An interview with Mike KammerFascinated 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.
An American in Kraków
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.
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
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
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
How about teaching? How is teaching in
Poland different from teaching in the United
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
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
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.
oddział Szkoły FELBERG w Krakowie
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