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Progress also brings loss

One cannot deny that Poland has made admirable progress since the fall of communism in 1989. But when people take steps forward they leave behind what they wish they could keep. For example, Professor Dr. hab. Agnieszka Salska, head of the American Literature and Culture Department at the English Institute of the University of Lodz, tells me that during the communist era, studying American literature and culture was an officially sanctioned way to be subversive, a cherished mode of resistance to Soviet occupation—and therefore a charge of excitement filled the air every day. American Literature departments across Poland were privileged places where issues could be discussed that were forbidden elsewhere in society. The best students in Poland were drawn to American literature, and they pursued their studies with unusual dedication. Professor Salska admits that she always wondered if there were spies in her classes and who they were, a drawback, to be sure; but now, she says, her students are mainly looking to use their excellent knowledge of the English language to land good jobs. Poland’s most famous living writer, Andrzej Stasiuk, is so disgusted with Poland’s new commercialism, the single-minded chasing after the almighty zloty, that for a while he escaped to the Romanian countryside and wrote about a partly imaginary Romantic ideal of Romania as the epitome of the old, happy communal way of living.

I have a Polish friend who was in the United States when the communist regime fell in Poland. She was pleased, because she remembered the deprivations of the past, the waiting in long lines for nothing in the end. But when she returned last year with her American husband, she was appalled at many of the changes in society. She remembered the sense of community, the time people took to be together, to enjoy one another’s company, the way people would look out for each other in the face of deprivations. In the bad old days, if one found a scarce commodity, one got some of it for one’s friends: like the pigeons I observed in the park. Now, she says, people do not seem to have time for each other. They do not think of each other. They are only concerned about advancing their careers.

They are becoming American-like.