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THE FOREIGNER WANTS TO THINK

[Appeared on p. 2 of the Februrary 2006 issue of This Month in Krakow. Wersja polska]

Very roughly speaking, there are two ways to build an expatriate environment. One is exemplified by Prague. Ten to fifteen years ago, rumors began circulating in North America that Prague was to the 1990's what Paris was to the 1930's. Thousands of young Americans and Canadians packed up their acoustic guitars and unfinished novel manuscripts and headed in droves to be a part of the Bohemian fantasy.

Understandably, there has not been an outpouring of great creativity from Prague's English-speaking expatriate community. Slapping together an enclave of American culture in the middle of Central Europe seems like a good recipe for a contrived and largely simulated environment. Hemingway (himself a mediocre artist) apparently fled from Paris in the 30's in disgust at the Bohemian culture. In hindsight, I wonder if many of these young idealists who went to Prague feel like they found the artistic Mecca they were chasing after. Lord only knows what the Czechs have made of the invasion.

Model number two will be more familiar to foreign residents of Kraków. One arrives in a country because of an interest in the country itself, one is compelled to live within and participate in the larger society. One at least partially assimilates. When enough English-speaking people of this sort arrive, talk begins of an expatriate community - by default. When I first arrived, no such phenomenon existed or was even imagined. Hearing English spoken in passing was an event. Slowly - organically as it were - the group of foreigners establishes what might be called an environment. To begin with, this represents itself in low-level needs: the foreigner wants something apart from cabbage and beet-root soup, the foreigner demands peanut butter, sushi restaurants and parmesan cheese. Slowly but surely, however, the foreigner ascends the Great Chain of Being and requires higher-level culture. In short, eventually the foreigner wants to think.

A few months ago, we could be witnesses to the production of Warsaw Rebuilds! premiering at Loch Camelot, written, directed and starring (except for one actor) members of Kraków's expatriate community. Less a production for other Americans than an attempt to diversify or represent the diversification of Kraków's life - which may amount to the same thing - this play addressed, among other things, the decomposition of the American conscience abroad, on a tableau of contemporary Warsaw. A romantic long-time expatriate confronts the vastly changed value systems of a new business-minded expatriate. The text referenced Blake and recent Polish history, discussed notions as unfashionable as 'dignity' and tried to take a serious and often critical look at the expatriate predicament.

The play was good, intelligently written, the amateur actors seemed none too amateur, and yet sitting in the rehearsal I was overcome by a sense of nervousness. Expatriate culture - when has this ever risen above Irish pubs and Monty Python film screenings? Paul Valery wrote in the 1920's that poetry would never have been invented in his pragmatic era if it hadn't already existed. Let's say it's true that every expatriate environment invents its own culture form the ground up. By what strange authority are Kraków American expatriates creating for themselves a high culture? And for what conceivable audience? And what Pole in his/her right mind could give a damn for an American transplant's moral anxiety?

Warsaw Rebuilds! assumed a lot, but mostly - and most importantly - it assumed the right to stage a performance for an audience as intelligent and cultured as might be found in a Polish theater.

We may only hope that the Kraków English-speaking 'environment' continues to come of age so gracefully.