FOREIGNER WANTS TO THINK
[Appeared on p. 2
of the Februrary 2006 issue of This Month in Krakow. Wersja
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.
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:
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
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
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?
Rebuilds! assumed a lot, but mostly - and most importantly
- it assumed the right to stage a performance for an audience as
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.