It was six years ago that I first met Barbara, a medical assistant originally from Poland. Every second year I go for my recommended bone density test, a job she does.
When I first met her I immediately noticed her accent. I knew that her original language was most likely Slavic, but I couldn’t put my finger on which one. When it turned out that it was Polish I told her that I came from Hungary. The immediate result was: Polak, Węgier — dwa bratanki, which almost always follows such Polish-Hungarian encounters in the United States.
The conversation immediately turned to our own stories. About how we ended up here and under what circumstances. Barbara and her husband had two boys, whom they wanted to make sure would be fluent in Polish. Almost every summer the boys went to Poland to spend time with their grandparents.
As for the Polish situation at the time, she was full of complaints. She talked about the high unemployment, the millions of Poles who went to Germany, Ireland, and Great Britain to work. During one of our encounters around this time I gingerly brought up the Kaczyński brothers, but I quickly dropped the topic because I got the impression that Barbara found the Kaczyńskis to her liking.
Over the years we compared notes on the state of affairs of the two countries. She complained about her compatriots who don’t work as hard as she does and who expect the state to look after them. We talked about the boys; the older entered college last September. They picked a Catholic-run university for him where the education costs a fortune; in return she expects the boy to ace every subject he is taking. I tried to explain that the first year is the most difficult and that she shouldn’t put too much pressure on the boy. However, she is adamant.
But then we began talking about Poland. Barbara is very well informed on Polish affairs because for an extra $20 a month the family subscribes to four Polish television channels from our local cable provider. She admitted that the younger boy who is still at home is not interested in the Polish channels, but she will pay another $20 next year when forty Polish channels are available.
At this point I said to her that as far as I know Poland is doing very well economically. She who until recently was full of complaints admitted that this is the case but mournfully added that it is only because the European Union is providing the country with money which “they will have to pay back.” After we clarified the meaning of that statement I assured her that for the time being Poland doesn’t have to worry. The money will be coming for at least seven more years. However, this didn’t satisfy Barbara who then began worrying about what will happen if the multinational companies move farther to the East in hopes of lower wages. However, all in all, Poland is doing quite well, she had to admit.
And then she stopped and looked worried. “But I hear that Hungary is not doing at all well.” She couldn’t quite understand why. She remembered how well Hungary fared in the 1970s and 1980s and how envious Poles were when they had a chance to visit the country. What happened? I gave her a very short summary of events of the last ten or so years with special emphasis on the last three. The story of the football stadiums especially appalled her. It was obvious that Barbara knows something about football and also knows that Hungary is nowhere in the international standings. In fact, she even came up with some statistics. But the highlight of our conversation was when I got to the stadium in Felcsút, a town of 1,600 inhabitants with a stadium for 3,600. “You must be kidding! But this is crazy! How can the people put up with that?” I told her that I don’t understand it myself but this is how it is.
The history of two countries in the last six years. The always complaining Polish Barbara now feels sorry for Hungary and the Hungarians. I think she also came to the conclusion that there is something very wrong with a prime minister who builds a huge stadium in his boyhood village, right next door to his weekend house.
When it was all over she embraced me. I’ll be curious how our next conversation will go.