One of my readers – pen name Aleksandra Kosmopolska – posed me some excellent questions in an interview.
Here is a link to the interview in Polish on the website “Na Temat”. Check it out, Polish speakers!
And below is the English version.
Special thanks to Ola for conducting and publishing the interview.
Antennae Finely Tuned to Poland
– Interview with Jonathan Lipman, Author of
While remembering the past 25 years since the fall of communism, this book
seems to be the perfect glance at Polish culture and society in the late 90’s.
Jonathan Lipman, English lawyer, whose fate – and love – led him to Poland in
1997, wrote “Polish Dotty” on the basis of his own observations and authentic
adventures, often experienced with traditional English stoicism as well as
humorous – sometimes even ironic mood. The work was first published as an
e-book (electronic book) in 2011, and then in paperback in 2012 (in each
case in English). But in spite of the time and constant change in society and
culture, it seems that it hasn’t lost its actuality and – especially today – can be
seen as a manifestation of those changes that have taken place in Poland
during the last 25 years. After reading this book, I found it interesting to ask
the author about his views of Poland today…
Aleksandra Kosmopolska: How close is your contact with Poland now?
Jonathan Lipman: Evidently, living in UK, my contact with Poland is more
remote than when I lived there and wrote „Polska Dotty“ – but as a family we
try to visit the country every year or two. This summer, for example, we’ll take
our main holiday in Poland, spending a week in the Tatras followed by a week
in Krakow. We’ll take in a family wedding at the same time, something those
who’ve read my book know I’m familiar with! (Chapter 1…). But I do try to
keep up with developments in Poland from a distance – something it’s easy to
do with the internet. For example, I’m a big fan of the website Polskie Radio
Dla Zagranicy, and others like Krakow Post and Inside Poland. Their articles
often trigger my own thoughts, resulting in blogs on my website (http://
polskadotty.wordpress.com/). I also experience Polish language and culture
a lot day by day. For example, around the house, my wife Marzena often
speaks Polish to our kids so they become familiar with it. Add to that the
Polish cooking we often eat, Polish music playing in the background etc, and
you’ll find it no surprise we often refer to our household as “Malopolska/Little
Poland”. So, all in all, I consider my contact with Poland/Polish culture
AK: In your book „Polska Dotty“ you described few Polish
phenomenons you observed in the late 90-ties, such as: corruption in
the police, lack of motorways, bad knowledge of English, etc. Which of
those do you consider still needing change/reform?
JL: Ha! Good question. Well, here my physical distance from Poland
probably does hamper me in my response. I understand many aspects of life
have improved greatly, perhaps with EU funding, such as the scale of the
motorway network. But others, I’m pretty sure, haven’t. So, picking up on
one specific example you give, I still read plenty about corruption in Poland,
and know Poland remains stubbornly low in Transparency International’s
corruption index (low meaning more corrupt). There also seems to remain an
unpleasant streak of intolerance in Polish society, such as homophobia. I’m
certainly not saying this is unique to Poland, and across the border the
reaction of some Russians to this sort of thing – for example, the recent
victory of Conchita in Eurovision – seems much more extreme. But I do
detect that social attitudes in Poland have… room for improvement – at least
from my perspective. But to be a bit more positive, when I visit Poland
nowadays, the infrastructure is greatly improved – new railway stations,
airports, roads – and also I detect more effort being made in customer service,
which you may remember was one of my big bugbears from the Polska Dotty
era. Good customer service is still not universal, but I guess many Poles now
understand the value of a quick smile in a competitive world, and a world of
opportunity in which so many foreigners now visit the country.
AK: Do you still think that „relaxation and profitability“ are the prime
motivators for Poles in making business and would you still define the
Polish success as „extremity in extremes“?
JL: I don’t do business in Poland nowadays, so that’s difficult to answer – but
my gut feeling is that Polish business has “professionalised” over the years.
What I described in Polska Dotty – a tension between the old Communist
mentality and capitalism – must have faded, because anyone who doesn’t
adapt won’t survive. I imagine some do still yearn for the certainties of the
past, maybe particularly in the older generation. But there are also a whole
heap of Poles out there with bags of entrepreneurial spirit. Actually, you see
them in large number here in UK: setting up Delikatesy shops, hairdressers,
building companies and the like. They work incredibly hard, usually 6 days a
week. So, less of the relaxation, more of the profit. And I’m sure there must
still be plenty back in Poland doing the same! As for “extremity in extremes”,
I do feel there’s a part of the Polish character that exhibits this quality – I’d call
it an attribute – so I haven’t changed my view on that. It seems to be
historically based, to do with Poland’s troubled past: invasion, partition etc.
Your blog readers will need to read my book to find out more!
AK: I noticed you have recently expressed yourself on your blog about
the issue of the restitution of the Jewish property in Poland. As a lawyer
and a Jew, what are your views in that matter? What are your
suggestions as to solving this never-ending pending issue?
JL: The thorny issue of Polish-Jewish relations, and in particular restitution of
property. I am a lawyer, and Jewish, and married to a Pole, and have spent
time living in Poland – so would appear well qualified to comment on this.
However, as a lawyer, I also know there must be a lot I don’t know about the
Polish legal system. All I’d say, as I do in the blog to which you refer, is that
very late justice is no justice, and nor is it justice to make the procedure for
the recovery of property extremely cumbersome. If that’s the case, as the UK
Parliament recently has claimed, as have Poles themselves, then Poland
ought to reform its property restitution laws. To answer your question – albeit
at a headline level – Poland should make it quicker and simpler to recover
property (accepting the cases themselves will inevitably be complex). Also,
the Polish authorities appear to consider they have done much to restore
property. If this is really the case, maybe they should pro-actively say so, and
encourage potential claimants to step forward.
AK: But there have been also many negative opinions about Poles in
the UK media. Do you think that this is now being replaced by the
JL: Personally, I think negative opinions about Poles and other immigrants
are being whipped up by, especially, the UK Independence Party (UKIP). It’s
part of a growing anti-EU movement across the Community. I’m not saying
the EU is perfect – far from it – or that all Poles in UK behave impeccably. But I
do consider the vast majority have fitted in extraordinarily well. And now, I’ve
noticed, we begin to see opinions in the media supporting this view, a
backlash against the intolerance (and sometimes downright racism) of the
likes of UKIP. One such article appeared recently in the national press,
praising the Poles for invigorating certain areas of Southampton (where many
Poles have settled).
AK: Based on your own observations and experience, what are the main
keywords coming into mind once hearing the word “Poland” in the UK?
JL: Ha! Particularly interesting for me as I used to ask myself this question
many years ago, when I first met my future Polish wife, way before Poland
joined the EU. Then, I suspect the key words were “snow”, “Walesa”, “the
Polish Pope”, and, maybe, “Chopin” (or was he French, some of us would
have asked?). Now, I suspect, the reaction would be more “Polish workers”,
“Polski sklep”, and the famous “Polish plumber”. This may not sound
flattering, but for me, it’s a major step: whilst both sets of keywords are
stereotypical, the latter reveal how Brits now encounter Poles and Polish
culture first-hand, and in everyday life. I can’t tell you how many friends and
colleagues of mine now know at least a little bit about Poland, be it Polish
cheesecake, or Zakopane, or donuts, or Krakow – whatever.
AK: Just few days ago, I have learnt that there is a campaign “Polska.
Spring into.” launched in the UK with the aim of promoting Poland as a
What do you think about this form of marketing? As a Brit, how do you receive
JL: That’s an easy one for me to answer. I’m all in favour of marketing that
promotes Poland. One of my gripes in Polska Dotty is that Poles/Poland have
so much to offer, but don’t promote themselves. I’ve often tried to work out
the reason why, and tended to come up with simplistic answers, like having
been under the Communist yoke for so long. Whatever the reason, I’m very
pleased to see this initiative, having witnessed so little in the past. As you
can imagine, I’m sensitised to this sort of campaign, but can’t recall much in
the last years other than a terrific TV ad around the time of the Euros 2012 –
caught it once! – and something about Polish poetry on the underground. It’s
hardly a tsunami of self-promotion! I hope this will mark the start of a beefed
up approach. As for how I receive the message – the answer is, very well.
Though my reaction may be more positive than many, I suspect most Brits
will be intrigued to know more about the background of their Polish
acquaintances. In any case, Poland shouldn’t be afraid to promote itself and
share its culture – one in the eye to an increasingly vociferous band of Little
Englanders. Just not sure about the title… (“Poland. Spring Into“.)
AK: Do you have any plans for a “Polska Dotty 2“?
JL: Yes, as it happens! As hinted in my answer to question 3 above, I find
the “story so far” of how Poles have fared in UK during the last 10 years,
since barriers to their entry were removed, a fascinating one. It’s essentially
a success story: Poles are seen as hard-working, honest, polite and quick to
assimilate. Picking up on your first question about my contact with Poland
proper – it’d make much more sense for me to reflect on Polish life in UK, as I
experience this first-hand every day. Indeed, for many Brits now, it’s virtually
impossible not to hear Polish voices and deal with Poles every day – in
restaurants, shops, banks, doctors’ surgeries – you name it! (though I suspect
my antennae are more finely tuned to Polish voices than those of most Brits).
I’m really enthusiastic about such a writing project: the only problem is getting
around to it! Watch this space…