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Archive for September, 2007

Highly amusing

I came across these examples of ‘unusual’ sentences written by Polish students of English. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but they really are screamingly funny:

I felt shiver on my spinach.

I think that supermarkets are great creatures.

Another thing is the possibility to wear light clothes, uncovered shoulders and half-naked paunches, which alure the man-kind.

People want to read books, sink into their comfortable armchairs and sneeze.

History wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have to learn it.

Right now we have two dogs at home (a sheepdog and a puddle).

As a representative of ‘man-kind’ I can confirm that ‘half-naked paunches’ are indeed immensely alluring.

Thanks to The Poland Diaries for sharing this.

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Ten things I love about Poland

If you read the WordPress sign-up agreement carefully it clearly states that you must write at least one post every month that includes the words ‘Top ten…,’ or ‘Ten things…,’ in the title. This explains a lot about the content of the internet. Yesterday I received an email from WordPress admin that opened with the customary and chummy ‘Howdy’ but went on, in less friendly tones, to point out that I had failed to provide the obligatory ‘top ten’ post and, finally, suggested that heavy set men with Slovenian accents and oddly-bulging jackets would soon be calling at my house if I didn’t get my act together. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But seriously, I wanted to put some positive stuff up. It always amazes me how negative many Poles are about their country, and how easy it is to cause offence by pushing certain buttons. The following list tries to cover all the things I find enchanting, fascinating, admirable and just downright cool about this country. It does go on a bit I’m afraid, and I can’t promise there won’t be the occasional touch of tongue in cheek.

10. Getting sick in Poland
Poland is one of the best places in the world in which to get sick. I don’t mean proper internal-organ-failure sick, just the occasional heavy cold. Being ill instantly bestows an almost sacred status on the sufferer. Poles are the world’s greatest hypochondriacs (I’m sorry, but it’s true) and knowing someone who is ill is almost as good as being ill yourself. I have no idea where the Polish health obsession came from, but it’s clearly deeply entrenched. I suspect they’ve spent too much time over the centuries hanging out with limp-wristed Italians and effete Frogs (sorry, French people). Walk down a typical Polish street and every third shop is a chemists (apteka), and it’s probably open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. On Christmas Day lucky Poles rush to the local apteka to cash in the years-supply-of-Aspirin vouchers they got as gifts.

Two ladies cashing in their years-supply-of-aspirin vouchers

Apteka

Cough or sneeze at a bus stop and people will shuffle over and start offering advice as to what kind of medicines you should be taking. Sometimes they even take you by the elbow and start ushering you towards the nearest apteka or doctor’s office. The practical upshot of this is that, if you get a cold, everyone insists that you go to bed immediately and shortly thereafter begins proffering oddly shaped pills, bowls of soup, or shots of vodka in your direction. Vodka is widely believed to be a surefire cure for everything from a slight headache to major renal failure but it has nothing on the power of soup – there are about 14 different kinds of soup that are thought to address pretty much any kind of medical complaint you can pick out from a medical dictionary/unfortunately come down with. My late lamented boss (he’s not dead, just often late and highly lamentable) epitomized the English approach to illness when he gave me the following advice about colds: “Get yourself down to the shop, buy a bottle of whiskey, a lemon, and some sugar. Go home, drink the bottle of whisky and go to bed.” “What about the lemon and the sugar?” I enquired. “What the f**ck do you want those for?” he retorted wildly. It has to be said he was a little drunk at the time.

9. Polish Women
I know it’s a hoary old chestnut, but it’s true: Poland has the most beautiful, stylish, and downright sexy women on the planet. I have no idea how they managed to arrange this but it was a damnably neat trick. I’m afraid the next few sentences will be primarily addressed to my male readers, so any females out there may want to simmer gently whilst pretending to address some kind of nail emergency. You know how sometimes you’re walking down the street and a woman walks past who makes you gasp slightly and your eyes switch into automatic-tracking mode? This happens what, once a month, in most parts of the world? Here it happens about every five minutes. It can be extremely detrimental to one’s navigational skills. It’s not uncommon to see slack-jawed British tourists casually stepping into the path of oncoming heavy goods vehicles, their eyes fixed helplessly on the sublimely retreating form of a local girl. I’ve heard there’s a special ward in the local hospital where these poor chaps can be found swathed in bandages, heads still rotated to an unnatural degree, and eyes tightly squeezed shut for fear of burning out the optic nerve from over exposure to Polish girls in nurses’ uniforms.

Another innocent English guy helplessly fixated on a Polish nurse (just out of shot)

The perils of Polish beauties

The weird thing is that Polish men seem more or less oblivious to the super abundance of top-notch totty that surrounds them. I suggest a six-month stay in Essex or New Jersey to give them a sense of perspective. I have no idea if Polish men are as deliciously attractive to the opposite sex as their sisters are but I think it’s unlikely. Most of them look like recently released convicts to me (hang on, that could be a good thing…). Of course none of this has the slightest bearing on me because I have eyes only for A but, in the past, I’ve experienced the occasional bruising encounter with lamp posts, parked cars, and multi-storey buildings through not looking strictly in the direction I was going.

8. Polish Food
Many people are rude about Polish food, citing an overabundance of cabbage, but very few people who have actually been to Poland are rude about Polish food. Poles have about 947 different ways of baking, frying, boiling, roasting, or otherwise applying heat to various kinds of really, really good meat that result in the kind of meal that makes you sit back afterwards and wonder if there actually might be a god after all. I went to a Polish wedding recently and had carefully starved myself for three days in anticipation of the culinary delights that I fully expected to encounter. A week would have been better. After a preliminary skirmish with soups, massive platters of fried chicken and pork coated in various delicious things were delivered to the table. I was feeling quietly confident and secure in the extent of my starvation-induced appetite and tucked in with relish. I was putting away chicken legs as if I were collecting the set. About an hour later, dinner began again with equally extravagant portions of deliciousness. About an hour after that I began to sweat slightly as the next round of enticingly roasted meats were loaded onto the groaning table. It was the kind of occasion where you wish you had brought a spare stomach. Around midnight an entire roasted pig was wheeled into the melee. I had a substantial portion of one shoulder and then gently extended my belt to its greatest extent. If you’re vegetarian, stay well away. If you’re not, be prepared for the kind of simple but immensely sumptuous food that keeps coming and coming until you are forced to lie on the floor and beg for mercy.

Polish meat. I can give it up any time, honestly, any time I like…

A Polish meat fiend

7. Polish Public Transport
I don’t know about public transport in many parts of the world, but I do know about public transport in London and, compared to Poland, it sucks big time. Polish trains, buses, and trams are frequent, punctual, and take you pretty much everywhere. I have a pathological hatred of cars and am convinced that people will look back on our era in a hundred years time, shake their heads gently and say ‘what the hell were they thinking?’ in much the same way that we look back on slavery with slightly bemused incomprehension. Here’s an idea, let’s allow every average Joe and Gill out there to hurtle about the place at 60 miles per hour in half a ton of steel and glass. Dangerous? nah! Slight possibility of people cutting corners and occasionally reducing seven-year-old pedestrians to pulpy lumps? Nonsense, we’ll paint some lines on the road and have a system of magic lights! Any chance that basic human frailties such as having a bad day, not paying attention, getting pissed off for no apparent reason, or drinking oneself into a stupor might compromise the efficacy of these highly stringent safety measures? Nah, it’ll be fine! Excellent plan. I have one question for supporters of car transport: if it’s so safe, why do we teach our kids to go nowhere near roads and instill in them an absolute terror of cars? I’ll tell you why, because if you go near a road and you’re not in a car you are in real and present danger of being severely and terminally mangled by any absent-minded or arrogantly self-confident idiot who happens to be passing at that moment.

Anyhow, ranting aside, public transport in Poland is a great and good thing. The number one reason being that they have trams. Trams are immensely cool, it’s kind of hard to explain exactly why, but I’m willing to give it a go. For one thing, trams have absolutely zero respect for cars and have the kind of mass-to-weight ratio that makes their contempt count. I’ve seen trams casually shunting gleaming BMWs out of their way and felt my heart sing with joy. Gentlemen in baggy suits jumping up and down, purple with fury, as their pride-and-joy German boxes on wheels are gently but firmly shoved off the tram tracks.

A Warsaw tram demonstrates exactly how much respect it has for cars that get in the way. Cars 0, Trams 1.

Tram vs car

A tram is basically a train that lives in the city and travels only on city streets. Trains are inherently cool, and trains that shun the countryside and spends their whole lives roving up and down gritty urban streets are uber cool. In the good old days Polish trams were no-nonsense affairs with wooden seats, proper ringing bells, and doors that could take your hand off if you timed your exit incorrectly. There used to be proper ticket inspectors too – portly gentlemen in ill-fitting leather jackets who would sidle up to you at odd moments and demand to be bribed – sorry, I mean demand to see your ticket. Nowadays they have these new-fangled modern trams. The driver is shut off in a little glass cab so it’s impossible to reach over and press buttons on his dashboard when slightly inebriated. There’s even a machine selling tickets on the tram! In my day one had to walk at least 9 kilometers through the snow to find a ticket-selling kiosk that was open, or risk a hefty bribe (sorry, I mean fine) from the gentlemen in ill-fitting leather jackets. Never did me any harm, apart from that one time when I contracted pneumonia. The joys of clattering down a frosty street in a 1964-vintage tram constantly looking over your shoulder to check for ticket inspectors whilst wresting with batlle-hardened Polish grandmothers are not to be underestimated. Once, in Warsaw, I saw an articulated Polish bus literally come apart as it tried to round a corner too quickly. The bendy rubber part in the middle actually split and people were tipped onto the icy streets with expressions of extreme surprise on their faces. That’s the kind of excitement you want on the way to work in the morning. I’m quite serious about this.

6. Polish Pubs
When I first came to Poland there were about six pubs in Warsaw that one could reasonably expect to leave at the end of the evening without having received life-threatening stab wounds. The pub at the end of my street once got raked with machine gun fire as part of a gang war. They were all in the center of town and none of them could be reached via a gentle stroll from where I lived. As a Londoner I found this extremely upsetting and inconvenient. It’s a very poor neighborhood indeed in London where you are not within 10 minutes stroll of at least one or two decent local pubs. Last time I was in Warsaw, the situation had improved considerably. Krakow is rather better served, but again only if you happen to live within striking distance of the center of town. Apparently there are more than 370 pubs within the Old Town and Kazimierz, more than one per day of the year. Subtract from this figure the number of pubs that are stacked to rafters with wild-eyed Brits sucking down the happy juice, plus the number of pubs full of gentlemen in ill-fitting leather jackets drowning their sorrows about the shocking state of modern Polish trams, and the actual number of viable pubs is rather less, but still impressive. The odd thing is that it’s still extremely difficult to find a good one. The majority of Krakow pubs are in cellars. These are all very well and pretty to look at, but they’re terrible places to go for a quiet pint of an evening. The tobacco fumes are so thick that it’s quite hard to identify your own limbs at normal distances and they reek of sweat and hormones. Great stuff if you’re 19, but if you’re approaching the end of your second 19-year-term on earth it’s not quite so invigorating. Having said that, there are some gems. And a really good Polish pub is hard to beat, for several reasons. Unfortunately I’m not prepared to say exactly where they are in case they are flooded by hoards of my loyal readers (man, I make myself laugh sometimes).

5. Polish Education
Now I’ve dealt with the obvious, let’s move on to the slightly more thoughtful. Poles have a great and deep-seated respect for education, learning, and wisdom. I’m not going to go into any of the negative aspects of this trait because that’s not what this post is about – I’m concentrating on the positive. And there’s no doubt that it is an overwhelmingly positive national characteristic. The average 19-year-old school leaver in Poland would wipe the floor with the average 18-year-old school leaver in England in any test of knowledge, maturity, or dedication. Indeed, a huge number of British kids leave school for good at the age of 16 having received almost no qualifications. Most of them have ambitions of becoming gangsters, rappers, or – in extreme cases – gangster-rappers. There is almost zero respect for intellectual achievement in England. Staying on at school after the age of 16 or, even worse, going to university, is regarded with thinly veiled suspicion by the majority of British people. Writers, philosophers, film makers, composers, and academics are held in high esteem in Poland and their opinions are listened to with some respect. Similar figures in England are tolerated, but generally considered to be ‘a bit weird and untrustworthy.’ English people are immensely proud of the ignorance and poor educational achievements of their greatest leaders. It’s all to do with the national myth of the English amateur, which I may get around to explaining one day. It’s incredibly refreshing to spend time in a country where people don’t roll their eyes and look bored if you try and discuss anything more taxing than Paris Hilton’s bra size. Poland is stuffed with little cultural events, classic film shows, amateur music recitals and ever (shock horror) philosophical discussion. I think that’s great.

4. Polish Opportunity
This one will probably surprise some people, but it’s true – Poland is a land of almost infinite opportunity. There are two reasons for this. Number one, the vast majority of the population are entrenched in very old fashioned thinking about the way things should be done, which means it’s very easy to stand out from the crown and be innovative (if you’ve got the guts). Number two, industries and services that have existed in the West for decades are still only just getting a foothold here, which means there’s a very small class of entrepreneurs and that it’s surprisingly easy to get access to the best and most interesting people. In London there is absolutely zero chance of, say, an aspiring graphic artist meeting an executive from a top advertising agency. Here it could, and does, happen all the time (as long as you’ve got the guts).

3. Polish Adaptability
Again, this might come as surprise, but it’s true. Poland has been absolutely and completely revolutionized in the past twenty years, and it’s Poles who have done it. From a very low base in 1989, Poles have created one of the fastest growing and most adaptive economies in the world almost entirely through the sweat of their own brows and the drive of their own ambitions. Warsaw is sprouting shiny new corporate headquarters at an astonishing rate, Krakow has been almost completely overhauled and looks a hundred times better than it did ten years ago, Wroclaw feels like a prosperous town in West Germany, and in Gdansk one could easily imagine one was wandering the streets of some northern Danish or Dutch town. I know there are still problems and there’s a long way to go for many parts of Poland but please, people, have you ever seen Peckham, or the northwest of England, or the outskirts of Paris.

Ninety percent of this didn’t exist when I first came to Poland 10 years ago. That doesn’t include the trees.

Warsaw skyline

On top of this, millions of young Poles have shown that they can go abroad to England or Sweden or Ireland or wherever and impress the hell out of the locals with their intelligence, hard work, and good humor – if that’s not an example of adaptability I don’t know what is. Send a hundred average British kids to work abroad and seventy percent of them would run home to mummy, collapse, or die from PlayStation deprivation within a week. You should all be immensely proud of the way the Polish people have responded to the challenge of radically changing times and the next time I hear a Pole complaining about how useless and feeble Poland is I’m going to smack him upside the head with a copy of Przedwiośnie.

2. Polish Seriousness
All kinds of people complain that the Poles are ‘too serious’ or ‘never smile.’ This is a complete pile of steaming horse phooey. Poles are among the most humorous and cheerful people I have ever met. Actually, that’s a lie – in fact I’ve never come across any nationality that isn’t immensely humorous and cheerful in the face of adversity (or indeed in the face of a complete lack of adversity) – it’s a basic and immensely precious characteristic of all human beings and Poles are no different. All it takes is to understand the humor. Americans tend to think that Brits are tightly buttoned and humorless whereas, in fact, we’re laughing our arses (sorry, asses) off pretty much all the time. Japanese people are having a riot day-in-day out – although you wouldn’t guess it from the way they are portrayed. Germans are shedding tears over their own private jokes on a regular basis and even the Frogs (sorry, French people) are generally quaking with mirth from dawn until dusk. The problem is, we just don’t get each other’s jokes. I don’t mean the kind of jokes that begin with ‘a rabbi, a priest, and a penguin walked into a bar,’ I mean the real jokes – the ones that consist of nothing more than saying a certain word in a certain way in a particular situation. The first time I understood Polish humor was watching a documentary on British TV about Polish people living in Lithuania (or one of those Baltic places). Heaven knows why the BBC felt it necessary to make such a documentary, but they did, and I’m eternally grateful. They were following the story of an elderly Polish spinster and her unmarried son who lived in the same ramshackle house in Vilnius or some such place. In one scene they pair were having afternoon tea and discussing how terrible their lives were. They had a pot of tea and one piece of cake. The son said ‘I’ll have the cake, you lived through the war so you’re used to having no cake’ and scoffed the lot in a couple of mouthfuls. I was laughing my anglo-arse off as the BBC commentator soberly lamented the breakdown in respect that had resulted from the unfortunate couple’s isolation from their homeland. The scene cut at that point, but I would bet folding money that mother and son were rolling around on the floor shortly thereafter. It was presented to us as ‘just another tragic scene from impoverished Eastern Europe’ but in fact it was a moment of glorious human humor in the face of adversity.

I kind of went ‘off message’ there, but I felt it was important to confuse the hell out of my readers at this point for no apparent reason. My point was that Poles are no more serious than anyone else. Many foreigners perceive them as being serious because, number one, they don’t understand the particularly dark and ironic form of humor that tickles the Polish fancy and, number two, Poles have absolutely zero respect for the kind of fake cheerfulness that blights Western service industries. I went into a branch of Virgin in London a couple of months ago and the poor bastard behind the cash till had been coached to ask everyone ‘Did you find everything you needed?’ with a massive grin plastered all over his face. Exactly how do you respond to a question like that? ‘Well, actually I was hoping to find the solution to world peace and a cure for cancer on the third floor, but apart from that, yes, I had the time of my life.’ Actually, I fixed him with a particularly hard stare and stalked out in a foul mood. In a branch of Gap I was asked a similar question, so inane that I don’t actually remember the details, to which I replied ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak English’ in English, and then left. Give me a gaggle of sklepowa in a local Polish shop anytime. They demand exact change, sigh deeply at requests for extra reklamowka, and laugh openly at your attempts to pronounce Polish words. I always leave with a secret grin on my face, and not just because I enjoy being ordered around by older women wearing aprons.

While we’re on the subject of older women wearing aprons I’d like to say a few words about the infamous Babcie (pronounced something like bab-chee). ‘Babci’ literally means ‘grandmother’ but it’s widely used to refer to ladies of certain age who patrol Poland’s streets wearing massive fur coats and woolen hats and carrying deadly walking sticks. These guys are not to be messed with. They’ve lived through blitzkriegs, shortages, martial law, and dozens of winters that would spell the premature death of many a softened Westerner. At bus stops it’s advisable to stay well back if you see a pack of them making for your bus – get in their way and you could be looking at 2 to 3 months in intensive care. They have ninja-like shoving and barging skills and can floor a paratrooper with one swift jab of the walking stick. They never, ever, take off their fur coats, but I’ve heard rumors that they wear 40 to 50 kilos of solid steel armor plating under there. Machine gunning them just makes them mad and heavy artillery causes them minimal inconvenience. Babcie are the moral guardians of Poland and have absolutely zero hesitation about voicing their disapproval of anyone/anything around them. I’ve been subjected to Babcie judgment a few times. It usually comes as a ‘voice out of nowhere’ that makes you swallow deeply and look around in a slightly panicky manner. At the cash till in a large supermarket I was fumbling with money and had put a 50 zl note in my mouth to hold it as I looked for change: “Take that money out of your mouth! You don’t know where it’s been” came the voice of the Babcie. Walking along the street on my way to work: “You’re walking too fast, you’ll kill someone!” came the voice of the Babcie. Standing hatless in the park in winter looking at the beautiful snowfall: “Buy a hat! You don’t have enough money for a hat!?” came the voice of the the Babcie. It’s a deeply alarming experience I can tell you. Many Poles are rude about the Babcie but, believe me, you’ll be sorry when they’re gone. I love them all.

A hunting pair of Babcie circa 1981. The photographer was a very brave man, god rest his soul. Note the deadly ‘walking stick’ perched within easy reach *shudders*

Babci

1. I’m a foreigner!
A few posts ago I mentioned that Polish people almost always ask ‘What do you think of Poland/Polish people’ within five minutes of meeting a foreigner. The second question that inevitably pops up is ‘Why did you come to POLAND?’ with the emphasis very much on the ‘Poland.’ The implication being that there must be a hundred better places in the world to go, or that you must be slightly insane to voluntarily come to Poland. Well, here’s my answer: I like it! Most Polish people are full of humor and good-natured generosity – although I also like the ones who lie unconscious on the street or the a Babcie who push you into the gutter when trying to get onto trams ahead of you – there are far worse people in the world, believe me. As a foreigner I can appreciate the beauty, history, and reality of Polish cities without the veil of disappointment and distrust that seems to blind many of the people who were actually born here. I’m sure the countryside is great too, but let’s not go crazy here.

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What is Poland? redux

It’s probably just something I ate, but I feel the need to be serious for a moment. One of my regular commentators (ok, ok, my only regular commentator) the mysterious PolishPress left a particularly thoughtful and heartfelt comment in response to my ‘What IS Poland anyway?‘ post (read it now for the good of your soul. I’ll wait…). Although I’ve earned money as a writer for many years, sometimes even enough to pay the rent AND eat, it’s rare for someone to take the time to actually respond in a considered way to what I’ve written. As any freelance writer will tell you, actually earning enough to live on means taking whatever job comes along while quietly putting your literary ambition in a box and stashing it on a very high and dusty shelf indeed. Check this out: swells with pride (yours for only 17.99 zl). The only feedback I usually get from readers is along the lines of “Dear Author; On page 27 you state that water covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface when, as any competent oceanographer will tell you, the actual figure is closer to 70.1653 percent. You stink. I laugh at your ignorance and look forward to the day when you are publicly held to account for your crimes. Yours, Ethel Mildred Goosecreature (MPhil Oxon 1937).” All of which makes me anxious; at times unbearably so.

I digress. The point is that I’ve been writing about my impressions of Poland and trying to get across some of the things I find particularly notable, strange, enraging, and enchanting about this country and my intersection with it and it’s gratifying to find out that I struck a chord with some strain of thinking out there in the interweb thingy. Please turn to page 27 of your texts and consider the following:

Maybe you will disagree, but I think that the national identity we have is just fake. It’s not a sense of community. Not at all. Polish people don’t like or trust one another. Our national identity is a sort of emotion, very strong emotions… Collective pride mixed with the feeling of being hurt by everyone, with the feeling that Poland was always failing the expectations of its people (vide: glass houses in the interwar period), and all this in the sauce of complexes.

I had said that I felt Poles had a very strong sense of national identity, that they were very proud that Poland now exists as an independently governed republic, but that they were endlessly embarrassed by the actual form it has taken. In many ways I think this comment reinforces what I was trying to say. There is a very strong emotional attachment in Polish people to the idea of their nationhood rather than any kind of pride in the existence of the slightly ramshackle political entity that is the modern Polish state. It’s certainly true that there is little trust in this country outside of immediate family (and often precious little within immediate family) and yet, on the abstract level, all Poles have the feeling that their fellow Poles are among the finest fellows on Earth, as long as you don’t lend them money or expect them to pick you up from the airport on time. I put a lot of this down to the myth of the Polish Rogue. The Polish Rogue is a classic figure of folklore. You can picture him as a 1920s cavalry officer with a massively impressive moustache, a twinkling eye for the ladies, and the kind of quietly confident swagger that Brad Pitt would kill for. He can be pictured drinking vodka and singing patriotic songs late into the night and then leading a sabres-drawn charge against Wehrmacht tanks at dawn. Equally he could be seen pouring sand into the petrol tanks of said Wehrmacht tanks, slipping stolen sausages into his voluminous trousers, or relieving wide-eyed tourists of their wallets. He is the epitome of the myth of the Polish ‘survivor,’ he will do anything to survive and has no responsibilities because he has no country that is responsible for him, only a romantic myth of a nation that once was and will be again. He fought for Napoleon and for American independence. He flew Spitfires over the white cliffs of Dover and parachuted into Arnhem. For decades he ducked and dived and made the best of it when the black market thrived and illegal dollars could buy you anything. He is the hero of the dispossessed and the downtrodden, the stateless and the occupied. Every Polish guy secretly wants to be him and is fairly sure that something of that swashbuckling but morally pure blood flows in his veins. It’s hard to be a swashbuckling Minister for Pensions.

By the way I can’t help but comment on the deliciously Freudian misspelling of ‘source’ in the above quote. A big meaty chunk of patriotism swimming in a “sauce of complexes” with a large side order of paranoia, please. Forgive me. Also by the way, I have no idea what the reference to “glass houses in the interwar period” is about, but it sounds deeply intriguing.

Our national identity is in majority a product of the Polish education system: especially literature and history classes. And the focus that’s there on the ages and works that emphasised the need to protect and preserve Polish language, Polish culture from the powers that controlled Polish territories and intended to smash it. That kept the Polish spirit alive. The whole Polish marthyrology… the seriousness… Poland as the Christ among nations… “Poland is not yet lost, so long as we live” – as our anthem goes etc.

The aim of Poles for centuries, unlike many other nationals, was to have/fight for their country, not to run it smoothly. So when we actually have it, we’re like lunatics:) We don’t know what to do with it.

This really is the crux of the matter. Young Poles today are in the bizarre position of having been brought up in an educational system that glorifies the sacrifices and hardships of centuries under occupation only to find themselves thrust into a world where this blatantly and cruelly is no longer the case. Almost everything that is held sacred in Polish history and literature is centered around the idea of ‘keeping the Polish spirit alive’ in the face of adversity. It’s the adventures and deeds of the Polish Rogue writ large. I’m sure I’m massively oversimplifying here, but there’s no doubt that martyrdom to the greater cause (and, on an unofficial level, the importance of getting around the system of the occupiers) are bludgeoned into school kids relentlessly. Unfortunately, there aren’t any occupiers any more (and the EU doesn’t count no matter how hard you try to pretend it does – you guys joined us, not the other way round). There’s nothing to be a martyr to anymore. I think that lots of Poles are clinging onto this idea. They are saying to themselves ‘this country isn’t the country I want, it’s run by ex-communists or Russian spies or old people or whatever. The great day of liberation has not yet come! Let’s go abroad and play Polish Rogue!’ I think PolishPress has pretty much nailed it here.

As an illuminating aside, I watched Papillon with A last night. For any of you poor benighted souls who have never seen Papillon, it’s about the experiences of a guy sent to a penal colony in French Guiana in the 1930s and is one of the greatest movies ever made. I asked A the innocent question ‘Did Poland ever have prison colonies in Africa or South America?’ She stared at me for several moments and then replied, in a bemused tone, ‘There were prisons in Siberia, but we never sent OURSELVES there!’ Of course, it was a stupid question. During the glorious heyday of the penal colony in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, Poland wasn’t in a position to decide where it’s dangerous convicts were sent. It struck me at that moment, although it’s taken me a while to realize it, that there is a tremendous innocence in Polish history. There is no guilt about colonization or empire building or invading neighbors or slave trading or sending convicts to god-forsaken islands in the Pacific because there was no Poland to do these hideous things. ‘We never sent OURSELVES there…’ How glorious to have this innocence and how keen you are to throw it away by getting involved with the Big Boys in Afghanistan or Iraq

What is the real national identity? The truth is, that the Poland that was is a Poland that is gone. One tenth of Poles were Jewish, who spoke Yiddish as their first language. Synagogues were in every town. They were an important part of the culture of this country, and they had their own culture which enriched and encompanied the mainstream. And they are gone, everything is gone. The Germans are gone, the Low German language (my great Grandmother’s native) is gone, Ukrainians are gone. Aristocracy and szlachta are gone. All country estates plundered, the heritage lost forever. Book burned, paintings stolen, mirrors broken, chairs and tables stolen by the peasants. And these people used to live together on this land for centuries. This was the true culture, the true identity of Poland.

Current government is another outcome of this fake-identity making based on romanticism-era patriotic drive.

This is deep and disturbing stuff that I was well aware of but didn’t really want to get into in my original post for fear of treading on toes or being escorted to the airport at gunpoint, in a figurative or real sense. There is no doubt that a lot of Poland’s problems stem from the fact that it was systematically eviscerated in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s almost impossible for a British person to understand the utter devastation that was visited on this country, particularly from 1939 to 1945. Poland lost more citizens, as a percentage of population, than any other nation during WWII, by a large margin. The most obvious element of this was the Jewish population who were, to all intents and purposes, completely annihilated. It’s very easy to concentrate on the few vocal survivors and think that, essentially, the Polish Jews survived in some sense. They didn’t. For every Jerzy Kosinski there are literally hundreds of thousands of uncles, brothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, fathers, and cousins who got a bullet in the head and a shallow grave in the forest. They are still there, just under the soil. Millions of people snuffed out in the course of a few months. The “Poland that was” really is gone. On top of this were the hundreds of thousands of Christian Poles who also got a couple of ounces of German or Russian lead in the cerebellum for their pains. Anyone who doesn’t find this completely awe-inspiring and humbling simply hasn’t understood. This is part of my theory that Poles don’t really live in their own country. Much of the fabulously pretty architecture of Poland’s historic cities was actually built and owned by Polish Jews. They are occupied by Poles now, but they are still haunted, just ask any Pole about ‘hidden Jewish gold.’ The question of Polish connivance in the annihilation of the Jews is extraordinarily difficult to address, and the fact that it hasn’t even begun to be addressed in mainstream Polish culture is a big clue to the psychosis of the nation in my view. Some Polish people stood by, cheered, or actively lent a hand as the Jews were carted away to execution. I have little doubt that some British people would have done the same. Thankfully, that’s not an issue that we have to face. The deaths of countless African slaves or Indian ‘insurgents’ are enough for us to be getting on with.

As if that wasn’t enough, everything else that PolishPress mentions is also catastrophically true. Vast swathes of Polish history were casually tossed on bonfires, looted, or dispersed. The long-established German-speaking populations of western Poland are gone. A huge swath of Polish-occupied land in the east is gone – ceded to Russia, and now Ukraine. It’s an almost empty country of left-over people who never really chose each other as neighbors. People in the west of Poland refuse to buy property because they’re convinced that the whole shooting match is going to be handed back to the Germans at some point, People congregate in Warsaw partly because it’s the economic powerhouse of Poland but also because it’s comfortingly distant from those troubling and fluid borders that just can’t be trusted.

Ok, that’s far too much seriousness and negativity (negative waves, always with the negative waves). Next I intend to post ‘Ten things I love about Poland.’

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By the way, please feel free to post comments in Polish if it feels more comfortable. I won’t be able to understand them, but I know people who can translate them for my poor monolingual brain.

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What is Poland anyway?

As I think I’ve mentioned before I misspent a portion of my youth in Poland. I first came here in 1997. In those days speaking English on the street could draw a crowd. It was almost impossible not to stand out. Although I am ostensibly a white northern European of fairly average height, weight, and demeanor Polish people somehow had the ability to identify me as a foreigner at 20 meters and seemed to be fascinated by the fact. On buses and trams people would swivel in their seats and openly stare at me as if expecting me to explode into flames or something similar. It was a very unnerving experience. I have been to the Far East where, as a white European, it is completely impossible to blend into the background and the experience was, amazingly, very similar. I eventually discovered that having my hair cut at a Polish barbers and buying my clothes in Polish clothes shops seemed to reduce my propensity to stand out like a sore thumb. But there are still many kinds of subtle body language that mark you out as a non-native. By the way, don’t believe anybody who says they can identify a Polish or an English person from the ‘way they look,’ it’s a complete pile of horse droppings. What they really mean is that they subconsciously register the subtle differences in body language that exist between cultures. I would be willing to bet real spending money that nobody could reliably identify Brits, Poles, Czechs, Russian, Frogs (sorry French), or Germans from photos alone – you need to see people walk and move, you need to see their body language. Any suggestion to the contrary is racism pure and simple. It is amazing how easy it is for me to spot English people on the streets of Krakow (not just because they have their trousers around their ankles) or Polish people on the streets of London, but 90 percent of it is down to their body language, nothing else. The way people talk to each other (even when you can’t hear the language they are speaking), the way they look at other people, the amount of personal space they try to preserve, and even the side of the pavement that they favor are all giveaways. Interestingly it was this last item that first turned me on to these differences. In my first few weeks in Poland I became convinced that Poles were incredibly rude and arrogant because they were constantly walking into me on the street. It took me ages to realize that people just pass each other on the opposite side to what I was used to. Two people walking towards each other on the street have to decide which side they are going to pass on, English people almost invariably choose to pass on the left while Polish people almost equally invariably choose to pass on the right. The vast majority of people never think about this but, believe me, as a foreigner it can cause all kinds of trouble. Slamming headlong into little old ladies with sharp umbrellas on numerous occasions doesn’t do anyone’s morale any good, and the medical costs for the treatment of stab wounds soon add up.

What I’m leading up to here, in my roundabout way, is the issue of culture shock. Culture shock is a very real phenomenon but it has nothing to do with unfamiliar food or unexpected customs or even an unknown language. It’s the sudden realization that you just don’t understand how the people around you are thinking. You feel that you can’t predict how they are going to react and that you can’t rely on them to understand how you are going to react. It usually hits after a few months, long after you think you have got to grips with the obvious difficulties such as language. You wake up one day with the feeling that you are the only human on a robot planet, or that you are the only robot on a human planet. It’s an extremely unpleasant experience that I’m sure hundreds of thousands of Poles have been through at various locations around the globe. I think this is the point at which one can start to try and understand the people around you. The fact that they put boiled eggs in their soup or drink out of very, very small glasses is completely irrelevant. It took me about 5 minutes to get over the novelty of such activities.

żurek – soup with boiled eggs in it (I love it)

żurek – soup with eggs in it

Something about Poland had been bothering me for months, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was something very different about the way Poles saw their own country that was very evident but extremely difficult to describe. It was shortly after my ‘culture shock’ moment that I began to see it. Simply put it is this: Polish people do not see Poland as their own country. I can hear the howls of disapproval and baying for my blood already, but let me explain. Poles clearly have a powerful sense of pride, but it is really pride in the Polish people, not pride in their nation. These are different things. Poles believe that Polish people are the most intelligent, passionate, moral, humorous, generous, god-fearing people in the world (who knows, they could be right) but they think that the Republic of Poland is a bit rubbish. In other words, they don’t feel that the actual internationally recognized entity that bears their name is worthy of it. The very obvious reason for this is that Polish people didn’t really create the nation that bears their name. It’s well know that ‘Poland’ has been invaded, occupied, and generally mucked about for centuries. The various kinds of Poland that have existed for the past 500 years have essentially been constructs imposed by outsiders. The triumph of 1989 was really the first time for hundreds of years that Poles had the opportunity to make the kind of country that they really wanted and they are still struggling with this awesome responsibility. There are so many aspects of modern Poland that are completely at odds with the Polish character that one can’t help but reach this conclusion. I will cite just two. Firstly, Polish people love the forests and the countryside. They pine to live in cosy wooden houses under the shade of pine trees with big dogs running about and deer grazing in the forest clearings. In fact most of them live in desperate broken down Stalinist housing blocks while 90 percent of the country is completely empty. This clearly wasn’t a housing system designed by Poles for themselves, and of course it wasn’t – it was imposed by a Soviet dominated regime that was focussed on having the maximum number of workers within easy reach of industrial facilities and administrative control. Which leads neatly onto my second point; bureaucracy. Poland is famous for its labyrinthine and all-encompassing bureaucracy and all Poles hate it. How did this system come to exist? Bureaucracy is completely alien to the Polish character and most Poles spend their whole lives trying to find ways of avoiding, bribing, or tricking the system. Clearly, this system was not invented by Poles and does not reflect their character. Again, it’s something that has been imposed from outside and the people haven’t yet found a way of ditching it. On the one hand there is enormous fear and respect for the system while on the other there is absolute contempt for it. It never ceases to astonish me how little respect Polish people have for their national institutions. The police are regarded as a joke, parliament as a corrupt talking shop for self-serving demagogues, and government is regarded with the same kind of suspicion that is reserved for people who turn up at your door selling time shares in Spain. Polish people have almost no faith in or respect for their institutions, and it’s easy to see why. They didn’t make any of them and many of the people involved in them are still operating under a system of rules imposed under a period of foreign rule. This is what I mean when I say that Poles don’t feel that the nation they live in reflects them as a people. To a foreigner it seems as if the Polish people are living in a foreign country even when they are at home. They don’t trust or believe in their republic. They’re desperately proud that it exist, but endlessly embarrassed by its form. This is a profound and formative period in their history and all this silly talk about ‘being European’ or ‘modern’ or ‘capitalist’ is completely beside the point. The very soul of the Polish people is struggling to shake itself free from decades of suffocation and they are going through a period of extreme confusion in which they have to figure out what is really them and what is just baggage from the past.

Kaczynski – ‘Truth and Justice,’ what is this, a Batman comic?

Kaczynski – ‘Truth and Justice,’ what is this, a Batman comic?

It’s very hard to explain how weird this is for an Englishman. We complain about our governments and criticize our police but we basically believe in them because they reflect us. Polish people look at their institutions and see fractured confusion. This is, of course, also a reflection but not a comfortable one. I think that a lot of Poles simply throw up their hands and say ‘there’s nothing I can do’ – they decide to concentrate on making money, or moving abroad to make money, rather than face a situation that seems hopeless. They abandon the republic safe in the knowledge that the Polish people themselves are safe in their centuries old techniques of ‘surviving in spite of everything.’ Now is not the time for that. Now is the time to stand up and say ‘wait: this is not the country I want – do it the way I want or I’m going to vote you out of office and jump up and down on your head.’ This is the time to say ‘I am not afraid – this is the Poland I want. Stop playing with my insecurities and start suggesting some stuff that I can actually get behind.’ It’s clear to me that in a thousand years time Poles will look back on this period with immense pride (a second 1410) but it’s equally clear that most Poles today have no idea of the significance of the period in which they are living. Government is being left to third-rate crackpots and geriatric fanatics while the new generation of highly intelligent, highly educated young Poles are sweating their guts out in fast food restaurants in London.

Hey, it feels good to get that off my chest!

PS. I just looked at the BBC profile of Poland and apparently there are still laws against ‘deriding the nation and it’s political system’… seriously?

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Drinking in Poland – the truth

Many years ago, during my misspent youth, I decided to come to Poland and teach English for a while. Actually, I decided to come to Poland and do nothing but soon after arriving here I discovered that it was easy to earn a living teaching English and thought ‘what the hell.’ In those days if you were a native speaker of English and had a pulse, you could get a job as an English teacher. I qualified on both counts more or less all the time. I spent a lot of time with Polish teenagers and learned two things almost immediately. Number one that Polish teenagers worked much harder and were far better educated than English teenagers, and number two that Polish teenagers were immensely proud of what they saw as their nation’s reputation for hard drinking. In the way of teenagers everywhere the ability to acquire and consume alcohol was seen as a mark of extreme coolness. I heard a particular urban legend on this subject a couple of times from my teenage students. Apparently, they assured me, in medical textbooks there is a page that lists the doses of alcohol that will cause disorientation, unconsciousness, and death in the average human. Against each of these figures, they assured me, there is an asterisk(*) that refers you to a note at the bottom of the page. The note reads ‘*except Polish people.’ Now, I didn’t believe this story any more than I believed them when they told me they were ‘just about to sign a recording contract,’ or had ‘spent the night with four hot chicks I met at Prozac,’ but it was an intriguing insight into the immensely complex subject of the Polish attitude to alcohol. Obviously, these were the raw and untempered opinions of hot-headed youth, but I’ve heard a similar boasts in more subtle forms from all kinds of people. I’ve spoken to gentle and god-fearing young ladies who draw the line at an occasional glass of wine and heard them assert that a ‘strong head’ for alcohol is a defining characteristic of the true Pole. What’s interesting is that this belief persist alongside an equally deep-seated belief that drinking to excess is a shocking and heinous sin. On the one hand Poles are happy to suggest that they can drink any other nation under the table, while on the other they utterly deplore the actual act of drinking.

Interestingly most Poles imbibe very little and couldn’t drink a thirsty rabbit under the table. I am not a professional-level drinker but I’m amazed at the number of times that I’ve been invited out for drinks by a Pole who has suggested with heavy winks that it’s going to be a ‘night to remember’ only for him to fold and collapse in the early stages. It’s as if the very act of deliberately ‘going out to drink’ is wicked enough, the actual consumption of large amounts of alcohol is nether here nor there. It’s true that many westerners perceive Poles as heavy drinkers, but I’m convinced that this is purely because of the strange reputation of vodka itself. The mental equation goes something like this: Poles are from eastern (really central) Europe, Eastern Europeans drink vodka, vodka is a wild and crazy drink, therefore Poles are wild and crazy heavy drinkers. For some reason, that would be very interesting to research, vodka is seen as a spectacularly powerful and potent form of alcoholic beverage. Take a bottle of vodka to a party in England and you will be seen as a wild and dangerous character. Take a bottle of gin, which has exactly the same alcohol content, and you will be seen as a sensible and helpful guest. The truth is that most Poles drink very little and very rarely get drunk whereas most English people drink fairly regularly and get drunk often. Having said that, there are some spectacular drunks in Poland. I have seen a man down an entire bottle of vodka in one movement and ask for another. Of course he may have been dead the next morning. But, in general Poles seem to have developed an efficient division-of-labour system when it comes to alcohol consumption. The vast majority of Poles drink rarely and with considerable restraint but there is a small elite corps of front line spetsnaz drinkers who take the bulk of the strain for the entire nation. I have seen these brave and fearless guys slumped on benches all over Poland, or passed out in doorways. I’ll never forget one guy who I saw casually flat on his back half in and half out of a doorway in Kazimierz, his feet protruding onto the pavement. People were stepping gingerely over him to get into the building as he snored away. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen comatose drunks slumped in trams, buses, government offices, or doorsteps. This is extremely rare in England (and I do speak for England here, not Scotland, Ireland, or Wales about which I know little). And yet, it is certainly true that the average Englishman drinks far more and more often than the average Pole. I don’t know any English men, and only one English woman, who forswears alcohol, but it isn’t uncommon to come across Polish men who don’t drink and Polish women who will drink more than the occasional half pint of beer are thin on the ground.

Rare photo of a professional Polish drunk on his feet – that’s him on the right

Rare photo of a professional drunk

I attended a traditional Polish wedding recently, about which I will write more later, and was introduced to the official Polish method of getting drunk. This is one of the few social occasions in Poland at which it is acceptable to get a little bit tipsy. Even there, I only saw a handful of guys who were full-on staggering-about wasted. It struck me that a lot of this was down to the strict and deeply ingrained rules for vodka consumption that exist here. It took me some time to get used to these. The key is to understand that it’s a communal affair. The procedure for drinking at a Polish wedding is as follows:

1. Find a bottle of vodka (this is not normally a problem).
2. Identify five or six people who are within earshot and alert them to the fact that you have a bottle of vodka (this is also rarely a problem).
3. Indicate to these people that you would like to share a drink with them (it helps if you can speak Polish at this point, but raising your eyebrows and proffering the bottle in a suggestive manner also works pretty well).
4. Pour a shot of vodka into everyone’s glass (everyone WILL have one of these sacred shot glasses).
5. Make eye contact with one or two people (depending on your level of inebriation), raise your own glass in the air (not too high!) and make a toast (‘Na zdrowie’ meaning ‘to health’ is the classic, although I like to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Bottoms up’ just to confuse people).
6. Pour the vodka (ALL the vodka) down the back of your neck (tilting the head right back often helps).
7. Show no pain.
8. Shake any remnants onto the floor or into any other glass of beer, tea, or fruit juice that you may have lying around (vodka is sacred and wasting it is a very bad thing).
9. Grin broadly.
10. Start thinking about how long one should wait before repeating step 1 (I can’t really help you here, but I feel your pain).

There are a couple of very interesting features of this drinking procedure that I would like to compare and contrast with the time-honored English tradition of buying rounds. For anyone who doesn’t know what I mean by ‘buying rounds’ here’s a breakdown:

1. Find and enter a pub (this is not normally a problem).
2. Identify the people you entered the pub with (this is also rarely a problem unless you have previously been to another pub – maybe one day I will explain the concept of a pub crawl). These people are commonly referred to as ‘mates’ whether or not they are actually of the opposite sex or, indeed, actual ‘mates’ in that sense.
3. Decide who is going to buy the next ’round.’ This means deciding who will be first to buy a drink for everyone (this often takes fair amount of time).
4. Go to the bar and buy the drinks requested by your mates (if in doubt just buy the same drink x number of times and claim you forgot the details).
5. Drink (only on very special occasions such as death, birth, marriage, or extreme inebriation is it necessary to offer a toast – in which case ‘cheers’ is more than sufficient).
6. Continue drinking until your beer/other drink is finished (you may want to engage in conversation with your mates during this period although this is by no means compulsory or even advisable).
7. Show no pain.
8. Make rude comment about those who are drinking more slowly/quickly than you are, labeling them ‘lightweights/beer monsters’ as appropriate.
9. Grin broadly (or start a fight).
10. Go directly to step 3. The person you bought the first round is exempt from buying any further rounds until everyone else has bought one (this is very important).

There are a couple of important differences that need to be teased out here, and I think they go a long way to explaining why the average drinking session among Englishmen ends with a lot of people staggering around half cut, staring fights, or racing around the Rynek Glowny with their trousers around their ankles while the average drinking session among Poles ends with nothing more noteworthy than high spirited goodbyes and backslapping.

Scottish people have the same rules about buying rounds as English people, but there is the added threat that they wear dresses.

Kilts on display

Under Polish rules one person has to initiate drinking. Deciding that you want a drink isn’t enough. You have to be sure that you can persuade at least one, and ideally three or four, other people that they should have a drink at the same time. Pouring a shot of vodka for yourself and happily downing it will cause Polish people to stare at you in that special way that they reserve for lunatics and ignorant foreigners. You can get escorted to the airport at gunpoint for that kind of behavior. This means that you have to seriously consider what other people will think of you for wanting another drink at that point in time. Every drink you have is automatically a public affair. It takes a certain social standing within the group in order to successfully pull off the drinking maneuver. Again, social standing shows itself to be such an important element of Polish culture. The meek guy sitting in the corner has little to no chance of getting a drink when he wants one, he has to wait for one of the alpha males to suggest it instead. Women never make this move. As a foreigner you initially have a certain degree of power, but this soon wanes. For any Englishmen out there not wanting to expire from thirst at a wedding or similar affair I strongly suggest the following strategy:

1. Pour vodka for yourself and then look shocked and ashamed when Polish people around you explain the rules. Make sure you get this first one down your neck during their explanations, it might be a while before you get another.

2. After a decent interval, offer everyone a drink. You can probably get away with this a few times before people get tired of you.

3. Wander off to another table and sit down in a spare chair as if you are lost or resting after excessive dancing. Pretend to understand absolutely no Polish and people will soon start to offer you drinks, food, and kisses on the cheek. Faced with a foreigner at a wedding table most Poles will automatically start to swell with pride at the magnificence of their customs and generosity (although none them are actually paying for it) and introduce you to the drinking procedure.

4. Wander to another table and repeat step 3. Poles have almost infinite belief in the ignorance of foreigners – not a characteristic unique to this nation by any means. Take care that you don’t choose the table that you started at – this can lead to industrial grade staring and a severe vodka drought.

Under English rules drinking responsibility is shared by the group. When one round is finished it is automatically assumed that the next person will accept the responsibility for buying/acquiring the next round. It is voluntary exactly who the next person is, but everybody knows who has and who hasn’t yet got a round in. It is completely impossible to refuse this mantle. If you have deliberately entered the pub with four other guys you have automatically accepted that you will be buying drinks for everybody at least once, and that you will be having at least four drinks. If there are five or six or ten, the same responsibilities ensue. It is possible to make one or more of these drinks non-alcoholic, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Let’s consider for a moment the group of 15 English guys arriving in Krakow for a stag party. You can do the mathematics yourself. Even if there is only one round per person per day, and this would be considered very mean, the potential for extreme intoxication becomes obvious. I have absolutely no idea where we got this system from, but it is taught to all Englishman from the day they first look old enough to get into a pub.

In English there are many phrases that are used to criticize a person for drinking too slowly or too quickly. These exist because drinking particularly slowly or quickly throws off the whole rhythm of the round-buying procedure and consequently causes social and metal pain. The Polish system neatly avoids this because the actual drinking part takes a couple of seconds. It is replaced with a period of uncertainty in which people at varying levels of inebriation are counting down in the heads. As far as I’m concerned this leads to high levels of stress. I’m convinced that the guys slumped on benches are those who have cracked under the strain, grabbed a bottle of vodka for themselves and never looked back.

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When you first meet Polish people in Poland, one of the first questions they always ask you is ‘So, what do you think of Polish people?’ or ‘So, what do you think of Poland’ I’m not saying they introduce themselves with these words, but I would bet money that it will come up within the first five minutes of conversation. It’s almost like they’re wondering if you would like to buy the place. I’ve known lots of British and American people who have lived in Poland for long or short periods and this always comes up. ‘Why do they keep asking what we think of them?’ we ask each other over a quiet beer. This is a topic of much discussion among Brits and Americans living here. Some people tend to dismiss the idea by saying that there really isn’t any difference between Poles and Brits when you get down to basics, but I think this misses the point. There is a difference, it’s just very hard to describe exactly what it is, that’s the problem. You can clearly feel it, but you can’t quite say what it is. It’s true that Poles and Brits want more or less the same things out of life, enough money, a house, a family and some friends. But this isn’t what the differences are about.

Perhaps the most important difference is revealed by the question itself ‘What do you think of Polish people?’ I find it very hard to imagine a British person asking this question of a Polish visitor to Britain, and ever harder to imagine an American asking it. It just wouldn’t occur to us to ask, but it seems to be the first thing on the minds of Poles. If I met a Pole or a Lithuanian or a Tibetan in London I would probably ask ‘How are you getting on in London?’ but I wouldn’t ask ‘What do you think of Londoners?’ For one thing the question makes no sense. There are millions of different kinds of people living in London from all over the world (many of them from Poland!) so there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ Londoner. There is a London identity, but it comes from knowing the same places and facing the same problems (tube nightmares, horrendously expensive rents, the occasional suicide bomber), not from any sense that we are the same in some way. In many ways we really don’t care what foreigners think of us (an arrogance that has absolutely no basis) and when they are rude about us, we never take it seriously.

There is definitely something in the Polish character that is very concerned about the way other people see them. The concepts of personal and national shame are very strong here. People are generally extremely aware of their social position in relation to others and they extend this to their perception of how the rest of the world sees Poland. At the same time they have a strong sense that being Polish means you have some kind of romantic inner strength and passion that can’t be matched by people from lesser nations. The question is really two questions in one: ‘Are you laughing at us?’ and ‘Have you noticed how special Polish people are?’ The first part of this question ‘Are you laughing at us?’ seems to torture the Polish psyche almost continuously. Poland is not a rich country, although it is a hell of a lot richer than it was twenty or even ten years ago, and there are lots of things that ‘westerners’ would regard as old fashioned or even primitive, but it really isn’t so different from most places in western Europe. Poles are hypersensitive about the differences that do exist but they always overestimate how important or obvious these differences are to foreigners. There are two phrases that I have heard literally hundreds of times when Poles talk about the way westerners see them: ‘You all think there are Polar bears on the streets’ or ‘You all think it’s some kind of jungle over here.’ I had never heard either of these descriptions of Poland before I came here, but most Polish people are convinced this is what we are all saying about them.

I’ve never seen a Polar bear in Poland. I have seen a tiger, but that’s a different story

Rarely seen on Polish streets

Exactly where these particular ideas came from I have no idea. I suppose the Polar bears are some kind of reference to the confusion between Poland, the old Warsaw Pact countries, Russia, and Siberia, although I’m far from sure that Polar bears live in any of these areas. I put the jungle reference down to Joseph Conrad. Actually, when British people think about Poland, if they ever do, they will probably have images of queues to buy toilet paper, Trabants, and goose-stepping Russian troops, all of which are at least 30 years out of date. British people who have actually been here, and there are a lot of them, will have memories of being very pleasantly surprised at how nice and friendly the place is.

The kind of thing English people expect to see in Poland

Polish queue

In part II I’ll be looking a specific questions about Polish culture including such diverse and fascinating topics as ‘Is Adam Małysz a saint,’ ‘Do Poles drink too much vodka,’ and ‘Who is this Jan Pawel drugi person anyway?’

Tomorrow I’m going to a wedding with A (not mine, or hers). Apparently it lasts for two days and there might be some vodka involved. I might be conscious sometime late on Monday, although I wouldn’t put money on it.

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