I read a very interesting post and subsequent comments by Island and his readers about the central mystery of the Polish character. It focuses on the possible mistrust of Poles to strangers as a cause for their rudeness. I gave it some thought, and here’s my thesis:

Polish people aren’t rude, they simply aren’t too polite.

Of course I agree that we might appear rude to foreigners, I can easily see that, but I think it’s also natural to assume that we have different standards of politeness. Naturally we’re talking here of the public sphere, and not private, but the clue is in our readiness for crossing the line between the two spheres.

I think that this all should be defined as “effort”. That is Poles are extra polite when they want to make an effort, and they’re cold when they don’t. This effort means an extra commitment in another person’s troubles and feelings. It’s sincere and real. It’s not a trifling thing, and it should be reciprocated. The need to reciprocate the effort is exactly the reason why we make it only for the individuals we know and care about, and why we don’t make it in any other case. By rule we’re not physically able to help everyone, so we have to limit the group of people to a reasonable number. In fact, I could say that Poles are not polite at all. The way they behave is an outside expression of the way they feel towards someone. Politeness to us might mean being one shade nicer than we really feel, but not more. Poles are not polite when they’re nice, they simply really like the person, and since they like them they are willing to commit.

In a very distant past, when they opened the western borders, I went to Paris with some friends. We were then poor like for the western standards. We could afford only some cheap rooms, metro and museum tickets, and some basic food. Otherwise we knew that we should be very careful not to spend too much. I went for something to a store, and on my way there I saw a boutique. I didn’t plan buying anything, but I was curious and wanted to see what they had there. I wasn’t there two minutes when this woman approached me, all in smiles, asking what I was looking for. I told her ‘I’m just looking’ – something that warns off a Polish clerk enough to send them to the opposite corner. She didn’t give up. She took the trousers I was looking at and told me to try them on. I dutifully did, all happy that they were too large and too long – something that in my opinion would make the woman give up. Well, no! When she saw me, she kneeled down and folded the trousers. That was too much for me. You may laugh, but I might starve rather than refuse a woman who kneels in front of me to sell me something. She was far too polite.

That taught me to avoid smiling clerks, to enter only large stores and never small boutiques, to leave as soon as a clerk begins a chat. Yet, once in Tunisia I did the same, well aware what I’m being drawn into. This kind man gave us a short tour around the town and took us to his fragrance store. We knew very well why he was polite, and we knew we’d have to buy something, yet, since we committed, we bought this absolutely useless stuff. Another time, in Vilnius, we were approached by an older man who told us some extra stories about the place – we took him for dinner. To Poles politeness obliges. It’s an effort that must be reciprocated.

I don’t want Polish clerks to be polite because that would leave me no room for refusal or freedom of choice. Till they behave like people at work I have a feeling that I don’t leave any mark on them. I can step in and out without risk, and go to another store without feeling that I betray them. But when they are polite, when they make an effort, I feel like their guest. I can’t refuse them.

So I think that when foreigners are looking at us they think that a smile doesn’t cost a thing, while we think it does cost a lot. The word namolny (importunate) may refer to a stranger who smiles too much.

It’s just as our language has a more narrow meaning of “friendship” than English. An English speaking person can say that they went to cinema with their friends. I wouldn’t say that in Polish unless they all were my friends. If I went to cinema with my friend and her boyfriend of many years I still wouldn’t make the generalization. He’s not my friend, even though I know him well and like him a lot. So I’d say I went with znajomi (acquaintances).

A friend is a person whom one can’t refuse unless for a very important reason, a close friend is one who knows our secrets, whom we trust as ourselves, who’s obliged to do everything in their power to help us, and vice versa. Our homes aren’t our castles where our close friends and friends are concerned. They have higher status than our further family (aunts, uncles, cousins etc.) A znajomy is someone I’m likely to help if it doesn’t cost me too much. A neighbour is someone I might help if it costs me little. A colleague is someone I hope won’t ask my help in anything too difficult (even if I’ve known them for years). A co-worker is someone I want to keep at bay and not cross the public/private line unless I truly like them (I hate when in some companies they demand that all of the co-workers address each other per ‘Ty’ – it’s much more difficult to refuse when you can’t keep someone at a distance). A clerk is someone I don’t want to feel obliged to at all. A stranger who is in one of the above relationships with someone we know receives a place depending on their and our own relationship with the linking person. Ask a Pole to help someone you know, and the first question you’ll receive will be how well you know the person. They’ll evaluate the needed effort and multiply it by the relationship factor. And the effort might really be of a considerable value. It might mean money, or a lot of our energy and private time that we’d like to have for ourselves otherwise, but we can’t refuse in many situations. It often happens that someone countersigns a bank loan for a total stranger, just because they’re a znajomy of one’s znajomy.

I think that we do smile, but a Polish smile is not just a gesture, it’s a form of commitment. By smiling we tell others that we like them and open ourselves to the possibility of being asked for help, and we’re not very good at refusing. The more a person has to offer the less likely they are to smile. The extreme example are the public institutions where the clerks just can’t smile if they want to do their job. Otherwise they’d be spending their working hours on taking care of people’s tax declarations. But go to them and say that you know someone they know, and they will smile and spend their time on filling the declarations for you. Yet, if you just go and smile they’ll think you want to coax them into extra work. Similarly, smile at a policeman and they’ll think you want to avoid paying a fee. But, when I once stopped my car to ask some policemen about directions, I did smile and they smiled back. It was nothing and they were glad to help. I was then accompanied by some Americans, and they were amazed that our policemen are so nice. Imagine that! Our smile doesn’t mean we’re polite, it means we like you, and if offered prematurely or in a wrong situation it seems artificial and false.

In the comments I saw some references to our much greater willingness to help each other during communism. (Note that Poles who read about our mistrust and rudeness automatically linked it to our willingness or unwillingness to make an effort.) Indeed, I remember many cases from those times when complete strangers received very crucial help. People knew that they wouldn’t manage otherwise, and it was a part of resistance, but it still was the case of knowing someone who knows someone else. Today they can go and buy anything they need. So we just placed colleagues, neighbours, and strangers one stage down on our relationships ladder. We don’t need to make that much effort anymore, but the clerks were smiling even less back then. They had too little to offer, and there were too many people who’d want it from them.

On the other hand I think that Poles don’t necessarily appreciate the western politeness (I say western because in general I didn’t notice a difference in countries like Lithuania, Czech, Slovakia, Bulgaria or Greece). The problem to us is that we can’t recognize when people are sincere and so willing to make an effort. They smile and they’re polite as if they liked us a lot, and it puts us out of balance, because we’re risking appearing importunate by assuming that they do like us as much as it seems. A Pole needs much more time to come to this point of a relationship where they would be ready to behave like that, and so we don’t know how to read the appearances. But then we fall into the trap and do too much, and the foreigners are shocked with all of the effort we’re going to, or feel that we trespass their private sphere. We simply can’t read the difference between politeness and sincerity of feelings. A Pole is likely to be happy to return home from their holidays abroad because they feel they don’t have to pretend anymore. Of course I’m not saying that other people are pretending, rather that we need to pretend to be so polite, because normally it means something else to us.

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Thaddeus of Warsaw

June 23, 2008

I am from Warsaw. There’s nothing strange about it unless one lives in Poland. I know, it might seem quite a paradox, but trust me, warszawiacy would be wiser to move out.

Steffen Möller, the first German of Rzeczpospolita, included this joke in his repertoire: whenever he tours Poland he prefers to say that he’s German rather than admit to living in Warsaw. “People, they hate you there!” He shrugs.

It would be funny if it weren’t so true. Inhabitants of Warsaw take the unrivalled, unchallenged, and unshaken first place on the Top Hate list of their countrymen.

Deep, dark communism, Mokotów district

I’m born in the local hospital on Madalińskiego street, where the nearby florist must have made their fortune on fathers like mine, who are too hangovered to make it on time. Either from the excitement of my visiting the world, or because Poland has just won one of the qualifying games for a FIFA World Cup. I strongly suspect the latter, but whatever the case, he never drinks.

Hospital, ul. Madalińskiego

Hospital, ul. Madalińskiego

I grow up in the friendly environment of the green Mokotów, surrounded by people who, like my grandparents, survived the war living in Sadyba and, after some strenuous years of inhabiting 10 square meters in six, received the dreamed of apartment near Łazienki park. M-3. M-3 means two rooms and a kitchen. There’s also a hallway and a bathroom, but no living room or anything like that. Two rooms is all the living space one can get. And since it’s Warsaw, the city that died in 1944 and has yet to fully resurrect, those two rooms were meant to be enough for six. My grandpa was courteous enough to die early, but my uncles and aunt all live here with their families for a time. That’s one way to create strong family links. Eventually they all move out, my own father included, and together with my grandma and mum we can lead our happy life, minimizing the usual disputes about who should occupy one of the two rooms exclusively to one a year.

I love Warsaw, I truly do. I don’t care that it’s ugly (I never notice that), chaotic (really?), or whatever. My love is genuine and unconditional. I have my favourite places, memories, and friends. Here is the yard where I first ride a bike, the first roof I investigate, and the lane where I kiss for the first time in my life. Everyone has some local sentiment, I’m no different.

I spend my yearly holidays at my uncle’s family, who moved to a small village in the East. But since they’re Warsaw émigrés, just as their closest neighbours are, I’m still unaware of the great difference that divides me from my countrymen.

Summer, Bieszczady mountains

I’m 15, just as those two friends with whom I go hiking. In the evening, we get our food ready when we’re approached by these nice guys asking if they can join. Sure. We make one common supper, talk about our planned routs, someone plays the guitar. The night blooms. Until someone asks the innocent question,

“Where are you from?”

“Warsaw.”

The uneasy silence is interrupted when someone repeats my city’s name, “Waaarsaaaaw?” Disbelief mixed with dread unmistaken in his voice.

We look at ourselves, genuinely confused, when we hear, “Stolyca,” with the drunkard’s L that would make a Pole pass for an Englishman.*

We briefly wonder whether we should take our toys and make a new fireplace, but finally it appears we’re more curious than discouraged. “Well, yes, Warsaw. Why?”

“You know, nobody likes people from Warsaw”

“No, we don’t.”

“No?,” he’s clearly disappointed. “Warszawiacy are extremely arrogant.”

“Have we behaved arrogantly towards you?”

He must have sensed the sincerity of our puzzlement, and so goes on, “Well, no, you’ve been very nice. Just in general.”

I truly believe that I am the general, so I ask about details. Shortly it appears that our new friends didn’t meet any people from Warsaw before. “Just everybody knows it.”

After our timid suggestion that perhaps they are mistaken as to the general picture they briefly hesitate, but soon their cause has new food. “Kraków really should be the capital of Poland.” (It used to be 400 years ago.)

“Are you from Kraków?”

“No, we’re from Tychy.” (Near Katowice, Upper Silesia) “But Kraków is the only proper capital.”

Not that I care where the capital is, but I am a die hard Pole after all, and I’m not going to surrender when my city is attacked.

“Why not Gniezno?” (a capital of Poland some 900 years ago)

“Why Gniezno?”

“It was first.”

After a longer discussion during which we discover that, indeed, we were taught history from the same books, and consider, but disregard, Biskupin (the eldest settlement in Poland) we’re back at the starting point.

“Kraków is so beautiful. Warsaw is ugly.”

De gustibus non disputandum, so we’re just exposed to some hours of peons on the beauty of Kraków until finally we can call it a night, without giving any hint of an offence taken.

Połoniny, Bieszczady Mountains

Bieszczady mountains don’t seem to be big enough for us, and we meet daily, each time being treated to new, carefully thought out attacks, from ‘Kraków is falling apart while Warsaw builds the Metro’ (the one, unique, and precious line of metro I should add), via the accusatory ‘Your pubs have windows!’ (what a surprise!), to ‘Every Pole pays for Warsaw’ (actually no, it’s exactly the opposite, every warszawiak pays for the rest of the country).

Back in Warsaw I ask people at school whether it has ever happened to them, and receive a resounding positive. They advise me to tell that I’m from Mokotów rather than Warsaw the next time, but this I find absolutely idiotic. I’m not going to be ashamed of my place of living just because my fair countrymen need a common enemy or a common sense.

I keep travelling, and with time I get used to it, although the first conversation repeats itself regularly. In fact, no, I once meet a man from Kraków who prefers Zakopane. I’ll never forget him. It was the pleasantest half an hour spent in a train.

Ten years later, The International Fair, Poznań

I’m working in a publishing company, and my boss (originally from Jelenia Góra) and I set for lunch. She’s young, ambitious, and convinced that a lunch break isn’t for food but for making new businesses. At her urging, we join two clad in suits men at their table. She begins her promotional talk, and they seem sincerely confused. Clearly not the kind of people who could buy an ad. She senses that something is wrong and changes the subject to a more informal one. “Where are you from?” She asks, and after receiving an answer, adds,

“We are from Warsaw“.

It’s the very first time in my life when I feel truly ashamed for being from Warsaw. Or rather, I can honestly hear all of the conceit she puts in the one word. Being from Warsaw doesn’t ennoble for heaven’s sake! It’s just a place.

Later, I meet her friends, with whom I’m to work on some project, and during a long ride from Poznań to Warsaw I’m for the first time acquainted with the term Warszawka (little Warsaw). I might never get any idea what’s its definition, except that from the ride, and the huge traffic jam we’re stuck in, I’m left with an impression that it’s some kind of elite who spends their evenings in the “truly Warsaw style”, mixing with VIPs at all of the very important events.

It’s not the Warsaw I know. My friends return home from work and meet friends, go to a movie, or spend a quiet evening with their family. Things, I believe, ordinary people do. I find all of the posh events tedious. One has to dress up and smile all the time to people one doesn’t care one bit about, but who might provide a good business opportunity. Come on! Get a life!

Thankfully, I don’t work there much longer. In general, at school people from Warsaw were in the majority, and newcomers were integrating quickly. At work it’s different. I’m always one of the few. People come from all over Poland and try to make their new lives. It’s hard. They have no one to leave their kids with, no friends or family around, they have troubles with finding places, and they’re frustrated with the long working hours and then another one or two spent in the traffic (even though there’s the one line of Warsaw Metro that costs Kraków so much). But I must say, they’re normal. I hope to never again meet the representatives of Warszawka whatever their origins.

Sopot, The Pier

The Wooden Pier, Sopot

One day I go to Sopot (a meeting with clients). After the business is over we all go to one of the cosy Sopot pubs for some drinks. When a man from Gdynia asks me the never dying question, I’m surprised. He knows that we came from Warsaw to make the presentation.

“I know, but I’m asking where you’re really from.”

“From Warsaw.”

“And before?”

“I was born in Warsaw.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“And your parents?”

“Also from Warsaw.”

At my grandparents he agrees that I’m a real warszawianka and ogles me as if I ran away from the Jurassic Park. When the initial shock is over he tells me a story. It appears that he used to work in Warsaw for some time. His then boss told him that warszawiacy are a rare species, almost extinct by now, while all of the others are some przyjezdni (newcomers) only bragging about their Warsaw living place.

It takes me some time to digest the news, especially that my heritage isn’t any different than that of the majority of my friends, but frankly, I don’t know if everyone in my school was a warszawiak through their grandparents, and neither I care nor I think they would. On the other hand, I’ve met that one girl and her two friends, who indeed were mental, but on the whole, the new people living in Warsaw are as normal as any. No way they’d brag about something so silly, especially that they tend to be proud of their Kraków, Toruń, Wrocław or Gdańsk. Maybe only Jelenia Góra doesn’t have enough to offer, although I bet I might be proven wrong. There’s a good chance the people in Jelenia Góra breathed with relief when my ex boss moved to Warsaw.

One day I have this conversation with my friend from Toruń, who is totally fed up with the Warsaw hardness, and showers me with the usual list of complaints. I realize that Warsaw isn’t great, and especially to someone who left everything in order to come here and work, and has a daughter and no time for entertainments. But, on the other hand, would the people in Toruń or Kraków be happy if a couple of million people suddenly moved into their town? Warsaw used to be quite a cosy place. Twenty years ago I needed half an hour to get from Mokotów to Żoliborz by bus. Today it takes me one or two, even tough I have a car. New warszawiacy naturally affect the city in a way they don’t like, without even noticing that they are those who bring the changes. Yet, I don’t hear old warszawiacy complain that the new ones boost the prices of apartments, lower average wages, or take their jobs. On the whole, I think that warszawiacy are the most tolerant people in Poland. They are accustomed to changes, and they adjust to them quickly. Warsaw still is a small city by European standards, and no one will be surprised when it grows even more.

So well, to the proud inhabitants of the rest of Poland – please do realize that people can be from Warsaw as from any other place. To the new warszawiacy, do come and have as much fun as you can get, but please don’t elevate Warsaw to the rank of Louvre. And to the old warszawiacy – don’t you dare make me look like a freaking dinosaur!

Thaddeus of Warsaw by Jane Porter (1776-1850) is one of the earliest examples of the historical novel. It went through a dozen editions, and was such a favourite with these nice people of Pembroke, Kentucky that they named their town for one of the book’s characters. The brave Thaddeus is obviously named for the great Polish-American hero Tadeusz Kościuszko, who, I think, as an ethnic Belarusian, may be as good warszawiak as any.

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English isn’t my first language so if you spotted any mistakes and would like to tell me about them, I’ll be very glad to learn.

* Stolica means capital. The drunkard’s L is a way to learn to pronounce the English L that normally is spoken differently by Poles, but drunk people are said to have the perfect one. The exercise is to say “lalunia”.

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