Polska so far

18 April 2011

Blogging is a lot like letter-writing, in that silence builds & has a weight all of its own.

The only book I have left here in Tarnów (tourist slogan: Polski biegun ciepła — The warmest city in Poland, finally in the mid-60s & sunny today, a few tentative green buds, tulips being sold out of plastic buckets) is the first volume of the letters of Samuel Beckett (thanks sis!) — and paging through at random I find him, in December of 1931:

Dear Tom,
Forgive me for not having replied to you before this. All kinds of imaginary melancholy circumstances to excuse me.

And a year later, in August:

Dear Tom,
Forgive me for not answering the first of your last two letters. I did write, but it turned out such a jeremiad that I refrained from posting it.

And, oh, let’s say May of 1938:

Dear Tom
Forgive my not writing before. It has been people, people, people, until I wonder what horrible thing has happened to me that I have so little peace any more.

So here we are, and the only way to break silence is abruptly, like dropping a glass on the floor, so that I’m too busy scrambling around with a broom & pan to waste too much time with apologies.

I’ve been here, teaching English full-time at a private school in this small, provincial city (an hour and twenty minutes by train from Kraków) since the beginning of January, and I’m faced now with the distinctly odd feeling of having to measure cultural difference against two different baselines — not just Stateside but Spain, as well.

Generally I can’t be the wide-eyed cultural spelunker I was when I lived in Jaén or Bilbao; I don’t speak the language, I can’t pick up a newspaper, I’m nearly always in a classroom. But here are a few things I can tell you about Poland, if you like.

I am a child here, a rank beginner — after three months, I can finally order things off of menus intelligibly, and say that it’s sunny, or My mother is intelligent & friendly or How much is a ticket from Kraków to Tarnów? or The red blouse is made of silk. I can say Excuse me and I don’t speak Polish and I’m an English teacher.  But for most of my first few weeks I functioned in virtual silence in public, smiling and nodding and occasionally reverting accidentally to Spanish, getting my point with grimaces, gestures, yes, no, please.

Polish is western Slavic — closest to Czech and Slovakian, same general family as eastern Slavic languages like Russian or Ukrainian, and southern Slavic like Serbo-Croatian or Bulgarian. A funny thing happens when you talk to Bosnians — Polish has an all-purpose profanity, curwa, which gets used as punctuation in the same way as the Irish use fucking or the Spanish say coño, and it literally means something like whore. In Bosnian Serbo-Croatian (related language!) it’s basically a clinical term for prostitute, or at least that’s what some Erasmus students from Bosnia-Herzegovina told me in a hostel in Kraków. And young urban Poles use it, again, almost every other word. It was to these backpackers as though everyone in Kraków were wandering around calling everything — inanimate objects, themselves, any conceivable action — whores. (A possible exemplary sentence: Whore, Danka, I can’t get whoring up this whore of a bed.) I’m trying to think of something in English and its many dialects that works alike — something that’s obscene but technical in one place, and multifarious & interchangeably profane in another — but I can’t quite find an analogue.

What else? The Polish currency, złoty, is literally the word for gold — imagine plopping down pieces-of-eight every time you buy a loaf of bread. Peppery and spicy are the same word, which gives you an idea of how hot Polish food is. (Not at all. Lots of pepper cloves, though.) Hungarian goulash is widely served on potato pancakes, but the Poles have taken the half-dozen or so types of paprika that Hunagrians use and revised them down to blandest possible. Other foods: Gołąbki is pork-stuffed cabbage, but it literally means pigeon. Żurek is this sour white soup — kielbasa, potato, other things — that packs a kick, a little like salmorejo in Andalucía. With salmorejo the mysterious kick is vinegar; in żurek, it’s fermented rye.

At first glance, Polish has so few cognates with English that it’s totally indecipherable — I’ve had an easier time reading menus written in Swedish than figuring out what I’m ordering in a Polish restaurant. But sometimes you get a welcome surprise — the Spanish word for Belgian waffles is gofre, and the first thing I bought on my way to my first day on the job in January was from a shop with a sign reading GOFRY — all right, I thought, this I can handle.

What else? I’ll wade, reluctantly — acknowledging I’m completely out of my depth here — into culture. You can’t talk about Poland, really, without getting into religion & post-Communism and I can’t really do this any other way than ham-fisted, gesturing at it. So here we go.

Spain is a Catholic country, in that it’d been held in a traditional religious timewarp by Franco until the 70s, and nine out of ten people self-define as Catholic, and in March of 2008 someone left the severed head of a pig on the construction site of a new mosque in Sevilla, and starting this week the streets fill up with the baroque pageantry of Semana Santa, flowers raining from the sky, Holy Mother & crucifixion tableaux swaying down the streets, hooded co-fraternity brothers carrying lit tapers and walking barefoot, trumpets echoing off every wall.

But people don’t go to church in Spain (El País did an infographic on the precipitous decline in church weddings, with the notable exception of heartland-type Real Spain holdouts — Jaén, La Mancha). And the saints’ days & festivals, the hiking up to the Castillo de Santa Catalina to fry sardines & drink beer, the burning of olive bonfires for San Antón, the fallas in Valencia — these are as much cultural as religious for most people. More, I’d argue.

Here, in Tarnów? The churches throng, bars close early for each of the 40 days of Lent. The seminary in Tarnów has giant residential dormitories with pointed towers; I see young people in a clerical collars every day on my way to school. There is, of course, John Paul II — streets, statues, pictures.

What else? Communism, of course. All of my students over the age of 35 studied Russian in high school. In classes when we study past tense, my adult students talk ration booklets and waiting in line for 6 hours as children in front of dingy storefronts to get food. As you’ve imagined, anything built in the last fifty years is concrete, and the 60s-era districts of Poland are distinctly unlovely — Tarnów’s Renaissance main square and Kraków’s undestroyed city center set aside.

And — I can’t not mention this, but it’s properly the subject for a very carefully written essay — all of this is not even to begin to scratch the huge, unmentionable warping of Polish culture since the Holocaust. The first shipment to Auschwitz was out of Tarnów, which pre-WWII was 70% Jewish. Three-fourths of the fucking city! It’s not just the death, although that’s horrific enough.

Ellipses are the only conceivable response. Writing about it is like trying to write a void.

I have class in an hour, but I’ll try — with the inevitable apologizing — to correspond better, and more often.

4 Responses to “Polska so far”

  1. Mark Eisner Says:


    *Serbo-Croatian is not language, they is politic name of group different languages:
    **[[Croatian language]] or [[hrvatski jezik]] (code= hr/hrv)
    **[[Bosnian language]] or [[bosanski jezik]] (code= bs/bos)
    **[[Serbian language]] or [[srpski jezik]] (code= sr/srb)
    **[[Montenegrin language]] or [[crnogorski jezik]] (code= none)

    *[http://www.nsk.hr/UserFiles/File/Slu%C5%BEeno%20prihva%C4%87anje%20izmjena%20ISO%20639-2%20Registration%20Authority.pdf Document of different Serrbo-Croatian]
    *[http://www.loc.gov/standards/iso639-2/php/code_list.php Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian is 3 indepedente languages]
    *[http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=2-16 International report Language Family Trees]
    *[http://www.danshort.com/ie/iesatem.htm Indo-European languages]
    *[http://languagesofeurope.co.uk/Languagesmap.thumb.jpg Languages in Europe]
    *[http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Slavic_languages.png Slavic languages]

    ”’EXAMPLE TEXT 1”’

    If the gases in the exhaust air and Jerusalem, would be necessary measures to ensure safety!
    Glede ispušnih plinova i zagađivanja zraka u Jeruzalemu, bilo bi potrebito poduzeti mjere sigurnosti!
    Serbian (official letter)
    У погледу издувних гасова и загађења ваздуха у Јерусалиму, било би потребно да се предузму мере безбедности!
    (Serbian transcription to Roman letter)
    (U pogledu izduvnih gasova i zagađenja vazduha u Jerusalimu, bilo bi potrebno da se preduzmu mere bezbednosti!)

    ”’EXAMPLE TEXT 2”’

    White salt for boiling is a chemical compound of sodium and chlorine.
    Bijela sol za kuhanje kemijski je spoj natrija i klora.
    Serbian: (official letter)
    Бела со за кување је хемијски спој натријума и хлора.
    (Serbian transcription to Roman letter)
    (Bela so za kuvanje je hemijsko jedinjenje natrijuma i hlora.)

    ”’EXAMPLE TEXT 3”’

    This station is located exactly at ten.
    Vlak sa željezničkoga kolodvora krenut će točno u deset sati.
    Serbian: (official letter)
    Воз са железничке станице кренуће тачно у десет часова.
    (Serbian transcription to Roman letter)
    (Voz sa železničke stanice krenuće tačno u deset časova.)

    ”’EXAMPLE TEXT 4”’

    English language:
    General understanding about the reality of the outside world about the linguistic division of the region contributes greatly to the presence of prospective misunderstanding tradicijonalnih linguistic factors within each nation independently.
    Croatian language:
    Općenito glede shvaćanja zbilje u vanjskome svijetu o jezičnoj diobi u regiji uvelike pridonosi možebitnom nerazumijevanju nazočnosti tradicijonalnih jezičnih čimbenika unutar svakoga naroda neovisno.
    Serbian language: (official letter)
    Уопштено у погледу схватања стварности у спољашњем свету о језичкој деоби у региону у великој мери доприноси евентуалном неразумијевању присуства традицијоналних унутрашњих језичких фактора сваког народа независно.
    (Serbian transcription to Roman letter)
    (Uopšteno u pogledu shvatanja stvarnosti u spoljašnjem svetu o jezičkoj deobi u regionu u velikoj meri doprinosi eventualnom nerazumevanju prisustva tradicijonalnih unutrašnjih jezičkih faktora svakog naroda nezavisno.)

  2. John B. Says:


    I had just about decided that you’d disappeared into the U.P or wherever you were last year . . . and you turn up in Poland, of all places. Speaking of which: I know far less about Poland than you, but you’ve somehow managed to confirm all that I do know, and some stereotypes besides. I’m not (yet) sure what this says about Poland, but I look forward to hearing more.

    So: Is this to be your life, wandering the planet from ESL gig to ESL gig and writing elegant travelogues as you do? There are worse ways to do it, I’d say.

  3. Michael Says:


    This might not be the best place to do this but I’ve seen the following quote in a few places now and the “vias” all come back to you:

    “We are increasingly fluent in images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragments, fragments.”

    This quote is attributed to Roberto Bolano in 2666 but the quote on page 206 doesn’t read that way (I can’t be sure how it would read in the original Spanish but I suspect it would be off there as well, based on the context in the novel…).

    Glancing at your blog you seem to take literature somewhat seriously so I wonder if an effort might be made to correct the situation so that I don’t keep seeing the thought directly attributed to Bolano?


    • Jim Sligh Says:


      Yes, I’m probably the one responsible for however many places you saw these words in. Sorry to take so long to get back to you. It’s desperately ironic, of course, that a quotation about fragmentation & lack of handhold seems to be a misquotation, and it’s an irony I was dimly conscious of when I copied down the piece second-hand.

      Looking through google, it seems as though I picked it up from this Slow Muse post in January of last year, quoting a piece by New York book critic Sam Anderson. It went into my notebook, hand-copied, and a few weeks later ended up on tumblr. Of course, I didn’t have a copy of 2666 lying around at the time to check it (foreign living is hell on being able to carry a library with you), and I remember a twinge of doubt at citing with confidence something I’d only read as a citation of a citation of a citation.

      Curious as to what the real line reads, if you’ve got the book handy, and how different the meaning is in context. One of the things that’s peculiar and interesting about the way the line has gotten disseminated is that it eats itself — it’s an epigrammatic little fragment itself, portable and orphaned.



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