Time runs, and so does expat journo John Marshall

Time runs, as the Poles say and I’ve been in Poland two and a half years now. Not a lot of time, it’s true, but long enough to have sussed a few things out. And chief of things to be sussed out is the language. I’m doing pretty well with my Polish (unless, of course, everyone’s being terribly polite to me, which is possible). However, it’s not easy. We all know that.

Decisions about language-learning (“I will / I will not learn Polish”) are made early on in our stay abroad. Some lucky (or very hard-working) souls become near-fluent overnight while others live, work and play year after year, never progressing beyond basic groceries and barroom chat-up lines (which, to be fair, is always a good start). Of course, it doesn’t help that, in Krakow, the majority of people you’re ever likely to communicate with have at least a smattering of English. A few years ago and before the recent wave of emigration to England and Ireland, the average Brit would have thought “Dzien dobry” to be a line from a coldwar spy movie (Spy 1: “Dzien dobry, pan. The ducks fly high above the Wawel.” Spy 2: “Yes, my friend, but swans swim faster in the Vistula.”).

How things change. Soon, British colleges will start offering exciting new evening-classes: “Polish for Beginners,” “Bieszczady Basketweaving,” “Krakowian Cake-Making,” or even “Line-dancing (Lodz style).” There’s a market there somewhere. I can see some of you thinking about it already.

A foreign language is a funny thing, like an old friend or pet dog. When it’s there, often you don’t want it. It gets in your way: all that boring grammar fussing around you, tripping you up, when all you want to do is say “Cicho!” (Quiet!”) and watch the match. But then when you don’t hear it for a few days, you’re lost. Dazed and confused, you leave your flat and wander around the streets in your slippers, embarrassing yourself in front of perfect strangers, pressing into their hands photos of little yellow dictionaries, the word “zgubil” (lost) scrawled on top in crayon.

But why all this linguistic reflection? Because I’m in England right now. And I’m trying to work out which language I miss most. When I’m in Krakow, I miss hearing English on the television and on the radio. (But not, strangely, on the street, where snobbishly I connect it with British stag weekends).

Then when I’m in England, I miss Polish. In fact, I was rather hoping on overhearing some Polish while I’m here. There’s something strangely satisfying about understanding a foreign language in your own country, especially one as difficult as Polish. Imagine, you’re tramping across the green and pleasant English fields, when suddenly two fine Slavic ladies, exercising their golden retrievers perhaps, pass you by. “Good morning,” you say with a tip of your hat. They smile coquettishly. “Oh,” whispers the first to her friend, in Polish. “What a fine, handsome, example of an Englishman he is!” “Yes,” her friend sighs, eyes fixed upon your retreating frame. “If only he spoke Polish!” A romantic vision, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Mind you, sometimes ignorance really is bliss. Last week, a male English friend and I were sitting patiently at Balice airport, whiling away the flight delay with a beer or two. Out of nowhere appears a “lady” of a certain age, apparently intent on getting to know one of us much better as quickly as possible (albeit in exchange for some sort of financial transaction, as I understood it). She spoke German and Polish but we, oh happy day!, spoke not a word of German and pretended to speak no Polish either. Not that that seemed to bother her. She kept leaning suggestively forward, attempting at the same time to steal my beer. Never before had I been so glad that we Brits have such a terrible reputation for learning languages. Eventually, unable to snuggle her way into our wallets, she sloped off, last seen hassling a German movie producer, in Russian, I believe.

Ah, the movies! What a town for movies! Krakow has more cinemas, foreign films and international film festivals than Andrzej Wajda’s had hot dinners. Great if you’re a local, but it’ll be another year yet before my Polish is good enough for that. Fortunately, there were no shady ladies in the British cinema yesterday, where I saw an Akiri Kurosawa movie. I was glad of the English subtitles, of course; me having only a three-week knowledge of Japanese. I love subtitles; so much better than being dubbed i.e. the infamous “polski lektor.”

Now, I’ve got a theory about Mr Polski Lektor: there is only one. Go figure. Listen to any dubbed tv program or movie in Poland and you’ll hear the same voice. The same voice! Now, either he’s a very busy man, this Polski Lektor, or (and I think this is more likely), he’s actually a computer-generated voice. This would explain his phenomenal productivity as well as his total lack of emotion. I remember seeing a cowboy movie with the lektor playing John Wayne, some baddies, Wayne’s wife as well as their five year old daughter – all exactly the same. Even in the love scene, afterwards. You”d think they could at least afford a Mrs Polski Lektor from time to time. Even computer-generated voices get lonely, don’t they?

No, I’m sorry for the harm this will do to the worldwide dubbing industry, but I say give me subtitles any day. You keep all the original emotions, stress and intonation and you’ve at least got a chance of understanding, if you’ve any Polish at all. And it’s also good for speed-reading practice.

From groceries and chatup lines, through polski lektor to groovy arthouse movies. It seems a lot of work, I know, but what wonders await us! And all you need is a little motivation (remember the ladies with the golden retrievers?). You know, I suddenly feel a surge of interest in the dative case. I’ll let you know how I get on next week.

John Marshall also writes for and appears on Expat Radio, Radio Alfa, 102.4FM, or live on www.radioalfa.com

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