I am American and I am proud of it. But I don’t live in America. I live in Poland. That must mean that Poland is super duper, right? Not really. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking Poland. I think that some things in America are great and some things are not. I feel the same about Poland. I think that some things here are great and that some things are not. Mostly things here are just different.
My father would not agree with me (or you, if you feel the same as I do). Yes, he’d agree that things here are different. There’s no denying when I look out the window that I’m not in America anymore, but the buildings are no better or worse, just different. For my father, different means worse. Everything in America is how it should be and things should be done the American way (read: the right way). Or at least that’s the impression we got when he visited us.
Having said that, I have to defend my father and any others out there who view their own way as THE WAY (such as myself when I first came to Poland). When I first came here, I often found myself saying things like, “In America, school is organized this way…” half-expecting my teacher friends to declare, “Yes! Finally! A school system that makes sense. Why didn’t we think of that?!?” OK, I said half-expecting which really means secretly hoping, so don’t judge me for my reaction to my first real taste of a foreign culture.
We like what is familiar to us. If you only know one way, be it the American way, the German way or the Chinese way, you tend to think that your way is the best. Exposure to other cultures and other ways of doing things is the best way for us to see what is good, what is bad, what is the same and what is different in other people and other ways of doing things. And even my father, the most American of all Americans, would certainly agree with that.
But this is supposed to be about the Polish way, not the American way, but I digress.
If you are planning to visit Poland, you should know a few things.
Disclaimer: If you do not have a sense of humor and are genetically unable to recognize satire and/or sarcasm, you should stop reading now.
You should know that Polish women are the most beautiful in the world. If you don’t believe me, just ask one of them (or one of their spouses). In addition, Polish landscapes, nature, flora and fauna cannot be beaten by any other.
You should know that Polish folks are pretty good dancers and they will assume that you know how to dance too. If you are like me and cannot dance, I suggest feigning illness. The previous statement is true for drinking. Please replace “dance” with “drink” and the same rules apply.
You should know that Polish schools are the most difficult of any you have ever attended and if you are American you should know that you are a moron. (I couldn’t resist;)
You should know that the Polish health care system is at the same time the best and the worst you could ever experience. Moreover, every health care professional earns peanuts especially my OB/GYN who drives a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Apparently peanuts are worth more than they used to be.
You should know that Polish salaries are low (which actually is kind of true) and that gasoline is expensive (especially compared to America).
You should know that Polish food (the actual food, not the cuisine) is far superior than the artificial, jedzeniopodobny food of where ever you are from.
If you are American, you should know that Poland would like to thank you and at the same time strangle you for the introduction of Coca-cola, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc. into Polish society.
You should know that Polish folks have a tendency to complain. Complainers should not be seen as pessimists. It is just a societal feature such as American people who are always “fine”, end every conversation with “have a nice day” and who never tire of talking about America.
Lots of brave and intelligent Polish folks have made many valuable contributions to history and to the arts and sciences over the years and damn you if you don’t know every last one of them. A piece of advice – Never tell anyone that you used to think Copernicus was Italian or that Marie Curie and Chopin were French. Trust me.
You should know that traffic jams in Poland are worse than anything you have ever experienced at least in Europe, unless you are from Brussels. The latest ranking for the worst traffic in Europe is as follows: #1 Brussels #2 Warsaw #3 Wroclaw. You see, I told you Poland is better at everything.
Are you royally perturbed at the moment? Yes? No? Maybe? It’s like with your siblings. You can beat on your sister as much as you want, but just wait until somebody else makes fun of her. So I guess I’m just another foreigner making fun of Poland. Not really. I am another foreigner, but I do live in Poland and have lived here awhile. My husband is Polish and my children are Polish. I have a NIP (a tax-payer #) and a PESEL (like America’s Social Security #). I have made pierogi by hand, by myself on more than one occasion…and they were really good. Enough said.
Please don’t think I haven’t fallen victim to the “Poland is better” syndrome myself.
- While teaching US History in the States, I organized a letter exchange between some of my old students in Poland and some of my American students in the US. We couldn’t send emails because our school in the US did not have a computer lab. I was truly horrified when I saw that the majority of my American students were unable to write appropriate letters and that the Polish students of the same age had written better letters in English, their second (and for some third) language. I was also saddened to find out that more than half of my students had never sent or received any piece of mail ever and most of them did not know how to properly address an envelope…at age 15.
- Once I totally overreacted and berated (via email) one of my friends who sent me a “Polish” computer virus. It went something like this: This is a Polish computer virus. Please delete your entire hard drive yourself. Actually, it is pretty funny if you have some emotional distance to those kinds of jokes. I was having a bad day, and I let her have it. By chance, in the newspaper that day, it was reported that some Polish students have received some big award from Microsoft or something, and I included that in my email as proof of how inaccurate her views about Poland were. After I calmed down, I sent another email asking her to disregard the first email and apologized for my rant. She in turn apologized for her joke. To be sure, I am no longer on her list of people to forward jokes to.
- Another time I overreacted was while shopping at an outlet mall in the US where I had previously worked as a student. Misiu and I were shopping and we bought a pair of shoes. No biggie, right? We paid for them and then the saleslady tried to put the shoe box in a bag that was obviously way too small. She commented on her own struggle saying, “Jeez, I am doing this like a Polak.” Big mistake. I shot off questions to the saleslady like, “Are you saying that Polish people are stupid? Do you even know where Poland is? My Misiu can speak Polish and a few other languages. What about you?” At that point, her face was bright red and she was having trouble with her own language, the English language. I bet she never made a comment like that again, at least not in public. Of course, these days I’d probably let it go, or I’d tell her in a less confrontational way that it’s not cool to say stuff like that.
I haven’t had it easy either. I often have to defend my country and my countrymen. “Chris, why are you all so ………. over there in America (fill in whatever you want in the blank)?” I have a lot less explaining to do now that George Bush is out of office. I remember one student who gave me no peace. She was an IT specialist in her mid 50s and she informed me that I was stupid every chance she could. She often laughed “what a talent it is to teach someone your own language”. She also thought it was a pity Hitler didn’t “finish his job”, so I figured she was pretty nutty to begin with.
And on that nutty note, I end this post because my Polish husband who is better at everything is waiting for me.
PS I forgot to mention that my father hangs the American flag outside his home every morning and takes it back in every evening. In honor of the Polish plane crash victims, he hung his Polish flag along with the American flag for a week. That’s my Dad.