I’m often asked what I like about Poland. Poland. The way my Irish and English friends intonate your nation’s name, as if I were inhabiting a desolate, apocalyptic wasteland, peopled by furious, mustachioed outlaws and ravishing maidens, a central European Wild West, a modern-day curio, where an outmoded faith and a desire to excavate and plunder the land are the be-all and end-all of this Slavic-centred sensibility.
My answer to their question; the people. What is a country without a people and the traits they propagate – humility, a keen intelligence, an unparalleled sense of innovation and a restless, unquenchable desire to explore? I thrill at the strange friends I have gathered around me. Live is good here.
Indeed when I make mental comparisons as to the benefits vis-a-vis both countries, Poland trumps my place of origin, in no small measure because I’m over forty and a father. The life-goal paradigm has shifted. Ego and economics have taken a backseat in favour of family and adventure.
Crime and physical violence are negligible in Poland. Compare Dublin’s main thoroughfare O’Connell Street with Warsaw Centrum; one is scored with great swathes of heroin addicts, pockmarked, gasping, desperate, dangerous, preying on anyone weak or unsuspecting while the other is teeming with great multiples of Hipsters, also an affliction, yet beneficial to the urban landscape by being aesthetic and upwardly mobile.
And while we’re talking of landscape, don’t be fooled by Ireland’s bogus reputation. It’s all rock. We have no forests worth speaking of, no rich spectrum of trees to harmonize and soothe the spirit. This is why we had the Famine, our land only grows rocks. Indeed, we offer one of our largest rocks, the Blarney Stone as a viable tourist attraction, a celebrated piece of geology no greater in size than an eighties-era Lada, and no less ugly. American tourists travel thousands of miles for reasons unknown just to kiss this lumpen granite cluster and pay more to do so than it costs to enter the Louvre in Paris.
And while Ireland is undoubtedly friendlier, at least in regard to instant, short-term encounters and people regularly stand up in pubs and talk to others whom they might not be acquainted with, my homeland is blighted by very public displays of binge-drinking. Every weekend the streets are littered with legions of desultory youths, their minds shot with shots, brawling, fornicating, excreting openly, often on themselves, more often on others. Poland has drunks too, obviously, but there is no comparison. It’s like saying Poland has rain, whereas Ireland is rain.
Yet to like something about a place is to invite the assumption that there is something to dislike. What do I dislike about Poland? Again, the answer is succinct.
The pollution, to the point where I’m almost totally convinced that my existence will be prolonged if I relocate. Up to this point, the de Búrca’s of Gliwice, Silesia saw a future for themselves in Poland, as much as anyone can divine a future for themselves from the entrails of a kielbasa sausage. Sure, I had read the scarestories but I doubted if the health risks were really as bad as the European Commission portrayed it. I laughed at the jokes – the air in Gliwice is great, just as long as you chew it before you swallow – and God knows there are so many old people milling around, absolutely refusing to die, that I ridiculed the notion of premature death in any form save being run over by a sugar-crazed driving instructor.
I chose to ignore the non-quantifiable danger. Invisible, intangible, an almost benign bogeyman. Then, after a period of living here, my previously untarnished lungs were attacked by asthma. I controlled it by diet, or thought I did, until my inhaler prescriptions increased. My eldest daughter and that great indefatigable trooper, the PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE succumbed to breathing ailments too.
The Black Triangle. The Poles all know about it. 43,000 die every year from air pollution.
How long do I play the lottery? How long do I wait for a cough to turn into cancer?