I had the opportunity over winter break to travel to the lovely city of Toruń. It is not so far away from Lębork and I visited this lovely city for two days and one night. Travelling to Toruń was very easy and I recommend that first-time visitors to the city go from the train station to the riverfront opposite the city. Here you can see a lovely city panorama and it's wonderful architecture and old medieval fortifications. It is also not a long walk from the train station to the old town so don't worry about taking a bus, because walking across the Piłsudski bridge is another opportunity to see more of the city as you approach it.
The first thing I did in Toruń was check into my hostel, which was surprisingly right on the old town square. The price was good, so I did not expect the hostel to be so centrally located. Then I went to the leaning tower near the riverfront. I love old battlements and fortifications so I knew I had to see this old medieval guard tower. After this I caught the last show at the planetarium. Now, the area around the planetarium was quite interesting for me. All within a stone's throw of each other were these buildings: A lovely church, the planetarium, a large and important building of Toruń university, and finally a jail that looked like a grim castle. I found this last buidling a little bit surprising because it seems odd to have a jail right next to a church. In theory an escapee from the jail could attend a lecture at the university, watch a show at the planetarium, go to church and pray, and be back in his jail-cell all before the guards noticed he was not there! At least that is what my imagination thought of when I saw all of these buildings so close together.
The old town of Toruń is a UNESCO protected site and I can see why. The architecture of the town is quite impressive and as one walks around this area it is quite possible to have a sense of awe for the grandeur of the old buildings. For dinner in Toruń I tried baked pierogi, which I had not heard of before. They were bigger and thicker than standard pieorgi. They were quite tasty, but I recommend eating them with some sort of sauce, because they can be a little dry. I particularly enjoyed them becasue they reminded me of a regional food from my own region: pasties. These are essentially flaky meat pies with potatoes, onions, ground beef, and sometimes rutabaga. After dinner I walked around to see more buildings and churches, had a beer at a local brewery and pub, and went to bed. I heard that Toruń is a student city, and I could feel this atmosphere while walking around that Friday night.
My second day in Toruń started off with storing my things at the train station so I did not have to walk around all day with my backpack. The highlights of this day were the museum of Mikołaj Kopernik or Nicolaus Copernicus as the English speakers call him. This was a great museum and I learned a lot about this revolutionary scientist. I even watched a film in '4-D', which was rather interesting. After a few hours at this museum it was off to the museum of living ginger-bread. Here I learned how 'pierniczki' or ginger-bread cookies were made in Toruń through the ages. I even had the opportunity to make my own. My ginger-bread cookie was not the most impressive, but it was fun to make nonetheless. After this it was dinner at a bar mleczny and then I went to the Old Town Hall to see their collection about Toruń. I learned that a Polish King died in Toruń in the 1500's, which is something I had not known before. I then relaxed at the Vistula riverfront and took a train out of Toruń. I had some confusion in Gdynia while transferring to an SKM train there. Due to this confusion I ended up staying the whole night at the Gdynia train station. It was not the best experience, but I was in such high-spiritis from my lovely time in Toruń that I did not mind too much.
I have met some people who say that Toruń is a better city than Kraków as far as visiting and seeing Polish culture. I agree that Toruń is a lovely city, but comparing it to Kraków is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Both are old cities with impressive architecture but the feel of each city is quite unique and different. I cannot say that one is better than the other and I wholeheartedly recommend both to visitors travelling around Poland.
Languages are difficult. There are nuances that it seems only native speakers can learn. They seem to exist in every language and they are tremendously difficult to master. Of course, there are fundamental differences between every language. Some languages seem to lay fairly close to one another. For example, English has taken a lot of its structure and words from French. Due in large part to the Norman Invasion of the 11th century, and to other factors which are far too long to list here. Spanish is also similar to English, mainly because both languages have a lot of their roots in Latin. Yet, what about English and Polish? Are these languages similar? Today, we will talk about how an English-language minded American has struggled to learn Polish and the successes and failures he has had.
This English language minded American is me. What I mean when I say English language minded is that English is my first language. Meaning that when I think and when I try and orient myself to new things I do so from an English perspective. So, in my opinion is Polish similar to English? That is not a question that I can answer with a simple 'yes or no'. In some cases the two languages are deceptively similar. I say deceptively because sometimes Polish seems to have grabbed some English words, or rather English has adapted some Polish words (chicken or the egg argument, who knows really?) and this can be quite confusing. Confusing, there is a perfect example of what I mean. I remember once when I was in Polish class and I was trying to tell the teacher that I was confused and did not understand the concept. Now, I knew that sometimes English and Polish words are similar. For example, irritating in English is irytujący in Polish. So, knowing that sometimes English and Polish words are fairly similar I said to the teacher: 'Przepraszam pani profesor, ale jestem "skonfusowany" '. At this my teacher laughed and laughed. She told me that she know what I was trying to say, but that this word did not exist in Polish. So, in this sense trying to learn Polish from an English perspective gives you a lot of false friends.
Yet, on the other side of this argument Polish and English are in no way similar. Many are the times when I struggle with Polish letters and sounds. Ż, Z, and Z', are a perfect example. I was even more disappointed when I was told that although I could roll my r's, my rolled r's are still not the same as a native Polish speaker's r's because my tongue is in a different location. English can be difficult for Polish learners as well. The english letter combination of 'th' as in 'that is the thousandth tenth of the throne' can be quite difficult for Polish learners.
Mistakes come naturally in any situation you are trying to speak in a foreign language. Mistakes are a tricky business with learners of foreign languages, because you naturally want to point them out, but do it too much, and you discourage someone from ever trying to speak again because they start to think that there is no possible way for them to speak without making mistakes. Yet, on the other hand if you don't correct them from the beginning you are really only doing a detriment to their future selves because as their language improves they will then have to back-track and correct the mistakes that they had been making for a long time. So, it essentially breaks down into what you want to do with the language you are trying to learn. Are you trying to master it? Are you trying to learn enough to order a drink while on vacation? In my own Polish learning pursuit I am generally merciless to myself. I don't mind making mistakes, but I don't care to make the same mistake twice. This is why some people have described me as a real stickler on grammar. Polish grammar to me is like a puzzle of sort, or a kind of game. Each aspect of a language as a purpose or meaning, but the way each language communicates this differs. For example, in English we tend to use prepositions after our verb of movement 'go'. I can go into, go towards, go through, go around, go out, go in, go back, go forward, go sideways, go up, or even go down, amongst many other iterations and examples that I either don't know or have the time to tell here. Where as Polish as some variant of this as well, but it also uses prefixes with the verb. Pójść, dojść, wyjść, wejść, przejść, and many others which really I dont' know. Hence the game of figuring out a foreign language, you need to simply look for what the aspect of a language is trying to communicate. In the example above, each language is trying to tell us where we are going. English uses prepositions after the verb, and Polish uses prefixes attached to a verb. Either way the same meaning is expressed, but a different path is taken to reach this expression. Personally I find grammar to be frustratingly fascinating, boring, amazing, and sometimes superfluous all at the same time. Either way it is something that you cannot do without if you ever truly want to master a foreign language.
So, that is my take on learning Polish. It has been difficult and rewarding. God knows I still make mistakes. I don't mind making them because I can learn from them. I do try and not make the same mistake twice though. Do this enough times and you will find that you don't want to continue learning, and then you might just give up, and giving up is never a good option for learning a language.
I already wrote on some small differences between Poland and America once on this blog before. Now, I am not sure if this topic was popular with our loyal readers, but there is another small thing that I noticed. It is another thing that I certainly did not think about nor expect to be different. Today, this small thing will be light switches, more importantly light switches for bathrooms in Poland.
When going to the bathroom, it is very important that you are able to see. This seems so obvious that it does not need to be said. However, there is a small problem when it comes to this matter in Poland; the light switch. I have noticed that on nearly all of the non-public bathrooms that I have been in the light switch is outside of the bathroom. This meaning that when you go to the bathroom you need to first turn on the light, then enter the bathroom, then shut the door. This is a fine sequence of events and it works for everyone involved it seems. However, for me it is strange. The system I am used to or accustomed to is the light switch laying on the interior wall, inside the bathroom. This means that when you enter a bathroom, it is usually dark and you then find the light switch, turn it on, close the door, and then do your business as needed. In Poland I find that I many times enter into a bathroom first, only to realize that I forgot to turn on the blasted light because the light switch is on the wall outside of the bathroom.
Forgetting to turn on the bathroom light is very annoying for me, but I see greater potential here for mayhem. I have three siblings and when we were growing up we enjoyed to pick on each other and fight. Sometimes it was small things such as calling each other names, or making faces at each other. Other times it escalated to greater extremes. For example, once my brother and sister caught me, tied me to a chair, and left me in our upstairs for a good long while. This was not the best experience for me, but such is life with siblings when you are the youngest of four. My point is that people, children especially, must abuse the fact that the light switch is located on the wall outside of the bathroom in Poland. Surely, there must be moments where a brother goes to the toilet and his siblings sneak up and turn the lights off on him while he is on the toilet and in the bathroom. This seems like such an easy prank that it must be commonplace. I must ask around and see if this was or is the case for some people. However, I can say this for sure that if in America our light switches were outside of the bathroom, then I would have been going to the toilet in the dark quite frequently thanks to the antics of my siblings.
Learning how to swim is an important thing. You never know when you might end up in the water, struggling for survival. Swimming desperately so that you don't sink down below the waves to your cold grave. A bit of a morbid image, but it does get the point across that one should learn how to swim. In many countries it is common for young children to attend swimming lessons and learn this very important skill. At the local pool in Lębork there are swim lessons offered to children of various ages. One recent Saturday I went to the pool. (That's right, your poor English teacher has a life outside of teaching, strange as that may seem) I went to the pool in the mid-morning, I did not know that this was the typical time for children's swimming lessons. Thus, at the pool it was myself, some swim instructors, and many many children. This was not the best situation for my own personal swimming, but I was able to observe some interesting teaching methods.
The instructors at the swimming pool had a certain style of teaching that I rather liked. First of all, they were strict and they allowed no back-sass from the children. It seemed like none of the instructors really cared if the kids wanted to swim or not. When they said 'enter the water' the kids entered the water. If there were some kids who did not want to enter the water the instructors gave them the proper encouragement to get their little behinds in the water and stop complaining! This may seem rather harsh, but I think with kids and water you need to have a firm hand because it is natural to fear water and everyone needs to overcome this fear. It is better to do this when you are a child and not have to deal with it when you are an adult. So, the kids entered into the pool when they were told. However, once in the water I observed some funny instruction as well. The children had to swim laps and practice the different styles of strokes. For example the front crawl, the back stroke, the breast stroke, and so on. What was very funny to me was that the instructors provided encouragement from the pool deck, but they also had a long metal pole. With this pole they would encourage the kids to swim in a certain way. If, for example, a child's leg was not kicking properly, then the instructor would use the pole to help guide the leg into the proper position. I am sure this is very helpful, but I could not help but laugh at this because the poor kids seemed like cattle being poked and prodded into the proper position. I think it is a good idea because it helps the kids learn the proper technique. However, I do feel kind of bad for them as well. It is hard enough to swim, let alone swim in a large group of other children, and on top of this to also have some instructor jabbing you with a longe pole! This all just seems like too much. Still, I laughed at the poor children's' expense because the instructor jabbing them with the long metal pole made for a funny sight.
Now, you may think that I am being too brutal to these poor kids, but I had my own troubles when I was a young child learning to swim. First of all, we did not have a pool near us, so we had to learn how to swim in a lake. The lake water was not very clean, and later on we found out that this was because of an invasive plant that made the water stink quite a lot. We also had to learn how to dive into the water head-first. This was the hardest part of swim lessons for me. My instructor tried various techniques to try and get me to dive properly. This varied from having me try different positions to them using their hands to guide/throw/push me into the water. Being thrown in head-first and causing a great splash was the most humiliating part of the lessons for me. So, I can empathize with these poor kids who have to swim at Lębork. They get jabbed with a long metal pole, and I was thrown into the water. I guess swimming lessons can be hard no matter where you are in the world.
Born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan David was raised by his parents with his two sisters and brother.