There be dragons

Some time ago, this tweet appeared in my timeline. It concerns something that has often occupied my thoughts ever since I came to this country. So, it’s time for me to write a little bit about being an Eastern European. This post does not pretend to be comprehensive, it’s just an account of some of my experience.

For me being Eastern European (in contrast to being European) is part of my (symbolic) DNA. Ever since I could conceive of reality, I have been Eastern European. And for the most part it meant being the poor relative. I think it is fairly safe to say that ‘we all’ envied all of you that lived in Western Europe, we actually called it (and still do call it), the West. Things were only good in the west, it was our (well, yours, really) continental Eden. The West has always been much homogenised, that is to say, Italy is really exactly like Germany, which of course is exactly like the UK and Ireland, which in turn you could really be mistaken for Spain. Absurd? Of course it is. But then Vienna is further to the east than Prague, yet, Prague is in Eastern Europe, while Vienna in the West. Go figure.

The myths of the Western European Eden were so strong that you could hear people say that when you walk in the street, everybody is smiling and very relaxed. After all, how can you not be – you are in bloody paradise.  I still remember my grandmother telling me that as soon as I get to the UK, I will be given a house. For free, of course. I guess, I didn’t count on the house, but was a bit disappointed that people I saw in public did not really have a spring in their step.

Still, after coming to the UK, I quickly realised that while the West-East divide was not exactly one between Eden and Hell, but whether I liked it or not, I was Eastern European, I was also perceived as such. Let me tell two stories.

The first story is a story of a discussion I had with a colleague when interpreting some data. We were talking about the geo-political situation in Europe in the 1960s and beyond and it very quickly transpired that we didn’t agree with each other at all. For him, a self-identified communist, the world’s villain was the United States and the only state that could stop the villain was the hero – the Soviet Union. In fact, he started telling me about the wonders of the Soviet Union and communism, and I was taken aback. He really had no idea about what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain.

Of course, he had never been to Eastern Europe, but he just knew. He had no idea – let alone experience – of arrests, political persecution, food shortages, inability to travel, power cuts, the propaganda. The fear, uncertainty, helplessness. No, he also did not have any experience of being careful about what you say in front of strangers, or of parents being told that their 12-year-old would be expelled from school if he continued with the nonsense of nuancing history, like mine were.

The tweet I quoted at the start of this post:

I wish my fellow lefties fighting for a better world didn’t feel it necessary to erase all the human suffering experienced under Communism. Those of us whose families knew hunger, fear, freezing temps indoors, unsafe abortions, and persecution of gay relatives don’t forget.

would probably have not computed for him.

And I still remember my mother very scared when she came back from my school from parents’ evening. She was shaking as she was pleading with me to shut the f…up. She was trying to explain that we didn’t exactly live in a country with the freedom of speech and speaking one’s mind could be dangerous.

The second story is this. I was at a small symposium which I had co-organised. At the symposium, the name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was mentioned. The person who mentioned him struggled with the pronunciation of the name and after a couple of attempts, she turned to me for help. I politely explained that I had no Hungarian. It is a Finno-Ugric language, while Polish is a Slavonic language, so, I couldn’t guess, even if I wanted to. I thought that had settled the matter, alas, the person who asked me, a British professor of sociology, didn’t give up. After listening to me, she said “Yes, yes, so what’s the pronunciation?” This was the moment it really dawned on me that for the professor I was simply Eastern European. I was a person from ‘the East’, this strange and distant land where it’s very cold. Yes, you all kind of know about Poles and Czechs, but really we all live in Eastern Europe, this big blob on the map where Eastern Europeans live. It really didn’t occur to her that Eastern Europe is a large region with countries, cultures, languages.

In case you wonder, I responded with “How on earth would I know?” which caused some considerable irritation. To this day, I have no idea whether she thought I was just being awkward and could have just told her what the bloody pronunciation was.

Of course, being Eastern European didn’t boil down to these two stories. I cannot remember how many times I was asked how cold it was in Poland (or Eastern Europe) and whether I did get the opportunity to see polar bears (people tend not to believe that, but it is actually true). I think that I was never believed when I said that Polish summers were considerably warmer than British ones. Especially at the beginning, people were asking whether I could really buy the shoes I was wearing, in Poland, or whether I learnt English over there. Paradoxically, yes.

But it was always the discussions about communism that got me. The ever-patronising arguments that what we had in Eastern Europe was not ‘real communism’ or ‘real socialism’ (you see such tweets in the discussion under the tweet I quoted), because real communism is very different. Really, this is the important argument? Human rights were and are broken every day and you want to discuss nomenclature? It turns out that yes, they did and do. I find such discussions insulting.

And then there are discussions about what the Soviet Union and its leaders were supposed to be. The first time I heard that Josef Stalin really was a good man, just things didn’t work out the way he intended, I was shocked. We are, for pity’s sake, talking about the man who killed nations!! Similarly, I must admit that when I saw a banner in honour of Stalin last May, I thought too many red lines were crossed. There are things you really don’t do, it insults the memory of all those who perished.

And so, despite the fact that that Eastern Europe has got much closer to the ever-coveted West (mostly because of cheap airlines), it largely remains a region which used to be described as ‘here be dragons’. Yes, more and more go to see Prague, Krakow or Tallinn, but these drinking trips, occasionally peppered by visiting a historic site or two, offer little to make Eastern Europe less distant.

But there is, and has been for some time, some hope. The hope, in my view, comes from the European Union. As I write this, first exit polls of the EU elections are announced (not exactly giving reason to rejoice), and at least part of Eastern Europe becomes quite European. And as I watch the results in Poland, I know that I vote together with my fellow European citizens. And I became more European than I had ever dreamt.

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