My chance encounter with a famous pianist and other interesting people on trains

high-speed-train-146498_640On long train journeys, people either sit in silence and keep themselves amused, or they try to be a bit social. When I was young and shy, I would have done the former, now I tend to the latter, without wanting to be too intrusive. You’ve got to know when you’ve talked enough and it’s time to shut up! But I am a journalist, I find people from all places and walks of life interesting, and I think people welcome little bouts of friendliness in what can be a perfunctory, impersonal world.

Recently, on a train from Warsaw to Bratislava, for part of the journey I sat next to a lovely and very interesting woman who turned out to be a famous pianist and music teacher, Lidia Kozubek. She was very modest and it was only after some prompting from me that I found out her name. She had taught for 50-odd years at the Academy of Music in the Polish capital and performed all over the world, including my part of the world too, having had pupils in Australia and New Zealand.

Thankfully, some of Lidia’s recordings can be found on YouTube. Here are a couple of them. The first piece – by Polish pianist and composer Maria Agata Szymanowska  (1789-1831) – I was not familiar with, but it’s really lovely. And of course Polish-born Chopin is her repertoire.

Later on the same train I struck up a conversation with another interesting woman, a doctor originally from Brno (which she said was a lovely place, like “a little Vienna”) but who now lives in Canada but works at a hospital in Saudi Arabia. Her observations on life in the three countries were fascinating.

artillery-155272_640Finally, on a regional train from Cesky Krumlov to Ceske Budjovice, a semi-retired railway engineer by the name of Jan chatted happily away after I helped him shut a window. He had learned English purely from listening to Radio Free Europe and had been working as an 18-year-old at the station in Cesky Krumlov on the day in 1968 when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia – tanks drove in but luckily, he said, unlike in Prague, there was no firing there that day. Jan’s dream was to come to Australia but he was scared of the “snakes, spiders, sharks, crocodiles and kangaroos”. I told him not to let fear govern his life and to pursue his dream. Although Jan was past retirement age he still worked a couple of days a week because his language skills – he was also fluent in German and French – were needed by his employer, in customer relations.

All of which goes to show how useful it is for people nowadays to be able to speak more than one language.


The West Slavic languages are haunting me: all I need is Radio Wawa

The Lazienki Palace, or Palace on the Water, in the Lazienki Park. Photo: Bernard O'Shea

The  Palace on the Water in Warsaw’s impressive Lazienki Park. Photo: Bernard O’Shea

You may know that recently I did a trip to Central Europe (see A peek at the West Slavic world). On the long flights over and back I treated myself to mini film festivals in French, Italian and Spanish – Emirates does not have much in the way of Portuguese or Romanian films on offer. And since I have got back I have made more of an effort to immerse myself my chosen Romance languages.

mascot-48563_640But those West Slavic languages are sneaking into my life in wily ways. The other day I woke up in shock thinking the birds in the trees outside my window were chirping in Slovakian!


The Palace of Culture in Warsaw houses many theatres, and has a viewing tower. Photo: Bernard O'Shea

The Palace of Culture in Warsaw . Photo: Bernard O’Shea

And last night I had strange dreams too, one of which involved a Polish segment – something to do with pulling nails out of a wall, and some of the nails were worth a prize and others not, but the prize-winning nails were getting mixed up with the worthless ones. Weird, huh?

Maybe I thought I was back in the Palace of Culture, Warsaw’s tallest building, which was a gift from Stalin. During the day its masonry looks pretty ugly when viewed from close up, but at night when it is decked in pretty coloured lights it can look quite fetching.

In Warsaw I caught up with a friend, Ania, whom I met on the Portuguese summer language course that I did at the University of the Algarve in 2011. Her Portuguese was and is better than mine as she had lived in Brazil for a year.

Radio Zawa logoShe kindly showed us around – I was travelling with my niece, so we didn’t speak Portuguese – and I really liked the Polish radio station that she listened to in her car – Radio Wawa (Wawa being an affectionate short name for Warszawa). For those who would like to listen to some Polish pop/rock for a change, the link is here. Its logo means “Always Polish music.”

Normal Romance language service will be resumed shortly…

Say hello to your soul mates

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Charlemagne.

pair-167267_1280Greetings, and how are your second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth souls doing today! Your Portuguese soul is uma alma and the Spanish one is una alma too; your French one is une âme; your Italian one is un’anima and they are all feminine; your Romanian soul is un suflet and it’s neuter.

Learning a second language, or a third, fourth and fifth (how far can you go?), is complicated, regardless of whether they are similar or vastly different. And whether you learn them simultaneously or one by one, you can be sure that your brain will muddle bits of one language with another. But the effort is rewarding, and for those who like to travel, being able to communicate even just a little bit with the locals in their “foreign” (to you) language just makes the travel experience so much more enjoyable. You will feel “at home” as opposed to foreign.

With some grasp of the Romance languages, you should be able to get by in much of south and south-western Europe, and in Romania and Moldova to the east; in South America and Central America; and in other parts of the world such as the former French and Portuguese colonies in Africa. And let’s not forget the French flavours of Canada.

There are other benefits too. Studies have found that learning a second language can keep your brain going as you age and helps ward off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So whatever language you are learning, persevere. And if you are pondering learning one, get going!

To make learning and revision easier, over the next couple of months I am going to collate most of the key points covered in this blog so far and make it easier to find. Today, pages on the subject pronouns in Italian and Romanian have been added to the grammar sections, and the verb “to be” is now listed in all the five language verb pages. Use the drop-down menus on the main menu bar to get to them.



In Portuguese: dar a alma ao daibo – to sell the soul to the devil; dar vida e alma por – to do all one can (literally, to give life and soul for); do fundo da minha alma – from the bottom of my heart/soul (one would say heart in English); de alma e coração – with heart and soul (literally with soul and heart, but it sounds better in English the other way around); nenhuma alma – not a soul; alma gêmea – soul mate (literally, twin soul); pela minha alma! céus! nossa! – upon my soul!

spain-28530_640In Spanish: agradecer a alguien con toda el alma – to thank someone from the bottom of one’s heart; llevar en al alma de alguien – to love somebody deeply; parecer una alma en pena – to look like a ghost; ser el alma de la fiesta – to be the life and soul of the party; caerse el alma a los pies – to lose heart (literally, drop the soul to the feet; partir el alma a alguien – to break someone’s heart.

france-151928_640In French: vendre son âme au diable – to sell one’s soul to the devil; du fond de l’âme – from the (very) depths of one’s soul; chanter/jouer avec âme – to sing or play with soul; âme damnée – partner in crime; errer comme une âme en peine – to wander around like a lost soul or like a soul in torment; une âme soeur – a soul mate (literally, sister soul); ville sans âme – a soulless town; sans voir âme qui vive – without seeing a living soul.

flag-24134_640In Italian: l’anima della festa – the life and soul of the party; vendere l’anima al diavolo – to sell one’s soul to the devil; con tutta l’anima – with all one’s soul/heart; anima e corpo – literally, soul and body, but in English we’d say body and soul, wholeheartedly; rompere l’anima a qualcuno – to drive someone mad (literally, to break or smash the soul of someone); anima gemella -soul mate; pace all’anima sua – God rest his soul (literally, peace to his soul).

romania-28958_640In Romanian: suflet pereche – kindred spirit, soul mate (pereche means a couple or pair); a-şi trage sufletul – to pant, have a rest, take a breather; suflet amărât – poor soul, miserable soul; a-şi da sufletul – to give up the ghost, breathe one’s last; a-şi descărca sufletul – to get something off one’s chest; a-şi uşura sufletul plângând – to have a good cry (lighten the soul through crying).

Hot Romance language hits from Black M, Calogero, Anitta, Arisa, Lidia Buble and more

Every now and then I have to catch up with what’s happening on the music scene in my five Romance languages. Here’s what’s hot at the moment – excluding Enrique Iglesias’s Bailando in its Spanish and Portuguese versions, which was covered in the previous main post.

In French

This video clip – a spoof on Westerns – is entertainment in itself (for example, when the tense gunslinging scene in the saloon is interrupted by a mobile phone call from “maman” or “mother”). It’s Black M‘s follow-up to his highly successful chart-topper Sur Ma Route. This time he gets some help from Dr Beriz.

Also doing well is Calogero, whose latest album Les Feux D’Artifice (in English, Fireworks) made No. 1 recently in France and in Belgium (his fourth album to do so). Un Jour Au Mauvais Endroit (which could be translated as A Day in a Bad Place, or One Day in the Wrong Place) is the single from it, and it sounds in parts a bit like Madonna doing ABBA and – near the end where people start chanting “plus jamais seul” (never again alone) – Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. It made the top 10 in both France and Belgium.

In Romanian

Lidia Buble‘s Noi Simtim La Fel (We Feel The Same) shot up to the top of the Romanian airplay chart, got knocked off by Enrique Iglesias’s Bailando) then climbed back up to No. 1 again. Currently it’s No. 6 in its 22nd week in the chart. She has a powerful voice. This track also features Adrian Sina, who is one of the biggest figures (singer, composer, DJ, producer) in Romanian music today.

The chorus of the song is good for those learning how Romanian verbs ending in i such as a iubi (to love) are conjugated in the first person plural present tense noi gândim la fel (we think the same), simţim la fel (feel the same), iubim la fel (love the same)…

I also like this effort, Sarutari Criminale (Criminal Kisses) by Maxim, which made the top 10. I’ve chosen this clip with the lyrics, since they are a boy band and some of the other videos to with it are a bit juvenile. Here you will see that some verbs ending in i are conjugated with an esc ending in the first person singular: îndrăznesc = I dare; trăiesc = I live; amintesc = i remember. However, there are many conjugations in Romanian and this barely scratches the surface.

 In Spanish

On the Spanish music chart, Enrique Iglesias’s Bailando has just been bumped from the top spot by the earnest Pablo Alborán with a song of a quite different nature, Por Fin (At Last).

In Portuguese

The European Portuguese version of Bailando which features Mickael Carreira, is still top of the pops in Portugal, but in Brazil the music scene is currently dominated by Anitta, who has two hits in the top 10, Cobertor, which this blog has covered before, and the No. 1, Na Batida (The Beat).

In Italian

Bailando is also the No. 1 currently in Italy, according to my source, and the Italian Top 20 chart is dominated by English titles. Here is the only Italian entry, Fragili (which of course means Fragile) from a group called Club Dogo featuring Arisa.

Arisa won the annual Sanremo music festival this year with Controvento (Upwind)

New pages added in French, Spanish and Portuguese


Thanks to a sudden, unexpected burst of intellectual activity, or more accurately, a lack of social engagements on a Friday night, the subject pronouns have been added to the French, Portuguese and Spanish grammar pages, and “ser” and “estar” have been added to the Spanish verbs pages. Romanian and Italian subject pronouns and other material will be added over the weekend. Have a good one!

Hear Enrique Iglesias’s Bailando in the Spanish, Portuguese and Brazilian versions

All credit to Enrique Iglesias and his Cuban collaborators Descemer Bueno and Gente de Zona, whose song Bailando (Dancing) has charted pretty much all over the world and in the process has injected some Spanish in the English-speaking music market – you can read about the song’s impressive achievements here. More recently an English version has come out with Sean Paul contributing some vocals, but let’s  look at the Spanish release first.

There are two Portuguese versions too, or more accurately Enrique singing in Spanish alongside a collaborator singing in Portuguese. The version aimed at the Brazilian market features one of the hottest young Brazilian singers of the moment, Luan Santana.

The European Portuguese version features Mickael Carreira who, like Enrique, is a son of a famous singer, Tony Carreira, and who has a singing brother, David Carreira. (Enrique’s father, in case you didn’t know, is Julio Iglesias).

What’s your favourite? Mine is the one with Mickael Carreira in it. 😀


A peek at the West Slavic world

The Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava. Slovenske seems to be the Slovak word for Slovak, which makes you wonder what their word for Slovenian is. Photo (c) Bernard O'Shea

The old Slovak National Theatre building in Bratislava. “Slovenske” seems to be the Slovak word for “Slovak”, which makes you wonder what their word for “Slovenian” is. (My internet translator tells me the answer is “Slovinske”). Photo (c) Bernard O’Shea

Normally if I were to go on holiday I would opt for a Romance-language speaking country, partly because from a communications point of view I feel comfortable in that environment, and to give myself more exposure to and practice in the local language. But of course you have to broaden your horizons and stray from your comfort zones, and there are so many other interesting places and languages in the world that it would be a pity to ignore them.

A nice Hungarian goulash moments before being devoured by Bernardo!

A nice Hungarian goulash moments before being devoured by Bernardo!

Very recently, thanks to a prize I won about a year ago, I had the chance to visit the Czech Republic and Poland for the first time, and to see more of Slovakia, Hungary and Austria, with partial support from Emirates airline, Rail Europe, and the tourist boards of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. During this time, apart from visiting some really beautiful and interesting places, I’ve eaten lots of wholesome food – spicy sausages and cabbage and goulash with dumplings, roast meats and more roast meats, and a delicious type of sweetbread known as tredelnik, which is cooked on a rotisserie and coated with sugar and various flavours (cinnamon, walnut and almond, for examples).

I have, of course, sampled the famous local wines and beers. Everyone in the Czech Republic seems to think Pilsner Urquell is the best beer, but I found a better brand…

Bernard tastes great, trust me! Photo: Bernard O'Shea

Bernard tastes great, trust me! Photo: Bernard O’Shea

I took my Lonely Planet Europe phrase book with me – it covers 15 languages (including my five Romance languages) but unfortunately Slovak is not one of them. Sad to say, for my tired old brain, it took a lot of memorisation, trial and error (error being the key word here), to be even able to say “good day”, “how are you”, “please” and “thank you” in these languages. And one of my gripes about language phrase books is that they give you the words parrot fashion, without explaining the grammatical structure. So, to give a very simple example, with the Czech greeting “dobrý den!” you have to do a bit of research to confirm that dobrý is the “good” part and den is the day bit of “good day”. Likewise, there is often little indication of which phrases apply when speaking to a man or a woman, if there is gender differential in the language.

Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Photo (c) Bernard O'Shea

Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic is a great place to visit. Photo (c) Bernard O’Shea

I also find this particular Lonely Planet book weak in the sense that coverage of the greetings – which in my opinion are the most important words to know, the ones you want to use to win over people with politeness and show that you are making an effort to get to know their language and customs – is scattered and patchy. In my opinion, the greetings should be the first words given in a phrase book, not “Do you speak English?”. Czech and Slovak are pretty similar – not surprising, considering that until only recently (1993) the two countries were one as Czechoslovakia – and there is some linguistic crossover into Polish, as these languages belong to what is known as the West Slavic language group. German is the official language in Austria, of course (my appreciation of German increased while I was there) and Hungarian is pretty much a rule unto itself, although it is vaguely related to Finnish and Estonian.

DSCF4660These languages, particularly Polish with its apparent lack of vowels and proliferation of “weird” (to an outsider) clusters of consonants – for example, czy mozna przygotowac means “could you prepare?” – must seem strange to those who speak English and Romance languages. I was expecting them to sound harsh on my ear, but from what I heard spoken and on radio, this was not the case at all. Like many languages, they are mellifluous in their own way.

In the Czech republic I bought a 2CD compilation of the hits of 2014 titled Top (Ceskych a Slovenskych Hitu). The first CD featured Czech artists, and possibly Slovak ones too, the second international ones. Here’s a track that I like from the former by Divokej Bill, a group that my online translator tells me goes by the name of Wild Bill, and the song title is Wake Up!

Here’s a version illustrating the lyrics – sing along everyone!

It wasn’t all Slavic languages though. In the Roland Cafe in the main square of Bratislava, where we dined one night, there was live music featuring a duo singing, of all things, in Portuguese. Their repertoire was mainly Brazilian, such as songs by the likes of Marisa Monte. It was like being in Rio de Janeiro.

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