Words on loan
13. August 2014 § 3 Kommentare
It’s been a long haul, crossing Poland from the Northeast to the Midwest. Tomorrow I’ll be heading out towards Görlitz across the border in Germany, and I’ll probably take the train for these last 100 kilometres. The going here is not so easy as expected, though the land lies flat and there is a decent road network. One problem is the horrific traffic density: ostensibly the first accoutrement of the new-found freedom is for the Poles to invest in four wheels and a platform for their dreams, be it an old Opel Kadett, perhaps recently handed up from the son to the father who vividly remembers the omnipresence of horse-drawn carts and Soviet-made tractors, or be it a brand-new leased black Peugeot (for those who don’t want to know of German cars) or Mercedes. The driving is mostly civil, but there are the occasional speed freaks. Then there is the wind, blowing constantly from the southwest and exactly where I’ve been heading, plus the occasional spell of rain. But, hey, those are the normal ingredients of biking, and have I ever benefitted from a nice tailwind? Yes, I admit, two years ago in the Scottish highlands.
My slight lack of enthusiasm is more due to the expanse of monolingualism over the 675 km I’ve cycled in this country. Wroclaw is different, I hear a lot of foreign languages spoken; tourists from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and North America abound, and the young waitresses and receptionists can speak more than the few expected vocational phrases. But on the whole, if I think of the EU’s EUphemistic language policy – every European citizen will learn to speak two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue – you’d either have to despair or think of the proposition as bordering on the ridiculous. It might appear to some to be a vain attempt by some bureaucrats to justify their own jobs while people n places like this one are struggling with their own issues, such as, eherm, jobs (I talked to one rare Polish man in English who’s been working on construction sites in Norway for 7 years, coming home every four weeks to see his wife and family – he said that Oslo alone now has a contingent of 50’000 Poles). In any case, for most people in the countryside and in small towns, there seems to be no need for English, German or French – many older people abhor foreign languages anyway after having had Russian forced down their throats.
I think back of my travels through the Balkans with some nostalgia, not a day having passed without an encounter or two with some migrants on vacation at home, or re-migrants, and here I mostly confer with co-travellers. Which continuously makes me marvel about the gulf between people who stay put and those who wander about. To take the example of Christine last night on the deck bar of the moored barge at my Hotel Tumski: She’s a German in her late fifties, I’d guess, tanned and sporty, stopping over on her road trip from Kosice in Slovakia to a port near Aarhus in Denmark. What? Where? Why? Well, it’s as simple as that: Her husband has a contract with Deutsche Telekom, for what they now call near-shoring, so he supervises outsourced German work in Kosice and she’s been there with him for 7 years, pursuing her interests (lately going into glass fusing). The two daughters did the IB (the International Baccalaureate, I’m meant to know) there and are now both studying in Innsbruck because of the snow sports and the mountain climbing (well, the younger one couldn’t study at a Bavarian university even if she wanted to, as she chose not to have any German among her examined subjects). The family have sold their home in Germany, and the parents are looking to retire when the contract ends soon. Where? Well, obviously on the sail boat that is now in Denmark waiting for a holiday and family reunion. Later, they’ll sail nothing less than the world. Does Christine speak Slovak? Well, a bit, but she’s given up on the conjugations and declinations, and thus is an English-speaking Slovak comprehender.
Me, I haven’t made much progress on basic street-fighting Polish, I’m ashamed to say. Too much cycling, too little human intercourse. I do study many signs that I pass, though, and have been struck by the frequent re-occurrence of what I take to be German loan words. I’m sitting in a browar (Brauerei, Brewery), round the corner from the old town rinek (Ring) and the ratusz (Rathaus, city hall), and will head back to the hotel over many a plac (Platz, square). And then, across the country there are the ubiquitous advertising boards for blachdakowska, also descending from German (Blech, for sheet metal, and Dach, roof). I also took a picture of a sign advertising fajerwerki and noted a building labelled as Spichler (Speicher, granary). Then again, I have to admit that nowadays, it’s the heyday of hotdogi, menedzers and fritski, so English and French are more in evidence than the language of the Prussians. So while the Poles may not, as a people, travel as widely as Germans and Swiss – well, most can’t afford to, looking at the price and salary levels here – words have been coming and going across borders.
Going? Well, exactly, one of the perhaps three Polish loan words in German is Grenze, border. It’s derived from Old Polish graniza/graenizen/greniz (the others are the German words for cucumber and sabre), and it is quite a significant loan. But, finally, why do we call them loan words anyway? Will we ever hand them back? Are we paying any interest on Blachdachy and Gurke? There is certainly a non-monetary interest in these travellers across Grenzen. They keep us aware that permeability is the essence of borderlines. Tomorrow I’ll be crossing over from Zgorcelec to Görlitz, which is essentially the same place, this side and that side of the Oder/Odra. We’ll see what happens to me.