Monday, 30 March 2009

Pardon my... er ... French?

We've been learning Polish for almost two years now, girls and boys, and it's time to address the sticky topic of register.

I've already covered some of the problems of the second person formal [loud snoring noises] here.
Admittedly in the wrong language, but let's consider it covered. No, when I talk about register, this time I mean Naughty Words, things that you wouldn't tell your babcia, potoczna polszczyzna.

I don't know about you, but I find it impossible to swear in a foreign language. Maybe this means that I have yet to fully 'internalise' my languages. On the other hand, I want to speak 'real' Polish, French and Italian, as naturally as possible, and it would feel highly unnatural to bang my knee on the table and shout anything other than 'f*cking hell!'.

Pani Kinga, who teaches mówienie, explained that there are three circumstances under which everyone reverts automatically to their native language: swearing, counting (really important! think about it) and prayer (even if you're not religious: everyone says 'Oh God' or 'Oh help!' on occasion). I'd be inclined to agree - except when counting salsa steps, which are etched in my mind as 'raz, dwa, trzy ... pięć, sześć, siedem'. I now have trouble remembering to include 'cztery' when counting in Polish at the market, for example.

I think part of the problem is that profanity is expressed in different formats in various languages. In English, obviously - and I'm assuming everyone knows how to swear in English: isn't it the first thing you look up when you buy your first dictionary aged thirteen and a half? - expletives come in the form of nouns and adjectives. Verbs are less common. French, on the other hand, has alternative verbs to faire: instead of doing something, you're f*cking doing it. Or something like that. The Italians have a complex system of metaphorical blasphemy: porca miseria is already very expressive, but from what I've heard things can get even more convoluted. Various saints and Madonnas are compared to various lowly animals, and it even sounds pretty, whereas our more Anglo-Saxon expressions tend towards the onomatopoeic.

Polish I'm only just starting to get used to. Obviously there's the universal Slavic ejaculation (my keyword stats for this post are going to be awesome). Apparently this can be squeezed into a sentence a lot more than you'd think, in several different permutations.

But then there's a family of verbs as well, with various suffixes and prefixes, all of which make me think of various kinds of pepper - although that's probably just a quirk of the frontal lobes. I simply have to be careful when seasoning in company.
My own PL-EN dictionary tending to the prudish, I was forced to resort to the famous I was surprised to find some helpful synonyms and explanations: 'pranie mózgu', 'dostać surową reprymendę'; 'bezsensowne zajęcie'; 'wyraz ostrej odmowy'. However, I still don't understand how you can say 'ja... (wyrażam ostrej odmowy)'. I'd be happier with a nice impersonal noun or something if I were going to express my irritation/frustration/total lack of engagement with the task underway.

And then there's another expression that I learnt quite recently. I have trouble understanding how this works as well, because it doesn't refer to bodily excretions, interpersonal relations or the anatomy of anyone's mother. Basically it seems to mean 'awesome', only not just 'awesome', but 'really f*cking awesome in a way you wouldn't express in front of your grandmother'.

At the language school, we are taught on a 'good cop, bad cop' basis. On the one hand, we have loooong grammar lessons in which we sit in silence and read out sentences in turn from a brick of a volume bearing the incongruous title 'Przygoda z gramatyką'. I often pack it in my handbag if I'm planning to walk home late at night through the Planty. Our good cop is a young phd student who teaches with worksheets, videos, role-play and plenty of pictures for the hard of thinking. As it happens, we often find ourselves writing imaginary advertisements, posters and general marketing blurb, and today was a typical example: we were instructed to write a short piece of publicity for an imaginary gadget, allocated in secret on a slip of paper. It was the end of a long session which had started at eight thirty in the morning, and no-one was really concentrating.

One of the quieter girls in our class started to read out her composition, in polite, measured tones:
'Do you like to swim? Do you love music? Why not try our new underwater headphones? For just 150 zloty you can continue to enjoy your favourite songs wherever you might be: in the pool, on the beach.... your holidays will be (to use the translation) bitching!

Peals of laughter shook the room and our classmate looked extremely embarrassed, but when it came to choosing our favourite product at the end of the class, she won hands down.

Which just goes to show I suppose that the best marketing is memorable marketing.

Maybe I should change my CV: 'pinolona, bloody fantastic translator'...

How to curse elegantly in French, as demonstrated in Matrix Reloaded

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Who the **** is Marek?

I left Kraków originally in June last year, and when I came back to visit in October, I managed (thankfully) to revive my old SimPlus card, with a little help - and a lot of please hold - from the Plus GSM store in Galeria Krakowska.

Upon opening my address book (when I finally found it on my rather confusing new phone), it slowly dawned upon me that I was completely unable to remember which numbers corresponded to which acquaintances.
My contact list looked a little something like this**:

The Cs were largely occupied by Anglo-Americans, which was no less confusing.

Now, I admit that a fair proportion of my English address book consists of Jo, Jo, Jo, Matt, Matt, Chris, Chris, but somehow it doesn't seem nearly as bad, really.

Worse still, several of the names come in work/non-work pairs. The potential for drunken disaster is overwhelming. I have long advocated the invention of a telephone breathalyser, or an alcohol-lock function on Outlook, and I suspect that Poland will be the first to develop one.

Maybe it's the fact that everyone has to be named after a saint, or maybe that the parents of my acquaintance en masse decided to name their children the same to save on imienia parties. Or maybe I'm just foreign and unused to it. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that there are just a handful of popular Polish names distributed across the whole population, and it's very confusing.
If I were a Polish parent, I would give my kids exciting, weighty names like 'Jagoda' and 'Bogumił'. I think it would be character building, particularly in an inner London comprehensive.

However, the name game can work in your favour... and here's an example:

On Saturday night we were out in the town centre celebrating my flatmate's birthday. Around eleven, we started to feel a healthy urge to leave our nice, cosy bar in search of psuedo-R'n'B, convulsive strobe lighting and a dancefloor sticky with the spilled remains of overpriced cocktails.

It turned out that one of our group planned to meet some friends at a new club on Szewska. She invited us along.
A mass of heaving bodies crammed itself into the passageway leading to our club (upstairs) and its neighbour (in the basement). I looked up at the arched ceiling and prepared for a long wait.
But no... wait... our party had already disappeared into the crowd ahead. I pushed my way through.
- Yes she's with us,
The doorman taped a pink bracelet onto my wrist and even let me keep my bottle of Kropla Beskidu (this got me thrown out of Łubudubu once. Or possibly Kitsch. I can't remember which is which).
We trooped up the steps and into and out of the szatnia and even managed to find a table. No sooner had we sat down and wiped the gloop off the cocktail menu than the club hostess showed up, a look of concern on her face. The music was loud and I couldn't hear a thing, but within minutes everyone got up and moved in the direction of a door off the dance floor.

- We're going to the VIP room!
- The VIP room?

I had never before in my life been in a VIP room. I am not normally inclined to 'club'.

The hostess opened the door and ushered us in.

The walls were quilted with silver satin-effect padding. Shiny cushions in a feverish shade of crimson slipped off the leather seating. Dewy young flesh slid lasciviously across a flat television screen at one end of the windowless den. I checked over my shoulder for the Ukrainian mafia.

- Uh... which of you is Marek? asked the hostess.

- Marek? I whispered
- K's friend: it's his birthday, we're in because she knows him.
- Ah.

We ordered dacquiris and beer and settled back rather awkwardly on the slippery cushions, wondering whether to thank the as yet unknown Marek.

About half an hour and a cocktail or two later, the hostess came back.

- Just when is Marek planning to arrive?
We assured her that he was on his way and then turned to K:
- You do actually know Marek, don't you? You didn't just make him up?

And here's the thing. What are the chances of it being the birthday of someone called Marek in any given club in town on any Saturday night? Surely if you take one name per weekend and try each venue, eventually you'll manage to get the right name on the right day at the right place? Better still, why not increase your chances of success and pick name days?

Maybe Polish names aren't so confusing after all...

* I really apologise for my continually worsening English. I can only blame legal translation and the fact that I occupy a significant part of each day kaleczeniem języka polskiego razem z innymi obcokrajowcymi. You see what I mean.
** names have been changed - ha ha - to protect identity. Although I'm pretty certain I do know three Asias, I can think of at least four Barteks and maybe two Anias.

Friday, 20 March 2009

How to get lost in Katowice

- Yes, hello?
Said the girl at the hotel reception desk.
- I'm getting the train back to Kraków, how do I get to the station?
I asked, in what I hoped was reasonably comprehensible Polish.

The girl's face changed and she switched into Polish. I was so pleased with myself and relieved that I forgot to listen properly to her reply.

I said goodbye to my colleague and left the building.

Across the car park... sure. Down the road... now which way was that? Left to the main road or right down that half-constructed track? I opted for the main road: left or right? A guy passed me, walking two of those German husky-type dogs of which apparently everyone in Silesia owns a small family. He turned left. I followed him, because people walking dogs in the middle of nowhere are normally on their way home to civilisation, right?

I followed him a little further. 'There's a tram stop after about three minutes'. Three minutes, or three kilometres? Or 300 metres? Or was it 'three tram stops to the centre'? I started to notice houses by the side of the road. The pavement was getting broader and the road itself narrower. I continued down the hill. There was a church on the other side of the road. A road led off the the left, with smokey-grey blocks of flats on either side. I had heard of Katowice's phantom town centre. Was this it, or was I heading straight into suburbia?

Finally! The road I was following reached a sort of square with a rather mangy park in the middle. And around it: tram tracks!

Turning onto the next street, I noticed a single red tram carriage parked on the corner. The driver was standing on the verge, smoking a cigarette.

- Excuse me, where's the station?
- The station? Over there, look, there.
He pointed vaguely in the direction of some red and white stripey tents on the other side of the square. Right... I must have looked doubtful.
- You mean the bus station, right? No? Ah, no, the train station is over there.
He pointed further in the same vague direction.

I thanked him and made my way across the square.

The red tents were not a bus station, but a covered market.

I looked back at the stationary tram and its driver and wondered where exactly the tram stop was. Tracks led further down the hill on the other side of the square. I followed them.

Finally! ul. Dworcowa! And a bridge! And electrical cables! And actual real moving traffic and people!

I almost ran in the direction of the station... and found only kiosks and a shell of a building. A sign directed me down a dark, slippery set of stairs leading deep into the bowels of the Silesian soil.
Exactly three strip lights were illuminated on the left hand side of the tunnel. The rest was in darkness. I occasionally have dreams where I'm walking down a dark path or into a dark tunnel, knowing that somewhere in the pitch black lurks a malignant masculine force ready to drag me down into the nothingness... The underpass in Katowice station promptly recalled those nightmares.

- Proszę jeden do Krakowa.
- Osobowy?
- uhhh...
- Kiedy Pani chce jechać?
- uh.... teraz?
- Trzynaście złotych

In this part of Poland - and I love PKP, don't get me wrong - you can travel on the slow regional train, the very slow regional train, or the Superfast Shiny EuroCity train, which looks just like the slow regional trains but you have to book a seat in advance. I assume that the lady sold me a ticket for the very, very slow train, because once I was all settled on the next train back to Kraków, with Relaxing Classics playing on my rather poor excuse for an mp3 player and Dom Dzienny, Dom Nocny at least open on the seat beside me (don't get excited, I started reading it in October), along came the ticket inspector.

The two schoolteachers and the young man also occupying the carriage held out their tickets. I was relieved to see that they looked similar to mine.

Dziękuję... said the ticket inspector... dzięnkuję Pani bardzo... dziękuję, ah!
He took another look at my ticket.
- Nie do końca Pani dziękuję...

It would seem that I am not able to tell the difference between the slow regional train and the very slow regional train.

Fortunately the rest of the journey passed uneventfully and I was relieved to get back to the flat finally for some relaxing proofreading.

Can anybody tell me why it is that Polish people on trains, after sharing a compartment for almost two hours without even making eye contact with their fellow travellers, still consider it impolite to leave the train at the end of the journey without saying 'Do widzenia'? As if in acknowledgement of some kind of shared experience...

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Safety in numbers

Or not, as the case may be.

There's currently a debate going on at the obwarzanki stand outside the school (the one up, rather than down, the road). It regards a matter of some importance to the health and well-being of the students, namely how to order the famous Kraków pretzels.

You'd have thought I'd have had enough experience at this already, but it seems I may have been getting it wrong all along (this may explain the hostility of the Bad Obwarzanki Lady).

During a break between classes today we stood anxiously by the pretzel-stand, waiting for the Good Obwarzanki Lady to come back from her coffee break, or from the loo, or from getting change, or from wherever it was she had absconded to.

- You know what, said my fellow-student, I think the numbers change when you're asking for something...
- What?! Again?
- Well you see, my friend is in level B2, and he said that there's this special rule for when you're asking for one thing... you have to decline it in biernik... or is it genitive...

I was horrified. I really thought that buying food was the one area I'd got totally under control.

-Why is that? Is it the numbers? Or is it because you're asking for it?

See, I know that when you ask for something, like 'proszę o gazetę', you use the accusative, but since 'obwarzanek' and 'precle' are masculine and neutral respectively (aren't they??) the ending shouldn't change.

- I think it's to do with single objects. If it's a quantity, like 'chleb', that's different.
- So... every time I ask for 'jabłko', I should actually be asking for 'jabłka'?
- I'm not sure... maybe.

We fell silent, contemplating the elevated mysteries of level B2.

Can any helpful Polish readers clarify things for us?

Monday, 9 March 2009

Picture thief

Hurrying back to school down Grodzka in the grey afternoon chill, I was approached from the right by a shaven-headed young man in a green military jacket. Now, having lived near two major tram stops in Kraków, I've become adept at side-stepping those poor souls who have to stand in the rain every day handing out ulotki. However, this particular character was not in fact a slave to the publicity machine: rather, he was handing out small cards displaying pictures of the late Pope John Paul II.

Since it would have been rude to say no to The Pope, I took the card and hurried on before crew-cut guy had time to start his spiel.
Contrary to my expectations, my picture-purveying friend began to hurry after me, aggressively pushing another card towards me and muttering something that I couldn't quite catch.

It is my custom, when pursued by strange men in the street, to run.

(this may be why I don't have a boyfriend)

Crew-cut guy shouted in outrage and began to chase after me; I dashed across the street, picking up the pace, but he cornered me on the pavement beyond St Peter and St Pauls' church. By this time a few particles of reason had filtered through the fight or flight hormones, and I realised why the gentleman was pursuing me with such indignation.

The little prayer cards were actually for sale, and I had just run off with his merchandise.

Longing only to get away from the situation and the aggression of the picture seller, I flung the card back at him, accompanied by some distinctly unladylike phraseology, and fled the rest of the way back to the school (mercifully on a slight downhill slope).

Now you know.

I steal pictures of the Pope from Polish catholics.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant

Phew it's been a little while.

I'm finding that after all perhaps I'm not able to continue translating away as usual while attending classes during the day and trying not to forget my zadanie domowe.

The past two weeks have seen me at the computer well into the evening most days, and it seems I can't do the one without affecting the other: silly errors creep into my work and I blabber out the wrong verb ending in grammar classes. Of course neither of these indicate the end of the world - but my feeling that I only exist to work and no longer have any time to do the things that make me an independent human being does. It is time to get organised.

But first, I have a confession to make.

In my first week back in Kraków, I went on a Big Adventure: I followed my flatmate to her salsa class and sat on the bench watching. All those couples, lined up around the room, rocking back and forth to the rhythm of the music*... before long I was tapping my feet and swaying along with them.

Three weeks later and I've (full of nervous excitement) signed up for a class myself.

Not the same one as my flatmate of course, she's on poziom 3, while I'm only 'podstawowe'. We do have one thing in common though: both of us dread that moment immediately after the warm-up and initial solo work, when everyone pairs up and the dance instructor's voice rings out with the hated words:

Kto nie ma partnera??

Then we look at the floor, or up at the ceiling, or at something very interesting on the far wall of the dance studio, or - when I'm feeling brave - at the other one or two ladies who happen to be unaccompanied on that particular evening.

Yes, I'm afraid it's true. The social depravity of your humble author knows no bounds. Not only does she engage in the highly inappropriate practice of Speaking Polish with other Foreigners**, oh no, worse still! On a regular basis she breaches the golden benchmark of social good taste:

Being a single woman at a salsa class.

Think about it. What normal guy goes to dance classes, except under duress and on the end of a short lead pulled by his girlfriend? For a girl to show up on her own at a dance class and knock the numbers out of shape is not only inappropriate, why, it's just plain rude!
Fortunately the whole process works on the basis of rotacja. There's no point learning to dance with just one person, in the same way that you have to learn to play on different pianos, work with different interpreting systems and change your socks from time to time. Every few bars the guys move on to the next girl and I get hazy flashbacks to alcohol-fuelled university ceilidhs (or perhaps the Ukrainian Man-snatching dance)

Effectively this means that I spend two evenings a week dancing with Other People's Boyfriends.

They usually look more nervous than I do about the whole endeavour.

Anyway, it's going well, and I can do three steps now (two of which involve turning around). I practice in front of the kitchen window in the dark, while the cat dashes itself against the table legs in excitement.

Some day I hope to take my new-found skills to a dance club... but not until I've finished my Polish homework.

*generally a bizarre Latino version of Coldplay's Clocks
**when the other linguistic options are Japanese, Hungarian or American, I think you can see my point.