Alternate Views

"YOU'RE GOING TO Poland?" people asked me when I told them of my postgraduation plans. "That's right, Poland," I said patiently. Before leaving for Kraków in late August, any mention of my travel plans required a repeat of my destination. Poland doesn't exactly rank with cities like New York or Boston as a place to tote a college degree. "Why Poland?" they'd ask. "It's so bland. And what about the post-communism?" I was asked such questions as though the eruption of a Solidarity strike or waiting four hours for a loaf of bread were still serious concerns there. But there is no need to worry. Poland has changed beyond all expectation since 1989, and I am eagerly experiencing those changes. Poland certainly possesses a beauty and intrigue all its own--worthy of a postcollegiate life.

Still, why am I in Poland? I am a Fulbright scholar researching contemporary Polish politics and economics at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. With democracy emerging from its adolescence here and the free-market economy growing to meet the demands of Western competition, now is a better time than any to study the sweeping changes. But I am returning to Poland not solely because it is the beacon of Eastern European development, but also because it's my motherland, my birthplace.

I emigrated from Poland in the late 1970s at age four, and it was precisely the oppressive government and dismal economy that prompted my family to take flight from the former communist state. I am back now as a student and as a native Pole to rediscover a country in which I lived only a brief portion of my life, and understood largely through the tales, memories, and hearts of my parents.

My stay in Poland has been anything but bland. Academically, I am living a politics student's dream; Poland's newly emerging democracy offers a rich smorgasbord of themes to tempt my political taste buds. For an appetizer, I can see that Poland has opened its doors wide to foreign investors just by walking through town, admiring American, British, and German shops and restaurants. For my main course, I need only glance at a daily newspaper, skimming an article on the government's attempt to liberalize abortion laws, to witness the debate between conservatism and liberalism. It's an age-old democratic process, but one that would have never taken place behind the Iron Curtain. And, as there is always room for dessert, I can conclude my feast content in the knowledge that even the prudish and very Catholic Polish society is not immune to a few political scandals and incidents of corruption. Democracy is alive and well in Poland.

I am pleased to say that, as a Fulbright scholar, my education has been intriguing. Through my studies, I have gained greater perspective on Polish education and the Polish way of life. When invited to lecture at the European Youth Convention, I discussed with university students from across Europe current issues in Polish politics, such as NATO expansion and European Union integration.

I have also attended seminars and lectures at Jagiellonian University, exposing myself to a formal education much different from the one I received at Mount Holyoke. In Poland, for example, many professors supplement their meager salaries with second and even third jobs. Thus, personal contact with professors is limited, and a successful university career requires each student's utmost tenacity and patience. I have consequently learned not to count on the familiar "office hours," but instead to employ super-sleuth skills in searching for my adviser. (I knew my trench coat would come in handy).

My trip has also answered many personal questions I had growing up Polish in America. For example, now I understand why my father stubbornly refused to give our first car a much-deserved burial, reviving it with fifteen years' worth of repairs. Anyone forced to endure the sardine-can phenomenon of Polish public transportation would hold on to a private automobile for dear life. I have come to the conclusion that the term "maximum capacity" means nothing on a Polish tram or bus, where passengers willingly squeeze in so tightly that scratching an itchy nose becomes the greatest test of flexibility.

I have also discovered why my mother is such a resourceful and splendid cook. The first time I shopped for groceries, I happily filled my cart with goodies from the shelves of what I like to call the super-small market. As I approached the cashier, I couldn't help but notice the stares and whispers of other shoppers, whose own baskets contained only a modest supply of groceries. I now realize that this is a country full of veritable kitchen "MacGyvers," where shopping is done on a daily basis, purchases are minimal, and a hearty meal that feeds a family of six can be whipped up from only potatoes, cabbage, and a pinch of salt.

I have also achieved my lifelong dream of returning to the village where I was born and lived. My austere, two-room farmhouse still stands in Cwikow, albeit amidst crumbling walls in dilapidated surroundings. It remains a testament to the difficult life my family endured while in Poland. How my parents lived in such conditions, raised six small children, and ran a multi-hectare farm is still a mystery to me. At that time, radiators were technological dreams; the house was heated by feeding an early-morning fire. Phone calls, placed and received only at the local post office, were reserved for emergencies. And who knew about call-waiting, answering machines, or caller ID? Ironically, today my farmhouse stands in stark contrast to the many new, large, and amenity-filled homes around it. A symbol of a time past? Perhaps.

Poland today barely resembles the Poland of just seven years ago, before the demise of Soviet communism. However, Poland has not sacrificed its unique culture, beauty, and strength. It has merely revealed itself to the rest of the world. And though my time here as a Fulbright scholar has been full of eye-opening observations and my sometimes frustrating reassimilation into Polish life, I now have a greater appreciation for the heritage I ingested secondhand as a child. Poland is a great place to be as a college graduate. Yes, I said Poland.

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