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It's not that bad!

21 of March '23

The column is from A&B issue 03|23

I live in a country that has been ruled since 2015 by a populist party whose actions cause me to ask myself every day over my morning coffee, "What am I still doing here?" The truth is that I could write it more bluntly, referring to the tone of Adas Miauczynski in "Groundhog Day." If I were to make a list of the "accomplishments" of the group just in power probably the implanted cardioverter-defibrillator in the fatty tissue on my chest would refuse to obey, eventually sending me to the bosom of Abraham.

Unfortunately, I must admit that my love for Lechistan has always been rather modest. First it was bad, because of the commune, the ubiquity and the endless winter. In general, patriotic talks in elementary school neither WRON nor "The smell of dog hair" and "How steel hardened" did not help me. Then it was better, because there was hope, because capitalism appeared, the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky disappeared, but on the other hand there was the Mafia, mindless real estate developers and dramatic social inequality. Then it was OK, too, because working with interesting people, because the enthusiasm of experimentation, but again, a person was poor as a church mouse and had the feeling that he was fighting windmills, while cynics were driving non-Polish cars. The most interesting thing happened when I started escaping from Poland on a regular basis, but the question kept coming up as to why I was returning to Poland if it was bothering me so much. This question was probably best answered by Obywatel G.C. with his song "Don't ask about Poland" or Zaucha in "C "est la vie."

If to look somewhere for the genesis of my eternal dissatisfaction, it probably began with the fatal mistake of my parents, who, instead of making sure that I never crossed the borders of our beautiful country and that I never learned any foreign language, unscrupulously took me with them on a contract to Algeria. Spending nearly two years on the Mediterranean, followed by Paris and Barcelona studies spoiled me irrevocably. Today, instead of proudly operating only in my native language, like the president of the ruling party, I commit the daily sin of reading foreign press in foreign-not-our-language. On top of that, I have traveled, encountered people from everywhere—from the Evil Teutons hated by the president and his acolytes to the aborigines of the Nyoongar group, the toothless, Trump-voting hillbillies of Tennessee and the enthusiastic New Kazakhs. I've had the opportunity to see that things aren't necessarily great outside of Poland in every way, and that I wouldn't necessarily want to live in any other place, as long as it wasn't in a country that is a full-time victim of history.

Well, and imagine that recently reality has provided me with a series of impulses that make me at least slightly correct my view of Lechistan. A year ago, after almost three years of covid escape to the countryside, where, like Turgenev from imperial Russianness, I was able to separate myself from "ourness," and just after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, I drove to downtown Warsaw. I moved around the city by streetcar. Under the Houses of the Center resounded not only the language of Norwid, but also the speech of Lesa Ukrainka, Nachman Bialik or Lev Tolstoy. On top of that, guys from Bangladesh and India rode everywhere on scooters. Groups of Israelis clad in shiny downskins and Kazakhs hungry for Europe shopped in the remnants of stores that survived the pandemic. Interracial pairs of students in the underpass under the Daszyńskiego traffic circle shamelessly made out, probably whispering bawdy things in each other's ears in the language of Shakespeare (for a change). The culturally and racially homogeneous Warsaw that I remember from before the Vietnamese invasion of the late 1980s began to look as if it had finally entered, or had been pushed, by macroeconomics and geopolitics into the path of multicultural societies. Or, what will probably not please the leaders of right-wing parties, worse post-racial societies. The ultimate cognitive conflict took place on a streetcar heading across the Poniatowski Bridge, when a wrinkled Japanese woman with a yorkshire terrier on her arm marched into the carriage at the stop as if nothing had ever happened, arguing on the phone with someone in Yukio Mishima's language. Am I in New York, London or Paris, where the Japanese are fleeing the mustiness and patriarchy of their homeland?

Last week I walked into a Japanese street food bar. A shithole the size of a neighborhood garage squeezed between sex shops and pawn shops on John Paul Street (I've always wondered what the street patron would say to that). I got into a conversation with a twenty-something Japanese man standing behind the bar, wearing a docker's cap almost pulled over his eyes. When asked by me how come he and his buddies opened a bar just in Warsaw, the boy replied. "After all, the future is here! In Japan, only the children of the rich or pensioners are well off. Taxes don't allow you to breathe, the country is dying because our fertility rate is dropping to zero. How to live there! So my colleagues and I decided that we would look for a FAVORABLE PLACE IN EUROPE, and it fell on Poland, BECAUSE YOUR COUNTRY IS ON THE RIGHT!". I bulged my eyes. "I know that you guys now have these 'fascists' in power, and on top of that they can kick you out of this Europe..."—stipulated the youngster, probably not knowing that from the European Union dumbed down by TVP my compatriots will most likely unsubscribe themselves—"but we have plans here: we will set up a franchise, attract investors from Japan and it will be great!". "Well, and will you marry Polish blondes?", I added ironically. "Wiadomix!", added, already in Polish, a hipster cut out of Shibui, while grinning from ear to ear.

Poland is proving to be a booming corporate job market for people from everywhere. I recently met a couple of happy Indians from Bangalore working near Lodz for some global mastodon. "It is known, idiots happen everywhere,"—said the young IT engineer—"but we are amazed by Polish hospitality and ease. The weather, fact, takes some getting used to, but we imagine a future here." My interlocutor completely knocked me off my feet when he added that he took part in the Independence Day celebrations last year. He and his wife and other expat friends from work walked in the parade. No one reproached or scolded them from the Tsiapas. "All you have to do is have a Polish flag and smile a lot," he said. At the same time, he said he had a great time, almost as much fun as on Diwali, Hinduism's biggest festival, when masses of people throw pigment powders at each other and often pour paint on each other. The coolest time was reportedly when "some guys threw flares." Oezu, what's wrong with me?

My astonishment at the unremarkable attractiveness of the Republic is deepened by my students. Every year I lead a project at ASK, a graduate program at the Faculty of Architecture in Warsaw, for international students. In English, by the way. When asked to a young Turkish, French, South African or Ukrainian girl, "Why did you decide to study in Warsaw?", I usually get a repetitive answer: that it's Europe, but so much more human, more familiar, cheaper. An American woman straightforwardly said that she didn't want to pay off her studies for the rest of her life and that she wanted "in addition to all this digital stuff" to learn to draw well, too. Fact, when I worked at General Electric in Louisville I saw that it was difficult for engineers to communicate during brainstorms because they couldn't draw, and 3D modeling during a conversation took too much time.

"It's not that I'm against social standards and in general what the French managed to get under President Mitterrand, but I think that we somehow lost energy because of it. That France has floundered," said a student of mine from the north of France, while lighting a cigarette in the faculty courtyard. "Covid has already drained us completely," he added. "And there is tension here, friction of some kind. Well, and great parties!" he added, and I began to wonder if he was accidentally referring to a march by someone named Bąkiewicz during the aforementioned Independence Day.

Maybe I have actually demonized this country for myself, because I am a true malcontent Pole, an irredeemable son of this land, who instead of focusing on the positives, allows himself to be swept away by the media with bad news about various Cherns and Ziobers? Instead of properly squinting my eyes and looking at the greenery, I walk around stricken by the ugliness of the Polish cultural landscape? Instead of enjoying the blossoming of literature and film we are experiencing, presumably because of the aforementioned tension, I am wringing my hands over the low level of reading and the popularity of some Zenko Martyniuk? Or maybe it's just not that bad? And maybe, who knows, by some miracle, in spite of ourselves, it will somehow get better after all? A little, relatively, relatively at least....

Jakub Szczęsny

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