It’s Christmas time. It is the feast of love and the time you spend with your love ones. It is also a quiet time allowing us to reflect on our lives, values and what is important to us. I’m always a bit melancholic and contemplative during those days. This year, with what just happened at the Christmas Market in Berlin, I’m a bit sad. Not only because it concerns both my home-countries (a Polish truck driver was killed, his car was stolen and driven into an innocent crowd of Germans visiting the Christmas Market)… I’m also concerned because I’m a cosmopolite and the world without borders is my home. I studied, worked, lived, loved and made friends in several countries and it always makes me sad when one culture goes against the other. No matter if the subject is politics, tradition, religion or food. There is still so much ignorance out there… Why not learning from each other, accepting and enriching ourselves with the ‘unknown’, the ‘foreign’ and the ‘different’? Why so much fear from the unfamiliar? Why is ‘different’ bad instead of interesting?
I don’t even have to talk about what is happening in the world lately (we all know what I mean). If I look around at my own little existence, I see so much ignorance among intelligent, educated people who travel and theoretically are able to look beyond one’s own nose… And this, in the year 2016. It’s almost as if we didn’t develop since the 50ties.
Cultural differences make us unique and interesting. They make us who we are…
I grew up in an emotional balancing act between two cultures and mentalities. The Polish and the German one. Two neighbors and countries in many ways similar to each other but yet so different in values, points of view and even (sadly) historically antagonized. The blood circulating in my veins has springs in both countries. I was born and spent my childhood in one, I grew up and became a woman in the other. Who am I?
Changing countries was not my decision but the one of my parents. I was thirteen. Leaving my comfort zone at this tender age was scary and exciting at the same time… The beginning was not easy. New at school, not knowing the language, ‘cruel kids’ laughing because the pronunciation was not good enough or the cloths not branded or hip… From my side there was also a bit of arrogance I guess, since I found myself so much richer in life experience, in knowing another culture, which the laughing kids didn’t know. It was a bit frustrating. I found the German kids ‚stupid’ and at first surrounded myself with Polish friends. But eventually my love for people and my appetite for new experiences won. Instead of dwelling on kids who wouldn’t invite me for their birthdays because their mum ‚doesn’t allow foreigners in the house’ I kept my eyes open and so I met open-minded (of course I didn’t know that term back then) and curious kids who liked my ink pen from Poland or my the little drawings I was doing in my notebooks when I didn’t understand class… I found friends who let me in and who would ‘listen to who I am’ instead of judging. I became happy where I was.
Eventually with fifteen I even became the cool girl. In times where only a pullover from Benetton and colorful socks from Esprit would matter, I would dig out old treasures from the depths of my grandma’s wardrobe (I loved the 60ties and 70ties!) and wear those ‘pearls’ with pride. All over sudden the old stuff was ‘vintage’ and I was a cool fashion icon (I would probably make a good figure in the streets of today’s Williamsburg).
As I said, eventually I started to ‘fit in’ and I became happy… The first ‚new home’ of many to follow in my life…
But let me go back to the cultural differences. In many ways there was a bit of what we can call a culture shock in my first years in Germany. The two countries were similar when it comes to food, climate, every day habits… But I was struggling with the relations between people…
All over sudden I couldn’t just go to see a girlfriend, knock on her door unannounced, asking if she wants to ‚hang out’. No, I had to call to pre-schedule an appointment. I remember how rude I found a friend asking me to call her back later because her favourite TV show was on. She hung up leaving me with an ‘open mouth’. I found that so rude and selfish. At that time. Only to find myself becoming like that girl, with time passing. At one point I went to Poland and I found it hypocrite when my aunty was preparing a cake for visitors mumbling under her nose she has no time for them and that they always invite themselves when she had made other plans. I told her to just cancel and she said it’s a no go. I knew it wasn’t… Polish people are known for hospitality and generosity and the guest is king. Always! Even unannounced. In times where Poland was a poor country people would keep close and when having a guest they would magically conjure something up from the depths of their fridges and cupboards, even if the shelves in the shops were empty and you could only get food supplies when you had connections or drove 60 km to the next big city. I guess people needed one another, so they stuck together. Whatever motives, it was nice!
I found it strange, impersonal and ‚rude’ that in Germany neighbors living for 20 years next to each other never saw the inside of the other person’s house and only exchanged a small talk on the porch. In Poland (at that time at least) neighbors would be something like friends. Would help each other. Women would ‚borrow’ an egg for a cake from the one living next door, just to bring her half of that cake an hour later because she saw that the first one has visitors coming. Helping others was part of the culture, of the mentality.
I remember my parents having a telephone installed in the hallway for the whole neighborhood to be able to use it. That was in times where not many people had a phone and we were lucky to have it. My dad filled an important position with Łączność (the only telecommunication provider in Poland at this time, state-owned of course). So why keeping that ‚luck’ to ourselves? As a kid I always had to run somewhere to tell someone, her cousin/ auntie/ mum/ sister-in-law etc. is on the phone. I remember times where I shared my ‘Mars’ bar with the whole class whenever our German family sent us a package or when my dad came back from visiting his grandfather in West Germany. I had my whole class squeezing in our little apartment to watch Mary Poppins and I remember all women from the neighborhood crying in our living room over ‚Gone with the Wind’ because there were only 3 VHS devices in our town – one of them belonged to my parents. Cosy times. Happy times.
Then I moved to Germany and to a bigger city. All over sudden I was surrounded by people living for themselves and the relations with neighbors were anonymous (at least until a nice Turkish family moved next door and the woman was sharing her cake with us :)). I didn’t like it. I found it ‚cold’. But eventually, with time I discovered that Germans might need more time to get close to one another but when they do, they can be the loyalist friends you can have. No falsity and hypocrisy.
I guess at the end I picked for myself what I liked the best from both cultures and what I thought would make me a better person.
I always disliked the question ‚do you feel more Polish or German’? How can you answer that when you lived all your adult life in a ‘new’ country and became detached from the one which formed the base of your character? I never wanted to deny my routes by at the same time I lost touch with the Polish everyday life. I tried to hold on to the strings. I read Polish books and listened to Polish music and was always interested in what’s going on over there. Rather cultural then politically. In my heart I felt Polish but my behaviour was transforming towards the German way of acting, thinking and managing the daily life.
Then I left… I studied in France, in Spain, I lived and worked in Malta, in London, I traveled the world… I’m working in Tourism and in Marketing. Both fields are close to people. Different people and different cultures. My whole life is about exploring the local way of living in all parts of this planet. The man on my side is similar to me, he comes from the other side of the world. My friends are very diverse… In mentality, culture, upbringing… There are all kinds of people in my life. Poor, rich, older, younger, religious and atheists, conservative, gay, yogis, businesspeople, people who never left their village and people who traveled the world.
Cultural diversity is something beautiful!
Most of the people who I encounter on my path however did travel, lived in different countries, are well-educated and you would think they are all open-minded… Yet I am always amazed how many prejudice some people have against others. How much ignorance there is out there and how narrow-minded people can be.
I remember in 2002, in France someone asking me if I’m ‚pro EU’. ‚Because no one is going to tell him how to make his cheese and his wine’. Well… At this time I was a student of Tourism Management on a European scholarship in France (the French company didn’t pay for my internship)… Ehm…. Hello?! You are asking the wrong person dude!
Then back to Germany a Polish fellow (father of a friend) asked me why I went to ‚the land of the frog eaters’, if I didn’t like our ‘good old Polish food’ and if ‘next I will be going to the Macaronis’. Then he switched the conversation to ‚how bad the German health system is’. I replied asking why doesn’t he go back to Poland if everything is so bad in foreign countries. The consequence was that I was not allowed to befriend this girl anymore… Oh well…
Ok that was 14 years ago but nowadays? It is still happening to me and I really dislike ignorant and intolerant comments (especially coming from educated people).
When living in Malta, my local colleagues couldn’t understand why I’m freezing in winter in a Maltese office when outside it was 16 degrees (which is lovely) but the same 16 degrees were inside (which is not lovely at all). Not even speaking about the humidity, the wind, the fact that Malta is an island. Same for Spain. In winter of my Erasmus year in Gandía – a tourist town with not isolated houses and with no central heating – we used ‚estufas’ (little electric heaters) to keep us warm. Totally fine, but then why the hell the very same guy who shared the flat with me back then and is still my friend today, makes it a debate every time I come to his place and freeze to death because he can’t accept that I perceive the cold differently to him because in Germany (or Poland) we have houses prepared for heavy winters and we heat inside. He can’t let it go but tries to educate me each and every time that ‚heating is unhealthy’. Well, then all nations north of France live unhealthy I guess…
What I mean is, let people be… Simple as they are! As they grew up, learned from their ma and grandma… Maybe some things are not great but it’s their culture and their choice! Don’t judge!
French people, stop telling me that I can only eat a soup when I have a flu because in Poland a soup has been a starter to the meal for generations! French and Italian people, I know you have an amazing cuisine but hey, other countries know how to cook too! Look around, taste it, you might discover something new and love it! Italians, stop eating pasta and pizza only, when traveling through other countries! When in Asia, eat rice! Try local food! Germans stop telling me that I’m eating unhealthy because I moved to Spain and eat dinner at 9pm. It works for the Spanish for millions of years, so I guess it won’t kill me. Spanish people, stop laughing about the Germans being on time and instead maybe learn from them. Polish people stop telling me that I should buy a house and plant a tree to have a fulfilled life!…
I’m not saying we have to LIKE everything others do. Just accept it. It doesn’t concern you. Let them be.
No one is a saint, I know. Sometimes what others do can drive us crazy. Personally, I don’t like the fact that in Spain people keep their street shoes inside of the houses. In Poland it’s considered disrespectful to keep the shoes when entering someone’s home. In my partner’s country people even walk barefoot on the street… We both don’t like it when guests keep shoes on in our house. But what am I going to do? Change a whole nation? I chose to live in Spain so I have to take it in and politely ask my friends to take off their shoes when visiting, instead of convincing them that’s unhygienic. At the end it’s only my personal opinion and they can do whatever they want in THEIR own houses!
A propos unhygienic. One friend tried to convince me to not to wash grassy plates full of oil with hot water ‚because it’s summer and in summer we don’t use hot water’. Again, this is Spain where oil is omnipresent! I understand it’s hot in Spain in summer, I shut up and whenever I’m at his place I make sure I pre-wash my wine glass… At the end, this friend is a man! (not judging, joking! ;))
Now, this one is not about cultural difference but about personal choices and acceptance. One friend banters me for years that I’m ‚addicted to technology’ because I use a smart phone, Whatsapp, Facebook etc. I accept her choice not to use Whatsapp and I spend my money on sending her old-fashioned SMS so why can’t she accept that not everyone wants to send a dove with a letter when contacting a friend on the other side of the globe? Let’s see how long before she burns herself making fire signs in an attempt to communicate. Fair enough, she doesn’t have a life outside of her city so maybe she doesn’t need Facebook & Co. to communicate with friends in other destinations. But again, try to understand, what applies to you doesn’t apply to others!
But back to the cultural differences, this one is funny: Lately someone gave me an essay to correct which she wrote for her German class. It was about the German culture. Hmm… Do I correct the grammar and shut up or do I correct the facts? Do I laugh or cry? An intelligent woman, but all she knows about Germans is that ‚they love sausage and beer, always follow the rules and LOVE to work’! Really? Love to work? How about: Education is very important in Germany and people are dedicated to their jobs in order to be able to pay for nice holidays in the sun, because they don’t see it often? How about they love to travel? How about they are curious to see the world and discover other cultures, they like to try local products wherever they go and educate themselves in traditions and rituals of the natives? How about the German bread? How about the loyalty to friends? How about determination? How about local events? Regional products? Spätzle, Knödel, Schnitzel, Grüne Soße, Handkäse, and Apelwoi? How about ‚Frankfurt’ is a city with a nice flair, it stands for Goethe, for economy and banks, for international trades, for Buchmesse and Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung. It’s home to many tourism boards, embassies and tourism companies. It is so much… but it is NOT a sausage! ; )
I guess when it comes to some neanderthals, Germans are ‚squareheads’ who wear white socks until the knee, Polish are stealing cars and drinking vodka, a French fellow walks around with a beret and a baguette under his arm and Spanish run around dressed as matadors yelling ‚Olé’! Hell, really?
I don’t want to sound patronizing. I’m not saying I’m perfect. Often I’m far from it. But I’m trying and I really dislike it when people try to convince others to change in order to match their culture and their way of thinking! We are all different and it’s interesting! That is what makes the world so colourful and exciting! We can learn from others, adapting new ways of living and making new habits, at the same time keeping our traditions and uniqueness. So many possibilities… Just open your eyes! Who are we to judge?!
(If there is a judge, yesterday was his birthday, so let’s be merry! )
Much Love to everyone!
PS: Especially to my non-Christian friends wishing me Merry Christmas.