Chasing Rainbows

What colour is the Polish language?

It seems like a bizarre question, right? But actually many people have subjective experiences in which their senses overlap. It’s called synesthesia and often involves perceiving numbers, words or sounds as colours. My wife, for instance, colours the days of the week – Tuesday is dark grey, Thursday is green and Sunday is yellow.

So if the Polish language has a colour, what is it?

Blue?

There’s a Polish idiom myśleć o niebieskich migdałach (literally, to think of blue almonds) which means ‘to daydream’. Why blue almonds? It’s actually a good choice because blue food only exists in your imagination. Blueberries are purple, blue cheese is only blue because it’s turned bad, and as for smurf-flavoured ice cream, well that comes straight from a dye factory. So thinking of a blue-coloured food is a perfect metaphor for daydreaming.

And thinking of blue almonds is also a good metaphor for a foreigner trying to master Polish. Sometimes I daydream about being able to speak the language fluently, reeling off perfectly-formed sentences like a native-speaker, understanding all of its grammatical complexities, and being able to spice up my utterances with idioms, street slang or regional dialect. Yet, deep down I know this is just chasing rainbows. At the end of the day, the Polish language is just a huge blue almond and it’s a hard nut to crack.

Gold?

Perhaps Polish is a golden language? Złoty in Polish is used in expressions like złoty interes (lucrative deal) and obiecywać złote góry (promise wonders). So perhaps the real question should be, does learning Polish offer you the chance to get rich? Not really. While many people learn English for economic reasons, I don’t think learning Polish is a złoty interes. So, no Polish isn’t a golden language.

Grey?

If you asked a British person (older than 30) to say which colour best describes Poland, they would probably answer: grey. In Cold War films and books, communist countries were portrayed as grey and bleak, and this image has stuck. So when such people happen to visit Poland, especially in the summer, they’re surprised to discover so much colour.

In keeping with its dull shade, the colour grey in the Polish language is used to describe a shady place or person: szara strefa (grey area) is place of uncertainty, while robić kogoś na szaro (lit. turn someone grey) means to swindle someone, and a szara eminencja (grey eminence) is a mysterious figure in the background who pulls the strings.

So is Polish grey? Well, it’s definitely a szara strefa, where the rules are as murky as a Polish winter, and I frequently feel swindled when I try to learn ten new words, but only remember two. And when I try to pronounce certain Polish words, I do feel as if there is a szara eminencja behind me, pulling my tongue in the wrong direction!

White & Red?

Colours were one of the first group of words I tried to learn in Polish, and I distinctly remember having a real moment of language shock when I first saw the Polish word for the red. I was expecting a word beginning with the letter ‘r’ just like words for red in other European languages – rouge, rot, rosso, rojo… in Polish it will probably be ‘rusz’ or ‘rzot’, I thought. But no, it’s czerwony, and it was then that I realised that learning a Slavic language was going to be tougher than I thought.

Since the national flag of Poland is white and red, you could easily assume these two colours would be very prevalent in the Polish language too.

In English the colour white is associated with purity and innocence. A white lie is told for a good reason, and if you’re whiter than white, then a white knight might come to rescue you. Conversely in Polish, the colour white seems to be associated with madness. While białe szaleństwo (white craziness) only refers to winter sports, the expression dostać białej gorączki (lit. get a white fever) means to go into a furious rage, something that in English, we express as red: to see red mist.

But the madness doesn’t end there. In English, when someone drinks do białego rana (until dawn) and has hallucinations when sobering up, they see pink elephants. I was amused to discover that the equivalent in Polish is widzieć białe myszki (see white mice). Now, white mice aren’t that exotic – you’re much more likely to see a white mouse than a pink elephant. And this made me wonder whether the hallucinations of Polish drunks aren’t as psychedelic as those in the English speaking world. Perhaps it’s a result of the purity of the vodka?

So there are certainly plenty of white idioms in Polish. What about red?

Curiously, there’s hardly any red idioms in the Polish language at all. Indeed, any that I came across seemed to be translations of foreign idioms (e.g. dostać czerwoną kart, czerwone światło) rather than original Polish ones. Why, despite Poland having a rather bloody history, does the Polish language ignore the colour red?

An armchair psychologist might suspect there’s something going on here. Why does the Polish language focus on white half of the flag? Why are there no red idioms? And why, when red is suppressed, do most of white idioms suggest craziness?

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Green?

Then, perhaps Polish is a green language? The colour green is associated with youth and inexperience as the expression zielony jak szczypiorek na wiosnę (as green as chives in spring) poetically describes. Yet, to me, Polish feels an old language, more like a gnarly old hedge that’s full of thorns and practically impenetrable.

However, I did experience some greenness early on in the process of learning Polish. After getting bored of repeating nie wiem so often, I switched to the response nie mam zielonego pojęcia (lit. I don’t have a green concept/idea) when asked difficult questions. Even though I didn’t know the answer to the question, by expressing this fact idiomatically, it felt like I was making progress.

And why is it that a lack of green ideas signifies not knowing? I’ve often wondered whether Poles, when searching for information, go through a quick checklist in their heads. Red ideas? Check. Blue ideas? Yes, lots of those. Orange ideas? Yep. Green ideas?… green ideas? I’ve got no green ideas!… I don’t know anything about this!

So what can I conclude?

I know three languages – English, German and Polish. For me, English is bluish-grey, German is green, what about Polish?

I’m pretty sure it’s not red or gold, but it could be grey, white or blue.

But, at the end of the day, all I can really say is nie mam czerwonego pojęcia, nie mam niebieskiego, żółtego ani pomarańczowego pojęcia. I na pewno nie mam pojęcia zielonego!

Bullet Points

In Polish, złoczyńca means villain, złowrogi means sinister, so when I first came across the word złożony, I assumed it meant ‘evil wife’. As well as being surprised that Polish had a word for this, I also wondered whether there was a word for evil husband too – złomąż perhaps?

As it turned out, złożony doesn’t describe an evil wife at all, but actually means ‘complex’. Although I came across it by accident, I was surprised I hadn’t encountered it before. You see, for a foreigner, Poland can be a complex place – the language is difficult, the bureaucracy is Byzantine and it takes three days just to make good bigos. For most foreigners, solving every day problems isn’t so simple.

That said, when I heard about the blog by Katarzyna Tusk called Make Life Easier, I couldn’t help but laugh. Good luck, Kasia, I thought, making life easier is a very American ambition, and I’m not sure that Poles have the same aspiration. In fact, I actually think that Poles expect life to be complex.

I once heard about an American director who sent an email to a group of Polish developers – ‘I’ll be over in Poland next month. Please prepare a project plan to implement the new version of the software‘. The Poles got to work.

When the American arrived he was presented with a 250-page document outlining every detail of the project, its timelines, process maps and contingencies.

What’s this?‘ the American asked

It’s the project plan,’ the Poles replied proudly.

No, no, no‘ said the American. ‘I just need something short. Just the steps ABC and some deadlines. Can you prepare that for tomorrow?

The Poles worked all night and reduced the document down to most essential 50 pages and even then they had to cut out many things they considered crucial. The next day they handed the 50 pages to the American, saying ‘ we cut it down as much as could‘.

The American sighed and repeated his request. ‘No, guys. I don’t have time to go through all this. Just give me a one-page document with the key steps and completion dates. That’s all.’

The Poles were confused and returned to their desks, muttering ‘What’s this? A kindergarten?!

I can relate to that American because I had similar experiences while working as a trainer. Whenever I presented a technique or solution, experience taught me that most Poles would respond in one of three ways:

  • it can’t be that simple – some participants would dismiss the solution by pointing out that the approach was too simple and therefore insufficient.
  • what if…? – other participants would come up with hypothetical scenarios in which the technique would fail.
  • yes, but it won’t work in Poland – and finally, at least one participant would always point out that Poland is a special place where such techniques don’t work.

It happened so frequently that I began to question my own assumptions. Do Poles actually expect life to be complex? Do they trust simple solutions? If something is short and straightforward, then, to a Polish mind, does that mean it’s not an accurate reflection of reality?

In the UK and especially in the US, people love simple solutions. From 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to 10% Happier, we like books with a discrete number of ideas, straightforward categories and an ABC series of steps to reach success. There’s even a self-help book called The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results which you can also buy online in a summarized format if you don’t have time to read the whole book. Yes, that’s right. Some people believe that success can be reduced to one simple truth… yet they still don’t have time to read all the details!

Indeed, we Anglo-Saxons hate detail so much that we invented a way to kill it – bullet points. Bullet points are a way of saying ‘just forget about all the baggage. Give me the key points. All the rest is a waste of time.’ In fact, bullet points are what’s left once you’ve shot all the unnecessary information!

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Maybe I should write a book called The One Anglo-Saxon Idea that Poles have a Problem with. To give you a summarised version (in case you don’t have time to read the whole text), it would present the hypothesis that Brits and Americans think it’s possible to apply the same solution in multiple contexts, while Poles believe that every context is different and requires a separate strategy.

And the most different, the most special context is… Polish reality… which is an expression I’ve heard countless times. Yes, but it wouldn’t work in Polish reality. Why not? Because it’s just too complex!

So, to appeal to Poles, I get the impression that the publishers would need to translate the title of Steven Covey’s book from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to 7 Habits, 14 Problems with those Habits and 21 Exceptions to the Rules of Highly Effective People.

And finally, we come to the Polish language, where there’s nothing simpler than food – bułka z masłem, kaszka z mlekiem (easypeasy) – I get the impression that you could combine any food with another food and a Pole would understand that you’re talking about something straightforward – nie martw się, to jajko z majonezem.

However, my favourite illustration of all this is the expression prosty jak budowa cepa (as simple as the construction of a flail). It’s very ironic that the Polish expression to describe something that is uncomplicated… talks about something I’ve never seen and never used. I don’t know what a flail looks like, I don’t know how to build one, and honestly, I don’t even know what it’s used for.

So, to me, all this Polish complexity is prosty jak budowa cepa… literally!

How to Catch a Spy

In war films and novels, spies often try to learn a foreign language so perfectly that they can pretend to be a regular citizen in that country. However, despite years of intensive training, learning the minutiae of the target culture, one little slip up is enough to reveal the spy’s secret identity. For instance, in Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds, a British spy in Germany speaks perfect German and almost fools a member of the Gestapo. However, when ordering a round of drinks, he shows the number three by holding up three fingers rather than two fingers and one thumb. This little piece of British body language gives him away and the Germans arrest him immediately.

So I began to wonder what little aspects of Polish language and culture would a spy have to learn in order to pass him or herself off as a Pole? Alternatively, what little aspects of Polish society might be potential traps for our spy, causing him or her to slip up and reveal that they are not actually Polish?

Landing in Poland

Our spy needs to stay alert as soon as the plane approaches Poland. While he might be worried about border control, his problems start a little earlier than this. When the plane touches down safely, some Poles begin to clap. I’ve never known why they do this. Is because they are relieved that they didn’t crash, because they are so thrilled to be on Polish soil, or are they giving the pilot a round of applause for flying well? I’ve no idea, but whatever it is, to pass himself off as Polish, our spy has two choices – (1) applaud and thereby pretend to be a Pole from an older generation who doesn’t have much experience of flying, or (2) look embarrassed, thereby pretending to be a younger Pole with more flying experience. If he looks surprised, then it’s obvious that he’s not Polish.

The Napkin Test

The next place where our spy needs to be alert is in a Polish milk bar. His cultural training will hopefully have taught him that a milk bar doesn’t sell milk and it’s not a bar, but it’s when he sits down that issues might arise. In Polish bars there are usually napkins on each table. These thin squares of paper are arranged in a triangular fan and held in a small stand. The challenge is to take one without pulling out the rest. I’m amazed by Poles who, without even looking, gracefully pluck out a napkin from the centre while carrying out a conversation. I’ve been in Poland for years, but I still haven’t mastered this, and have to lift out all the napkins, unfold the bundle, remove one, fold them and put them back in the stand. I can imagine the sweat on our spy’s brow as he reaches for the napkins, knowing that if he pulls the wrong one, all of them will spill out and his identity will be revealed to the entire milk bar.

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Likewise, he needs to be careful with the salt and pepper pots. Unlike in the UK, where a pot with one hole contains salt and a pot with three holes contains pepper, it’s the other way around in Poland. If he ends up shaking pepper onto his chips, then he’s a dead man.

Suppressing British Impulses

It won’t be easy, but our spy will need to suppress intense British impulses during his stay in Poland. This will be especially difficult concerning tea. Firstly, he needs to break the mental association between tea and time. In Poland, you can drink tea whenever you want and there’s no specific tea time in the late afternoon when you must take a break for tea. Secondly, if he really has to add milk to his tea, then he mustn’t take offense if the waiter brings warm milk. No matter how ghastly it is to put warm milk in tea, he’ll just have to pretend to enjoy it.

Queues

No matter how much prior training he gets, it’s still going to be a challenge to queue like a Pole. The first thing he needs to know is when not to queue. If he just has a question, then he shouldn’t wait in line, but instead barge straight to the counter, interrupt whoever is being served and loudly ask his question. Politely waiting in line to ask a question is a dead giveaway that he’s a Brit.

Body language is another potential telltale sign that he’s a spy. A true Pole looks a little anxious when queuing as if someone is suddenly going to jump ahead of them. This is especially important if you’re standing in a line. Here you should constantly encroach into the personal space of the person ahead of you. If this results in physical contact, whatever you do, don’t apologise. That would be a clear signal that you’re British.

Clothing

Of course, our spy needs to get his clothes right if he’s going to blend in effectively. One thing he needs to bear in mind is the amount of clothing. If he wants to look Polish, especially in winter, then he needs to wear as least twice as many items of clothing as he would in the UK.

For Poles this attachment to multiple layers starts in childhood. One thing that did surprise me about the Polish winter was the amount of clothes Polish children are forced to wear. This is fine if it’s minus ten, but if it’s plus five degrees, do they need to be dressed like an arctic explorer? One shock that most Poles get in the UK is when they see young children wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops… in winter. On the whole, this difference is harder for a Polish spy in the UK than a British one in Poland.

Public Meetings

A spy needs to meet other operatives and exchange messages in public places. What potential issues could arise? First of all, there’s time-keeping. If you agree to meet your Polish agents on a park bench, don’t give them up for dead if they are 10 minutes late. In Poland, 3 o’clock lasts from 3.00-3.15, so it’s possible to be 15 minutes late and still be on time.

The next question is what to carry with you so that you look normal. Poles buy huge quantities of flowers, so if you’re carrying a bunch of flowers, any one observing you will assume you’re on your way to someone’s house, a church or a grave. But our spy will need to be careful – Poles always buy an odd number of flowers, so if he’s carrying a dozen red roses, then they’ll be for his own grave!

Our spy should also bear in mind that Poles have a long history with clandestine and conspiratorial activity, so don’t try to outsmart them. Fortunately, for our spy, firanki (net curtains) never went out of fashion in Poland, so he can simply rent an apartment opposite some key location and do all the spying he wants from the window!

Referring to Oneself

James Bond doesn’t go undercover, he’s not that type of spy. However, his way of introducing himself would actually lend itself to being an effective agent in Poland. ‘Bond, James Bond‘ mirrors the way a Pole will often say ‘Kowalski, Jacek‘ when introducing himself in a formal situation as opposed to the British way of saying the first name followed by the last name.

Another potential pitfall when referring to yourself is not to overuse the word Ja. Hopefully, our spy has paid attention during language lessons and learned that Poles incorporate the pronoun into the verb and just say jestem or mam instead of ja jestem, ja mam etc.

Personally, I’d fail this particularly test as I’m guilty of saying ja too often. My wife laughs every time I explain away my poor Polish by saying ja-aaaaa jestem Szkotem. As well as sounding like Sean Connery when I elongate the ja-aaaaa, it gives away my foreignness both in form and content.

The Departure Gate

In the unlikely event that our spy survives all of the potential pitfalls mentioned above, there’s one last test before he can board a flight to safety.

In an airport, just before a flight is called, you can tell which passengers are Polish and which are not just by looking. How? Well, all the non-Poles will be sitting, waiting for an announcement that the plane is ready for boarding. All the Poles, however, will already be standing in a queue, waiting to board. Our spy, to avoid being caught, will need to stay alert. As soon as the first Pole decides that it’s time to board, he needs to hurry to the boarding game and join the emerging queue with the other Poles. Then, and only then, might he complete his mission successfully.

Dear Sir or Madam

In British English one person who has their own category of pronouns is the Queen. She is addressed as Your Majesty and when she speaks she rarely uses I. Instead she uses ‘we’ even though she’s only talking about herself. It’s called the ‘Royal We’ and prompted Mark Twain to joke that only kings, presidents and people with tapeworm have the right to use ‘we’.

British and American English also no longer differentiates between the familiar and formal forms of the word ‘you’. Once we had thou and ye (you), but it’s been hundreds of years since they were last used in everyday speech. So when a native English speaker learns how to address others in Polish, it comes as quite a shock.

I wasn’t surprised that Polish has a polite form of ‘you’. I speak German and learned French at school, and both languages have such forms. What shocked me was that the Polish polite form is in the third person, so actually, when I say czy Pan/Pani tu siedzi?, what I am saying ‘is sir/madam sitting here?’

This made me feel a little strange. Besides the standard opening to a formal letter (Dear Sir or Madam), the words sir and madam are rarely used in English. Indeed, I hate it when anyone calls me sir because it implies a master/servant relationship. And when I realised that I was saying sir and madam in Polish, I felt like a beggar in a Dickens’ novel, humbly bowing before any lady or gentleman who tossed me a penny.

So it took me a while to get comfortable saying Pan and Pani, but, to be honest, that was the least of my challenges. Selecting the right way of addressing others in Polish is a little more complex than in English:

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The equivalent table for English looks like this:

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We have come up with plural forms like y’all, yous or you guys, but they’re not considered a part of English grammar yet.

In Polish it’s pretty easy to decide whether to use the singular or plural – it just involves counting up to two. It’s working out your place in the social hierarchy that’s a little harder. How does a Pole decide whether to use Ty or Pan/Pani? Well, it seems to involve a mathematical formula based on the following criteria:

If (B/A) x S x R > 1, then use Pan/Pani

  • A = your age
  • B = the other person’s age
  • S = their social status (2 = professor, doctor etc, 1 = regular person, 0 = cham)
  • R = how much you respect them (2 = very much, 1 = somewhat, 0 = they just crashed into your car)

I’ve been working on the above formula for a while, but it’s ‘work in progress’. I still need to include the gender of the other person, family relationship, and one’s goal in the relationship (e.g. do I want to marry this man’s daughter?).

Yet, despite the calculations involved, choosing the right form of address in a one-off situation is fairly straightforward. It’s when the variable of time is added, that things get more complicated. The question of when to switch from Pan/Pani to Ty is one that puzzles me:

  • Who decides that the relationship is now close enough that we can switch from Pan/Pani to Ty?
  • Is it always the older person that makes the offer to switch?
  • Can a man suggest the switch to a woman or is that ungentlemanly conduct?
  • At what age does a Pole move from being addressed by Ty to Pan/Pani? Is this a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood?
  • How does alcohol impact this? If you get drunk with someone, do you automatically switch to Ty? If yes, after how many drinks?
  • Are there obligations when you move from Pan/Pani to Ty? If you switch to Ty, does that mean you need to call on birthdays and name-days, or return missed phone calls quicker?
  • Does switching to Ty mean that things you do for the other person become favours rather than transactions?
  • Can you give constructive feedback to someone with whom you use Pan/Pani or only those with whom you use Ty?
  • How do you keep track? Do Poles have a little notebook where they keep track of whom they need to address formally and with whom they’ve agreed to switch?
  • What happens if you switch to Ty, but then don’t meet for next ten years, do you need to start from Pan/Pani again?
  • Can you switch back to Pan/Pani if you fall out with the other person?
  • Can you refuse to switch? A Pole once told me that her professor suggested she call her by name, but she declined. Nie chce mi to przejść przez gardło (I couldn’t get the word out of my throat) she said, meaning the professor’s name. Coming from an Anglo-Saxon country, I was stunned by this.
  • What if you are a teacher and you are frozen for 30 years (like Jerzy Stuhr in Sex Mission) and when you wake up you are younger than your pupils. Should you use Pan/Pani?

I am also intrigued by the language that surrounds this. Jesteśmy na Ty (we are on you) sounds so odd when you translate it into English. Another one I like is when, at the start of a training session, the Polish trainer asks the group czy możemy mówić sobie po imieniu? (can we address each other by name?). At that moment, I usually think sarcastically how else are we going to address each other? By grunting and pointing?

If it wasn’t confusing enough, it seems there is even a hybrid form: Pan/Pani and the listener’s first name, e.g. Pani Małgosiu or Panie Piotrze. As far as I can tell, this form is used by elderly ladies with their friends and salespeople who want to create a false sense of closeness in order to try and sell you something.

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I also wonder if this is changing? Does the internet, the influence of English and generational change mean that Ty is becoming more prevalent? It seems the internet and I have a Ty-relationship since most of its communications use this direct form. Perhaps this needs to be sorted – surely computers can handle my mathematical formula? And if they decided to re-brand YouTube under a Polish name, would it be called TyTube, WyTube, PaństwoTube… or perhaps the more Slavic PaństwoCiub?

But, after all these questions, I must say that there is one huge favour that Poles grant to foreigners:

We’re excluded from all this!

Poles don’t seem to care whether a foreigner uses Ty, Pani or whatever. I’ve never met a Pole that expected me to use it correctly or was offended when I didn’t. I wonder why this is. Is it because Poles appreciate that their language is extraordinarily difficult and give foreigners a free pass? Is it because Poles don’t have much experience of foreigners speaking their language and so have low expectations? Is it because all these norms and rules about respect only apply to native Polish speakers?

Whatever the reason, I am mightily relieved. I try to follow these linguistic and cultural norms as best I can, but, as you might have concluded from the number of questions in this post, I don’t have complete clarity around this language area yet.

Yours faithfully

Polisher

Like a Dog

People love dogs, but languages don’t. The English language treats dogs poorly with most dog idioms having negative meanings. A dog’s life is an unhappy one, you work like a dog and then die like a dog…and it’s not a happy ending.

On moving to Poland, I noticed that Poles were dog lovers, so I held out a hope that Polish dogs would get a better deal linguistically than they do in English. Yet before I even got to metaphors and idioms, the first challenge was learning the Polish word for dog.

The base form is easy – it just looks like the English word ‘pies’ as in apple pies. The challenge arises when the word is used in different cases:

pies, psów, psa, psem, psie, psi, psiego, psy, psu, piesek, pieskie…

I know that dogs come in many shapes and sizes, but does the Polish language need to reflect this? It isn’t instantly obvious to a foreign learner that psa, psem or psów are forms of the word for dog. Frankly, I see as much similarity between a Chihuahua and a Labrador than between pies and psa!

When I first learned the word for dog, I just assumed that the plural of pies was piesi (pedestrians). So, when I noticed a triangular road sign with an exclamation mark, warning drivers about piesi, I assumed it was an instruction to watch out for small dogs!

The animal may be cute, but the Polish word pies, and all its forms, is a dog to learn!

Fortunately, many dog idioms in Polish are less challenging because they are similar to those in English – pieskie życie (a dog’s life), zszedł na psy (going to the dogs) and traktować jak psa (treat like a dog) – but there are many more that are unique to Polish.

So is the Polish language kinder to dogs than English? Well, one way to verify this is to go through a checklist of needs, such as Maslow’s hierarchy, and ask if each of them are met. So let’s consider a typical Polish dog, perhaps called Burek, and check whether his needs are met according to Maslow’s hierarchy.

Physiological

Starting at the base of the pyramid, one can ask whether Burek’s basic needs (food, sleep etc) are cared for. As regards sleep, it seems not. Psia wachta (dog’s watch) is the worst watch in the middle of the night. While the rest of us sleep soundly, Burek is awake, keeping an eye out for intruders and thieves. And what reward does Burek get for keeping us safe? Certainly not kiełbasa as the idiom nie dla psa kiełbasa (sausage is not for a dog) clarifies. If he is fed at all, it’s low quality and given grudgingly.

Safety

Is Burek’s personal safety looked after? No, he’s not even given a roof over his head. The expression pogoda pod psem suggests that he has to sleep outdoors at the mercy of the weather.

The first time I heard the expression pogoda pod psem (literally, weather under a dog) I did wonder whether it meant good weather. I haven’t spent much time under a dog, but I imagine you’re sheltered and warm down there. Maybe it means hot, steamy summer weather? But no, as it turns out, it just means rotten weather. I should have known that if a dog’s involved, it wouldn’t be good news.

So it seems that Burek not only stays up all night, but does so in the cold, wind and rain.

Belonging

The next level of the pyramid is belonging. Surely, Burek is a loved and valued member of the family who will be remembered long after he has passed on? Well, no… the Polish language doesn’t pass this test either. The idiom zdechnąć jak pies pod płotem (literally, die like a dog under a fence) is used when someone passes on but isn’t mourned by any one. So it seems that poor Burek won’t be remembered for long…or at all.

Esteem

Is Burek respected as an individual? No, it seems not. The idiom nie jednemu psu Burek (there’s more than one dog called Spot) reminds us that Burek is just another dog. If you shouted his name in the park, half a dozen dogs would run over. If the wrong one followed you home, who cares!

So no, one can’t say that Burek’s owners help to build his self-esteem, he’s just another dog.

Self-actualization

Finally, we come to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, the highest and most fulfilling need. Does Burek have opportunities for development? Can he grow personally and realise his full potential as a dog?

Nope.

Anything poor Burek achieves will be psu na budę (useless).

So as this quick run through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows, Burek isn’t any better off in the Polish language as Spot is in English. In fact, he’d be better off with Pavlov than Maslow… at least, he’d get fed regularly.

If languages truly reflected people’s affection for dogs, you’d think there would be a lot more positive idioms and expressions. After all, a dog is a man’s best friend, and as they say in Polish wierny jak pies (faithful as a dog). And how do the English and Polish languages treat them in return?

Like dogs!

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Given all the bad PR that surround dogs, isn’t it time they got organized and started demanding better treatment… at least linguistically? Dogs need to break free of their leashes, assert their rights and campaign for better idioms. If they were to raise awareness of their situation, lobby the makers of dictionaries and march through our cities’ streets, then perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, we’ll all aspire to live a dog’s life!

Financial Insecurity

In Polish there’s an expression skąpy jak Szkot (mean as a Scot). Being Scottish myself, I sometimes get irked by the stereotype that Scots are mean. It’s not that I’m offended, it’s just that I need to be on guard, monitoring my behaviour, to make sure that I’m not acting in a way that might reinforce the stereotype. So when learning Polish, especially language connected to money and financial transactions, in the back of my mind there was a voice saying ‘don’t pay too much attention, you don’t want people to think you’re obsessed with money.’

The first thing I learned about Polish money was the name of the currency, which most foreigners call zloties. To Anglo-saxon ears, zlot rhymes with slot and makes zloties sound like a bunch of tokens that you use to play slot machines in Las Vegas. Once I got used to the Polish name, I learned that złoty means golden, a word which creates a much better image for the currency than slot machine tokens.

One of the first financial lessons that I got in Poland came when I went grocery shopping. You see, there is one group of Poles who really know how to manage money carefully, and who fight tirelessly to teach others good financial habits too. I’m referring to Polish shop assistants, who are so focused with managing the change in the till, that they hound you to give them the right change. Any foreigner quickly learns expressions connected to giving the right change – nie ma Pan drobnych? Może końcówka? – because making a purchase depends on you having small coins and notes.

Polish shop assistants also give me numerous opportunities to dispel the myth that Scots are mean. Often, instead of giving you all the change, the shop assistant simply announces będę winna grosik (I owe you a penny) and doesn’t give you the full amount of change. Not being a skąpy Scot, I always agree immediately and don’t even think about the countless zloties I must have lost in this way over the years… nor the interest on the unpaid debt!

On the subject of debt, I did find it odd that the Polish word for ‘owe’ is the same as the word for ‘guilty’: winny. Does this mean that if you borrow money from a person, then you are guilty of some crime in their eyes? I also wonder whether this makes Poles more reluctant to take out loans?

The one major challenge when learning words connected money is that there’s so much slang. I quickly learned words like kasa and zeta, but slang words for quantities were more difficult. For instance, the first time I heard pięć dych was at a market when I was trying to buy a DVD, and I was disappointed when I discovered that it means five times ten and not five plus ten. Likewise, when I heard stówka (little hundred) for the first time, I did hold out a hope that it meant less than one hundred… otherwise why else would it be a diminutive?

To my ears, Polish slang words for money make it sound cute and innocent. At first when I heard any word ending in -ówka, it reminded me of the English word hoof. So złotówka (one złoty coin) sounded like a golden horse shoe, while stówka (hundred) sounded like a stone that is trapped in a pony’s hoof. Likewise, the first time I heard tysiak (thousand) it reminded me of prosiak (piglet) and I thought it was a cute forest mammal. At least bańka (million) sounded more serious and I assumed contained some good advice – if you come into a million, go straight to the bank. Yet, I later discovered that bańka means milk churn, which is the last place you ought to keep a million zloties!

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Of course, not wanting to look like a mean Scot, I can’t say that I don’t have any money in case people think it’s an excuse not to contribute. In English, we say, I’m broke (as if having money fixes you), while in Polish, I was surprised to learn that you say jestem spłukany (I’m rinsed). It sounds like you left your cash in the pocket of your jeans when you put them in the washing machine. And actually, this would work pretty well as an excuse for not paying. Sorry, can you pay for dinner, all my cash was rinsed at 60 degrees?

Another money topic I tend to avoid concerns saving money. In English we have an idiom ‘to save money for a rainy day’. It suggests that you should save money now so that you can cheer yourself up by spending it on a rainy day. I prefer the Polish version: trzymać coś na czarną godzinę (literally, keep something for a black hour). Cheering yourself up on a rainy day sounds trivial in comparison. Whatever nightmarish thing appears at this black hour, I certainly want to have some cash saved up… perhaps I can bribe it to go away!

One final expression, and one that I find particularly alarming, is the Polish proverb stating that pięniądze leżą na ulicy (money is lying on the street). You see, there’s an old joke that asks ‘how do you kill a Scotsman?’ The answer is to throw ten pence in front of a bus.

So if it’s true that money is lying on the ground in Poland, I just hope it isn’t lying on streets that the buses drive down!

The Granny Stopper

When building a footpath up a mountain, there’s a technique called a granny stopper. About 300 metres from the car park, the builders of the path include a challenging piece of terrain in which you have to scramble over a big rock. This is the granny stopper and its purpose is to give walkers a taste of what is to come later in the ascent. And if you’ve brought your granny with you, this is where, for her own safety, she gets discouraged and turns back.

Whoever designed the Polish language included a granny stopper too.

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When a beginner starts learning Polish, the first hundred words aren’t too bad. You can make some progress and learn some basic statements and questions. But then, and with great irony, it’s when you come to the verb ‘to go’ that everything stops.

This issue is one that creeps up on the learner, slowly suffocating them like a boa constrictor. At first I learned simple sentences like idę do kina or idę do domu. Next up was chodzić which I learned is used for habitual actions, such as często chodzę do kina. Okay, I said to myself, instead of using different tenses like English, Polish just has different verbs. That’s fine… up to a point. But it went on and on. I would continually come across a sentence I didn’t understand, look it up in the dictionary, and out popped another go-verb. What does pójdziesz ze mną? mean? Oh, pojechać means go as well. Not another one! In the end I was scared of checking any word in the dictionary in case I discovered another verb for ‘go’.

In fact, there are three words meaning ‘go’ in Polish – chodzić, iść and pójść – and that’s just going on foot. There’s another three if you’re driving or riding – jechać, jeździć and pojechać. And it’s these Polish verbs of motion that bring learning to a complete standstill!

This is especially true when deciding which verb to use and in which form:

Student: How do I say ‘I’m going?’

Teacher: It depends. Are you going on foot?

Student: Yes.

Teacher: Are you male or female?

Student: Male.

Teacher: Do you plan on reaching your destination?

Student: Of course, why else would I be going?

Teacher: Some people just wander around, you know? We have a different form for that.

Student: Oh. No, I’ll be reaching my destination.

Teacher: Okay, then one more question. Is it a one-off trip or do you go there regularly?

Student: One-off, I guess. But if I like it, I might go back.

Teacher: Doesn’t matter. So you’re a man going by foot, you plan to reach your destination and it’s one-off trip… Where are you going?

(student stands up and heads towards the door)

Student: Lesson’s over. I’m going!

Teacher: But don’t you want to know the correct Polish verb form?

Student: Nah, forget it. Life’s too short.

Sometimes you just want to go someplace without overthinking it, for instance, to the bathroom.

I remember once trying to leave someone a note saying ‘I will go there at 9am tomorrow’. I was in a hurry and just wanted to scribble a quick message to reassure an acquaintance that I would take care of an issue. In the end I just wrote tam 9am jutro ja, stuck the note on the fridge and dashed out the door.

And that’s the problem. Going often means hurrying. When you’re in a hurry, you just don’t have time to sit down with pencil and paper and work out which Polish verb of motion is correct in this instance. It would have taken me a hour to work out that I should have written pójdę tam jutro o dziewiątej.

It’s the same with managing your personal space. In a flash of anger, you’re not in the mood to choose between saying idź do diabła or pójdź do diabła. There’s no time to consider whether the person should go all the way to the devil or whether it’s enough just to reach hell and wander around!

And that’s the dilemma. Do I want to invest enough time to communicate accurately in Polish or do I want to have a life?

If you choose not to have a life, then, once you have a basic grasp of chodzić, iść and pójść, you can spend the next few years on other verbs of motion – jechać, jeździć, pojechać, latać, lecieć, polecieć, biegać, biec, pobiec, pływać, płynąć, popłynąć.

It’s enough to drive you nuts, and I quickly developed a phobia about the verb ‘to go’. Yet it’s like having a phobia of breathing air because you can’t escape it. These verbs are everywhere and you are constantly reminded of your failure to master them.

If you look depressed, someone will ask ‘o co chodzi?‘ And they get a shock when you scream in reply ‘don’t say that word!’. You can’t take a step back, carefully consider your options and find the best solution because you don’t remember whether it should be iść po rozum do głowy or pójść po rozum do głowy? And you can’t shake your head and say  nie wierzę, że do tego doszło (how did it come to this?) because you know, deep down, that there’s another go verb buried in that statement.

And there’s no consolation when you finally do lose it, when the grammar finally drives you over the edge. It’s at this moment that the Polish language continues to twist the knife. Because, just like English which uses expressions like ‘go crazy’ or ‘drive someone insane’, Polish also uses a go verb for this fateful event. When you sit on the ground, put your arms over your head and mumble verbs of motion over and over, you are just acting out another go verb: odchodzić od zmysłów.

I really sympathize with teachers of Polish. It must be a real challenge hauling learners, kicking and screaming, over this gargantuan granny stopper. I assume that, as well as having teaching skills, they also require coaching and psychiatric skills to motivate, placate and possibly treat their students.

But perhaps this linguistic granny stopper is a kindness, separating the weak from the strong early in the learning process. Those who turn back may well have made the right decision. Because, as well as saving themselves a lot of blood, sweat and tears, perhaps, by choosing not to struggle with Polish verbs of motion, they’ve managed to preserve their own sanity?

The Lullaby Language

What does Polish sound like to someone who is hearing the language for the very first time?

The first time I heard Polish it wasn’t in a historic nor attractive location, it wasn’t Wałęsa nor John Paul II that was speaking, and the words didn’t mean anything to me. First dates can be disappointing.

Touring Europe as a student in 1995, my friends and I changed trains in Katowice as we traveled from Prague to Kraków. Waiting on the platform in the grey railway station, the loud speakers suddenly burst into life and I heard the Polish language for the first time. I assumed I was hearing an announcement about the arrival or departure of a train, but, of course, I didn’t understand a word. Although it was a completely alien stream of sounds, I could hear the tone, rhythm and emotion in the voice. Indeed, the main emotion seemed to be boredom and the speaker’s intonation was extraordinarily flat. I wondered whether Polish was a language that was specifically designed to be heard over loudspeakers.

Then, in the distance, I heard Polish for the second time. From somewhere further down the platform, I could hear a faint chanting. It sounded like a group of monks, but as it grew louder, my friends and I realised that it wasn’t a peaceful group of Hari Krishna that were approaching. We made the prudent decision to get out of the way and climbed some stairs to a balcony, where we watched the police escort around two hundred football fans out of the railway station. The fans were chanting something with a three-part rhythm: uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh-hu-hu.

So as we boarded the train to Kraków, I was left with those two impressions of the Polish language: flat intonation with a three-part rhythm.

Sound & Texture

Years later, having moved to Poland, I got the chance to hear Polish that wasn’t chanted nor transmitted through a loudspeaker, and I recall discussing the question of what Polish sounded like with a Canadian friend. We had both been in Poland for a few weeks and neither of us understood more than a few words of Polish. I said that, to my ears, Polish sounded like radio static, the sound that a radio emits when you are searching between frequencies for a station. The Canadian, Rob, said it reminded him of the sound you hear when you slowly pour sand onto a wooden floor.

While we disagreed on the best description, we definitely agreed that the key sound in Polish was sssszzzzz.

Apparently, Oscar Wilde described the sound of Polish as rustling, hissing and hushing that made his ears bleed. I definitely agree about the hissing and hushing sounds, but it doesn’t make my ears bleed. Quite the opposite in fact. I suspect that Oscar might have had a hangover that day, because actually Polish sounds soft and soothing. It sounds like something you’d want someone to whisper to help you fall asleep. Take for instance, the name Kościuszko:

Kosh – choosh – ko

It sounds like a lullaby, something a mother would sing gently to a baby as it drifted off to sleep. If the Prussians, Russians and Austrians had tried to turn Kościuszko in a bogeyman, they wouldn’t have fooled any of their children. ‘We’re not scared of Kosh-choosh-ko… he sounds sweet!’

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Emerging Words

There’s always a sense of mystery when you listen to a language for the first time. Not knowing where words begin and end, utterances sound like long strings of syllables, and you struggle to hear individual words. Yet when I first started listening to Polish, there was one word that stood out. Within the dense chunks of language a word emerged. I didn’t know what it meant, but it was short, simple and familiar… and it seemed to be used a lot.

That word was pan or pani or pana.

Every other sentence, especially in post offices or shops seemed to contain some reference to the Greek god of nature. I did wonder why post office clerks were arguing with customers about ancient mythology. This must be a well-educated population, I concluded.

And pan was everywhere… like, well… pantheism. And there was also reference to another God that I didn’t know, but who sounded even more important: Proshaypana or Proshaypani… this one sounded more like a Buddhist god. Blah blah blah Proshaypana blah blah blah. I wondered whether, by invoking this God’s name, the speaker’s were uttering a plea, a prayer or a curse.

So I gained another impression – that Polish was an erudite, respectful and religious language… well, it can be.

Tempo & Intonation

Not understanding the words allowed me to focus on other aspects of spoken language – tempo and intonation.

Polish doesn’t sound particularly fast. As a foreigner hearing it for the first time, I wasn’t blown away by its tempo. It’s not like Arabic or Irish. I did wonder whether the reason for this is physical. It’s probably not the kind of language that you can say quickly – there are too many consonant sounds and you might injure your tongue, mouth or jaw if you tried to say too many hard Polish syllables too quickly.

As regards intonation, first impressions can be deceptive. When I first arrived in Poland, I remember being told that Wojciech Mann was a great presenter. Really? I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I could hear that his intonation was flatter than the countryside in Mazowsze. He just didn’t sound like an interesting speaker. And that’s what a foreigner hears when they hear Polish for the first time. It’s not like Italian in which the intonation rises and falls like the Alps. Polish is flat.

Yet Wojciech Mann’s speaking style is an acquired taste. It was only after I had learned Polish for a few years that I came to share Poles’ appreciation for his flat, deadpan delivery.

Summing up

So what does Polish sound like to someone hearing it for the first time?

In the end, it’s a subjective impression that’s tricky to describe. So maybe I’ll try to answer another way – with a Japanese Haiku.

Hissing sand falling … shushing the wooden floor … kosh choosh ko

thru static radio … a mann mumbles, deadpan tones … slow train approaching

a lullaby song … post office fans are chanting … old Proshaypana’s here.

The Fool’s Journey

When I switch from my native English to Polish, my IQ drops by at least 50 points… well, that’s how I feel.

So instead of assessing my skills against a system of language levels, I judge my abilities in comparison to how stupid I feel when I try to express myself in Polish.

Fortunately, Polish has some great words to describe stupid people. As well as English, there’s a group of words that started as medical definitions – imbecile, cretin, moron, idiot – but I prefer the folk terms like głupek wioskowy (village idiot). Call me old-school, but when I speak Polish I feel closer to the type of stupidity that’s been around the villages and backwoods for centuries:

Głąb Level

In this classification, in the place of beginner is the głąb level. The goal for a głąb learner is to inform others that he or she is a głąb (blockhead). When I first came to Poland, I remember saying nie rozumiem or nie mówię po polsku about 10 times a day. If I managed to pronounce the expressions correctly, then I could take pride in the fact that my interlocutor understood that I was a linguistic blockhead and walked away.

I chose the word głąb for this level because it just sounds dumb. The long, deep ‘omb‘ sound vibrates when you say it right and seems to express the emptiness inside my head when I can’t think of a Polish word for something.

Being a głąb in Polish, I once got confused between głąb and dąb (oak) and suggested to some friends that we take a blanket and lie down in the park under the big głąb. What can I say? If there had been a big głąb standing in the park, I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared if we sat beneath him.

The Gapa Moment

This is not so much a level as a moment of truth. Instead of running from encounters with the Polish language, the gapa learner stops and stares. Standing with their mouth ajar and eyes wide open, he or she gapes at the Polish language, its strings of consonants, funny letters and crazy words… oh my god… do I have to learn that?

Like the word gap in English, there is a huge chasm between the gapa (feather-brained) learner and being able to express oneself intelligently in Polish. This is the make or break moment. Does he or she commit to the learning process or flee in horror back to the głab level?

Gamoń Level

If the gapa learner commits and works really hard, then he or she can aspire to becoming a gamoń (bungler). Besides having a very limited range of vocabulary, the gamoń takes pleasure in constantly repeating the same phrases incorrectly. Don’t bother correcting them – eventually they’ll get it right by accident. The best word to describe the communication style is gamoniowaty (bungling). A gamoń hopes that if they say all the words they know, then eventually, like a monkey at a typewriter producing poetry after a million years, they might stumble on an intelligible sentence in the end.

I came across the word gamoń in an exhibition about the Orange Alternative. It included a description of an election committee called Gamonie i Krasnoludki (Fools and Dwarfs). Their election slogan was Głosując na Gamonie – głosujesz na siebie (a vote for fools is a vote for yourself). What’s a gamoń, I wondered? And what a pity I can’t vote!

When I learned that gamoń meant ‘bungler’, it was my favourite word for months. There’s something so pleasurable in saying the words ty gamoniu! to myself because I’ve made the same language mistake for the tenth time that day.

Fajtłapa Level

At this level, the fajtłapa (clumsy) learner is like a bull in a china shop. Because he or she has learned a broader range of language, there is significantly more opportunity for making clumsy mistakes. The key goal, or mission, for the fajtłapa learner is to inadvertently destroy the language he or she is learning. They do this by breaking as many rules and patterns as possible, happily smashing every linguistic convention they come across.

It can be tiring for Poles to interact with a fajtłapa learner – put simply, they mess with your head. But, please be patient, it’s all part of the learning process.

As well as being clumsy with Polish, I’m also rather clumsy in the kitchen, where I handle fragile things with the delicacy of a bear wearing boxing gloves. Wine glasses don’t have a long shelf-life in my home… just about as long as the wine, in fact. The word fajtłapa seems to captures the feeling that I’m engaged in a battle with my own hands. I don’t know what fajt means but when I first saw it, I understood it as fighting with my own łapa (paws).

Frajer Level

There are no shortcuts to get from the level of fajtłapa to frajer (sucker). It’s a long, hard slog to correct all the errors that are ingrained in the learner’s head, and you could question whether it’s worth the effort. But this level is called the frajer level because the learner, having come this far, is usually suckered into continuing.

Like a gamoń, I misunderstood the word frajer at first. To my ears, it sounded jolly, almost aspiration. When the world is too depressing, wouldn’t you rather just be a happy frajer? It also sounded too much like the English word ‘fryer’ – so I imagined some simpleton that works in a fast food restaurant frying the burgers!

In Scotland, we don’t make smart decisions when it comes to eating habits. For example, in some fish n’ chip shops you can buy a deep fried Mars Bar – a local delicacy that you can order if the battered fish and chips is too healthy for your tastes. If I ever set up a deep fried Mars Bar food truck in Poland, I’ll call it ‘The Happy Frajer‘.

But, as it turns out, my understanding of the word frajer was wrong – just another mistake that I need to iron out at this level!

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Pechowiec Level

The final and highest level for a learner is to become a pechowiec (loser). At this level the language learner is almost able to express his or her full level of intelligence. They can speak fluently, handle complex interactions and understand the nuances of the language. However, from time to time, no matter how hard he or she continues to learn, they can’t avoid looking silly from time to time. You see, the thing is that no language is completely logical. Eventually, they will inadvertently discover an exception to a rule or use a false friend incorrectly.

It’s just their bad luck that no language is perfectly rational and logical…

and the most you can aspire to… if you work hard for years and years and years…

… is to outgrow your głąbhood..

… and one day… become a loser!

The Yin and Yang of Learning Polish

Yin

Like most foreigners, when I first started learning Polish, I found it hard. The words were awkward to pronounce, the vocabulary was difficult to get my head around, and the grammar was a nightmare.

After a tough language lesson I felt exhausted. And I quickly learned that the best word to describe the process of learning Polish was ciężko (heavily).

Poles use the words ciężki/ciężka/ciężkie/ciężko a lot. In English, while we say that something is hard, difficult or serious, Poles say it’s heavy. A hard day is a ciężki dzień and hard times are ciężkie czasy. If someone has a serious illness, then it’s a ciężka choroba and they have a ciężka sprawa (difficult situation).

Why is everything so heavy?

Do Poles gather up all the hard, troubling stuff into a big pile and try to carry it on their shoulders? It’s no wonder that for many years the world’s strongest man was Polish. You need to be Pudzian just to bear the weight of all these problems!

In a way, learning the word ciężko is a physical activity, it’s a word that your body needs to learn as well as your tongue. To really speak Polish accurately, at the end of a long, hard language lesson, you need to slump your shoulders, bend your back, bow your head, and say how heavy the grammar was.

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The word ‘heavy’ was once very fashionable in English. In the 1960s, at the height of Flower Power, hippies used it to describe any unpleasant thought or situation. Basically, they smoked a lot of weed and used the word ‘heavy’ whenever they ran out of drugs. Nowadays it’s hardly ever used in this way.

Because I heard the word ciężki / ciężko so much, I started to wonder whether, after the 60s had ended, all the hippies had moved to Poland. But, on second thoughts, they wouldn’t be able to cope. The Polish language is just too heavy, man!

Yang

Just when I thought that learning Polish was too much of a burden, I came across an expression which liberated me. Instead of weight, it suggested lightness. Instead of taking energy, it lifted me up. Whenever I said it, all that linguistic heaviness was instantly removed from my shoulders.

I remember the first time I heard it. What’s that? It sounds like the name of a rock band or a style of dancing. It didn’t sound like a Polish word at all.

The expression was spoko luz. Some people even turned it into a rap and said spoko loko luz!

And I noticed that when Poles said it, their body language was relaxed, care-free – their shoulders rolled back, their arms moved in and out and they seemed to bounce on their toes.

Whatever it meant, it seemed to be the antidote to the ciężki issue because when faced with a challenge, some Poles would say spoko luz, smile and give the impression that it was no problem at all.

But what is this spoko luz, I wondered? And more importantly, where do you get it? It wasn’t in the dictionary and asking Poles for a definition didn’t help much:

What does spoko luz mean?

You know, it’s luz… relaxed… cool… everything is alright.

They sounded like the hippies during the non-heavy moments!

As far as I understand, luz is a kind of freedom, but not political freedom. There aren’t demonstrations in which citizens fight for chleb i luz. It’s more like personal freedom in which you have all the time, space and resources you need. And spoko luz is the even more chilled and relaxed version of it.

Yin and Yang

Is learning Polish a spiritual experience? No. But you definitely need to keep you spirits up during the process!

And that’s why, despite the fact that their meanings aren’t directly related, for me, spoko luz became the opposite of ciężki/ciężko.

When it comes to learning Polish…

ciężko is yin

spoko luz is yang.

If I struggled with the grammar or pronunciation and felt the weight and darkness of ciężko approaching, I would say my mantra – spoko luz – shake off the heaviness and give it another go.