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Monday, November 22, 2010

If the Shoe Fits ... An Englishman's Curious Devotion to a Curious Country

For this author and indefatigable observer of cultural habits, Poland is one of Europe's more opaque and challenging destinations, at once welcoming visitors while denying it has anything to offer them.

Where are you from originally — which part of England? I was born on the outskirts of London, spent my early childhood in Canada, my teenage years in Kent and then 15 years in North London.

What brought you to Poland originally? Ask any foreigner why they live in Poland and you will hear one of three possible answers: 1) I am married to/dating a Polish woman; 2) I was sent here by my company; or 3) I have Polish roots. I'm in the first category. Notice I say "Polish woman" — in all my time in Poland, I have met just one Western woman married to a Polish man but dozens of Western men married to Polish women, a topic recently covered in the collaborative blog I write for, called Polandian. I have no idea what this says about Polish men, but I do know what it says about Polish women!

How long have you been in Kraków in total? Do you speak Polish? I've lived in Kraków for three years. I speak bits of Polish — it's a big language, and I haven't gotten around to all of it yet. My first trip to Poland was in 1997. I lived in Warsaw for about two years. It was an interesting but ultimately frustrating experience that led me to conclude I was better off back in the UK. With a free choice of 197 countries, I moved to Poland again in 2007 — I am not a smart man.

Where and what did you study before embarking on your Polish adventure? I studied philosophy at King's College London. This in no way prepared me for any experiences, including that of being repeatedly asked who my favorite philosopher is.

What do you do for work? I've been a freelance writer and editor for more than ten years, working mostly on nonfiction books for a wide range of UK and US publishers. I also contribute a monthly "Perspectives on Poland" column to the Kraków Post (Poland's only English-language newspaper) and a weekly column Okiem Angola (Englishman's Eye) to Wirtualna Polska (published in both Polish and English), as well as blogging for Polandian — but those are hobbies more than anything.

as KGB agent in The Spy Who Loved Me
What do most people in the UK imagine when they think of Poland? Most Brits, even now, think Poland is somehow in Russia — a fact that makes Poles incandescently and rightly furious. This is a hangover from the Cold War when we were taught to regard the Soviet Bloc as a single, evil place populated by extravagant moustaches and female super spies wearing lingerie under their fur coats.

Haven't quite a few Polish youth emigrated to London in recent years? Perhaps they could correct that impression. There is an enormous number of Poles in the UK. So many in fact that nobody has any idea how many there really are. It could be a million, it could be two million. And they're not just in London. You can find Poles all across the country. It's not unusual to find shops in English villages that carry Polish beer and foods to cater for the migrants.

Are more Brits visiting Poland since it became independent? There was a time when speaking English on the street would draw a crowd of spectators, but that is long gone. Kraków, like many other eastern and central European cities, has become a favorite stag party destination for Brits and Irish, much to the detriment of the reputation of both nations in the minds of Poles. Warsaw is also a draw to some extent. There is quite a large British expat community in Poland, but most Poles don't know it exists. There are thousands of Brits living in the pretty areas of Kraków and Warsaw, but when Poles meet them they assume they are tourists.

EXPAT H(E)AVEN: With rents a quarter of London levels,
what's not to like about Kraków Old Town?
(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
You say the Brits are living in pretty places. Is that part of the draw, that the grass is somehow greener? (Saying a lot for a Brit, of course...) As I mentioned, Poland's image is irrevocably tied to the Cold War idea of grim communist housing blocks, permanent winter, and tractor factories. In fact, the summers are long and gorgeous, the cities are ancient and beautiful, and the tractor factories were retooled long ago to build Daewoo cars. The grim housing blocks, the scowling old ladies with sharp umbrellas, the absurd bureaucracy — it's all still there, but many of us expats see it as the spice, not the principal ingredient. What's more, you can live reasonably well on a fraction of what it would cost in London or other major European cities.

Have you found it easy to make Polish friends? Poles love foreigners and hate other Poles. Foreigners are assumed to be sophisticated, civilized human beings — other Poles are assumed to be car thieves. It's pretty weird.

What do Poles usually say when they find out you're from the UK? Ten years ago, when I was teaching English in Warsaw, a student asked me: "Why did you come to Poland?" I replied: "Because I was curious." He thought about this for a while and then announced gravely: "One day, I wish to be curious like you." In other words, Polish people find it very hard to understand why a Westerner would choose to live in Poland. The longer I live here, the more I can see why.

Bigos, Poland's national dish,
One of the biggest thrills involved in travel is the chance to try out new foods. But unless I'm mistaken, food is not one of Poland's top attractions. Polish cuisine doesn't have any reputation at all, largely because there is nothing in Polish cuisine that is uniquely Polish. Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Belarusians and a lot of Germans eat pretty much the same stuff with slightly different names. Brits who visit Poland usually thoroughly enjoy the food because it's basically big chunks of meat in fatty, salty sauces — all the stuff they've been weaned off over the past twenty years of cholesterol paranoia.

Hmmm... What would elephants eat? They are vegetarians. Elephants would have a hard time here. Stories of vegetarians being given chicken when they ask for "something without meat" are not entirely apocryphal.

What's the British food you miss the most? Any kind of pie — for some reason pies are completely unknown here. My fantasy food would be Thai green curry pierogi.

Can you tell me any stories that you think help to illustrate key Poland-UK differences? I call these Blind Men's Tales: one man "sees" the elephant's ears and another the trunk, and so on. The collaborative blog, Polandian, which I created with several other English-language bloggers — some foreigners, some Polish — is essentially a giant catalogue of Blind Man's Tales. Our stories, however, are a little different than those you might tell after living in Japan. I spent some time in Tokyo, which is so alien that it's possible to mistake a window for a door. Poland is nothing like that. The differences between Poland and the UK are much more subtle and take time to make themselves known to the visitor. For example, Poles are obsessed with wearing the right shoes for the season — the kind of shoes you are wearing comes up in conversation far more often than I would have believed possible. Other unexpected topics include exhumation and an almost supernatural sensitivity to what anybody anywhere says about the country.

Could you elaborate a little more on the shoes — how many pairs do you need? When I first came to Poland I had two pairs of shoes: a pair of trainers/sneakers and a pair of Dr Martens slip-on boots. I loved those boots. They were probably the seventh or eighth pair of the same make I had owned. I could wear them year round, in any weather. Three years later I have winter shoes, autumn shoes, summer shoes, sandals, going-to-wedding shoes, visiting-priest shoes, walking shoes, "good" shoes and, of course, slippers. And I am still considered to be woefully shoe-deficient.

It sounds like you're becoming Polish-ized. Definitely not. If anything, I'm more English than I ever was. When you live in a foreign country, your nationality becomes a vital part of your identity in a way it never is in your homeland. It's the first thing anybody says about you: "This is my English friend ... I know this English guy ... Speak slowly, he's English ...," etc.

I should mention that if anyone wants to read more about the Polish shoe fetish and other equally astonishing topics — such as exhumation mania or the necessity of owning a meat tenderizer — they should visit Polandian. Who are your readers, and how many visitors does the blog typically get? An eclectic mix of English-speaking Poles, Poles living in English-speaking countries, Westerners with Polish roots, and foreigners living in Poland. We get about 50,000 page-views per month and have recently passed 1.2 millions views in total.

Last but not least, I'd like to pose a couple of questions that are put to all elephant seekers who agree to be interviewed for this blog. First, have you collected any Treasured White Elephants: something that has captured your fancy that you would probably cart away when you leave? Books by Ryszard Kapuściński. He deserves to be far more widely known that he is. His writings about Africa in particular made me see things in an entirely new way. Kapuściński once said he writes for "people everywhere still young enough to be curious about the world," which ties in nicely what I said to the Warsaw student.

Kraków Zoo elephants, courtesy Andrew Llanwarne
Second, have you seen any elephants in Poland? Yes. Two very confused looking Indian elephants in the Kraków Zoo. I also saw a tiger on television that had escaped from a Warsaw circus about a week after I arrived in that city. It ran around the suburbs for a few hours and eventually got shot, but not before a vet had also been shot by an overenthusiastic policeman. It did make me wonder what I was letting myself in for ...

Friday, November 5, 2010

It's 59 Degrees Farenheit, So Why Am I Wearing a Fur Coat?

Up for some down? A warm (75 °F) and
humid (90%) day in late October, NYC
Actually, I tell a lie. No, not about the temperature: it is definitely 59 °F (around 15 °C), and that's in the shade. But I'm wearing an unlined polyester raincoat. It's the people around me who have on fur or — leaving politically correct considerations aside — some close equivalent: down, shearling, leather, or wool.

Temperatures on the U.S. East Coast have been averaging a good 10 °F above normal. But from the way many of my compatriots dress, you would never know this.

I wonder, are all these heavily-clad people sweating it out for the sake of fashion? Or have they actually persuaded themselves that 59 is the new 39?

As a repeat expat, or rex-pat, I'm all about acclimatizing. Upon arriving in a new place, I tune into what the natives are wearing and adjust my own dress habits accordingly.

"Grumpy and Freezy" in Prague,
courtesy Sezin Koehler
Sezin Koehler, a half-American half-Sri Lankan horror novelist who has traveled the world but now lives in Prague, understands this. In a recent post for Expat+HAREM, she wrote:
When I first arrived in Prague I was a size 7, had an acceptable C-cup and chocolate-colored skin. Three years later I’ve become a size 12 and an overbearing DD-cup with skin the color of weak tea. Aging plays only a small part.
I take Koehler's point. Finding herself under assault from Prague's sub-zero temperatures, she responded as any sensible rex-pat would: by making the necessary bodily and sartorial adjustments.

But on the East Coast of America, it may be safer to take your cues from other new arrivals (including us repatriates), not the natives. Often as not, New Yorkers are staggering around like Rip Van Winkle, bundled up against a cold that existed some twenty years ago.

So, how is it that we Americans got stuck in this time warp? (I say "we" because to some extent this post will be a self-indictment.) And what will it take to shake us out of our stupor?

First, some possible causes:

Americans are most comfortable with binary choices: good guys vs. bad guys, socialists vs. libertarians — or, as Heidi Klum might put it in her steely German accent: "One day you're in, and the next day you're out." It's hardly surprising that we should apply the same non-calibrated approach to the weather. If it's winter, we wear a coat, regardless of what the thermometer says. Life is so much simpler that way. Often it's much sweatier, too, but we have showers and deodorant for that...

The first time I went to the dentist since repatriating to the U.S., I couldn't get over how much he was at pains (pun intended) to tell me I wouldn't feel pain. If I'd been able to move my mouth, I would have said: "Are you kidding me? Since when did dental procedures become pain free?" That was an important lesson in how coddled my fellow Americans had become in my absence. I suspect that one reason so many of them can't wean ourselves off their heavy coats is that they can't stand the thought of being cold for so much as a second or two. It's everything I can do to refrain from getting up on my soapbox and preaching about mountain climbers who survived horrific cold simply by keeping their bodies moving. Oh, sorry, here I go:
Yes, the first blast of cold air hurts, but keep moving, folks, keep moving, and you'll be fine. Heavy wraps are for when you plan to be stationery for an extended period. ... Amen!

Illustration by Milo Winter,
Courtesy Project Gutenberg
America prides itself on being a new-world culture, where people can take charge of their destiny rather than giving into the Fates. That's all well and good, but attempting to rewrite Aesop's "wind and sun" fable qualifies as overreaching, in my humble opinion. That's the kind of thing I say to myself when I see my compatriots sallying forth in great big coats in 50-degree weather. What were they thinking when they decided to don that monstrosity: that they could make the climate gods conform to their sartorial whims? "Save that for when it's windy," I say under my breath, trying not to smirk upon noticing a few people lugging their coats around. That Aesop was smarter than he looked!

As Ross Douthat pointed out in his New York Times column this week, we Americans can't seem to make up our minds about global warming and whether it can really be happening to us (see #3). His observation dovetails with my theory that for some of us clinging ever more tightly to our coats is a way of clinging ever more tightly to the hope that if we ignore the issue for long enough, it will simply go away. It may even blow out to sea if we're lucky (and collide with the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, but that's another tale of woe...).

Global style hub Refinery 29 has just posted a "cheat sheet" for snapping up the perfect winter coat:
Finally, with so many strange, balmy days behind us, the deep chill of winter is in the air. Along with November's arrival comes a brand-new urge to overhaul the closet and put our coziest wardrobe staples front-and-center. And that definitely begins with a good, sturdy coat for winter.
Of course it's jabberwocky, but I fall for it every time. Why? Not because I don't want to know about climate change, nor because I abhor being cold. The truth is, I'm an old sentimentalist. More than any other item of clothing, a coat harks back to an idyllic past that existed before the earth warmed up. Ah, the good old days when summer was hot and winter was cold, and you needed two wardrobes. I am getting all warm and fuzzy inside just thinking of it! But unfortunately for the retail industry, I have already collected a closetful of coats that I rarely wear any more. I keep them just in case I'm suddenly in the mood to bask (hahaha) in my nostalgia.

And now a few ideas for some wake-up jolts:

British officer in WWI,
Courtesy Wikimedia
1) Corral British and Japanese expats to give lessons to the natives on the fine art of layering one's clothes. As is well known, no one is better prepared for capricious weather than Brits. By dressing in layers, they can weather all four seasons in a day, a not infrequent occurrence in Albion's clime. Regardless of whether you're a rumpled tweed type or a fashionista, two basic layering principles apply:
  1. A lightweight innermost layer in case the sun makes a rare appearance for long enough for you to strip down to next-to-nothing — or in some cases, nothing at all. As Andrew Welch of British Naturism puts it: “When the weather gets warm, we have a whole wardrobe of clothes to choose from. We choose to choose none.”
  2. A practical outermost layer such as a rain/trench coat, mac, or anorak — ideal for when you find yourself being stalked by a chill north wind.
Japanese, too, are fond of layering; but in their case, the tendency is to add under- (rather than over) garments, as can be seen in this illustration of underwear from the Heian era (794-1185). To this day, most Japanese don long underwear in winter. Boring, I know, but boring is where it's at in a country where most people have a long commute in overheated, overcrowded subway cars (the long johns, too, are hard at work, wicking away the sweat).

The Climate Change Elephant,
Facebook profile pic
2) Arrange a stampede by a herd of Climate Elephants. Under the aegis of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, a group of cheeky pachyderms have been popping up Down Under to remind people that climate change is the elephant in the room. Could we Americans commission them to perform the same or similar stunts stateside? Depending on how dexterous they are with their trunks, perhaps their first prank could be plucking excessively heavy coats off people's backs — a kind of Gestalt therapy.

3) Harness the power of reality TV to call attention to our proclivity for overdressing in winter. Possible titles include What Not to Wear — Quite Literally or The Emperor's Old Clothes. Contestants would be taken apart for their failure to don the appropriate garb for a climate that no longer gets as cold as it used to, and taught how to dress in layers. One or more of the judges would be from the UK or Japan. They would make surprise visits to contestants' homes on days when the temperature suddenly rises by at least ten degrees: how well are they calibrating their clothing?

4) Encourage tourism to some of the world's coldest inhabited places. Not only would we Americans find out what cold really is but we would finally have a good excuse for getting our beloved outerwear out of storage. One possible destination is the village of Listvyanka in Siberia, next to the world's deepest lake, Lake Baikal, which freezes over from late January to early May. I'm envisioning a Doctor Zhivago tour, with glamorous fur coats and hats provided as part of the package, along with the option of having your photo taken standing atop the lake next to a cardboard cut-out of Omar Sharif or Julie Christie.

Question: Have you taken any steps to cope with our markedly different weather conditions? NOTE: Practical is fine, but nutty is even better! (Nutty times call for nutty measures ...)