Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Knowing Poland: the Cornflakes Test

In my last post there was a comment that I "really haven't got a clue about life" in Poland. Whilst I don't agree, I do assume that I know little about life here.

I had been thinking for some time how to express this and eventually come up with the Cornflake Test. More precisely, "Do Polish people eat cornflakes or other (breakfast) cereals, if so when and how?".

I don't have any particular angle on this as I gave up eating cereals many years ago and hadn't thought about it when I came here. I occasionally have muesli with milk in the evening, which some people in England considered a strange time.

My guess is that eating cornflakes, etc is well established amongst a minority of people, but it is a relatively new phenomenon.  They will normally be eaten dry as a snack (mainly afternoon or evening), but milk will be added sometimes. The milk will often be warmed up. I am sure that I saw them referred to as 'płatki śniadanowa' somewhere (breakfast cereals), but I suspect this is an imported concept.

How do I get to this? My direct experience of what people do when they get up in the morning is very limited (whether in England or Poland) and is almost all related to the immediate family. This would tell me that only some of the 'healthy' cereals with bran and fruit (Vitella or whatever) are used, although I would suspect this is a foreign influenced practice. This is primarily a snack and milk is not normally used. (I have much wider experience when offered coffee, for example, of people not having any milk at home. Drinking milk (or other beverages such as water, but not vodka) from the fridge is, I am told, unhealthy, so it is usually warmed up first.

My limited experience is backed up by the lack of advertising here, which in England is an important part of TV revenue. Cornflakes would make an ideal product for placement in soap operas, but I can't recall any. There may be other reasons for this, not least for soap operas that I might just fail to glance at the TV at the right time: I can't even remember what they eat for breakfast on M Jak Miłość.

On the other hand, supermarkets stock a reasonable amount of cereals, though less than in England. I am relying on general impressions, rather than targeted research: I keep forgetting to check when I do the shopping. I did notice, however, that even Biedronka has cornflakes and one other standard cereal. One of their adverts also shows a child eating cereal with milk - part of shop rather than product advertising, however. The volume of milk available in shops brings my direct experience into even stronger doubt, as there are usually large stocks held there.

It is therefore self-evident that I know very little about the ordinary lives of people. Cornflakes may be a trivial example, but how can I possibly know enough to believe, with whatever caveats, that "Poland is one of the best places in the world for normal people to live"? This is not about money, but an absurdly complex judgement in both Poland and England about what constitutes happiness and general well-being. It's just a, sort of, feeling and, whilst I could try to expand, explain and justify, I haven't consciously done so and doubt if I would find it convincing myself if I did. (I'm not sure I could define 'normal people'.)

My prime motivation when I started saying it, some 15 years ago or so, was to counter the blind assumption here that life was and would be so much more wonderful in 'rich' countries like England even though people knew nothing at all about life there: a prime motivation for joining the EU. I was laughed at. I still say it without embarrassment as ignorant Polish self-denigration continues ie "I have no idea whether I'm right, but you know even less than I do." I was, however, reassured somewhat by the realisation among people who returned from the emigration exodus to the promised lands, that Poland was for them the best place to be. (Told you so, but you didn't believe me!)

I'm sorry, but the assumption that life is good in England if you have English wages and life is bad in Poland "if you earn Polish wages" is compete and absolute nonsense.  Anyone who believes this hasn't "got a clue about life": they need to start thinking people not places. (Babcia's very happy on her pension.)

By the way, I hope it's clear that I also know virtually nothing about England either. I like to say that I'm speaking from my South London, or just London perspective. I know roughly zero percent of people there though. I would go so far as to question the existence of an entity labelled "the English" in the way that one think of being Polish. I was therefore interested to find that the beginning of Jeremy Paxton's book "The English" comes very close to concluding this, but it then wanders off. Well he wouldn't have a book would he? I haven't yet managed to get very far with it (three attempts), but his way around this seems to be to assume that the English are the British if you ignore the Scots and Welsh. A more subtle interpretation would be that unconsciously he believes the English are the British middle class. I kept getting the feeling that he "hasn't got a clue about life" in England either. How could he?

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