Friday 13 March 2015

Polski Piątek*

In an alternate universe, my History teacher called me to his desk after class and told me to enroll in Slavic Studies at university. 

"But I want to become an archaeologist," I said. "I want to study pre-Roman Britain!"

Mr Stewart took off his steel-rimmed glasses and rubbed his wrinkled forehead.

"You have one science OAC, you hate math and you spend all your time indoors," he said. "Don't you realize that archaeology is mostly chemistry, math and digging in the dirt? It's 1989! The Berlin Wall has fallen! Europe is much more exciting now than pre-Roman Britain ever was. Besides, you're a writer. You should be a journalist, and a journalist needs something to write about. Eastern Europe is where it's at. Learn Serbo-Croatian. Learn Polish. Learn Russian!"

"But I want to be a professor," I faltered, as my alternate universe suddenly made no sense.

"Nonsense," shouted Alternative Universe's Mr Stewart. "You're a devout Catholic---and a lady, in the old fashioned sense of the word. Academia will eat you alive!  You'd do better in a war zone. And meanwhile, you're not an academic, you're a writer. You want to write the Great Canadian Novel, don't you?"

"Well, yes..."

"And who do you want to write like?"

Stumped, I grasped at the first name that came to mind.

"Um, Hemingway?"

"Then like Hemingway you must go to the scene of the action! Go East, young woman, go East! Where are you applying? U of T? Good. Bring me the catalogue, and we will look at the courses."

"Okay," I said, saying good-bye in my heart to Ancient Gaelic.

 "And don't you slack off, like you do in your language courses, settling for Bs when you should be studying your butt off for As. Show us Proddies your work ethic is just as good as ours."

And thus, in this alternate universe, goaded by the shouts of Mr Stewart, I signed up for what was then called Serbo-Croatian, Russian (great was my mother's joy) and Slovene, dropping Slovene when advised that Polish would be much more practical. 

I graduated from the Alternate Universe's University of Toronto with an Honours B.A. in Slavic Languages (having spent a delightful year abroad at the Alternative Universe Jagellonian in Kraków) and was immediately recruited as a translator by the Alternate Universe's UNPROFOR.  Flown into Zagreb, where I had a (mostly) chaste flirtation with the A.U. Ryszard Kapuściński, I was badly wounded by sniper fire in....


Sadly, in the real universe Mr Stewart said no such thing, and I went to university without the slightest interest in the world as it actually was. I assumed that I would do all my course work with the greatest of ease, and that I would be married soon after that anyway, LOL.  

But now it is 2015, and I have taken up Slavic Languages rather late in life although I did have a crack at Croatian in the late 1990s for work reasons. About three and a half years ago, I decided to learn Polish. When I was told by a lovely Polish girl who was fluent in English that I shouldn't bother as it would be too hard, I decided that I would become fluent in Polish.  

It's a good thing I didn't make some crazy vow like "I will not bathe until I am fluent in Polish!"  The most I vowed was "I will not quit for five years."  And that's good because three and a half years later, my greatest achievement in Polish has been to whine at my Polish Pretend Son for fifteen minutes about how very badly I speak Polish. 

Kind Polish friends will point out that I have also written a handful of letters, several mini-essays and a short story in Polish, as well as translating one of my own English-language columns and an English-language speech about Saint Edith Stein. However, these kind Polish friends did the corrections, so they know perfectly well how many mistakes I make and how I can't write anything without 

1. my latest English-Polish dictionary, always bigger than the last,
2. 301 Polish Verbs by Klara Janecki,
3. Polish Verbs & Essentials of Grammar by Oscar E. Swan and
4. one of them.

Meanwhile, I am positively terrified of speaking Polish to actual Poles, with the exception of my Polish night class teacher and, after strong drink, Polish Pretend Son. 

But here is something I have learned about listening to Polish.  While writing a letter to Polish Pretend Son yesterday, and looking up almost everything, I realized that the phrases I did not have to look up were phrases I had heard over and over again, either from my Pimsleur CD or from my Polish in Four Weeks Intermediate CD. Wyobrażasz sobie? 

Really, what works best for me is daily repetition of whole phrases and sentences. 

And that is enough for the blog's first Polski Piątek. I leave you with the song we translated in last week's night school class. It is called 'Dla Ciebie' (For You), and although it starts out all happy and romantic, within a minute and a half he has her locked in a cage . Which reminds me of that time Ryszard and I were in Dubrownik and....

*Polish Friday


  1. Dobry wieczór!
    Nie słyszałam, jak Pani mówi po polsku, ale wydaje mi się, że radzi sobie Pani całkiem dobrze, skoro czyta Pani polskie książki, ogląda filmy, oraz pisze i tłumaczy. Proszę się nie poddawać.
    Podziwiam Pani niezwykłą wiedzę na temat Polski. Jest Pani jedną z niewielu znanych mi osób z anglosaskiego kręgu kulturowego, która rozumie polską historię i kulturę, a jedyną, która nie zajmuje się tą dziedziną profesjonalnie. Wiele osób ma wyuczoną wiedzę na temat Polski, ale moim zdaniem Pani znajomość i zrozumienie Polski i Polaków jest wyjątkowe. Moim zdaniem ma Pani dar od Pana Boga.
    Życzę wszystkiego dobrego i postępów w nauce polskiego!
    Polka :)

  2. My admiration for the Poles is over the moon right now. Perhaps paradoxically, it is in large part because of a budding relationship that did not work out--we both knew it wouldn't, but he was the first to say so. The thing is, he did so with such exquisite old-world courtesy and respect that rather than feeling rejected/depressed (a usual thing when somebody ends it, even if you would have ended it yourself, given a little more time) I felt valued and honored. My new resolution is strive to be that kind and courteous. The world would be a better place if more people brought that to their relationships!


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