So as you may know I recently went on holiday to Poland, partly for fun and sightseeing and partly for the serious business of my friend’s wedding (I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Polish wedding but they take their vodka very seriously). Now this is a book blog so I wasn’t going to write a post about my holiday but Leah said she was anxious to hear all about it so this post is about my holiday but in the guise of a review of my book about the language.
My Granny sent me Teach Yourself Polish for my birthday (she’s visited Poland quite a few times so was very excited when she found out I’d be going) and since I hate visiting a country without knowing at least some words I decided to make an effort to learn something before I went.
I should point out that the book actually came with a CD which in her infinite wisdom my Granny failed to send me so I didn’t get the full experience but even so I would suggest that there maybe many better books on how to learn Polish than the one I was using. And I shall give you some reasons why throughout the post.
1. I hate learning how to pronounce letters from a page of writing, it’s always so hard to make sense of. And it doesn’t help when your guide includes advice like this:
ą and ȩ tend to represent sounds like o as in box and e as in bed but lengthened by a cross between ł and n or m.
That passage left me scratching my head for a good while. Even once I’d found out how to pronounce ł which wasn’t until the following page. Moving onto consonants I was told that:
When two consonants occur in succession, the second one usually decides whether the combination is voiced or not…
Which I suppose is fine if at some point the book also told me how to know what the decision is.
At the end of the guide the book confidently tells me that if I see any Polish word written down I can be ‘at least 99% sure how to pronounce it’. I beg to differ.
However, having learned to pronounce some of the letters I can tell you that I did NOT visit KrakoW on my trip but instead I went to KrakoV (w=v). Once there the minimal amount I had picked up failed to help me communicate with the gentleman I met at a bus stop having got off the bus five stops too early and being somewhat lost. I also don’t think he entirely understood the BSL (British Sign Language) I was using to try and ask my questions but eventually we ascertained that I was an idiot and should probably get back on the bus.
First Polish conversation mastered, I eventually made it into Krakow and spent two days seeing the city which is a really pretty place seeped in history – I saw Wawel (VaVel) castle, the Jewish quarter (Kashmieriz where they serve zapiekanki, a kind of giant pizza which kept me full all day) and the factory where Oskar Schindler made his list (or didn’t if we’re honest). I also went to Zakopane for a day and went up Kasprowy Wierch, one of the Tatra Mountains. All in all a very pleasant three days and I even developed the beginning of a tan.
I also went to Auschwitz-Birkennau which was a much more sobering experience but one I felt I had to have. Unfortunately in the summer months visitors must be taken round by a guide and our particular guide wasn’t very good which made it hard to get the full experience but I don’t think anyone could walk into that gas chamber and not feel the full weight of what happened there.
On the fifth day of my holiday it was time to head for Warsaw where the wedding would be taking place so we boarded a Polish train, squeezed ourselves into the crowded compartment which just about took all our luggage and settled down for the three-hour trip. Which gave me chance to learn (or not) some more Polish. Here follows some more anecdotes from the book:
2. Krakowskie Przedmieście. Try and pronounce it, go on. It’s the main street in Warsaw and we couldn’t work out how to say it but then I found a section in my book which was sure to help:
This street in Warsaw is difficult to talk about in English. Either you insert a Polish tongue-twister in the middle of an English sentence, or you translate it into English as ‘Kraków Suburb’ which sounds bizarre…we suggest you go for Krakowskie Przedmieście. Like most things in Polish, it will come with practice.
Brilliant, you suggest I guess. What wonderful advice!
At this point I essentially gave up on trying to learn Polish. I was able to say please (proszȩ) which my book assured me was a multi-purpose word but which my friend informed me Polish people almost never use. I think on this occasion she was wrong as I heard it everywhere. I could also say hello (dzień dobry) and also knew the word for English (Anglii for the language jestem Angielka to say I am an English woman) and since most people in the service industries seem to speak English I was getting by fine.
So here endeth anecdotes from the book.
Arriving in Warsaw we were more than a little disappointed to find that the sun of the south had given way to torrential rain. We were all on a tight budget so were walking everywhere and it is fair to say that we got absolutely drenched on four days out of the five we spent in the capital. Luckily I’d checked the forecast and taken an umbrella, my friends had not, and none of us had waterproof shoes! Still we’re not intimidated by a bit of bad weather so we still did lots of sightseeing (mostly churches and monuments but we also went to the Royal Palace and a couple of museums).
Warsaw is a place that has only just about recovered from the Second World War. 90% of the city was destroyed by the Nazis in response to the Uprising staged by Polish citizens in 1944 and much of it has been rebuilt as it was before 1939. The result is a discordant mix of historical and communist architecture (most of the rebuilding was done under Russian rule and it shows). It also gives the city a slightly strange feeling as although the buildings look old, in actual fact they’re only 40-50 years old and they lack all the signs of wear and tear that you see walking around older cities. It’s an odd place but I liked it and I have huge admiration for the respect that was shown to the city’s history during the rebuilding; it must have been very tempting to just build an entirely new city which would have been a shame.
The devastation inflicted on Warsaw has also given rise to a vast number of monuments many of which we managed to see but my favourite by a long way was the monument to the 1944 Uprising. I love the way the figures are shown emerging from the stone which I think beautifully illustrates the sudden revelation of underground forces.
Monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising
The other monument I loved is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ogród Saski (Saxon Park). The Tomb is in the remains of the Saxon Palace and I think shows not only the cost to human life but also to architecture as the arches clearly used to be part of a larger structure.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
But of course the real reason for me being in Warsaw was to see Miss G get wed to Mr C. And luckily for them their wedding was on the only sunny day that week, you can’t plan things like that!
The wedding took place at St Anne’s church right in the centre of town and one of Warsaw’s grandest churches and oldest buildings (rebuildings excluded). Speaking as someone who has only ever been to protestant or methodist churches and sees a church as a cold, draughty stone building with perhaps the occasional tattered tapestry on the walls, I was somewhat overwhelmed by this incredibly beautiful building. For obvious reasons I couldn’t follow the service but I was fully occupied gazing at the amazing statues and decorations around me. To illustrate exactly how much of a big deal this church was here are a couple of anecdotes:
1. The guide of the (free!) tour we attended the day was rendered speechless when we told him we’d be going to a wedding there, his jaw literally dropped.
2. Not only did people take pictures of us arriving at the church (we were at one of those weddings!) but tourists kept coming in during the service (which turned out for the best since some of them actually went to take communion while the actual attendees shuffled their feet and stared at their knees).
St Anne’s Church
It was an awesome day, the bride and groom both looked fantastic and although I didn’t understand a word of the ceremony those who did were very moved. After the church service we moved onto the reception venue where we were greeted with some of the best mojitos I’ve ever tasted and we then had a night full of food (a three course meal followed by unlimited dessert and a BBQ in the evening!!), drinks (toast every speech or appearance of the bride or groom at your table with a shot of vodka (that’s a 40ml shot)) and lots and lots of dancing.
I got home at 4am and spent most of the next day recovering.
So that’s about it really for the story of my trip to Poland. It’s a fascinating country full of history and some truly stunning scenery and if you ever get the chance to go to a wedding there, take it but prepared to be apologising to your liver for the next week or so!