Thursday, August 28, 2014

noticing the normal part 2

After living here and then returning to the States I noticed the difference in what you are exposed to more than anything. On the streets, in the stores, at restaurants. America, the part I am from, is very... sterile, I guess you could say. Very clean, manicured. (In fact you pay money to an association, in your neighborhood, whose sole purpose is to make sure that everyone around you keeps their homes manicured and sterile).

 If someone is drinking, in public, in the middle of the day, the police are immediately called. Inebriation happens in your backyard, your living room, or at a bar. Never out in the open (at least not for long).

Old people. Older, like 10 years past retirement age, walking slowly, white hair. Where are these people in America?  I rarely saw them as I went about my daily life. I certainly wasn't rubbing elbows with them at the checkout line in Target.

People with physical or mental disabilities. Never. Ok, maybe every once in a while, in a group whose sole purpose is to take  people out for an outing and then back to the school or home where they spend most of their time.

It's almost as if, along with our lawns and our appearance, we have manicured who we encounter as we walk out our front door. How? I don't know. Societal pressure. Choice. Money. In a country that prides itself on being diverse and tolerant, America also likes it's special schools, it's special homes, and it's institutions. Visible difference or suffering makes people uncomfortable. A lot of people simply tuck it away or don't deal with it at all. It's easy to do that in America.

So when we had a friend visit us last summer, here in Krakow,  he asked us one evening as we were discussing his trip to Europe (including several countries)...

"Why are there so many "different" people?... have you guys noticed that?... so many people with disabilities, or really old, or looking kind of not all put together," ( he was trying to be does one discuss these things after all?).

Martin and I both kind of chuckled. He had noticed all the "not normal."

Part of raising my kids here is choosing to expose them to all of this I mentioned in my rant against those people in Kazimierz... this WORLD. See, what you get in American suburbs is exactly what American suburbs are serving up... normality. A pre-prescribed normality. An agreed upon normality. A uniformity. A uniformity that money can buy, and one that is increasingly manicured and detailed the more money you have. I grew up in this. Most of my friends grew up in this. Martin, at least in America, grew up in this. And to be able to live in  the American suburbs is the "American dream," white picket fence, and all that. Safety, good schools, neighbors who are similar to you in many ways. It's not very far to the soup kitchen for the homeless or the women's shelter for battered women, but you have to make the effort, you have to seek out the suffering, the different.

There's nothing wrong with that. I mean, nothing morally wrong with that. At least I don't think so. It's a very comforting, restful existence.  You have to be invited into people's homes to see them live. There are the differences, the struggles, the "not normal". But only if you're invited, if you're trusted. Rarely in public.

So sterile. So prepackaged. So predictable.

 Poland, perhaps I should say, Europe, is just so... raw. So real. So unpredictable.

 I like that. It's been good for me. To know that this is what life can be like, all the pretty and ugly, together. Being exposed to, on a daily basis, what I normally would have to seek out. I like that my kids get to see all kinds of people living out their lives. ALL kinds of people, not just the ones that are socially acceptable, even if that means they have to see things that are "unpleasant."

If you have always lived here you probably think I'm crazy to talk about this for so long. For sure, I'm talking about your backyard, and it has always looked like that, all of this is normal for you, regular, every day living in Krakow, Poland.

Little by little it is becoming so for me as well.  It's a good thing.


  1. Interestingly, some of my observations regarding Poland and US are just the opposite. For example, people with disabilities (physical and mental). When I came to the US I was amazed how many people you see all around in wheelchairs, with oxygen tanks, with walkers etc., which was not something I was used to in Poland. I attributed it to the fact that the States had a well-developed disability-friendly infrastructure (ramps, designated parking areas, handicapped bathrooms, elevators, custom fitted minivans etc.) while Poland didn't (at least not at the time). I felt sorry for Poles with disabilities whom I guessed imprisoned in their homes due to lack of such infrastructure to enable them to get around.

    As for the other things, I think that large American cities are much more like Poland with their smelly drunks, busy and diverse crowd, lewdness - all the good and the bad. It's the nature of concentrated human mass. Outside of large cities the US is much more spread out, hence fewer opportunities to experience the "not-normal" if you're middle class. If you're not, your normal might be just as bad or much worse, only a few miles down from a posh sterile neighborhood. It often is.

    In Central New York, I don't find my environment nearly as sterile as what you describe in Texas. And of course when I lived in Poland, I was used people pissing under a bridge as you walk past it ;).

    1. Big American cities are totally different from American suburbs. I would say there isn't much difference between a city like Berlin and New York, but big American cities are scarier because you don't know who has a gun.

      I see her point about the suburbs in the US being a less diverse more segregated places than what you encounter in Europe. One big reason is the lack of public transportation in most suburbs. Everyone is driving so they aren't running into each other. In Europe people take public transportation and this brings everyone into contact with each other. Also police in the suburbs have less crime so they are more likely to tell homeless people they have to leave or else. I remember a couple of times homeless people showed up in my parents suburb. They didn't last long because people would complain and they would be harassed by the police. In Chicago I doubt the police spend much time on things like that.

    2. I think you both make good points. And yes, to Sara's point, I was talking about the suburbs mostly, because that was my experience before moving here, so that is what I have to draw upon in comparison. New York is a whole other ball game for the tame middle class suburbs of Austin, Texas. I don't find the cities here scary at all. There are no guns on the streets really, and those looking for trouble are looking for fights with other thugs, not messing with a woman and her children. I wouldn't walk down a dark alley at night alone, but that's not wise anywhere.

    3. I too would dislike being in a wheelchair here in Poland. I have said this aloud many times, there are some places you can barely get into with a stroller and many buildings that have no elevators. Where we came from in the states you just don't rub elbows with many people different from yourself and if you choose it, you never will. This is done purposefully to some extent and people like it.

  2. Texas is far different than pretty much every other state in the United States -- but that is what makes Texas, well, Texas!

    Cities on the other hand, I noticed a LOT of similarities between Polish cities and American cities!! I was shocked when we came to Poland this year for a visit, at the graffiti, the diversity of the people (many of them in the cities obnoxiously loud...many in the villages snobbish), the dirt, the scribbled mass mess on the trains -- in contrast, I also noticed the fields of perpetual yellow! You could see it from the airplane.

    In talking to people, I found that unless you are a LEO (law enforcement officer) or former military, you simply did not own a gun in Poland.... very shocking.

    While visiting the graves of my ancestors in NE Poland, I spied 3 men wearing dark clothing congregating near the cemetery walls, and I just watched -- they appeared nervous. About 10 minutes later, a black car rolled up, 6 guys of equal nervousness, and dress got out and they commenced an a$$ beating on the 3 who were waiting....after several minutes, 2 men were on the ground, 1 had fled, and the 6 piled back into their car and sped off....for me it was like watching a movie without American subtitles and still knowing what was going on.... I was waiting for gunshots to sound out -- but none ever did....and I was SHOCKED!!!

    THAT would not happen in the United States cities like New York City, Cleveland, Detroit, or heck -- even Toledo, Ohio where I live! SOMEONE is going to get knifed or shot -- because that's the way it is in the cities in the's definitely not cultured in the cities across the's dirty, it's violent, it's ugly, it's a way of life I wish I didn't have to acknowledge...but it is life!

    I had a friend move from Monroe County, Michigan -- she moved to my neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio... big difference in everything between the two. Both are cities in their respective states, and they lay 16 miles apart... Monroe is everything you might expect to see on the cover of Saturday Evening Post and a Norman Rockwell poster (well sans the heroin problem, the gun problem, and the violence problem)...and then there is Toledo, Ohio.... it's like the bad stuff of Monroe on steroids because of all the ghetto -- and the Obama supporters (because of his race) who think they are entitled to YOUR stuff, even though they aren't...but still try.

    Anywho, my friend was shocked to find all these problems in Toledo, even though our neighborhood is very safe and very quiet -- and she is scared for her children.... by rights she should be, here you don't have to be "involved" in crime to become a victim of it.

    I am used to people peeing on trees, living under bridges, and hearing gun shots -- because I am an American...I will take the bad of Poland and call it a good day.

    1. I have no grand thoughts on the gun problem in America. People just point blank shooting others, crowds, schools, you name it. Horrible, and there is no quick fix. Americans love their guns and for the most part Americans can own gowns safely. It's the crazies who can't...and who are they? Nobody knows. I will say this... I love that I don't have to worry about someone opening fire on a crowd in Krakow. I love that my children will never witness gun violence and that the local schools don't have to have metal detectors or teachers who carry weapons in the classroom.. that is just crazy and sad to me.

      We live down the street form the worst part of Krakow. What people would consider the poorest part of the city. And there is really no violence. No guns. No fear. I have never been afraid here. It's really quite a blessing I take for granted.

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