Poles Apart

       OR

PEOPLE IN POLAND – AND THEIR DOGS

 

 Over the last few years I have been afflicted with a kind of wanderlust. Its impossible to really plot the origin of this need – the desire to experience, the desire to find oneself accompanied by an equal desire to lose oneself. One can endlessly speculate and never really come to a conclusion, but for one reaon and probably many others I found myself living and teaching in Poland for just under a year. And wherever I may roam, to crib a line from Metallica, there my dog comes with me. And Poland is a big country for dogs.  

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The sign reads, “Beware- Dangerous Dog”. It seems strange to say it considering the opening image alongside, but how dogs are loved here. Dogs of every breed and shape abound here. They walk day and night with owners of all ages – whether they be family members out on a Sunday afternoon get together or giant doggies strolling by distracted texting teenagers with cut off hipster jeans and piercings who have been ordered to sullenly take their family Doberman for its obligatory post prandial perambulation, or singletons out late at night with their one, two or sometimes three beautifully cared for special breeds paid for by fifty or sometimes sixty hours working in some office somewhere in Jelenia Gora.

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But not only are they loved but doggies are allowed in many places. They turn up at your beauty clinic, on buses (you can buy a ticket for your dog on all public transports in Poland), in bars or restaurants, concerts. Dogs sit underneath their owners in expensive restaurants as waiters zip by with full trays and bottles of expensive wine. Stray dogs lounge by doorways and around shops, utterly at home, appearing relaxed but actually on defence mode, continuously scanning for threats . Turn up at a coffee shop with your two giant Husky dogs and the waiter will smile, indicate a free seat and provide your pooches with a complimentary bowl of water. I once went out for dinner in a bar restaurant with my rather small sheepdog, only to find her playing tag with the biggest Alsatian dog I have ever seen. The landlord and landlady of the bed and breakfast I am staying in have three tiny aggressive Shih Tzu dogs.

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Kara waits impatiently for me to finish taking silly pictures so we can continue with walkies

Then there are pet shops. Along with the ubiquitous chemist shop (Polish TV is filled with endless ads about cold and flu remedies and vitamins to keep you healthy) and local shop selling beer, wine and rivers of spirits (the vodka is astonishingly good), one finds the giant and not so giant pet shop nestled in local areas or in big shopping malls, selling every conceivable amenity for your canine best friend.

Which makes me wonder why so many dogs, beautiful dogs, big dogs and small dogs, are just so damn mean – Alsations, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Bulldogs, Collies, Huskies. They attack our dog – for no reason. Its very strange. They bark all day and all night. They wake one up barking and keep one from sleeping at night. (I now wear ear plugs) And its not just my dog that gets attacked, by the way. Dogs attack other dogs, and yes, it happens all the time. One’s dog can be barked at snarled at or just bitten at any moment. Walk down our road here in Cieplice (a suburb of Jelena Gora, south of Poland) and yes, dear friends, you are no longer taking you beloved pet out for a charming and relaxing stroll. You are in a demilitarized zone. You are running a canine gauntlet. One takes ones dog’s life in ones hands allowing another dog to greet your hound. A seemingly innocent wag of the tail in greeting and a sniff of the collar can turn nasty and your little four-legged darling could be attacked. I have seen more unprovoked attacks by dogs here than one could shake a shaggy paw at. Again its somewhat at odds with the picture I painted in the first paragraph. Dogs are loved and needed. But then there’s the problem of how conditional is your love and the fact that your neighbour’s dog is viewed as ‘the enemy’. Dogs are used also for protection – against Everybody Else. Those Shih Tzu doggies I mentioned are little raving lunatics who attack our little collie at the drop of a paw. Then I remember something I heard on the TV program The Dog Whisperer – You can tell a lot about the owners of a dog by the dogs behaviour.

Like their pooches, folks here are, well, unpredictable. They love their own, but like their pets, they attack each other. This is partly due, I  have been told to political divides, but also a throwback to communist times. On the streets no one greets anyone. Gazes are judgemental or avoided. The human atmosphere here is frustrated, angry, depressed, hopeless. The economy is not in a good place. People work two jobs, sometimes more and live on credit. Buses run on time and the drivers are dreadful (discourteous, rude, aggressive). Wages here are outrageously low. Most of the teachers in the excellent school I teach in, work several teaching jobs to get by, and we are well paid and have great working conditions. Right now (late 2016)  one euro will fetch you four Polish Zlotys, give or take.

And then there’s the question of the EU. Europe is almost like a bad word here. Poles who have gotten out to find better jobs have done so and many loath to return. Poland’s government is obsessed with recovering its “national pride” and seem to resent defining themselves in terms of a larger European Union. Actually it is almost as if Poland never joined the European Union. The euro is not a currency one can use here. Those who criticize Poland are deemed as dishonourable, national traitors. Those who leave Poland to improve their lot are also deemed to be traitors to the cause and resented after coming back. Poland has elected a conservative regressive government with deep ties to the Catholic Church, so conservative in its views it makes the Council of Trent seem like a hippie love in. Catholicism deeply dominates and pierces the cultural worldview here, whether or not one attends Mass or even believes.  The aforementioned Government is in the process of introducing regressive social policies that are in many ways, openly anti woman and pretty undemocratic. The EU have written to the Polish Government criticising their policies and pointing out their legislation are against EU norms.

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THE VIEW FOR MILES AND MILES

And then there’s the fear people feel and the pressure for conformity. People feel afraid, afraid of the future, afraid of each other, afraid of taking risks, afraid of new ideas, afraid of public shaming and embarrassment. People are also unfriendly to each other. Many of my Polish friends here, want more than anything else, to leave Poland. And I understand. You know you are not living in a democracy. If  peoples’ minds are controlled, it is very difficult for them to freely vote and express themselves. People fear judgement, the judgement of God, but mainly the judgement of each other. I asked some of my friends here what are people afraid of and I was told “People are afraid to really live”. They fear being watched and being judged. They dress conservatively and excessively neat and clean. One cannot be openly gay or openly different or openly open-minded. Like John Cooper Clarke in his poem Evidently Chickentown “The bloody view is bloody vile for bloody miles and bloody miles”.

I see a lot of addiction all around me. As I go to work every day I pass my pals, the local alcoholics, who wave and greet me as they’re having their liquid breakfast. The amount of alcohol in shops here is simply astonishing. Tiny bottles of vodka are littered everywhere. But its not simply the consumption of alcohol. Its what’s happening to the people that arrests me. People don’t see a future. They want to escape and they can’t. They have debts, debts incurred to simply get by as wages are so low. Cars drive at insane speeds, driven by angry and dangerous drivers. People ignore each other in queues on buses and walk in or rather through each other in shopping malls. At night the streets are deathly quiet except for the dread sounds of cars speeding past. I walk my dog late at night in the dead silence only to be passed by  nervous people staring angrily and sullenly ahead. Ghosts.

More than anything Poland wrestles with its past and constant oppression. You can’t mention the war. Actually WW2 is never mentioned. Taboo. The Camps. Stalin. Death in the forest. Solidarity. Actually a new law has been enacted recently forbidding Polish Historians from implicating Poles in Hitler’s death camps here in Poland on pain of a prison sentence. So there are many things that can’t be freely discussed. The media have been effectively shut down (all dissenting voices dismissed or demoted from effective positions of expression) and Polish television is, shall we say, a little tedious. The word taboo is used often. People are polite, friendly, and superficial -when they are not ignoring each other. I have often speculated and discussed with my Polish friends, that this inner mistrust that neighbour has for the neighbour emanates from communist times when one was obliged to report on others anti party activities, thus sowing the seeds of a fundamental mistrust between the people, a kind of divide and conquer technique.

So it all looks shiny and modern in the cities and outside the cities, but down deep it is not like that, not really. The forces of conservatism are busily putting ideology and obsession above the lives and well being of the people. Education, health care and jobs are all suffering. And the people are in trouble. The fact that this present government even got into power shows how troubled the people are here. They felt bitterly let down by the so called progressives so they elected the conservatives in. And, oh boy was that a disaster.

One party seems to embody a kind of openness and reason (aside from the Greens who nobody cares about) called Razem (Together). I hope they, or someone like them, gets in sometime soon. Poland, beautiful Poland, needs a change.

Acknowledgement:

  • With thanks to Ishka for her many editorial suggestions and corrections.
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THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH ( I Mean Really )

EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE HEARD OF ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON

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ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON  (1904-1978) was a Harvard Professor of Economics from the late 1940’s to the 1970’s. He was known particularly as a historian of economics and among other things postulated the ‘Backwardness Theory’. His paper Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (1962) was and is to the best of my knowledge, unsurpassed in its clarity of argument and groundbreaking perspective. The essay, which is grand tour of European History, Culture, and Economics (among other things), postulated that the more backward an economy the more it will pass through certain marked stages of development, in other words that there would be a heavy reliance of banks and state funding and that general consumption in such an economy would be restricted because of the necessity to invest in capital projects.

Gershenkron was a man of letters. His writings and essays were lauded as masterpieces of erudition and powerfully concise writing, and his lectures were simply legendary in terms of scope, breadth of learning and entertainment value. He actually rewrote them from scratch year ofter year as his knowledge increased and sheer memory for detail and statistics required revisiting the substance and essence of what he had been teaching (primarily economic history)

I started reading about Gershenkron, when I came across Nicholas Davidoff’s memoir of his Grandfather (who was Gershenkron)  – called THE FLY SWATTER which is beautifully written, and though a memoir of a beloved family member and someone who profoundly influenced him, does not stint to give a complete picture of  a complex and profoundly fascinating character.

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An emigre from the Russian Communist and the Nazi regimes, and truly world class intellect who, because of history was deprived of an early academic fulfillment, he found a home for himself in the US, strongly identified as an American, and with his family made a life for himself as a Harvard man.

Gershenkron, known as ‘Shura’ to his family, was a polyglot’s polyglot. He spoke 20 languages, read hundreds upon hundreds of books a year (he had for instance devoured Charles Dickens in five different languages)  and filled his days and for that matter nights with the pursuit of knowledge. His light was invariably on, and when he did sleep, he rose extremely early to resume his work. In THE FLY SWATTER, Davidoff talks about Shura’s attempts (p.193) with Erica his wife, to find about 100 different translations of Hamlets quatrain to Ophelia ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’.

Everything fascinated him. He was an intellectual butterfly, flitting from one subject to another as he devoured facts, figures, novels, poems, and articles. So wide ranging was his knowledge that he was offered chairs in three different departments at Harvard, something that probably caused a bit of a shock in the departments concerned despite the fact he turned the job offers down. This is because Gershenkron was a difficult person. He was an intimidating, overwhelming, exacting uncompromising personality. He was capable of using his abilities to dismantle an argument or a thesis from the root and leave his debating partner flattened, the ground taken from under them. And this he did – a lot. To put it mildly he did not suffer fools – at all.

For Shura (Gershenkron) the pursuit of academic and intellectual truth was the ultimate ideal and nothing came in the way of that. Those who were shoddy with their facts or bad with their statistics or did not work as hard as they should received from him a verbal spanking they would never forget.

But this pursuit was flawed. Shura was excessively competitive. He had to know more. He had to have read more than you, be more accurate, more dedicated. His work was peppered with obscure quotes in obscure languages because no one would have that range of knowledge at their fingertips. And he knew that.

The double experience of exile, from Russia, then Austria, and particularly the loss of his exceptionally brilliant little brother, had damaged him – perhaps more than he or others even realized. He became excessively defensive and insecure, a kind of prisoner of his own need for exactitude but his capacity for competitiveness actually inhibited his development. His books were collections of essays. This was  a form he preferred to a full length work for a few reasons. Shura feared death because of his bad heart – in fact he had been told by his doctor once he had only a year or two to live. Nevertheless its also true that lots of thinkers and writers have worked on large tomes despite death beckoning. Anthony Burgess wrote three novels the year after being told he had an inoperable brain tumor. Looking at the essay form it is easy to see it is more controllable. It has a definite end in sight and holds none of the pitfalls of a lengthy work’s capacities for bad avenues of argument and wrong conclusions and pedestrian styles of prose hidden inside lengthy chapters. This would be something unthinkable for Alex Gershenkron, the consummate defensive perfectionist.

Instead of the big books he produced brilliant essays replete with facts figures and obscure quotes and references sometimes in a dozen languages.

Gershenkron never produced the ‘great work’, the summation of his career. This big book was something friends, colleagues, and rivals were always looking for. He was one of those few minds well capable of producing groundbreaking ideas, a Marx, a Keynes, producing world shifting theses. But no one outside rarefied academic circles ever heard of him. Underneath that towering ego, that ruthless frankness, those cutting critiques, that devastating capacity for thought and recollection of facts, figures, and whole tomes, was an enormous intellectual timidity.

It is a truism that the more one knows the more one longs to really know. Or to put it another more conventional way, the more one knows the more one knows one does not know. In other words as knowledge accrues, there is an increasing consciousness of all the gaps in what one knows, all the suppositions that fill the holes where truth and certainty lies. Truth, if it can be defined, if it exists, is an infinity multiplied by an infinity. We are constantly operating on the edge of the unknown, trying with our little knowledge and our enormous capacity for error. all our knowledge is marked by a great horizon of finitude. Its marked by the edge of our lives and the fact that we will never really know everything, and we are going to die.

Gershenkron, through the many losses, disappointments and bereavements he suffered knew all too much about human finitude. This led him to a kind of writers block from which he never escaped. It was almost like the novelist who never finishes his or her novel. He was the thinker who never knew enough to start or even finish his great book.

A kind of humility is needed to really work at creating something new, whether in the field of economics or history or poetry or physics. Uncertainty and ignorance and groping in the twilight between ignorance and knowledge one tries to work and make something anew from what we know, and more to the point, what we know we don’t know.

The implication from this is a kind of negative judgement on what Gershenkron achieved in his life. Not at all. He was known as ‘The Great Gershenkron’ for a reason. Revered, feared, and honored, he was as I said, the polyglot’s polyglot. Everybody learned from him. And everybody should have known his name.