Remedy for Feeling Homesick

Kordegarda Gallery, Stadium Market, Warsaw

‘Start buying or I’ll be going!’ Who doesn’t know these loud cries of salesmen touting their wares in the market square? While it may look that the practice is slowly becoming obsolete, it’s not entirely so – after all, marketing and promotional campaigns are sometimes very loud!

As long as there exist market squares, selling goods directly on them will remain the simplest way of cashing in on your skills and talent. And hard work, since it also matters! Without consultant fees, middlemen, advertising or promotion. Marketing may be efficient but is not always morally pure.

It was precisely at the height of media hype about the global crisis that artist Dorota Podlaska decided to try and sell quasi-drugs of her own production on Warsaw’s largest market square. This is the site of the famous Jarmark Europa that is to be replaced by the National Stadium and a congress-hotel complex. Finally Varsovians will be able to be proud of something more than just the ruins of the Decennial Stadium!

As every vendor, the artist had storage space. She had prepared her work tool in the form of a cart, and stored her stocks on a guest basis in the stall of Mr Sławek, one of the thousands of Polish vendors peddling their trade here. News spread rapidly on Jarmark Europa. Even before she started selling, the artist was approached by Mr Sławek’s friend who wanted her to paint a portrait of his cerebral-palsy daughter. The goal was noble, so the artist immediately agreed. Being a trader, the man promised, ‘I can even try to raise money to pay you for the portrait!’ In times of crisis, dear Dorota, you mustn’t ignore any potential sponsor! I too will start looking for a sponsor for this text…

But talking alone won’t earn you bread. The painter therefore got down to work at the back. She presented her product offer to a newly met vendor, including, among other things, Prosperity ointment for better sales. Unfortunately, she only had a Vietnamese version of the miraculous medicine. ‘But they aren’t entitled to that!’ the vendor said firmly, heedless of the presence of a slant-eyed, black-haired tradesman next to him.

‘Can you repeat that for the camera?’ I asked him openly; such a statement should definitely be recorded. With all the consistency of a market vendor and a peasant’s son, the man repeated. Thus the prayer for your neighbour’s cow to die gained a new version: ‘God, give big dollars to the Polish stallholders but just a few cents to the Vietnamese ones!’

Well, that’s good too, only not so much God as Dorota Podlaska’s Prosperity ointment! The artist harvest looks promising for starters. Dorota’s product range included also a balm for a hard face, a medicine against loneliness, and an oil strengthening vendor solidarity – đoàn kết là sức mạnh – or, as we call it, ‘there’s strength in unity’. And other wonderful products for kindness and all the joys of life! ‘Buy it, don’t hesitate! This is money well spent!’ I urged my compatriots later, when they still had some doubts following Dorota’s explanations.

So we set off into the Stadium. One of the security guards has been assigned to accompany Dorota on her way. First he had to bring her to his superiors. We went, the whole bunch of us, down the famous Đường Ngang, or High Street, where, at the height of the boom, a stall cost several dozen thousand dollars. ‘What’s she selling if she’s been arrested by the security guards?’ a Vietnamese woman vendor asked. I told Dorota to approach her. She did so gladly in the hope of conducting her first transaction. To my disappointment, the Vietnamese woman fled to the next stall without even learning what the Polish woman had to offer. Well, that was a case of Asian shyness getting the better of curiosity. Her loss!

Then we went to the security office to prove that Dorota’s products were absolutely legal. The security guys showed full confidence: they looked neither at the top nor at the bottom. Everyone can sell! Even quasi-drugs, if there are buyers!

Dorota’s first sale happened very soon. A group of Vietnamese vendors had some doubts but one, upon hearing that an ointment for all ailments costs only 2 PLN, pulled out his wallet and bought it. I was very happy, even more so when he read the information leaflet his own way: bôi lót tay, bay tiếp!, translated by myself from the Polish ‘you grease, you ride!’ Dorota was worried whether I had correctly conveyed the original meaning. I told her that I did, even to the point of using Vietnamese doggerel rhymes! And that the Vietnamese version is ‘you grease, you fly’ does not indicate the translator’s ill will but only the fact that the same action has different effects depending on whether it is performed in Vietnamese, Polish or, especially, French!

But trading isn’t such an easy thing at all! Most of my compatriots showed little interest, only moderate curiosity. The president of the ‘Solidarity and Friendship’ Association of the Vietnamese in Poland was so preoccupied talking to his colleagues he didn’t even look at Dorota and her lousy cart. Ten minutes earlier I saw his parking his BMW SUV near the artist’s storage room. I reported duly to him that I’d be accompanying a certain Polish woman artist during her project on the market. Mister president, has anyone ever said that a woman needs a Mercedes as an extension of her womanhood?

Usually it is my compatriots who persuade Polish customers to buy their wares. Today a Polish woman they have never met before tries to sell them even more exotic, well, dubious-quality, products. A Vietnamese woman took a tube of the Prosperity ointment, marked in Vietnamese, and gave it back saying she didn’t understand the inscriptions. Another one actually cried, ‘In Vietnamese? I don’t understand!’ I felt really sorry but upon some reflection I realised it was a common practice. ‘I don’t understand’ is the usual answer given to questions asked by administration officials, police officers, municipal guards, border guards, and so on. The Vietnamese play dumb this way to avoid a ticket, a fine, or deportation. Surprisingly, the method often works. If not entirely, then at least in large part. Well, the end justifies the means. The ‘You Grease, You Ride’ Prosperity Ointment works wonders! Thank you, Dorota!

The men showed more confidence and more interest in what Dorota had to offer. Some of them believed it was some kind of provocation: the filming, the photographing, well, it surely isn’t serious. But they weren’t really sure whether it was a joke or perhaps really a case of someone trying to peddle their goods, like they do. Some showed contempt at the sight of Dorota’s measly mobile stall. A young Polish couple in a narrow path full of goods and slant-eyed sellers laughed the artist off, ‘You’re nuts!’ Well, you can hardly expect everyone, whether in the work place or where you live, to be sympathetic towards you. Still, they should. In any case, Dorota tries to do that every day – and today too. It’s a tall challenge but one worth giving a try. I’ll start on the morrow with my flatmate…

To end on an optimistic note, the above notwithstanding, there’s still a lot of kindness in the market. An Ukrainian woman selling tea, coffee and soft drinks quickly became familiar with Dorota. She let her earn a penny by buying the loneliness medicine from her. A group of Polish vendors started a lengthy conversation with the unusual seller, which didn’t happen with the Vietnamese because of the language barrier. One of the ladies decided the ‘hard face balm’ would be just what her husband needed. It’s good he didn’t hear her. Some bought some of the other drugs. No one perceived Dorota as competition. An elderly lady said she bought her medicaments elsewhere and honestly advised Dorota to start selling ice cream instead. Well, the first day of March in an open-air market is certainly not a time for ice cream! The idea wasn’t entirely fresh or original either. The late and much lamented comedy actor, Bogumił Kobiela, liked to have fun by selling ice cream on the beach in Sopot. His cart and ice-cream container were even similar to the stuff used by Dorota. The guy’s nuts!

After several hours of exhausting work, requiring nerves of steel and the patience of an angel, Dorota and her entourage reached the catering alley for their well-deserved bún chả, bún cá and phở. There she was greeted as a hero and photographed from all sides. Friends like friends, on the one hand they wanted to demonstrate their solidarity with and support for Dorota while, on the other, silently counting on the ‘museum value’ of the medications. They quickly bought all of Dorota’s wonder drugs. Oliwer, a frequent patron of the local diners, our mutual friend, watched the whole noisy affair from up close. He wouldn’t buy anything from her, though. He summed up the whole story succinctly, ‘She’s earned an easy several dozen zlotys. That’s not a bad income at a time of crisis!’

There’s a pinch of truth in every joke. Dorota, give me some of your takings today! After all, it was a joint marketing-and-promotion action! I still have a mortgage on my studio flat to pay. And may the Lord protect Oliwer and the others!

Ngo Van Tuong is a social activist who actively collaborates with non-governmental organisations involved in socio-cultural projects (Fundacja Inna Przestrzeń, Fundacja Sztuki Arteria, Fundacja Bęc Zmiana). He is a translator of the Vietnamese language. He writes in Vietnamese and in Polish. He is the editor of the independent, dissident Vietnamese web portal in Poland,, which was published in Poland as a monthly magazine in the years 1999-2006. He is also an amateur actor. He came to Poland in 1983 on a government scholarship. In 1990, he earned a degree in shipbuilding from the Szczecin University of Technology’s Institute of Shipbuilding. After completing his studies, he decided to stay in Poland. He has lived in Warsaw for over 10 years where he runs a business.