There’s a t-shirt you can buy that says on it: ‘I speak Polish. What’s your super power?‘
The thing is, I do think Poles have a super power but it’s not connected to speaking Polish.
It’s connected to the weather.
When learning words in a foreign language, it helps if you can hear, see or touch the thing that the word refers to. Alternatively, if the item of vocabulary refers to an experience, then it’s useful to remember a time when you’ve experienced the same thing.
But what if the expression describes something you’ve never sensed…never experienced…and is something you don’t even believe is possible for a human being to experience?
That’s what I felt the first time I heard a Pole say:
Spac mi się chce. Jest niskie ciśnienie dzisiaj.
(I’m sleepy. There’s low air pressure today)
Being British, I agreed politely even though I was thinking ‘what the hell are they talking about? How can the level of air pressure make them sleepy? Are they saying that there’s a huge column of air pressing down on their head and shoulders?’
I didn’t get it because I couldn’t feel it. I didn’t get it because I had never even experienced it.
The UK is a smallish, windy island, and the air tends to rush around a lot and definitely doesn’t stay in one place long enough to sit on anyone’s shoulders. The only air pressure British people feel is when walking into a strong wind.
But I kept hearing it. I met countless Poles who complained that the air pressure made them sleepy. So I came to the conclusion that Poles have some sixth sense that allows them to detect the level of air pressure? Some kind of super power.
Only it was a reverse super power because it takes energy away. A Polish super hero called Captain Ciśnienie wouldn’t have the energy to save anyone from mortal danger!
But that didn’t make any sense, so I just treated such statements as a mild case of hypochondria. I thought Poles who blamed air pressure for their sleepiness were exaggerating or making excuses to have another cup of coffee.
Yet… after living in Poland for 3-4 years…I started to feel it too. On days when the air pressure was low, I literally felt ‘under the weather’.
I’ve heard it’s the same in Munich with a wind that blows off the Alps called the föhn. When it blows, it gives the inhabitants a headache, but newcomers don’t feel it until they’ve been there a few years.
So it took me a few years to pick up this super power and get a feel for the word ciśnienie… only there are days when I wish I hadn’t.
Air pressure wasn’t the only type of weather that caused me confusion when learning Polish.
Like most foreigners, the first time I heard leje jak z cebra (literally, pouring like from a churn), I heard the word ‘zebra’ and assumed that this was the Polish equivalent of ‘it’s raining cats and dogs‘. I didn’t find this too strange because it doesn’t make much sense to imagine cats and dogs falling from the sky… so why not zebras too?
I did ask myself ‘why zebras?’ There aren’t any zebras in Poland except for the ones you use to cross the road.
Another Polish weather idiom is pogoda w kratkę (weather in plaid) which is used to describe changeable weather. When I first heard this, I automatically assumed that kratka was referring to Scottish tartan. The weather in Scotland is extremely changeable, so it made sense to talk about tartan weather.
It also answered the zebra question.
Zebras have black and white stripes, less colourful than tartan, but also arranged vertically. Since a zebra’s stripes are wider, it means the weather changes aren’t so frequent but are more severe…well, at least in my mind.
If there’s one Polish season that has great branding, it’s autumn. I don’t know who invented the marketing campaign, but all Poles know how to promote this this season effectively. As soon as September arrives, I begin to hear the campaign slogan:
- Złota Polska Jesień (golden polish autumn)
Indeed, I heard this expression so much that I started using an abbreviation – ZPJ – to save time.
Unlike most marketing campaigns, it is accurate. Poland does have lots of forests and the leaves turn golden in autumn, but it only tells one side of the story. While September and October are fully golden, the period from November to mid-December should be called Szara Polska Jesień (SPJ) because it’s cold, dull and smoggy for weeks on end.
They never mention SPJ in the holiday brochures!
If you want a good weather forecast, then don’t bother with the TV or internet. Poles look to nature when trying to predict the seasons.
I’ve heard Poles predict the depth of the upcoming winter or the raininess of the summer by making reference to one or more of the following:
- the arrival or departure date of migrating birds
- the number of babies in a stork’s nest
- the thickness of the dog’s winter coat
- whether mice decide to move indoors
- the appearance of moles in the autumn
I’ve come to the conclusion that this skill of observation is another type of Polish super power.
In the UK, we seem to have lost this connection to nature, and we aren’t able to gather such useful data from animal and plant life about the upcoming seasons. The only exception are cows, but they only predict the next few hours and only one type of weather: rain. If the cows are sitting down in a field, then it will rain shortly. If they are standing up, your picnic can go ahead.
Come to think of it… perhaps cows have that super power thing… and it’s the air pressure that makes them feel sleepy and sit down?
When I was a kid, I’ve been told that we have two kinds of autumn in Poland: Złota Polska Jesień and Jesienna Szaruga. Notice that the latter lacks adjective “polska”. Apparently, only the beautiful one deserves to be our national weather.
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‘Jesienna Szaruga’ sounds poetic, almost melancholic.
But I’m not surprised it didn’t make the marketing campaign 😉
When I was a kid I also thought that this is “leje jak zebra”. You are not the only one 😀
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Yeah, I don’t know who invented that idiom, but it’s a huge invitation to make this mistake!
And have you heard these with various saints? “Od świętej Anki zimne wieczory i ranki”, “Od świętej Urszuli chłop się kożuchem otuli”, “Święty Ambroży zimy przysporzy” and all kinds of random madrości ludowe 🙂
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No, I hadn’t heard those. There’s a lot of useful info in them – names days as a calendar, long-term weather forecast and, my favourite, Polish rhyming expressions 🙂
Szaruga jesienna is dreadful, but it’s only the second worst of the Polish climate’s six seasons. Przedwiośnie is the worst. This what we have now in March, when the snow is thawing away to reveal all the mud, rubbish and dog droppings. The trees are still bare and as soon as the first buds begin to appear, they’re killed off by a sudden wave of belated frost. It’s chilly, damp, dark and grey. It’s a time when you should be glad winter is finally over, but the spring is still nowhere in sight.
“Przedwiośnie” is also the title of a novel that has been made into a film.
“Śniegi już stajały i pierwsza trawka, szczyk rzadki, bladozielony, rozpościerać się poczynała nad bystrą wodą. … Przedwiośnie zdmuchnęło już z dachów bud najbliższych lód i śnieg — ogrzało już naturalnym powiewem południa wnętrza, które długa i ciężka zima, wróg biedaków, przejmowała śmiercionośnym tchnieniem. … Cezary patrzał posępnymi oczyma na grząskie uliczki, pełne niezgruntowanego bajora, na domy rozmaitej wysokości, formy, maści i stopnia zapaprania zewnętrznego, na chlewy i kałuże…”
— Stefan Żeromski, Przedwiośnie