Lodz - the Polish Manchester

Book review – Classrooms and Barrooms: An American in Poland

Here we have it – Finding Poland’s first book review. Classrooms and barrooms: An American in Poland – By David J. Jackson.

During a semester-long Fulbright lectureship in Łódź, David taught political science courses in the Department of American Studies and Mass Media at the University of Łódź.

In Classrooms and Barrooms, David describes his mostly uplifting and hilarious experiences in the classrooms and barrooms of Poland.

As I lived in Łódź for 18 months, I’ll try to compare some of my observations and experiences with David’s.

 

FULBRIGHT IN POLAND

The aim of the US Fulbright Program is to improve intercultural relations between America and other countries through the exchange of knowledge, skills and personnel.

One of Classroom and Barroom’s draws is David’s willingness to embrace everything that Fulbright stands for. This “mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries of the world” was perhaps best witnessed in David’s lectures.

David had been warned by former Fulbrighters that Polish students are generally “undeferential to their professors”. Nevertheless, David’s ambitions to get students debating US-related affairs, such as the possibility of Barack Obama becoming US President and also the greatest ever US presidents, will only serve to skyrocket your admiration for this man by the time Chapter 11 is done and dusted with.

Some of the students did come out of their shell. To honour one of Julius Caesar’s most famous quotes, it does feel as if David “went; he saw; he lectured; he conquered.” 

 

David J.Jackson, American in Poland

American in Poland, author David J.Jackson

ŁÓDŹ – THE ‘POLISH MANCHESTER’

A former Fulbrighter once told David that Łódź is considered to be the “booby prize” of Poland.

The same Fulbrighter also stated that “Łódź is a city of colors: grey, grayish, dark grey, light grey . . .”

It turns out that Kraków was David’s first-choice destination, mostly due to the fabulous reputation of the city’s Jagiellonian University. When news came through that he had been assigned to Łódź for a year, David was only slightly disappointed as he had known it was coming.

Head held high, David was intent on seeing Łódź as a “unique” place where the experiences he could potentially amass in “concrete jungle” would perhaps nullify the effect of not being selected to live in a, well, less grey city.

Excuse my irony as I now move launch my genuine defence of the “Polish Manchester”.

I accepted a job offer to teach Business English in Łódź at the start of 2012. There were a few glitches at the start. Firstly, my bosses had rented a shoebox apartment for me, which I only stayed a night in. Then, I couldn’t sleep in my second apartment because of a noisy radiator. I escaped from that place too, but remembered to take the owners’ ironing board with me as a souvenir. My housemate there told me that Gertruda and Lech, or whatever the owners were called, were dithering over whether to call the police.

Things calmed down after the “grand theft” somewhat as I settled into a lovely flat in the centre which I’d go on to stay in for the next 15 months.

Back in 2006, an old girlfriend of mine once gave me a postcard, on which was written: “It doesn’t matter where you live, if you are happy.”

Her words began to ring true by about my third month in Łódź. Due to my students, favourable working conditions, the people I met, my physical and psychological development, and the stable routine I fostered, I can honestly say that I was happy in Łódź.

I didn’t encounter any of the “Polish Manchester” stereotypes in Łódź because I was too busy being “happy”. Even when I didn’t see the sun for three months during the winter of 2012-13, I didn’t complain. I just got on with things.

Overall, I began to see myself in David’s writing. You have to take places as they are. Even when witnessing grey city walls covered in graffiti with the occasional stars of David and swastikas, it’s better just to “learn to take Poland as it is”.

 

AN OPEN MIND AND A GOOD ALL-ROUND POSITIVE ATTITUDE

One of the main reasons that David’s book is eminently readable is because of his open-mindedness, sensible decision-making and good all-round positive attitude. 

Most of the Brits and Americans I met in Poland complained about the difficulty of the language, the cold weather and the lousy pay. 

I don’t do whingers any more, and David is certainly not one of those. Henceforth, I do believe that the real and impartial Poland jumps off the pages of Classrooms and Barrooms.

This American in Poland was handed a teaching schedule which included the fruitful idea of lecturing on Saturdays. I think that many western teachers would have flipped their lid at such a prospect. Calm and rational, David poses the question: “aren’t weekends just an artificial construct? I mean, if I had Monday and Tuesday off, that’s the same as a weekend, right?” In addition to his Fulbright salary, he was pleasantly surprised by the fact he would get paid by the university for his Saturday shifts.

Reading Classrooms and Barrooms, you should begin to feel grateful for what you have in life and see the need to step out of your comfort zone once in a while. As David puts it: “It’s a great feeling when you discover that you actually can do something a little different than what you’re used to doing.” This American in Poland “woke up feeling good about teaching.”

Irrespective of one’s reasons for feeling good about the working day ahead of them, I’d be hard pressed to find a native speaker teacher of English in Poland who gets out of bed with at least half a spring in their step. 

On Wigilia (Polish Christmas Eve), David eagerly accepted an invitation to his student Agnieszka’s house to celebrate with her husband and family. What is for sure, you will gain insight into the typical culinary approach to Christmas Eve which Polish families adopt. All in all, very fishy and full of mushrooms.

There are other examples of David’s willingness to visit his Polish students and colleagues’ houses on special occasions. Due to his Polish-influenced upbringing in the US, he was already accustomed to the ins and outs of the traditions and customs he witnessed. Nevertheless, every family puts their own spin on traditions, and it was eye-opening for David to observe this subtle variety.

 

LIKE A FILM IN KRESOWA

If stories about the intriguing lectures David gave to students, trips around Poland and details of his Polish-American background aren’t enough to wet your appetite, this American in Poland’s hilarious reflections on the events he witnessed in a bar called Kresowa will have you compulsively turning the pages.

Kresowa became David’s home away from home during his Fulbright Lectureship. One of his first conversations in Kresowa provides ample insight into the bizarrely random scenes David would go on to witness in the bar:

        “Do you like Litzmannstadt?” the old man asked.

        “Jeszcze raz?” I said (“One more time?”)

        “Do you like it here in Litzmannstadt?” he repeated.

        “I like Łódź,” I said.

Litzmanndstadt was the name the Nazis gave Łódź following the conquest in 1939, after the German general who tried (and failed) to take the city during the First World War. His name was Karl Litzmann.

Unable to resist a charmingly sarcastic recommendation of Kresowa he read in the guide In your Pocket, with such great lines as “A locals bar with a mixed clientele from the lower rung of the social ladder”, “Stained and stinking from years of beer and cigarettes” and “A great place to prop up the bar and listen to local drunks rant and ramble about all that is wrong with the world,” David literally pushed his away into the bar for the very first time.

The scene was set. A balding bartender with a stern “I dare you to try to order a beer” face. The bartender’s strikingly beautiful girlfriend sitting at the bar smoking cigarettes whilst nodding along to a rambling old Supertramp fan. A group of young men playing terrible music on the jukebox whilst swigging vodka. Finally, the icing on the cake. The owner – “a very fat man with a grey beard and blue suspenders” – walked in and put a gentle getting-to-know-you type question to David: “left wing or right wing?”

David’s second visit to Kresowa opened his eyes to something I notice a lot in Poland – a beautiful woman cuddling up to a strong-looking bald guy. The baldy in Kresowa,  to borrow David’s words, “looked like he wanted to kick someone’s ass – anyone would do.”

This American in Poland would go on to meet more odd characters, and the stories keep on coming in Classrooms and Barrooms, including this rib-tickling scene dominated by a small man with thinning hair and communist era eyeglasses:

This particular night, though, his mission in the bar was to help hang the Christmas lights. I have no idea how or why he was assigned the task, but the owner gave him the tangled lights as he was leaving with six big cans of dog-food and a Tupperware tub of red bigos. The little man couldn’t untangle the lights on his own, so the grey-haired bass player helped him. They would argue, pull a section apart, then wrap the whole long string between two chairs like people sometimes do with yarn on a pair of hands. The progress was slow, the arguments intense. It was, I believe, a very Polish moment: two Poles with tangled Christmas lights, and three opinions about how best to untangle them.

AMERICAN IN POLAND – FINAL THOUGHTS

I feel that David got the balance just right in his book. From the historical facts to the hilarious stories from Kresowa pub, and from the positive attitude to the sometimes harsh reality of life in Poland, David doesn’t cut any corners in Classrooms and Barrooms.

David was raised in a family steeped in Polish-American traditions. For that reason, he went to Poland as a “sympathetic friend”, and he returned to the US as one as well.

 

LINKS

* Reviews of David’s book – click here

* Grab a copy of Classrooms and Barrooms on Amazon – click here

* Read David’s articles on Medium – click here

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