Imperial Delusions

My first flat in Poland looked over a bunch of ramshackle huts arranged in rows. I asked my landlord what it was and he said it was a bazaar.

Being British, I grew up hearing and reading tales about our former empire. The adventures of British explorers, soldiers and administrators are popular and describe a world full of strange lands, exotic peoples and quirky cultures. It might be a bit misleading in the 21st century, but I was taught to associate foreign lands with Kipling’s the Jungle Book, the Arabian Nights and the search up the Zambezi river for Dr Livingstone.

So when I heard that there was a bazaar next to my block, my mind raced to ancient Persia, flying carpets and Ali Baba.

When you go to a foreign country, you expect things to be unfamiliar. Yet sometimes, those expectations can go too far and you discover that reality isn’t quite as weird as your own imagination.

So assuming that a Polish bazar was not unlike an Arabian bazaar, I decided to play it safe. For about a month I didn’t go anywhere near it just in case I got tricked out of all my zloties by a snake charmer.

When I finally did venture into the bazar, with my camera ready, it was a great disappointment. There were no oriental silks, no fortune-tellers, and no persistent camel salesmen – just lots of market stalls selling vegetables, shoes and pirated Cds.

No Ali Baba, only Ali Babcia!

pavilion

Another time, a friend suggested we meet at 7pm ‘by the pavilion next to the park‘. I showed up an hour late!

Why? Because I was looking through my imperial lenses again. Because I was looking for a fancy, exotic-looking building near the park. You see, in English, a pavilion is an elegant, often historic building that is used for leisure activities. In Brighton there’s an ornate building called the Royal Pavilion with domes and minarets that was modeled on Indian and Muslim architecture.

So for an hour I wandered around the park, like Livingstone in Africa, looking for splendid neo-colonial palace.

With this goal in mind, I completely overlooked the squat, flat-roofed building in one corner of the park. Whatever that was, it wasn’t a pavilion.

Eventually, I called my friend and she explained it was at the west side of the park. I went to the west-side. Still couldn’t find a pavilion. Called again, asking for more directions. In the end, we had to stay connected while my friend guided me to the pavilion as if I were blind.

I soon learned that in Poland a pawilon isn’t very exotic at all. It just a type of shopping centre in the middle of a housing estate. Just a glass-fronted, concrete box where the local chemists, grocery shops and dry-cleaners are.

No minarets, only mini-markets.

So for a while my colonial imagination confused me a little in Poland, and it took a while to calibrate my expectations to reality.

Yet language also played a part. It was the names given to particular places and buildings that gave me the wrong impression:

  • A galeria doesn’t exhibit paintings?
  • A bar mleczny doesn’t sell milkshakes?
  • and a pasaż doesn’t go anywhere?

If they’d just used dom handlowy instead of pawilon, I might have recognized it at once!

Oh and besides not getting used to its architectural appearance, I couldn’t get the pronunciation of pawilon right either.

To this day, I still say ‘pavilion’ instead of ‘pawilon‘ … for some reason, I just can’t get my tongue to make the switch.

So whenever I pop out to buy some bread or potatoes, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s in India, riding an elephant through a sea of natives towards the gleaming marble domes of an exotic, colonial palace.

Driving into Town

When you live in a country but don’t fully understand the language, there are times when you can’t tell the difference between a word and a name.

Take for instance, the first time I went sailing in Mazury. In the late afternoon, the rest of the crew would discuss in which port we would spend the night: ‘We could stay in Mikołajki, or go back to Wierzba or there’s always Trzcina.’ During the trip, I was surprised that Trzcina was always an option – whether we were in the northern lakes or down in the south. ‘Wherever this port of Trzcina is,’ I thought, ‘it must be pretty central because it’s only a couple of hours sailing from anywhere in the Masurian Lakes!’

It’s no different on the road.

In the same way that I thought Trzcina (reeds) was a port, a foreigner coming to Poland for the first time might think that Wita is name of a town in Poland. I’ve seen quite a few road signs on which the word Wita is printed in a bigger, bolder font that the actual place name.

Either that or a foreigner might think that Wita is another word to define a town like Dolny or Wielki. ‘We didn’t get much of a welcome in Olsztyn Wita so why don’t we look for some accommodation in Olsztyn instead?

Indeed, this is part of a wider issue for a non-native learner – in the final kilometre before any Polish town there are so many billboards, welcome signs, banners and advertisements that you can be overwhelmed.

So to help, I’ve prepared this short guide to arriving or leaving a Polish town:

Arriving

  • wita / witamy = either the town (wita) or its people (witamy) are welcoming you. Personally, I’ve always felt that witamy is a warmer version because it comes from the people. How exactly a town can welcome anyone I’ve never figured out.
  • zaprasza / zapraszamy = in this case, either the town or its inhabitants are inviting you over, but don’t worry, you are not expected to bring a gift.
  • miasto monitorowane = this literally means that the town uses surveillance equipment and often comes right after the witamy sign. Together these signs mean, ‘you’re welcome, but keep your hands where we can see them!’. Basically, the authorities don’t trust you not to break the law as you pass through.
  • warto zobaczyć – this presents three things that are worth seeing in the town. Always disregard the last one, it’s just there to make up the numbers.
  • witamy na ziemi…/ ziemia…wita = often a region or jurisdiction will welcome you, e.g. witamy na ziemi świętokrzyskiej. Foreigners might panic at first, thinking this is a message for aliens, welcoming them to the Planet Earth. Don’t worry, it just means ‘welcome to the land of…
  • miasta partnerskie – these are other places with which this town is twinned. If you’ve never heard of any of the towns mentioned, don’t worry, no one has!
  • EU Funds – finally, you might see something that looks more like an enlarged document than a street sign. You can ignore this, it’s just a receipt showing who paid for the pavement.

One challenge with these signs is that they tend to be covered in graffiti, so you might not know which town you’re in, but you will know which football team is trending.

Leaving

It’s the same story when you’re leaving town. Quite wisely, most towns don’t invest too much effort to say goodbye, however, there are some things it’s worth bearing in mind:

  • żegna / żegnamy – to me, this is more personal than do zobaczenia, especially żegnamy. However, if the town welcomed you on the way in (wita), but the people are saying goodbye (żegnamy), then it means that they’re glad to be rid of you.
  • zapraszamy ponownie – the townsfolk are inviting you back. However, if you noticed a miasta monitorowane sign on the way in and you broke a few driving laws, then I wouldn’t go back if I were you.
  • termination sign – in Poland, when leaving a town, there is a sign showing the town’s name with a red line through it. This looks very official as if the town just got cancelled by some bureaucracy. Don’t worry, the town will continue to exist, just not for you. We don’t have such signs in the UK. You just drive out of town without any fanfare. In Polish, there’s an idiom wyjść po angielsku (to leave in an English way) which means to ‘leave without saying goodbye to anyone‘. The same applies to towns and villages in the UK – they don’t say goodbye either.

Radom wita

Billboards & Banners

Finally, a word about billboards and banners. Polish towns extend a warm welcome, but their businesses welcome you and your wallet even more warmly. I must admit that there are so many billboards and banners lining the road into most places that I wonder whether there is a legal requirement, i.e. to register a business, you are obliged to erect a ugly billboard or sign on the road into town.

It seems that, in Poland, if you’re setting up a business, then you don’t have many choices for the company’s name. In fact, there are only 3 options:

1. -pol

The first option is patriotic. You use the suffix -pol to show the world that your business is 100% Polish. This is especially true if you sell food:

  • Szynkopol
  • Indykpol
  • Rybopol

For a logo, it’s common to use a cartoon of a pig, turkey, fish etc, happily dancing its way to the dinner table.

2. -ex / -bud

The second option is for a company that exports a product or service. In this case, it’s necessary to add -ex to the end of the name. The owners hope, rather optimistically, that this gives the company an international profile:

  • Dachmex
  • Żwirex
  • Paletex

The only exception is the construction industry, then it’s necessary to use bud in part of the name:

  • Drogbud
  • Słupbud

3. Two Guys

The final option is used if two Polish guys are setting up in business together. In this case you take one syllable from each of their first names and join them together:

  • Janmat = Janusz and Mateusz
  • Zendar = Zenon and Dariusz
  • Jarmar = Jarosław and Mariusz

To give another example, there’s a furniture company that operates in Poland called Juan. Because of the name, I assumed it was Spanish, but I later learned that it was set up by two guys from Warsaw called Jurek and Andrzej. Stupid me, forgot about the two guys rule!

If you are bored on a long journey, then you can play a game with these company names. It’s a great way to pass the time.

The rules are simple. The first passenger to spot a sign, billboard or banner with one of the above types of company names get the points. As you leave town, the person with the most points wins.

  • -pol = 1 point +  2 additional points if there’s a dancing turkey, fish, pig as a logo
  • -ex/bud = 2 points
  • two guys = 3 points (but you have to say which two names were used)

By the way, if you’re playing this for the first time, avoid Radom, it’s for advanced players only – you’ll have 30+ points before you get anywhere near the city!

The Alphabet Enigma

Ask a British person how many letters there are in the alphabet and they will instantly answer: twenty-six.

Ask a Polish person how many letters are in the Polish alphabet and they don’t know. Indeed, they don’t even care. The most typical responses are:

  • who cares?
  • never counted!
  • why would I need to know that?

In Britain everybody knows some basic facts – there’s 1 sun in the sky, 4 points on a compass, 12 months in a year, and the first thing you learn on your first day at school is that there are 26 letters in the alphabet.

In Poland, no seems to give a damn how many letters there are.

It’s weird, shocking, even scandalous, and whenever I express this to a Pole, they don’t see the problem.

Without knowing how many letters are in the language, how can you type an email, decode the enigma machine or do something really hard, like play Scrabble?

I guess part of my shock is connected with the fact that I, as a foreigner learning Polish, had to get to grips with many additional letters. Yet Poles don’t even know how many there are!

Another enigma that surrounds the Polish alphabet are the phantom letters Q, V and X. They’re not in the language, but they show up from time to time and this confuses me.

V, for instance, isn’t in the written language, but does exist in body language – I’ve seen many Poles holding up two fingers to show the V for victory gesture. Is this allowed? V isn’t even in the Polish alphabet. Shouldn’t they make a Z for zwycięstwo gesture by drawing a Z in the air… or would people think they’re referring to Zorro?

Then, there’s X which appears in the names of countless Polish firms from Budimex to Metalex, while Q is present in Latin words such as Quo Vadis. So do the letters Q, V and X exist, or don’t they?

Foolishly, I once agreed to play Scrabble in Polish. An English native-speaker gets a surprise straight out of the box when you see the points on the letter tiles. In the English version, Z is worth 10 points while in the Polish version it’s only worth 1. The other most valuable letter in English is Q, which is worth 10, but isn’t in the Polish version. My usual strategy for winning – waiting until I can place the word q-u-i-z on a triple word score – just wasn’t going to work.

scrabble

So I started with a short, simple word – just three letters J, U and Z to spell the Polish word for ‘soon‘:

Me: It’s on a triple word score, so 3 times 6 equals 18 points.

Opponent: There’s no such word, już is spelt with a Ż.

Me: Aren’t the Z’s interchangeable? I don’t have a Z with a dot.

Opponent: No, they’re completely different letters. One is worth 1 point while the other is worth 5.

Me: Oh come on. That’s pedantic. It’s the same letter. Looks the same, sounds the same and comes at the end of the alphabet.

Opponent: No, Z, Ż and Ź are different letters entirely.

Me: But I’m a foreigner, isn’t there’s some handicap system in which I can substitute a normal Z, S or C for the funny ones?

Opponent: No. They’re different letters. You can’t substitute a M for a W by turning it upside down!

Me: Fine, can I have ‘F-U-J?

Opponent: No, it’s not a word.

Me: Of course it is. That’s what foreigners say when they first see the Polish alphabet!

Okay I was being facetious – they look so cute that learners, when they first encounter the new letters, give them special names:

  • funny E
  • Z with a hat
  • A with a tail
  • L with a belt

I guess it’s because they look like Roman letters dressed up in Polish folk costumes with hats, belts, swords and feathers.

In Polish, some of the diacritical marks are called kropki and kreski (dots and dashes), and of course, dots and dashes are also found in Morse code…

…which makes me wonder…

…maybe Polish writing actually contains a hidden code?

Maybe thousands of encrypted messages are hidden in all those dots and dashes and funny tails?

I don’t want to sound paranoid, but what if the sentence ‘Czy świerszcze lubią jeździć na łyżwach?’ includes a hidden message to Polish readers, like ‘never let a foreigner beat you at Scrabble‘?

Just before World War II, when the Polish Army shared their intelligence on the Enigma machine with their British and French allies, did they share everything, or perhaps, did they keep something back?

Just like the number of letters in the Polish alphabet, and the phantom letters Q, V and X… it’s an enigma!

Cute Overload

I have one inhibition when speaking Polish.

It’s not that I’m concerned with making grammar mistakes. I don’t care if I get vocabulary mixed up. And it’s not about using the right declination.

The thing that I have a big inhibition about…is diminutives!

I just don’t feel comfortable speaking in a way that makes things small and cute.

The Polish language has a lot of tricky grammar, but one, often overlooked, challenge for learners is grasping diminutives. By saying kawka instead of kawa (coffee) or piesek instead of pies (dog), Poles have special ways of making things sound small, cute and fluffy.

There’s a website called Cute Overload – it’s just pictures of cats, dogs and other sweet animals. If you need a daily fix, this is the place to go. And sometimes that’s what Polish sounds like…cute overload!

Take for example the word kot. Now I do think that cats are pretty…but does Polish really need 15 words to talk about a cute cat?

9 cats

kot, kotek, koteczek, kotulek, kotuś, kocurek, kociak, kociaczek, kocię, kociątko, kicia, kiciulek, kiciuś, kocisko, kocur

In English we survive with just two cutesy words for cat, namely kitty and pussycat, but Poles either really like cats or no one is heartless enough to trim the dictionary.

I ask Polish friends to explain all of this, but it rarely helps:

Me: What’s the difference between kot, kocurek and kiciuś?

Pole: Well, a kocurek is a small, cute and fluffy cat.

Me: And a kiciuś?

Pole: It’s even smaller and more fluffy.

Me: Cuter too?

Pole: Oh yes.

There are so many words for cat that sometimes I get confused and think any word that starts with a ‘k’ is another kitty word. Kościuszko…is that the guy who lead an uprising in the 18th century or is it just another word for a pretty cat?

Polish kids learn all this language during the first few years of their lives. Foreigners, who try to learn Polish grammatical rules, have a harder time. Indeed, if you try and organize all the cat words into a sensible order, you end up with a table that even Mendeleev would struggle to understand:

table

And as a result of internet memes, there’s even a new addition: koteł. Will the list ever stop growing?

So coming back to my inhibitions, I’m actually okay using diminutives when referring to kittens, puppies and froggies, but I have a harder time when it comes to non-living things – kawka, herbatka, łyżeczka, kanapeczka (coffee, tea, spoon, sandwich). It just feels silly to make an inanimate object all small and fluffy. If I just want milk in my coffee, do I need to say that I want it z mleczkiem (with a wee dash of milky-wilky)?

One consequence of this is that I’ve been told that I’m too serious when speaking Polish. Maybe I sound like a cyborg, speaking like a robot in a serious, neutral tone.

So anyway, I have lots of doubts and questions about these Polish diminutives:

  • Is it rude to respond with a different level of cutesiness? If someone offers me kawka and I, like a cyborg, say ‘yes, I’d like some kawa’, is that rude?
  • Are there any objects that are so big that you can’t make them small and cute? Godzilleczka? Mount Everestek? Kosmosek?
  • Is it possible to use contradictory diminutives, i.e. making extreme words sound less extreme? For instance, ogromienki, wrogeczek, katastrofka?
  • Why is the diminutive form often longer and uglier than the original word? e.g. cukiereczek, filiżaneczka, kanapeczka.
  • Why are some diminutives actually completely different things? For instance, the diminutive of cukier (sugar) is cukierek (hard-boiled sweet) while the diminutive of zegar (clock) is zegarek (watch).
  • Why does the word mały (small) have its own diminutives – maluteńki, maleńki, malutki, malusieńki? Isn’t this taking things just a drobniuteńko too far?
  • Scottish English has the word ‘wee’ meaning small, e.g. the best translation of wódeczka is a wee vodka. Can’t Polish just have one word for all of this?

And finally, one last question, why does the Polish language need 15 words to describe a cute cat?

The Polish Butcher

On a warm July evening we sat in the garden of a friend’s summer house. In the growing darkness the only illumination was a lamp on the wall of the cottage, which acted as a magnet for insects from the local forest. Moths and flies flew in circles while beetles and bugs crawled up the cottage wall towards the source of light.

I noticed something huge…slowly making it’s way up the wall…and now it was only a few centimetres from my friend’s head. I had to warn her.

Emm, Ola…uważaj bo blisko twoja głowa jest ogromny koń polowy.

(Look out Ola because there’s a huge field horse near your head).

She looked surprised, but turned around to see what I was referring to. Realising that it was only a harmless grasshopper, she started laughing, ‘Kon polowy!’ and the rest of the group started giggling too.

koń

In English we have an idiomatic expression to butcher a language, i.e. to cut it into pieces until there’s just a big mess. Well, I’ve been butchering Polish for years…changing the word order, inventing completely new expressions, combining words that shouldn’t be combined, adding sounds to the pronunciation of words and using expressions in the wrong context. What’s left after this butchery is a bit of a dog’s dinner. Honestly, it’s never been my goal to speak perfect Polish, but to have fun interacting with Poles. I usually give them a good laugh.

Of course, when you want to warn someone that a huge bug is about to jump on their face, it’s useful to use the right vocabulary. Saying that a horse (koń) is climbing the wall instead of a grasshopper (konik polny) helps to get the listener’s attention…even if it doesn’t convey the correct level of danger.

But these mistakes are logical. I mean, I knew that the Polish word for grasshopper was related to a horse! And it was such a big grasshopper than the diminutive konik just didn’t do it justice. So, there’ some rational behind my butchery…I hope.

For instance, when someone says dziękuję, I always respond with proszuję. I prefer it when one expression mirrors the other.

Or with the word order in the sentence nic się nie stało… even when 55,000 Polish football fans are singing this in the National Stadium, I still can’t get the word order right. Switching the order of nie and się, I always say nic nie się stało. But, Polish word order is supposed to be flexible, isn’t it? … so don’t blame me if I take liberties.

Then there are words into which I add additional sounds…they just sound better to my ears. Most often this involves adding the letter z into words connected to animals:

  • pajęczy-z-na (pajęczyna / spider’s web)
  • ro-z-pucha (ropucha / toad)

Finally, Polish has too many comparative expressions and I only have enough free memory space for one…which happens to be the shortest and simplest: jak bela (as a bale) which is used in the expression pijany jak bela (drunk as a bale)

Now I compare everything to a bale:

  • szybki jak bela (fast as a bale)
  • zimno jak bela (cold as a bale)
  • lubić kogoś jak bela (to like someone as much as a bale)

and just assume that the listener understands that I mean ‘a lot’ or ‘very’.

So I butcher Polish…which works for me… but that’s not good news for those around me.

I live in Poland and interact in Polish around 90% of the time. The consequence of this is that my Polish skills improve, while the Polish of those I interact with gets worse!

Those friends from the summer house also use the expression kon polowy from time to time.

And my wife got so used to jak bela that she started to use it herself. Now we both use jak bela. It’s a nice shortcut, but, technically, her Polish is now worse.

So I invite you to start using jak bela too.

I wait for the day when it spreads out into society and I hear it in everyday situations. For instance, when I visit the doctor and he or she says, after completing the medical examination, that I’m zdrowy jak bela or when I’m watching football on TV and the commentator says Rasiak walczył jak bela.

I’ll be able to laugh and say…hah!…I started that…that’s my creative butchery!

HodgePodż

It’s hard work learning Polish.

At school I had learned German, which was easier because a lot of the vocabulary is similar to English. For instance, I didn’t have to learn the words for buch, finden or fussball – it’s like I got those ones for free. In Polish, however, the equivalent words are książka, odnaleźć and piłka nożna! For an English speaker there are no freebies when you learn Polish. You have to work hard for every word.

And that’s usually one advantage of having English as your mother tongue. Over the past 1500 years English has evolved or borrowed from so many different languages that you can expect some freebies when you’re learning any foreign tongue…except for Polish.

There’s an English expression hodgepodge (originally borrowed from French) which means a confused mixture of different things. And that’s how I’d describe the English language.

English started as a Germanic language, adopted Norse grammatical structures, then borrowed loads of words from Latin and French. During colonial times, it adopted words from various British colonies around the world: pyjamas (India), tomato (Aztec/Mexcio), and totem (Native American). Indeed, English has borrowed so many words from French that in Paris there’s a saying that English is a language for stupid French people.

But, returning to the challenge of learning Polish, I must say that first impressions can be deceptive. As you listen to Polish more and more, you start to hear English words in Polish sentences:

  • Dżinsy czy szorty?  (jeans or shorts)
  • On jest prawdziwym dżentelmenem  (he’s a real gentleman)
  • To jest mityng lekkoatletyczny  (it’s an athletics meeting)

And when an English-speaker learns how to spell particular sounds in Polish, then suddenly the English language magically reappears:

  • Dżungla…wait a second…is that the place where snakes and monkeys live?
  • I’m supposed to do what? Click on ‘lajkować’…ah… you mean the thumbs-up symbol.
  • A guy who rides a horse is a dżokej? Łał.

Previously I complained that there are no freebies when learning Polish…but that’s changing…and fast! Polish is acquiring English words at such a huge rate that in future a learner will only need to learn a few spelling rules to master the language!

Now I understand why Polish has borrowed words connected to modern technology – fejsbuk, hejter, smartfon – they’re new to English as well. But there are some words that Polish has borrowed from English that surprise me. Why did you borrow flirt, fair or weekend? Aren’t there Polish words for these?

hybryda_jpg

Whatever the reason, like the English language, Polish is becoming a hodgepodge…or should that be a hodżpodż?

So, to add to the hodżpodż, I offer you the following hybrid verb, a combination of the Polish verb przesadzać and the English verb to exaggerate.

przesadzerate, verb – when a Pole pessimistically predicts the death of the Polish language due to the influx of English words

Władysław: Język polski umiera

Rajan: Don’t przesadzerate!

Begging for Bilets

I remember the first time I tried to buy a ticket for public transport in Poland. I knew that you got them from those Ruch kiosks, and I knew what to say – I had the expression ‘bilet poproszę‘ (one ticket please) written on a scrap of paper in my pocket. There was a couple of minutes until the next bus. All set. What could possibly go wrong?

I approached the kiosk and the first thing I noticed was that the only opening was a small window at waist height. To communicate with the person inside, I had to bend forwards and turn my head sideways. Immediately I was in a submissive position, bent over like a servant as if I were begging at the feet of a king.

Through the small window, I could see someone inside. Although I couldn’t see his face, I could see the torso and hands of a man, who was sitting next to a heater and reading a magazine. It felt like I was interrupting.

kiosk

I cleared my throat and reading from my scrap of paper, I said ‘bilet poproszę

Instantly, the man inside the kiosk said ‘nie ma‘.

It was at this moment that I froze.

Coming from the UK, I am used to a high-level of politeness in customer service. If something is not available, then the shop assistant will say something like ‘sorry we don’t have any tickets, but if you go 100 yards down the street, you can find a shop that sells them.’ In this way, even if a shop assistant can’t help you, they at least pretend to.

What’s more, the shop assistant will usually respond by apologising and give the impression of regretting the fact that they can’t provide a customer with what they need. In the tone of their voice, you’ll also be able to hear a sense of empathy as if they were stepping into your shoes and feeling the same disappointment as the customer.

So I paused…waiting for the man in the kiosk to let me know where else I could get a ticket or when they would be back in stock. Anything to help me on my way.

But the guy in the kiosk said nothing…he just continued reading the magazine.

And the way he had said ‘nie ma‘… responding even before I’d finished saying ‘poproszę’. His response lasted a fraction of a second and it didn’t seem that he was going to put any more effort into the interaction. There was no empathy in his tone, no sense of regret. It was a simple statement of fact – there weren’t any tickets.

Yet my brain was so used to a familiar cultural pattern that I didn’t know what to do when the pattern was broken. I was stuck for a moment in a state of disbelief.

The bus arrived, some passengers got out, other got on. The bus departed.

But I was still at the kiosk, frozen in a bent-over position …slowly realising that I wasn’t going to get an apology, empathy, advice….and definitely not a ticket.

Reflections

  • I laughed when I later found out that ‘Ruch‘ means ‘movement‘…I associated it with being stuck and going nowhere.
  • I once wondered what it would be like if Ruch ran a project to train kiosk workers in customer service. Would the service be transformed? Probably not. Instead of a two-word reply, he’d just try and sell me stuff I didn’t need…only more politely.
  • Actually, a kiosk is a good place for a beginner to test their language skills in real world. You get a short, clear response to your questions – kiosk workers don’t tend to bamboozle you with long sentences or complex expressions.
  • Ruch has modernised their kiosks and in the most modern ones you can actually make eye contact with the person inside…without bending over. Opposite my apartment we even have a Ruchsalon handlowy‘…that’s what they call a kiosk you can walk three paces into.
  • Since that day I’ve had quite a few experiences in Poland in which the level of customer service I received didn’t live up to my expectations. I must say that I prefer the British style of interacting with customers. Customer service in the UK is polite and empathetic – very much focused on the relationship with the customer…but sometimes it’s also false. ‘Sorry, we don’t have any tickets, maybe if you try up the street?,’ is a just a polite way of saying ‘no, go somewhere else‘.
  • I hear lots of complaints about the quality of customer service in Poland, but there is one thing about it that I do appreciate…it’s honest. If there aren’t any tickets, then they’ll tell you that. No sugarcoating, no sales pitch, no pretense.

Nie ma.

Idioms for Dinner

Idioms can be confusing, especially if you understand the words literally. Often I jump to conclusions about what a Polish idiom means and end up getting it completely wrong.

The worst thing is… I tend to remember the wrong meaning more vividly than the actual one.

So here’s a small sample of Polish idioms I’ve misunderstood – all connected with food:

1. Wpaść jak Śliwka w Kompot

This is translated as ‘to get into hot water‘ and I like it because it’s so Polish. In the UK, we don’t have kompot and plums aren’t a popular fruit, so to understand this idiom you need to come to Poland and take a look at a jug of kompot.

śliwki

Do the plums in a kompot jug look like they are in trouble? When I first came across this idiom I assumed, incorrectly, that it meant to be in a comfortable, familiar situation. Shouldn’t plums feel at home in a jug of kompot? After all, the plums are with friends! What’s more, I don’t think a plum in kompot is in that much danger. A lot of the fruit gets left behind once the kompot is drunk. I’d rather be a plum in kompot than a plum in jam or in bigos.

2. Jak Flaki z Olejem

Literally, this means ‘as tripe with oil‘. I had been offered flaki (tripe) many times in Poland (which I politely refused) before I came across this idiom. So I associated flaki with something very ugly…even a little exotic…and frankly disgusting.

So when I came across the idiom, I assumed it meant either disgusting or ugly. In English we have an expression that something looks like a ‘dog’s dinner‘, meaning that it’s a mess or really horrible to look at. I figured flaki z olejem meant the same.

I was surprised when I later saw the idiom in its full version ‘nudny jak flaki z olejem‘ which is best translated by the English idiom: ‘dull as ditch water’.

Now I feel sorry for all those Poles who had to eat tripe for every meal so that it became the definition of boredom!

3. Bułka z Masłem

I first heard this idiom when listening to a shanty in the port of Sztynort in Mazury. Maybe it was the context that fooled me because the shanty was about a sailor who survived a storm, reached Sztynort and ate a bread roll with butter. So I assumed its meaning was connected to safety or stability. You know, the kind of thing a fireman would say after it turns out that there’s no bomb in the building. ‘It’s okay, just a false alarm, everything is safe and we can all go home and eat a bread roll with butter‘.

Of course, bułka z masłem actually means that something is ‘easy/simple‘. I guess it’s pretty straightforward to spread butter on a roll, but it’s not so easy to understand why it was included in that shanty.

Curiously, the English language also uses food idioms to describe something that’s easy:

  • a piece of cake (UK)
  • as easy as pie (US)

…except both are a bit more posh than the Polish bułka.

In Conclusion

The Polish language is full of great food idioms. Indeed, you could eat a three-course meal consisting of idiomatic foods only:

Client: What do you recommend?

Waiter: Well for a starter, I recommend flaki z olejem.

Client: No, that’s a bit boring. Anything else?

Waiter: Perhaps…dwa grzyby w barszczu?

Client: Barszcz is fine, but I’ll just have one grzyb..save some room for desert.

Waiter: As you wish. For the main course, we have some niezły bigos.

Client: Perfect, I’ll have the bigos. Can you serve it with bread and butter?

Waiter: Dla nas to jest bułka z masłem.

Client: I’d prefer bread if you have it.

Waiter: And for desert, the icing on the cake, wisienka na torcie.

Client: Delicious.

Waiter: Anything to drink?

Client: Kompot…with plums?

Waiter: Certainly…and I assure you that no plums were harmed in the making of the kompot.

Polish Idioms#1 – Cats

Idioms are mysterious…especially those in a foreign language. Why do they have this particular meaning? Where did they come from? Do people really use them?

In a way, idioms are like internet memes. At some point in history, someone created an expression that ‘went viral’ and became part of the language.

So I’ve decided to write some posts about my favourite Polish idioms – organized by category – to begin with…cats!

1. pierwsze koty za płoty

I first came across this idiom at work. Together with a colleague we were running a series of training sessions. After the first session had finished and the participants were leaving the room, my colleague said ‘pierwsze koty za płoty‘.

I could see that she was referring to the group of participants that were leaving the conference room. ‘Ah-hah,’ I thought, ‘we’re chasing the cats out of our garden. I wonder why? Maybe the cats were doing their business in the flower beds and we wanted to keep them away from the roses?” I assumed the idiom meant ‘to get rid of unwanted visitors’ like when it’s late and you want the party guests to leave so you can go to bed.

I later learned that the idiom actually means to complete the first step in a series of challenging tasks. And actually, in English we have a similar expression to describe a difficult task: it’s like herding cats.

2. kupować / kupić kota w worku

In English we have an idiom with the exact same meaning: ‘to buy a pig in a poke‘ (a poke is a bag or sack).

Despite using different animals, these two idioms are related. They both refer to a trick played in the middle ages in which a seller would sell what they claimed was a pig in a sack, but it was actually a cat. The buyer, if they didn’t check the contents first, would buy a cat, which is worth a lot less than a pig.

Incidentally, in English, we have another idiom – to let the cat out of the bag – which means to reveal hidden information / plans, and is directly related to the same trick. If you open the bag, reveal the cat, then you have exposed the trick. Curiously, this second cat idiom doesn’t seem to exist in Polish. Perhaps in Poland there’s better customer service and you simply return the kot and get a refund?

3. odwracać kota ogonem

I can visualise most idioms and imagine them in a scene (cats, fences, bags etc), but I just can’t picture this one.

I came across it in a comment posted under an interview with a politician. The commentator claimed that the politician had turned the cat around by its tail.

I checked the dictionary and discovered what it meant (twist everything around), but I couldn’t visualise how you would do it? Is the cat facing you or the listener? Do you turn the cat around sideways or flip it over like a hamburger? And how to avoid getting scratched?

When taking our cat to the vet, I struggle to get it into a cat carrier. How skillful do you need to be to turn the cat by its tail? Perhaps there is a YouTube video with ‘how to’ instructions?

I can understand how the first two idioms became part of the Polish language – they make sense – but this one? If it meant ‘doing something impossible‘ or ‘perform a miracle‘, then I could understand. But it describes a skill that someone can achieve. Wow!

4. kot po kupie

According to Katarzyna Mosiołek-Kłosińska*, there are 32 Polish idioms about cats and most of them portray cats as difficult or devious. Fortunately, the modern world appreciates cats much more – there are literally millions of cat pictures, videos and memes online. Indeed, a scientific study found that people who watch cat videos online feel more energetic and positive.

kot

Having two cats ourselves, my wife and I have created our own Polish cat idiom. After visiting the cat litter, our cats get a sudden burst of energy or joy and sprint through the apartment at top speed. Hence our proposal for a new cat idiom:

jak kot po kupie (like a cat after a crap) – meaning to be happy and energetic

  • Jak się masz?
  • Świetnie – Jak kot po kupie.

 

  • How you feeling?
  • Never better. I feel like a cat after a crap.

 

Will it become part of the Polish language? Probably not. I’m sure there were millions of failed idioms that didn’t catch on and died. But it’s worth trying.

 

*Katarzyna Mosiołek-Kłosińska, Motywacja Związków Frazeologicznych Zawierających Wyrazy „Pies” i „Kot”, [w:] Etnolingwistyka, tom 7, Uniwersytet Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej, Wydział Humanistyczny, Lublin 1995, s. 21 – 31.

The Sesame Street Strategy

Young kids are best at learning languages. But as adults we often forget all those techniques and strategies we used to learn our first language.

So when it came to learning Polish, I adopted some childlike strategies.

1. Name Tags

The first books that children read only contain names and pictures – cat, ball, bee etc – so that they can learn to associate words with things.

If only the real world had labels.

When I rented my first apartment in Warsaw, the first thing I did was to decorate it… using post-it notes!

polak

I labeled everything….and I mean absolutely every object in the apartment with its Polish name: łóżko, lodówka, szafa, podłoga (that one didn’t survive long), lustro, obraz, kwiatek. The entire apartment was covered in yellow post-it notes. At the time I hadn’t heard of Złota Polska Jesień, but that’s what the apartment looked like. When I opened a window the entire flat rustled like a chestnut tree in autumn.

Incidentally, Ikea should launch a line of furniture with labels where a language learner can write the name of the item in the foreign language they are learning. I’m sure it would it be a top seller.

2. The Count

In Sesame Street (Ulica Sezamkowa) there’s a Dracula-like character called ‘the Count’. Because his purpose is to teach children numbers, he counts everything. During my first few months in Poland, I adopted his strategy.

I prepared a water-proof cheat-sheet listing polish numbers from 1 to 500. I hung it in the bathroom so I could count in Polish while going through my bathroom routine every morning.

Typical counts:

  • Brushing my teeth – pięćdziesiąt
  • Showering – sto czterdzieści (dziewięćdziesiąt dziewięć if I was in a hurry)
  • Drying myself – trzydzieści

Most people only use this Sesame Street strategy to count the number of coffees they’ve drunk that morning. If you want to learn a foreign language, then I recommend extending it to your daily routine.

3. Copying

Children don’t learn their native language from textbooks with grammar exercises. They simply listen to what their parents or siblings say and copy it. I decided to adopt the same strategy. I would listen to Polish native speakers and copy what they said. Listen and copy, listen and copy.

So while traveling on the metro, I (and the rest of the children in the wagon) would repeat the names of the stations as they were announced. Or when a colleague ordered zupa pomidorowa in a restaurant, I’d order the same.

The one downside to this approach was that the person I mostly copied was my Polish girlfriend, so I ended up using the feminine form of most verbs. So instead of saying zadzwoniłem, I learned to say zadzwoniłam etc. But still, it was a step forward.

This strategy is more effective if you copy more than just the words. If you mimic the tone, the intonation and especially the emotion of the speaker, then not only is your pronunciation better, but you also start to get a feel for the language.

So when a cashier in a grocery shop asked for change, I would repeat the word ‘drobne‘ with the same world-weary tone of frustration and really feel the pain of not having enough tens, fives and ones.