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Poles and a modern form of Dickensian Capitalism

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I came to Poland expecting to find a society in which the principles of Capitalist consumerism meant little. I had thought that the lengthy prevalence of Communism here would be reflected in the attitudes of the Polish people. It is, but not in the way I had imagined. As my friends in Britain immersed themselves more deeply in a struggle for higher status, a larger salary and more possessions I thought to turn away from such competition. I believed that in Poland people may have had a more relaxed attitude to life. However, this is no place for a world-renouncing ascetic.
 
The desire for fast food, fast cars and an Armani suit is, if anything, greater here than in Britain. A modern form of Dickensian Capitalism exists today in Poland. The battle for social status is compounded by the evolution of new social classes. Poland was, until twenty years ago, a truly classless society. Today a tooth and nail struggle for prestige dominates. The need to be first overrules all else and, as you will see if you drive here, Poles are a people who accelerate at maximum speed toward red lights. The yardstick by which the new social classes can be measured is, simply, money. The more you have, the higher your social status. The elite are, therefore, a nouveau riche, disdaining whilst sharply observing and imitating the cultured and educated. The fading reflections of Communism in society can generally be seen in behaviour. The concept of queuing is unheard of here and in situations where an orderly line would normally form there often ensues a struggle using knees and elbows. I once observed the failure of traffic lights at one of the largest road junctions, (a multi–lane crossroads), in Krakow. Within moments each lane of traffic drove as quickly as possible into the centre of the junction, with the inevitable result that the whole road system became gridlocked.
 
A Communist work ethic often prevails in Public institutions and larger corporations. In such cases the employee is important. The customer is certainly not at all important and should be most thankful to receive any service. Try asking for information in a train or bus station. “How should I know?” is not an uncommon answer in information offices. The lengthy time spent waiting in an attempt to obtain information from banks and Public offices presents you with an opportunity to learn humility and reflect on your insignificance. 
 
As a foreigner you will soon meet the concept of “Sami swoi” or “Only amongst ourselves”. “Ourselves” are the Poles. Poland is for Poles, not for you. Foreigners are rich and from somewhere else. They are different. It is, therefore, a matter of national pride to part them from as much cash as possible. You may observe on television that anyone of importance, including aliens in science fiction films, speaks fluently in Polish. The guttural grunting of monsters from other worlds is translated and as they create mayhem they might say, “Good morning” or “Could I have a cup of tea, please?”  
 
Religion in Poland is not a difficult subject, as you are either an ardent Roman Catholic or may belong to a strange and possibly dangerous cult such as the Thuggees or Protestants. Most Poles don’t realise that Britain and the USA are largely Protestant, or that in places such as Belfast violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants exists. A demonstration of this was the Pole who recently hit on the novel idea of selling Catholic souvenirs door to door in Northern Ireland. He is presently recovering from severe head injuries in hospital. To be fair, there are Protestant churches here and there in Poland and you would be safe in most places regardless of your religion. The Catholic Church of old has now changed in Poland. The pre–Solidarity Catholic priests imprisoned in Siberia for their beliefs have now been replaced with a new politically manipulative generation. Ultra conservative Radio Maryja broadcasts guide the nation morally and politically. Driving home late one night this winter I heard a phone-in radio show in which you could question a priest on any subject. “What does God think about vitamin drinks?” asked a caller. “That’s a very good question…” began the priest, before explaining at great length God’s thoughts on the subject of fizzy vitamin supplements. However, Poles do not follow Vatican guidance in every respect. Polish troops intervened in Iraq in direct opposition to the wishes of Pope John Paul II, who strongly opposed military involvement there.     
 
Peter Fairless
Peter Fairless is a foreigner in proud Poland.
Peter can be reached at fairless_peter@yahoo.com

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