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In September 1976 I went to Poland on an exchange program through Mennonite Central Committee and the Polish Agricultural Department. One other American, Scott Coates, and I worked on a state farm for a year and had a wonderful time getting to know the Polish people, their culture and language. Neither of us spoke any Polish when we arrived and no one on the farm spoke English. At the beginning we struggled to communicate while learning the language. Some things were easy enough to understand; like when they asked if we smoke (no), or if we drink (no), or if we . . . . (no!).

There was a lot of pressure on us to drink vodka, which was consumed in great quantities in rural Poland. As we developed friendships I would sometimes tease them when they tried to get us to drink. I pointed out that the vodka couldn't be all that good, judging from the faces they made when they drank it and the way they chased it down with juice or water. They admitted I had a point, but it didn't change anything, of course. They kept drinking vodka and we kept declining. I had actually never tasted alcohol and it wasn't until after nine months in Poland that I finally had a glass of wine at a birthday party.

We didn't care for coffee either, but we took it without protest, trying to get it down without making a face. Polish coffee was awful, with an inch of grounds in the bottom of the cup. It was expensive for them and we would be insulting them to refuse, so we put up with it. At first we made the mistake of drinking it, whereupon they would insist we have another. Yuk. We learned to let it sit longer before sipping.

Three weeks after we arrived we were made to understand that there was going to be a big community dance. Of course we were invited. Growing up Mennonite, I had never learned to dance or had ever even been to a dance, but we didn't want to appear standoffish, so we decided to go. We planned on showing up late, saying hi to the people we had gotten to know, and slipping out quietly after a short time. It was not to be. The big news for miles around was that there were two Americans in the village. The dance hall was crowded and noisy when we arrived, but the music stopped and the crowd noise took on a different buzz. "The Americans are here!" They wanted to see how Americans dance, and to my sheer horror, they grabbed me and matched me up with a Polish gal for a dance, with everybody watching! I didn't have a clue how to dance and in desperation I said, "Scott, what do I do?" He said, "Just get out there and start moving." I wanted to drop through the floor, but I started moving. Fortunately, the girl figured out right away that if there was going to be a dance, she would have to lead, so I tried to follow her. The others watched a bit, no doubt disappointed, then resumed their own dancing. By the time the night was over I had even learned a few steps.

We worked with the veterinarian, Wacek, who was a hard worker, but who also enjoyed a practical joke. In October there were three days when the office workers and communist party members all worked in the field to show that under socialism everyone was equal. However, they accompanied their work with a lot of vodka and what they accomplished reflected that. We were harvesting sugar beets, throwing them up onto the wagon, pulled by an old tractor. Jasie, one of the secretaries, was tired (and a little tipsy) and sat on the tractor. Wacek told me to go up to her and say, "Nie opierdalaj sie!" I asked what it meant and he replied, "It means get to work." I didn't quite trust him, so in my limited Polish I queried a couple others as to its meaning. No problem. Theresa, a dignified lady from the office suggested I might not say it in the cafeteria, but here in the field it was ok. So I practiced it several minutes so I could get it perfectly and went up to Jasie and announced my new saying. She turned beet red, jumped off the tractor, grabbed a pitchfork, and got to work. Everyone else was rolling on the ground in fits of hysteria.

Though I didn't know the meaning, the effect was clear enough. Later in the week, we went to Polish lesson with Mrs. Milkowska, an elderly, devout Catholic woman who taught English in a nearby town. When I asked her the meaning of my new phrase, she turned red and exclaimed, "Oh! Oh! Such words I do not know in English!" And such words I am certainly not going to put into print in English in this story!

We did make friends quickly, in spite of the language barrier, and loved being invited to visit in homes. On the advice of a friend at home I had brought a couple bags of popcorn with me to Poland, as it was totally unknown there. After a few months on the farm I decided to treat a family to this American favorite. However, the Poles did not eat corn - that's for cows and pigs - so when I brought out the bag Mrs. Lewera turned up her nose in distaste. For lack of a better term, I told them it was bomb corn and would make it for them. She was skeptical, but pulled out a pan and some oil. I wanted to put the oil in, but she was the cook and she knew how to cook even popcorn, no matter if it's this funny stuff from the US. Over my protest, she dumped in more than necessary, but when it came time to put in the corn I put my foot down. No way was I going to let her dump in the whole bag! When I put a mere handful in the pan Mrs. Lewera grunted at my ignorance. I told her to wait a minute and I left the lid off until the action started. When the first kernel popped she about jumped halfway across the kitchen, and then I put the lid on. She stared at the kettle, listening to the popping going on inside. I wish I had had a camera to catch her expression when I took the lid off to reveal a pan full of fluffy, white popcorn. We all savored the new delight together and a while later I noticed Mrs. Lewera deep in thought. When I asked what she was thinking she replied, "I was just imagining if you had let me dump in the whole bag. The kitchen would have been full to the ceiling with popcorn!"

The Poles displayed a keen sense of humor, particularly in light of their political situation, being under the domination of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. To begin with, we were almost frightened by the disparaging remarks and jokes people would make about both the party and "big brother" and worried what would happen if the wrong people overheard. We learned that humor was the way Poles dealt with life in general and it helped make a bad situation tolerable.

My favorite story was about Russian Premier Leonid Brezhnev, making a state visit to Poland. In his honor, Poland issued a commemorative postage stamp with his picture on it. When Brezhnev arrived in Warsaw they showed him the stamp and asked how he liked it. He agreed it was a nice photo, but felt it was more important what the Polish thought about it. He was told that they like it all right, but they have a hard time getting it to stick to the envelope. "Why is that?" he queried. "Because they always spit on the wrong side!"

Another anecdote reflected their fear of the Chinese, due to the sheer numbers of the yellow people. They claimed that in the last border war between Russia and China, 200 Russian soldiers died as well as five ACRES of Chinese!

Waiting in line was a way of life for the Poles in the 70's. They stood in line for virtually everything. When they would see a line at a store, they would go get in line, and then ask what the line was for, just in case it was something they could use. Both husband and wife generally worked, so often grandmother would spend several hours a day waiting in line to buy bread, meat, medicine, etc. The story is told of a man waiting in a long line in Warsaw who finally has had enough. He says to the man next to him, "I am going to go kill the president!" Not long after he returns to take his place in line and declares, "There was a line there too!"

A true incident, which took place while I was in Warsaw for a few weeks, reflects the solidarity the Poles shared in their contempt for their system. On a crowded streetcar during morning rush hour, an obviously drunk man sat down next to a woman. She pulled away in disgust and he asked, "What's the matter lady? Don't you like me?" No response from the woman. "Oh, I know. My shirt is too wrinkled. Let me tell you why. This morning when I got up I turned on the radio and the president was babbling. I turned on the TV and the president was babbling there too. So I was afraid to turn on the iron." This drew a few snickers from the riders, but then a plainclothes secret police stepped up and informed the man he would have to come with him at the next stop. The man wanted to know why and the S.P. told him he had slandered the state and everybody in the streetcar had heard him. The man asked, "Who heard it?" The S.P. said the woman next to him, for one, had heard it, but she said, "I didn't hear anything!" The S.P. said the other people around heard it and they all chimed in that none of them had heard anything either. The secret police didn't have much choice but to get off alone at the next stop. When the doors had closed behind him the drunk leaned out the window and yelled, "There you big dick head, there you have your true United National Front!"

I worked hard at learning the Polish language, which is incredibly complex. There are seven active grammatical cases, which I didn't even vaguely understand coming from a background in English. Word endings change for nouns, names, verbs, and adjectives depending on the case. An early example was the nearby town of Gryfice. We would get on the bus and hear some people ask for a ticket to Gryfice, while others asked for a ticket to Gryfic. In our limited Polish we asked our veterinarian friend if Gryfice or Gryfic is correct. He said, "Yes!" It took awhile for us to realize there are multiple words for "or" and the one we were using meant "either or", and it can be either name depending on the case. My name is Kent, Kenta, Kentowi, Kentemu, Kencie, or Kentu according to the meaning. We were lucky to have Mrs. Milkowska teaching us the language and we made good progress. After nine months, I visited the Agricultural Ministry in Warsaw and they couldn't believe how I had picked up the language. They said it would be a waste to leave me on the farm the whole time and invited me to come to Warsaw for a month and help them in the office.

I loved Warsaw. It was an exciting, bustling city, especially compared to the state farm we had become accustomed to. Warsaw's Old Town was particularly attractive, having been restored to its pre-war look of colorful buildings and architecture. Artists and artisans lined the old square, selling their wares, but my favorite was the Hortex ice cream stand in the center. They sold homemade ice cream and scooped big dollops onto the cones with wooden spoons - all for about five cents. Yum! On only one occasion was I ever disappointed. I went to the Hortex ice cream parlor with two friends and we ordered a house specialty concoction without having a clue what we were getting. The ice cream was mixed with jello and topped with horseradish salad dressing. I couldn't believe they would put horseradish sauce on their delicious ice cream. Yuk!

The first two weeks in Warsaw I was asked to be interpreter and guide for fourteen young Americans, who had come to Poland as part of a 4-H exchange program. Before they arrived I agreed with Josef, who was in charge of the program, that we would not tell them that I was American. I could speak English with a perfect Polish accent and the students never suspected a thing the whole two weeks. We told them that I had learned my English in the US and Josef told the students that he thought I had learned it pretty well. I joked back that I could probably speak even better than he did. Near the end of orientation I confided in one of the gals that I wanted to go back to the United States and showed her my American passport. She was incredulous and exclaimed, "Where did you get that!?" After a few more hints, she suddenly realized the truth and let out a squeal. We had fun letting the secret out to others in the group. It was most interesting to observe the difference in our relationship before and after. As a "Pole", they certainly treated me well and we had a lot of fun together, but I was still not one of them. But as an "American", I was family and cultural barriers suddenly disappeared.

My sister, Pam, and cousin, Cindy, surprised me with a visit to Poland. They had a friend of theirs write to say she was coming to Poland and would like to stop in for a visit. So I was expecting Andrea. In the middle of the night I was awakened by rocks being thrown at the window. When I looked out a taxi driver asked me if I were expecting family from the USA. I said yes, and then called out to Andrea. My sister tried to disguise her voice and said, "Yeah," but I recognized her instantly and shouted, "Pam!" I raced outside to her and Cindy and couldn't believe they were in Poland. They had had quite a journey getting there, without any knowledge of Polish, but people had been extremely helpful, and they landed on my doorstep. I took leave of work for a few days and we took off to explore a bit of Poland.

In Warsaw I had to take them to the Hortex ice cream parlor, after boasting about the delicious ice cream. We ordered some unknown concoction and started devouring them. After a few bites Cindy declared there was a liqueur in hers. I was a bit embarrassed, but we continued eating until I got to the liqueur, when I exclaimed, "There's horseradish salad dressing in mine!" When Pam and Cindy realized that I thought the liqueur was horseradish sauce, they about fell off their chairs laughing. They said they would go home and assure mom and dad they didn't have to worry about me becoming an alcoholic in Poland!

My biggest culture shock that year was not coming to Poland and all the differences I found there. I was expecting things to be strange behind the iron curtain and over the months, life became very normal to us in Poland. Near the end of our year we had a European conference in Switzerland for MCC workers. Scott and I took the train to East Berlin then crossed over into the west. We were amazed at East Berlin. Because of the tremendous pressure put on the East Germans by the division of Germany, they worked hard to make East Berlin, "Capital of the German Democratic Republic", a showplace for the East Bloc. We were impressed with the buildings and the goods available in the stores; things we had not seen in Poland since arriving there. However, when we crossed over into West Berlin we were absolutely stunned. In less than a year the memories of our "normal" lives in the west had dimmed and we had become accustomed to the gray, drab life in the east. West Berlin came as a shock to us. There were manicured lawns and flower gardens. Shops were brimming with an obscene excess of goods. Butcher shops had meat of all kinds. Fresh fruit was in abundance. Perfectly maintained, sleek cars cruised the streets. Architecture reflected latest designs of glass and steel, with bright color combinations. Neon lights lit up the night. We wandered the streets almost in a trance, remembering that this is what "our world" was like. Later we returned to Poland keenly aware of the size of the divide, they called the iron curtain, and amazed at the system that kept people there.

When our year was up I left Poland with mixed feelings. We had made many good friends and learned so much. I came back the States a different person. I appreciated what I had previously taken for granted. I saw the world in a different light, less black and white, and a little more gray. I no longer thought of capitalism as good and socialism as bad - there are good and bad aspects of both. One anecdote summed it up perfectly; the difference between capitalism and socialism is that under capitalism, man exploits man. Under socialism it's the other way around!

But people are people everywhere and if you are a friend, you will have friends. If you smile at people they will smile at you. I found the Poles to be a wonderful and generous people and to this day, my year in Poland remains one of the highlights of my life.

Kent Kauffman, March 2004

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