Letter From Poland
In Poland, the distance is between events, not things, and I move in flux between World War II, the Gdansk shipyard strikes, and the new-world-order capitalists hawking goods. Ideally, part of my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to learn what it means to be Polish. After having lived in Poland for a year and a half, I've learned to look through the problems here to find the values that sustain the hope of this country.
Perhaps because of the war experience and the struggles of the past forty years, Polish people seem to be sensitive to life's tenuousness and its singular beauty. As a result, they've developed the gift of communion, stretching a social gathering into an all-day, sometimes all-night, affair. With miracle-of-the-loaves hands, they transform a few slices of bread, cheese, and tomato into a feast.
Underlying the loud and eager conversation of family and friends is the same quiet sincerity and thankfulness that I have noticed surrounding the celebrations of the Eucharist in Polish churches. Fortunately, my work as a teacher trainer has brought me into the private realm of Poland where people help one another to overcome the inefficiencies, frustrations, and insecurities of everyday life.
In the district where I live, the unemployment rate has reached thirteen percent, which means a good number of the people I sit with on the bus are probably out of a job.
Now, whenever I get together with my Polish host family or with Polish friends, the talk turns towards enterprise. When I miss the leisurely conversations of a year and a half ago, I have to remind myself that their talk is a matter of strategy and survival, not manners. At least four new language schools have opened in Torun, offering immediate success and wealth if a person will only sign up for English courses. Although such a claim is exaggerated, it reflects the need people have to learn a language that will enable them to understand the "rules" the West lives by. Business booms at these private schools.
At any rate, I teach English with the general philosophy that people use language to shape reality, to create a world view, an understanding of the human condition. Metaphorically, until a person learns to use his or her own language effectively he or she lives in a "developing country."
In Poland such abstractions take on concrete form. Vaclav Havel testifies to this in a speech he gave called "Words," where he explains "in the part of the world I inhabit the word Solidarity was capable of shaking an entire bloc." Poland, however, is a "developing country," not only because that which connects a modern society-banking, communication, and distribution systems, for example-is often disconnected or defunct, but also because Poland is undergoing what Timothy Garton Ash, a specialist on Eastern Europe, calls a "reconstitution of civil society." All the way from glee clubs to the government, Poland is in the process of redefining itself in a painfully literal way.
In the opinion section of the Warsaw Voice, a senior assistant at the National Museum, Alfred Twardecki, claimed that "conceptual chaos reigns in Poland." In his view, Polish society needs the ordering power of clearly defined words: "defining what is meant by a democratic system, and starting a public discussion on the fundamental principles on which Poles want to construct." That, he wrote, is essential if Poland is to have a stable society and government.
While Poles reconstitute their society, it is my hope that my students can use their English language skills to keep traditional Polish values, the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual life of the people, from being "deconstructed" by the jargon and jingoism of consumerism. One of my students recently told me that she had studied English only as a means to emigrate because she could see no future for herself in Poland. But after a year of study at the Teacher Training College, she had determined to stay in Poland and make her living as an English teacher. She is the "advance guard" that will give form to Poland's national determination, and I am honored to have been a part of her training.
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