Having gotten hold of a few books in English this week (and swallowed two of them in as many days), I have realised that the Poles have made their way into the pages of British literature. They manifest there as surly migrants, mangling their idioms and dropping their articles and pining unpronounceably for Zdroj. Occasionally they try to extract some poetry from their migrant experience but they seldom demonstrate any wit. The women are bossy and demanding and enamoured of short skirts.
It’s interesting to see that none of this gels with my own personal stereotypes about Poles, carefully cultivated over the last year. I especially object to the unfunniness of the literary version, though I have observed that gratuitous smiling is met here with suspicion or derision (are you drying your teeth?). Or maybe mass migration produces some sort of mutation in the national character ?
I have also observed a general mistrust of strangers which could easily turn into glowering paranoia in exile. It also makes routine icebreaking so excruciating that the conversation often goes no further. My latest experience of this was a dismally failed attempt to chat up two out-of-towners from Bydgoszcz at an English for Business workshop on Friday. Rather than the usual banalities opening the way to more interesting topics, the relationship ended after a brief interrogation from my side led them to visibly shrink away from me as they produced monsyllabic answers and turned to each other for shelter. After this I gave up and, surveying the room, noticed that almost all the unaccompanied attendees preferred to lurk in lonely corners avoiding all eye contact, rather than expose themselves to the sort of social agony I had just undergone. After thatI wasn’t brave enough to try again with one of the wallflowers and only dared approach people I already knew.
Ohh what a pleasure it is after the winter, to be outside in a single layer of clothing, basking. I think that this is the first spring in my life that I have really earned. After spending the first weekend in March skiing, we spent every subsequent one on our bikes, scaring up sluggish frogs in the still ice-bound swamps of Kampinos National Park, riding the muddy round of Las Młociński, lurking around the perimeter fence of the airport watching the planes take off (to my great amazement, we weren’t the only ones- there was even a couple of young lovers on a date enjoying this romantic spectacle). The hedges are slowly unfurling, the ants are on the move and the river is alive with flocks of birds. Our view of the Pałac Kultury, which appeared in November when all the leaves fell off the trees, will soon be obscured again.
In a late winter attempt to see the things that tourists should see in Poland, we spent a weekend visiting museums- the archaelogical museum (which is just next to our house) and the palace in Wilanow, which we saw on a February day when the temperature was well below minus 10.
After a long busride and a shameful snack in Mcdonalds, we entered the grounds. On the borderline between the frozen earth and the hard blue sky sat the palace in its pastel glory, presiding over gardens (the English garden, the English-Chinese garden, the baroque garden, the rose garden) now dormant under the snow.
We spent the afternoon in the portrait gallery. The ceilings crawled with cherubs; the nobles, trussed up in silks and lace, smirked down from the walls. They pursed their rosebud lips in self satisfaction, inhabitants of an inaccessible universe composed of chambers, anterooms, vestibules; cabinets, galleries and parlours. Around them lounged equestrians and artists, field marshals and magnates.
In a roomful of Potockis we recalled that we had met one of their descendants in Hong Kong, a vodka baron with bushy eyebrows who seemed to inspire a sort of hushed awe (he’s a count!) in a gathering of otherwise egalitarian Poles. I realised that they had probably been recalling childhood visits to his weak-chinned ancestors and were amazed not so much by his nobility as by the appearance among them of a representative of a lost world- like stumbling unexpectedly across a dodo or a medieval knight.
It’s hard to describe the numbing effect of all these noble faces. I felt more kinship with homo habilis, scavenging the leftovers from a vulture kill on the savannah and hammering at corpses with their stone tools to get at the marrow, than with these alien creatures with their manor houses and Turkish robes. I am still trying to decide if this failure of fellow feeling can be blamed on the museum design, or if it’s just a failure of my own imagination.
I have started to teach a group of little girls, a prospect which initially filled me with dread but has now become one of the highlights of my week. They can’t speak much English and I have been given the class because I can give instructions in Polish but am still a native speaker, which their over- ambitious parents apparently insist on. What this means is that unlike adults, who are reticent about telling me when I make a mistake, they have no problem correcting my case endings or laughing hysterically when I accidentally use a male conjugation when I’m talking to one of them. They have no problem asking me how old I am or why I don’t have my husband’s surname, or telling me my fly is undone, in such a cryptic way that they have to repeat it 4 times before I get it- (Niech Pani zapina rozporek, bo dzisiaj nie wtorek!). I have often wondered at what point kids master the polite form of address and can now testify that by 9, they have it firmly under control.
But most fascinating for me is the glimpse into small-girl society, a land where I haven’t ventured for well over 20 years and which I didn’t find all that jolly when I was there. They are mad fountains of energy but also have confiding moments where they hug me, or show me their fake sideburns, rubber bangles, and dress- up books for dogs. They are obsessed with justice and when I write their names on the board at the beginning of the class (so that I can put marks against them when they’re bad) there is a chorus of complaints- why is my name first? why is mine last? why am I in the middle? Miss, it’s not fair!
This obsession also emerges in their games. One day in their break they decided to hold a trial for one of their number who had been complaining that she didn’t feel well (apparently she’s a well known malingerer). They set themselves up a little court and began interrogating her. At some point one of them halted proceedings and said “Wait, wait, she needs a lawyer to defend her.” I watched on with fascination and slight anxiety, wondering if I could consider myself a legitimate anthropological observer or if I had stumbled into “Lord of the Flies” and should call a recess.
Anyway, the whole experience has left me with a boundless admiration for their real teachers, who have to deal with 26 instead of 6 of them, as well as some new items of vocabulary. I also wonder how they actually ever learn anything, since their energies seem to be almost entirely absorbed by herd politics.