British Studies Web Pages



Poles Abroad - A Handful of Bitter-Sweet Memories

In the past many Polish people took a 'Busman's Holiday', whereby they would visit another country and spend time working there as well as experiencing a new culture. In the article below Anna Tomczak reminisces about such visits abroad.

Before you read, consider the following questions:

  • What sort of work would you like to do on a 'Busman's Holiday'?
  • What type of conditions do you think Polish people met with working abroad twenty years ago?
  • How much has it changed now?

Poles abroad? They are everywhere. There are more Polish people living all over the world than in Poland. When I sometimes look at my 'studniówka' photograph I wonder what all these people are doing and where they are now. Almost one third of my class have emigrated. Canada, France, the States, Denmark, Sicily, Germany, Austria, the UK, Spain, even Australia. Looking for a better life. As there are Poles all over the globe, so there are also people who visit them. It's always been like that, up to a point.

Back in the seventies and eighties it wasn't easy to go abroad. If you wanted to visit the West, first you needed an invitation, then a visa. The latter objective usually meant spending a night in front of an embassy, holding your place in the queue. If the West for you was the UK, you could also expect some customary humiliating experiences while going through immigration. But if you were patient and learnt how to swallow your pride, you were allowed entry to the capitalist world.

Back in the seventies and eighties your British invitation was usually from somebody from Polonia emigration, those thousands of Poles who came to Britain with General Anders' army and stayed there. They would welcome you with genuine Polish hospitality, cook for you 'schabowy z kapustą' and ask never-ending questions about the mother country. They took you to the Polish Catholic church on Sunday and dragged you along to endless namedays and family occasions, most of which took place in Ealing, West London. People there would all have traditional Polish names, the names of your parents' or grandparents' generations: Kazio, Tadzio, pani Haneczka, Wanda, Irena, Danusia. They spoke English with a heavy accent. And when they spoke Polish, which they always did among friends and relatives, they sometimes interspersed it with English words, inflecting nouns according to Polish grammar rules. „Wstaw naczynia do sinku." „Muszę jechać do garażu, bo zepsuła mi się klacz", with English 'garage' and 'clutch' substituting Polish, now forgotten counterparts. They offered you accommodation and board never taking a penny even for long-distance telephone calls and equipped you with gifts and souvenirs before your journey back home. But they didn't understand political jokes, couldn't share your enthusiasm for the music of Krzysztof Komeda and hadn't heard of KOR. Their children, born on British soil, spoke perfect English and didn't even try to feign the slightest interest in their parents' mother country.

At POSK, or family meetings, you would meet students from Poland, like yourself, only temporarily in the UK. They had different names: Magda, Jacek, Piotrek, Jola, your generation's names. They shared with you information about jobs, the addresses where Polish underground (uncensored) publications were available for free, the dates of the coming jumble sales, advice on how to outwit public transport services and the latest gossip from the country. Some of their poignant experiences illustrate dozens of other similar cases.

Agnieszka worked as a waitress. Her weekly wages including tips exceeded her father's six-month salary. She desperately wanted to earn money for a flat. When there were strikes on the underground (in those times not a rare occasion) she walked to her work - from Chiswick to Knightsbridge and back. She economised on everything and didn't even once go to the cinema or a pub. In the last week of her stay she was robbed by a group of Poles who worked on a nearby building site.

Mariola had a boyfriend, a Polish man who had split up with his wife and wanted to turn over a new leaf. For half a year she shared his tiny rented flat (and his bed), cooking and cleaning and washing, going to open air markets for cheap fruit and vegetables. In the evenings she made some patchwork handbags for a private boutique earning very little. One day she found a note from him informing her that the landlady needed the flat on the coming Monday and he was going back to his ex-wife. Later she discovered that he had two sons in Poland and had never really broken up with his wife.

Marek did some repairs and worked in the gardens. He was unfortunate enough to have hurt his arm badly in his third week. He couldn't work any more and decided to go home. Just then he received a telephone call from his school friend asking him for some medicine for the friend's diabetic mother. It cost him over eighty per cent of what he'd managed to make. He sent the medicine via Grabowski's chemist's and never accepted the money back.

Poles abroad. Back in the old days you could easily recognise them. Not only by their clothes, shoes or luggage, such things can be quickly changed and after a fortnight in London and a couple of visits to Petticoat Lane Market any newcomer could easily lose their 'foreign' look. But there's some kind of 'Polish face' and 'Polish expression', difficult to pin down and yet unmistakable. It's not facial features I'm thinking about. It's always made me angry when I read in British novels phrases like 'Slavic cheekbones' or, 'He was a Pole with the hard keen face of his race'. I've always wondered what 'Slavic cheekbones' are and couldn't somehow make up my mind whether they meant high cheekbones or hollow cheeks. Neither made much sense to me. And yet I once made a bet with a friend. I bet her a fiver I could recognize Polish people by their looks. We stood in front of the Ealing Broadway station watching the crowd and if we suspected anybody of being Polish we would go over and address the person in the native tongue. I was right in the overwhelming majority of cases. The Polish look - something humble and defiant at the same time. Most people think these two adjectives are exact opposites. You can't be both. It's either or. I don't think so. At least back in the eighties the look still existed.

But it has all changed. If you went to Britain in the nineties, you would find a different picture. The new Poles who settled there after the martial law and political disturbances of the eighties are different. They are warm and hospitable but in another way. Instead of cooking for you they take you to fashionable restaurants. Sunday visits are not to church but to a popular music-hall or concert. They have good jobs, nice houses with gardens and go for holidays to Italy, Greece, Kenya or Thailand. They can easily understand political jokes, but politics is not an issue. They've got all the latest CDs from Poland, but they don't enjoy listening to them. Their Polish has a strong foreign accent and 'the Polish look' has completely disappeared from their faces.

In the nineties Polish students who visited Britain on a short-term basis still economised. They could live on sliced bread and baked beans for weeks on end. But they also frequented famous tourist sites and galleries. They enjoyed the pub atmosphere and went to rock concerts and night clubs. Shopping was done not at jumble sales but at Oxford Street chain stores. They were seen much more often at HMV or Virgin Records than second-hand bookshops. Gifts for families and friends, which they still carried home, would include computer games and CDs, not Zbigniew Herbert's poetry.

The longest I've ever been abroad was three months, and that included Christmas. Christmas not at home sounds like a cardinal sin. I felt it too. So when finally in mid-February I found myself on board a LOT plane I was so happy I wanted to sing. It was a flight home and all the air-hostesses had crumpled uniforms. I was delighted. They provided me with a Trybuna Ludu, the only paper available, and I was speechless with joy. On one of the back pages I found the information that the first storks had already been sighted so spring was coming. That insignificant five-verse news moved me to tears. Today I can't imagine anybody experiencing similar emotions in a similar situation. Today's Poles coming home from abroad wouldn't shed a single tear. And rightly so. It was stupid sentimentality.

Produced in Poland by British Council © 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.