“Make yourself feel at home.”
It is the classic wish extended by a good host to their guest. Note that there is no denial of status. They are still a guest. It is not quite their home. The recipient of such gracious hospitality has no right to presume that it is their house and must respect their host’s intentions or else decline the offer. Nonetheless, they have been given freedom of a kind: the freedom to share the opportunities of the abode and feel secure in a generous welcome.
This is how I feel as an immigrant in Poland. It is not my country, and it is not my place to expect it to accord with my ambitions and preferences. To discourse on how it should be changed would be like strolling into someone’s house and insulting the furniture.
Nonetheless, I have been made to feel at home. I have a good job, a good flat and friends who enjoy novelty of being around a foreigner while also forgetting them when talk turns to the universal. After two years, I have enough emotional connections to my little part of it, and those people whom I love, that I think of being one of those house guests who in time becomes a permanent fixture.
I came here almost by accident, at first intending, with the self-indulgent vagueness allowed to the middle-classes, to head to Japan, Italy or “somewhere hot”. In my mind I had images of smoke-stained old tower blocks and worn, leathery faces. Well, of course, there is a lot of that – stereotypes tend to be grounded in the truth – but there is much else besides. Two years on, and accepting limits of experience and interpretation, I can at least begin to understand it.
How can one define a country? First, one should not peculiarise the universal. Poland has good food, of course, but where does not? Even England has the Cornish pasty. Second, one should not homogenise the heterogeneous, or, in other words, speak as if mountain Catholics, inner-city hooligans and Warsaw students are one and the same. Yet there are tendencies that one can observe, as in all nations, families and individuals.
Life in Poland is great so long as one has a good job. It has rich traditions, social and artistic. Its culture is varied yet it has a solid core of sameness. An aesthetic sense is evident not just in old, rich places but in many poor and new ones. Joie de vivre lurks behind the stolid features of people.
Life in Poland can, of course, be much worse if one does not have a good job. Poor lives can be pleasurable but it takes a rich man to deny that one’s existence tends to suffer if it is constrained by long, hard hours of work, or long, hard hours of trying to find it, and the deprivation that comes from being unable not just to afford a house or car but a nice present for one’s child or a meal with one’s friends. Experience has carved itself into faces of old people who endured Nazis and communists but also young people who deal with unemployment, overwork and empty bank accounts.
The belief that one’s financial state is all-important is a dangerous delusion. The belief that it is unimportant is merely stupid. Nonetheless, it is worth emphasising the initial point. When I came here I found it strange that people could dislike the European Union as so much Polish development depends on help from Brussels. Nonetheless, such help does not come from the goodness of its hearts. To be aided by the European Union is to be drawn into its sweaty bureaucratic and ideological embrace and Polish suspicion reflects a broader fear of losing political and cultural independence, and political and cultural heritage, to Western moral, commercial and governmental norms. With its lower rates of crime and family breakdown – as well as, I’ll add, its almost non-existent risk of terrorism – even people who know little of its culture should understand this.
I fancy that the average middle-class Englishman would think the average Pole quite deluded, with his religious beliefs and his superstitions. I think the average middle-class Englishman is more meaningfully deluded than the average Pole, with the idea of necessary progress, the idea of universal homogeneity, the idea of personal significance and the idea of comforts owed. One could romanticise Polish stoicism too much, forgetting that it is twenty-five years since communism fell and seventy since Hitler died, but even if its new generations have no memory of martial law, never mind fascist occupation, there is toughness and tough-mindedness in the national genes. What may, to some of Western sensitivities, seem like unthinking prejudice can in fact be sound common sense. What may, to individualists, seem like grim conformism can in fact be a strong sense of responsibility.
People make a place. My town offers some fine examples. I live on an old industrial housing estate, which could be straight out of a dystopian novel if not for the fact that its inhabitants always have a smile and never break your lock and steal your television. Independent bars, of the kind that chain pubs are squeezing into non-existence in Britain, have little communities of gossips, clowns and philosophers. One often bumps into little concerts, art exhibitions and poetry nights, where a down-to-earth romanticism is given voice.
To be foreign in Poland, beyond its more sizeable cities, is to be somewhat exotic. People tolerate linguistic and cultural ignorance because it is a rare and diverting phenomenon. They are interested in your country but more interested in your opinion of theirs. Why did you come here? Do you like it? Well, what don’t you like? Are Polish girls more beautiful than English girls? Do you like vodka? Come and have some vodka…
This interest in one’s opinions of the country and its people exhibits a common desire to learn about oneself but also a guarded awareness of international standing. It embarrasses a lot of people that so many Poles are forced to work abroad and they wonder how it reflects on them. Geographical misfortune is an answer that is both comforting and true.
A late entrant into the capitalist party, Poland has in many ways felt a need to catch up. Just as a new reveler might throw themselves into drinking, many Poles post-89 have thrown themselves into consumption. Others are, of course, ascetic or just cheerfully indifferent but enthusiasts for gadgets, cars, fashion et cetera are enthusiastic to a rare degree. Beyond interest in actual products is interest in the social status that they grant one. Drifting through a Polish suburb one suspects that many houses were designed with special attention to how they could stand out from the neighbouring homes: bigger, brighter and with a more eclectic range of chimneys, turrets, columns, statues and flower pots. Perhaps such tendencies will be moderated in time. A more accurate image than a party is a buffet from which some people have been excluded. Once the doors have been flung open such people are ravenous and it is quite predictable that some of them will stuff themselves. In time, perhaps, appetites will grow less powerful.
One should not imagine that Central and Eastern Europe is merely in thrall to Western culture. The names of Dżem, Lady Pank and Budka Suflera are as commonly on lips as Pink Floyd and Depeche Mode. Bogowia and Ida have introduced Polish filmmaking to new audiences, but the industry has long thrived. One could mischievously argue that the greatest American and French directors of recent decades were, in fact, Poles (as, indeed, was the greatest British novelist of the 20th century).
A pleasant consequence of European integration would have been if different peoples had been exposed to the cultures of their continental cousins. As the EU is so thick with arid bureaucrats and cloying moralists this has not happened. Nonetheless, I am keen to explore the cultural heritage of my host nation. Its art and thought is distinguished not just by its quality but by the circumstances in which it was formed. The great poets – Mickiewicz, Słowacki and Krasiński – wrote as Poland was partitioned and its culture was suppressed. Twentieth-century writers like Miłosz and Borowski bore witness to the horrors of Nazis and Stalinists.
Poles tend to have a keen sense of history, and the misfortune they have been afflicted with. Mention the Second World War, for example, and eyes will cloud as people think of how our British ancestors gave up their country to the Russians. (Some, indeed, are still convinced that Churchill was behind the death of Władysław Sikorski.) Nonetheless, one should avoid defining people by their past – as, in this case, an inspirational story of endurance, reminiscent of the wounded firemen and sickly children who warm our hearts once a year at the Pride of Britain Awards. History is a source of lessons and encouragement, which should assist us as we struggle to define the present and the future. Poland has the wisdom and the talent for the job if it could have the opportunities that it deserves. As I’m told, we do not always receive that which we’ve earned. Nonetheless, the thought should be a cause of inspiration.
Some of my friends think that the All Saints’ Day ceremonies are tedious and artificial. I have always liked them. There is beauty, of course, in a thousand candles twinkling in the night as couples, parents and children drift from grave to grave but there is also beauty in what the occasion represents. The past is remembered, and its people are respected, and the living, one hopes, can return to houses, jobs, relationships and aspirations fortified by the perspective it has given them.
Thank you, then, to my hosts, and na zadrowie. Here’s to the future, whatever it holds. I hope to share it with you.