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Peter Ross: Tootae toon: how Poles catch Glesga patter on the buses

in Travel and Tourism
IN HIS dark blue suit and hi-viz tabard, tabloid stashed between the controls and the window, Jimmy Lillis seems like any other Glasgow bus driver as he steers the 44 through the leafy southside. But Lillis, 55, speaks Polish and is as familiar with Krakow as Clarkston.

His employer, First UK Bus, employs 2,000 drivers in Glasgow, 9% of whom are from Eastern Europe, mostly Poland. For two years, Lillis, a native Glaswegian, has been teaching these colleagues how to understand local slang. On Wednesday, he won a major educational award and he is to be congratulated by Alex Salmond in Edinburgh, a city better known for its trams.

At 6.45am on Friday, Lillis is back at work after the awards hullabaloo. He has been driving in Glasgow for 30 years, and this is his standard shift and route: from Larkfield Depot on Victoria Road, a gargantuan brick busopolis, south to Eaglesham, and then back through the city centre to Knightswood.

I get the 44 into work sometimes. Last week a Catweazle drunk was giving it “Howzitgauin?” to anyone unwise enough to meet his bloodshot eyes, but today there isn’t much opportunity to hear the Glasgow patter which so challenges Polish drivers. Jaikies are like buses; there’s never one when you want, then three come along at once and take all your change.

Back at Larkfield, Lillis explains the problem with Glaswegian. “When they first started, a lot of the Eastern European drivers found it strange that we don’t speak natural English,” he says. “They came here thinking, ‘I’m quite good at English,’ but then, all of a sudden, somebody would say ‘Geez an aw day,’ and they’d be shocked. I remember one time a wee wifie stopped the bus and asked, ‘How long’s the next bus, son?’ and the driver said, ‘About 20ft, same as this.’ To which she said, ‘Aye an’ will there be a monkey drivin’ that wan tae?'”

That’s classic weegie banter, but there’s a dark side to driving a Glasgow bus. Given the high numbers of drunks and common or garden bampots, it’s a regular thing for drivers to get abuse. This will be even more difficult for a foreigner to understand, and if the drunk/bampot interprets confusion as a slight, then situations can escalate. “Drivers have been assaulted,” says Lillis.

To help them cope, Lillis talks the drivers through various Glaswegian sayings and has them write down anything puzzling they hear when out on the road. Back in the office he translates these. He also suggests the drivers read Michael Munro’s book The Patter and watch DVDs of Still Game.

The influx of Polish drivers to Glasgow dates back to 2004 when First experienced a driver shortage and responded by recruiting from the countries joining the European Union. Later that year, a group of Poles – known now as The Magnificent Seven – turned up at the front gate of Larkfield with their suitcases. A meal was provided, a translator sent for, and they were handed uniforms on the very next day.

I am introduced to two Polish drivers – Robert Bodo and Peter Podpora, both 27. Both speak heavily accented English. Bodo has been driving in Glasgow for over two years. “On my first day I didn’t understand anything,” he recalls. “They put money and want something but I don’t know what. They spoke a strange language. ‘Tootae toon, pal!’ What is that? So for two weeks, all the time I print the wrong ticket. But then I meet Jim and he help me.”

He says he now understands over 90% of what is said to him and that, in any case, the public have got used to Polish drivers and speak more slowly to compensate.

Does he use any of the slang himself now? “Sure! ‘Awright, buddy?’, ‘Nae borra, mucker.'” He pronounces this as “mocha” and looks hugely pleased with his efforts.

Podpora resembles Justin Timberlake, which makes him stand out among Glasgow drivers. “The dialect is difficult,” he says. “After a couple of weeks I could understand the prices and ‘Tootae toon’ but I have a problem understanding colleagues.” He can pick up swear words similar to their Polish equivalents, but the rest is tricky. Watching DVDs helps, though. “I like Bill Connolly. That guy is excellent!”

According to The Driver, author of the anonymous Bloodbus internet blog about life on the Glasgow buses, occasional tension between Polish and Scottish drivers is caused by language problems. He says Polish drivers, lacking confidence in talking, are less likely to tip off other drivers about diversions.

“So it’s a great idea to teach them Glaswegian,” he says. “But I wonder if they teach them things like, ‘See if ah see you in the street mate? You’re gettin’ it!’ or ‘You’ll get a boatle o’ Buckie oar the heid, mate!’ These are the well known phrases drivers get in Glasgow.”

Podpora considers the Glaswegian accent (nasal ned variety) quite beautiful and pinches his nose to mimic it: “‘Awright, man?’ You never get the chance to hear something like this in Poland.”

Does he think driving a bus in Glasgow has been a good way to get to know the city and people? “To be honest, not exactly. Because who is riding the bus? Usually older people, poor people, and chancers.”

The Poles emigrated because they wanted the chance to make a better life and earn much more money than was possible at home. But they don’t like Glasgow much. Podpora has moved to Barrhead and Bodo is thinking seriously about East Kilbride.

“People here are more aggressive,” he says. “In Poland they respect you more if you are a driver; if I say, ‘Leave the bus,’ nobody argues back. In Poland, if somebody dropped litter, another passenger would say, ‘What are you doing?’ And here, people put their feet on the seats.”

Asked about the night shift, Bodo rolls his eyes. “It’s not good, but sometimes many laughs when half-naked women come on – ‘Hi bus driver!’ –and kiss the screen.” He grins. “If it’s nice woman I can put it down.”

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