On Becoming Polish

There have been many times since I got to Poland a month ago that I have been reminded that I will never actually be Polish. From hearing people in my classes talk about “we” when referring to the Polish nation to being told “Alex is a boy name here” (and certainly not excluding the bemused look on people’s faces when I speak Polish to them) I’m not fooling anyone into thinking I’m Polish.

Now the reason that this blog post is so delayed is that last weekend was, actually, only my third weekend in Krakow. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, and while that’s been fun in and of itself, it’s illuminating some of the ways I am becoming Polish. The first weekend of travel, I traveled in Poland with other study abroad kids, so that wasn’t particularly enlightening, but my next journey, a solo trip to Stockholm two weeks later revealed how quickly my perception of myself during my time in Poland.

It was startling to be somewhere where there was no expectation of Polishness. It’s true Krakow has its fair share of tourism and usually I am the only girl wearing boot cut jeans around (however–globalization has popularized brands like North Face in Poland so your American outerwear will not make you stand out, another new discovery), but in general I blend in in Krakow. People address me in Polish in stores and restaurants, and over the weekend two people even stopped me on the street and asked me for directions.  I think I also expect myself to try to blend in, act Polish, and, especially, speak Polish. This may not be the case yet, but I would love to have a whole interaction with someone who doesn’t realize I am American.

In Stockholm, this expectation was totally removed. At my hostel, I was sharing a room with two German girls. We introduced ourselves, and they asked me how long I had been traveling. To me this was a little bit of a silly question–I had been traveling for maybe 6 hours altogether, including getting to and from airports. Then I realized that they had no idea I was studying in Poland–I could be an American living out her Eurotripping fantasies (which to some extent I am, but nevermind). I realized that on that trip I wouldn’t disappoint anyone by not speaking Polish; in fact, I would have to speak English since my knowledge of Swedish was limited to “hej” and “tak.”

I also realized how ingrained my Polish habits had become. Getting to my hostel that first night, I stood forever waiting to cross the street. Here in Krakow, the walk lights change automatically and crossing against the light is a big no-no that can get you fined/taken to the police station on the spot. So standing on that Stockholm street corner, waiting for the walk light to come on, I was being a good Polish girl. However, I wasn’t going to get very far–in Stockholm you have to push a button for the walk light and crossing against the light  is common.

The next day, my Polish habits reared their head again. This time, in the context of one of my least favorite things about Poland–water. In Poland no one drinks tap water and water is as expensive as a soda and more expensive than beer in restaurants. For me, silly as it is, one of the hardest things to adjust to is paying a premium for a tiny bottle of water in a restaurant. But apparently I have adjusted because when I went for lunch my first day in Stockholm and the waiter asked me if I wanted anything to drink I agonized over paying for a bottle of water, never even stopping to consider they might have free tap water. Which they did. In big pitchers with different fruits floating in the water. Which I only found out after I paid for my bottle. Later that night at the hostel, I settled in to do some reading with my bottle of carbonated lemon flavored water from the grocery store when I noticed a girl go into the kitchen and emerge with a glass of water. This blew my mind. I stopped drinking my lemon water and got a nice glass of tap water right then and there.

Glad as I was to shed my Polish attitudes towards water, when I flew back to Krakow that Sunday, I got a nice reaffirmation of my Polishness–helping to direct tourists at the bus stop (see, I’m not a tourist!) As I told people which tickets to buy and where the bus went, I felt a little like I was telling people how to get around my city. Most of the tourists were from other places in Europe, but the icing on the cake was when a Polish woman asked me where the bus was going, and despite my shaky Polish replies to her flurry of questions, trusted me to get on the bus that I told her would take her to the center of town. I may never hold a Polish passport, but I am gaining some grasp on the country.



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