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ESL Story: How good is your Polish?

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Driving from Leipzig to Kiev can be an adventurous undertaking providing you with insights into Slavic culture and mentality. I have travelled a number of times to Kiev by car to visit my friends and on every trip there were various interesting situations along the way.

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Once I was waiting at the German/Polish border checkpoint when a journalist and a cameraman approached me. The journalist shoved a microphone in my face and after telling me that they were from a local TV station working on a news story on the relationship between Poland and Germany, he asked me: "You are driving to Poland alone in your car, aren''t you afraid it might get stolen?" Can you imagine his face when I told him that I was travelling to the Ukraine and no, I was not afraid someone might steal my car for a number of reasons some of which I listed in my reply to him. I don''t know why the media are so obsessed with reporting how dangerous it is to go to East European countries when in fact it''s probably as safe as anywhere else in Europe and the real danger might well lie in the way the media form public opinion.

Sometimes travelling through Poland can be really quite interesting and pleasant. The vast majority of the people I encountered were very friendly and open minded. I''ve made it a habit on my trips through Poland to approach any person, using the Polish phrases I''ve learned and the response is almost always: "Oh, pan bardzo dobrze mowie po-polsku" (The gentleman speaks very good Polish) although my vocabulary is very limited to say the least. Now, if someone from Poland comes to the country I come from, we expect them to speak very good German and we would never make the effort to say a single word in Polish. Why exactly is that? When you go to another country it''s like visiting your neighbours in their house and you want to respect and honour their hospitality. Why don''t we do the same when we travel abroad? I know many Germans who would say "Well sure, German is a much more important language than Polish." Is that really so? How do you measure the importance of a language? Is it a question of economic power? I don''t think so because when I travel as an individual and I meet another individual I honestly believe that they are just as important as I am and when I''m in their country I at least make the effort to say ''Hello, excuse me I have a question'' in their language. That is really not asking too much, is it? But it tells the other person that I respect them and that I''m glad to be in their country otherwise why would I go there in the first place?

Trying to learn some Polish can literally open doors. Let me illustrate this with another episode that happened to me later that day: As I was getting closer to the Polish-Ukrainian border I decided to stop for the night because I was pretty tired and darkness was approaching fast. In the town of Jastkow I stopped at a small privately owned petrol station for fuel and directions to the nearest motel. Of course I used my readily available phrases in Polish and the man at the station answered in Polish too. Because I understand much more than I can say myself I had no problem in following what he was telling me. When I thanked him he asked me where I was from and when he learned that I was from Germany, he switched to German which he spoke fluently. He said his name was Leszek and that he had worked for a year in Munich as a musician. We soon found lots of topics to discuss and I didn''t realize how fast time was going. After an hour or so his wife suddenly emerged and demanded that he called it a day and came home. When his wife saw me, Leszek introduced me to her and she scolded him for having wasted my time with his talk. Leszek agreed with his wife and decided that I should stay in their house which was located a few metres behind the petrol station. It didn''t take long to convince me and so I spent the night in Leszek''s guestroom. When I got up the next morning my hosts were already waiting for me at their table laid for breakfast and it was almost as if we had known each other for ages.

The only compensation the couple would accept as a token of my gratitude were some bottles of German beer and some chocolate for their little daughter.

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