As part of this pan-European adventure I'm hoping to have a bash at the mother tongue of each country I'll cycle through, even if it's only something superficial like asking for directions or delivering an astrobiology lecture. Unfortunately I decided this before I'd counted how many languages are en route. There are more than thirty. Bugger.
The good news is that I'm already sorted for fairly large chunks of Europe. My schoolboy French should get me through Gaul as long as everyone's called either Jean-Paul or Claudette. And working in Graz for five years has given me enough Deutsch to survive Austria and Germany, which basically just involves memorizing the names of at least twelve different types of sausage. And I've spent enough time in Spain to stumble through there. Now that I've learnt the Spanish word for tripe I'll never have to eat it again, which is the main thing. So the first major and unknown language I'll come across is Polish. If you don't already know, let me tell you that the Polish language is a complete and utter arse.
So far I've had ten half-hour lessons and I'm still trying to negotiate my way out of a virtual restaurant in Warsaw's Piękna Street. I can ask for a beer or a coffee but I can't order any food yet. I think I might lose some weight on this trip. I can tell you - vaguely it seems to me - that I'd like to do something ("Chciałbym coś zrobić") but if you ask me to specify what exactly then I'm limited to suggesting either eating, drinking or buying. Unfortunately, I don't know the vocabulary for anything I might want to eat or anything I might want to buy. So it's back to drinking again. I wonder if I'll also learn the word for 'cirrhosis'.
The language learning comes courtesy of Pimsleur. I've got a few of their courses and they all have the same structure. Basically you are an American male trying to chat up a native-speaking female. I think it's really designed for gigolos or international sex traffickers. There's one section where you ask the woman if she'd like to go for a drink at one o'clock. She declines. So you suggest two o'clock. She turns you down again. You continue to repeat the question for every hour of the day with her steadfastly refusing to budge. Get the message, knobhead, she's not interested! My American's behaviour was getting worrying. I thought our next move would be to pop to the chemist's next door and ask for some chloroform.
Polish is a difficult language for tons of reasons. Pronunciation is your first problem. Most Polish words look like the work of a typist using only her nose and a keyboard with drawing pins glued to its vowels. I thought a quick google for a particularly unpronounceable Polish phrase would illustrate this but all I turned up was "w Szczebrzeszynie chrzaszcz brzmi w trzcinie". Simple. This, by the way, means "Szczebrzeszynie the beetle is in the reeds". That's not so much an example of difficult Polish as it is a warning about giving your pet a bloody silly name.
Polish loves nothing more than a good, old-fashioned declension. For some unfathomable reason the Polish word for 'two' has seventeen different forms depending on things like case and gender and whether or not it's a Tuesday. Seventeen! If you know seventeen words in English, you can get a job at Currys! And it gets worse. If you wear beige in March you have to reverse every third word and sing the rest in a squeaky Orville the Duck voice. OK, I made that last one up.
But I won't give in. I have ten more hours of lessons to go. It's bound to get easier. And my American will get his own way. By the end of the course I'm sure I'll be able to book a cheap hotel room at an hourly rate and negotiate a decent price for Rohypnol. It's just a pity that I still won't have the vocabulary to ask for a sandwich.