For a child growing up in the 80’s, Poland seemed a strange place. Western propaganda had done its thing. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would one day visit. Or that I would ever actually want to. Poland seemed to me, to be a drab and dangerous place. Cold, hungry, with men with strange names (Lech Walesa was continually on the news).
A place where the Government made you do strange things on pommel horses, suspended rings and with ribbons; bending your body into all kinds of awkward shapes to perform for the Olympics. A place where no-one smiled. And all of this was before I read 1984 and Animal Farm, which just compounded my prejudice.
Eastern Europe seemed remote and unfriendly. A place to fear. A place that had its finger on the nuclear button with its warheads pointing straight for West Bromwich (my place of birth). The 4 minute warning was imminent. I’d read “When the Wind Blows” and watched “Threads”. And I’d eaten enough over cooked cabbage to know why Eastern Europeans always looked so miserable on our tvs. (As a child the vegetables for Christmas lunch were put on to cook when the turkey went in the oven). I joined CND and campaigned to ban the bomb. (I am still a member and unfortunately I am still campaigning).
So today is my first visit to Eastern Europe. And I can’t wait.
Ten years or so ago, I began teaching English to speakers of other languages. My very first students were a Polish couple who worked in a local factory and wanted to improve their conversation skills. I charged very little for the lessons as they were almost guinea pigs for my fledgling teaching business. I was also very nervous. Would we have anything in common? Did I have to avoid the word “communism” (As if it would come up in everyday conversation anyway!) Would they shout at me if they didn’t understand me? Would they make me perform triple backflips whilst explaining the past tense? Yes, I actually was that naive about Eastern Europeans.
Needless to say, I’d needn’t have feared. Theresa and Bolo were a wonderful couple of students. They were so kind. And very quickly we discovered that hey? Guess what? We laughed at the same things! We shared the same interests – our children, travel, food. We had the same worries in life. We are the same.
I’ve met many Polish people since Theresa and Bolo. And many Eastern Europeans. Most of them have been too young to remember Lech Walesa and the struggle for democracy, however some have expressed regret at the fall of Communism. All however, have been in the UK. Today, I travel to Poland to finally meet people in their own country. This time, I will be the tourist, the visitor, the one with the language barrier. And I finally get to find out if they eat anything else other than cabbage (I rather suspect they do…)