Since our falling out over Iraq, among other things, there has been a spate of articles about our European cousins, mostly finding fault with them, particularly the French and the Germans, but also some that seem to me to be quite fair and balanced, which go to some pains to show where we don’t understand their perspectives and their fears.
I’ve got some things to contribute too, but from the viewpoint of life on the other side of the old Iron Curtain. Since I went to live there in 1991, my goal as a writer has been to tell the story of the people of that part of the world and their struggle out of the long nightmare of tyranny and why I think that their fate is important to ours. I’m still working on it. I’ve told bits and pieces of the story, but telling it as an integrated whole, with defensible conclusions about the meaning of it all still eludes me, perhaps because I have become part of the story, and my story is not over yet.
The following are a series of anecdotes, in no particular order and only a rough grouping according to theme, of things I’ve seen, heard and experienced there that have made lasting impressions on me. If I had to draw a conclusion from them, I’d have to say that Europeans (even in the Orthodox countries) are pretty much like us in most ways – compared to non-European peoples. We are all members of a collection of cultures that we all recognize as being part of the same overarching civilization that we call “Western”.
But there are some important differences between pretty much all of them and all of us. And there are important differences between the Europeans on the two sides of the old Iron Curtain and differences within those two divisions that result from their different-but-similar national experiences.
To begin with, they all have fairly recent memories of ruin and horror on their own territories. But it lasted longer for the Easterners and was followed by two generations of tyranny, which even their young people remember well. Eastern Europeans have always considered themselves to be the eastern frontier of Western Civilization.
I can’t give you the sum total of my observations and experience here over the past twelve years, nor have I really integrated it myself, but these are some of the things that stand out in my memory when I ask myself what I’d like to tell my countrymen about these people.
- On the style of patriotism of old ethno-nations. A while ago I was reading the memoirs of a Polish lancer who served as aide-de-camp to Napoleon during his wars – until he learned that Napoleon intended to betray his promise to restore the Polish nation (then partitioned between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussia) and sell it to Czar Alexander for peace. I mentioned to my (Polish) wife Monika that he later served as an officer in the uprising of 1830 and I swear, my sweet young wife SNARLED, “Yeah, another one we lost!”
-In Bulgaria I made the acquaintance of a man named Cyril who made his living as an interpreter (he spoke fluent English, Polish, German and Russian). In the seventies his work had gotten him in trouble when his neighbors turned him in for having foreign visitors and he spent five years hard in a labor camp where the guards beat him up regularly and knocked some of the teeth out of his head. (He insisted on showing me the bridge. Thanks bud, I think of you every time I’m detained in some damned Eastern European border station.)
During an evening’s conversation, he started in on how they hated the Greeks, almost as much as the Turks. He went on about an incident after a war between Bulgaria and Greece. It seems that after the peace was negotiated the Bulgarians trustingly sent all their Greek prisoners home, while the Greeks put the eyes out of all of their Bulgarian prisoners, except for one in a hundred who had only one eye taken so that they could lead the others home.
He was literally pounding his fist into his palm while relating this, when it dawned on me that these were the Byzantine Greeks he was talking about, i.e. this had to have happened more than a thousand years ago – and he was going on about it like it was last week!
Europeans will go on about how we haven’t got real History. But you know, sometimes it’s nice not to have so much History.
- One night Monika and I were watching the greatest movie ever made. (If you didn’t know that was Casablanca, you have my sympathies.) We came to the scene in Rick’s Café when some German officers are singing some obnoxious Nazi song, then Victor Lazlo leads the band and patrons in singing the Marseilleze. There is a touching moment when a girl who has a crush on Rick and has been trying to make him jealous by dating a German, shouts “Vive la France!” with tears in her eyes.
At this point I turned to my wife and asked her, “You know, in France after the war they took girls who went with Germans and shaved their heads. Did they do something like that in Poland?” Now you must understand, my wife is sweet and good-natured, but she’s also feisty and tough-minded in ways I’ve never encountered among American women of her age. She managed to startle me when she said calmly, “No. In Poland they didn’t wait until the end of the war. If a girl went with a German, somebody would bump into her on the street and throw acid in her face or slash it with a razor. Hair grows back you know.”
There was not an ounce of pity in her voice.
-It is impossible to stay mad at the French for long. Once in Lithuania, at a conference, we met an elderly Frenchman who said, “So you are the fellow who wrote that article in Liberty about the difficulty of getting married in Poland. At the time I said to myself, “This man must love this woman very much.” And now I see why.” (with Gallic intonation and roll of the eyes). Needless to say, my wife melted like butter. Vive La France!
- In a conversation with a young woman some years ago I asked, “If I
live here a long time and learn to speak Polish really well, maybe even get
citizenship, when will I be Polish?” The answer, of course was, “Never.” “If
I marry a Pole and have children (as I did) will they be Polish?” “Well,
sort of half-Polish.” And the $64,000 question, “So are Jews Poles?” “Well,
they sort of are and they sort of aren’t.” (My wife is of another opinion,
she thinks they are, but I don’t really know how many share that one.) “So if you went to America, when would you be American?” “I don’t know.” “Five years officially, but some people become American shortly after stepping off the boat. That’s why they come here, looking for the home they knew had to exist somewhere.”
- On one pleasant night out socializing with one of my English classes, I was cracking wise about “Goddam Yankees” and “Granola-brained Californians” etc, when one young lady said, “I wish we had something like that.” “Huh?” I replied wittily. “I know what you’re saying, she said “but at the same time I hear real affection in your voice. We don’t have that kind of feeling for each other. I think it was beaten out of us.”
- Similarly, I was in Bulgaria when Steven Spielberg’s movie Twister was released, and of course I went to see it because I’m an Okie. (It made me homesick.) Students and friends all wanted to know if it was really like that in Oklahoma. The husband of one of my students expressed great admiration for the movie. I told him, “Well, that is Oklahoma for sure, I even recognized some places in the film. And tornados really do the kinds of things they showed. The unreal thing of it all was how many tornados they went out and found in a day or two. That just doesn’t happen, you can’t just find one whenever you need one.” “I understand.” He said. “What I loved was the comradeship, the solidarity of the team. It was beautiful. We don’t have that kind of thing.”
-In my first weeks of teaching high school in Poland (1991) I was invited to go on a class trip to the mountains on the Slovakian (then Czechoslovakian) border organized by the math teacher, a fanatic hiker. While we were walking through the mountains he said to me, “We like Americans in Poland, do you know why?” “I think so.” I said. “Why do you think?” “Poles got balls. Nobody ever denied that, whatever their other faults may be. They see the bold self-confidence of Americans and more than anything else, they want some of it for themselves.” “You’re exactly right.”
-Transplanted American patriotism. It’s interesting to me that the longer I live abroad, the more American I feel. More interesting is that Polish-American friends I have here, of the first native-born generation who grew up learning Polish at home in America, tell me that they feel the same way. They come here, like I did, even marry and settle here, as I did, and feel more and more American as time goes by. A Swedish woman once told me that it’s the opposite for them, the longer they live abroad, the less they feel like they belong in their own country.
Early in my stay in Poland I was sitting in a reading room (i.e. a place where for a small fee you could read foreign newspapers for as long as you liked, now sadly liquidated to make way for a huge bookstore). I was catching up on the Herald Trib when an elderly gentleman with a very thick accent came up to me and asked if I were American. I told him I was. “I am too.” He said proudly. “I live in America thirty years.”
-Another time I was walking down a country lane in the west of Poland and walked by a farmhouse. Right in the middle of the barnyard was a tall flagpole and flying from it was the Stars and Stripes. I didn’t even have to ask what that meant. Obviously a Pole who had lived and worked in America long enough to become a citizen had retired to the old country – but he was proud to be an American and didn’t care who knew it.
-The above incident happened in the part of western Poland that was the eastern part of Germany before the war. In the former German lands I’ve seen things like old devotional monuments representing the Stations of the Cross with German inscriptions that the local people have partially bashed out with hammers.
Poles from the east were transported to live there and their lands and property given to Ukrainians. The local population was driven still further west into the borders of a shrunken Germany. I’ve heard that sometimes they actually had to share houses for months, the people about to be dispossessed with the people who were taking over their homes. Neither able to speak the others’ language, they could only sit in the same rooms, hating each other.
Now, German tourists are common there. I have seen tour groups in the western Polish cities with guides explaining the sights to them in German. Sometimes they have very old people with them, people who used to live here and have come to see their old homes. Local merchants are glad enough to take their money, but people aren’t really comfortable with them here. A woman once told me, “Every time I hear German spoken in the former German lands, I feel like people I don’t like are coming to my house!”
There is money from public and private funds in Germany, sent to maintain or restore local buildings and landmarks. I’ve heard that German families sometimes send money to Polish families to maintain the properties that used to belong to them. As welcome as it is in cash-strapped Poland, nobody likes the implied message, “We’ll be back.”
-On differences between the patriotism of Europeans. After I had been in Bulgaria for a few months, something occurred to me about Bulgarian culture that I wanted to ask my classes about. “I’ve noticed something. Though there are many very cultured people here (and the number of people you meet on the street in Sofia, including small children, who speak excellent English is surprising), Bulgaria has no native high culture. For five centuries Bulgarians were serfs to Turkish overlords and the highest office a Bulgarian could have (without converting) was village headman. Bulgarian language and literature were preserved in monasteries and only really become active again in the 19th century as an exile literature published in Romania and Russia. Native Bulgarian culture is a village peasant culture that urban intellectuals feel almost no connection with.”
This has to mean something – but I’m not sure what. Polish culture (for example) has a continuity throughout their history that is relatively unbroken in spite of attempts to suppress it, often by trying to exterminate the intellectual classes. (The survival of continuity might simply be a result of the difference in the size of their populations, roughly five times as many Poles as Bulgarians.)
The response was interesting. Though the sample was small, agreement was 100% in all of my classes. One young lady made a remark that has haunted me ever since, “Sometimes I think that we will have to develop an aristocracy before we can have a democracy.”
- A few years ago there was a disastrous flood that covered a huge part of
eastern Poland. We all saw the way New Yorkers reacted to the 9/11 disaster, and before that how people in my state of Oklahoma reacted to the bombing. Here there were generous fund-raising drives to help victims of the floods for sure, no one can deny that. But, witnesses said that at night you could see the lights from the boats carrying looters into the flooded towns on the rising waters.
- Perhaps it’s not so odd that our real friends in Europe are in the East. For one thing, they know about dictators here and cry no tears at the fall of one
more murderous s.o.b. And for another, they are not shocked at the prospect
of American forces crossing another country’s borders to get that dictator
when for two generations they would have been overjoyed to see those forces pouring across their borders.
I once stated that point in a conversation with an Englishwoman who still admired the Soviet Union and said the crimes of the USSR were “just Stalin”. She poo-poohed the idea, “You’re just looking at the world through your American goggles.” I nodded towards the two Poles at the table and said, “Ask them.” She turned to them and said, “Is this true?” They both nodded, “Oh yes, of course.” She looked uncomfortable and changed the subject.
-It’s interesting to see how much the American military is admired here. A student of mine told me how he sees American officers speaking on the news and what he notices most is how trim and fit they are and how their uniforms are simple and relatively unadorned. In contrast the highest-ranking Polish officers on the general staff tend to be pot-bellied and still adhere to the Russian style of covering all available space on their tunics with medals. It’s a case of whether the man ornaments the uniform or the uniform the man I guess.
My father-in-law (former Major in the Secret Chancellery of the Polish Military) and his brother (also a retired officer) both think that my son should join the American military rather than the Polish if he wants a military career. The practical reason is that it will probably be more of an advantage to be an American officer who speaks fluent Polish than a Polish officer who speaks English. The other reason is that they think the American army is really cool.
-My son’s godmother is an Englishwoman who remembers the fall of Europe vividly. On a visit to Warsaw we were walking across Pilsudski Square where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is. They were holding a military tattoo that day and she said, “Oh dear, I think I’m going to cry.” “Why?” I asked. “I remember when the Free Poles arrived in England, and how tall and handsome they were, and how much we liked them.” She also wanted to know where all those tall, aristocratic-looking young men were. (She later pronounced herself satisfied that there were at least some left when she met my brother-in-law.) Does tyranny affect physiognomy? For a while now I’ve had the nagging feeling that Poles are starting to look different. I think they walk and hold themselves more like Americans nowadays. My wife says no, they just look more European. I do know that I don’t stand out so much anymore. People often stop me on the street to ask directions.
I didn’t experience this, but it’s a story I heard that I can well believe. During the communist times a Polish-American came to Poland for a visit. He spoke fluent Polish and took care to get some clothes locally so as to blend in because he wanted to experience the country up close and personal. So, first night in Warsaw he’s walking down a street when a man passed him and said, “Change money?” (To avoid the official exchange rates, then highly illegal and profitable for both parties.) He asked in exasperation, “How did you know I was a foreigner?” “You walk free.”
I once met a Russian woman in Lithuania (actually she’s an American now– a statement that startles many Europeans). She told me that she could tell I was American across a crowded room in the dark. That reminded me that once a friend of mine on a trip to China saw a Chinese woman in a garden and said to himself, “She’s American.” He approached her and sure enough, she was an American tourist.
There is something about us that shows in the way we walk and carry ourselves. But I think that lots of other people are starting to look the same, and it pleases me to think so.
- In his first summer we took our baby son to visit his Polish great-grandparents. His maternal great-grandmother lives near Wroclaw and was a partisan in the area that is now Ukraine during the war. Because she was fluent in Ukrainian she could pass as one and so she wasn’t killed by some Benderista partisans who made her come with them “to watch us kill some Poles” – who turned out to be her, aunt, uncle and cousins. They didn’t give her away with a word or a glance as they died.
At the time, her own mother was a slave in Germany. They still have her permission to return, stamped with the swastika under the eagle.
-Nearby Monika showed me the church her parents were discretely married in, 200 kilometers from Warsaw. Her father was terrified that the army would find out that he had had a church wedding as well as a
-Afterwards we took the baby to Lublin, at the other end of Poland to meet
her paternal grandparents. Jerzy’s great-grandmother made a huge fuss over him and exclaimed, “How wonderful that he’ll have two languages – and one of them isn’t Russian!”
-Another thing the family is overjoyed about is that their baby has two passports, both Polish and American. The advantages are obvious but it took some time for me to realize that in the countries of Eastern Europe, people are always conscious on some level that the survival of their family line might depend on someone’s ability to flee the country, perhaps forever. Our friends in the small countries on the Baltic coast live with the knowledge that a hiccup of history could wipe their people out forever – as many small nations have been in the past.
Fellow Americans, try to imagine feeling like that. I still can’t. Intellectually I know that nothing humans build can last forever and that our time will surely come, but deep down inside I have the fixed assumption that America is eternal.
Oddly, they often do too – but they don’t think it’s necessarily true about their own nations.
-I’ve asked friends in Lithuania if in fact they really felt like second-class citizens in their own country. One friend said, “Well it’s not like you look in the mirror every day and say, “You look like a second-class citizen.” But yes, you always lived with the knowledge that you weren’t considered as good as a Russian.”
-In Poland I used to ask my students if they thought history was over. “Do you think that the Russians or the Germans will never come to try and take your land again?” In Poland, the answer was always, “We don’t know.” In Lithuania I asked some young people and heard, “Oh yes. They’ll be back. Two tanks and we’ll all be learning Russian again.” That’s why the Baltics were ecstatic at the prospect of getting into NATO and why George Bush was welcomed so warmly in Lithuania, even by Lithuanian libertarians. Because in Vilnius he stood up in public and said, “There will be no more Yaltas.” Me, I just hope he meant it.
-It’s interesting to see how Europeans who are scornful of America become alarmed when you tell them that, for the first time in well over a century there is serious talk about breaking the country up. “No, no that’s impossible!”
-Two years ago I was speaking to an African-American professor at a conference in Belarus, who was trying to make up his mind about reparations for slavery, I suggested that he talk to my wife (just because I’m a devil) since she (unlike he) actually knew intimately somebody who had been a slave. He looked profoundly uncomfortable and changed the subject.
We really are quite different from our European cousins, certainly more naive in many ways – and we ought to thank our lucky stars for our naivite. I don’t know how much longer we can afford it though.