As a child, I used to go on holiday to communism. My father is of Polish descent – hence my ridiculous surname – but grew up somewhat detached from his Polish roots. My grandfather, who had been an officer in the Polish Free Forces, never returned to Poland after the war. My father wasn’t taught to speak Polish and we didn’t celebrate Polish holidays. In the late seventies, however, my half-Polish father met my properly Polish stepmother on a business trip to Warsaw. He was salesman for a global chemical company. She worked for Orbis, the state run tourist company who were hosting them. It was love at first sight. Within months, she was on a plane to the UK and they were married, despite my grandmother’s objections that my stepmother was freedom grasping whore who was only after a passport.
From this point onwards holidays meant trips to Poland to visit Babunya, my stepmother’s mother and my new grandmother. The car was packed to bursting with luxury items such as Kit Kats, Mars Bars and toilet paper. There were mad dashes across Europe. The aim was always to make it through the German/Polish border with its unused unlit roads before dark, when the road would become dangerously indistinguishable from the trees.
Once in Warsaw, we entered a strange beige world where people queued for everything. They queued in their cars for petrol. I queued with my grandmother for non-existent meat or for obscenely brightly coloured cakes in the Super Sam supermarket around the corner from her flat. Entire families subsisted in one bedroom flats in which sofas became beds that became sofas again on a daily basis. The cleverer and more capable you were it seemed, the smaller the flat you deserved. Family outings consisted of trips to church or to local graveyards where my family recounted tales of Poland’s tragic but heroic past. There were numerous attempts to teach me Polish, most of which failed, despite the fact that I seemed quite capable of absorbing and understanding Polish when it came to important matters like ‘lody’ or ice cream.
As a keen shopper, I found communism quite frustrating. I purchased both of the toys available in the state toy store after a strange and confusing process of having to pick the toy and get a receipt for the toy at one desk, take the receipt to another desk to pay for the toy and receive a second receipt that would then be taken to back to the original desk, where I could finally claim the toy itself. I was completely mystified by the lack of chocolate or paper available despite the fact that I had pocket money to burn. My favourite shop, naturally, was the dollar shop, where a huge variety of contraband goods were on sale to those like us, who were lucky enough to be able to pay in hard currency.
I quickly realised that the world looks very different depending on the position and the place from which you view it. In that beige communist world, some things that I took for granted as home truths were turned upside down. At home, Margaret Thatcher as an evil monster who stole the food out of the mouths of starving miners and their children, in Poland she was a symbol of freer and better way of living, in which you were rewarded for intelligence and capability, not punished. Church-going wasn’t just something that old people did. To go to church was a political statement. It marked your resistance to the communist regime and your belief in the possibility of an independent Poland. At home, I had no idea what my purpose was in life. There was nothing to fight for. In Poland it was very clear what my purpose in life was and that there was everything to fight for. I used to fantasise about being a fighter in the Warsaw Uprising alongside my uncle, who as a teenager had thrown Molotov cocktails into German tanks, roasting the men inside alive. There was nothing nobler in my eight year old eyes than sacrificing your life for a free and independent Poland.
As an adult, my eight year old extremism seems slightly terrifying. Though I may have lost my passion for martyrdom, I still, however, take great pleasure in travelling to new places, to new worlds and discovering the ways in they challenge your own assumptions about how the world works and who you are in it. I love the moment when you land in a new country. The moment when you have to work out a whole set of rules for living. Usually it the process starts with having to work out how the transport system, so you can get out of the airport and to whether it is you’re supposed to be going. It’s a game of becoming capable, of learning to swim in new waters, that still thrills me. The game of working out what is considered polite and impolite. Of how to socially interact with people. Of picking up new words and new ways of saying things. Where to shop for essential things. What the definition of cheap and expensive is. How new and now seemingly essential gadgets work. Of trying to fit in, not stand out. I love that moment, when someone finally stops me in the street and asks for directions and I know that I’ve cracked it. I look like a local. Though, of course, there are some worlds in which you will always be strange, foreign, where the best you can hope for it is to be mistaken for a long term resident, a diplomat or an NGO worker.
Until you are capable, you are stupid. Incredibly stupid. Stupid in ways that would never be considered stupid at home. An incredible stupidity that is not only bewildering to you and but to all the people around you. On a recent trip to America, I had one such moment of incredible stupidity with my new freezer. On arriving in my new home, I encountered a large shiny silver wardrobe like object in my kitchen. The classic American fridge freezer. On opening the freezer door, I found to my horror that the previous occupant appeared to have left a drawer full of stale looking ice behind. I emptied the ice out of the drawer and into the sink and went out to buy a bag of fresh ice, just in case I needed a few cubes at some point for a gin and tonic. On returning and opening the freezer door to deposit the my new bag of ice, I discovered that there were still a few cubes of stale ice in the bottom of the freezer drawer. I must have missed a few. I emptied the drawer out again and shut the freezer drawer. The next morning I opened the freezer drawer to discover that the freezer drawer was yet again full of ice. At this point it finally dawned on me that the freezer was making the ice. Though I was still slightly mystified as to why anyone would need that much ice. It was a huge drawer of ice.
Several weeks later, I was talking to a couple from the mid-West about London. They’d recently been to England on vacation. I asked them if there was anything that they found strange while they were there. Ice, they said, they had some real problems with ice. They had been astonished at how difficult it was to get any ice to cool their drinks. There was an ice bucket in their hotel room but no place to fill it with ice anywhere. They’d tramped the lonely corridors of the hotel looking for an ice machine. There were no ice machines. Not a single one. When they asked room service for a bucket full of ice, room service were apparently mystified. Eventually they had gone down to the bar, where the barman proudly presented them with a glass of ice, about four cubes, which was progress but not at all sufficient for their purposes. They didn’t want to put the ice in the drinks, they wanted to put the drinks in the ice. What they’d really needed was a huge drawer of ice. Like the huge drawer of ice I had at home. They were completely bewildered by the fact that no-one in England seemed to understand this.
It’s just ice. That’s all it is. It’s just a mundane detail, a tiny difference, in the logic of the everyday, in how you expect the world to work. But it’s these tiny mundane differences that interest me. The longer you stay somewhere or the more you travel, the more of these tiny differences in logic you encounter. And when you add up all of the tiny differences, you begin to understand why people think differently. You being to access a different mindset and a different way of looking at the world. You can read about different worlds in books, in newspapers, but you’re never really going to understand why different people in different places see the world differently until you’ve actually attempted to live in their world and to navigate its logic, to absorb it into your bones. It’s difficult to understand America’s love affair with the car if you’re British, until you’ve attempted to get to a Walmart Supercenter on foot. Or until you’ve hired a pick up truck, filled it up with cheap gas and driven one hundred miles in a straight line on cruise control through spectacular scenery to the middle of nowhere and sat on the tailgate looking at the stars. I’m not saying America’s love affair with the car isn’t a problem, I saying that it’s a problem that is never going to get solved by people who don’t understand how necessary it can seem to have a car there.
Incredible stupidly when encountering a new world is incredibly useful. Really it should be thought of as intelligent stupidity. It’s an attempt to walk in different shoes. To see how the logic of the new environment reshapes your attitudes and behaviour. To explore the ways in which you might have been a very different person if you had been born in a different place and a different culture.
Of course to be able to travel is a luxury. It’s a privilege. One that I have only recently had access to. A big trip used to be something that I would save up to do every few years. Recently, I‘ve become lucky enough to spend a good two to three months of the year travelling, mainly through work. It’s all very well for me to say that the world would be a better place, if we were all more widely travelled and had spent time living in places with cultures that differ from our own, but for the majority of the people in the world, it’s not a viable option.
For me, the theatre is the place that allowed me to travel, before I was able to actually travel. In the theatre, we have access to an experience of worlds that are not like our own. Worlds that we are separated from by time and place and sometimes by flights of imagination. World’s that work on different sets of rules. Where people’s everyday experience, attitudes and ambitions are different from our own. Novels, cinema and television also allow access to new worlds but theatrical worlds are particularly potent. They are the next best thing to real worlds. As Elinor Fuchs argues, theatrical worlds are reproductions in three dimensions of the logic of other worlds. They are worlds that move in front of us in real time and in real space. In these worlds we observe characters navigating sets of rules that can be very different to rules of our own worlds. Sometimes the characters are familiar with these rules, at other times, they like us, our strangers in a strange land trying to work out the logic of their new environment in order to survive. Sometimes they are limited by the rules of the world they inhabit and long to break and remake its rules or to escape to another place in which they imagine that a different, better set of rules might apply. Through our empathy with them, we can learn to see our own world very differently.
Theatre should enable us to travel. Too often contemporary theatre shows us people like us (inevitably white and middle class) living in worlds like our own and rather than challenging our perspective on the world it confirms our understanding of the world as the correct understanding. It commends us for having the right values and the right attitudes (usually those of a typical Guardian reader).
Theatre should enable us to travel. It should take us to new places and challenge us to rethink our world by engaging with a different worlds with different rules, expectations and assumptions. It should engender within us an incredible stupidity about our own world, encouraging us to question our own everyday rules, expectations and assumptions. It should help us to see our own world differently and remake it anew.