From the personal archives of a Russianist, installment fifteen

Canterbury Tales, à la polonaise

Tuesday, 31 October 1978 – train from Lodz to Warsaw

 I catch the 11.30 train back to Warsaw – share the coupe with most interesting company : 1. reddish haired officer in his mid-40s returning home after a two week trip, Party member, open, smiling face, 2. a tight lipped, efficient red-haired lady obviously from some Warsaw Foreign Trade Organization, with strangely familiar face, also a Party stalwart,3. a Jewish looking intellectual, with dark hair, trimmed beard, horn-rimmed eyeglasses.  

A real set-to on political and cultural issues, but all done in polite, courtly way, with ‘panstwo’ ‘a co mysli pan’ etc. sprinkled throughout. 4. Also a perspiring, overdressed portly woman of mid-50s, with henna dyed hair, a simpleton who is silent during the discussion.

They have an inkling that I understand what they are saying – eye contact especially with the officer after he has made some smart reply, suggests he is looking to me for appreciation of his cleverness. They see my Monde and Herald Tribune. In halting English the lady asks for the Trib, then happily goes through it. Officer also knows some English for she remarks on an article about the crash of a Soviet TU149. She looks into article on Ho Chi Minh City.

The discussion – starts with complaints of poor train service, till the intellectual comes in. Then the new starting topic is national types, whether one can speak of a Polish stereotype, whether Poles are more standardized as personalities than Italian, French or others. Talk about so-called ‘Romantic nature’ of Poles in Western thought. The model of Czartoryski which figures in French thinking even today. The intellectual insists that till the 20th century nationalism was property of very small minority – urban and noble elite, that peasant masses were indifferent to nationalism – see the suppression of 1848 in Galicia, where petty nobles fought alone. The question of where the war-like features of Israelis, their present status comes from. Intellectual asserts: they’ve got the power. Intellectual raises the issue of envy: says it’s poisonous ways explain lack of initiative in the factories: ‘the fellow who does better than his peers wins no reward, but instead general scorn for trying to show them up. Each tries to do no better than those around him. We have to learn how to work. I say what I see around me.’ The officer for his part makes the claim that Poland is truly revolutionized, unlike the bourgeois societies of the West. The train groans along, stopping every couple of kilometers for the first two-thirds of the trip. Finally we pull into Warsaw late. I run and catch a cab over to the US Trade Development Office, where I come 10 minutes late for an appointed meeting.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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