When learning a foreign language there are some vocabulary areas that you learn for pleasure, some you learn because it makes life easier, and some you learn because you have to. Learning Polish vocabulary connected to sickness and health was definitely in the latter category.
The first time I got a headache in Poland, the last thing I wanted to do was work hard memorizing some Polish vocabulary. But before venturing out to buy some painkillers, I decided to consult a dictionary and check how to say boli mnie głowa.
In most languages the word for ‘pain’ sounds unpleasant. Whether it’s the German schmerzen or the French douleur, the word is full of harsh sounds and downward intonation. Yet in Polish, the word for pain, ból, sounds sweet and cute. When Poles want to say that something hurts, they say to boli. To Anglo-saxon ears, boli sounds too cheery to describe pain. Dolly, polly, jolly, lolly…in English such sounds are reserved for childish, playful words. Boli sounds like the name of a cartoon character, a world-famous clown or a feelgood movie from India.
So when I discovered that ‘I have a headache’ in Polish is boli mnie głowa, it actually made me feel better and reduced the pain. But maybe that’s the point? Maybe it’s the natural medicine of the Polish language. Just saying the word makes you feel better!
But in practice, Polish words for illnesses make me feel worse rather than better. For some reason, the illnesses sound unfamiliar and more threatening in a foreign language. Before I get the chance to consult a dictionary, I worry that I have some fatal disease.
I recall being told that I might have ‘angina’, which in English is a heart problem often connected to heart attacks. I was ready to write my last will. But it turns out that angina is used more flexibly in Polish. When I consulted the dictionary, I found that it referred to a broad range of problems, some as mild as a sore throat. ‘Thank God, I’ll live!‘ I cried as I kissed dictionary.
It was the same with grypa (flu). When I heard that I had grypa, it sounded like some terrible illness was holding me in its death-like grip and wouldn’t let go. The English word ‘flu’, by comparison, is so much nicer because it suggests that the illness will simply fly away.
One morning I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed because my back hurt so badly. Eventually I struggled to a doctor’s surgery. The doctor wasn’t particularly sympathetic. He prescribed some painkillers, told me to come back in a month if it still hurt and said ma prawo boleć parę dni.
As I staggered out of his surgery, I started to think about this strange expression that he had used. What did he mean that ‘my back had the right to hurt for a few days’? What right? A legal right? A constitutional right? Personally, I don’t want any parts of my body to have such rights. And I started to worry about the painkillers. If I took them to get rid of the pain, could my back hire a lawyer and sue me? After all, I was depriving it of its god-given right to burn in pain!
Beside the language used to describe pain and illness, when I moved to Poland I also needed to learn Polish ways of caring for one’s health. The number one piece of health-related advice is to wrap up warm in winter – most Poles don’t realise that it’s a waste of time telling this to a British person. To us, wrapping up warm means wearing socks. The second most common piece of advice concerns ginger, garlic and honey. To stay healthy during a Polish winter, it seems necessary to consume huge quantities of these natural substances in hot drinks.
One time a Pole told me that whenever she had a heavy cold as a child, her mother would treat her with something called bańki.
Bańki. What are bańki? I asked.
It’s a treatment, she said. You heat up these glass bowls and stick them on your bare back and leave them for a few hours.
How many bowls? I asked.
As many as possible, but usually around six. They leave bruises for days afterwards. By the way, what’s the English word for bańki?
I think we do have a word for that, I answered. We call it torture!
It certainly sounds like torture to me, but I’ve met a number of Poles who claim it really helps. Call me a coward, but I’d rather use the glass bowls to drink a cocktail of garlic, ginger and honey.
I also learned that geography has an influence on your health in Poland – some places are healthy and some not so much. The healthy places have the word zdrój (spa town) attached to their names because their water is so good for you. And I have heard countless times from Polish parents that they are taking their children to the Baltic coast to expose them to jod (iodine). The first time I heard this word was when a Pole told me in English that he wanted his kids to ‘get some jod’. Not knowing the word jod, I misunderstood and thought he was taking his kids to Sopot for religious reasons.
I once spent a few days in a Polish spa with my parents-in-law. In the UK, spa towns were popular in Victorian times, but are long out of the fashion, and sanatoria don’t even exist any more, so I was completely unfamiliar with the concept.
In my hotel room, there was a large booklet with all the treatments on offer. I had a package that allowed me to choose a range of treatments so I scanned the list, looking for something relaxing, and possibly, beneficial to my health.
At first glance, the only treatments I recognized were masaż and krioterapia. A massage sounded good, but I ruled out cryotherapy. If I did that, I reasoned, I would be forced to drink milk with garlic, ginger and honey for the rest of the day.
It was then that I noticed that one item, bicze szkockie, was connected to my native country. Misunderstanding the word bicze (whip) for bicie (beating), I thought the treatment was called a ‘Scottish beating’.
‘Scottish beating… is that a treatment? I wondered. Where I come from, that’s the thing that puts you in hospital in the first place!
Later I found out that a ‘Scottish whip’ is when you stand in your swimming costume against a wall while someone fires alternate blasts of hot and cold water at you. It sounded like a lashing that the Scottish weather gives you on a walk in the Highlands… especially if you didn’t bother with the hot water. I decided to pass on the Scottish whip.
Maybe kąpiel w białaj glince (bath in white clay)? Maybe not. I once fell up to my chest into a bog while walking in the Scottish Highlands. I didn’t feel better afterwards.
The next item on the list was kąpiel siarkowa. I read it aloud. ‘Kąpiel siarkowa‘.
I knew that kąpiel was a bath, but I didn’t know what siarkowa meant. All I heard was the word ‘shark’. I had a vision of a me, a small swimming pool and a huge shark.
In the end, during the three days in the spa, I only had one massage. Three days. One massage. My wife and parents-in-law walked around in their bathrobes, going from one treatment to another. But I stood firm. I just wasn’t convinced that those ‘treatments’ were good for my health!
By the end of the stay I was so bored that I decided to volunteer in the spa and help out with the whipping. As a real Scotsman, I would happily lash the guests with a whip and then tell them afterwards in a serious, but soothing voice that their entire body ma prawo boleć parę dni.