Learning Polish was harder than I expected. The academic director had pointed out that the initial learning curve was far steeper than for English, but that English was harder to perfect.
One day, I noticed a stack of purple flyers in the snack bar, announcing summer classes at the Babel: “Close the span of 60 years of activities has hosted several thousand foreigners from over 60 countries,” it read. Thinking this was an unfortunate advertisement for a language school, I offered my assistance to the director of marketing, a bright young man who assured me that his friend, a native English speaker in Toronto, had approved the copy. Knowing that was impossible, I persisted. To placate me, he finally feigned interest in how I would re-write the sentence. Not only was English hard to perfect, but people were attached to what they believed, despite evidence to the contrary, even in language.
As I walked through the city, I noticed how Polish advertisers had latched on to certain English words and used them excessively without regard to meaning. Exactly what did “Extreme Pizza” and “Extreme Auto Skola” have in common? “Non-stop” was also very popular. While amusing, it bothered me to see English so misused. My irritation masked a deeper pain—for it was challenging not to understand, and not to be understood.
My apartment was a refuge from the challenges of school and city life, except for a few odd details. There was no towel hanger in the bathroom, so I would step out of the tub only to remember that my towel was hanging on a rack in the living room. It was symbolic of the circuitous way things happened in Poland. Nothing was straightforward and no one expected anything else.
The letter indicating “hot” on my sink faucet was a C on the left side. “Cold” was indicated by T on the right. To increase the challenge, the faucets were reversed in the tub, so C (hot) was on the right and T (cold) was on the left. After a while, it took less time to remember which was which. It was like learning a new alphabet. Certain Polish letters and sounds came even slower, but gradually they were seeping into my aging brain.
I was proud of each small victory—a successful interaction with a shopkeeper, or the acquisition of a new word or phrase—as if each one was a missing ancestor or a secret revealed. Verbs were the hardest. There seemed to be millions of them, distinct in meaning, yet disguised in waves of indistinguishable consonants that whispered just below the threshold of comprehension, armies of consonants that rustled uselessly in the wind around the all-too-few lonely vowels, like women holding babies on a battlefield.
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