Friday, 25 September 2009


I write a lot about languages here but I generally avoid talking about the big elephant crouching silently on the dining room table: my own native language, English.

And I'm not going to talk about it now: I'm cheating. Strictly Come Dancing finished, I have no plans tonight and I'm still awake, so I decided to flick through the Ted talks (disappointingly, all in English), which is something I've been meaning to do for a while. Running the mouse over inventions, philosophy, neuroscience, finally I came to a section on words.

The result is a short video that describes learning English as a mania.
I concur. My entire living is based on the fact that English is my mother tongue. As a translator, interpreter, proofreader, my added value is the fact that I do this automatically: I have natural style, linguistic grace: when I do it, it just sounds right. At least most of the time. Better still, I am British, and that holds an added premium (although most people's cultural contact with English is of the US variety, I believe the majority of schools - at least in Europe - are still teaching Received Pronunciation phonetics and therefore it carries a certain prestige).

Just think of the flood of capital pouring into the coffers of anglophone states simply from the export of TEFL teachers, interpreters, translators, copywriters and multilingual ex-pat Brits who are hired for good client relations. I read an article on this - it took me ages to find it - but unfortunately it's old enough to require an Economist on-line subscription to actually read the thing.

Personally I'm disappointed when everyone speaks English. However frustrating it is - and believe me I know - to have those moments when you simply can't say what you want to say and when the waitress for heavens' sake gives you that withering look as if you were an illiterate child, I still think it's fun to mix it up, I still like learning, I love the complexities, the similarities, the beautiful broken jigsaw puzzle of it all. I love borrowings, calques, sound shifts - all ghostly traces of long-forgotten human migrations.

I will never speak a foreign language with perfect confidence and fluency: I started learning far too late for that. But I love to try, to play, to dip my toe into the deep well labelled 'foreign'.*
I think that's important, don't you? I think we - anglophones - are becoming too complacent about our silent pachydermatous companion perched on the table top, and we're letting opportunities pass us by (see this article, also from the Economist - sorry).

Where was I? Oh yes. Here's the talk:

*Pinolona's theory of adult language acquisition (and a jolly good excuse for using Polish words in Italian): language is a deep, dark well of words. The human brain recognises two such wells: mother tongue and foreign. The most recent foreign language bobs closest to the surface of the well, and when the right word is lacking, you plunge in and fish out a word from another, deeper down. (Disclaimer: the language professional known by Pinolona's real name never fishes at work and she always knows the Right Word. She just may not pronounce it correctly. Especially if it happens to be French.)

Sunday, 20 September 2009


In 'A Year in the Merde' * the author goes to a Parisian café on a Sunday afternoon and attempts to order coffee with milk.
Thinking logically, he orders 'un café avec du lait'.
The waitress immediately picks him out as an outsider and charges him the whopping tourist price. As he is reeling in horror at the bill, the chilled-out American at the next table leans over and lets him in on the Big Secret. When in a foreign country, it's not enough to speak a bit of the language. You have to Know the Code. French people who like their coffee with a touch of milk order 'un crème'. This doesn't mean that the coffee has cream in it but - as my French colleague pointed out in St Brieuc all those years ago - if you use that particular code, they'll bring you a nice warm milky coffee in a neat cup and saucer with a little chocolate on the side.

Wouldn't it be nice if francophones the world over used the same code?

The Belgian equivalent is 'lait russe', which still takes me slightly by surprise as I can't understand how a beverage described as Russian can possibly fail to contain a single drop of vodka.

In addition, they have all the usual Italian palaver - cappuccino, latte, ristretto, ecc. - to the extent that sometimes it's hard to tell one cup of coffee from another.

Visiting a local coffee bar this weekend, my friend ordered caffè latte while I - trotting out my best Belgian like a good girl - asked for a lait russe.

The machine hissed and thundered, steam filled the air, the clink of china was heard and the clouds dispersed to reveal our order: one tall glass and one squat little cup sitting roundly in its saucer...

... containing two identical warm milky coffees.

*a dull book in which a rather ordinary English bloke in Paris describes his attempts to get into the knickers of several frighteningly stereotypical Frenchwomen.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Nie ma Pani drobnych?

What better way to spend a Saturday morning than watching Polish economic news reports?

According to TVN 24, the Polish mint says it's not inconceivable that the issue of 1 and 2 grosze bits (that's those tiny irritating pennies that get lost in the bottom of your handbag) will cease in 2011.

It would seem that it costs 0.05 gr to produce a single grosz/2 grosze coin. That means that the Polish national bank spent 24, 400, 000 PLN on pennies last year.

If that's the case, why are they waiting until 2011? Why not stop production now, and improve the country's productivity by slashing lunchtime queuing times in Kefirek...

Link to the report here.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


Finally autumn feels like autumn again: I envy my friends the balmy złota jesień they are enjoying in Kraków right now, but still in Poland the change of season is too abrupt for me. I like the clean crispness of the air fresh on my skin and of the leaves underfoot; I like being blinded by the low sun flashing gold through sheaves of foliage; I like unpacking my handbag and finding at least six conkers* from the seasonal kernel kleptomania that sees me unwittingly but systematically stooping down to collect the satiny chestnut gems like some kind of misguided magpie.

I like being able to go out in just a sweater for heavens' sake, rather than having to choose between spaghetti straps and a full ski jacket and boots.

However, when we were rushing out of the house with suitcases at nine o'clock that Thursday morning and I reached for my coat to find nothing resembling mine on the coatstand, it might perhaps, just maybe, have been a good idea to backtrack, to say 'wait, hang on, I'll see if there's anything upstairs' or 'I'll just check the laundry' (futile, we never wash coats in my family) or even 'Mum, have you got one I can borrow?'. But no. I was on the cusp of a new start, nothing was to encumber me in my new life...

- Screw it, let's go!

I may have to make a trip to Promod before the month is out.

Finally my internet is connected! It's been just over two weeks, but now I have a gently winking lajvboxe perched on top of my desk and a superfast connection so I can download Polish news til it comes out of my ears... Better still, I can work without having to go to the wifi cafe. I can accept all the last-minute jobs I want. Um. Thanks Mobistar.

Seriously though, now I have t'interweb** at home, I need never leave the flat again. I even have the Pages Jaunes so I can order pizza. No wait - Pages d'Or in Belgian.

Rather than become a total recluse though I've devised a series of strategies to force myself into the pathway of other human beings (think rabbit, think headlights) at least once a day.

- Go jogging: I live next to a park so there's no excuse. To keep it exciting, try changing direction (more people seem to run counter-clockwise than clockwise: maybe it has something to do with driving on the right). Even when you get too tired to jog yourself, watching other joggers on the other side of the fence - like they're in a cage - provides hours of mindless fun. More on that later.

- Use services. For example, open a bank account. Or three. Declare yourself at the local comune (uh... eventually). Stay at home to let the Belgacom man in. Get a X-ray. More on that later. Maybe.

- Chat to the lady at the vegetable shop (there's a vegetable shop and a cheese shop. My dzielnica is really cute: I need to adjust my time/money balance so I can bunk off work and spend the whole day shopping) Be very flattered when she thinks you are a student. (Yes! Yes! Yes!).

By far the most important connection right now however involves my head and a nice deep Ikea pillow.

*Chataigne in French, kastanje in Flemish, now we have three official languages donchyaknow...
** did you know that in Flemish they also abbreviate one of the definite articles to 't? It's basically English as spoken in Yorkshire.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Week 1

Some facts and figures about Brussels:*

- no of nights P has now spent in the tak zwany Capital Of Europe: 8

- no of weeks it will take for her internet to be connected: 2 (two!!! that's fourteen days! to bardzo niecywilizowany kraj)

- no of people P has heard talking in Polish on the phone in local wifi cafe: only 2. maybe three

(- no of hours P has spent in her local wifi cafe: A Lot.)

- minutes P lives from the Polish Embassy: max 5. Uhh... thanks for the info, Simplus GSM...

- no of bank accounts P has inadvertently opened in Belgium: 3. I think. They're all kind of attached.

- no of trees slaughtered in the making of said bank accounts: several thousand.

- no of nights spent in youth hostel while looking for flat: 3 (which is not that bad!!)

- waffle count (Liègois. Yeah there's a difference): 4. I think. Maybe five.

- beer count... uh divide Pi by seven, multiply by ten... oh look over there, a squirrel!

- number of megabytes of internet stolen from neighbours....many, guilt, guilt, guilt...

- number of times spoken Polish: none!! none, none, none. Smutno mi.

- number of peeing statues in central Brussels: 3, apparently: a boy, a girl and a dog. All that beer's gotta go somewhere.

- factor by which P's flat here is more expensive than her flat in Kraków: a zillion! an Actual Zillion...

- total laps of Parc Cinquantenaire jogged so far: 4. Honest! That's approximately half a lap per night so far.

- number of times P has missed Kraków, wished she were back in Kraków, fantasized about booking a flight back to Kraków...

Brussels is not quite so quirky as Kraków. But it has its moments. We'll see how this pans out. I'll keep you posted...

[ps: if anyone can post me the second part of Katarzyna Grochola's Anioły i żaby trilogy, I'd be very grateful... yes it's chick lit. I dobrze mi z tym!]

*the capital of Belgium, not the small green cruciferous vegetables