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Thread: The Polish Culture From The Polish Perspective

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    Post The Polish Culture From The Polish Perspective

    One can see a country from the window of a coach or hotel, content with the information one gets from the tour guide. If one is happy to leave it at that then after some time one starts to resemble a walking encyclopedia - knowing only the facts, dates, numbers and individual images of a place. But one can only get an emotional feel for the place one is visiting, however, via direct contact with its people, because their customs, culture and traditions leave a mark in the memory of that special corner of the world.

    Meeting the inhabitants of different countries is a wonderful thing, provided however that one doesn't offend them with a badly chosen word or gesture. It is worth also mastering the art of correctly reading the behavior of one's hosts in order to avoid sometimes amusing, sometimes unfortunate misunderstandings. We present here a guide to Poland not from the perspective of historic monuments and national parks, but the customs and mentality of its people as the people see themselves. This guide is written by Polish people so that you understand how we think.

    Greetings - Poles like to greet each other. If pronouncing the word "czesc" (Hi!) is too difficult for the foreigner, one can use its English equivalent "Hello" and certainly be understood. When arriving at a meeting, Poles shake hands. When the company is larger it is fitting to shake hands with all those present. As a rule the first few minutes of any gathering are taken up with everyone greeting everyone else. This breaks the ice and makes life easier for the shyer amongst us. There is no need to be surprised when some people kiss on greeting. This indicates familiarity rather than love. But with moderation, a kissed greeting is in fact a delicate touch of cheeks.

    Words and Gestures - After greetings the talking starts. In any group there is bound to be someone who speaks English - the most popular foreign language in Poland. The rest will wholeheartedly take it upon themselves to teach the foreigner some Polish. Poles will almost certainly suggest you repeat the tongue twister: "W Szczebrzeszynie chrzaszcz brzmi w trzcinie" (say: Vuh Shchebsheshinyeh kshanshch bshmee fuh tchuchynyeh), which is difficult even for Poles to say properly. The foreigner can but try - and in so doing amuse all those assembled. After this the talk may continue in the form of unconjugated verbs and gestures.

    First Names, Surnames And... - Bruderszaft is something like a brotherly toast. In no circumstances is one allowed to decline it, as this could be taken as an offence. Relations between people who have taken part in this ceremony turn from official to personal. From then on first names can be used, in Polish "przejsc na ty" ('ty' being the informal 'you'). Bruderszaft is fulfilled in the following way: two people simultaneously raise a toast, after which they interlock arms and down their drinks. The last part is an exchange of kisses and a "Call me Marek," - "Call me John".

    If it does not come to such familiarities, it is necessary in further exchanges with a Pole to call him Pan (Mr) and her Pani (Ms). Dropping the Mr or Ms and using only such titles as Director, President, or professions (Waiter, Driver, Cashier) is taken as impolite behaviour. Even worse is to call someone only by their surname. Saying "Kowalski, pass me that teaspoon", you may expose yourself to the suspicion that you are treating Kowalski no better than a servant. "Panie Kowalski" (Mr Kowalski) is acceptable, though recently the habit of preceding a first name with Pan or Pani is becoming increasingly common. If you say "Pani Beato" (Ms Beata), "Panie Jacku" (Mr Jacek) you may be sure that no one will take offence.

    Remember Name Days - Moving to the informal "ty" makes life much easier, but it also brings with it certain obligations. The most important is to remember name days. This anniversary is important for Poles and in no other culture is it celebrated in such a special way. In order to avoid awkward situations, it is worthwhile checking the calendar and marking the appropriate date. Poles celebrate their name day at home, sometimes in restaurants, occasionally at work - but these days only after hours. If you meet the person whose name day it is, offer him or her our best wishes. Small presents are also welcome - flowers, a little toy, a book. Sticking to good wishes only is not a faux pas. The most important thing is not to forget this important date. If you don't see the person celebrating his or her name day ,a telephone call, text message or email will do. The recipient will definitely remember this gesture, which will make mutual relations that much warmer.

    Everything For The Ladies - The custom of kissing a woman's hand on meeting is slowly going out of fashion. It has not disappeared altogether though and one never knows who will decide to do it. In such a situation the woman who is the object of these attentions should remain calm, graciously offering her hand, palm facing downwards. It is possible that even during a few weeks in Poland one will not come across a single advocate of the hand kiss. For certain, however, no well brought up Polish man will walk through a door before a woman. This is a universally known form of showing respect for the fairer sex. Even the most radical supporters of equal rights should not protest. One should treat compliments similarly: "what a nice hair cut,". For the foreign woman Poland is a friendly place, where men willingly look after them, offering their seat on the tram, giving flowers, inviting them for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

    Family Above All Else - Public opinion poll results have for years consistently shown that of all the values a successful family life is the most important to Poles. Poland has one of the lowest divorce rates in Europe. This is certainly in part due to the significance of religion in Poles' lives, but not only. All Poles value the family more than money and professional status. Talking to Poles one may easily get the impression that Polish families are unusually large. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. One should note that in everyday language 'sister' and 'brother' can mean 'cousin', and 'aunties' and 'uncles' may be just family friends. The most popular family model is the 2 + 2, and according to precise statistics it is now nearer 2 + 1.5. Proportional to the fall in population is the growth in the number of other household dwellers ... four-legged ones. It is hard to find a home today without a dog, cat, turtle, rabbit, hamster, or at least white mice.

    Free Time - Walking the dog is one of Poles' most popular forms of spending free time. Poles also increasingly play sports. Recently in fashion are cycling, going to fitness centres, bowling and roller skating. Only watching television enjoys greater popularity - Poles watch an average of 4 hours a day. In recent years visiting shopping malls has grown as the most popular pastime. It is not however something to propose to foreigners as Polish hypermarkets do not differ in any ways from those found in the EU or the USA. It is better to choose the cinema.

    And anyway, going abroad is not about watching the same films as one can see at home. However, trips to the theatre and concerts are highly recommended. But take note - Poles attending such events treat them as special occasions and dress elegantly for them (as long as it isn't avant-garde theatre). So, not wanting to arouse too much curiosity, it may be better not to visit the Polish theatre in a T-shirt and worn jeans. This would of course be more than suitable for an outing to the countryside.

    There are fewer cars in Poland than in the West, though enough of them to create traffic jams in all the larger cities. Planning a trip into the heart of nature, it is necessary to be patient. Especially so as the main routes are also becoming increasingly crowded. Almost every lorry which crosses Europe, from East to West and back, passes through Poland. It is necessary therefore to get used to the large number of lorries on the not so wide roads. For one's own safety it is better not to race them and to expect average speeds lower than on roads in the EU while planning one's itinerary.

    Aside from that, breaking the speed limit threatens the driver with a roadside encounter with the numerous highway patrol police. Fines are heavy and can significantly raise the cost of visiting Poland. Intercity and Eurocity trains link all the main towns and cities in Poland. It is therefore worth weighing up if buying a train ticket and getting to your destination in half the time doesn't make more sense than a 4-5 hour car journey. This is especially so at the weekend, when journeys out of and especially the return to the city, may take a really long time due to the heavy traffic. If they do drag out so long that one gets hungry, however, one can stop off at one of the numerous roadside restaurants. Though nothing beats a Polish meal at home.

    Dieting - Most Poles cook dinner at home. Believing that no restaurant can equal home cooking. Statistics show that Polish women are constantly on diets, so before serving the food they will willingly discuss them. It is important to politely listen, agree and then calmly wait for their home-made specialities. Slimming in the Polish case does not mean in fact cutting back on meals. Breakfasts are very solid, dinner - usually eaten after returning from work -even more so; only supper is a little more modest. That is under the condition that no guests have been invited. Then the principle of "what's ours is yours" applies.

    The Groaning Table - If in France one cannot count all the types of cheese, in Poland the same applies to sausages and cold cuts . Recently, among meat-eating Poles, the barbecue has become highly fashionable. Meat is grilled more or less everywhere - at the country home, in the garden, on the front lawn, and, so it happens, even on the balcony. Special occasions, such as the visit of a foreign guest, however, demand the preparation of more complicated and rarer dishes. To stay in Poland and not try bigos made of cabbage is like being in Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. Bigos was once a special hunters' dish, served at the end of a long day. Today it is available to all.

    Traditionalists who do not eat anything except the specialities of their own cuisine can visit Poland without fear. It is easy to find restaurants serving Japanese sushi, Mexican tacos, American steaks or Greek salads. The one exception is sea food, of which most Poles are not overly fond. On a visit to the mountains one simply must try oscypek - sheep-milk cheese. It is not found in any other place in the world and is in the shape of a roll with pointed ends. Because the mountain people themselves make it, apart from its quality, care is also taken with its aesthetics - they are imprinted with attractive designs. Oscypek is not only a delicacy, but also a wonderful souvenir of one's trip to Poland.

    To The Guests' Health - Beer is enjoying greater popularity these days than vodka. One can today forget the fear many foreigners often had that they would be obliged to drink straight vodka. At parties wine and cocktails reign. When visiting acquaintances one can safely ask for some juice or cola to dilute one's vodka. No-one will bat an eye. As is the case with politely declining alcohol altogether. It is worthwhile to prepare for toasts. The first toast is usually raised by the host "to the guests' health." It is easy to guess that the guests will reciprocate by drinking to the health of the hosts. Afterwards you can let your imagine run wild and raise a toast to anything your heart desires - to the next meeting, to a successful return journey home and above all to the health of the beautiful women.

    Poles' national drinks are however not alcoholic, but ... coffee and tea. Guests are ambushed with the question which they would prefer more or less immediately after stepping onto someone's home. Apart from drip-machine coffee, many traditionalists maintain the custom of drinking so-called "Turkish" coffee, that is coffee grounds with boiling water poured on. Tea is served with sugar and lemon, very often in a glass. A request for milk with your tea may be met with puzzlement.

    Guest in the Home, God in the Home - When sitting down to the dinner table it is always a good idea to congratulate the host on the wonderful reception. Poles are convinced that they are an exceptionally hospitable nation and like to be confirmed of this. And not without reason. In the past their forefathers often said: 'A guest in the home, God in the home', which meant that a guest had to be offered all the best things available. When the best was lacking they would escape to the following expression: "Go into debt, but do it in style." In fact it sometimes happened that outlays on parties were financed by loans which then took years to repay. The desire to please guests has remained to this day. Now, it is slightly different. However even at a modestly laid table the intense discussions go on as they did as in ages gone by.

    Polish Discussions - Anyone not wanting to risk an argument should not start a discussion about politics. Once history and "life itself" made this unavoidable. It is necessary to remember that for the period of the 19th and 20th centuries Poland was independent for only 32 years (1918-39 and since 1989). So the subject matter arise of their own accord - recounting the unhappiness of today and reminiscing about the good old days. Of course the next step has always been a search for those responsible for the fact that the sunlit past has turned into the grey present.

    Everyone has his or her own answer to this - it sufficient that for "two Poles to have a discussion for three political parties to be formed", meaning that every Pole has his own opinion. This mentality shaped over generations has such deep roots that it is hard to break away from it today even when the country is protected under NATO's security umbrella and preparing to enter the EU. The foreigner who blunders into a Polish discussion about politics should weigh his words carefully. Poles know their faults perfectly well, but still don't like to be reminded of them by foreigners [outsiders]. Seeing that the atmosphere is heating it may be best to change the subject and ask, for instance, how Poles manage to live at a European level when the conditions in their country are so difficult. The same answer will always be heard: Poles will get by somehow.

    The Great Improvisation - It is no coincidence that one of the greatest works of Poland's national bard Adam Mickiewicz is titled 'The Great Improvisation'. Poles have always managed better in exceptional circumstances, when it was necessary to mobilise their efforts, than in normal situations. In the face of external threats they managed, for example, to pass the first written constitution in Europe and the second in the world (after the US), though did not manage to defend it.

    They improvised during the uprisings, wars and at the 'Round Table' which began the process of rebuilding democracy. They find it harder building that which demands long-term, arduous effort. The ability to cope in any situation is very useful for their foreign guests and business partners. If a Poles really wants something, nothing is impossible. The problem is, as the famous Polish poet Stanislaw Wyspianski wrote, for the Pole to "want to want".

    Work And Pay - The combination of Polish ability to improvise and Western management methods has brought some interesting results. Ambitious young people, hungry for success have turned into effective managers. They work very intensively, without a glance at the maximum work hours stipulated by the Labour Code. Aims and outcomes are all that matter, not bureaucratic rules. Blue-collar and office workers likewise respect their work, performing it carefully, so as not to lose it. In the ranking of Poles' fears, unemployment has moved up to first place. Asking about people's income makes little sense most everyone will quote their bare income (not including any side jobs or perks) and will start complaining by comparing its value to that of inhabitants of the EU.

    Polish resourcefulness and enterprising spirit find their broadest expression in trade. One will find bazaars in the least expected places - at a sports stadium (in Warsaw at exactly such a venue the largest outdoor market in Europe was created), on downtown squares and in the countryside. Merchants come from all over the world, from Peru to Korea. The majority of products, especially in supermarkets, have multi-lingual labels, which means that shopping shouldn't pose any problems for the foreigner. As is the case also with paying for it - one can change money in the numerous exchange bureaus and banks, every large retail outlet accepts credit cards and there is no shortage of ATMs.
    Last edited by bocian; Saturday, April 10th, 2004 at 02:10 PM.

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