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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » April 26, 2012
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BOOK REVIEW: Tales of an Englishman in Poland
April 26, 2012   
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In the summer of 1997, Jonathan Lipman, a young British lawyer, married his Polish fiancée, moved to Warsaw and set about exploring a country that had enthusiastically embraced capitalism while still strongly rooted in the habits of its communist past.

Lipman documents his adventures and comic misadventures during his two-year stay in Poland in Polska Dotty, an e-book subtitled Carp in the Bathtub, Throttled Buglers, and other Tales of an Englishman in Poland.

The book’s biggest flaw is that it is badly dated: Poland has changed fast in the 15 years or so since the events depicted by Lipman, as he himself acknowledges. However, this is also the biggest asset of Polska Dotty—Lipman has produced a series of snapshots documenting an era that has largely vanished.

The book takes us back to the days of the post-communist “Wild East” as the author charts his encounters with bribe-taking policemen, shady small-time businessmen and semi-competent private doctors.

First-time visitors who read Lipman’s account before heading to Poland may be surprised to discover how far the country has traveled in a decade and a half of rapid economic and social change.

For instance, Lipman, taking in Warsaw’s monumental Palace of Culture in 1997, describes it as “a sickly orange-yellow eyesore right in the heart of the town,” adding that even locals have never taken to this unwanted gift from Stalin.

Nowadays, whether through nostalgia or an ability to wrap knowing inverted commas around the splendors of Soviet architecture, few of the hip young crowd who head to the Palace for a weekend film or a rock concert would be happy to see the edifice torn down.

Along with a section about Warsaw and Cracow, Polska Dotty, which is arranged by subject matter, has chapters focusing on topics such as religion and festivals, customer service, work and entrepreneurs, and The Polish Character.

This structure forces the author to constantly hop back and forwards in time, depriving the book of a smoothly evolving chronological narrative that would fully hook readers.

On the other hand, this approach makes the book easy to dip into for a reader who wants to brush up on some aspect of life in Poland, for example a more-astute-than-average soccer fan heading here for the Euro 2012 championships in June. For the latter, a dry history book would most likely prove unpalatable, while a travel guide wouldn’t offer the same level of color and personal insight.

While Polska Dotty will not win any major awards for literary style, it does bring out the humor in the author’s attempts to adapt to a different culture and to deal with a difficult language. For example when he asks his prospective father-in-law for his daughter’s hand in marriage, the reply (in Polish) is a calm “No.” The flustered Englishman only finds out later that “No” is a informal way of saying “Yes” in Polish.

In other references to the Polish language, the book contains a few mistakes and misunderstandings that will irk any Poles who buy it, but it does a good job of presenting a swathe of Polish culture and history without overburdening the reader.

The chapter entitled The Jewish Question promises to be the most interesting in the book as Lipman, an “English Jewish boy” as he puts it, tackles possibly the most troubling aspect of Poland.

“The Poles must have the worst reputation of any people for being anti-Semitic,” Lipman says by way of preface. He describes one incident during a trip to the medieval town of Kazimierz Dolny when he feels forced to publicly rebuke his fellow tourists for their anti-Semitic comments.

This, however, is a rare incident, the author says, and he does not allow it to dim his enthusiasm for learning more about Poles and what makes them tick.

Lipman avoids a definitive conclusion on Polish anti-Semitism, but he ducks the issue with some flair, describing an encounter in which he asks British historian Norman Davies for his opinion on the topic.

Polska Dotty is an easy read, providing a colorful introduction to Poland for readers who know little of the country. Expats will smile in recognition, or grimace in sympathy, as the author details the pleasures and frustrations that lie in wait for a visiting foreigner.

Peter Kononczuk
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