I’ve used more French in the last nine months in Poland than I have in the previous eight years in southern Ontario. At first, the use of French was inadvertent. As most people who’ve tried to learn a third language know, the second language does not take kindly to competition. As one starts trying to speak “another” language, the last language studied exerts its influence. One starts spouting polyglot nonsense like “To vrai.” or “Je suis allé do domu.” But the French language, like the country, is easily suppressed.
Then I met the French teacher at my school. She lives in the same town as I do, so every Wednesday night, we rode the bus back together. French was the main language that we had in common. Polish and English would help when I got stuck, as she is more the true polyglot and my French is now rustier than a Maluch.
The first time we road the bus together, I think I made quite an impression. The bus ride was fine. I dusted off the old French and we had a nice chat. It was a foggy night and we were into the conversation so I missed my bus stop. No problem. I’d get off at the station and walk home. It would only be an extra ten minutes. But no. The French teacher, Dorota, said that her father, who was picking her up at the station, could also give me a ride home. Great. I met her father, who was very nice. I would try and speak Polish to him and then switch to French when speaking with Dorota. Tough, but not a problem at first.
“Where do you live?” came the question in Polish.
“Where do you live?” came the question in French.
“Bożka 25,” came my answer in Polish.
We chatted as much as we could as Dorota’s dad drove through the fog. Before we came to my neighbourhood of communist style flats, Dorota’s dad invited me and Martha over for bigos and wódka sometime. You can imagine how happy I was at the offer of home-made bigos. Then things got a little weird.
This car ride happened early on in my residency in Cieszyn. I knew how to get to my home, but I wasn’t familiar with the route Dorota’s dad took. Essentially, it was the back way. This new route, combined with the fog and the driver’s and my own partial knowledge of the neighbourhood, lead to some confusion. Also, my language skills were giving out fast. (It was the end of a long day of work.) After some aimless driving, Dorota’s dad stopped the car.
“Does he really know where he lives?” he asked his daughter in Polish.
“Where do you live?” I was asked in French.
I repeated my address and then I said, “I think it’s over there.” in a stew of Polish and French. Driver Dad was convinced that there was nothing down that road. His friendly mood switched to “I gotta get rid of the guy babbling nonsense from the back of my car.” (For the record, I was right. I did live “just over there.”)
He said something to Dorota in Polish which I couldn’t follow. She asked me if it was all right if they dropped me off on the main road that bordered the neighbourhood. I meant to say that it would be no problem, but I’m not sure what languages I was blending at this point. They looked at me as if I was high.
When they dropped me off, Dorota asked if I was sure that I would be able to get home. I totally knew where I was now. I tried to reassure her of this but I don’t think I was too successful as I got something like a very polite “Okaaaaaaaaay, buddy.”
Since that initial encounter, I have had the chance to ride the bus with Dorota many times. I managed to speak coherently and I think she realised that my babbling on that foggy night was not the norm. Still, I never saw her dad again and that invitation of bigos and booze never resurfaced.
It must have been something I said.