Lots of foreigners consider Poland to be a poor communist state with wild beasts on the roads. In fact, the country is situated in the very heart of Europe - and saying that Poland is the centre of the ex-communist bloc makes the majority of Poles furious. It is true that it is geographically close to Russia, which is Poland’s neighbour, indeed, but you should not forget that Russia is an enormously big country and its European part constitutes only a small fraction of its total territory. Since Poland became a member of the European Union, it has become even closer to the Western world.
Here are the most popular stereotypes of Poles and Poland. It is hard to deny that the problems mentioned below do not exist at all - of course they do, like in any other Western country. However they are being extremely exaggerated, especially by those who tend to ridicule the image of Poland in the public eye.
First stereotype: Poles do not speak foreign languages
Generally speaking, it is not Poland’s best feature. According to the latest surveys only 8 percent of Poland's citizens officially admit to the ability of speaking any foreign language. However the situation has been improving and it is not as dramatic as it may seem. The basics of English are known to the majority of the younger generation, while adults and elderly people speak a little Russian as it was an obligatory foreign language at school in communist Poland (lots of people do not even reveal this fact, because nowadays Russian is not as useful as it used to be a few decades ago). Moreover, learning foreign languages has become very fashionable in Poland. Language schools and university courses are besieged by thousands of young applicants eager to study and make use of their abilities. Believe it or not, Poles have dealt with the problem more effectively than Italians or Spaniards, for whom mastering a foreign language at any level is much more difficult.
Second stereotype: Poles never smile, but complain a lot
This fact concerns the older part of Polish society who grew up and lived under a communist system. The continuous lack of basic goods (including meat, razor blades, sugar or toilet paper) and the absurdity of everyday life (enormous queues, extreme bureaucracy and propaganda) would exhaust the patience of a saint, not to mention ordinary people. Many of them do not believe in any improvement of their situations, so they only complain. On the other hand, Poles always can laugh at themselves and have been known for the brilliant comedies and cabarets.
The first years of capitalism brought quick changes and instability that were completely new challenges for lots of people. Many of them were left disappointed with the new system and… keep complaining. Although the Poland's economy is still developing and the population grows richer and richer, Poles are accustomed to complaining. Over half of Polish citizens believe that even joining the European Union did not improve their living conditions.
On the other hand, young people are more similar to their Western European peers – they hardly complain, and they smile a lot.
Third stereotype: Poles are intolerant and full of anti-Semitism
Once Poland was a multinational country where Poles learned to accept diversity and respect the beliefs of other people. Lots of foreigners come here for to stay permanently, including scientists, students, qualified specialists etc. Poland is also home to thousands of refugees escaping from war, famine and natural disasters. The majority of them are citizens of poor African or Asian countries, former Yugoslavia and the Soviet bloc. Temporary visas are distributed almost off-hand, whereas refugees are provided with accommodation or even support in finding a job. There are also numerous minority groups, e.g. gypsies, that create their own communities and freely cultivate their own culture and religion.
As far as anti-Semitism is concerned, this is a common trend that was not invented here in Poland. It is prohibited by law and is not officially followed. People admitting Jewish origins are treated equally to any of the other minority groups mentioned above and have exactly the same rights. Moreover, the Polish Government tries to improve the relationships with Jews. Since re-establishing diplomatic contacts with Israel in 1987, a lot of effort is being made to create a better understanding of Poland to Israeli youth visiting the country on Holocaust anniversaries. Young people come to participate in seminars and try to discover their roots.
Fourth stereotype: Poles abuse alkohol
Undoubtedly, the culture of drinking alcohol is highly developed in Poland. Its roots go back to the times of monarchy and nobility, who in the 17th century even had the slogan “eat, drink and loosen your belt”. This way of spending time is still very popular in Poland. However, do not suppose that you will see Polish streets full of overweight or drunk people. Poles often go to bars and pubs - they are the most frequent places to meet friends. Traditionally, the most popular alcoholic drink was vodka, but today more people, especially younger generations, choose beer - and beer is now really good in Poland.
Fifth stereotype: Organised crime and car theft are part of everyday life
Poland is said to be extremely dangerous country, which is a hard exaggeration. But the truth is that nowadays you may be robbed or killed anywhere you go irrespective of the latitude or political status of the country you are visiting (even in St. Peter's Square in Rome). Crime and terrorism have become one of the greatest world menaces and everyone should be aware of it.
However, here are some tips that you should bear in mind while travelling. As car-related crimes such as break-ins and outright thefts are quite common, we advise you to leave your car in the special, guarded parking lots - Polish towns teem with them and, surprisingly, they are not horribly expensive (approx. 3-5 PLN per hour depending on the place itself, of course). Do not leave any valuable items inside the car, especially on the front or back seats, or anywhere that they are visible - this attracts the attention of thieves. In case a car theft happens to you, always report it to the police. It is not likely that you will be able to regain your property, but you will be given the appropriate confirmation you need to claim insurance in your country.