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
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
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.