by Wojtek Borowicz
I was waiting for her in a bar, with a familiar mix of feelings preceding a first date. Excitement for all the possibilities that open when you meet a new person with a tinge of anxiety about, well, all the possibilities that open when you meet a new person. When she arrived, we got our drinks and launched into idle chit-chat. Normally, after the first couple of minutes, nerves would have calmed down and I would settle into the flow of the conversation. I’d be the best version of myself. Nerdy, somewhat weird, occasionally impassioned, and on a good day even a little bit funny. Romance, however, requires a rhythm. You modulate your voice, land the punchlines, bounce stories back and forth. If you find the right wavelength, the tension starts building up. That night, however, cat got my tongue. Stories that used to make dates lean in with interest rang dull. Jokes that usually got laughs were followed by silence. If someone listened to that conversation, they probably wouldn’t have noticed much more than it being a bit stale. But when you are in a conversation, the perception of its flow is very different. Inside my head, I was laboriously constructing sentences and getting disappointed at how flat they fell. I wasn’t finding any rhythm.
That was the first time in ages I went on a date with someone speaking my native language.
When I left Poland in my early twenties, I was still relatively inexperienced in dating and relationships. Awkward nerds with whom Mother Nature was rather stingy when granting attributes of physical attractiveness tend to be late bloomers. After I moved to Ireland for work, I didn’t know anyone around here so I signed up for dating apps with a goal of establishing some sort of a social life in my new home. Dating strangers was mostly new to me and dating in a foreign language was a completely uncharted land. I was already speaking decent English but my fluency in romance was lacking, to say the least. Step by step and night out by night out, there was progress.
Several years have passed since. A shy, lanky guy with a weird accent, a tendency for run-on sentences, and excessive nostalgia for video games from the 90’s isn’t every woman’s dream come true but there are more who find this aesthetic appealing than I imagined in my early adulthood. Over time, I learned to play to my strengths. I’m a good conversationalist. I talk, ask questions, listen, make jokes, and it’s usually good fun for both people. I have established some fluency.
It had been several years of dating and relationships exclusively in English until that night last year. Lockdowns eased and I was visiting home for the first time since the pandemic broke out. I opened Tinder, got a match, and we started chatting. Texting, however, is easy. You have emoji, spellcheck, and, above all, you have time. You can rewrite messages as many times as you need to make them smooth and witty. Speech robs you of that comfort. In person, you have to rely on whatever amount of charm you can muster.
I mustered very little charm. Alas, the nature of Tinder dates is such that if two sufficiently horny people meet, even the tamest chat will eventually lead them to bed. Unfortunately, moving on from talking to satisfying more basic urges did not end my linguistic struggles. At that point it had been so long since I shared an intimate moment with a fellow Pole, it felt like reliving the experience of talking dirty for the first time in your life. Things are getting hot and heavy and you want to ride that high, but a petrifying question looms: what if I say something so stupid it becomes a turn-off? I thought I left such doubts far in the past, but neither the drinks, nor the night getting steamier by the minute untied my tongue. Somehow, I managed to make it even more awkward, when the only Polish phrase I could remember for going down on someone was so crass, I had to stall, racking my brain for a more palatable alternative.
Given all those pains, it wasn’t the worst one-night stand in history. We had our fun and we still talk once in a while, albeit not dirty. I look back with amusement at the moment I forgot how to articulate a desire to perform oral sex. It's a silly little story but that encounter led me in the unexpected direction of considering my relationship with the Polish language. It made me think about how a shared language is far more than knowing the same words as other people. It’s being in tune with a certain cadence of conversation, of humor, and indeed of romance and intimacy. For years I have been losing that little by little, living far from home and having limited contact with spoken Polish.
This is an odd realization because for most of my life, Polish language was an extension of myself. I never completely lost touch with it, either, which is perhaps why falling out of tune caught me by surprise. Every now and then I call my mom and speak to friends back home. I visited several times since moving to Ireland, too. To this day when I’m agitated, I start swearing in Polish. Partially because of our assortment of curse words and how their harshness is a powerful emotional release that I miss in English but also because when I’m angry or animated, I tap into some primal part of my brain that has never operated in a foreign language. Other than that, however, Polish comes to me less and less naturally every year. It’s not very noticeable to people I talk to, except an occasional stumble or stammer, but who doesn’t fumble their words now and again? The biggest change is in my head. Speaking Polish now requires focus. Words don’t just flow.
I don’t think there’s an expression that describes the feeling when you’re speaking and the word you wanted to say next comes to you in another language. It’s not that you forgot how to say it in the first language, it’s just that two phrases whooshed through your brain, the wrong one arriving early. It makes me feel like a car with a sputtering engine. Those sputters happen when I speak English, too, but differently. When I’m talking very quickly, my lips sometimes outpace my brain. I forget grammar and jumble syntax. Mishaps like that remind me English will always remain my second language. I’m comfortable enough with it to write and even my internal monologue mostly happens in English these days but I know I’ll never speak like a native. My English is an amalgamation of the British variant I was taught in school, American picked up from movies, and Irish I absorb every day. It’s my second language but I don’t feel like I have a first anymore. I’m bilingual but tongueless.
When you leave your country, you leave behind many things. Big, small, important, mundane. Friends and family, the old job, the sloppy kebab that accompanied your Friday nights since college. I didn’t realize you also leave behind your language. You don’t forget it, of course. It’s more subtle. It’s the kind of loss that sneaks up on you. As if the paths your brain knew so well grew over with weeds. They became easy to miss and the foothold isn’t as certain as it used to be. You blunder and stumble over uhs and ums. The realization dawned on me on a date, because it was the first time I was startled by command of Polish not coming to me naturally, but now I look back and see many more instances when it had already been slipping away. One time during a visit my family treated me to a collective eye-roll when I was telling a story and had to use an English word as a crutch when my brain sputtered. On another trip home, I went to get groceries and mixed up the words for beef and pork. At the time, those moments felt very oh silly me (and, frankly, weren’t that out of character) but in hindsight, they showed a pattern.
These little mistakes and even the odd romantic experience make for funny stories. I’m not embarrassed by them. At least not too much. They’ll probably get a mention or two on future dates (in English). But I wish my relationship with my mother tongue wasn’t the price of building a life away from where I came from. I love the Polish language and now that I rarely think in it anymore, I realize I miss it. Today when I speak Polish, it feels like strumming on a guitar that was left unattended for too long. Even if I hit the right chords, the sound grates on my ears and on my mind. At least I know I shouldn’t date in Polish. After all, it’s hard to serenade someone with a guitar that’s out of tune.
About the Author
Wojtek Borowicz is a Polish immigrant living in Ireland since 2016. He writes in Polish and English and often ponders the meaning of home. He graduated Culture Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Wojtek was previously published in Entropy and Honest Ulsterman.