One eye on the rearview mirror, but full steam ahead. Although the author was describing other Europeans, these words from Gunter Grass' novel, My Century, make me think of Poland.
Yes, they obviously make me think of a country that cherishes its history and culture while moving steadily toward a better future. In fact, if you read enough books on Poland, the words "romantic, proud, spirited, and devout" are some of the common nice words used to describe Poles (sometimes by themselves, to distinguish themselves from their spineless, heathen neighbors). Is this description true? I can only give you my own broad impressions of a country I find both frustrating and uniquely wonderful.
For background, you should know that I grew up in a Polish immigrant family on the south side of Chicago. Despite this "training," I found I was not able to plunge seamlessly into Polish culture when I visited Poland or when I lived there on two separate occasions. Sometimes, Poland would just take me by surprise.
The basic building blocks of culture " food and language " were not a problem for me in Poland. I was used to traditional Polish cuisine of tasty carbohydrates and meat, and I could converse comfortably in Polish. Fortunately, even back in the days of the Communist regime, I could afford diverse restaurants to stave off culinary boredom. Today's Poland offers many options for dining, especially in urban areas, so even an American who doesn't like Polish cooking won't starve.
My culture clashes came with the people themselves, oddly enough. Even though I was surrounded by Polish people growing up, the powerful American culture must have blunted my perception of Polish culture. When I went to Poland, I met the real thing.
When you visit Poland yourself, you might find, as I did, that people often say what's on their minds. I found Poles refreshingly direct, even though they sometimes surprised my Midwestern sensibilities. For example, they would ask me how much my house cost, how old I was, and how much money I made. Tip: always lie.
And maybe it's just my relatives, but Polish people can be pushy. They have strong opinions and are eager to share them. Pushy can be good and bad. It's bad if you've already eaten and drunk too much and here comes another round of something. It's also wonderful because I always feel so welcome coming to Poland. You'll offend a Pole if you don't eat a little of just about everything, but you won't usually offend someone with a well-reasoned argument. Well, maybe they just like to argue.
Which leads me to another trait I have observed about the Poles. They are often very stubborn. I have seen them stand their ground even when faced with unquestionable proof. Even when their stubbornness creates an unbelievable disadvantage for them. This is both a good and a disastrous trait for Poles, depending on the circumstances. They will defeat Communism but they will not ask for directions.
Sometimes I see contradictions in the Polish character. Here are the people that through the centuries united for elusive freedom. The same people can constrain themselves from freedom, with a traditional outlook that can sometimes be oppressive if someone really needs to be different. Women participate widely in educated professions but also are expected to take a traditional role in families.
Finally, while Poles are generally a fun-loving group, they are also serious about their formality. Polite manners count. Bring flowers with you when invited to someone's home, and use a person's title until you both agree to use first names, if that ever happens. Women can expect their hands to be kissed by gentlemen, as a way of saying good-bye.
There is of course so much more to share about Poland. I hope these observations will encourage further exploration of this country and people who truly have contributed some outstanding achievements to all of us. Without the Poles, who would have brought down the Communist system of control? Would we still be waiting? Perhaps it really does take a people who can be described as romantic, proud, spirited and devout.