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Enjoy & Learn

An interview with Mike Kammer
An American in Kraków

Fascinated by Polish culture, a lover of history, and a fan of Czerwone Gitary’s songs even before he came to Poland, Mike Kammer, our English teacher from the FELBERG School in Kraków talks about his impressions of Poland and his work for FELBERG.

Hello Mike.
I’ll start with an easy question. It won’t be as easy as we go on… How long have you been in Poland?
More than a year; sixteen months.
Sixteen months.
Almost, yes, almost sixteen months. Fifteen and a half.
And where do you come from in the US?
From Iowa. It’s a state… Well, I won’t say anything else about it. Let the readers find out on their own where Iowa is…
And what or maybe who made you come to Poland? How did this idea occur to you? I’m sure people ask you this question very often.
Well, to try to make a long story short, I’ve always been fascinated with other cultures, with other countries. My grandmother is English. She was in fact born in Africa when a large part of it was still a British colony. As a child I used to spend hours listening about her childhood in England, about the war - the Second World War - and generally about history. I studied history at the University of Northern Iowa. I had very, very good courses on Polish history there and became very interested in Poland…
Having watched Czterej pancerni i pies
Yes, yes, that helps and listening to Czerwone Gitary and various other things. At university I actually wrote a paper on Polish music of that time. And I heard a lot about the Golden Age of Poland. When Poland went from sea to sea: from Morze Bałtyckie to Morze Czarne. Everybody talks about it. Even to this day Polish people tell me about it: “We were once a great country.”
Did you meet many Polish people in the United States?
Yes. I had the chance to meet the actual Polish people. I had a volunteer job at university being the language partner to people. Through that I met all of the foreign students at UNI and I met actual Polish people, and got along with them very well. They went back to Poland and I finished my studies but we kept in contact. And when I finished my Master’s, which is equivalent to “magister” in Poland, I was kind of aimless. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do like many people who finish their “magister.” And coming here was not really my idea. My friends basically invited me to come. I arrived with two suitcases and four hundred American dollars and a dream. Very shortly I started to meet people and made friends very soon. I found a job very quickly and this is how it all started.
You knew quite a lot about Poland before you actually came here. However, what differences between the Poland from your imagination and the way you actually found it struck you from the very start?
As you know, Americans have generally very strange ideas about Poland based on our experience, our contact with Poland over the years. Our stereotypes are a bit old and out-of-date. I knew, I flatter myself that I knew, much more about Poland than the average American but at the same time I knew much about Poland one hundred years ago or fifty years ago, not very much about Poland today, not very much about the world today. I had never actually been to any other country, besides England as a small child. So the actual Poland and the one from my history books were quite different. It was more in some ways advanced than I imagined and in some ways it was more primitive than I imagined.
If I asked you now to go back to your first week in Kraków, what do you remember? Was there anything that seemed very strange and different to you?
Everything was strange and different. The thing that I remember very well is that because of the strangeness of the place and the jet lag, I would wake up in the morning unable to know, remember, where I was. That was very strange. I remember that very clearly. That, and a sense of isolation of not knowing a single word in the language and listening to all of these conversations and not being able to understand it. It’s very difficult to describe but you feel like an alien. That week was the week of all the firsts: meeting the first people, traveling on the tram for the first time, seeing Wawel for the first time, seeing the city centre, seeing all of these places for the first time. It was a lot to handle at once; it was sensory overload.
So you came to Poland attracted by its history and culture and persuaded by a few Polish friends. And why did you stay here?
Well, part of it is the people. The friends that I made here are the best friends that I made in my life and I can say that without reservation. But there are many other reasons. I appreciate the culture very much. I like my job very much– it’s the best job that I’ve ever had. I get paid to do something which I like very much. But mostly the culture in the general sort of way. I love Kraków very much. I realized that I am very lucky to live in Kraków. I honestly believe that it’s the nicest place in Poland, the golden spot of all Poland. Even though I’ve been here for quite a while, I still, occasionally, at night, when the Rynek is lit up and the weather is very nice if I’m coming from a side street and I walk into the Rynek, I’ll stop for a moment and put my bag down and look around like a Japanese tourist. I still catch myself doing it.

Generally the things that Polish people complain about to me don’t seem that bad. I don’t think it’s such a bad place. I think it’s improving. In English there’s an idiom that “you have to crawl before you can learn to walk” and Poland is still crawling and it’s crawling better and better. I don’t want to sound nationalistic and bragging when I say this but in my country, the United States, we don’t really have anywhere else to go. We’ve sort of hit the ceiling. We can’t really develop any further while Poland is on its way up. It’s a slow change but it’s a change. And it’s really exciting for me to see things change. I think it’s an improvement and I like watching this change and improvement.
You said that you appreciate Polish culture in general. I would like to ask you about some differences between Polish and American culture. Well, the fact that they exist is quite obvious and many of them are known to us. We talk about them in class and we discuss them with our students. But could you bring up some aspects that are most striking to you? What are the things you have found really hard to get accustomed to?
For example, what I personally find really difficult to get used to is the fact that in America when we buy something at a store we greet the person behind the counter. We usually say “Hello.” “How are you?” “How is your day?” as we enter. And in Poland when you do this, even to a clerk who speaks English, you get a very strange response. You get a very shocked look.

Another thing is the fact that people are so strange to each other if they don’t know each other; they’re so silent on trams and stuff. Americans are great talkers. We don’t like silence. In Poland people hardly ever say a word to somebody if they don’t know the person.

Of course, language is a big problem. I knew a few words in Polish when I arrived. What I knew, though, is that you have seven cases of a noun. It sounded worse than Chinese when one of my Polish friends tried to explain the idea to me. I’ve been studying the language quite a lot now but I’ve also had many funny situations when I asked for some very strange things by accident. I still mangle the language pretty badly. I very often confuse, for example, “siadaj” and “spadaj” or “prosze” and “prosię” which has led to some funny situations.

Social life, for example, is very different. When you go to meet your friends in Poland, you are expected to drink a certain amount and eat a certain amount whether you feel like it or not. That’s hard to get used to. In America, if you don’t feel like eating you just say, I don’t feel like eating, and you don’t. So basically what I’ve learned to do is when you visit somebody’s house, eat and drink anything that is offered to you, whether you feel like it or not. In America, it’s not always like this. If somebody offers and you refuse it is perfectly all right. In Poland not so much.
You’ve mentioned parties and social gettogethers. How about Polish cuisine?
The food of course is very different. But I want to make it very clear: not everyone in the USA is fat and not all restaurants are McDonald’s restaurants! Yes, our food is much more unhealthy than yours but they’re just different. One is not better than the other. If you’re accustomed to American food, if you eat it all your life, it’s very hard to switch to the Polish food with potatoes all the time, bread that you can use to anchor a boat, not enough sugar or salt on things, nothing spicy. I didn’t know many Polish dishes as I came. The only dish that I knew was “pierogi” because we had “pierogi” in the States. “Pierogi ruskie.” What I didn’t realize was that there are many kinds of “pierogi.” I remember when in my first or second week in Poland I went to the “bar mleczny” and, having rehearsed it very carefully many times, I carefully pronounced “pierogi” and “proszę.” And the woman at the bar says “Co pierogi?” “Pierogi z mięsem?” “kapustą i grzybami?” And I said “Nie wiem, pierogi.” Fortunately for me what I got was “pierogi ruskie.” Shortly after that someone was kind enough to explain the differences to me.
Another thing is tea. Tea was very hard to get accustomed to. Americans don’t ever drink tea under any circumstances. Tea is an alien culture to us. To learn to drink tea took me about six months.
How about teaching? How is teaching in Poland different from teaching in the United States?
Students are different. American students are much more open to asking questions, generally more talkative and more inquisitive than Polish students. American students express their views more openly and if they don’t know or don’t understand something, they are not afraid to say it aloud. Americans, in general, are much more about the individual and Poles are much more about the group. Poles have that mentality: students versus teacher. In America the mentality is different: it’s students versus each other. There’s such an ethic of competition that nobody would want to do anything to help their competitor. That is why students never copy from one another at tests, for example.
Since we’ve started talking about students, teachers and school, can you tell us more about your experiences with teaching and with teaching at Felberg?
I enjoy teaching very much. I can honestly say it’s the best job I’ve ever had because most of the time it doesn’t feel like real work. I wouldn’t be able to stay here otherwise. That’s the biggest reason why I’m here and why I like it here. I like meeting new people and knowing that I teach them something that is useful to them. So much of Poland being an effective member of the European Union depends on your population learning English. The better you are able to do that the more opportunities there will be for Poland and Polish people. And I’m happy to be able to help people with that.
You’ve worked at Felberg since October 2006, haven’t you?
Yes, I’ve been at Felberg for a comparatively short time but I’m very impressed with it. Students are talkative. They ask very good questions. They seem to understand one another very well and some of them are friends outside the school, and that really helps. There’s a very good atmosphere.
The other thing I really appreciate is that teachers help the other teachers. If you need help with something, if you have a question about a group “What should I do with the group?”, other teachers are really happy to help. All you have to do is ask.
I am truly impressed with their attitude to their work. Felberg teachers are people that care about teaching very much and it’s important for them they work very hard with something they enjoy and that’s really good. I like my job very much and I like to be around other people who enjoy their job. Generally, I have to say that Felberg is one of the least complaining places in Poland.
I’m really happy to hear that. But do we, Poles, really complain so much?
Yes, that’s true. There’s a lot of complaining and a lot of general sort of unhappiness. But it’s not complaining which is the problem. Everybody has a right to complain, but what sometimes makes me angry here is people who complain and then don’t do anything about it.
So there’s complaining. Is there anything else you don’t like here?
The fact that people are sometimes not very trustful of outsiders. The thing that I have noticed is that Poles can be, if you don’t know them well, extremely rude and cold even to each other. But it’s a process. The Pole has to make up his mind that you are OK and once he does this he’ll do everything for you. You can come to his house at any hour of the night and sleep in his bed, but he expects real sacrifices from you in return. Poles are not so quick to make friends but when they do make friends generally they are friends for life.
The last question I would like to ask is actually composed of two parts. If you could transport one thing from America to Poland in order to make it better as you see it, what would that be? Friendliness? And what would you transfer the other direction: from Poland to America?
Yes, I think a little bit more friendliness and openness to strangers and to each other would do wonders here. When I meet Polish people who have been to America, they always say that in America, strangers were so nice to them and were so happy to help them if they were lost and happy to help them with any problem they had. And I’m genuinely happy about that. I would like to see more of that in Poles.

Going the other direction, definitely the thing that impresses me about Poland and that I would love to see more in America is this love of learning, this desire to learn more to know more about other places in the world. Americans don’t have this. Poles are very curious about other countries in the world. The average Pole, I think, is much more knowledgeable about current events about what goes on in the world than the average American. Only 8% of Americans have a passport. That’s literally true. And it’s something like a 100% of Poles.
Dziękuję bardzo za rozmowę.

Agnieszka Czajka
oddział Szkoły FELBERG w Krakowie

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