New Poland Express 22/10/10: On hardships, both real and imagined

This week’s column, as first seen on Friday in the New Poland Express:

We are fairly certain that just about every expatriate reading this column has at one stage or another greatly exaggerated their suffering at the hands of Poland’s weather/bureaucracy/infrastructure to the good people back home. We have. It’s part of the attraction of living abroad, no? The chance to bang on about how cold it gets, or how unreliable the electricity is? 


For many, it is a means of ensuring that their employers will continue to handover a hardship allowance for another year. We know a number of people living in what are now EU countries who still receive hardship allowances. One of them used this year’s allowance to install a hot-tub in his apartment.


For others – especially for Brits – exaggerating hardship is simply a way of starting a conversation in a pub. We adore talking about the weather even when the weather is dull, so when outside it’s blowing a blizzard and the temperature is -20, we are usually all too willing to bang on about the day’s walk to the office in Doctor Zhivago-esque terms.


Less amusing are those people – none of whom we assume read this column – who find genuine hardship and outright poverty really quite charming. Just last week the editor of Moscow In Your Pocket was telling us about some North American visitors to a village in the Russian countryside who remarked how ‘sweet and quaint’ it was that women still fetched water from a well each morning. Sweet and quaint? For whom exactly? The women carrying the buckets?

Then there was the sight of Prince Charles telling people in New York this week about how wonderful life is in parts of rural Transylvania, where the way of life has been unchanged for centuries. Yes, unchanged for centuries, which means no running water, no gas, often no electricity and a life of back-breaking work before keeling over with old age at 45. A wonderful way of life indeed! (Charles owns a number of properties in Transylvania: while some he has renovated at vast expense, others remain little more than tumbledowns).

What Charlie Boy and those visitors to the Russian village forget is that the life they find so charming – a pre-industrial life, where social-mobility is unheard of – is not the life those who live it actually chose. They were condemned to it by birth. For Charles and the tourists, playing at being a peasant is an agreeable way to spend a holiday. They can return to their lives of wealth and privilege anytime. For real peasants in the most deprived parts of Europe, there is no other life to return to.

Read all Bucharest Life’s columns in the New Poland Express here.