Olga Karnas ’16: Bochnia, Poland

by Aaron Gertler


vicariousglobetrotter - bochnia

Note to readers: It’s been a while since the last update. My previous post, on a student who spent most of his or her life in a country without much freedom of speech, was taken down due to concerns for the potential well-being of that student’s family were someone in authority to have run across it. I may write in more detail on this matter someday. Until then, enjoy this conversation, with someone whose country, along with many others, won such freedoms a few years before I was born. The arc of history bends toward openness.

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First, the obligatory comment on Yale dining: Silliman gives brunchgoers a choice between crispy and streaky bacon. I hope none of my Sillimander friends take such a privilege for granted. They live the lives of kings and queens.

Olga Karnas, the actual subject of this post, is a Polish freshman of great poise. (As we talk, I keep forgetting that this is her first semester in America; she’s developed a great many detailed, insightful opinions in four months.) In keeping with my conversational M.O., I launch headlong into a series of semi-ignorant statements and hope she doesn’t think I’m a lunatic:

So my mental image of Poland only goes up to the beginning of WWII and then kind of stops. What is it like now… overall? And stuff?

This works well, to my pleasant surprise. Olga tells me that, first and foremost, I should know Poland is different from Western Europe. I pick up bits and pieces of the Polish mindset throughout our conversation—it’s a conservative place in many ways, but also full of energy. The educational system is competitive; kids race to fill their schedules with extracurriculars, exams determine high school placement, and students always know where they rank. The best public schools are seen as equal to, or better than, their private counterparts, and there’s not much of a gap between the “best” and “typical” schools, in part thanks to the way they are funded. Unlike in the United States, where local property taxes determine much of a school’s budget, Poland apportions money more or less equally to the local governments in charge of management. Good old ex-Communism, right?

Bochnia, Poland. (Creative Commons)
Bochnia, Poland. (Creative Commons)

Olga’s language skills—Polish, German, English—won her a place in her top-choice public school. While a student, her extracurriculars were of the kind familiar to Americans—save for competitive theater, wherein she took to the road with other traveling actors and dueled opposing schools to the death onstage, or maybe just tried to win a trophy in safe, non-interactive fashion. I didn’t dare ask which. Despite a Best Actress award in eighth grade, she remained a humble student, taking advantage of the “very European” Polish system of education, which allows students to focus on their favorite subjects. “Europe gave us the Renaissance,” notes Olga, “but no one expects Renaissance people anymore.” We discuss Polish history, details of which are well-known dating back over 1000 years, since the nation became Christian. I guess the pagans were pretty mild-mannered about giving up their religion? “No. We just don’t like to talk about how we crushed them.”

Whatever happened to the pagans, they’re gone now, and Poland is a Catholic country. “That doesn’t make us Christian,” Olga notes, “but we’re Catholic. There’s a huge difference.” The difference seems to be the extent to which one looks down infrequent churchgoers—this is rather common in many parts of Poland. The Church is a major source of political power in the nation, having joined the Polish left (their ideological enemies) to form the Solidarity movement, which kicked out the Soviets in 1989. There are still leftists in Poland, many of them wealthy, but few could challenge the Catholic domination of that post-Soviet power vacuum. “Everyone loved the Church,” according to Olga—or at least they did for a few years. “Now, many people hate them.” One hallmark of religious rule is public debate on reproductive health—abortion, yes, but also in vitro fertilization, which kills frozen embryos.

But politics aren’t all about morality; nowadays, the Polish press includes a healthy dose of conspiracy. In April 2010, a plane crash killed all 96 passengers—including Poland’s president, top general, top financier, and 15 members of Parliament—on their journey to commemorate the site of the WWII-era Katyn massacre, where Soviet secret police massacred over 20,000 Polish soldiers, police officers and intellectuals in a remote forest, and for which the USSR claimed no responsibility until 1990. This new tragedy, literally piled atop the old, led to immediate suspicions of sabotage, by Russia or some other sinister party, though such claims are seen as unfounded by the “rational people” who call the crash an accident. “We haven’t had a day in the media where people haven’t been arguing about the crash,” Olga complains; accusations fill the tabloids and seem to be having some effect on public opinion.

Such furious commentary on a years-old issue might speak to the relaxed nature of Polish poitics. Politicians tend to be well-educated but not especially wealthy, and campaign spending is “nothing like in the U.S.” This sounds like my kind of country, but a lot of Poles must like the U.S. for other reasons; the nation is up in arms over American travel policy, which makes getting visas an ordeal for Polish visitors. Long lines and detailed questioning make tourism and study-abroad harder, but are also “humiliating in general.” Olga’s countrymen get the impression that the U.S. doesn’t trust them. “We sent so many troops to Iraq that we had our own zone of the country,” she tells me; there were only three other zones. “I understand they don’t want people overstaying their visas, but this is 2012, and we are European Union citizens.” Someday soon, I hope some clever congressperson can capitalize on this cauldron of rage, reforming visa policy and winning thousands of grateful Polish voters. He’d be from Chicago, the large city with the highest percentage of Poles. He’d be liberal, young, in search of support… he’d be Barack Obama. And still, Poland waits in line!

The visa process was Olga’s first impression of America, and the second was Yale’s OIS program, which gives international students a week to settle in before other freshmen arrive. “That was so much cooler than the rest of Camp Yale,” Olga tells me, “because we’re international, and we knew there was going to be an American invasion soon. Thousands of stuff you’re bringing to your dorms.” We are consumerists, it seems, and “very scared about stuff.” Olga imitates an American: “I’ve got my shelves here, my plastic spoons here, my little boxes of cereal here. So many things I never knew existed, Americans think are necessary for your existence…” Also, we sleep with our curtains closed, ignoring the sun, something Olga will not stand for. Do you have a sensible sleep schedule? “Well, no…”

Olga Karnas
Olga Karnas

To its credit, OIS tried to warn students about the vagaries of American culture. “Americans have a thing for hugs, but don’t kiss them on the cheek,” Olga recalls being told. “And they are very Puritan. I remember in my FroCo group, I cracked this one BDSM joke, and everyone just stared at me. In Europe, if you’re 18 or 19, you know at least one BDSM joke.” Do you know any Polish jokes? “About Polish people? That’s an American thing.” Any American jokes? Our body weight and IQs seem to be the main targets of European humor, but one could say the same about every ethnic joke Americans invented, so there you go.

Like Australians, Poles are careful not to brag about themselves—an impulse not often seen in America. Despite her FroCo’s encouragement, Olga couldn’t bear to email her suite a list of her accomplishments. “In Europe, if you’re going to brag, you need to do it in a more… smart way.” Your friends or distant relatives do it for you, it seems, and you can return the favor. Don’t your parents brag about you coming to school here? Olga nods, but the idea seems disquieting to her. The lack of bragging seems to derive in part from a generally laid-back attitude in Poland, but this is beginning to change. Olga’s little brother will soon turn seven; he’s growing up very differently than she did, with a more “professionalized” life in the American style, built around structured activities and the Internet and the country’s rising GDP. He’s also male, which apparently gives him a greater set of options. (Olga plans to find a government job, perhaps related to law, which will free her from the wage discrimination and glass ceilings of a private sector with few female CEOs.)

And it’s likely that the younger Karnas, like his sister, will have the chance to be both “overeducated” and over-medicated. State-funded Polish universities will take almost anyone with a high-school diploma, to study any subject, up to the PhD level; the nation’s universal health-care system makes possible a strange Polish obsession with doctors. Each body part has its own specialist, and Olga calls medicine a “social event”. Months might pass before an appointment becomes available in a state clinic, and even when Olga visited a private hospital for pre-college vaccination, the line was four hours long. “I brought a novel to read, but then I finished it. And I was still waiting.”

Before brunch ends, we touch on the nation’s culture. Much mainstream music is imported, as are films, but Polish expats apparently go gaga for “terrible Polish pop music”. And Poles, like most of Europe, are proud of their own sophistication; Woody Allen is an international hero, Olga tells me, but one of her fellow freshmen hadn’t heard of the guy (having missed the 2011 YSO Halloween show). Olga’s family takes classy to an extreme: “We don’t have a TV at home. My parents are against it. They just like being against things.” Instead, they project countless movies onto a wall. These movies are paid for, but much of Poland thrives on piracy: “It’s just the Polish mentality. You don’t pay for something you can’t see.” Always the sophisticates, Poland’s people have also begun pirating e-books since the Kindle arrived. It’s a classic European blend of old-world style and new-world practicality; a blend embodied by Olga the globetrotting history buff, and one I hope, someday, to experience firsthand. Until then, I remain, as always, your devoted Vicarious Globetrotter. Signing off.

Aaron Gertler, our Vicarious Globetrotter, is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at aaron.gertler@yale.edu.