Belles on Location

Bidding Four Spades in Poland

Sometimes discovering the local culture means meeting locals rather than sightseeing. For Melinda Brasher it also means playing a game of cards with them.

I never travel without a deck of cards. I rarely turn down an invitation to join a game. I know what to play with only two people on a jouncing bus, or with one deck and seven strangers in a hostel. When I shuffle and deal, the uninitiated ask if I work in Vegas.

Playing cards, the Polish version

Though I’m a few decades too young for the stereotype, I even play bridge, a dying art mocked only by those who don’t know how to play. It’s a fascinating, complicated, extremely difficult game. Some of my bridge friends have been playing three times a week for 20 years, yet after each hand they still debate about what they should have done. I’ll probably be like them one day. I already stick my nose up at Go Fish and Uno. Basically, I’m a card snob.

So imagine my delight as I came upon a run-down little square in Zamość, Poland, a few streets away from the pastel and tourist-filled main square. Paint was peeling off the buildings, and one looked like it had been under reconstruction for years, but the center held a few trees and a park bench, where a group of people sat in the shade playing cards. Not just cards: it looked like bridge.

Like many other serious games, there are always four players in bridge. But the layout is distinct because after the bidding, one of the players lays his cards on the table and his partner conducts the play for both hands. The one who doesn’t play is called the dummy. So there they were around a makeshift table: three players, the dummy, and two spectators.

[pullquote]When was I ever going to get another chance to play bridge with a bunch of Poles? [/pullquote]I wanted to play, but suddenly felt shy. I’d once lived in Poland for a year, but my Polish — never very good — was rusty. I didn’t know how to ask if I could join. From the age of the players, I figured Russian would be their second language, not English. Besides, they looked so chummy, laughing and passing around cheap boxed wine. So I walked on past.

I got a whole two hundred yards before I stopped. When was I ever going to get another chance to play bridge with a bunch of Poles? So I turned back and made my way to where they were now bidding intently. I hovered, hoping they’d invite me in. The dummy laid down his cards and I sidled closer. Finally one of the women looked at me.

“What are you playing?” I asked in bad Polish.

“Cards,” she answered. Obviously.

“What game?”

“Brydż.”

Bridge! “May I watch?”

By now everyone was looking at me, not the cards. And that’s really saying something, considering how much concentration it takes to play a hard bridge hand. They scooted over on the bench, asking me questions I didn’t understand.

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“I don’t speak good Polish,” I said, but that was the one sentence I did know quite well, so they didn’t believe me and kept talking.

Finally I told them I was American, but I loved bridge, and they laughed and welcomed me. My year’s experience in Poland taught me that Poles are warm and generous, but not always so eager to start friendships — or even conversations — with random people on the street. I suppose I was no longer random. I was a fellow bridge junkie.

In the bidding part of bridge, partners try to communicate to each other what their hands look like by making a series of bids that goes something like this: one club, pass, one spade, pass, two no trump, pass, four spades. This is bridge talk, and without it you can’t play. I knew my numbers well enough, and the word for ‘heart,’ but if they asked me to play, I couldn’t just bid hearts all the time.

I pulled out my notebook and drew pictures of spades, diamonds and clubs, then showed it to the lady who’d first spoken to me. Her words slightly slurred by wine, she repeated the suits in Polish until I could pick out the sounds well enough to write them down. But there’s a fifth bid: no trump. It took me a bit of acting before comprehension dawned on her face.

Bez atu,” she declared.

Bez atu,” I repeated. They passed me the wine.

After a few hands, they asked if I wanted to play. They coached me on what to bid, and we landed in four spades. That’s what’s called a ‘game’ bid, meaning that if you’re successful, you get solid points. I was the one to play both hands, as my partner was dummy. I looked at his cards and mine, and I knew I had it cold.

zamosc

Square at Zamosc

They tried to coach me on the play too, probably assuming I didn’t really know bridge. After all, I was too young. And a foreigner. I played it myself, took exactly the number of tricks I needed and got our points. They laughed and clapped, and said a lot of things I didn’t understand, but one was clear: “She can play.”

Around came the wine again, despite my protests that I don’t drink. I passed it to one of my opponents, played a few more hands, then surrendered my seat to the next player in the rotation.

One of the men had a grandson in Chicago, I learned. We talked about the places I’d traveled in Poland and how much I loved their country. They asked if I was sure about the wine. We played until I was afraid I would miss the last bus back to Lublin.

I can’t remember much about Zamość anymore. Was there a castle? Did I go into any churches? I don’t know. What I remember are those six slightly drunk bridge players, and how they taught me to say “one no trump” in Polish.

Melinda Brasher has studied in Spain, worked in Poland and Mexico, and volunteered in Guatemala.  She currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go Nomad, International Living, Electric Spec, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and other. For an e-book collection of some of her favorite pieces, check out Leaving Home.  Visit her online at http://www.melindabrasher.com.

This article has 10 comments

  1. Briana Palma

    Melinda, this article made me smile. What an amazing experience in Poland! I’m glad you shared it with us.

  2. admin

    Love this! Thanks, Melinda. Bridge gives me a headache… and so does speaking in a foreign language… So I’m doubly impressed that you did this – and wowed your new card playing friends.

  3. Emily S.

    I love this story–what a great experience! This is what traveling is all about, and you wrote about it so beautifully 🙂

  4. Melinda Brasher

    Thanks everyone! It’s still one of my favorite travel memories.

  5. Marlene

    Melinda,

    I’ve tried playing Bridge, but it is so complicated that I will never be good at it. I loved the story, however, and the special experience you had with the Polish people. What a brave, fun thing to do!

  6. Krista

    I absolutely love this post! 🙂 What a delightful memory. I’m going to smile the next time I see a deck of cards. 🙂

  7. Joesachs

    Melinda-I just finished reading your blog on playing bridge in Poland. What a terrific experience. You probably do not even know who I am, I play bridge with you in Glendale on Tuesdays. My wife and I are retired and travel all over the world-many of these trips have been on cruise ships where we have played a lot of bridge with folks from all over the world. I am not so sure we would be willing to give up the sightseeing once we reached a port-of-call (due to the costs of the cruise), so I am very envious of your experience. It must have been thrilling and uplifting for you. Bridge on!!

  8. Pam

    Hi Melinda,

    I love this! What a great experience and so typical of bridge players. It’s almost like music…uniting people all over the world.

    Love your writing also…yours is the only blog I have bookmarked!

    Blessings,
    Pam

  9. Melinda Brasher

    Thanks! If you like this, I’ve collected some other travel stories, short stories, and flash fiction in “Leaving Home,” available on most online retailers.

  10. Melinda Brasher

    If you like this, I’ve collected some other travel stories, short stories, and flash fiction in “Leaving Home,” available on most online retailers.

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