A Life in Languages, Part 5

27. Aug 2019

There were three reasons I learned Polish: Ewa, Edyta and Małgorzata

Just before my year out in Germany, I’d attended a preparatory lecture designed to prime us for our new role as language assistants in secondary schools across the continent. At the end of the talk, when most students were beginning to shuffle their papers into their bags and preparing to head back to their colleges, there was a last-minute announcement: “Is anyone interested in being a teacher in a UNESCO summer camp in Poland?”

Before I even knew what I was doing, I rushed to the front of the hall and signed up for details. At the time, I’d never even heard of Bydgoszcz (and certainly had no idea how to pronounce it), but in those pre-1989 days, the Eastern Bloc had a romantic appeal for a left-leaning student, and I had no doubt I would enjoy it.

And so, after a brief meeting in London, we were flown out to Warsaw and then bussed to the camp: a collection of “real” teachers and enthusiastic students, for a four week experience that included lessons, games, cultural outings, and a fair amount of snogging.

It was my first time dealing with a language so different, and all I could manage during the camp itself was a few phrases, like “hungry as a wolf” (głodny jak wilk) and “I love you” (kocham cię). The second of these proved infinitely more useful during that brief summer idyll, and by the time we came to set out on a tour of Poland in the final week (during which we learned another very useful phrase (nie ma = meaning “there isn´t any, which you often heard in restaurants when ordering even the simplest items on the menu), I was convinced I was going to marry either Ewa, or Edyta, or Małgorzata, or perhaps all three.

Heady times: Solidarity and Lech Wałesa were outlawed but popular, and the cities we stopped at, including Krakow, were beautiful, if a little bleak, and full of mystery. The week flew by and soon we were all reunited at the airport, bidding each other teary farewells.

My overriding feeling at the end of the experience was of how European, flamboyant and open Poles were – a far cry from the stereotype we all had back then, of dour Eastern Europeans.

If Ewa, Edyta or Małgorzata ever read this, thank you for the memories…

Given that the way to any woman’s heart is through language, or so I thought in my 20 year-old wisdom, I decided to learn Polish as fast as possible, and so in Warsaw I’d picked up a few textbooks, printed entirely in black and white on rough cream-coloured paper, and spent as much of my free time as I could, while in Germany, studying the language and building up vocabulary. 

I devoured all the books, and even got some local practice in during my year out, as there were plenty of Poles in my local town in Westfalia. And so at the end of the year, with mounting excitement, I boarded a night train that would take me all the way from West Germany to Warsaw, and spent two very happy weeks moving from city to city, visiting my three friends, experiencing life in their houses. and chatting away with their parents about life in a socialist country, complete with plenty of food and the odd glass of mindblowing local vodka.

Even though I’ve forgotten a great deal since that visit, the sounds of Polish still enchant me to this day.

Alas, the romantic plans never worked out, but who knows, if Ewa, Edyta or Małgorzata ever read this, thank you for the memories…

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