Large nondescript country

I have decided to make an entry in English once in a while to include those who don’t understand Polish in reading this blog. There are some issues that I consider interesting mainly to Poles, but some others may be of interest to foreigners as well. Like this one.

Recently I’ve been debating with my husband whether Poland is an eastern or a western, a southern or a northern country. Since it lies in the very middle of Europe and is basically a large nondescript place, the answer to this question may be a bit difficult. But first let me explain what I mean by “large nondescript place”, or my compatriots will tear me to pieces.

Fourteen years back a Spanish penpal told me she knew practically nothing about Poland. Of course she knew it was a country somewhere in eastern Europe, but she didn’t associate it with anything – no landmarks like the Czech Prague, no famous peop… oh wait, isn’t the pope Polish?, no breathtaking mountains or fjords. Just a big hole in the middle of the continent. The same was true about our nation. We weren’t stereotyped like the noisy, life-loving Italians, introverted Swedes or lazy, bribe-taking Russians. Since that time the situation has changed a bit thanks to so many Poles working around Europe, but since they represent many different faces of Polishness – some are lazy and dishonest, some ambitious and honest, some stupid, some clever – the end result is equally nondescript.

So, what are we like? And is our country really so devoid of landmarks?

I think our being situated in-between is precisely what defines us. Most of us dream of warm countries where life goes slow, but only some have the right temperament to really mingle in those societies. In my opinion we are more of a northern nation, introverted, shy, avoiding one another’s eyes when passing on the sidewalk, venting off our frustration in unexpected moments on unexpected people. Of course we can be noisy – see how noisy our neighbors are, says my husband – but it’s a different kind of noisiness. In Madrid I once was in a bus that got halted by a broken car whose owner was trying to fix it in the middle of the street. Passengers, obviously in a hurry, started complaining loudly, running to and fro, giving the car driver signs to move, but as soon as the bus was able to maneuver around it, everyone immediately forgot about the incident. In Poland you would have people contain their anger, sigh, mutter under their breath, dangerously approach heart attack, but few of them, and likely not immediately, would dare to manifest their anger loudly. The act of suppressing fury would cost them so much that they’d probably remember it for at least the next two hours, growling at their wives and screaming at kids. Yes, we are definitely an easily frustrated nation.

Still, my husband says, Umberto Eco in his book Notes on a Matchbox[1] presents Italians as a nation who basically arranges everything by bribes and nepotism. Admittedly, that sounds a bit like Poland, but I still think we have borrowed this custom from Russia, or maybe it’s simply a Slavic thing, by chance practiced in the south as well. Not that I approve of it, mind you.

The sentiments toward Russia are a complicated issue in itself. For historical reasons Russia isn’t our favorite country and we tend to see ourselves as a western nation, but again, in reality we are caught somewhere in between with our vodka-sprinkled romanticism and nostalgia for never-existing times on the one hand, and true ambition to be Westerners on the other.

What is going on in the country right now is a sign of the lack of one unified definition of what it means to be a Pole. Of course there are some who claim they know it and that only their definition is correct. Unfortunately for them, they are (still!) not in power. Recent political tensions are a clear example of how very different – and distant – our perceptions of Polishness are. Still, I think most of us have in their blood a bit of all those influences I have talked about – eastern and western, southern and northern.

What about landmarks, then? Although I do think Prague is a wonderful place, I’m almost certain that to most Europeans it is the only place they’ve heard of in the Czech Republic, for the landmark has obscured everything else. We Poles are unlucky in this respect: our capital isn’t as beautiful as Prague, and probably most of my compatriots wouldn’t even vote for it as the most beautiful city in Poland. Instead of one landmark, though, we have a handful or more of beautiful cities, towns, mountains and lakes. Come here with a good guidebook (or a personal guide) and see for yourselves. And Warsaw? I still think it’s as beautiful as you can expect of a city that was almost totally destroyed during WW2. The old town has been rebuilt in good taste, the Łazienki park is a nice place to walk and rest… and of course there is all that modern stuff, but coming from a fairly large town myself, I don’t care much for it. Still, I have a lot of respect for our capital. The Czechs[2] gave their country to the Nazis without fight and at the end of the war got their capital back untouched. I wonder if Europe would be free today if every country had done that. I hate war and I’d like to think that every conflict may be solved peacefully, but if someone wants to take over your country, saying “OK” may not be the best idea.


[1] I’ve googled this title, but it looks like the book hasn’t been translated into English and it’s simply a literal translation from Italian (or from Polish). The book is a collection of newspaper articles by Eco.

[2] The government, that is, not an average citizen.

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