Life in Poland

Ain’t no sunshine when you’re gone

I like to read the newspaper everyday, actually several if I can find the time, in Polish and in English. Spending a lot of time with two little kids, I need to keep in touch with the outside world for my own sanity. In Polish, I usually pick up Gazeta Wyborcza because it provides general news, and I like Thursday’s supplement Duży Format and Saturday’s magazine Wysokie Obcasy. You could say that I am regular reader. That said, I have never grabbed my copy, looked at the headline and thought oh my, I have to read that, until today (which was actually last week) with this headline: “Już nie kochamy Ameryki” (“We don’t love America anymore”). Why not, I ask, why not?

The article has data from a research study to back up the claims that, in fact, it is true (sniff, sniff).

The article:,75248,7018159,Juz_nie_kochamy_Ameryki.html

The research institution:

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

President Barak Obama is said to be more popular than former president George W. Bush was, but considering that W. was hugely unpopular that is not saying much, and the general fall in support of the US which started during the George W. era remains in effect today. I think that maybe the fact that Poland and Polish soldiers have supported the US in Iraq and Afghanistan and have died there while Polish citizens still need a visa to visit the US may also have something to do with our weakened relations. Misiu says that being treated as a second class citizen/poor relation is getting a bit irritating. According to this article, military participation in Iraq and Afghanistan has also increased pacifist views among Poles. What, WW1 and WW2 weren’t enough? The article also suggests that the difficult negotiations between Poland and the US concerning the US’s request to build an anti-missile defense system on Polish land may have contributed to the worsening relations and that generally Poles (I almost wrote we!) are losing faith in both the US and in NATO.

I am American and I have a healthy patriotic attitude. I am not fanatical, but I am proud. I remember as a school girl praying to God (it was Catholic school) to give our thanks that we had not been born French or German or Spanish. Seriously.We thought that it must be just plain awful not to be American. After saying the daily Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, at my school we added the phrases “God Bless America and keep it safe”. That is a nice sentiment but it was a kind of “screw you” to the rest of the world, just keep us safe. Ok it was the cold war time, and I think our teachers were a bit revved up. We also had to do a lot drills at school like the fire drill (close all the windows before exiting the classroom), severe storm drill (under your desk and hug your knees), and nuclear war drill (under your desk and hug your knees…they forgot to add, kiss your arse good-bye). My husband who was a Polish school boy at the same time felt proud to be Polish, but he was aware that there was something wrong with the system, that they weren’t free. His small protest was to listen to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. They didn’t have fire drills or severe storm drill or even nuclear war drills. After the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor meltdown, Misiu and all the kids of Poland were given Potassium iodide liquid to drink to protect their thyroids from the radiation and hopefully prevent thyroid cancer. Let’s pray that it worked.

If Poland has fallen out of love with America, that means that at one time Poland must have actually been in love with America, but why? Just because we think we are the best doesn’t mean that everyone else has to. Maybe it is because just about every Polish person has got a family member or members in America. According to wikipedia, there are about 10 million people in the US that identify themselves as Polish American, one of them being my father whose grandparents (my great-grandparents) came through Ellis Island in the early 20th century. Misiu says that it can be because America symbolized a true, free democracy when his country was not free. Maybe it was also the role of Ronald Reagan and his talks with Pope John Paul II (who was Polish) in helping to bring down communism in Poland. It can also be the idea of the American dream that through hard work you can achieve success because during PRL the best success was to be had by being clever not necessarily by working hard. Maybe it was because $20 was a whole months salary and when your wujek (uncle) from America sent you a ten-er you were a gość, a real somebody and you could go to Pewex (shop selling western goods paid for in western currency only) and buy yourself some jeans.

It can also be the soap opera view of America that we broadcast all over the world. Dynasty and other American soap operas were a window into an American life that for most American people did not exist. (Do you mud-wrestle your romantic rival in designer duds with humongous shoulder pads? You do? Oops, my mistake.) Polish soap operas also depict America as the promise land. A common plot thread is that you go to America for 6 months and come back mega rich and successful. Ok other plots have been that you go to America and get killed (quite possible) or that you go to America, get tricked into working in the porn industry and come back gay (difficult to blame that on America) and then later go to America a second time and become rich and successful and not gay anymore (hey, it could happen). Now I know why everyone is so disappointed to find out that my family’s life in America is less than soap-opera like. For example, my mother in her early 60’s has only 6 vacation days this year and my father at the height of his career had 2-weeks which means 10 days. They don’t take exotic vacations around the world. They don’t even come to Poland. My parents don’t know how we live, what are home looks like. They have never met our children, their grandchildren, because it is pretty difficult to do it in 6 days. The worst part is that they think that having basically no down-time is normal. You can gather that I disagree, but I’ll save that for another post.

I have felt the Polish love of America first hand. When I was teaching at high school in a small town, one nice young man from the town hunted me down to make me his own. It didn’t matter to him if I liked him or he liked me or that we could not communicate. The most important thing was that he had to have an American girlfriend. I declined even though he was cute and had a car. Come on, that was something back in the day. Misiu was only cute.

I felt the love, well, kind of, in the local government office when I was applying to renew my stay in Poland. I asked if my application would be accepted for sure. The reply, “You are American. Of course, it will be accepted. It’s not like you are Bulgarian and you came here to work at the bazaar.” If you are Bulgarian, I apologize on her behalf. At least she didn’t say brothel.

I also experienced it at the American Embassy of all places. After fighting my way in (One person waiting in line grabbed me and asked what right I had to go ahead of the line. I flashed my passport and said, “This gives me the right!” I know, it was stupid but I couldn’t resist.), I was surprised to find everyone speaking Russian to me. When the third person in the American Embassy started speaking Russian to me, I almost shouted, “Do I look Russian to you?” whatever it means to look Russian. Then I noticed a distinct lack of Polish or American people for that matter (in the waiting area). The American Embassy in Warsaw must have served part of Ukraine as well then. While waiting in line at the kasa (cashier) to pay for my husband’s immigrant visa, I observed the treatment of the Ukrainian people ahead of me. Shouts from the lady at the kasa, “Please do not ask me! Can’t you read? Kasa does not give information! Can’t you read? Only one at a time! Can’t you read? Stay behind the yellow line!” And then it was my turn. I was afraid. I stayed behind the yellow line. I approached the window alone and I didn’t ask for any information. What did I get? This, “Oh hello. Welcome to the American Embassy in Poland. Is this your first time in Poland, sunshine? (Yes, she really said sunshine. The other people were not Polish either but she didn’t ask them about their visit.) Are you adopting?” I answered, “Something like that. It’s for my husband.” The cashier replied, “Oh ho ho (fake laugh) here you are. Please take this card to window XYZ at 3:00 (this was the information asked for by the people before me) and have a nice day.” Come on, she had to say it – it was the American Embassy…which by the way has American toilet paper in the bathroom. That’s when I realized that that kind of love is just as arbitrary as hate. It is meaningless.

The American Consul official that we met with at the Embassy treated everyone politely and fairly. I did find it odd that she could speak neither Polish nor Russian and Misiu was perturbed by a neon-flashing error in English, her own language. I didn’t care about any of that. I was just waiting for her to stamp our papers which would allow my husband to become a US resident. I was especially worried because the Embassy had been sitting on our application for 2 years. That’s how we came to stay in Poland. We didn’t have a choice. When the official realized that the fault had been on the side of the Embassy, she immediately stamped everything and said to me with a beaming smile, “Now you can go to America!” There was no doubt that she was feeling the love for her country. I answered that I could always go to America because I am American but of course she meant that Misiu and I could finally go together. Next came the hard part. “What should we do if we don’t want to go?” I asked. Her face couldn’t hide her surprise and I’m sure that somewhere in her Embassy rented apartment she had a calendar with the days until she returned to America numbered in red. “Well, you kind of have to. The visa documents must be presented in person by the two of you,” she explained. So we did go to America a month or two later and then came back to Poland where we had jobs and a mortgage and everybody loved us (Did I go too far with that part?).

I also felt the love or maybe it was the sympathy on September 11th. I’ve never had so many phone calls in my life expressing concern and sympathy and asking if I am alright. Physically, I was alright. I was at my parents-in-law’s in a small town in Poland. I was probably the safest American girl on the planet that day. It was another story for my Polish brother-in-law and his son, my nephew (it’s weird to call him that ‘cause we are the same age) who were stranded in Manhattan and couldn’t figure out how to get home above ground. They usually hopped on the subway. (That’s why I like trams. I can see where I am going.) When the phone lines were finally opened, we tried to set them off (separately) in the right direction home among the crowd of people. Can you believe that they were able to find each other in that crowd of hundreds of thousands of people? If physically alright, mentally, I was not alright. While glued to the TV fighting off waves of nausea, I expected to see the next attack on London, then Paris, then Berlin. When I realized that it was an attack just on America, I was in greater disbelief. You see, despite my university education and travels, I was still very naive. Somewhere deep inside me, I believed that not only Poland loved America, but that everyone loved America. So now that Poland doesn’t love us anymore, who have we got left?

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