Poland and South Africa: Random Differences

by biltong101

randomI’ve lived in South Africa for quite a while but I still don’t stop being surprised by some things. Let’s be honest, the 23 years I spent in Poland was a long time to form habits. Then I spent 6 years somewhere else, slowly unlearning the old ways and experienced a reverse culture shock when I visited my homeland. Life of an expat is challenging in many ways! Anywayyyy, without further ado… the random differences between Poland and South Africa.

1.Drinking and Driving 

In Poland it’s considered a very, very bad deed (almost as bad as premarital sex). People in general just don’t drink and drive and those who do are judged. If you think about the number of roadblocks, you could certainly get away with it. At the same time, the belief in the immorality of the act seems to be strong enough to work as an effective deterrent. I guess it’s quite interesting for a culture with high tolerance for alcohol consumption in general… In South Africa drinking and driving is normalized. Of course, there are social campaigns telling people not to do so and occasionally there are roadblocks. Still, most South Africans I know have driven not only after a beer or two but actually drunk. I’m also not talking about young and silly people here but parents or even (!) grandparents driving under (considerable) influence. Even if you get stopped, the police are occasionally lenient. I’ve heard stories of people getting away with it because of some lame, untrue excuse of having been dumped or fired.

2. Cheese

When I first came to South Africa, I got scolded by a friend for going for the already sliced cheese in a supermarket. Indeed, the sliced cheese is much more expensive than the one sold in blocks. I couldn’t really explain where my preference was coming from till I visited Poland a few years later. My homeland, as it turned out, has a strong preference for sliced cheese and you almost don’t find anything else on the shelves. Fancier cheese can be seen in blocks on display but before you buy it, a desired amount will be sliced for you by a shop attendant. Poland also has a much bigger variety of local and international cheese at better prices. Now that I’m salivating, I can move on to the next point.

3. Greetings

South Africans hug and occasionally kiss one time on the cheek and then hug. Polish people only hug when they haven’t seen their daughter for 5 years and even then, some do so reluctantly, like my father (he also tried to shake my hand when I was leaving). In other circumstances we kiss one time on a cheek with friends and two times with family. The really old school type kisses on the mouth. It’s awkward and unpleasant especially if a guy has a mustache. I have written more about hugs and kisses before so I don’t want to repeat myself.

4. Abortion and contraception

Abortion on demand is legal in South Africa till the third month of pregnancy. Late abortions for medical reasons also take place. Simple oral contraceptives and condoms are available in government clinics for free. In Poland, the only thing you can get for free in terms of arresting your fertility is ovarian cancer. Abortion is not only illegal but also criminalized unless the fetus is, or is strongly suspected to be malformed, the fetus was conceived in a forbidden act (e.g. rape, pregnancy before the age of consent) or the pregnancy/childbirth puts a woman’s life or health in danger. Even legally allowed abortions are often difficult to obtain (read about the Alicja Tysiac case). Oral contraception isn’t refunded but is available upon medieval…I mean medical checks and often on short-term scripts (partially a money making scheme, partially the belief in the pill being evil). Private healthcare is generally friendlier than the public system. A doctor in Poland is allowed to refuse to write a script for the pill due to his moral views about contraception and the same goes for abortion (because Catholics).

5. Friendliness

It isn’t difficult to beat Polish people in friendliness. There was a point when I thought that perhaps I used to be a more negative person and upon a visit I’d look at the problem differently. Well, no. In general, people are unfriendly on the streets. They don’t smile and if you do, they look at you funny. For example, a friend of mine has been living in France for years. She doesn’t use Polish often so when she heard two Polish guys talking, she smiled. One of the guys stared at her for a bit and eventually asked: “What the fuck are you looking at?” in Polish. I personally have not experienced such aggressive reactions from Polish tourists but the responses to my enthusiastic “Dzień dobry!” (Good morning) were either none or very cold. The Polish are also not big on small talk apart from lonely old people on public transport. South Africans, on the other hand, are really friendly and helpful! Smiling isn’t uncommon, neighbors more often greet each other than not and engaging in small talk with randoms is a thing.

6. Piracy 

I don’t mean the ARRRRRRR people with parrots on their arms but illegal downloading of movies and series off the Internet. In Poland it’s not completely uncommon bur often frowned upon. South Africans are much more chilled about it. In their defense, I must say that Poland offers more quality movies on TV and in cinema. Hopefully, Netflix will improve its local catalogue even further as it’s an affordable option of legal streaming.

7. Tertiary education

Public tertiary education in Poland is for free and I believe that this is the way it should be. The drawbacks of this situation are:

  • crazy competition to get into public universities (20 people for one place at my faculty and with the matric results of 190/200 I only got in after reshuffling, with the second wave of candidates)
  • the “normalization” of degrees on the labor market – in Poland even PA’s are expected to have a degree

In South Africa, tertiary education is partially subsidized by the government. There are scholarships, etc, but it’s not enough, given the economic situation of a lot of citizens. Local students have been fighting for free tertiary education since 2015 under the FeesMustFall banner.

8. Nobel Prize winners

Poland has won the Nobel prize 14 times (2 by Maria Skłodowska-Curie), while South Africa, 10 times. Compared to 371 Nobel Prize winners from the USA, both achievements seem a bit lame. Perhaps that’s the reason why both countries like to claim anyone famous they can. Did your great grandfather’s mother come form Poland? You’re nominally Polish. Did your mom give birth on the plane while flying above South Africa? You’re proudly South African!

9. Cars

I’d assume that most Polish families have, or at least had a car. In big cities it’s completely possible to live without one, though. Public transport is well developed and it’s often the preferred mean of transport. In fact, a 30 year old without a driver’s license isn’t particularly uncommon. To many Capetonians* not having a car is unimaginable and public transport is something they just don’t use. These Capetonians are usually middle or upper class (and make up fear-mongering stories about life). They spend ridiculous amounts of money on their vehicles and judge people by the cars they have. I knew someone who used half of her salary to repay her loan, because having the newest BMW was clearly more important than common sense.

10. Mushrooms

In Poland, every uncle Janusz and aunt Grażyna know that it’s not autumn unless you picked mushrooms at least three times. Mushroom picking is an activity in Poland your parents force you to do all your childhood and then you grow up, develop a liking for it, reproduce and eventually, force your children to do the same thing. What would we do without tradition? In South Africa you need a permit to pick mushrooms. I only did it once here during a foraging event with a very angry and bitter mushroom man, whose business was stolen.

If you’re a Pole living in South Africa can you think of any more striking differences? If not perhaps you’d like to tell me and my Readers how are things in your country in any of the mentioned categories?

* I say Capetonians because I can say they’re just full of shit and one can get around with public transport. I can’t speak for other parts of the country.