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.
|A LOT TO ANSWER FOR? Barbara Bach|
as KGB agent in The Spy Who Loved Me
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)
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, |
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.
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|