Far, Far Away

To a child, sitting in the backseat of a car, the most important question is ‘how much further is it?‘ You can’t blame them for asking – Polish fairy tales often start with za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma rzekami… (over seven mountains, over seven rivers…), which builds the expectation that most places are pretty far away.

From an early age, we need to know how near or far something is… it’s no wonder that a language develops a rich set of words to describe such things.

Near

In English, travel agents promote hotels in holiday resorts by saying they are only ‘a stone’s throw‘ from the beach. And this is something you can check. Just walk out of the hotel, pick up a medium-sized stone and try to throw it as far as the beach. Of course, your hotel will only be a stone’s throw away from the police station if you injure someone, but if no one is around, then you can actually verify the advertising.

The equivalent expression in Polish – rzut beretem – intrigues me. If you want to say that something is close by, then why say it’s only a beret’s throw away? I assume you would have to toss the beret as if it were a Frisbee, otherwise it wouldn’t go very far. But why a beret? I guess you can throw a beret further than a woolly hat, but why choose headgear in the first place?

I’ve never associated the beret with Poland. It’s more commonly associated with France. Maybe this idiom is anti-French? Do Poles like to tease the French by throwing away their headgear? Is that why Napoleon didn’t hang around in Poland very long – because Maria Walewska kept throwing his funny hat out of the palace window?

A better hat would be those worn in Zakopane – I’m sure you could throw a ‘kapelusz góralski‘ quite far off the top of Giewont.

For advertising purposes, the expression rzut beretem is perfect if you’re promoting a hotel in the south of France. Saying the beach is only a beret’s throw away fits the cultural context. But it wouldn’t make any sense in Morocco where you would need to throw a fez and your hotel would need to be right on the beach to have any chance of hitting it.

Far

When you learn a foreign language sometimes you get jealous. You come across a word, expression or idiom that is so cool, poetic or funny that you wish you had it in your own language too. That’s how I feel about the following expressions – I wish we had them in English!

Both of them describe a far away backwoods, and they’re so much more poetic than in the middle of nowhere, boondocks or hinterland. There’s a children’s book called ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and these two expressions seem to fit into that world.

Tam gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc (out where the devil says goodnight) – this one is really creepy. I mean, if the devil was saying good morning or good afternoon, it would be scary, but the fact that he’s saying goodnight makes it especially dark… as if you wouldn’t want to visit that place because you don’t know whether you’d wake up the next day. I can just imagine the devil saying ‘night, night‘… and adding sarcastically… ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite‘.

devil3

At least the devil is polite enough to say goodnight… in person. You’d think a busy executive like the devil would delegate the job by sending some minor demon to wish you sweet dreams. But no, wherever this place is, it’s important enough that the devil gives it his personal attention.

Tam gdzie wrony zawracają (out where the crows turn back) – while the diabeł expression seems to increase the importance of the place, this expression makes it so unattractive that crows don’t even bother to fly there.

I love the implicit insult in this expression. Crows consume rubbish and carrion, but not even a crow would visit this place to scavenge. When I steal this expression, package it and export it to the UK, I’ll substitute seagulls for crows – they’re more numerous and even less fussy about what they eat… so the insult will sting even more!

But then again, by replacing crows with seagulls, the idiom would lose some of its darkness. After all, crows are associated with death, and if they turn back, what horrors must exist beyond that point?

So, in actual fact, I don’t need a fairy tale or holiday brochure to transport me to a far away place… that’s over seven hills… and over seven rivers.

When it includes the above expressions… all I need to is have a conversation in Polish!