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Coffee is getting cold, blood is getting hot
IN FILIP RENĆE'S LATEST FILM, Roman pro zeny, there is a scene in which a no longer young woman, looking for a candidate for a husband, meets a real German (i.e. not from the former Eastern Germany). When matters start moving in the right direction, the German, after a Pole had spilt some coffee on him, states that he "does not like Poles". This is enough to end the relationship with the candidate for a long-sought-for husband. The film daughter of the woman (played by fantastic Zuzana Kanócz), indignant that you could "not like Poles", asks her new man the same "test question". Filip Renće, the director who previously discovered Anna Geslerova, the greatest star of the Czech cinema, included that scene with a pinch of Czech irony, but as an element of a universal test. You cannot be a good man (and, which follows, a good candidate for Zuzana Kanócz's man) if you do not like Poles. Could someone in Poland, maybe with the exception of readers of Mariusz Szczygieł's reportages, treat the attitude to the Czechs as the measure of a human being?
Indifference: Canadians - Papuans
"WHEN I SAW PHOTOS of the Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolánek, and Jarosław Kaczyński during a meeting in Warsaw, I realised that even if the two political leaders of both countries may meet from time to time, then an average Pole and an average Czech could not be more indifferent towards each other", wrote Mark Baker in The Prague Post, a Czech English language newspaper, in March. In the opinion of that American journalist, well acquainted both with Poland (he is an author of books and guides about Poland) and with the Czech Republic (currently and expat in Prague), "Poles and Czechs, despite their long joint history and 40 years of management from Moscow, and 3 of words with the same or related roots, behave as inhabitants of Canada towards Papua New Guinea". Their mutual relationship may be described as "studied indifference". It is worth checking out what lies in such cold poles.
Chasm: potatoes - dumplings
BEEF GOULASH WITH DUMPLINGS is the basic Czech dish. For generations it has been shaping, together with the inevitable beer, both stomachs and minds of the Czech people. Some subtleties may be pointed out in that thesis, of course, by stating that dumplings (knedliky) may be: hu¶kowe, bramborowe or hlupane. But everyone knows that goulash tastes best with soft, porous bread and flour (hu¶kowe) dumplings and they are the most important ones. This is because the Czech Republic is the country of flour-based culinary culture - the civilisation of mills. On the other hand, a true Pole is potato-oriented. Potatoes are a dish which basically requires that those wishing to eat it dig it up. Even with their bare hands; not only is a mill not required, but neither is a sickle or a hammer. Growing potatoes does not require the participation of technical culture, and the consumption does not bear even traces of sophistication. Boiling a potato in a pot or baking it in a fire (currently replaced by the ever-present barbecue) is a task which is disproportionately simple when compared to the manufacture of a sophisticated dumpling.
It is difficult imagining an average Polish family meal without a breaded pork chop with potatoes. However, in comparison with the beef goulash and dumplings set, the preparation of such a dish requires much less mental effort and less technology. Not to mention the difference between a Polish pig, eaten in the form of a chop, beaten flat, which must only be shepherded to its trough, and the goulash ox, which must be grazed in open Czech meadows before it may be eaten. Thus, there is not only a culinary, but also a civilisation gap between potatoes and dumplings.
Bridge: pierogi - kluski
THE POTATO IS AN APHRODISIAC for the Poles. Its liquid form, vodka, enables us to work successive miracles thanks to which our Potato Republic continues to exist. Under the influence of post-war migration of people from the Eastern borderlands to the Regained Territories, the potato made some room for the influx of pierogi on the plate. It is worth noting that the floury pierogi, which arrived en masse after the war together with the Lvov inhabitants in cattle vans, basically led to Poles being perceived by Czechs more as "fellows". Both Lvov and Prague were an element of the same imperial and royal flour-based culinary culture. After the deportation of the inhabitants of Lvov to Wroclaw, i.e. in the contemporary Poland, the post-borderland pierogi became a bridge between potatoes and dumplings, enabling Poles and Czechs to understand each other better. "Kluska" originating in the old Silesian culture, which was composed of 3 of potatoes and 1 of flour, was an even more important joining element for both countries. Both the Silesian kluska (¶l±ska) and the accompanying roulade (rolada) (a combination of the Polish flattened chop and the rolled up Czech beef) are completely foreign to the contemporary Polish culture. The proof of this is that in Warsaw it is difficult finding even one restaurant where the kluski and rolada set is served. On the other hand, in Prague, such a meal may be eaten even in a bar in Żiżkov. The indigenous Silesians differ completely from the residents of Central Poland, and particularly Warsaw, in terms of their culture and characters. A certain detachment, focusing on local matters, lack of involvement in political matters, love of crafts, are all behind the Silesians being much closer culturally to Czechs than to Poles. You may say, adopting a certain simplification, that the Silesians are mentally Czech but they are under the dominance of Polishness, also due to kluski being made mainly of potatoes. The flour contained in significant quantities both in pierogi and in kluski keeps several million people residing in the territories between Wroclaw and Katowice in a state of limbo between both cultures. It is no accident that from the point of view of Warsaw the "studied indifferences" concern both a Czech and a Silesian or a Wroclaw resident. Most of the Wroclaw inhabitants and Silesians treat Warsaw as a distant and unfriendly place. Just like Czechs do.
Edge of civilisation: beer - vodka
UNDOUBTEDLY, THE FOUNDATIONS of Western civilisation were created in the area of the Mediterranean wine civilisation. Wine, requiring complicated processing, is a noble beverage, made under the weight of a thousand-year culture. As we move away from that pole of civilisation, both the nature of alcohol consumed and the elements of the Mediterranean culture degenerate. Czechs, who were somewhat on the border of cultures, exchanged wine for hops-based beer, however brewed in accordance with centuries of tradition in local breweries. In terms of sophistication, beer ranks lower than wine, but it is balanced by the more complicated production technology. Both beverages require a certain consumption ceremony, rooted in tradition. A jug of wine and a mug of beer are certainly not just booze but more of a cultural and social element, consolidating traditional values.
The problem starts, however, when we cross the northern border of the Czech Republic. Here, besides several sunny valleys of the Kłodzko Basin where tart grapes are grown, we find ourselves in a different civilisation. This is because the beverage manufactured from potatoes is not just an effect of evolution of certain production procedures or the cooling of the climate, but the entering of a different civilisation area. The production of vodka is not sophisticated or rooted in centuries of tradition. In the 1980s my grandfather manufactured moonshine in his garden shed on the basis of a Żuk van brake cable twisted into a spiral. "Remember, my child, the date of the Battle of Grunwald (1410). This is nothing else but one kilogram of sugar, 4 litres of water and 10 decagrams of yeast", my grandpa explained the practical application of the victory over the Teutonic Knights. This uncomplicated "traditional" recipe enables a Pole in an emergency (it was during martial law) to turn "nothing", after heating it up and cooling it down, into vodka - slowly dripping into a jar. Such emergency ability proves the deep rooting of that beverage in the culture. However, besides the dark period in the early 1980s, the true Polish vodka has always been manufactured on the basis of potatoes. In the advertisements for Polish vodka which sells best in the USA you can see a peasant with a pitchfork, spreading manure in the field in which potatoes grow. "Traditional Polish Vodka" - claims the Belvedere vodka advertising slogan. You do not need much more than manure and potatoes to manufacture that beverage.
To sum up this fragment of deliberations over the differences in both nations, the "studied indifference"comes from the huge civilisation gap which runs from Polish potatoes, through post-borderland pierogi and k.u.k. (imperial and royal) Silesian kluski, to completely floury Czech dumplings. The situation is similar in the case of the noble Mediterranean wine civilisation, positioned on the southern cultural pole, which is cooled down by the traditionally brewed Czech hops beer, and then, after crossing the mountain range, runs into the Eastern civilisation of vodka, first Polish potato-based, after which you can only get to the Siberian moonshine (samogon), stronger than vodka, called the "brainfucker"by the Russians.
Patriotism: blood - froth
THIS CULINARY FOUNDATION is only a background for showing deeper differences, reaching from the social to the political sphere. This is because the outlook on life and attitude to values become polarized in line with the culinary and alcohol evolution. The American journalist from Prague mentioned at the beginning, who has travelled in Poland a lot, as he wrote himself, "usually after several minutes of conversation with a newly met Pole" was asked the same question: "Do you know that the Czechs simply let the Nazis enter their country and take it over during the Second World War?". After Mark Baker returned to Prague, his Czech friends asked him: "Don't you know how crazy Poles are... They charge tanks on horseback. Their entire country was destroyed, and their capital demolished - but for what?", reports The Prague Post.
But for what? For a Pole this question is basically obscene, insulting and unmanly. Like many thirty somethings, I have been brought up in an anticommunist tradition, with respect for the Warsaw Uprising, but mostly in the atmosphere of vodka-reinforced romantic and patriotic raptures. The Czech culture had nothing equivalent to offer. The reflection over the maturity of the Czech conduct did not exist during the years of the People's Republic of Poland and does not exist today because it is not attractive emotionally. The Czech conservative attitude does not boil one's blood and does not turn the stomach over as the irrational outbursts of Poles do. For us this is the froth of petty bourgeois deliberations, and not the hot-bloodedness of spectacular actions.
I live in the Old Town in Warsaw, near the Little Insurrectionist's Monument. The Warsaw Uprising has returned as an important element of education. No one could count the crowds of Scouts paying tribute to the Uprising on its subsequent anniversaries. The atmosphere kindled politically by the current government is the intrinsic element of state ceremonies. However, the recognition of the heroism of insurgents and civil population of the capital does not go hand in hand with the reflection on the consequences of such a decision. The death of hundreds of thousands of people, the physical destruction of the city, opening the door to the communists to appropriate Warsaw and the most important social structure of the country, is not an element of the contemporary historical reconstruction. The rational critique of political egotisms of leaders, combined with the measured balance of profits and losses practically does not exist. There is no debate on this. The Polish people's patriotism is not the building of a modern country, retaining the achievements of previous generations or simply normal work, but unbridled insurgent passions. We are all observers of the thus shaped patriotism in the form of an absurd political fight taking place today in Poland and leading to the self-destruction of its participants. The potato aphrodisiac showed its narcotic power once again, leading patriotism to the intricacies of the country-destroying moral decay.
In contemporary Poland, there is no reply to the simple Czech question "for what?", because there is no question itself. In the political newspeak it has become common to blindly praise romantic deeds. For people brought up on romantic, rebellious literature, even taking up such a debate constitutes the evidence of cowardice. The mind cannot control the boiling blood. To a Czech, drinking frothy beer in the same Prague beer cellar in Vinohrady in which his grandfather used to sit (and which no one has demolished), our conduct must really seem as distant as Papua New Guinea.
Strings of the soul: Kaczmarski - Nohavica
"Comrade Stalin moved the arrows on the map with his pipe", sang Jacek Kaczmarski, the Polish bard, in the September Ballad, one of those songs which in the 1980s explained our historical fates to us. Jacek Kaczmarski sang about the fight for independence, evil Soviet Russia, the regime without taste, bitter Polish history and a deep feeling of historical injustice. The Polish romantic soul shaped his texts, new generations of romantic patriots keep learning his songs by heart. The Czech bard offered a different reflection on the human fate.
"The pipe is going out, coffee is getting cold, blood is getting hot," sings Jaromir Nohavica, whose texts are about water, about grass, about forests, about death you cannot accept, about betrayed love, and of course about people living on our planet.
So close, and yet so different. Kaczmarski and Nohavica, both touching the deepest corners of the soul, are at the same time the best reflection of what their fellow countrymen would like to hear. Kaczmarski's songs encouraged people to rebel but also gave hope. Nohavica provided a different type of reflection, seeing fighting as "madness which takes its toll, and I am not ready to die yet, neither as a hero nor as a coward". Can you imagine such words in a song sung by young Poles?
When visiting friends in Wroclaw, Opole or Krakow, I keep finding Nohavica's records more and more often. The success of Peter Zelenka's The Year of the Devil, with Nohavica playing the main part, among the Warsaw thirty somethings showed that also those who have imbibed Kaczmarski with their mother's milk are starting to become interested in the world of other values. It is worth mentioning that Kaczmarski himself changed a lot in his last years. I remember one of his last concerts in the Harenda pub in Warsaw. His songs were different, more human, less political. "Some accuse me that I used to sing about blood and now I sing about sperm," he said not without regret. There were more universal values and distanced reflection on the human fate in his poetry. The change which took place in Kaczmarski's poetry in the final phase of his work moved the author of Mury (The Walls) closer to the author of Kometa (The Comet). It did not change the "studied indifference" of Czechs and Poles, though. This is most apparent in the moral matters.
Morality: cat - mistress
My friends claim that the Blask tabloid has been brutally attacking the Czech Prime Minister who has just had another child... with his mistress. "This is his private life, none of the journalists' business", they say, indignant about Blask's ruthless attacks. In the photos printed in the tabloid the Czech Prime Minister is cuddling a baby, happy with its birth. I know cases in Polish politics where such a change in the private life would force the politician to give up his career. Not only in the case of the right-wing politicians. It would be difficult to explain to a Czech that in Poland such attacks would be a mild telling off. The highest moral extravagance reasonably tolerated by the politicians and the media is the Polish Prime Minister's cat. A Prime Minister with a child out of wedlock could not remain in office and most certainly would not pose for photographs while holding the illegitimate child. The Fakt daily would wipe him off the political scene. Czechs may only laugh at the Prime Minister's vicissitudes described by the nosey journalists of Blask.
Today's Prague is a morally open city, attracting free people from all over the world. In terms of culture it is much closer to the cosmopolitan Amsterdam than it is to Warsaw. Expats gathering in the Glob cafe in Pstrossova Street are mostly artists, filmmakers, globetrotters. The Czech lightness of being attracts. Barandov, the film town in Prague, is full of actors and producers from all over the world, who have found their kindred spirits and acceptance of their variety there. This influx of tens of thousands of Americans and residents of the free world has not changed Czechs themselves much. Just as Hrabal was interested in describing what was happening around him, for years the Czech cinema has been focused on showing what is fleeting, light, imperfect in the human being. Keeping the distance to one's role in life.
Both the hero of Closely Watched Trains, dying after a German train has been blown up, and Jan Dítě, the hero of I Served the King of England who, from a Czech, turned into a German, are the same people, only standing before different life circumstances, a different situation which forced them to act in this way. People are similar, good, only the circumstances are different, said the director, Jiří Menzel, during the meeting in which I recently participated. This is the most characteristic element of the Czech attitude, the acceptance of human imperfectness. The Czechs' heroes are people with all their imperfectness and lightness of being. For Poles, heroes are still bronze figures whose weaknesses are blotted out from the collective consciousness.
RAFAŁ KASPRÓW graduated from the Faculty of Political Sciences of Warsaw University and Executive MBA studies in the Warsaw School of Economics and the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM). In the 1990s, he worked as a Rzeczpospolita, Życie and TVP journalist. His press publications concerned mainly those areas where politics and economy meet. For his articles, he received among other things the Main Prize of the Polish Journalist Association and several distinctions. He lives in Warsaw.