Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Cultural differences, Poland - UK

Sitting in the Stag and Huntsman in Hambleden, a lovely old pub in a lovely old Buckinghamshire village, one of the essential cultural difference between Poland and Great Britain became crystal clear to me.

It is the village. Examine the villages in both countries, and you will see the core of what makes Poles different to Brits.

In England, the village is the repository of essential English values. It is here in Hambleden that WH Smith, newspaper vendor and bookseller - who made his fortune placing kiosks by stations as Britain's railways boomed - retired to. The village - like many around it - Fingest, Turville, Skirmett, Frieth - is extremely picturesque (it often appears in films). Its topography bears some examination, for it is here that lies the heart of the difference between Poland and England.

Hambleden is a largish group of cottages and a manor house clustered around a village green, a village church, a village hall, a village store and a village pub. Fields are large, regular in shape, interspersed by woodland. Roads run off in all directions - down towards the river, up into the wooded heights, east and west to neighbouring villages. It is undulating terrain; villages nestle in the folds of hills. Below: the Village Hall, Hambleden.

It's a Sunday lunchtime, and the Stag and Huntsman is packed. Poles would look through the window, and remark that these people would be better off saving money by cooking their food and eating in in their own homes - it's cheaper. It occurred to me that what these local people are doing as they spend their money on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is investing in their community. It's not just about creating local jobs for bar staff, kitchen staff, farmers and brewers. It's about building trust and friendships between people in the village.

Below: beyond the butcher's shop, Hambleden's village inn, the Stag and Huntsman.

The Polish village, in contrast, is typically strung out along a long, straight road, with no discernable centre. This makes sense as the landscape's table-top flat. Ideal for warfare. Left: ribbon-thin strips of land run off at right angles from this road, each farmed by different farmers (click to enlarge). Other than the church on Sunday, there's no social focus. Yes, there's the shop, and outside it Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek will while the afternoon away supping tins of Warka Pstrąg And indeed, they bring with them to the UK the habit of outdoor drinking and depositing their empty tins of Lech, Tyskie and Żywiec around Britain's parkland.

Yet roaming around the Polish countryside, I yearn for those village hostelries where a pie and a pint can be consumed in agreeable surroundings while resting weary legs.

I've also mentioned the importance of primogeniture in defining the difference between Poland and England - and in particular the countryside. In England, custom and law had it that the eldest son inherited the entire landed estate - as a whole. Younger sons joined the army, the church, the civil service. Or went off to create an empire. In Poland, a father would divide his estate between sons, with each son ending up with ever-smaller strips of land, just enough to subsist on.

As a result, the British Aristocracy is numerically a minute percentage of the population. The Polish szlachta, or nobility, watered down by split inheritance, numbered some 8%-10% of the population at its peak. Better to be a somebody with a tiny parcel of land and a noble surname than a nobody forced to invent stuff like steam engines, telegraphs, mechanised looms, blast furnaces or football.

As I have written before, the English countryside is where one wants to retire to, the Polish countryside is where one wants to escape from. The Polish wieś seethes with zawiść - jealous hatred or hateful jealousy - neighbours cannot countenance the fact that others are doing better than they through harder work, more judicious crop rotation, earlier (or later) planting (or reaping) - or just better luck.

But back to Hambleden. I doubt if all but the smallest number of villagers living here actually makes a living from the land. The large landholdings are farmed efficiently and industrially; here and there some organic farming takes place, but generally this is arable and livestock country, well maintained and managed. The majority of its 1,500 villagers are recent arrivals who have bought properties with monies earned or inherited or both; I'd guess the village is 50% retired City folk and entrepreneurs who've exited their businesses, with the minority being people connected to the village through their kin.

In Poland, I get the sense that the majority of Varsovians are only one or two generations removed from the land. In 2001, I remember going for a walk with my children, aged eight and six, and seeing a slaughtered pig being drained of blood, its throat slit, lying on a large wooden table in the middle of a farmyard. At work the next day, I mentioned this to my colleagues Beata and Joasia. Both laughed and said they could still remember seeing the same scene as children on their grandfathers' farms. Most of urban Britain is five or even ten generations removed from the land. And with that comes learned dependence (on the mill-owner or the State), but that's another story.

Poland needs its villages to get more connected, to discover a sense of community, of win-win, of public-spiritedness, building trust between neighbours. Village teams - bowling, darts, cricket - compete with one another in English. Nothing like this happens in Poland.

But to get things kick started, there's no better way to do it than by opening small cafés, bars, restaurants, pubs. Maybe in a generation or two's time, the Polish village is where wealthier Poles will want to retire to.

This time last year:
Schadenfreude! The downfall of Hofman & Co.

This time two years ago:
From the Mersey to the Tyne

This time three years ago
Autumnal Gdańsk

This time four years ago:
What Independence Day means for Poles

This time five years ago:
Words fail me: what's the Polish for 'to fail'?

This time six years ago:
Autumn in Dobra

This time eight years ago:
Autumn ploughing


Chris said...

I was delighted to read this, because it's something I've observed while travelling around Poland. Most villages have no 'there' there, they're just necklaces of houses. Sadly it doesn't attract me to the countryside, and I can't get motivated to go cycling - something I'm passionate about in the UK!

dr Marcin said...

I am absolutely sure that Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek will while the afternoon away supping tins of Warka Pstrąg do enjoy this with the same friendship and good mood as some of Gentlemen like Mr. John and Mr. Paul do this sitting and sipping their pints of ales at the village's Wilde Horse pub somewhere in England.

meika said...

The strip holdings are a common ancient European practice. Similar to modern suburbia really, which is usually seen as a democratic liberal private property progressive thing... atomised.... In the late and after medieval period, in a road to serfdom, some Polish magnates collectivised the strip holdings into Folwark system (from the German for Vorwerk --- I know a German family Forck also derived from this term) no doubt on the advice of some consultant. In Australia such small holdings, which surround the more densely settled ordinary suburbia, are called hobby farms... but then our soils are worse... and the best soils we dig up to mine coal.

In Norman Davies history of Poland, God's Playground, vol 1, pages 280 ff