5 Things That I Liked About Living in Poland as a Jewish-American (And 5 Things I Didn’t Like So Much)

May 3rd. The Day of the Polish Constitution. Sure, I could write a piece about Verb Conjugation. I could write a piece about the cases in the Polish Language, or even a list of my favorite Let’s Play Channels in Polish (which I’m going to watch as soon as I’m done writing this article.

Poland is a fascinating country and one that used to be the largest in all of Europe (not to mention the fact that it was deemed very powerful in “Civilization V”). The landmarks are memorable and virtually every tourist I’ve encountered who has been there has been changed on a very deep level (and luckily I think even with Holocaust tourism there are new dimensions opening up that are facilitating Polish-Jewish dialogue like never before).

Unlike many tourists, I’ve had the privilege of actually having LIVED in Krakow for one year. It was a fantastic experience and one of the best years of my life. As that experience continues to fade into memory (even though it will always be a part of me), I thought it would be wise of me to make some reflections about what I liked and what I didn’t like so much.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: “Straight-Talking” Can Get Time to Get Used to (As an American)

 

Unlike in many English-speaking countries, the culture in Poland encourages people to be blunt with what they’re feeling. Surprisingly, when I look back at it, I’m somewhat…grateful for this mindset. In the United States, where you usually have to be all smiles even with someone who you have intention of getting along with, you constantly doubt social interaction as a façade. In Poland, I knew that if I was doing a bad job, I would be TOLD so, and that if I was doing a good job, I would also be honestly and straightly told as such.

In the United States, a major error would result in a delicately worded speech. In Poland, people would be visibly angry. Like in Israel (in which much of the same culture exists), it felt painful at first. One of my Polish friends told me that it was the primary reason he disliked American culture (he didn’t dislike it as a whole, just that aspect of having to be “nice” all of the time).

For the first month, it was very much like there was a nagging voice telling me that “I would never fit in”. Not even in a previous year in Israel prepared me for the return of “straight-talking”. And…a lot of Polish people can actually be PROUD of the fact that they do this!

 

Liked: A Lot of People Were Willing to Ask About My Story (And Listen)

 

Poland has a distinction of being what is nowadays a very monolithic society in terms of its ethnic makeup but before the Second World War there were significant minority communities from all of the neighboring countries as well as Ashkenazi Jews (yes, contemporary Jewish communities exist in Poland! I know because I visited them every week! Several times every week, actually!) Almost all Poles have a trace of German / Ukrainian / Lithuanian / Jewish / Belorussian / anything I forgot ancestry somewhere in their family tree (and sometimes more than just a trace).

One result of this is that there is a certain “phantom pain” concerning the communities that were killed off en masse (in the case of Jews and Roma) or forcibly repatriated (in the case of many of the others). A lot of people wanted to hear about my story as an American, as a Jew and how my relationship with the Polish story came to be.

Sometimes I would find out intriguing Jewish stories as well, including childhood friendships their grandparents had before Hitler invaded, or noteworthy acts of resistance as well.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Can Ditch Political Correctness Entirely

 

The fact that I heard a number of Islamophobic macroagressions (not a typo in that last word) can’t be ignored. Thankfully they were sparse (very sparse, come to think of it. As in “five times max over the course of a year”). Some of the locals parroted a similar variety of Islamophobia that was motivated in part by “horror stories” from Sweden and Germany, not also to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When I was headed to Sweden for the following year and made the announcement, some people were actually…legitimately worried for my safety.

Dialogue can definitely help with this. And learning the Polish Language is one way with which to meaningfully engage!

 

Liked:  A Lot of Forward-Thinking People Who Are Constructively Critical of Their Milieu and Have a Good Relationship to Their Polish Heritage and History

 

I wasn’t pleased about the Holocaust Bill that passed earlier this year. I understand fully that the Polish Government was dismantled by Nazi Germany and that the Polish state itself did not exist at the time the Holocaust was carried out. I also recognize the acts of resistance as well, wholeheartedly. That said, a full reconciliation will come with a look into the past, including the acts of some Poles who either stood by or may have actively aided the genocide.

I say this as someone to whom Polish culture has changed on a deep level and to whom this country and people mean an awful lot to me and…yes, I owe this country and the fact that I lived there the bulk of my future successes. My relationship with Poland, like my relationship with the other countries in which I have lived, is overwhelmingly positive.

With that also comes a “relationship maturity” in which you will help your country be the most forward-thinking, productive motherland it can be. And I think a lot of my Polish friends have well-developed resistance strategies and constructive criticism that they use to bring their country forward. It is something that I think Americans can really learn from (and, possibly, have been).

It is one think to criticize a country you have no relationship to (and I never do this with a place that I either haven’t visited OR don’t speak the language / haven’t studied the language). It is another thing to reason with your homeland as an adult and bring him or her up via acts of constructive criticism. And that criticism doesn’t take away from the fact that Poland has a lot to admire.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Can Be Very Defensive

 

Some outsiders have this image of Poland as a backwards place where everyone is racist and anti-Semitic. Poland is very divided but in all honesty it isn’t worse or better than the United States (which has similar divisions as well). Krakow in many respects is a lot more accepting than New York City is, as are many other Polish cities.

Several of my Polish friends in Israel got subjected to a significant amount of macroagressions (again, no typo), and to some degree I can understand why some can be defensive, especially if they’ve had negative experiences abroad.

Be prepared for some people to be defensive and make sure to listen and ask questions. We have to learn from each other.

 

Liked: If You Express Any Love of Polish Culture, History, Language or the Like, You’ll Instantly Make Friends

 

My Polish isn’t the best (and given my whole Fiji thing I sort of haven’t been working on it actively), but if you want to make friends with Polish people, learn about their culture. You’d be surprised how easy a connection can come with that. Even a handful of words of Polish can have a magic effect on people.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: The Police Can Be “No-Nonsense” To Unbelievable Degrees

 

That one time a friend of mine was holding a beer and took ONE TINY STEP beyond the rope indicating the “bar territory” and into the square. She was fined on the spot.

At least it wasn’t as bad as the story I heard about the German police officers who positioned themselves at a stoplight at 2 AM after a party for the express purpose of fining people who were jaywalking.

Jokes aside, given the history of “being invaded by everyone”, this element is significant unsurprising. Maybe.

 

Liked: Being an American was NEVER a Liability in Any Regard, and Poland and the United States Do Have a Lot in Common and Many of the Same National Strengths (and Faults)

 

In Germany, saying that I was American would subject me to a three-minute rant about the military-industrial complex by my barber. Israel was, to some degree, even worse in that respect. In Poland, Americans get a variety of special treatment, almost (even if you’re not Polish-American). Only once or twice was I told that Americans “have no culture”.  Instead, I would get asked about my roots or otherwise be told about someone’s family members in Chicago (where it is very much possible to buy tickets in Polish in public transport).

We also have shared histories of multiculturalism and our expatriates being everywhere. Our constitutions guaranteed religious freedom (yes, the Polish Constitution of May 3rd which is the reason I’m writing this piece). Jewish culture and the Yiddish Language very deeply influenced both places. As a Jew, I notice that German-Jewish and German-Polish relations have a lot in common (a history of reconciliation and a lot of people who are mutually interested in both cultures, drastic improvements in Germans’ relationship with Jews and with Poles over the course of the past few decades, etc)

“We Love Americans”. That’s what a Polish friend told me. I doubt more needs to be said.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Conflated All Jews with Orthodox Judaism

Some people expected my family to look like Hasidim. Thankfully there were also others who understood fully that Jews, like any other people group, have a wide variety of appearances and classes. Others expected me to constantly live under the shadow of deep prohibitions all of the time (to be fair, I was more religious back then). Some had perceived that my religion was primarily a list of things I wasn’t allowed to do, rather than a collection of texts, traditions and cultures (come to think of it, it could have been THIS rather than my time in Sweden and Germany that propelled me to becoming less religious).

I will say this: in Poland religions are respected, and Judaism was no exception in this regard. Fun fact: even Polish Catholics sometimes leave notes at the graves of Hasidic masters (!)

 

Liked: Poland Had a SUPERBLY Encouraging Environment for People Wanting to Learn Polish (and an EXCELLENT Balance Between Polish and English / Other Languages)

 

As an elementary learner of Swedish, I felt pressured to really, REALLY not make mistakes, and that some people would switch to English without a second thought if I hesitated. (This, obviously, changes the more you progress “up the ladder”, and now that I’m fluent in Swedish this is a non-issue). Israel sometimes felt the same way outside of the classroom. In Germany there was a bit of the opposite, in which some people who knew English but not German felt that they were saddled with every imaginable difficulty.

In Poland, in contrast to all of these places, there was literally a PERFECT balance between people wanting to use Polish or English to whatever degree you were comfortable with either. A lot of Poles have relatives in literally every corner of the globe (and Polish and English have the distinction of being the two languages I’ve heard spoken in EVERY country I’ve been to, Spanish and Hebrew would have been on the list but I didn’t hear them in Greenland).

I never felt as though I was “bugging people” with using elementary Polish, and I felt that everything I said was heartily appreciated and I was heavily encouraged to continue. Last summer when I devoted some time to “awakening” my Polish again, I felt very much the same way among Polish speakers here.

I really wish that the rest of the world would be a lot more like Poland in this respect. Linguistic diversity and encouragement in language learning needs to be had. Everywhere.

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Did YOU ever spend three months or more in Poland? How did that go for you? Did you ever try learning the Polish Language at all? How was it? Let us know!

Some 100% Original Burmese Songs You Should Listen To (and a CONTEST!!!)

Happy Thingyan, everyone! (ျမန္မာ့ႏွစ္သစ္မွာ မဂၤလာအေပါင္းနဲ႕ ျပည့္စုံၾကပါေစ။) 🙂

Anyhow for today’s post in honor of Burmese New Year (which began yesterday and is still in session, let’s share some songs that are 100% original and also 100% Burmese. They are not taken from any variety of outside melodies in any which way whatsoever J

 

If you’ve think you’ve heard this song at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, let me assure you that you probably dreamt it. J

 

No Norwegian-Irish Melodies to listen to here. Move along. J

 

100% Burmese. Definitely not ABBA at all. Nuh uh. No way.

 

Time for you to savor this Ukrain…I mean Russi… I mean Chine…I mean Burmese song. (Don’t get any funny ideas about thinking that it sounds anything like a song from VIA Gra, some Russian-singing girl band that you probably haven’t heard of until now, unless you know more about that real of the world than I do. As I heard in a similar song somewhere, “Stop! Stop! Stop!”)

 

That sinking feeling you may have heard this song from somewhere is just imaginary.

 

Okay, jokes off, I think you get the idea now. I’m very happy about the fact that Burmese Copy songs exist, and they date from the days of the military dictatorship. The Burmese renditions of these songs usually aren’t direction translations, and often more like “transcreations”. That said, the album through which I first discovered the fine art of Burmese Copy Songs is right here:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/greatest-hits/1222130595

Here’s a challenge.

How many of the songs can you recognize? (Even through just the iTunes previews) Not all of them will be originally English songs, some will also be Chinese, Japanese, Russian or even further beyond.

Everyone who helps me identify a song will have the opportunity for me to pick a topic for me to write about OR write a guest post for this blog.

GOOD LUCK!!! (This is probably one of the hardest challenges I’ve issued yet!)

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How to Do Polyglot Karaoke, Even If There are Only English-Language Songs in the Catalogue

I’ve performed Karaoke songs in a total of thirteen languages to date, not only have I done languages like German and Swedish but also Breton and Greenlandic. In an era in which English-language songs seem to be taking over everywhere, how do I do it?

This piece has been requested for a long time no one has ever written a piece on this before, so I’m going to relate my procedure as best I can.

For one, let me detail the variety of karaoke events I’ve been to thus far in my life:

  • The ones that take place in a bar with many people that sign up and take turns. (In some Chinese ones, you also pay one dollar per song).
  • The room that you rent with your friends, and
  • The living room variety in which you and your friends scramble for what you can find on YouTube or other video services.

For (3), the process in singing songs in other languages can be fairly straightforward. Find songs in your target language that you know happen to exist in Karaoke versions and just sing away (given that I’ve never heard a Breton-language cover song, this is how I got that language on the list).

For (1) and (2), as I already mentioned, you’ll usually need to rely on foreign-language covers of English songs, although you may be lucky and find songs in western European and East Asian Languages in your catalogue (e.g. French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, etc.). This is particularly common in establishments in international cities owned by people from Latin America or East Asia.

If you are in another country, you will usually expect to find hit songs not only in that country’s language(s) but also in the languages of nearby countries. (One example that is hardly surprising is that Swedish songs can be found in many Finnish karaoke establishments. I have a vague memory of Polish ones having some German- and Russian-language songs as well, and had I been more astute at the time I might have noticed ones from other Slavic-speaking countries as well, such as Czechia or Ukraine.)

You can use your smartphone in order to have the lyrics on reference, or otherwise you can memorize them beforehand if you’re feeling committed.

So, where do I find foreign-language cover songs?

  • Disney’s Musical Films

 

Ah, yes, these have been covered in a vast host of languages, almost all Asian and European (although The Lion King was dubbed in Zulu and Moana / Vaiana was dubbed in Tahitian with a Maori dub on the way). What’s more, these covers are due to the official localization efforts of the Disney Corporation.

You can find many of the lyrics for these versions available online, and even if you can’t find them on lyric websites, you could find them in videos (in which the localized language in subtitled) and then you can type them out and post them online or just e-mail them to yourself.

These are usually by go-to songs in multilingual karaoke, although there are some things to know about:

 

  • Some songs require very fast-paced singing or chanting (“Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, “You’re Welcome” from Moana / Vaiana). Unless you’re okay with messing up in front of other people, rehearse these beforehand. Obviously the better you know the language the more readily you’ll be able to use it quickly.
  • Some languages are “latecomers” to the Disney localization game (the Baltic languages [Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian] as well as Vietnamese come to mind). Interestingly many of the Nordic dubs (and some from former communist countries such as Hungary) were actually done in the 1990’s. Interestingly while the voice of Bianca the The Rescuers was a native Hungarian speaker (Eva Gabor), she could not actually voice the character in the Hungarian localization because she was deceased by the time it was in production. Some of the localization collections cover the whole collection of Disney films (even Icelandic, oddly enough) others start from a certain point (I think the Baltic Languages were from 2010 onwards).

 

  • YouTube / iTunes Store Fiddling Can Actually Turn Up Some Interesting Song Covers Across Many Languages

 

Yesterday I purchased a Burmese music album (10 USD for 101 songs, that is NOT a typo!). Across that album (entitled “Greatest Hits”), I encountered past Eurovision Songs, Britney Spears, “You Raise Me Up”, and ABBA…in BURMESE.

I’ve come across a number of very surprising covers, including Chris Brown in Tok Pisin, “Puff the Magic Dragon” in a host of languages, and “You Raise Me Up” in GREENLANDIC:

 

 

There’s seldom a chance that typing in “covers in (INSERT LANGUAGE HERE)” is actually going to turn up meaningful results. You’ll just have to play around with recommended videos, playlists and what-have-you until something interesting comes to you. When I bought that Burmese album, did you think I was getting a bunch of cover songs? Well, it was in the iTunes store, but I don’t have the time to listen to 101 song previews and I hadn’t purchased any new music since early July.

This is one way that the fact that English songs are “taking over the world” can be used to your advantage: you can find fan-covers and fan-translations of a lot of these online. Sometimes you may encounter “singable translations” via lyricstranslate.com or even find them in YouTube Comments(!) And this time, you have many, MANY more languages represented.

Also, one thing I should mention is that a lot of English-language pop songs are commonly translated with singable versions into Irish, which probably has among the richest collection of cover songs out of any market out there (except for maybe Myanmar or other East Asian countries that, as of the time of writing, I don’t know a lot about).

 

 

A lot of these Irish songs also come with full lyrics and English-language translations of these Irish-versions.

 

Other Comments

 

You’re probably wondering, “won’t people think I’m a weirdo for doing this?”

Well, let me tell you, in the United States, I’ve got NOTHING but positive reactions from doing this (from the audience, at least). Some organizers have had mixed reactions but nothing wholly negative (one encouraged me to “sing in Klingon next time”)

I’ve even got some prospective students and friendships out of it, not also to the mention the time I was stopped by a stranger in a bar saying that he saw me sing the Lion King in Icelandic…five months ago! (I do an awful job at being forgettable…)

And, of course, if you’re together with your polyglot friends, you’re with people who think like you, so what more is there to want?

Also, people are not going to be judgmental about your accent, even if you encounter native speakers of the language (happened once when I sung a Polish song), you’ll actually get more enthusiasm from THEM than from anyone else out there.

One of my big life lessons from a few years ago was that “different always does better in the store”. In the store of life, as long as you abide by the social contract, being different and doing it differently will only do you wonders.

Happy singing!