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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.
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.
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.
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.