“Dzien dobry! Jak się masz?” “Good day! How are you?” were the first Polish phrases I learned at age 11 from my best friend Janek Murliewski, as we traveled on 607 trolleys back and forth to school. Janek introduced me to his Polish friends and I soon developed a lifelong fondness for Poland and Poles.
As a teen I was enchanted with Poles. My bilingual friends seemed brighter, as if their brains were buffed by the tongue-wrenching consonants of daily chatter in Polish and English, not to mention the Greek, Latin, French and German they learned at the Parish schools that many attended. The family lives of my friends seemed exotic; often sophisticated and intriguing, suave and cultured, so much so that my manners improved around them.
I learned to kiss the grandmothers’ hands upon meeting them. It was polite, and perhaps my affectation smoothed my way to becoming an accepted escort for the daughters of the house. One girl, Joasia (Joanna) R~ and I became good friends and courted a short while until she met a handsome, brilliant older guy who, with his long shadow, darkened my small light. Her parents were cultured; Joasia spoke gorgeously in acute English; her enunciated clarity contrasted my lazy London cockney gabble.
It was when eating at my friends’ homes I first discovered that there was far more interesting food in the world than fish and chips eaten from newspaper wrapping, food such as bigos, Poland’s national dish.
But my strong attachment to Poles goes beyond bigos. Because I spent so much time with these immigrant families, I learned early how little I knew of the world outside England. And it was through my Polish friends that I eventually found my own small flat shortly after my mother died – in the home of one of those friends. She is a friend still.
Through that same connection, in 1985 and 1986 I spent two months in Poland, much of the time as part of a Polish family. The experience was life-lurching for me; I wanted to move to Poland and teach English. Poland in the mid-1980’s was not far away from the revolution of Solidarity the anti-communist trade union (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy “Solidarność”).
I spent a lot of time talking to Poles; some being polished and thoughtful journalists, professors, students, and artists. It seemed so conflicted a country: a nation of seeming extremes. Poland had a culture where nearly everyone went to mass to pray and professed to be good Christians, but at the same time some cursed the few Arabs or Africans who attended Warsaw Universities as being heathens; and others blamed Jews for all their ills, despite that there were hardly any Jews left after the Holocaust. Poland’s horses outnumbered the people; horse-and-cart coal merchants jostled with gleaming new street cars, and on country roads, held up huge trans-European juggernaut trucks. People lined up to buy bread and small dainties, but with a few dollar bills or pound notes, waltz into the foreign exchange shops and buy trifles worth a fortune on the Black Market.
Regardless of their degree of polish (yes, a pun) it seemed to me that nearly all Polish men I met smoked like chimneys and guzzled wodka like water. The men often dressed shabbily, but their wives and daughters caught my eye with a flashes of colorful scarf and scant makeup. I could have fallen in love with the many beautiful women I met, but I was immune at that time, being already in love.
Thanks to Elizabeth Białek for inspiring me to scribble this piece.