Poles apart? Life in Britain, from a Polish perspective

Polish Specialities

Think back to Christmas Eve last year. Millions of us were en route to family, arriving in time for a meal and glass of something, ahead of the big day. But if you are from Poland, the chances are you may have spent weeks preparing up to 12 individual dishes for a traditional Christmas Eve feast, while turkey would not likely have been a fixture on your seasonal shopping list.

This is how Filip Cuprych spent Christmas Eve, not in his hometown of Elblag, Poland, but in Waltham Forest, London. The dishes are drawn from different regions of Poland, and are 12 in number to represent the apostles. They include red borscht; fish with mushrooms; ‘Greek fish’ (fish with carrots); herring; cabbage with mushrooms; cabbage with peas; vegetable salad; compote of dried fruit; and most intriguingly what he describes as ‘fried doughnuts’. In keeping with tradition, an empty place is set at the table, for an unexpected guest. And, on Easter Monday, it’s traditional to throw water over people – something which no doubt over here would be dubbed as “anti-social behaviour.”

These little differences shouldn’t be surprising: the word ‘Continental’, associated perhaps out of Iron Curtain necessity with Mediterranean Western Europe, has got much bigger since 2004, when eight former Eastern Bloc countries including Poland joined the European Union, followed two years later by Romania and Bulgaria.

Filip first came to Britain in 2006, arriving in Hackney, London. “I decided to have a change,” he says, “I quit my job in my hometown, sold my flat, and came here with the money, not for the money. I just don’t think I would achieve more in my hometown and the option was to go higher, even if it meant starting something from the beginning. Different circumstances, different reality, new challenges, that’s what I wanted.”

This isn’t quite the portrait the British media was painting at the time, of airports and ferries over-run with penniless migrant workers coming to take British jobs. Filip had been a chief of staff at a regional radio station in Poland for 10 years, and decided to size up the opportunities a new life in the UK might offer.

“Of course, joining the European Union had a huge effect in my hometown, we all saw the changes on TV. I decided to wait for a few years, to see if it was really worth coming,” he says. Back then, £1 would buy you around six or seven units of the Zloty, Poland’s currency (meaning “golden”). Interestingly, for a new entrant to the EU, Poland did not convert to the euro, as other countries have done. This was partly down to the perceived weakness of the euro at the time. Since then, the zZloty has increased in value, with a pound now being worth just under five of them, and this is something which Filip says is making Poles think twice about moving to the UK for work.

Before he came to the UK, Filip researched the job market and was offered a job at a few Polish newspapers and magazines. After he arrived, he decided to have a few months off and applied to several recruitment agencies, ending up working for the Office of National Statistics, ironically the government department which keeps track of how many Eastern Europeans live in this country through the Worker Registration Scheme.

It was around this time that Brits began to notice interesting-looking delicatessens appearing, bearing the legend Polski Sklep. Inside, there would be rafts of jars of pickled vegetables and mushrooms, cured sausage, cans of lager named Lech and Tyskie, as well as bottles of sweet cherry liqueur. And, at the counter, there would be heaps of free newspapers and magazines, in Polish, but produced in the UK, for Poles living in this country.

After a few months, Filip moved back to journalism, taking advantage of an explosion in Polish media which saw newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations and websites spring up wherever there were Polish people with money to spend – and advertise with. He worked as a freelance journalist for Goniec, a media group with a magazine and website, as well as online broadcasts, and he now writes features for Cooltura, a glossy, highbrow magazine. He’s also a translator and an interpreter.

Filip estimates there are around two million Poles living in the UK, although this number might be changing even monthly. This is a sizeable proportion of the population, but one which we know relatively little about. Particularly when you compare this to, for instance, the omnipresent media profile of Muslim communities.

I ask Filip if he thinks the media overlooks Poles and Polish culture, in favour of other communities. He says this is simply down to what makes the news – and bad news is what sells papers. “Nobody wants to read about what’s good and what goes smoothly. It’s just boring for the readers. Scandals, tragedies, etc, that’s what’s making headlines,” he says. Currently, there is the Polska! Year season in the UK, a 12-month celebration of Polish arts and culture at venues across Britain which began in May last year, with the Queen as a patron. Filip asks me if I’ve attended any of the events, or even heard of this festival, and I have to shake my head.

Return trips back home to Poland are down to what deals are available online, Filip tells me. The expansion of the EU coincided with the rise of cheap flights and budget airlines, and he says that although he travels back around twice a year, there are others he knows who do so much more frequently, depending on the prices. For instance, recently he purchased two return flights for £30. “It’s really cheap and affordable and I’m glad my British friends decide to visit Poland, come back and thank me for the advice. My country offers a lot to see and experience. Why not grab the chance?” he says. But there are other Poles he has met, who can’t pop back to Poland much at all, because they can’t afford it or decide not to spend too much money and simply save it instead.

This is the flipside of the EU’s expansion, and one which we’re more likely to be familiar with through the media. In 2007, Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police, Julie Spence, went public with her concerns that the government was underestimating the numbers and impact that migrants from Eastern Europe were having on public services such as the police, and that her force needed more funding to cope with the extra demand being put on it.

As a reporter on a local paper in north Cambridgeshire at the time, I remember noting that between a quarter and a third of defendants appearing in a local magistrates court were from Lithuania, most requiring an interpreter, usually on drink driving charges or other motoring offences. This was a staggering proportion for the tiny market town in the Fens which was my patch, but this was an agricultural area, an industry in which the majority of these migrant workers were employed. I remember queues in the local library to use the internet; letters of complaint from neighbours about gangmasters’ vans pulling up in residential areas at 5am and sounding their horns; anonymous tip-offs about rivalry between recruitment agencies turning ugly, with minibuses being vandalised.

But that’s what the media highlights, playing up to the anxieties of middle England. Back to those interesting cultural differences. As with Christmas, Easter has its own traditional ingredients and menu: white borscht; bacon; white sausage; ginger cake. On Easter Saturday and Sunday hard boiled and chopped eggs feature prominently at breakfast. And ‘Wet Monday’ – that’s the Easter Monday custom of throwing water over people. Some sources state that it’s a tradition pre-dating Polish Christianity, whereas others cite it as homage to the baptism of Mieszko I, Duke of the Poland, in the late 10th century.

“That’s when people decide to stay at home,” Filip says. “These days it has become like anti-social behaviour, people use buckets in the street, throwing water into buses and that has nothing common with tradition and a custom!”

To find out more about Polish cuisine, read Filip’s blog at http://www.polishcookery.blogspot.com

First published in January, 2010, in Lucid Magazine; available in This Is The World That We Live In, a collection of Lucid Magazine, at:  http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/sylvia-arthur-and-athena-kugblenu-and-paul-knipe-and-james-willsher/this-is-the-world-that-we-live-in/paperback/product-12034251.html 


About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher jamesgwillsher@hotmail.co.uk
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