Monday, June 19, 2017

Not your grandmother’s Poland

My wife and I just returned from a week’s trip in Poland, taken for the purpose of my attending a Law and Language conference in Bialystok (see previous post). I have to admit that I had never felt as uneasy before a trip as I did prior to this trip.  I could not put my finger on what exactly was disturbing me but told myself that I would take things as they are in the present. That said, I made a conscious decision to travel on my Israeli passport and speak Hebrew. The greatest response to past anti-Semitism and mass killing is to return as a proud Jew.  I did not regret that decision and was quite surprised by the reaction. Not only were there no negative reaction or incidents, people expressed interest, with one person, in his 40’s, apologizing for the actions of the Poles in the past, something we did not expect or request.

The Poland I saw in that week, granted a short time, is a complex society. It consists of three distinct generations: pre-war, Soviet and modern Polish. The first is hard to see as that few of that generation is still alive and most of the buildings of that period, at least in Warsaw, were destroyed by the Germans. Yet, it is engrained in my mind from stories and movies. The second was symbolized by the Stalin’s gift to the Poland, the imposing cement Palace of Science and Culture in the city center. No less reminiscent of that era is the stone-faced “charm” of the border guards and train clerks, who do their job in the proper Soviet manner. The current generation is more European and western. On the train from Bialystok to Warsaw, delayed by two hours, we spent a magical 4 hours with five 18-year olds returning from vacation. Aside from the respect they gave us, we were amazed by their knowledge, curiosity, English and goodness. We talked for four hours without effort and did not regret the train delay in the least. If this group is the future of Poland, I am very optimistic. This interlacing of different educations does not lead to easy conclusions about the past, present or future but makes for a fascinating trip.

In terms of the Polish language itself, I left with the impression that in six months I could be functioning quite well in it. It took some three days to figure out the pronunciation/spelling matrix. However, once I understood how to say the words, it was wonderfully (to me, not the Poles) similar to Russian, which I know, and therefore easy to understand. I was amused by the Elmer Fudd letter, specifically Ƚ (an L with a cross in it). I learned that is pronounced wa, reminding me of Elmer Fudd saying, “I am going to shoot that Wabbit.” I mean no offense to the Polish but often use humor to help remember.


The food was generally excellent. There was an abundance of non-mainstream meats, including duck, bison, venison and wild boar. The Polish are justifiably famous for their perogi with various fillings, with our favorite being those filled with blueberries in a sauce of sour cream. I loved the herring, especially in cream and served with onion, a taste acquired from my mother. On the other hand, Poland lacks the fresh vegetables so common in Israel. The one “Israeli salad” we saw (at the hotel breakfast) was so small and minimal that it engendered pity not desire. The service in restaurant was prompt and professional at least until the main dish was served. At that point, for reasons we never understood, the waiter would disappear as if he did not want to disturb us from digesting our food. At least twice we gave up on the dessert as we had become somehow invisible to the server. Admittedly, not eating a dessert is not a tragedy, at least at our age.

I must say a few words about hair.  The Middle East is known for dark, often curly, hair for women and the non-hair for men. Many of my students, in their 20’s, already have expanded foreheads. In Poland, the large majority of women were blonds, most of them natural. Curly heads must be considered very exotic. We also noted that they were much more elegantly dressed than in Israel. As for the males, they must either have the right genes or lead peaceful lives as even older men had full heads of hair.

In short, my trip to Poland, regardless of my anxiety beforehand, was extremely memorable and worthwhile. I do not claim to have become an expert on the country but at least I gained some insights on modern Poland and my grandmothers’ Poland. To any Jew considering a visit there, I would recommend it, but doing so neither forgetting the past nor ignoring the present. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Bialystok - Law, Language and People

I had the honor and pleasure of attending and giving a paper at the Language and Law Conference in Bialystok, Poland organized by the Legal Language department of the University of Bialystok. It was a two day event focusing on a wide variety of topics, including legal genres, language teaching and translation.  Lecturers came from all of Europe, including three from Israel, and represented all professions interested in legal languages.

Due to the fact that the conference has four rooms simultaneously running, it was impossible to hear all lectures. I would like to mention a few among those that I could attend that deserve special mention. Juliette Scott discussed the covert-overt spectrum in translation, specifically how much a translation should show the syntax and errors of the source documents, depending on the type and purpose of the document. It enlightened me in regards that seamless translation is not always the ideal. Later that session, Alexandra Matulewska elucidated the way legal texts often involve non-legal genres, including medical and engineering, thus creating a challenge and dilemma for legal translators forced to stray from their field of expertise. Andreas Abegg presenting a linguistic analysis of long term changes in Swiss administrative laws, demonstrating how that type of law had gone from declaring its rights by frequent use of we and our to specifying its range, applying a wide variety of domain terms. Later on that session, Joanna Kozlovska gave an interesting analysis of the problem of translation EU laws into Polish, comparing the single word “hunting” in English and its two possible translations into Polish with the accompanying linguistic and legal consequences. Later on that day, Ondreu Klabal and I provided complementary perspectives on the use of shall in English legal writing.

The second day was marked by a truly fascinating lecture by Dr. John Ollson on forensic linguistics. Citing real cases, he showed how linguistic analysis can determine the truth or lack thereof regarding authorship of written texts ranging from police confessions and suicide notes to phone text messages. It was not only interesting scholarship but also a fascinating story. The conference ended with a trip to a Polish village in the forest, complete with a carriage ride, an excellent BBQ and an encounter with friendly Polish mosquitoes. My wife and I came as strangers and left as friends.

My most personal experience from this conference was visiting the birthplace of my grandmother (who left Bialystok in the 1920’s) and giving a lecture in the building where she may have studied. I hope she is smiling up there.

I wish to thank the organizers, Dr. Halina Sierocka and her assistants, for a well organized, friendly and intellectually fascinating conference. I cannot imagine how many hours of works it involved, but the result was a truly fine event.


My next post will relate my overall experiences of Poland.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Childlike musings

Two events have occurred that have changed the audio environment of my office. First, summer has arrived, meaning the windows are now always open. Secondly, the municipality has completely refurbished the local play ground, located next to my office (in my apartment), including swings, slides, a roof, artificial grass and (just) enough open space to play football.  As a result, I get to listen to the sounds of children all day long.

As a matter of explanation, I live in a neighborhood that could be described as lower middle class. A series of low apartment buildings, with apparently random addresses, surround this playground. The residents, a typical mixture of a periphery city in Israel, include Russians, Ethiopians, religious and non-religious people, Arabs (yes, there is no Apartheid in Israel) and more established Israelis.  Unemployment is minor but nobody could be considered rich. The cars in the parking lot are run of the mill while the sizes of the flats range from 90 to 140 square meters.  We chose to buy here because of the apartment size and garden. So, the neighborhood is alive but not dangerous.

Back to the playground, this diversity is reflected in the various “shifts.” In the morning, the older residents and mothers/grandmothers watch the babies and toddlers enjoy the facilities. As the school day ends, teenagers hang out and talk their own special nonsense and release stress. In the late afternoon, once it cools off, the parents send their kids out, creating a scale microcosm of the area: from white to black, first to 12th grade, boys and girls, comfortable to modest dress. From my “observation” of the sounds emitted from the area, I have noticed the following:

1      Regardless of language and culture, the song “na, na ,na na, na” is intended to annoy.

2     There is the always the “Godot” kid, the one everybody is calling but I have never           actually seen. In my case, it is a girl named Zoar. Someone is always calling for Zoar to come.

        It may be genetic but, whatever the reason, give kids three open square meters, they will start playing football and arguing, mainly the latter.

4     Kids never tire of hide and seek (call tofeset in Hebrew). I can’t figure out that many places to hide there but it does not stop the endless count up from 1-20. Children in this neighborhood quickly learn how to count in Hebrew and English.

        No afternoon is complete without a good cry. Specifically, at least one day, one kid has to experience catharsis by sobbing.  Often, s/he is the one previously saying “na, na, na na, na.”

6      I have been there and done that but it does not help. I really hope the teenage boy whose voice is changing finishes the process soon.

7    The bossy girl lives on. We can hear give orders for hours and get upset when discipline is lacking.

8      Kids find cursing fun. In this case, the foul words are in Hebrew, Russian and English.

9     The various ethnic/religious/family groups tend to initially keep to themselves, but you can count on football and hide and go seek to bring everybody together.


This concert or cacophony may not seem to be the ideal background for work requiring concentration. It is true that I or my wife have considered various methods of silencing a few individuals. Still, for the most part, the mind can ignore the high pitches from outside or even appreciate the youthful spirit. Personally, I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles, without any communal playground. Everybody was locked in their castle. I sort of regret that I didn’t grow up in such a neighborhood. So, even if would rather not listen in, I try to remember that the communal playground plays an important and positive role in growing up and developing social skills (and thick skin). So, I just grin and bear it.