LONDON – If there is one thing the world should be grateful to the Polish people for, it is Q-tips.

The world just wouldn’t be the same if Leo Gerstenzang hadn’t invented them in 1923. With his invention, he joined the ranks of other famous Poles such as John Paul II, Scarlett Johansson, Lech Walesa and Roman Polanski. Or so says a hastily written fact sheet published recently in the Times of London

A new census showed that for the first time in a thousand years, Polish was the second most used language in the United Kingdom after English (and Welsh). Polish is spoken by 546,000 people in Britain, but this doesn’t mean that Poles have dethroned the biggest minorities – Pakistani and Indian. It is just that they speak many dialects, creating a confusion in the statistics.

To find out how we Poles are perceived in the UK, I headed to a pub near London. As if on cue, a Polish song was playing, meaning the bartender is Polish. He doesn’t speak Polish though, even when he knows he is serving compatriots.

Malcom, a faithful Daily Mail reader starts by saying, “No offense, but the Poles…” and goes on with a long litany of complaints about what he calls “the immigration disaster:” Polish people stealing jobs from crisis-stricken Britons, and who send the money they earn back to Poland. The Daily Mail recently calculated Western Union money transfers to Poland at around one billion pounds – $1.5 billion.

Even though some work hard, says Malcom, many are unemployed and on welfare benefits, costing British tax payers around 24 million pounds ($36 million) a year. Because of this, the government is going to have to cut benefits for everyone. But don’t take it personally, he adds. The man sitting next to Malcolm tries to comfort me by saying that many Poles work really hard, like plumbers (even though they charge 50 pounds – $75 –just for walking in the door). Also, recently he saw on National Geographic that Polish and British pilots saved England during WWII, even though he can’t remember the details. 

They’re just like us, adds another man, they just drink more vodka.

Do British people like Polish people? It’s difficult to know. British people are an extremely diverse society in regard to ethnicity, language and class. The British middle-class sees Poles as hard-working people, while British immigrants of Indian or Caribbean origin see them as intolerant and racist.

This is how Malcolm and his friends say they can recognize a Pole (or at least an Eastern European):

- He has a moustache.

- He’s a queue jumper, especially on the bus, as opposed to British people, who will queue even if there is only one person.

- When they are in a bad mood or they feel unwell, they blame it on the atmospheric pressure.

- They drink herbal teas or sour lemon tea and eat sour pickles. And dumplings. And sausage.

- They prefer to go to the dentist or doctor in Poland (which is understandable when considering the quality of the National Health Service).

Peasant stock?

One of the things Malcom and friends found most shocking about Poles is that they hardly ever meet friends in a pub. They always invite you to their house, which means hours spent talking at the kitchen table – something usually reserved for tea with an old aunt, not a drink with friends.

But what disgusts them most is that Poles eat carp for Christmas – a Polish delicacy that in the UK enjoys  similar esteem to that of pigeons or rats. Also, this has led to the decimation of the carp population in England. So much so that the Environment Agency has had to put up posters in English and Polish to warn people against fishing without proper permits and licenses. A special patrol has also been set up to keep a close eye on rivers and lakes across the UK. 

Carp endangerment is not the only scandal. Poles also pick mushrooms, to eat them. That is pretty baffling to English people, who only know two kinds of fungi: cultivated mushrooms that are edible, and wild mushrooms. The Daily Telegraph’s culinary critic once explained that Poles and Italians have mushrooming in their blood, because they come from poor peasant stock whose main source of food was the forest.

(credit: Robert Scarth)

The British are also offended by our manners – our moodiness and rudeness. Even on good days, we hardly ever chirp, “How are you?” The issue was clarified thanks to Doctor Jorg Zinken from the University of Portsmouth, who said this unfortunate habit was actually do the differences in the English language and Polish grammar. Zinken spent two years recording conversations in Polish and Polish-English homes to analyze how they communicated with each other. His research showed that the way Polish people address their friends or family – saying “Pass the milk” instead of “Could you pass the milk, please?” – wasn’t rudeness, just good intentions lost in translation.

An analysis of the perception of Poles by the British press shows, however, that the immigrant wave from Poland was initially greeted with enthusiasm. "The Polish people are among the most likeable in Europe – friendly, hard-working, freedom-loving bunch of grafters," wrote The Mirror. They quickly adapt to the environment and learn English, and go largely unnoticed. They do not want to kill us and work very hard, said The Times.

But when the wave of immigration got "out of control" (according to The Sun), they rapidly changed their tune: They sit at home all the time, don’t have English friends, do not go to the movies nor restaurants. They are obsessed with saving money, do not pay the bills and are in debt. And when things get rough, they can disappear as quickly as they had arrived, wrote The Daily Telegraph.

Meanwhile, as soon as there is a little snow, the British close schools and offices citing “extreme weather conditions”. Even though there are only a few centimeters of snow, a public transport and road Armageddon begins. But despite this, the heroic Pole continues to go to work in the morning. If the bus or the trains don’t come, the heroic Pole will walk several miles on foot. It doesn’t occur to the heroic Pole that the factory is closed.

Interestingly however, in spite of the cultural differences, a study conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs in 2010 showed that a third of Britons believe that the Poles are like them, while a fourth believe they are just slightly different.

This does not mean that everyone would like a Polish boss (only 53%), or a Polish daughter in law (only 21%). But sooner or later, they may have one.