Thursday 27 October 2022

Hot sun and cake

As long-term readers know, I am greatly interested in language acquisition and hope to become fluent in both Polish and Italian. "Fluent" to me (for this does not have a fixed meaning among language nerds) means being able to converse in, read and write in a language without much difficulty or dread. 

There are people who pick up languages easily (there are controversial theories about them), and there are people who have to plod. Me, I have to plod, like Sysiphus, up the language hill. It is not always rewarding, but the research suggests that the longer you spend learning and relearning a language, the more likely you are to succeed. Naturally, living in Scotland does not particularly help me learn Polish or Italian.

Needing, after five years, to take a break from reading, writing, and editing news reports, I test-drove my retirement plans by signing up for an intensive Polish course in university-rich Lublin. (My first choice was open only to Ukrainian refugees this summer.) By going there, I learned what discomforts to avoid in future and how to distract myself from them by focussing on what was great, like the sunshine and the beautiful architecture here and there and especially in the Old City. 

Lublin is in Poland's southeast, and it is hot in summer. This was not comfortable at night, but it was marvellous in the day. The sun poured down heat like a hot tap gushing water. I wore prescription sunglasses and slathered myself with sunscreen every time I went out. I wore cotton T-shirts, linen skirts, and sandals. At night I washed my clothes by stomping on them as I took a shower and dried them on clothes hangers in my room. 

My average day involved waking up between 5 and 7 AM. If it was after 6, I would dress and go to the kitchen at the end of the hall to make coffee. I'd make a potful, pour it in the kitchen's one mug, and then fill the pot again. Then I'd carry mug and pot back to my room, drink the coffee, read the headlines, and  do homework. I'd leave at 8:10 AM, going down several flights of stairs to hand my keys to one of the revolving team of porters, and then go down a few more steps to the street. Then I'd walk to the school, avoiding the noisy main street as much as I could. I'd usually pass a building painted with an enormous mural of a Russian bear being goaded by a two-headed snake to attack a beehive painted the colours of the Ukrainian flag. I'd eat breakfast in the student dining hall; the food was set out buffet style. 

At 9 I went up several flights of stairs to grammar class, which lasted until 1 PM. The main meal was then served in the dining hall, kitchen staff bringing brimming tureens of soup and then plates of meat and bowls of potatoes and vegetables. The BBQ-style chicken was particularly memorable, as was the one time we got a pudding: strawberry mousse cake. Sadly, we had pierogi only once. Dinners were always Polish, always homemade (as it were), and always delicious. Sometimes there were kitchen-cooked eggs or sausage for breakfast or dinner, too. 

Most days after dinner I would apply more sunblock and walk back to my dorm to trade my grammar book for gym clothes and lie down for 10 minutes. I'd then walk all the way back to the school, sometimes buying a coffee from a bike cart, although I was more likely to dash out and buy it between my 1.5 hour session with a private tutor and my 1.5 hour conversation class. As I had only half an hour, this was a rather hot and rushed walk. 

Incidentally, I lost weight. 

After class I'd go to supper, which was again buffet-style, and then walk to the gym. The weight rooms were deluxe with a lot of machines although not many benches. A 72-hour pass cost £9; it would have been cheaper to pay for the minimum 2 month membership, but in the fuss of needing a working phone to be a member, I didn't do the math. 

Also incidentally, I was able to hoist my suitcase over my head into the luggage rack of the train from Lublin to Wroclaw when I left. 

After working out, I might buy yogurt and fruit or nuts from Stokrota (a chain supermarket) or a book or stationary from Empik (a chain bookstore) and then walk along the darkening streets back to my dorm. There I would study until 9 PM, when I called Benedict Ambrose over Skype. At about 9:30 PM, I would wash myself and my clothes, set my alarm for 7 AM (which was usually just wishful thinking) and read Hemingway in Polish until I was sleepy, say the Rosary and fall asleep.

The bed was very hard and some mornings the dustmen's truck came rattling down the street at 5:30 AM although sometimes the street was quiet until the construction crew arrived at 6:30 AM. I had never suffered loss of sleep so long in my life, getting about 6 to 6.5 hours a night for the 3 weeks before I went to stay with a Polish family. I'm surprised I learned anything, let alone never lost belongings or got hurt. 

Occasionally--especially in the third week--this schedule was enlivened by cake. At first I bought myself petits fours at a bakery on the way home on Wednesdays. But then I had coffee and cake with my classmate Stan, where we discussed Polish travels, the State of the (American) Union, Millennials and Generation Z. Later, I met Stan for extremely amazing cake--featuring rum- or Kahlua- laced whipped cream slathered between layers, for example--at a cafe set in the outer wall of the Old Town. 

Because I was so busy walking to and fro, going to classes, going to the gym, studying and trying to get enough sleep, I didn't do much sightseeing. In fact, I walked around the Old City only two or three times, and went to only one art exhibition. The program was supposed to feature weekend trips, but these joys were, in the end, only for the July students to enjoy. The August students were offered upgrades instead, which is how I ended up with private tutors. 

I very much appreciated the private tutors, for after four hours of grammar class and notwithstanding all the English spoken at dinner (for English remained the lingua franca of the students),  I was well-primed to speak fluently on topics about which I know most, like Poland's pro-life, pro-family movement. (After one particularly successful session, I asked my tutor to tell my grammar teacher how well I had done.) So one thing I definitely learned is that I speak Polish best (and make the most progress) privately with a professional teacher of Polish for Foreigners.  

Thus, I should add to my list of Lublin joys the thrill of improving my conversation skills with tutors while also acknowledging the excellent teaching of the grammar and group conversation teachers. If it weren't for the organiser I complained about so thoroughly yesterday, I would go back to that school, only arranging for my own board and lodging. I would certainly not remake the mistake of assuming that students 20-30 years my junior would accept my presence with equanimity. If possible, I would bring Benedict Ambrose with me, so that I wouldn't be lonely. But as Benedict Ambrose has no interest in learning Polish, I am not sure what he would do all day. Well, perhaps he could do the sightseeing for us both. 

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