From September 2007 till the following February, Dr. David Jackson, political science, was a Fulbright Fellow in Łódź, Poland—not the most scenic city in the country, nor the sunniest time of year in Eastern Europe. But his encounters there were definitely “warm” and accomplished the higher purpose of the Fulbright program: the sharing of cultures and exchange of ideas.
Jackson has written a memoir of his extended learning experience, called Classrooms and Barrooms: An American in Poland, published recently by Hamilton Books. Based on notes he took during his five-month stay and told in vignettes, it offers a rare glimpse into the ways in which working-class Poles perceive themselves and their opinions of America.
It also demonstrates how much an academic can learn outside the classroom over a bottle of beer or a glass of cherry vodka, if he’s willing to engage in conversation. The warmth he experienced came both from the friendships he made and the heated diatribes of which he sometimes found himself on the receiving end.
While teaching in the American studies and mass media department at the University of Łódź, Jackson was fortunate to find the Kresowa Bar—the most political bar he had ever been in, he says. And even more importantly, the man who was to become his favorite bartender, Zbyszek Nowacki, spoke good English and was always willing to translate and provide “cultural sensitivity” guidance—critical when dealing with edgy and intoxicated companions.
Gritty and rough—often referred to as the Manchester of Poland—Łódź, a former textile capital, is a “fairly run-down, industrial sort of place but also a party city,” Jackson said. There are about 165 bars in a two-mile stretch just off Piotrkowska, the town’s main drag, but the Kresowa seemed to attract patrons less interested in partying than in political debate.
The bar’s denizens tended to be very nationalistic, Jackson found. Still smarting over lands in the eastern part of the country that were lost in World War II, they often spoke nostalgically of better times—“which may not have existed,” he said. Mostly from the lower socioeconomic rung, the regulars included men and women, young and old, and “most were very argumentative,” he said. And, partly because “I didn’t know any better, I asked them very provocative questions.” This sometimes led to tense moments when he felt he might well be beaten up by the alcohol-soaked patrons.
But they did the same to him. In fact, his first real conversation at the Kresowa began when an older man asked him to name his favorite American president. Knowing full well that this is a topic of heated debate in Poland, Jackson answered, “F.D.R.”
Sure enough, the older man replied, “F.D.R. good for America; much bad for Poland,” referring to the outcome of the Potsdam and Yalta agreements.
“As a Polish-American, my sympathies are almost always with the Poles on these matters,” Jackson writes, even though he did not always explain his leanings in conversation, preferring just to see where things might lead.
Though his last name is Anglo-Saxon, Jackson is half Polish-American, on his mother’s side, and grew up in Michigan observing traditional Polish holiday traditions, listening to polka music and enjoying Polish food. He does not speak much Polish but his accent is quite good, he writes, which sometimes led to confusion in conversation.
Upon learning he was American, many people “were very eager to have their image clarified,” Jackson said, and took care to explain that not all Poles were guilty of World War II collaboration with the Germans and that the infamous concentration camps in Poland were not theirs but the Nazis’.
Now almost completely made up of ethnic Poles, Łódź used to be very diverse, with thriving Polish, Russian and Jewish populations. The largest Jewish cemetery in all of Europe is there, the Kresowa patrons pointed out, quick to distance themselves from the actions of the Nazis. But a subtle undercurrent of anti-Semitism sometimes ran through their conversation in the way they framed their sentences, he found.
Not all Jackson’s adventures took place at the Kresowa. He had challenging and rewarding classes at the university, always striving to reach his students and often succeeding. And he was able to spend time with newfound friends, especially a memorable Christmas Eve, or wigilia, with the family of one of his students.
He writes humorously of the “(dis)orientation” session for the 15 or so Fulbrighters in Poland that year, which included a trip to caves built by the Nazis—for purposes still unknown. But for Jackson, who at 6-foot-2 is larger than most Poles and claustrophobic to boot, the trip in tiny boats through narrow, low tunnels was nightmarish, though it did help promote bonding among the group.
The sojourn in Łódź, though not his first time in Poland, was his longest stay and his deepest experience with the country. He had visited with his mother and was part of a BGSU project there, among his many visits. He will be returning in May to attend a conference at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and maintains the relationships he formed in Łódź through email and occasional visits. Though it felt a bit like he was abandoning a relationship too soon when he left, he said, he knows he will always return.