A Wonderful Nightmare

I‘m living in a dream.

I say this to myself many times, probably every day. I live in a non-descript eastern Polish town, just east of Warsaw. I walk to school every day and down the street are bakeries and ice cream kiosks and used clothing stores. Our apartment has hot water and wifi. My English students are charming and vivacious and intelligent and beautiful. There are friends in town whom I can always call or visit and who give me way more than I deserve or could return to them. All around me is tangible, rich culture and history.

Sounds rosy.

It is!

And it isn’t.

The hardest thing in this place is the language. It’s the primary reason I’m leaving at the end of this school year. By then it will have been 5 years of speaking fractured, childish Polish and constantly doubting my understanding anyone. Like last week when I asked the landlord if he remembers about the broken oven part, and he said Lavern will take care of it. But I’d misunderstood him 10 days earlier to say that he’d take care of it himself and we’d been waiting all this time for him. I get things screwed up even in English, and don’t hear what people say,  and it’s 200 times worse in Polish.

It puts me in a cage, and I can function, but not fly. It is a bitter thing.

I keep thinking about the bitter water turning sweet in the old prophet’s day and how the miracle is still true.

How what is rosy and sweet isn’t only that.

And what is bitter isn’t only that.

I’m usually an all-or-nothing person, but I’m learning that most of life is not about either/or, but more both/and.

So this monster of a language has shown me grace like nothing else in my life. It has been both brutal and gentle, like when I croaked out my requests at the village store and  the sweet shop keeper said I say ‘butter’ very nicely. The Polish word for butter is one of the easiest words ever and I chuckled all the way home at how eager he’d been to compliment me.

This bitter cage is sweet because it lets me look deeply into my students eyes and say I know exactly how they feel. I know how scary it is to expose how little I know. I know how it is to understand way more words than I can produce. I know how it is to know a word but not be able to access it in all the folds of my brain. (Who was it who said the greatest sermon is “Me too”?) So I can give them understanding on several levels, and it is sweet, the way they like me and keep coming back.

My anguish becomes something good? It’s hard to admit it–indeed, the admission comes through clenched teeth–but I have to believe it because it’s so obvious. The bitter does become sweet.

This bitterness repeatedly hands me sweetness. In four years, I have never had someone shout or get angry at me for not being able to say what I want in their language. They just wait, or suggest another word, or show by gestures. hmmm, I take that back. There were several women at train ticket desks who obviously think the whole world should be able to speak Polish.

This bitter cage shows me that saying “I don’t know” when asked for a word, or to say a completely wrong word doesn’t stop the universe in its orbit . Nothing–especially failure–is usually as bad as it feels at the moment. But it’s painful. Especially to someone who has been called a walking thesaurus. It’s living with clipped wings instead of soaring.


I took this photo on the train from Warsaw to Berlin, Germany. The hysterical English translation is not unlike some of my mangled Polish sentences.

But this isn’t wasted time, I know. I can’t express myself with words above a child’s level, but I today bumped into an acquaintance on the street and listened to her telling me that she finished her masters degree and is going on Monday for an interview for her doctorate. I congratulated her and said simple, positive, affirmative words and smiled and nodded a lot. She feels heard and cared for, and that’s something sweet, and what most everyone wants most of the time anyhow.

Communication and presence and soul transcend words. This is what helps me survive and even thrive in this town where the average adult can’t speak English. This is what sustains relationships in which I can’t talk above a 6 year old’s level but do experience an ocean of love and the silent language of kinship.

I will always be grateful for living in this place of dreams and nightmares–unutterably grateful. Which proves that sometimes there aren’t adequate words.

Even in an English thesaurus.

7 thoughts on “A Wonderful Nightmare

  1. You said it so well, and all of us who have struggled with communicating in another language “get it”. Even when it’s not Polish, and even when it’s been less than 5 years, we know the feeling of “being able to function, but not to fly”. May Jesus surround you once again with people who speak your heart language; people who listen to what you say… and to what you don’t say.

  2. I was deeply touched by your honesty about the good times and hard times. I remember feeling so lost, so dependent when I lived 5 months in Ukraine and couldn’t speak the language. I pray that God’s grace would be near you as you begin transitioning.

    Your comments also make me think of something I read this evening in a book by Cynthia Moe. She talked about how much we like to avoid pain, but that following Jesus sometimes means being willing to walk into pain. I heard you doing that as you talked about the good times and hard times.

  3. Oh, I know, I know, I know! At least I can converse semi-intelligently about onions!
    Praying for you, ’cause I know leaving won’t be easy, even if staying would be even harder.

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