Monthly Archives: July 2011

On Polish

Living here, the thing that gives me my highest and lowest moments is language. I speak well enough that everybody consents to communicate with me in Polish, even the interpreters and people who can discuss the frequency of radio waves in English, but this, I am discovering, is only the beginning. In this language I am without subtlety or delicacy. I wield it like a hammer, thumping and hoping, and live in a ferment of frustration and the conviction that I am stupid. All of my layers of charm, sophistication and certainty are stripped away. I dread the quizzical glance which means that I have said something strange and incomprehensible. After several days in the company of strangers (especially when I have a hangover, as I inevitably do on such occasions) it rasps on my ear like the sound of sharpening knives. All the words sound the same. In the odd photo I have of myself at these gatherings, I see a look on my face that can only be described as a pained smile- an effortful, constipated look.   I interrogate Marcin endlessly- is this how he felt when he came to Australia? His answers are stoic, monosyllabic, infuriating. He doesn’t remember or it wasn’t that bad.

Then there is the matter of reading in Polish. When I read in English,  the text is there as a barely noticeable interface between me and the writer.  I read gluttonously, indiscriminately, with a sense of instant transport. In Polish I fight my way through the thickets of meaning, sometimes reading the sentence three times before I can be sure who does what to whom, and in what manner. I read slowly, laboriously, and would not be surprised if my tongue protrudes from my mouth while I do it. Sometimes I mutter to myself.

My education is both assisted and hampered by some of the most boring books of all time- Klara Janecki’s 301 Polish verbs (‘intended for anyone interested in the Polish verb’), BW Mazur’s “Colloquial Polish” (published in 1983) and “Czas na Czasownik” (‘Verb time’), a book of excruciating exercises of the I go, you goes, he goes, she goes, to the bank, into the bank, past the bank variety, which I hope will reveal to me the mysteries of aspect.  And these are not even the most boring on offer- the worst of all (which I would buy as a narcotic rather than a linguistic guide) being the grossly misnamed “Adventures in Grammar”- about 300 pages of incessant drilling exercises without any sort of accompanying text.  These textbooks seem to be designed on the assumption that the primary use of language is sitting in a dark room conjugating. Looking at the plethora of materials available for the learner of English, I’m consumed with envy.

The pain of it all doesn’t mean that the process is without revelation. I am immersed in the language, wallowing in it, and cannot go anywhere without incidentally learning something. Marcin breaks his wrist (again) and I learn the words for sling, adjusting a bone, plaster, emergency room. Reading the leaflet about painkillers provides me with the means to discuss clotting disorders.  I watch the Tour de France religiously with my notebook (my increased vigilance causing Cadel Evans to finally win) and now know the vocabulary of breakaways, time trials, advantages, finish lines and yellow jerseys. Marcin decodes a  mystifying communication from the course coordinator about one of my new students at the school where I work- ‘shooting bulls’, apparently, means making spelling mistakes. I am so excited by the ridiculousness of this that I carelessly respond to her with an email full of my own shot bulls. When somebody asks me for my godność (‘dignity’) on the phone I feel my brain ratcheting away like a 1950s cash register, wondering what it could mean. It turns out to be my surname.

Also, the mere fact of being a Polish-speaking foreigner seems to be grounds for endless wonder to the natives. There are foreigners in Poland (an English fireman and a German cook) who are famous simply for being foreigners who speak Polish. The Poles are proud of the fact that their language is so difficult that even they can’t speak it properly. I, on the other hand, am rather bitter about the fact that even the drunks pissing it up under the bridge in Pruszków speak better than me . Our friends’ seven year old son comforts me by telling me that there’s a kid in his class who speaks a whole different language at home, and he can’t speak proper Polish either.

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In the beginning

We have been in Poland for three months, and I am just starting to get my bearings. I am developing an affection for the various idiosyncrasies of what is becoming my city- the sourness of its inhabitants, the rim-busting cobblestones, the wild and lovely Wisła running right through the heart of it. I am especially in love with the way the bear enclosure in the zoo sits right on the main road,  so that riding past in the tram you can see  its pair of huge brown bears, seemingly immune to the lure of freedom,  looking on at the frotting couples on the fence.

We live right beside the rebuilt old city, and a step away from the old ghetto, marked by a brass outline that crosses the footpath about a block from our house and disappears into an underground carpark. When we were in Yad Vashem in March I watched some footage filmed in the ghetto in the winter of 1941/42, when it was more or less cut off from the rest of the city and thousands of people starved to death. This  is how I know that on the footpaths below our sunny eyrie on the 4th floor, now the domain of parking inspectors and businesswomen in high heels, corpses were collected in barrowloads and flung naked into mass graves in an endlessly multiplying heap of pale inert limbs. The whole thing reeling across the screen in the jerky black and white of the time, the jumpiness of the film only adding to the impression that an incomprehensible nightmare has taken hold of the world. I can’t square it with the effervescent atmosphere of July- long days, sunshine,  shoals of schoolchildren sucking  their icecreams, tour groups swivelling their heads, the hollow clop of the horse tram underneath the window.

I am obsessed with post-war Warsaw, which looks, in the photographs (at least on our side of the river), something like Hiroshima- the rubble, the wretchedness. I imagine the first winter after the war ended- the biting cold, the lack of shelter, a whole population hardened and traumatised by the preceding five years.  Walking with Marcin one morning, feeling out the lineaments of our new neighborhood, we find ourselves down near the famous fountain, supposedly the most expensive in Europe, plastered with exhortations not to wash your dog in it and strangely dormant in the early hours. Marcin tells me that this was one of the hottest battlefields during the Warsaw Uprising, and that on the other side of the river (not far from the bear enclosure)  the Russian army sat waiting for the Germans to subdue the city.

Plac Zamkowy

We ride around this new-old city, back and forth across the numerous bridges, the leaves on the trees on the riverbank flipping their silvery undersides in the wind. Fleets of black clouds race across the sky, trailing curtains of rain in their wake. The melancholy rhythms of “Sto Lat”, the band in caps and waistcoats in the metro, the violin-player on the square- they fill me with a desperate nostalgia for an old Europe which will never be mine.

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