When you try to fasten your bike to the street lamp at the University campus, two guards appear at once to put you to shame: “Have you ever seen anybody anywhere else in civilised Europe fastening their bike to a street lamp?!”. The answer “Well, yes” only makes things worse. Most people in Poland have their own vision of the norms we aim to accept by joining the EU.
A friend of mine used to say that our countries Portugal and Poland have many things in common. These are not only the very first letters of the names; both Portugal and Poland are two unimportant wild lands situated at the edges of the great civilised Europe. “As you fly to Lisbon, you can notice the exact moment you pass the border between Europe and Portugal. Harmonious views from the window, so organised and full of symmetry, are suddenly replaced by the chaotic abstract picture of colourful fields, industrial sites and settlements. This is my country,” he said, “this is Portugal.”
Thanks to his words I can clearly see my country, Poland, and how much it contrasts with all the other lands in the world, or at least with the EU and its southern neighbours. Each time I come back home from abroad, I quickly recognise the features of being in my country: the untidy backyards, the architectural variety of the villages, the surprisingly (dis)organised spaces. Sweet disorder. Everybody has their own vision. Everybody wants to build their own Versailles, to leave their own pyramids for posterity. These visions, in spite of being sometimes far from reality and good taste, are part of the Polish lifestyle. This is nothing extraordinary. This is normal. One can notice the landmarks of the visions not only in the anarchistic countryside. The visions also grow in the cities and manifest a great illusion: they are supposed to tell strangers how normal it is for us to live in the highest standards. The only problem is that what we call “European standards” is, in fact, our imagination of western norms.
A good example of such visions is the Warsaw Underground which looks like a royal castle with the glass, the marble and the shiny floors. Never mind the costs, the Polish visionaries try to charm the strangers in the way mediaeval architects attracted peasants to their miraculous cathedrals. Usually a tube consists of underground corridors occasionally broken by lightened platforms. Its main function is to transport people. Unfortunately, Warsaw authorities prefer visions to practicalities. In this way, they try to book an eternal place in the hearts of strangers as well as of the inhabitants of Warsaw. The more expensive the underground, the more splendour for the visionaries, never mind the costs of keeping it hyperclean and safe. Never mind the reduction of spending on other ventures, like organising green space for people living in the city. I should not expect anything else, when I hear the words: “What would the foreigners say … .”
The main difference I notice between the Polish and any other foreign tube is the exaggerated level of cleanliness and the number of guards watching every step you make … . But, sorry, I am not excited about going on the underground, because I find it nothing extraordinary. “The spring clean for the May queen” in Poland never ends. It is a new challenge for the Poles to break their links with the past and make their country attractive. But the idea of changing everything has rather bitter consequences. Each new concept, like a sky-scraper instead of a block of flats, or a trade centre instead of a couple of street stalls, seems to be a new step on the way to order, on the way to normality. The Polish illness is called ‘idealising Europe’. How to make people not believe in this illusion? Would they really listen to the foreigners, whose opinions they always keep in their minds?