I have lived in Stafford for nearly 24 years. And one of the reasons why I would be reluctant to leave – which may sound trivial on the face of it – is an attachment to my own particular network of (for what of a better word) service providers. I am talking about a good hairdresser, optician, plumber, paving slab layer, lady who does alterations, family jeweller who will untangle a necklace free of charge, and a garage that won’t mysteriously find £350 worth of repairs that need doing when you only asked them to check your tyre pressure. That’s the sort of thing I mean. Plus the best shops for this and that: a really nice pork bap with stuffing, an arty birthday card, or an upmarket wool shop whose wares don’t crackle with static.
Yes, it would take a lot of time and effort to replicate the complete gamut of quality tradespeople and retailers from scratch in a new town. By staying in Stafford I have largely avoided the issue, however, on my recent travels my resourcefulness at finding just a couple of key service providers “on the fly” was seriously put to the test...
Polish photocopying coup
By way of (brief) background, the agency I am working for changed one of my questionnaires quite radically midway through the trip. They sent me an electronic version, doubtless assuming that I am a mobile business centre, for whom it would be a moment's work to print off 5 copies at 40 pages a pop. Whereas I am in fact just a woman who periodically lives out of her car. Also, to up the level of difficulty, this all cracked off on a public holiday in Germany, meaning that there was no hope of finding a Kinko’s or a Kall-Kwik in time for the following day, when I was due to use the new version.
My hotel reluctantly agreed to print off a single copy of the document from my memory stick, charging me 8 euros for the privilege (I beat them down from 16!), muttering darkly all the while about possible viral contagion. I incorrectly called the memory stick a “Stäbchen”, which caused much merriment amongst the front desk staff. Having since looked it up, I realise that the word does indeed denote certain stick-like entities, but in matters linguistic, a miss is always as good as a mile.
Ciggy / fag
And when used in conjunction with “fish”, “fish fingers”. And of course I might have known that the term has already become “verenglischt” as “USB-Stick”…!
Okay then…. so far so good, but I still only had one copy of the questionnaire.
So as Germany was effectively closed for the day, I thought I might as well drive on to my next destination in Poland, and take my chances there. I had a whole afternoon in a small town to figure something out. It turned out to be a place with a rich architectural heritage, that was sadly now somewhat ruined and crumbly. Most of the shops seemed to be of the small newsagent/kiosk variety, selling sweets and alcohol, so in the end I asked a bunch of people in a pub, who managed collectively to rustle up some six words of English - “copy”, fortunately, being one of them.
A younger guy nodded his head sagely and drew me a walking map to this magical unspecified place that would help me out. I promptly got lost on some waste ground behind the railway station - the sort of terrain in which you could easily disappear, never to be seen again - so decided the map was probably on the impressionistic side, and struck out in the opposite direction.
Six more passers by later, all of whom could only communicate by pointing – which was enough, as it turned out - I found myself in a pedestrian precinct at a photographer's. Yup, the owner had a photocopier all right, but didn't speak English either, so I held up the questionnaire and four fingers (rods/skewers/chopsticks etc), and that did the trick. A young girl was conjured up from the back of the shop, and painstakingly did the copying, one page at a time... I decided that “collated” or “double-sided” might be an instruction too far, and was simply overjoyed to see the questionnaire multiply fivefold on any terms. The whole lot cost me 45 zlotys, which was about 12 quid, I think.
As I stepped outside into the warm sunshine, swinging my laden Kodak carrier bag before me, I felt very chuffed. Back at the pub, my informant was standing outside by my car, talking on his mobile. He looked up questioningly as he saw me, so I held the bag aloft, gave him a thumb’s up sign with the other hand, and grinned as broadly as I knew how...
Belgian dental coup
The other "result" of the week was to visit a dentist in Belgium. I broke a tooth driving back from Poland, about 450 miles into the 600 mile trip - on a banana chip of all things, or "chipsy bananowe" as it said on the packet. It left a jagged edge like an off-centre Matterhorn, to which my inquisitive tongue kept returning, slightly more lacerated every time. I wondered if I could bridge the gap with a tiny ball of tissue, and conducted some experiments during the remaining 150 miles of my journey. In the act of chomping on the tissue in a bid to mould it to the interstice in question, another bit of tooth promptly broke off. So I removed the sodden wad and concluded that emergency dentistry might be – to quote Mr Bonkers’ favourite phrase – "outside my sphere of competence".
Finding anyone to sort my mouth out while I was away seemed a tall order at the time. But as luck would have it, the secretary of the person I was visiting the next morning managed to get me a slot with her dentist in his lunch hour a few days later. He did a fantastic job, rebuilding the tooth with a filling that looks just like real enamel and smoothing it off so that it is better now than it was to start with. And all for the half the price my own dentist would have charged me. It was amusing having to follow commands in French (our lingua franca) all the while. The dentist described my tooth as "dévitalisée", which was why he didn’t feel the need to give me an injection.
Hmm, I guess "dévitalisée" must be dentist speak for "knackered". It is also a good word to sum up how I feel generally now I am home. But I hope to bounce back presently, for the next trip will be along shortly...
Photo of USB sticks from flickr, town centre photos from Wikimedia Commons, photo of fish fingers from presseportal.de, photo of the interior of the photographer's shop from its website, cartoon of a Belgian dentist from pluizuit.be, photo of the train station my own.