A Vexing Redux for Magazyn Wino

I’m pleased to report that another piece of my writing has been deemed fit for consumption. Click on the photos for proof, and do read the magazine article if it’s something you might find interesting. As for this post—keep in mind it will be about language and writing. And be warned: most questions ahead don’t get answered.

In the early days of this blog I featured a post about ghee that combined the alimentary with the personal. Years later, tasked with my fourth culinary essay for Poland’s premier wine culture monthly, I decided to revisit the theme, now in a more editorial context, in Polish. I expected the writing to come swiftly and be painless, with many of the sentences or even entire sections a direct or approximate translation of the original. But instead of enjoying a shortcut, I wound up neck-deep in a detour—unable, for reasons unknown, to translate my own phrases, and just as unable to follow even a partial outline of the English text.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a uniquely balanced bilingual, in equal parts wary of translation and insistent on my talent for it. In graduate school I gravitated toward areas of linguistics that best informed this apparent contradiction, discovering in comparative semantics (at all levels of analysis, from discourse to morphology) a treasure map to the ways meaning is separate from language yet dependent on it, and how each is formed in the mind. My curiosity was both intellectual and deeply personal, each discovery bringing me closer not just to my master’s degree, but also to understanding my own life with two languages.

Naturally, casting myself as protagonist in my research was as doomed as it sounds. No amount of insight into the observer’s paradox could make up for my lack of interest in unbiased research, and I wound up straying far from the academic path. Fortunately, my ersatz career has permitted me to keep groping at language on my own terms, and the bilingual experience remains a tool in my work and a daily source of inspiration and pleasure.

Most of the time, I’m charmed—with the way there’s no way to say blue in the Slavic languages (you have to narrow the semantic field to light or dark blue, or use multiple words to transmit the more general meaning), or the ways I stubbornly deploy the historical past perfect (czas zaprzeszły) when speaking Polish, itching to make one grammar clear with regard to a distinction I recognize in another. Sometimes, I’m annoyed, typically with translations that exhibit the wrong trade-offs between literal and contextual aspects of meaning. Here, the title of Lena Andersson’s excellent Wilful Disregard comes to mind: not the English one, which conveys the Swedish original’s exact meaning and, just as importantly, glosses banal desperation in the heroine’s scholarly argot; my criticism is for the Polish Bez Opamiętania (roughly with abandon or without control), a banality devoid of the pretension that so cleverly informs the original. Occasionally, I am also irked by the ways people misuse or misinterpret borrowed teminology (in this era overwhelmingly English in origin), though I try not to stay mad for long: borrowings ultimately do fall far from the tree, which is why there are all those false cognates out there, eliciting glee all around (among linguists, anyway).

Rarely am I stumped. But in writing of ghee for the second time in my mirror language, I found myself no more prepared to tackle the topic—and oddly less equipped to push through the writer’s block. The technical instructions wouldn’t come together, the cultural asides didn’t belong and the personal touches I had previously included seemed out of place in the new piece. Sure, test conditions were poor and observer effect levels high—plus I wasn’t writing for the desk drawer that is my blog but for a fancy glossy with an actual readership; all kinds of things might have made writing different and difficult this time around. It is even possible that I am wrong about last time having been any easier. Nonetheless, my bet is that Polish is an order of magnitude trickier when it comes to technical instructions, less suited to resolving thematic interruptions, less acommodating of cheeky personalia and confusingly different from English with regard to argument structure and maybe even the very purpose of transmitting information.

It is beyond the scope of my inquiry today just how English and Polish differ in general or specifically on the last juicy point. I am pretty sure though that comparing the original Clarified with Kwadratura Masła (butter squared) should yield some clues. If your interest is in ghee alone—click according to the language you feel more at ease reading. But if your appetite for the linguistic rivals your love of butter, go ahead and compare—and let me know if you catch anything I might have missed because I’m way too involved.

Subject: Not sending that e-mail

This is an open letter, pointedly not posted to anyone’s mailbox, written in celebration of minimizing the amount of e-mail occupying inboxes, to-do-lists and minds. (It is, some may note, not the first time I’ve written on this subject.) 

This post is also a letter of apology to all those who have ever received a message from me they could have done without—especially, in those pre-Facebook days, one distributed to dozens and containing pretentious drivel (“dispatch” I would have called it) or an opinion or link I failed not to share.

It is also a plea that we all take our chatting, inviting, RSVP-ing and notificating and park it along with the rest of its ilk on Facebook, where at least it consumes time we’re voluntarily committing to waste (and where messages are stored not as e-mails but in a chat-style matrix that is basically already an archive).

I am, of course, speaking for that fringe set of e-mailers whose appreciation of a sorted inbox rivals our love of an icon-free desktop background, but know that we are a righteous pack, and we work hard to prove why things should be done our way. Also—whether you are one of us or you aren’t—please reflect upon the way every incoming message really does come at a tiny cost to your capital of time, and at a less tiny cost to your net capacity for concentration. After all, one has to assess an e-mail’s potential for being important, and then one may also need to decide whether a reply is warranted, and, if so, whether it is one to write instantly or to revisit later, and whom, if anyone, to include as CC and BCC recipients of that message. Finally, the decision whether to delete or leave or archive a message is yet another claim on one’s time.

Thus, I enclose a yelp of fury for each message that passes my inbox without containing (administrative or personal) information or confirmation that is actually necessary for me to see. That’s right, mailing list administrators who added my e-mail without my explicit consent, and senders of invitations to art shows on other continents, and confirmers of the “yes, I’ll be there” variety whenever you’re not actually replying to me. How I wish you had left me off the recipient list altogether!

I realize I’m suggesting the impossible, so let me suggest instead a reduction of the intolerable. Let’s just now and then try leaving a byte unsent.

To add value to plea and apology, here’s a handy apropos formulation for tacking on to official messages, below the signature, provided of course one is into this sort of base-covering pedantry:

Thank you for respecting the privacy of sender’s e-mail address.
Use for topic-related reply only. Do not add to database or mailing list.

It took me hours to perfect the wording, but in a few decades I think it might wind up saving me even more hours in wasted time! (It is also proof of one’s lack of consent to any ensuing spam, which may one day win someone millions in a lawsuit, though possibly a feat like that would first cost millions in time.)


Photo taken by the author at sunset in Warsaw, Poland, on the fifteenth anniversary of the unthinkably tragic attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Note: the birds (and their apparent flight paths) were an unintended, serendipitous subject.

Mushrooming: Level One

Photo taken by the author near Radzymin, Mazowieckie, on August 9, 2016, using an iPhone 4S (with some hasty processing in Lightroom).

Photo taken by the author near Radzymin, Mazowieckie, on August 9, 2016, using an iPhone 4S (with some hasty processing in Lightroom).

Mushroom hunting is not a fringe discipline in Poland. It is a main event, one I never expected to join in on, at least not with any rate of success. Attempts at finding a mushroom “on purpose” always led to nowhere, and my limited mycological knowledge was pretty much useless, even when a mushroom found me. Because so what if it looks like a king bolete if I don’t know with certainty what other species resemble a king bolete, or which of those might be poisonous?

Years into taming the woods at my summer cabin, I am gaining a sense for what’s worth gathering. More importantly, I’m beginning to spot my prey. Indeed, foraging for mushrooms can be said to resemble the carnivorous chase more than the fruit picking session, with specimens sprouting up in a matter of minutes, it would seem, in unpredictable, mostly well-camouflaged places. It’s mushroom hunting, remember? And mushrooms are not plants at all, but rather chitin-rich separatists occupying the fungi kingdom.

It has been suggested (by the likes of Michael Pollan, to recent acclaim) that real, unwavering knowledge of a species resides not in the intellect but in the gut, and it derives not from books but from entrenched experience. Holistic, non-analytical and empirical, it follows the logic of impervious certainty: you know you can pick that chanterelle because it is a chanterelle, and only then is it also funnel-shaped and deep orange-y yellow, with a scent both woody and reminiscent of apricots, and with gill-like ridges running almost all the way down its sturdy, steadily tapering stipe.

The various types of boletes I dehydrate with Poland’s winter specialties in mind, though I might turn a half-dozen of them (or a few tasty parasol mushrooms) into an artery-jamming foil for a batch of biscuits. But the chanterelles, invariably, wind up as the star in what Mark Bittman teaches are the ultimate scrambled eggs: an unctuous custard, smooth and rich, stirred over low heat for ages and now stained a light tan from the sautéed kurki. (It’s worth noting that the Polish term happens to be a homonym for little chickens and evokes plainer, friendlier fare than its frou-frou English equivalent.)

Neither tedious nor boring, mushroom hunting is trance-inducing and highly gratifying. The promise of food at the end of the hunt imbues it with titillating purpose, but even better is the way each find is like an addictive video game’s sparkly chime, only real.

A Big Kid Now

—That looks great, Anker! I’d like one cone with all the flavors please.
—This isn’t ice cream, mom. It’s explosives for the mining industry.

Photo taken by the author in Torup, Nordsjælland, on July 12, 2016.

Photo taken by the author in Torup, Nordsjælland, on July 12, 2016.