Friday, 29 July 2016

The Adventure of Poland

It's not about us unless--in a perhaps tiny but truthful way--it is.
It's Polski Piątek, and I am thinking a lot these days about the astonishing new need to argue that Western, European, Christian Civilization is a Good Thing, so I shall make some general, but highly subjective, remarks about Poland.

This is, incidentally, the morning after my Polish club meeting, at which anglophone learners of Polish gather to read a Polish book aloud and discuss it afterwards in Polish. I am the moderator of the group, and I spend hours in preparation, which I very much enjoy because I am insane it helps trap the wriggly Polish vocabulary in my brain.

I am learning Polish for the same reason that I took all the Lonergan courses during my M.Div. training--somebody told me it was too difficult. However, it is also because understanding, and being understood in, another language is fun. It is also psychologically rewarding. After last night's meeting I had the same endorphin rush I used to get after teaching a successful and even fun class in English writing skills.

The Polish language is, and always has been, Poland's most easily defended border. As throughout its history the Polish borders have expanded and shrunk or even been effectively erased, Poland is defined as much by Polish-people-who-speak-Polish as by Polish territory. There is even a collective, semi-political word for Poles and their descendants who live abroad, either as exiles or voluntarily: Polonia.

Poland-the-Territory currently includes a large chunk of what some might think of as Prussia and, from a Polish nationalist point of view, keenly lacks what are now chunks of Ukraine and Lithuania. The Polish national epic, Pan Tadeusz, begins with the words "Lithuania! My fatherland!"--another cruel irony for a country beset with them. The great Polish city of Lwów, famous for its mathematicians and codebreakers, poets and singers, is now Ukraine's Lviv. Tiny Polish-speaking populations still remain in Vilnius (Wolno) and Lwów... But why am I beginning my reflections on territorial Poland with the now invisible?

Let's focus on the territories I have actually seen with my own eyes. I have stayed in Gdańsk, Kraków, Kielce, Warsaw, a horse farm slightly south-west of Warsaw, and a hotel north-west of Wrocław. I have visited various towns in southern Silesia, going as close to Czech as Karpacz. I have attended a poetry reading in Sopot and evening Mass in Częstochowa. I have swum in the Baltic Sea.

I have bragged about all these things to my husband Benedict Ambrose, who is unimpressed because he toured Poland when he was a teenager. He observes that Kraków is a lot cleaner and a lot more visited by tourists than it was in 1990. His host parents told him not to bother learning Polish, so he didn't and probably never will.

He found their attitude difficult, and Poland is indeed a difficult country for a foreigner. Their kings were not our kings, or any kings we might have heard of, with the possible exception of Jan Sobieski II, who defeated the Turks at the Gates of Vienna. Poland's history began, conveniently, only shortly before her baptism to Christianity, and with the exception of a few resurrected Jewish neighbourhoods, the small but ancient Tatar community, and a goodly number of post-communist leftist semi-pagans, post-communist Poland is unashamedly Christian.

Poland is a particularly difficult country for an anglophone foreigner if the subject of the Second World War comes up, particularly anything touching upon the Holocaust. As I discover again and again, both in myself and in Canadian tourists, Canadians are abject self-police and when people do not follow the established Canadian codes for talking about the Holocaust, Jews, Israel, Roma or the Canadian Forces during the Second World War, we feel the most excruciating mental anguish that can only be relieved by a schoolmarmish lecture or staggeringly rude remark.

The rudeness of Canadians being PC abroad is really very embarrassing. It's not that we are that self-righteous; it's that we will wallow in corrosive self-hatred if we say nothing. Paradoxically, we will make fun of Yanks to their very faces. But now I am off the topic. My biggest advice about Poland and the Second World War is you have no idea how bad it was for the Poles--I keep discovering horrors I could never have even dreamed--so don't argue. Just say "How terrible." Unless it is your paid job to report them, stay out of current internecine disputes.

Poland is also a difficult country because of the following:

- most Poles do not speak English; everyone my age and older was encouraged to study Russian instead
- these non-English speaking Poles include many ticket-sellers at bus and train stations, especially in smaller towns like Częstochowa
- the post-communist infrastructure cannot cope with current levels of car ownership
- trains are complicated and if you take one that democratically stops at every little town between Big City A and Big City B, it will take forever and you risk death from boredom
- most Poles do not fake interest or friendliness or tolerance or any polite lie that comes so quickly to the faces or lips of native English speakers, which can be unsettling to us, habitual liars that we are
- Poles will openly stare at you if they think you look weird, and they will yell at you if they think you are doing wrong
- though beautiful, the historical architecture can be so different, you may have difficult making sense of what you are looking at
- the signs contain so many Zs, reading them almost hurts and remembering them almost impossible
- Polish drivers

However what all these difficulties add up to is a bracing adventure and a refreshing change from our increasingly homogenized-yet-paradoxically-multicultural western way of life. In Poland, we are cast out of our comfort zones of polite lies and political pieties and forced to face, and perhaps utter, rude-sounding truths. One is that we know very little about Polish history, and most of what little we know was mediated to us by English-speaking non-Poles or The Pianist. Really, how much do we know about any European country east of Germany?

Another is that we are not as cosmopolitan as we think we are because it would never occur to us to stir a spoonful of jam in our tea, let alone habitually remember to serve it with a slice of lemon.

Another is that we have to face that the Second World War wasn't "over there" but "right here", and whereas our grandmothers may have spent the war in a munitions factory, or guarding a coast, or selling hats in Simpson's department store (my gran), Poles' grandmothers were in constant danger of rape (and often were raped) by German or Russian soldiers, not to mention in constant danger of execution, forced labour, deportation, having to watch their children die, you name it. Something to think about when a bad-tempered old Polish lady stabs you with her elbow and pushes past you to the communion line.

Another is that the Second World War didn't really end for Poland until 1990, which is a staggering thought. This is a strange statement, so I will explain that under Soviet and Communist domination the Poles weren't allowed to find out, or openly discuss, many aspects of what had actually happened to them. Then there is the Soviet and Communist domination itself, which Poland has still not entirely come to grips with, in part because a lot of the Commie old guard reinvented themselves and still play roles in Polish public life.

Poland can be an emotional roller-coaster in the way Italy and France just aren't. In France I might think "Oh how beautiful" and "Oh how delicious" and "Oh Hemingway wrote there!" In Italy I think "Sunshine! Mediterranean Sea! Time for lunch!" In Poland I find myself trying to read a Polish poem written on a memorial to workers killed during a strike in Gdańsk, just outside a shipyard I saw on TV when I was about 10. On the one hand, it is not my tragedy, and I have no right to wallow in virtuous emotions. On the other hand, Solidarność is the first (and only) Polish word most Canadian kids of my generation ever learned, and like Polish kids we were scared the Bomb would drop. It may have been through the CBC news, National Geographic, Maclean's magazine, the Toronto Star and Time magazine, but I remember something of Poland in the 80s.

Oh dear. I am afraid I haven't time to talk about how beautiful the Polish countryside is--the vast apple orchards south-west of Warsaw, the mountains, the sandy beaches of Sopot and its grand pre-war hotels. I'm sorry about that. I'll just say that whereas I love to go to Italy to relax, I go to Poland to become a better, braver, cleverer, more compassionate and much more humble person.


  1. Oh, Julia! I lost your comment somehow. Let me see if I can find it again.

  2. No, it's gone. Post it again. I only got the chance to see that it was about Babcia and safe spaces. I think a safe space is by definition one that does not have a babcia in it. The nicest thing a babcia ever said about me was that I looked "edible", and I think that meant I looked fat but healthy.

  3. Bahahahahahaha!!! 'Edible' is one I never heard before.

    I just said that I would love to get the opinions of some old Polish ladies on 'safe spaces'. I know what their answers would be, though, and they would be glorious.

    I guess I could just ask my own babcia, but it's useless because at 90 she is too far gone to understand the question. However, I am quite sure that I could predict her answer, because not only did she survive the Uprising, she also once declared that Oprah Winfrey must be part-white because "she's too pretty to be fully black".

    1. Oh, terrible. Naughty Babcia. As a matter of fact, Oprah had her DNA checked, and she is a 8% Native American and 3% South Asian, but otherwise her ancestors all came from three African tribes.

      What did Babcia do during the Uprising? If she is 90 now, she was old enough to shoot then, but maybe her parents hid her in a cellar instead?

    2. She was in the militia. Medals to prove it and everything.

    3. Well, there. In the unlikely event that your Babcia would stab me with her elbow or make some blood-freezing remark, I will remember that she took up arms against occupying Nazis--against all the odds--as an 18 year old girl. She belongs "to a nation whose lot it is to shoot at the enemy with diamonds."