Jun 10 2015

Viva Polonia by Steffen Möller

In the mid-1990s, Steffen Möller went against the usual tide of migration and moved from Germany to Poland. He started with a two-week language course in Krakow, which he found out about from a poster hung in his university’s cafeteria. From such a simple starting point, his whole career grew: first as a student of Polish — wrestling with seven cases, two verb aspects, adjectives that decline in three genders, and tongue twisters like “W Szczabrzeszynie chrząszcz bzrmi w trzcinie” — then as a teacher of German, onward to a stand-up comic (in Polish) and actor in a long-running television series, “M jak Miłość” (L as in Love).

Viva Polonia is the first of Möller’s four books to date, and it combines his personal story of learning to live in Poland with comparisons between that country and Germany. The book is arranged as an alphabetical series of entries about topics large and small, starting with Aberglaube (superstition) and ending with Zum Abschied (saying good-bye). Ten years of living in Poland, at the time of the book’s writing, furnished him with a rich supply of anecdotes, and enough overall experience to give a balanced picture.

The stories are funny, short, and told with obvious love for (and occasional exasperation about) both places, particularly his adopted country. In the early section on “Betweeners and Desert Mice” Möller touches on some of the real difficulties of living abroad, especially as he has done it — out of curiosity and interest, rather than as a result of family ties or purely economic motives.

In addition, living in another country for many years requires a specific kind of character. Over the long haul, one has to come to terms with living on the periphery of society. I don’t mean only surface things — such as not having the right to vote, constantly having to deal with bureaucracy because of residence permits etc., and not being eligible to become president. It is more a matter of interpersonal problems. One is often fairly lonely. Familiar customs don’t exist. German Christmas markets with the aroma of mulled wine and bratwurst? Forget it.
Then the foreign language: Because one never completely loses a foreign accent, every taxi driver turns around suspiciously after the first sentence; the vote of a foreigner with an accent counts for less at parent-teacher assemblies; after a car accent, describing the details to a police officer is a hellish torture. The probability that language hurdles will send one home depressed in the evenings only declines after many years.
As a foreigner, it is also naturally much more difficult to find friends among the natives. Because one has spent childhood somewhere else, one is not socialized along with members of the same generation. Their songs, films, idols, stickers remain unknown … For example, Poles of my generation like to laugh about their years with the Pioneers in the Communist Youth, or about the first dollars they earned on the black market.

Usually, though, he tells lighter stories, such as the comparison late in the book between outings to the same place undertaken by Germans and Poles (“Zwei Ausflüge”). The Germans are punctual, thorough and organized, arriving as expected, departing on the hour, satisfied with how the day has gone. The Poles arrive late, complaining about their countrymen, disperse into the woods with no leader or direction, barely stop the bus driver from departing without two of their number (whom they know are missing although there is no list of participants, and no count was taken on arrival), and have to wait nearly two hours for the stragglers who, it transpires, have fallen in love during the outing. This helps transform the bus ride back into a free-floating party, with improvised entertainment and no shortage of alcohol. The Poles return much later than planned, but no less satisfied with their day than the German party.

That’s what most of the rest of the book is like: anecdotes that illustrate generalizations. From my limited experience of Poland and my somewhat more extensive experience of Germany, Möller captures them both. The short sections make Viva Polonia breezy to read. As far as I can tell, though, it’s only in German. Sorry about that.

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