Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Days of Pickles, Coldcuts And Languages

One thing about traveling in Poland -- I keep having to defend American food, particularly American meat, to my Polish friends. Indeed, you find a greater variety of coldcuts in regular supermarkets and restaurants in Poland, and most of them are quite good. Personally, I prefer contintental breakfast, with its ham, rolls, hard-boiled eggs, mueseli, yogurt, and pickles (and in Poland, pickled mushrooms). But what many casual visitors to the U.S. don't realize is that it is possible to recreate this, and many other European treats, if one knows where to look for the ingredients. Higher-end supermarkets, artisanal cheese and meat shops, and specialized ethnic grocery stores abound in places like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Without a local guide who appreciates good food, one may easily wind up only going to T.G.I. Fridays and Von's and having an American food experience that fulfills all the expectations of greasy medocrity that most Europeans have of our food. However, with an American friend who likes good food, it is quite possible to find all manner of delicious items in the U.S., and not only American local items, but foods from Europe, Asia, South America and Africa as well. I don't think anyone really believes me, so I'll have to prove it when they visit the U.S.

Another thing about traveling to Poland is it gives me an opportunity to lament the fact that my mother didn't teach me Polish. It is a difficult language to learn, and it is not coming along very well for me. Believe it or not, words like "Szczecin" (a place name) and "Wyindywidualizowaliƛmy" (looks like some form of a word related to "individualism") can actually be pronounced by some people. With seven noun cases and three genders, Polish is also vexing because words change out from under me at all times. As a native English speaker I'm not accustomed to, for example, grammatical variations on my own name.

But I also am reminded of how difficult English is for people who weren't born into it. While English isn't as grammatically complex as Polish, it has just as many irregularities and a vast vocabulary. Homonyms seem to be particularly distressig to non-native English speakers, but drifting phonetics also causes trouble -- such as why does through sound like threw, but trough sounds like off? My friend Marcin was also quizzing me about our various past constructions, such as "has been driving" vs. "drove." The idea that the former emphasizes the past process, where as the latter emphasizes the past accomplishment seemed to make sense to him, but if a native speaker hadn't given this explanation I am not sure it would have ever made sense.

It seems the most difficult languages are the ones that are farthest from your own. English and Polish are not very close at all, and mutual understanding is quite a laborious pursuit. Fortunately, the language of pickles, ham and beer is nearly universal.