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Fear and Trembling

March 19th, 2011

Having read Amelie Nothomb’s autobiographic novel entitled “Fear and Trembling” (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter), I reached for the film under the same title. It is directed by Alain Corneau and features Sylvie Tastud as the main character – Amelie, the writer herself.

Though the story takes place in Tokio, it does not leave the perimeters of interiors of a Japanese corporation, where Amelie is hired as a Japanese-French interpreter on a one year’s contract. Her dream job soon turns into nightmare as a sequence of events and cultural misunderstandings put her in conflict with her superiors, particularly, the beautiful but distant, Mori Fubuki, and result in her degradation within the company structure.

I greatly recommend both the book and the film to all linguists, anyone interested in Japanese culture and the East/West divide.

This is now long overdue, back in May I promised a sequel to my earlier post What Poles Could Learn from the Brits, and here it comes – the chance to retaliate and pick on the Brits, or “Angole” – as we call them in Polish slang.

Fiat 126p - Polish 'Maluch'

Going through my list of points to mention in relation to this, I can’t help but think that they all seem to revolve around the ‘fun’ department. Now, Poles may be a melancholic and disgruntled folk on an every day basis, but we sure know how to have fun when it comes to it. For example, parties held at home are so much better than pub get-togethers. Yes, you do have to make some effort preparing them and with cleaning up, but the atmosphere is also so much better. And no one worries about catching the last bus at 11pm – that’s when the party really gets going. At 3am, any sofa or armchair is as good as your own bed, so why not stay for breakfast as well…

Polish parties can also be completely spontaneous. You drop in at your friends after work for a quick chat, and before you notice the table magically fills with some nice nibbles and snacks (Poles are good at making party food out of nothing), a chilled bottle of vodka and you find yourself talking until the early hours about life, the universe and the meaning of friendship.

Not far off partying, is dancing. Brits could definitely learn from Poles how to dance. It is one of the most important social skills for every man (particularly for men, as it comes more naturally to women) to learn a few basic dance steps. Guys who can dance (as in, lead their dance partner) are really in high demand amongst women and so they would only be doing themselves a favour by changing their reticent British attitude. It is somehow embarrassing in Britain for men to dance, but excellence in swinging with your beer glass just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Talking of beer, I am a great fan of the British ale, even though it does take some getting used to. But when it comes to lager beer (Polish equivalent of ‘piwo jasne‘) the Brits have just no clue. Carling? Fosters? That’s perhaps good for rinsing your teeth, but surely not for enjoyment as an ‘alcoholic’ drink? Why take a bland beer from Australia (brewed under license in the UK) as one of your staple pub drinks, when you could be importing the best from the masters of brewing on the ‘continent’? Germany, the Czech Republic or Poland would be far better suppliers of good quality lager. The trouble with the Brits is that drinking beer in this country is not about enjoyment, refreshment on a hot sunny day or the quality of taste – it is about the number of pints you can manage per hour. No offence to my British friends, there are of course exceptions.

Another observation that springs to mind, is the question of elegance. Poles tend to be more elegant than Brits in general, but also dress up for many special occasions to mark their importance. Christmases, Easters, birthdays and baptisms all warrant putting on a special dress in a woman’s case, or wearing a suit and a tie in a man’s case. In Britain, the only occasion where I have seen people make a real effort to dress up are weddings. Don’t you all British girls and women just die waiting to show off your evening dresses a bit more often? Is a Christmas family dinner nothing more than yet another meal so ‘I might as well wear the same T-shirt that I had on when washing my car this morning’? Brits should definitely learn how to make special occasions special.

OK, I think I am done with my tirade. Got it off my chest and I feel much better now. I hope none of my British family members and friends take any of what I have said above personally. I love you as you are and you have welcomed me in your country, but as an expat I do miss Polishness and want to celebrate what is good about it. Just like you would miss you baked beans for breakfast in Poland.

I have now lived in the UK for over four years and had a chance to observe the ways of the British. With a large Polish population living and working in Britain since Poland’s joining the EU in May 2004, there are some things which I think Poles could learn from these close encounters of the third kind and vice versa. But let’s start with my own folk.


1. First and foremost, Poles should take some driving lessons from the British!

Before coming to the UK, I have never encountered such politeness in drivers – giving way to each other regardless of the traffic regulations – just because they are not in a rush or just feeling generous. An appreciative wave from behind the wheel is something I have never seen in Poland and something one witnesses here all the time.

Is it the high car congestion and narrow British roads that have made politeness so necessary? If you have driven in Devon on some country roads with passing bays every few miles or if you have ever tried finding a parking space in Brighton or central London then you know what I am talking about. Good driving is not a luxury – it is a survival skill!

2. Tolerance and multiculturalism

Britain is the most multicultural society I have ever experienced. Its capacity to accommodate people from other cultures seems to be endless. As an outsider coming to the UK, my experiences have only been positive – as an employee, as a student, as an independent professional or as a new family member. The fact I am foreign never seems to make any difference in my everyday interactions with the British people, and if so then only to my advantage. The Polish society would benefit immensely if it could learn from the Brits how to be more tolerant and open-minded to the different and the new.

3. Number three on my list – bureaucracy.

Registering as self-employed in England took one phone call. It is not as easy in Poland from what I hear from my friends and according to this very interesting report Doing Business 2009 by the World Bank Poland ranks 176th in the world for ease of doing business compared to the 6th position held by the United Kingdom. Now, that is a big gap! Come on Poland, do something about it.

4. Finally, and I am just about to say something completely sacrilegious, Poles could take from the Brits a few cooking tips as well.

OK, I am not questioning the superiority of Polish cuisine and cooking techniques, but merely remarking on the fact that the British seem to be consuming more vegetables and a wider variety too: sweet potato (batat), celery (seler naciowy), swede (brukiew), turnip (rzepa), courgette (cukinia), aubergine (oberżyna) and asparagus (szparagi) are regulars on the British table. Why not add them to the Polish menu also?

And talking of food, I would love to see a few more curry houses opening in Polish cities. If I were to move back to Poland, the one thing I would most certainly miss is a good curry!

This is all I can think of at the moment, although this list is by no means finished. If you have your own observations and ideas on the subject of What Poles Could Learn from the Brits – please put it down in the comments! I also rush to say that there will be a chance for retaliation when I write next on What Brits Could Learn from the Poles! And I am telling you, the list is getting long…