Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Poland *But Were Too Ashamed of Your Stupefying Ignorance to Ask*

All expats must inevitably face intensive Q&A sessions conducted by curious friends and family about their adoptive homes abroad, and sometimes these question sessions can get a little goofy. Americans may be so unaware of the place you live that just getting them to pronounce the name of your foreign town or province deserves its own day-long workshop, and the lack of information they have about your land often creates odd questions that can oscillate from hilariously uninformed to downright racist. I enjoy these little cultural talks, however, and am always happy to clear up confusion with my experiences out in the thick of it. Today I’ve chosen to answer a few questions that the Average American Man—let’s call him Joe—would ask about Poland.

Krakow, a hotbed of culture


What kind of name is Poland? I mean, what’s a Po?
-Well, the country’s name comes from a medieval Slavic tribe called the Polans, whose name itself derives from the Slavic word for ‘field’ (‘Pole’). The good ol’ Polans lived in what is now central Poland.

Didn’t Germany used to invade Poland a lot?
-Yes. Germany has invaded Poland many times over a thousand years of history, most famously doing so in World War II. Other invasions were headed by German princes in the Middle Ages and the Teutonic Knights in the late Middle Ages. Prussia, once actually a fief of Poland, gained control of a huge chunk of the country for 123 years until Germany was defeated in WWI.

However, for most of the High Middle Ages Poland held its own quite well against Germany. Poland has invaded its neighbor with almost equal frequency, and in fact, the Polish leader Jan Sobieski was asked by German nobility to help save Western Europe from invasion by the Ottomans at the decisive battle of Vienna in 1683, and he led the defensive forces to a sweeping victory. Whereas Germany has merely exploited Poland in the past, Poland has saved Germany’s ass before!

Check here for detailed information.

But didn’t Polish people fight tanks with horses in WWII?
It’s very sensational, but this is just an enduring myth that unfairly evokes images of Poland’s perceived backwardness. In reality, Polish cavalry fought against German infantry during the 1939 invasion with some level of success, but on Sept. 1st a Polish cavalry force was busy routing German infantry near the village of Krojanty when it was surprise-attacked by armored cars. The cavalry units hastily retreated knowing full well how suicidal attacking tanks was. However, the German propaganda machine spun the heavy losses of Polish cavalry in the surprise attack for official use and here we are today, still dealing with this fabrication.

What about the country and communism? They were communists, right?
Poland was behind the Iron Curtain from 1944 to 1989, but no adult Pole I have talked to remembers the time fondly. Supply shortages for such things as meat and simple machine parts were commonplace and people’s curtailed political freedoms were highly resented. Only a fraction of the population were actual communist party members, and Poles refused to give up many aspects of their culture, such as their fervent Roman Catholicism, to the communist authorities. Today, Poles are solidly capitalistic and democratic in their leanings.

What’s this thing called Solidarity that I vaguely remember from high school history classes?
Solidarity was a trade union originally created by shipyard workers in 1980 that had a broad anticommunist agenda, but it was mainly set up as a coordinating vehicle for strikes against the government. Independent trade unions were illegal in communist Poland, but despite this, Solidarity grew quickly and represented the biggest popular organized resistance to the communist government’s economic and political policies. Through its leader Lech Walensa and various strikes and political actions, it brought the government into bilateral discussions to ease communism that eventually toppled the system altogether.

Anyway, Poland is in Eastern Europe—don’t people travel by horses there still?
Despite what stereotypes may exist, Poland is a well-developed country with all forms of modern transport that can be found in North American and Western Europe. People in my city, Tarnow, mostly travel by bus and train, although cars seem to be getting more popular.

Isn’t life in Poland like the rest of that part of the world: poor, nasty, brutish, and lots of mud?
Poland has a “Very High” level of Human Development according to the UN’s 2013 report , and all the technology and infrastructure that people are used to in other parts of the West are an integrated, daily part of life here too. The life expectancy of Poles is similar to that of the Americans, albeit a tad shorter (~2 years), and unlike America there is an actual public healthcare system that doesn’t bankrupt families. Obviously, there will be deviations to the development of a country depending on where you are in it; Poland’s western part is noticeably more well-off than its east, for example, but that has parallels in the American North vs. South.

You didn’t answer my question about mud. I know the weather there must be bad, right, so is there a gloppy dirt problem?
Okay, it exists. Poland has a frosty and wet winter where the dead foliage really does mix up with the snow to create a nasty paste of shoe-sticking grossness. Things get worse when the snowplow trucks eject cascades of dirt for traction on the roads, and when all the snow melts there’s even more debris to deal with. This would all be unbearable torment if there weren’t enough sidewalks for us residents, but fortunately there are and avoiding the worst crud sinkholes is definitely possible. Although wearing white Kenneth Cole trousers is a horrible idea here: no men wear white pants anyway and they’re bound to get browned by what’s around.

I’ve heard jokes about Poles: they are usually lazy, stupid, and drunk. Is this true?
I grew up in a part of America where ‘Polack’ jokes were nonexistent and would have generated little amusement had they been heard, so I came to Poland not knowing these stereotypes. In its place there should definitely be a more positive perception of the Poles, as far as accuracy is concerned.

For one, let’s talk about their work ethic. Poles care about working hard so much that the country is shrinking because everyone is looking for work internationally. Already, everyman Jan Nowak and his sister Kasia Kowalska are abroad supporting the backbone of the UK through menial labor, and you can find Poles in every European country doing a mostly spot-on job in a responsible manner. There are even Poles in the friggin’ Faroe Islands in the middle of the Atlantic,  and who would even go to those seagull-crap encrusted islands for work?? (Actually, I would)

Somewhere in this picture, a Polish man is fishing for cod and thereby saving the Faroesian economy from doom.

As for drinking, I haven’t noticed any significant difference from drinking rates in other European countries where I’ve stayed such as Belgium. Every town is going to have its drunk bums and such on the streets after dark, of course, and Tarnow isn’t an exception. I saw a really scary hobo yesterday with a gaping face wound and a face tattoo, but a nastier version of him probably lives somewhere in America.

Additionally, people in this country seem to really care about their education. Now, some may say that an English teacher at a private language school is only going to see the shinier side of the coin, but all you have to do is ask regular Polish high schoolers about their exams and university to see their pure focus on getting their schooling right. All of my teen students are freaking out about the Matura exam (their final high school test) coming up and they spend an inordinate amount of time studying for it. To underline this point, the Polish government has ensured that public university is basically free for most students, as long as they can perform well enough.

So, put aside many of your preconceptions of Poles—they’re just average Europeans, doing what Europeans do. Yet I must add that on the whole, they are a reserved, more serious kind of bunch. Don’t come here expecting Spaniards!

Besides vodka and former German concentration camps, what else is there in Poland?
It’s true that these things can be found in abundance across the country (Stay away from mixing them), but Poland is more than a large distillery or sad history lesson. This country has thumping cities that are filled with awesome nightlife, like the cosmopolitan cultural capital Krakow (Crazy cool), and the real forte of Poland’s after-dark life is its virtuosic jazz scene. I’ve had the fortune to watch some great jazz in Tarnow and Krakow done by musicians who could make it in the States with the right marketing and management. If jazz isn’t your thing, there are clubs all over the place and the sizzling ladies and macho dudes should have something to offer.

For the sightseeing-minded, Poland has got its fair share of excellent renaissance architecture and many cities have utterly precious town squares that have survived centuries of conflict just to delight visitors like yourself. There aren’t so many cathedrals or really glorious churches, due to enthusiastic destruction by the Germans, Swedes, Russians, Tatars and other invaders in the past, but there some splendid palaces that are really worth checking out (Lancut Palace near Rzeszow and Lazienki Park in Warsaw are two I adore).

And, though the majority of Poland is quite flat, you can discover some breathtaking mountains in the south of the country along the Carpathians. The scenery is top-notch and there is a great deal of outside activity that can be partaken in: skiing in Zakopane or Krynica, hiking in the Southeast near Ukraine, or rafting near Dunajec gorge. I’ve yet to do the last of these two but I’ve heard nothing but praise for them.

And there are beautiful women, right?

For unexplainable reasons, Poland has been bestowed with really attractive members of the gentler sex. Oddly, my sources from the indigenous population tell me this hasn’t carried over to the male side of the fence, but that ain’t my problem!

Come on, tell me a bit about the booze. What’s on offer?
Wait for another blog post and I’ll fill you in on the intoxicating details of how to get drunk, enjoyably, in this country.

***Thanks for reading and stay tuned for posts about the city of Gdansk and Polish alcohol!***

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