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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 ...


Jeffrey said...

Ryszard Kapuściński

I'll second that. I've not read any of his books, but he was published frequently in Granta back in the 1980s and 1990s and always riveting. Along with Redmond O'Hanlon, he is a favorite "travel" writer covering less than hospitable locales.

ML Awanohara said...

Here's a question that comes from my experience of living in Japan for so long. Asians think we can't distinguish between their various nations, but after you've lived in an Asian country for a while, you can really see the differences.

Is that also true of Eastern European countries? I'm ashamed to say but I can't really distinguish between Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Of the three, I've only visited Hungary--and when I asked that question of Hungarians, they said that if a Hungarian, a Pole, and Czech were walking down the street, the Hungarian would be dressed more shabbily than the other two.

Is that true? Or perhaps it's an example of Hungarian humor--which itself could be a distinguishing trait ...

Jamie Stokes said...

@ Jeffrey
The books are a mixture of collections of his journalistic output with additional linking material—well worth a read.

Jamie Stokes said...

@ ML
Poles are afraid that Westerners can't tell the difference between central European states (and Russia), which is not entirely unjustified. They pretend not to care about this on the grounds that we are ignorant savages, but it does bother them.

Poles often claim to be able to identify other Poles by sight, no matter where they are in the world, which is something I've often also heard Japanese people say. Why this is considered a noteworthy skill I'm not really sure.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...


Given that Poles think so badly of other Poles, it's a self preservation mechanism. Having said that, I should add that in my experience it is never officially 'other Poles' that Poles think badly of. The official term is 'People', where it is understood that people who are not Polish are not 'People'.

Alice said...

"Are more Brits visiting Poland since it became independent?"

Did you honestly meant to say "since 1918"? Because that's what this sentence means.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...


I think people understand that the date referred to is 1989. It is perfectly possible for a country to exist on the maps and yet to lack independence. Was Hungary independent in 1956? Was Czechoslovakia independent in 1968? They all existed on the maps but had not scope to determine their own internal or external policies. Most definitely any attempt to describe Poland as independent would have resulted during the eighties in a flurry of bitter laughter from any Poles nearby.

ML Awanohara said...

@ JS
Good to know that the Poles are worried about being mistaken for Russians. Actually, does anyone want to be Russian these days? I happened to meet a couple of Russian women in NYC over the past year, both of whom were posing as French. Only when pressed did they admit, with no small amount of reluctance, that they were in fact Russians.

In Japan, many people thought I was Russian, and now that I live in the East Village of NYC, which has a large community of Polish immigrants, I sometimes get mistaken for a Pole. Perhaps because of living in Britain for so long, I tended to feel annoyed whenever this happened--do I look like a babushka or Polish equivalent ("scowling old ladies with sharp umbrellas")? Until it finally dawned on me, they may have meant it as a compliment!

I'm not so sure about Poles, but I do have a hard time distinguishing Ukrainians (another big community in NYC's East Village) from Russians. Once when a Ukrainian man was driving me to JFK airport, I decided to ask, so what's the deal between Russians and Ukrainians. He admitted that there were many cultural similarities but then went on to say: "Basically, we hate each other." One of my more memorable lessons in international affairs!

ML Awanohara said...

@Konrad & @JS
I'm detecting from things both of you have said that although Poles might be hospitable to outsiders, they are also suspicious of them--hence JS's description of Poland as "opaque." This observation, too, makes a curious comparison with Japan, which is often called "inscrutable" because of the mechanisms it has developed to keep non-Japanese at arm's length.

But the Japanese preference for keeping themselves to themselves has to do with being a small island nation. As you know, they imposed Sakoku (locked country"),a policy of keeping foreigners out and Japanese from leaving. It lasted two centuries.

Whereas in the Polish case, suspiciousness of outsiders surely has to do with being a landlocked nation that has Germany and Russia for neighbors. Outsiders therefore tend to be invaders.

Going back to my other question, perhaps this is why Poles don't mind being mistaken for Czechs and Hungarians--they have an affinity for each other because of their common geographical misfortune.

Jamie Stokes said...

Ukrainians are an interesting case, because they are deeply divided. The west of Ukraine looks culturally to the West, but the much larger eastern portion looks to Russia. A massive generalisation, but kind of true. Ukrainians will hate me reminding them of this, but the west of their country was a completely integrated part of Poland for centuries.

I think the curse-of-powerful-neighbours argument is a bit of a myth. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was dominant in Central Europe for centuries—then it was the Germans and Russians who feared a powerful neighbour. Good times come, good times go.

I still say Poles are much more suspicious of each other than they are of foreigners.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...

@ML & JS

I think Jamie has it about right. If you looked on a map of seventeenth century Europe you'd see a great big blob in the centre of it that was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, taking in pretty much all of what now is Ukraine, Bielorussia and the Baltic States, as well as Poland, of course. At that time Germany was a mess of principalities and Russia was still getting over being dominated by the Golden Horde. The memory of that time still colours Polish consciousness to a degree, just as the memory of the 120 years for which Poland was wiped off the map of Europe. The myth of Poland being perpetually set upon (as well as the myth of Poles being incapable of governing themselves) was actually started by German historians as a way of justifying Prussia's role in the subdivision of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century. So, repeating those myths in front of many Poles is a great way to get a rise out of them - an analysis of the underlying psychology would be fascinating, I'm sure. Finally, Poland was landlocked for some of its history but, currently, its northern border is on the coast of the Baltic.

The only nation the Poles are more suspicious of than themselves are the Russians. This is perhaps why they do not mind being mistaken for Czechs or Hungarians - other nations that have had their fill of 'disagreements' with the Russians. Having said that, the Poles and Hungarians have a centuries old friendship - a rare thing for nations that for much of that time shared a common land border - explainable by the fact that the border ran along the Carpathians mountains. Even so, it would be hard to mistake Poles for Hungarians as the Hungarians belong to a different group than all of the surrounding Slav nations including Poles.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...

One more bit of essential information. Before World War II Poland had a great variety of peoples living within its borders. Not just Poles and Jews but also Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Bielorussians and a few more minorities to spice up the mix. I'm not sure about the exact numbers but ethnic Poles only made up something like half of the total populations. Due to German and Russian 'efforts' during and just after the war, this picture has changed radically. Poland is now one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in Europe, making pretty much anyone of a different ethnicity a curiosity. So Poles (unless virulently racist) will react with interest to anyone who is not a Pole.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Konrad & JS
I take your point that my attempt to compare Japan and Poland--"Locked vs. Landlocked"--was too simplistic. Yet my sense of the two nations having much in common in terms of how they handle outsiders persists. I think it has to do with what Konrad just said about Poland having emerged as one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe. Ditto for Japan in Asia, where a foreigner is still a bit of a novelty.

As I mentioned, a key difference is that whereas Japan sought to be racially pure, Poland had this status thrust upon it by invading powers ("efforts" by Germany and Europe). But if the two countries took very different routes, they have reached the same (or similar) destination.

You both say that Poles are more suspicious of each other than of outsiders--since you are the experts (and I have never been to Poland), I accept that must be the case. I'm not entirely clear, however, what you mean by "suspicious."

Jamie remarked that Poles are oblivious to all the expats who have moved to their cities. May I deduce that Poles aren't exactly seeking out foreigners for company, as a way of escaping from other Poles.

Also according to Jamie, if Poles happen to encounter a foreigner, they treat them almost like a pet: "My English friend," etc. Notably, pets aren't usually considered equal to family members (except, of course, by animal fanatics).

Jamie has also commented that Poles like being able to recognize each other when they go abroad. They may suspect each other, but it seems they also relate to each other better than to anyone else. My impression is that Polish migrants to the UK tend to stick together--which would help to explain why the English remain woefully ignorant about Poland (that, and their xenophobia). I can further attest that most Polish immigrants to NYC can be found in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, (the second largest concentration in the U.S. after Chicago).

As Konrad's remarks on Polish history show, the country has had more than its fair share of twisted times. Thus I wonder if there could be something twisted in Poles' behavior toward each other, toward outsiders? Again, I'm not the expert but if I had to take a stab at decoding, I might hypothesize that in the Polish context, being suspicious of someone means you respect them. Foreigners can be treated well as they're not worthy of being suspicious of--they're below the radar, so to speak.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Konrad
Interesting what you say about Hungarians belonging to a different group than all of the surrounding Slav nations including Poles. I have long been fascinated by the idea that Hungarians, Japanese, Koreans, and Ainu may have been related prehistorically (posited because of linguistic similarities).

One practical question: **How** does one tell Hungarians, Poles and Czechs apart? Are there other telltale signs apart from language?

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...

From my limited experience of Japan and the Japanese, I think that the Poles lack the feeling of superiority that some Japanese appear to have. When abroad many Poles do stick together but not as much as many other nations (having been a Polish emigree I feel pretty sure about this) and it would have been very surprising if the Poles did not stick together to some degree when in a foreign environment - everybody does that. I do not think that Poland has had more than its fair share of twisted times, either. When a country has been around for over a thousand years, a variety of different things are bound to have happened to it in the meanwhile. Finally, as to telling apart the Poles and the Hungarians. Both nations tend to be mostly dark haired but the Poles tend to be taller and have lighter toned skin. Or, less seriously, if you ask a person which nation they trust the most and they tell you 'the Poles' then you are dealing with a Hungarian. And vice versa.

Island1 said...

Yes, Poland and Hungary have a close link, which is partly to do with dynastic links between their royal families and a lot to do with the fact that the remnants of the Polish army were able to escape though Hungary in WWII. Polak, Węgier—dwa bratanki (a proverb – Pole and Hungarian are cousins)

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...

Actually, at the start of WWII it was Romania that (sort of) allowed the passage of many Poles, including parts of the government (yes, Poland had a border with Romania at the time). The Polish-Hungarian alliance goes back a fair bit further in time, though I am not sure about the origin of it. And the very same saying exists in Hungarian, as I found out while talking to a somewhat frightening rightwing Hungaria taxidriver.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...

Wikipedia to the rescue:

ML Awanohara said...

@ Konrad

Very interesting: "Pole, Hungarian — two good friends,/together they battle and drink their wine." Am I right to conclude that wine plays a big part in the friendship? If so, I approve! But where does that leave the Czechs, I wonder? Are they too dour and full of existential angst to join in?

Bringing this discussion back to the original topic, of what it's like to be an expat or foreigner living in Poland, I think I'm beginning to get a taste of the challenge Jamie (and others) are up against. The first lesson for any expat, I would wager (Jamie, pls correct me), is that Poland is a mass of contradictions. Now, there is nothing wrong with contradictions: it's what makes people, and life, interesting. But it can also be a bit daunting as you try to settle in.

I realize that Polandian was founded to help people with this challenge, and we can't hope to recreate that on this blog. But let me attempt to sum up the three main "lessons learned" from the above exchange:

1) Poles don't like each other [note: I'm still not clear why that is] but embrace visitors, yet they think something must be wrong with the visitors who wish to spend a long time in their country. In other words, Poles have transmuted Groucho Marx's famous line (echoed by Woody Allen in Annie Hall), from "I wouldn't want to be a member of a club that would have someone like me for a member" to: "Why would anyone want to be a member of this club to which I don't even wish to belong?"

2) Poles also resist being compared to any other nation--which is why my attempts to draw comparisons/contrasts with my expat experience in Japan have gone over like a lead balloon. Yet they are obsessed with how they compare to other nations (hence their sensitivity to what others say about them).

3) If you want to hold your own in a conversation about what Poland is like and why it has evolved in this way, read a history book, and learn some geography. Even then, you probably won't get it right, though it may help you to understand why they particularly don't want to be mistaken for Russians.

Does this seem a fair summary?

ML Awanohara said...

Several of my contacts who've spent time in Central and Eastern Europe--and (dare I say?) Russia--have complained about the attitude of the people (even young people) toward change. They tell me they get frustrated with how passive and fatalistic people tend to be in this part of the world.

For instance, I note that Sezin Keohler, a half-American half-Sri Lankan horror novelist who lives in Prague, recently posted a piece on the Expat+HAREM collaborative blog called "Monster Brawl," about attending the Lady Gaga concert held in Prague on the 21st anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Sezin was horrified when she realized that security would not allow anyone to stand up and dance (something the Czechs apparently had no trouble with). As one of her commenters wrote, this is just one of many manifestations that Czechs still suffer the effects of having been under a repressive regime where "primal energy" is forced underground.

I noticed you didn't mention this kind of frustration when describing your experiences of living in Warsaw and now Kraków. Perhaps that's because you're a Brit and not an impatient American? (I only half-jest. When living in England, I was often frustrated by what I saw as the Brits' profound resistance to change and by their tendency to stand in queues grumbling rather than voicing their complaints in a more constructive way ...)

Anyway, what do you make of Sezin's impressions of Lady Gaga's Czech audience? Have you ever recoiled from your Polish life in the same way, wondering why Poles can't be more rebellious, more energetic, more ebullient? (Though from my standpoint, that would be the pot calling the kettle black! Hahaha.)

Island1 said...

Blimey, that's a lot of questions!

Your lead balloon Japan-Poland comparison is actually illuminating in its wrongness. At one level Japan and Poland may look similar in that they are highly culturally and racially homogeneous—the major difference is that Poles lived for a very long time in a state that was not their own, that did not reflect their will or even their culture. Japan is the opposite.

Poles' mutual mistrust is a result of the historical failure of the Polish state. Throughout the 120 years of the partition and, to an even greater extent, through the communist period the state was not run for the benefit of the Polish people. In order to survive, Poles had to rely on family and networks of close friends. State institutions were either hopelessly inadequate or openly hostile to people's needs.

The result was a highly fractured society in which people really only trusted their immediate clique of friends and family. The Polish word " przyjaciel," which is usually translated as "friend" actually means something more like "friend I trust like he was my brother." You will often, tellingly, hear close friends described as "uncle" or "aunt" or "brother" even though they have no family connection. You literally had to rely on these people for good food, childcare, reliable information, basic goods, etc.

The other side of the mistrust equation is that, during that period, the only way of being successful was to screw your neighbours by collaborating with state institutions. In communist Poland, anyone who had a nice house and a nice car and hard-to-obtain luxuries were assumed to be taking bribes (and, therefore, state functionaries), not without good reason. These beliefs persist. The successful are assumed, by many, to have achieved their success through criminality and corruption. The Polish state and Polish institutions are, now, genuinely Polish, but it's going to take a long time for everyone to accept and believe in this.

Poland has made enormous progress in the past 20 years—Poles have been waiting for this opportunity for a very long time—but I often get the feeling that the trauma of the precious 50 years (arguably 200 years) was never properly addressed. It's as if Poland woke up from a nightmare in 1990 and determined to put it out of mind. The trouble is, it wasn't a nightmare, it was real. For a long time that section of society that was only interested in breaking from the past and converting Poland into a carbon copy 'Westernized' economy as fast as possible was given its head. For me, one of the most interesting things about this past tragic year for Poland (the Smolenk disaster and all the passions it released) has been the beginning of genuine national debate about what Poland should be. I hasn't been pretty, but it is a sign, I believe, that all Poles are beginning to engage in their state instead of just regarding it as the next abstract political experiment to be ignored and worked around.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...

Jamie, those are some of the most insightful comments about Poland that I've heard for a long time. I hope your hopeful conclusion turns out to be correct. I might add that there's a sociological term for the kind of behaviour you talk about - familial amoralism - i.e. you do everything for your family but are totally indifferent to everyone else. Banfield used it to talk about southern Italy but it fits perfectly the Polish mindset. And it's not even like Poland has the cuisine and the climate to make up for it!

ML Awanohara said...

@Island 1 (Jamie?!)

On the Japan-Poland comparison: I was simply trying to put the gloss of my Japan expat experience over your Poland expat experience and see if there were any similarities. I would never be so bold as to assert that Poland is just like Japan. For a start, their cuisines could not be more different!

In other words, I think we're largely in agreement. To quote from one of my above comments: "...a key difference is that whereas Japan sought to be racially pure, Poland had this status thrust upon it by invading powers ("efforts" by Germany and Europe)."

I really appreciate your explanation of the "mistrust equation," which could not be more remote from my Japan experience.

On this score, I think the Poles would make an interesting comparison with the Chinese, who, too, have undergone traumas that bred mistrust; who, too, haven't faced their past; but who nevertheless appear to be modernizing their economy at breakneck speed. Were the Chinese less affected by the traumas of their past, or will they, too, face a day of reckoning as Poland has? I'm not an expert on this but my sense is that Chinese communism was qualitatively different from the Soviet version because it failed to damp the natives' "get up and go," entrepreneurial spirit ... which, of course, relates to my Lady Gaga question. (Sorry for so many questions!)

Ted said...

As a Pole, I can say, there are a few things in the article that I don't get. For example about shoes and exhumation. That, plus a few other things make me think that the author is trying to put labels on something overheard and very defuse.
Trying to speak about a country and a nation after three years of living there is an impossible task. It's unavoidable that you run into stereotypes and extremes, trying to get yourself a picture of the country you live in. Or, in other words trying to understand your new surrounding, but in a too simplistic way.
I agree however with what he said about Brits and Poland: "Most Brits, even now, think Poland is somehow in Russia". For us Poles it's like mixing up Brits and Americans, or Brits and German. Blame the iron curtain and Bond films.
Are Poles suspicious of others and themselves? Not more than Brits, although in a different way. Brits would say they don't like gossiping and others being nosy. That makes them cautious towards other Brits. That's what I had learnt having been for seven years with a British woman, when she lived in England and then as an expat in Portugal. Another thing I learnt, was that Brits often tend to speak about their country in a disapproving way (it's not the country it's used to be). They share that trait with Poles, although, again, in a different way and for different reasons.
Even being suspicious, Poles enjoy their own company more than others, even if they can be curious about other nationalities and will try to make friends with them too. Sometimes the language barrier makes it difficult.
Talking about being suspicious towards other people - is that really a Polish thing? I live in Sweden and from my point of view, it'd be hard to find people more suspicious towards strangers than the Swedes.
And, what has been said in some responses about distinguishing certain nationalities? That's fairly easy. I can usually tell a German or a Dutch from a Brit, or a Pole from a Russian. Only judging by the look and their body language, different facial expression, I'm rarely wrong.

Sabrina said...

This was such a great posting! I really enjoyed reading it. I completely identify with the concept of embracing your national identity even more strongly when you live abroad. Hope you are well!

Jamie Stokes said...

I don't know anything about Lady Gaga, but I do know that characterising the Poles as lacking rebelliousness would be absurd. There were rebellions every under week under partition and it was, of course, the Poles who toppled the first big domino that brought down the Iron Curtain.

Parts of Polish society are highly conservative, but that's true everywhere. If anything, Poles may have embraced change a bit too enthusiastically. I can't compare with the Chinese—I've never been there.

Firehazard Jack said...

"I do know that characterising the Poles as lacking rebelliousness would be absurd."

How very Churchill put it after WW2, the Poles were the only country that collaborated with nobody and fought whoever invaded...

ML Awanohara said...

And it's also true that Poland's Solidarity movement heralded the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe.

But my question is, do you still see lingering effects of communist rule in Poland? By that I mean a certain defeatism or lack of "get up and go." As mentioned above, Sezin Koehler finds this to be true in Prague, 21 years after the Velvet Revolution...

ML Awanohara said...

FYI: I just now found this map of "Europe according to Poland." Of course it's meant to be (somewhat) humorous. But is there truth in humor ?!

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