So what is being Polish all about?

When I first arrived in Dublin, one of my first thoughts was: did I really leave Poland at all? Polish people were all around, in a pub, on the street, in the shop, in security and in laboratory. Seven out of fourteen flats in the house I live in, are inhabited by the Polish.

However, that was a superficial thought. Obviously, I was meeting people whose mother tongue is the same as mine and I can easily recognize them on the street. Either by white socks, or by seeing them throwing empty bottles into the sea, or by the way they walk, just as if they had abscesses under armpits. I’m sometimes ashamed of them, sometimes I’m proud of them, especially when I hear that they’re regarded good and reliable workers.

As time kept passing by, I started questioning my relation to other Polish people in Ireland, and finally, instead of „did I really leave Poland”, I started asking myself:

Did I ever live in Poland?

If we reject superficial things such as language or geography, the answer isn’t obvious anymore. If we think of a typical Pole as of a soccer lover drinking vodka in front of a TV set with an illegal digital decoder, I’m as much Polish as I’m Pakistani. Well, we can say that English hooligans aren’t much different than that, we need to look for Polish traits somewhere else.

In education, perhaps? I was a part of official Polish education system until I was 15. After that, I went to a very unusual, independent highschool, where relation between teachers and students was much different from the one common on government-managed highschools. There was also no grades. There were only two levels: basic and advanced. If somebody was interested in something, they went for the advanced exam. If they only wanted to pass it, they went for the basic level ― and it was fine. There was no competition for grades, because everybody decided for themselves, whether they’re interested in something or not. There was also no “Polish” as a subject. Instead, we had “Humanities”, which contained enough of the typical “Polish” subject to be certified by the Ministry of Education, but we had more of history of culture and philosophy than those unreasonably long Polish readings such as The Deluge. Another unusual, for Polish standards, thing was that my form-master was Buddhist.

This school was very un-Polish in a sense it was unlike typical Polish schools. However, it was created by people who, showing a healthy patriotism, right after the political changes in 1989, started new trends in Polish education, founding first Polish independent highschool on Bednarska street, of which my school was initially a branch, before it detached and started being a separate unit. It was also an elite school, because students of my year were selected as the second 60 from 850 candidates who applied to the school at Bednarka St. I didn’t have enough points and I didn’t make it into the first 60 (damn Polish language!), but I made it into the second 60 (thanks to math). Some people from my year are now important figures in Poland, for instance, one guy is now a minister. However, even though I feel attached to people from my highschool, I don’t see that being related to Poland as a whole.

Prominent stratification of society into “common people” and “intellectual elite”, without the middle class, is a typical Polish thing. If I considered myself such an elite, that would’ve been a Polish thing. But I do not. I don’t know well history of anything, I know very little literature, I only scratched the surface of philosophy, I didn’t get into high math deep enough, and I have serious doubts whether there is a single thing that I know really well. A friend told me that I have open mind. I took the compliment, but deep inside I think that it’s too little to be a part of an elite. Typical Polish “elite” thing doesn’t quite apply to me.

Religion is another thing. Poland is a catholic country, where the Roman Catholic Church, similarly to Microsoft, claims 95% market share. I won’t mention that the parish where I was born still includes me ― I was unlucky to be baptized ― in their statistics as a “faithful”

From the typical Polish “God, Honor, Homeland”, the first is fiction, the second is a purely personal matter and the third is something like GNU Hurd, “if we knew how it would be, we wouldn’t have even started”. In other words, the most Polish elements of world outlook are as close to me as the medieval idea of a flat Earth, taking into account that ancient Greeks knew that it was spherical.

The closest Polish elements of culture are Polish writers, among whom I most vividly remember Gombrowicz and Witkacy, both now removed by the Horse’s Muzzle from school readings. It happens that both authors were virulent critics of Poland and Polish traits. After reading Wyspiański’s “The Wedding”, I realized that there’s no hope and the only reasonable thing to do is to leave Poland. I didn’t do that at once, I’ve given Poland fifteen years chance, which Poland was keen to waste. This Polish literature was in a sense anti-Polish. It didn’t negate the whole of Polish heritage, but it has definitely cast a shadow of doubt, which as time was passing by, began to grow.

Polish history is another thing. Place I come from, has been through what other places in Europe haven’t. But history doesn’t pass the “so what?” test. What’s the history got to do with me, how did it influence me? Maybe it did, but it’s nothing obvious. Reading The Brothers Karamazov had much more impact on me than history of Poland.

Polish architecture and landscape are dear to Polish people who feel fondness towards Masuria and Bieszczady Mountains. But I wasn’t much of a tourist, and I never developed an attachment to any place I lived in or visited.

In the day to day life, it made no difference to me where I was. I never, beside my high-school, belonged to any group that I’d identify with. I lived in few places and missed them too. I now miss Piaseczno, the nearness of forest and the distinct smell of coke smoke in the winter. But when in Piaseczno, I missed Lyngby, when in Lyngby ― I missed Mokotów. Wherever I was, my life looked more or less the same, and my main activity was somewhere else: either music or computer science, detached from the place I lived in.

Being one of tens of thousands Polish people in Ireland, I still feel a kind of Polish representative. Each time the Irish ask me about Poland, I don’t really know what to talk about. For now, I send them to Polish shop to buy Wedel’s praline wafer cake.

The most strange thing is that when I ask myself this seemingly simple question, I see no straightforward answer. Neither fondness of Polish countryside, nor involevement in any group of Polish people, Polish literature, religion or cuisine, doesn’t make me feel attached to Poland. The only unquestionable Polish thing is this queer, hard language with funny stress on the penultimate syllable. So what?

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Author: automatthias

You won't believe what a skeptic I am.

5 thoughts on “So what is being Polish all about?”

  1. In many other countries – and by sociologists – you would be described as upper middle class: deriving your income from working as a professional.
    Upper class is the moneyed class (some limit it exclusively to old money, people who inherited their wealth and have a social status derived from not being newly moneyed), some other divide the upper class into upper upper and lower upper depending when the money was made and how much social status (gentry?, political prominence of the forfathers) it bestows on an individual. Then come middle class: upper: professionals, with higher education and lower, businessowners: shopkeepers, manufactures, managers of services (not requiring higher education).
    And then comes working class: people who work with their hands. Upper working class are specialized workers and lower, blue and pink ghetto members (observe that women’s education had been downplayed in the classic model, one wonders if solely due to income, as is the case with classic American class model, but its a digression).

    Polish quirks: Polish gentry (unlike French, British etc) was not allowed to become businessowners without loosing their social status, they could only engaged in agriculture or academia. And since they often lost their land (either playing poker, travelling around the world or supporting national uprisings and having their lands confiscated), they had no money and thus the main claim of belonging to an upper class – or at least upper middle class was to be an intellectual elite, or most often an “intellectual” “elite”.

    Sadly, this elite, as you can see, for example, in Wyspianski’s “Wedding”, lacks any practical skills or education. They are pure thinkers, pure vague idea people. And there are common people, uneducated, unskilled to execute those vague concepts without the middle layer of MANAGERS, of the middle class.

    Does the intellectual elite see that they lack skills to be effective leaders, that they lack both skills and inclination to be managers? No, they don’t.
    They absolve themselves from critical thinking, they are pure idea thinkers.
    Peasants are blamed for failure ( the famous: “miales chamie zloty rog”) and everybody returns to drinking and crying helplessly, grieving one more missed opportunity.

    Ok, there was a lower middle class in Poland of that time, but it was a Jewish middle class. And the Polish Jewes isolated themselves ( or were isolated) by religion, language and lifestyle. Their societies were like paralell worlds, they did not participate in building Polish community, Polish statehood. Their business skills were never passed to members of the Polish sea around them. Worse, they were often ridiculed by the thinking averse “intellectual” elite, and thus not regarded as a model to follow.
    ( ever read “Doll” by Prus, where Wokulski, an ethnic Pole of lower class background is trying to become a businessman and is being ridiculed both by the working class and by the “intellectual” elite?)

    I guess, we, expats, who question our Polishness, are like those blind and thus inneffectual “intellectual” elites and/or like Wokulski, who – in order to achieve something tangible – need to free himself of the stiffling, paralizing yoke of sad Polish traditions of both thought and deed.

  2. Forgot to mention that during the communist ruled Poland the middle class (small entrepreneurs /prywatna inicjatywa/ – since there was no space for legal large scale entrepreneurship) was ridiculed and marginalized, just like Jewish middle class before it.

  3. It’s funny as I’ve had a post in my drafts for ages now – the title is ‘Expats: How Expat Are You?’. Haven’t so far managed to write it though – its body is still empty.

    I feel about as German as Queen Elizabeth II.

    “The Windsor name now used by Queen Elizabeth II and other British royals only dates back to 1917. Before that the British royal family bore the German name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha in German).”

  4. Hi Maciej. It seems we’ve been thinking about similar things from opposite ends of the spectrum as it were Just don’t say anything about being able to identify Poles from the way they look or Minerva will jump up and down on you 🙂

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