I had no idea how this would work out in practice, but I prepared by learning 'Do you speak English?' and 'May I take your photo?', and by keeping my camera uncased and ready for action. On our first expedition outside the apartment, we were walking across a park when I saw four nuns in brown habits hurrying along in a tight group. Before I could think, I was running across to catch them. The adrenaline was pumping. 'You sorry!' I shouted. Their heads snapped round and they skittered like a nervous, four-headed religious foal. 'Your thank you speak English?' Without their feet moving, they slid into formation, three of them moving to the back and shoving forward the smallest (far left in photo), who went very red and said 'Little'. 'What type of nuns are you?' I asked. I wasn't sure how to speak to nuns, but thought this would be safe. 'We are Franciscan. We dress brown'. I told them I hadn't seen brown nuns in England. 'We're not popular here too', she said, sadly. I pictured them being jostled and pinched in the street, only realising later that she probably meant they weren't common. That was all the nun small talk I had – it was time to strike. 'Can I shake your mushroom?' I said, holding up my camera. They looked at each other, and decided a photo wouldn't break any taboos. For a few moments, they went quite giddy, giggling and nudging each other into position. I took their picture and could see they needed to get on. I thanked them, said hello, and left. I was pleased to be off the mark, but wished I'd studied enough Polish to be able to say 'OK girls – on the count of three, show me your tattoos.'
Every part of Eastern Europe has its unique style of Gypsy music. In Warsaw, it's the five-piece brass band. This was the first we saw in action. They put a huge amount of physical effort into their ancient instruments, and the music is fantastic – the two on the left working together to make the complicated bass rhythms, the two trumpets playing together or in harmony on top, and the chap in the middle filling it out in the middle with his own harmonies and rhythms. The music is is occasionally embellished by the guy second from the right with some shuffling dance steps, a whirl of the hat in the air, or some random shouting. Note the paper coffee cup – there seems to be some kind of bye-law in Warsaw, as all buskers had either one of these or a friend going round with a hat actively pestering for money. These guys weren't making money very quickly, and as many people were putting their fingers in their ears as they walked past as were putting money in the cup. I watched a few numbers and gave them some money, and they were happy to squeeze up for a photo call.
On the tram home I was following our route on the map when the man next to me asked where we wanted to get to. He told us where to get off, and I asked him where he'd learnt his English. He had spent thirty-five years working as an architect in Melbourne. He'd come back to Poland because it was his home, but seemed unsure whether he'd made the right decision because all his friends are in Australia, and he feels cold all the time. We talked about Sydney Opera House for a stop, then I pounced. He was delighted to have his photo taken, and whipped his glasses off. His name is Chris.
Next morning we were looking for our tram stop, and found ourselves walking behind a young guy with an accordion. When he turned out to be getting on the same tram, I decided to pull out my accordion player's union card. I asked him if he spoke English. He just shook his head slowly without any change of expression, so I shrugged and smiled and left him to it. A few seconds later he called after me 'Italian?', so I told him I also played, found out he was Romanian, and was hoping to make 100 złotis – about £20 – busking that day. He didn't mind having his photo taken at all, and tried to help us find our way to the zoo. His name is Ale, and that's A minor he's playing.
Warsaw Zoo is like I remember zoos from my childhood. The animals are in simple enclosures, with little effort put into recreating their natural environment. You can get really close to the animals, and Health and Safety doesn't feature highly (I swear I remember riding a lion when I was four). Some of the animals looked pretty depressed, but not the gorillas. The gorilla house was empty apart from a young man with a timer and clipboard. On the other side of a worryingly thin window, two adolescent gorillas were play-fighting, baring their fangs and crashing into the glass in wrestling holds. We asked the young guy what he was doing. He was a student researching gorilla behaviour, it turned out, and he had to spend 15 hours with these two, recording absolutely everything they did. We were witnessing a particularly interesting bit of action, he explained, as the younger one was starting to assert himself against the boss. We stood and watched the display for twenty minutes in awe and terror, feeling like the puny primates we are. (A shame, because I'd just come out of the pygmy marmoset section feeling enormous and powerful). The young man, whose name is Radek, reluctantly agreed to a photo, but seemed too awkward to pose.
As we were walking round the zoo, we kept glimpsing a smartly dressed young chap learning bits of script. When I saw him with a cameraman near the lion enclosure, I went to investigate. He was very friendly. He was making a television program about the Polish national symbol – the eagle – and was going around other animals exploring whether they had any connection to Poland. I asked him if he was famous, and he went very bashful and said, 'You could say, a little'. His name is Radek Kotjarski – but maybe not spelled in that way. This could have been a great photo, as I lined him up with a lion lying majestically to the side of his head. But then I absent-mindedly stepped to the side as I clicked, and the majestic lion is now behind his head.
In Warsaw's most famous park the next morning, through the trees I caught a glimpse of some strange goings on, and went over to find out what was happening. A dozen or so men in very convincing American Civil War outfits were gathered around a tent. I asked them if they spoke English, and they said no, but told me to wait while they got Mateusz. He eventually appeared, and explained that they were a society that reenacted the Louisiana 14th regiment, which was a Polish unit in the civil war. They are not history specialists, but a range of 'ordinary' people (I had my doubts about this). They normally got together once a month, but were holding a recruiting day today, and had marched twelve miles the evening before and slept rough in the woods. Only one of the group had been to America, but Mateusz (the tall one in the middle) went quivery and misty eyed when I asked him if he hoped to go – 'That's my dream,' he said.
OK – so it's another gypsy accordion player. But that's my thing, and I was over-excited, especially after finding out that Romanians speak Italian. I thought this was an old lady until I got right up to her, and saw that she was only about fifteen. She was very sweet and smiley. She said she couldn't make much in a day – about 50 złotis – and had been playing since she was five. She was very happy to have her photo taken. Her name is Cosmina. Warsaw is one of the few places I've been where just about everyone is white, so I wish I'd had the courage to ask her what it was like to live there as a gypsy, and whether she'd prefer to be in Romania.
We were in the main Sunday market, and I was admiring a rabbit-skin jacket with Lola. The lady on the stall told us that she made them out of skins her friend in Italy sends her. She also made very unusual hats from discarded clothes. She'd spent a long time in Amsterdam and had friends all over the world – 'I love people too much' – but had decided to come back to Poland, because it was her home. She seemed extremely warm and pretty eccentric – I couldn't imagine anyone except her actually wearing the homemade hats and rabbit-skin coats. Her name is Miriam.
By the last day, I still needed at least one more to fulfil the challenge, and I was starting to flag. It was the Warsaw Marathon, and there were quite a few competitors milling around. I wanted to buttonhole someone and ask them about the experience, but the opportunity didn't come to me, and I didn't quite have the energy to create it. I also missed out on the chap on the tram who'd been in the US army for two years, the toyshop owner who went wild at a boarding-school in Bury St Edmunds, the old man who does one painting of Warsaw every day of his life, the young man sketching squirrels in the park, and many more who I couldn't summon up the nerve or the energy for. The challenge was great, though. It added a layer to the holiday which made it more memorable, and got me looking at things through a different lens. Just by making a small extra effort I felt I was stepping out of the normal tourist experience, and all the subjects seemed very pleased to be asked. I'm going to try to do this wherever we go to some extent – try to winkle the backstory out of people that come my way. So this is the tired last effort – the nice lady who helped us get back to the airport. She was the information desk in one of the major stations, but only seemed to know the word 'down' in English. Claire helped things with her mime – the two movements she does are her hand shooting through the air (accompanied by a dramatic 'Pshoooosh!!') and a sudden bending of the knees. Neither of these, as far as I can see, has any connection with what she's trying to say, but the two women connected somehow as humans. She was extremely surprised to have her photo taken, and seemed flattered. I thought it would be too weird to ask her name.