture--Scots suddenly breaking into Italian and young Poles yammering away into their mobile phones.  Living in a place with a clear ethnic majority who set the social norm and a few well-defined ethnic minorities, whose languages I can (or could, should I take up Urdu) generally understand, suits me down to the ground.

All that said, I have been shocked by anti-Polish remarks I have encountered in Edinburgh. On the one hand, I understand discomfort with difference, especially the linguistic difference that suddenly turns one's familiar world unfamiliar. But on the other hand, I very much object to bullying and general disrespect, especially of women and children. Polish men--let's face it--can take care of themselves. When a drunk Scot confronted my local Polish shopkeeper, I felt terribly protective of the shopkeeper, which was pretty stupid, as the Polish shopkeeper was much bigger than the Scottish kid. However when drunk Scots shout Polish obscenities at Polish women on the bus, that is a different story.

So after all that preamble, here is what happened on the 26 bus. An edited version of this story appeared in  Toronto''s Catholic Register on November 28, 2014. 

The Silly Little Hares

This past week my Polish class was asked to translate a poem by Jerzy Harasymowicz, “Orchard, January”, and it made me feel homesick for Canada:

Here’s an apple tree in winter. /Here’s a bullfinch drowned in crimson./ The finch has a heart like an apple pip. /The finch is a winter apple

In the bark of the tree silly little hares/ with sharp little teeth cut wedding rings. /It is still, and there’s silence all around,/only sometimes a rook, like a marshal, shouts something.

I wrote the original Polish on cue cards to study on the bus, and on Sunday afternoon after  eavesdropping on a Polish family—the young mother would leave her little boy in his father’s care when she alighted—I took them out of my bag. The young father moved from his seat beside me to the mother’s seat beside their son, and I looked at my cards. Oto zimą, jabłonek.  

A noisy gang of  Scottish boys got on the bus, and a few raced each other to the upper deck. One nabbed the seat beside me, and his hefty pal crowded onto the edge. The first boy looked at my cards.

“Is that Polish?” he demanded.

“Yes,” I said, not surprised at his correct guess. Poles are the largest ethnic minority in Edinburgh after the English.

“Are you Polish?”  

“No. I’m Canadian.”

There was a stunned pause. (“She’s wha’?” muttered the fat friend on the edge of the seat. “Canadian.” “Wha’?”)  Obviously that was not the answer they expected.

“Is Polish hard to learn? What does that mean?” asked the first boy, looking again at my cue card.

“It means, ‘It is still, and there’s silence all around’.”

There was another pause, and I was all set to read him the poem from the beginning when his pal piped up.

“What does [short Polish obscenity] mean?”

“Yeah,” said the first boy, deadpan. “What does [****] mean?”

My thoughts flew to the tiny child in front of me, to his father, to my friend Mateusz bragging that his father had not once in his life used that word, to young Scottish men shouting it on the bus to harrass solitary Polish women.

“That,” I said, “is a very bad word, as bad as the N-word. It is extremely offensive, and you shouldn’t use it in public.”

“What does [longer Polish obscenity] mean?” demanded the first boy.

“Yeah, what does [*****] mean?” repeated the second boy.

“That is even a worse word and you shouldn’t be using it in public, especially when there are little kids around,” I scolded. “Have some respect!”

There was silence, then giggling, and then the second boy scampered down the stairs to their pals below.  The tale of our conversation, obscenities and all, drifted up the stairwell.  I stared miserably out the window, cards limp in my hands.  Surely I am too old to be bullied by ten year olds.

Suddenly the young Polish father stood up. “Shut up,” he shouted, like a marshal, down the stairwell. “Shut up! You think it’s funny? It’s not funny.”

His accent betrayed him, and there was a mocking chorus of “FAN-nee, FAN-nee!” from below and behind. The man sat down again and put a protective arm around around his son.  God only knows what else he has had to put up with. This was the fourth episode of Pole-baiting I had witnessed in five years—the fifth, if you count the spectacle of a middle-aged, brawling, drunk Scotswoman pulling the hair out of a young Polish girl’s head while screaming “You Jew!”

The policeman to whom I related that particular tale years later, the case having been reopened, looked up from his notebook with swift interest.  Nobody had reported that at the time, and it could have meant an additional charge: racial hatred.  I had been too shell-shocked to think of mentioning it. My most vivid memory was of helping the girl collect the strands of her hair.

The failure of some Scots to accept the changing demographic is incredibly sad, and as I forced myself to look at my apparently provocative cue cards again, I thought what a pity it was that the second boy had piped up. It was just possible that the first boy had suddenly realized that there was something more to the newcomers’ language than obscenities, something else worth learning. “What does that mean?”, he had asked. A minute later he could have seen how a bird is like an apple.

The bus stopped and the Polish father picked up his son. He carried him down the stairs. The silly little hare beside me watched them.

“Bye, squarehead,” he said.

And my stomach flipped over because I have never in my life heard anyone say that word aloud. Where I come from, it's understood to be a derogatory term for Germans and Swedes. And in a way it's funny. Poles have been here in large numbers for such a short time, there is no local derogatory term for Poles (that I know of) whereas in Canada and the USA we have one alright.  

A bigger problem in Scotland than resentment-of-foreigners is poverty. Poor Scots in Edinburgh are called the "Socially Excluded". The impolite term for young boys from the "Socially Excluded" class is "Neds." It occurred to me that the child beside me was a Ned, or on his way to being one. And I also occurred to me that, unlike the wee Polish child whose ears I was determined to protect, he might not have a father at home, a father who gave him a good example of how to behave in public. 
So, all things considered, the real object of pity is not the Polish migrant and his child. Unless they get the Polishness beaten out of them by the state and the school system (another story), they'll be fine. 


  1. How did the Scottish boys know the bad Polish words? Do Polish boys teach them to Scottish boys?

    Also, why couldn't the boy tell you were Canadian as soon as you said "Yes"?

    And why were 10-year-olds on the bus alone?

  2. 1. They could have learned them either from other Scottish boys, from Scotsmen or from Polish boys. I learned one from Scottish men shouting at it at Polish women on the bus, and the other from a variety of sources.

    2. All the boys could tell from my "Yes" was that I was neither Scottish nor working-class. The first thing anyone can tell about me when I speak is that I am "foreign." It takes people longer to work out which kind of foreign. The first guess is usually Polish or Irish, and the more educated (and longer listening guess) is American.

    Three. That is a very good question. It could be they were not actually 10, but more like 12. It could also be that they have neglectful parents. However, I often see school age children alone. That is, I often see bigger school age children with other bigger school age children.


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