Tuesday 18 August 2020

Godfather and Great-Uncle E

I am reading an interesting book called Atomic Habits. Atomic Habits says change comes not from stating your goals but by professing your identity. Every morning I am going to identify as a slim, healthy, even-tempered, pious, polyglot writer. We'll see how that works.  So far today I have studied Italian, studied Polish, exercised vigorously, and written two articles. Not bad.

But my theme today is language-learning, and the satisfaction that comes when you can understand things you didn't understand before and you can speak to people you couldn't speak to before. For example, while Benedict Ambrose and I were in Poland last week, I finally had a conversation with my Goddaughter's Godfather.

I should probably explain that the country hotel B.A. and I were staying in is very dear to the hearts of Polish Pretend Son and his extended family. PPS and Polish Pretend Daughter-in-Law had their wedding reception there. Then their baby had her christening party there. As Benedict Ambrose and I ate our breakfast there last week, he remarked that it was full of happy memories.

One happy memory was meeting various friends and relations of PPS in the minute hotel restaurant before PPS headed the male ones away to his bachelor party. One of the relations was the future Godling's future Godpapa, and I don't think we exchanged any words other than Polish "Hi" and Polish "Nice to meet you." However, this was not surprising, for there was quite a crowd.

The crowd was smaller at Godling's christening, and being Godling's Godmama, I was thrown together quite a lot with her Godpapa, but we still didn't have much to say to each other. This was largely my fault, for uppermost on my mind was the Skład Apostolski and how I was going to repeat it at the speed of people who have all been saying it in Polish their whole lives. But that said, the Godfather is a man of few words, I was later informed.

Therefore, it was a communications revolution last Monday night when, after taking a break from a noisy outdoor barbecue featuring young people, I left B.A. snug in bed with his book and returned to our table. There I had an actual conversation with the newly appeared Godfather.

"By then it was very dark," I wrote in my trusty journal, "and there were amused screams and still loud music and quite a lot of merriment for the scant dozen or so young men and women."

They were mostly young women, all dancing around as far from our table as they could and yet still be near the food and drink. I sat down at the head of this table, and to my surprise the Godfather engaged me in a Polish conversation about B.A.'s and my day trip to Kraków. We discovered that we have an acquaintance in common there, and PPS laughed uproariously when I said "świat to mały" ("It's a small world"). Apparently this is the most Polish response to such a revelation.  I also learned what Godpapa does for a living and where he lives and where exactly he is on the PPS family tree.

PPS was slightly amazed by this conversation and put it down to Godpapa having got himself a fiancee and therefore a newfound ability to talk to women. However, I think it was because B.A. was absent, and I no longer had an excuse to speak English instead of Polish. Godpapa, like other laconic people forced to learn it as a foreign language, believes he speaks English poorly.

It was my third proper Polish conversation of the day. My first Polish conversation had been with PPS's Great-Uncle E that afternoon. B.A. and I had had a very hot and sweaty noon hour walk around a harvested wheat field. We were heading back into the hotel for money and masks, so that we could go to the village shop, when B.A. was hailed by Great-Uncle E. Great-Uncle E, who is over 80, I believe, was sitting at one of the tables between the mansion and the palace gardens. He was clearly laying in wait for people to talk to, and he recognised B.A.

"Dzień dobry! Dzień dobry!" shouted B.A. while frantically waving me over, and I had a short and friendly chat with Great-Uncle E before I decisively ended it so we could get our things and sneak off to the shop.

But my second Polish conversation was also with Great-Uncle E because I could see the poor man still sitting at that table from our hotel room when we got back. My conscience besmote me, and after an hour of reading or so, I got up and went out to talk to Great-Uncle E again.

It was marvellous. Great-Uncle E has only a limited number of topics, and not only did I have a preview of some of them in our first conversation, I had had another preview of them after breakfast back in March. This means that I understood them beautifully the third time.

Another great thing about Great-Uncle E is that he just likes chatting and is therefore perfectly happy answering my questions and doesn't mind getting only "Acha!" and "Rozumiem" ("I understand") in response. Thus, I learned exactly where Great-Uncle E is on the family tree and also how many children and grandchildren he has and which one has a job in America. I also established that PPS's cousin-the-priest is Great-Uncle E's son, so that was exciting. And eventually the priest-son drove up in a car and took Great-Uncle E away.

"Well done!" shouted Benedict Ambrose, leaning out the window.

The trick, really, is to study Polish almost every day for years and years and then relax when actually called upon to speak the language. Relaxing is hard.

This morning I played the former Father Jacek Międlar's fiery "Narodowa duma" speech while I was on my exercise bike in the kitchen and was delighted when, as expected, cries of "Narodowa duma" came seeping in from the sitting-room. I was also delighted that I understood the speech so much better than I did when I heard it the first 20 times, five years ago. Like Great-Uncle E, Międlar's range of topics, though decidedly different, was narrow.

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