In Przysucha I could only speak English with a colleague at school, with another English teacher and one pupil. When I went shopping I had to ask for everything in Polish, of course. Once I asked ‘do you have breasts?’ – I should have said ‘are there any breasts?’ The whole of Przysucha buzzed with that story.
It turned out I was going to Poland. I looked at the map and drank a tequila toast to Poland. I had no idea about its history, I thought Copernicus came from Greece. I’d never heard of Kościuszko. My sum total of knowledge was Polish kielbasa [Polish sausage] and that Poles drink a lot because it’s a Slavonic tradition. I watched some folk music on TV. In the background there was a lot of snow and thatched roofs. So I reckoned it was sort of like Alaska where all the men are farmers and the women are large and robust.
In order to become a Volunteer, you have to have professional qualifications. When I sent in my application I was told to be prepared to go to Kazakhstan or Kirghistan. Then they told me I would be going to Poland. ‘But that’s Europe,’ I thought to myself – why are they sending me there? Do they think I won’t be able to cope with those other countries? The Peace Corps in Poland was a somewhat controversial matter. One friend was sent to Mali and another to Moldavia. Now those were real ‘Corps countries’. Our life in Poland was luxurious in comparison.
I lived with the Schmitt Family (my host family) as a 16-year-old foreign-exchange student from 1971 to 1972, when one could stand next to the ‘Zonengrenze’ [border zone] and observe thru binoculars the stark differences between the DDR and BRD [Bundesrepublik Deutschland – West Germany]. During the Christmas holidays of 1989, while I was visiting the Schmitts, the German news-broadcasters chronicled the Eastern Bloc’s disintegration in real time. The excitement was palpable, the enormous implications of the events were apparent, and I then decided (somehow!) to become a part of this socio-political shift.
I had been working as a District Sales Manager for over a year, managing 11 sales representatives in the Seattle-Portland area of the Pacific Northwest. After witnessing the dramatic events within Eastern Europe and after exploring various options for getting involved, I decided that the U.S. Peace Corps’ Small Business Development program made the most sense. My business skills could be useful, and I could stay long enough in a country to learn the language and establish meaningful relationships. After completing all of the necessary paperwork, and against the advice of my business colleagues, I quit my job, and joined the U.S. Peace Corps.
I’ve come here because the changes in Europe are remarkably exciting at this time. In the States we make sure that when we speak of Poland we don’t place it in Eastern Europe – which since forever has been associated with a kind of Third World – but in Central Europe. To me one of the most amazing things, for example, is the vastness of the forests here. I also think the people are extremely interesting, they’re very friendly although when you pass by them in the street they look sad and anxious, and they don’t greet you as spontaneously as people do back home.
Two of my great-grandparents had lived in the Jewish quarter in Warsaw and had left around the turn of the century. My great grandfather had been a glove-maker there. Because of that connection, I was particularly curious about Poland. I knew, of course, about martial law, the Solidarity movement, about the round table talks, about Lech Wałęsa. I knew that Poland had been devastated in World War II and that the Nazis had set up many concentration camps there.
I was aware that there was still anti-Semitism in Poland and so, for the most part, did not mention my heritage. The other negative experience is not one I personally experienced, but was very aware of. Our African American volunteers had a terrible time in Poland. They faced tremendous racism, and I don't think any of them actually served their two years. I don't think it was fair to put them in that situation.
Bielsk Podlaski, 1993
Some Poles see foreigners through the light of their experiences with the Russians. They think we’ve come here to colonise their country. They can’t believe we want to help Poland with no strings attached.
When I decided to join the Corps I didn’t have any choice as to country. I thought it might be South America because I speak Spanish. We were grilled for almost a year to see whether we were suitable. They checked not just our professional skills but our ability to adapt, our ease of communication, resistance to stress and they even took our fingerprints.
Participation in the Corps is well perceived when you start out on a professional career in the USA. Out of every 200 applications only eight meet the requirements. It really is an élite. I’m very glad I’m in Poland. Developing political and social changes are our guarantee that we will be needed here.
I never again spent so much time on an application. It takes 6 months for the Peace Corps to accept you. You have to get references from two friends, two teachers, and two jobs. You have to get medical clearance. They tell you at the very beginning that the process takes 6 months, because “we want to make sure that you really want to do this”.
I lived in a student dormitory. Probably the most interesting part about that was that I had no heat or hot water, except that from a small electric heater, during holidays and weekends. Ah, the beauty of centralized economic systems. But Kętrzyn was a wonderful town with a lot going for it. I still have friends there.
Training was somewhat disappointing. I had one very wonderful Polish teacher, Ewa, and one who was dreadful. We sat through endless lectures. Some lectures were useful, such as on writing lesson plans; some lectures were utterly worthless, including most of the health lectures. Learning Polish was very intimidating, even with my Russian background. The grammar! Too little attention was paid to adult learning and too little modeling of effective teaching was done.
Bielsk Podlaski, 1994
Training, working and living in Poland certainly had its ups and downs. The luxuries I had enjoyed in the States were not available and I was forced to speak a foreign language, meet new people and do things I might otherwise not do if back at home. However, Poland has been one of the most single important milestones in my life. The generosity from my host family in Płock, the hosts/organizers in Witnica, or my students, overwhelmed me and continues to overwhelm me to this day. I wasn’t just treated very well – I was welcomed with open arms and hearts by people everywhere. Yes, I treasure all of my experiences in Poland and sometimes can’t believe I was actually blessed to do and experience what I did!
I took me long time to figure out what was meant by ‘kombinować’ [to scheme or connive etc.]. It’s usually corruption on a small scale, sometimes on a big scale. I see it every day. Any problem has to be solved by what we call ‘finagling’, e.g. my school director’s secretary sewed cribs into his daughter’s skirt to use during her ‘matura’ [High School Certificate] examinations.
In one small place to which I was assigned, Poles would walk up to me, touch me and say: “You are real!” It was very rare to meet an American at that time. I could rest easy – I was sure to encounter the prettiest girl in town at a party and get an invitation for dinner on Sunday. I also knew that Poland was a country where the people had a positive view of Americans. And I was careful not to spoil that impression.
We were also taught there that we were the strange ones. For example, people here used to stand huddled together in shop queues whereas we – in America – were used to having our own space around us when we did our shopping. We were to remember that we were not in the USA. This is their country, they live here and that’s how you stand in the queues here. Your role is not to teach them how to be civilised. This is civilisation, too, and this is how you do things here. You must adapt to them and not they to you.
In Przysucha everybody knew what I did and whom I talked to. I was glad when winter came because it got darker earlier and I could be anonymous again. I learnt what it is to be a celebrity. I understand now why people hate it. But popularity had its good moments, too. On ‘Teacher’s Day’ I felt very important. My pupils clapped me – I felt like a star.
It was lonely at first and I felt isolated. Everything seemed so different once I left the safety of training and it took a while to feel comfortable. The first year was all about figuring out the language and what was expected of me. It was also a tough transition into teaching, since I had never taught high school before, or taught full-time. It was also challenging in terms of knowing where to shop and how to get things done. Luckily, my school provided a lot of support. The second year I was much more confident and began to relax, which means I started to enjoy myself a lot more.
The transition into the Polish reality was harder than I had expected, but well worth it. At one point, about one year in, I was actually ready to leave Poland. Things weren’t coming together for me; I felt exhausted and like I was done with the experience. I actually went to the headquarters in Warsaw and stayed with Mary Cloud, a Peace Corps staff nurse, and her family for a few days while I decided what was best for me. This is another example of how kind and terrific the Peace Corps staff was. Her kindness was instrumental in me having the break I needed. After that, I decided to stay and had a second fantastic year.
Jelenia Góra, 1998
To start with, the Gaja Club didn’t believe my fundraising strategy could be successful. With time they managed it and they are now the only environmental group in Poland with half of their money coming from donations. They’re one of the most powerful environmental groups in Poland today.
Under Communist rule, cheating and corruption were regarded by the Poles as legitimate ways for coping with the economic and political systems. According to a Polish friend and former Solidarity member, only fools complied with a corrupt and nonsensical system. But this mentality persisted after Poland’s break with Soviet-style communism, even within academic spheres.
Two Polish phrases I learned shortly after I began working at the school were: ‘Daj mi w łapę’ [give me a back-hander] and ‘Będzie flaszka [there’s a bottle in it for you]’. When I administered my first exam I knew the students were cheating but was unable to clearly catch them in the act. During a dinner meeting with a student’s parents, the father even bragged to me about his daughter’s ability to keep ‘ściągi’ [cribs] hidden under her skirt during exams.
We tried to explain to these people what starting up as a small trader was all about. We vetted these people, too, trying to fathom whether they really were intent on investing in their future, or whether they just hoped to get more benefits. But when someone passed the qualifying tests then we would recommend him as being worthy of a grant. We also calculated the number of instalments needed for repayment of the loan. […] I am an optimist. The spirit of enterprise is all around us, sometimes it just needs a nudge.
The things I’m most proud of are the secondary projects all PCVs have. I was the Chair for the Women in Development Committee and we were very active. We put together a Regional Women’s Conference, drawing women from several countries around Central Europe. I was also involved with Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) a summer English language camp. Other members of the committee and/or Poland XII facilitated some other wonderful projects around breast cancer awareness and human rights.
Jelenia Góra, 1998
Wanting to show foreign tourists the character and temperament of the inhabitants of the Bieszczady area, in the guidebook which was prepared with the help of the volunteers, we added some local legends. The only problem is that the publication is likely to cause a mass influx of tourists which could be a threat to these wild mountain areas. The most difficult part is sharing with others something which is priceless to us.