By Contributing Writer on Thursday, October 30, 2008 - 18:50
by BlackBox - Contributing Writer
What do you know about Poland?
It’s quite big. Its 312.000 km2 make it the ninth biggest country in Europe.
It is situated in the middle of the continent. Huge advantage: if you live in Poland, you are never far from anything.
Its population is about 38 million and is not growing anymore. A few years ago it was almost 40 million.
It has mountains and the Baltic Sea.
It has Lech Wałęsa and had John Paul II.
The capital city is Warsaw. It’s also the biggest, the richest and the most cosmopolitan place in Poland. The only thing is… the Poles don’t like it at all.
It was once communist, but now is not that different from other European countries with their capitalism and democracy.
But the description is not about statistics, right?
Many people ask me how it is to live in Poland. ‘It’s fine’ I always respond and ask them back: ‘Why are you so curious about it? Do the people ask you how it is to live in Spain? UK? Germany? Holland? Portugal? France? Do you really think we are any different’? ‘No’ they respond usually. ‘But you know, all that homophobic stuff…’.
I know. But I also know Poland is not only about homophobia. And I’ll tell you why.
Poland, above all, is about white bears. They are supposed to be everywhere: in the country, in the cities, in the woods and on the streets. We co-habit in this country and live happily together. That is what most non-Europeans think. Yes, really. This cliché is what makes me really angry. Not because I hate ignorance (which I hate, by the way), but because I would love my country to be that exceptional. And the truth is really dull: I’ve seen polar bears in Poland, but only in the zoos. Well, and in the Tatra Mountains. There are people who dress as white bears and let take them a picture for a little amount of money. Local tourist attraction.
So if it’s not about white bears, it must be about Catholicism. 95% of the population admits to be catholic. But it’s strange kind of Catholicism because most of us don’t believe in God but in the religion. The church is the major power of the country. No politician will be elected if they aren’t catholic. Then, when they govern, it is very common to ask priests what to do. No change and no improvement may be done without consulting the clergy. Not officially, since Poland is a secular country, but priests are still one of the major political forces. They were present in politics during the Round Table Talks in 1989 and are present now, after all those changes we’ve come through.
Lately the attitude towards the Church has been changing slightly. Many people are not afraid to admit they aren’t Catholics. Last year the number of Catholics shrunk by 340.000 people. Moreover, the present government (Civic Platform and the Polish People’s Party), although Christian-democratic, is not that generous to the Church as the former one (Law and Justice with minor populist parties).
The religion doesn’t convince you? Then let’s talk about our new national sport. For those who don’t know, it has been soccer until now. We suck at it and that’s why a few years ago there appeared and has since been developed a new sport: shopping in the huge malls.
Everybody does it. It starts on Friday with a short walk through the biggest shopping center in the city. You don’t buy, you just take a look. It continues on Saturday. You leave your house at ten, go to the nearest mall and compare prices with those from Friday. Then you go back to the biggest one and walk from one shop to another. After five hours you are ready to… no, not to buy yet. Now you are ready to have your lunch. After spending the whole day there you finally go to the huge cinema (in the mall, of course, because the most important part of it is you just can’t leave the building), buy the largest popcorn and watch any Hollywood movie, complaining how stupid it is. That is how the day number two ends. And bear in mind you haven’t bought anything yet.
Finally, day number three begins. You change the shopping center and go to your favourite one, which is neither the nearest one, nor the biggest one. You are ready to compare offers of the shops another time. Once you get to the cash-desk and get prices with discounts ‘for the best customer’, you are sure the whole process was worth of it.
Shopping centers are our new stadiums where we can practice this bizarre sport. You always meet a lot of friends there, your family or ex-girlfriend with her new love... The whole country spends its weekends in the same way. If you ask your colleagues ‘what did you do yesterday?’ you are sure the answer will be ‘well, I was in the mall’. So you just stop asking.
And what we do when we aren’t in the shopping centers? We work.
In the 90’s there was a huge problem with unemployment. More than 20% of the population couldn’t find a job. The country, of course, has overcome that crisis, but it still remains in our attitude towards work. You don’t treat your job just like a job. It’s the most important and significant part of your life. It’s normal that you work twelve hours, then come back home and do some more work, just to be prepared for the next day. It happens to everyone: doctors, lawyers, architects, journalists, shop assistants or bricklayers. It’s like in that popular quote: the Poles live in order to work and not work in order to live.
This attitude is highly appreciated abroad. After Poland entered the European Union, over 2 million people left the country in order to work in other European states. The result is there are more than 2 million Poles in the UK and Germany (altogether with the ‘old’ emigrants), 1 million in Ireland and almost 15.000 in Iceland (it’s 5% of their population!). They are not only those stereotypical immigrants that have the most underappreciated jobs, but highly educated specialists who just want to get paid better for their first-class work. The effect is that there is a lack of engineers and doctors in the country, which we now start to gain from our Eastern neighbours, the former Soviet Union.
One stereotype says that the Poles drink a lot. And sometimes the stereotypes tell the truth. We drink a lot of vodka and other spirits, unlike people from other countries who prefer wine and beer. There is no party without vodka, no New Year’s Eve without a hangover and no adolescent without a drinking problem. In Poland you don’t drink in order to socialise, you drink in order to get drunk and cause problems.
The Poles also tend to disregard the harmful effects that the alcohol has on society. According to official research there are almost 4 million people that abuse alcohol and about 800.000 alcoholics that need treatment in the country. Most of them are involved in domestic violence, crimes committed whilst under influence of alcohol and an incredible number of accidents caused by drunk drivers.
Another interesting topic is culture. Has anyone heard of any Polish artist? Movie? Director? Band? Well, the truth is we are not good at that. There is not even a museum of modern art in the country! Well, they have a plan to build one, but still struggle with the shopkeepers who have their market in the parcel of plot designated for it.
Polish culture struggles a lot. There are many talented people, but they have no possibility of making careers. In every other country culture is divided into a mainstream and an independent one. In Poland such division doesn’t exist. Mainstream filmography, music or art are average and the independent creation is ignored by the media and public. There are some incredible exceptions like the duo Joanna Kos-Krauze and her husband Krzysztof Krauze, the most powerful couple within the Polish film industry that still remains independent, or Katarzyna Kozyra, the most disregarded artist, both by the public and critics.
The best example of the Polish art is Joanna Rajkowska, an urban artist who aims to change the reality around us. A couple of years ago she put a huge palm in the biggest roundabout in Warsaw. The palm was plastic and kitch, but it provoked many discussions about what is and what should be art in the XXI century. The conclusion was: it should be something available to the masses and, at the same time, something able to change perceptions of the viewers and able to provoke discussion. And the palm, so odd in the Eastern European country, did all of those things. (More on the project here.)
A few years later, in 2007, she prepared a project called ‘Dotleniacz’ (Oxygenator). It was a small pond with an ozone layer above it, situated in one of the most controversial squares of Warsaw, near the synagogue on one hand, and the church with the biggest antisemitic bookstore on the other. She wanted to prove there is a room for something peaceful, quiet and positive in the centre of the conflict between Christian and Jews in Poland and for something colourful in the most ugly and forgotten part of the city. (More on the project here.)
Her works, full of irony, prove that Poles have good sense of humour and are not afraid of using it. We laugh at ourselves, our country, neighbours, weather, work… In the past times it was the only way you could escape from the reality and survive the régime, since it was one of those things the communists couldn’t ban. The ability to laugh has remained in us. It is so strong and extreme that we often tend to accuse other nationalities of not being able to laugh, use sarcasm and irony. It is often mistaken with the obsessive self-criticism, but I assure you it has nothing to do with that.
What else makes us different? The Poles don’t look toward the future. Everything is about the past, our heroic history and tradition. Yes, we were oppressed by communists (1945 – 1989), we were in the middle of the conflicts during both World Wars (1914 – 1918 and 1939 – 1945), we didn’t have any country (1795 - 1918) and suffered a lot earlier on (if you are interested in history, there is nothing better than Wikipedia). The dramatic history developed really strong patriotic feelings in the Poles. The paradox is you are allowed to claim you’re anti-semitic, homophobic or xenophobic , but you are not allowed to say you don’t care about your country. And, you are obliged to be interested in politics.
You may talk about politics only in the context of last twenty years. Earlier, there was communist government that depended on the Soviet Union. In 1989 everything changed. The country regained its independence and introduced democracy.
The president of Poland is Lech Kaczyński, representant of Law and Order. He was involved in fights conducted to in order to regain democracy, was the Minister for Justice (2000–2001) and then the mayor of Warsaw (2002–2005). Now he is infamous for his homophobia, antisemitism and populism. Lech Kaczyński forbad the Pride in 2004 and 2005. At the same time, he accepted marches of Młodzież Wszechpolska, the extreme right-wing organization of young Polish politicians, famous for attacking gays, feminists and Jews, and accused of propagating nazi- ideology.
Between 2005 and 2007 the political scene was controlled by the Kaczyński family, since his twin brother, Jarosław, was a president of the governing party (Law and Justice) and even the Prime Minister in 2006 and 2007.
Although the government changed in 2007 (now it’s Civic Platform and the Prime Minister is Donald Tusk), the last couple of years have been a really tough time for the gay community. They couldn’t ban homosexuality (or just didn’t have enough time to do that), but there was hardly any public speech without mentioning homosexuality as the worst thing that happened to the society. The highlight of this attitude was the speech of Lech Kaczyński on national television (March 17th, 2008) about the Lisbon Treaty (watch it here), in which he tried to convince the Poles that Germany wanted to regain some Polish territory (watch it: 1:50 – 2:12) or that the acceptance of the Treaty would allow the immoral and promiscuous homosexuals to get married in our Christian and healthy country (2:12 – 2:32). That part of the speech was pictured with the wedding of Brendan Fay and Tom Moulton from New York. The gay couple then came to Poland and wanted to meet Lech Kaczyński and prove they are not immoral and are just the average couple, as any other in the world.
Unfortunately, large parts of society share the opinions of the right-wing politicians. There are no out lesbians in Polish culture, politics or media and only a few out male gays. You can rarely see two women holding hands on the street (usually after dark) and NEVER a male gay couple. You live with your roommate and not partner or girlfriend and don’t mention your sexual orientation at work or your GP.
And the worst part is that… it’s not the worst thing about Poland! The worst is that there is no prospect of change because the society is not ready yet. Every election is won by the Conservative or populist party. And as long as they win, we can’t be sure those shocking projects like banning gay teachers from school will not be discussed again.
Time for the conclusions, but there won’t be any. I think the usual headlines about Poland speak for themselves. I just have two pieces of advice for you guys: first of all, if you decide to come here, enjoy the extraordinary hospitality and see probably the most eclectic and contradictory part of Europe.
But second of all, if you decide to stay here, just reconsider it once again because it is definitely not the best place in the world for our community.
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