In this wide-ranging interview with Ben Aitken, we talk about challenging cultural stereotypes, identifying as the ‘Other,’ and how to find beauty in the ordinary, as well as thoughts on where to visit and what to eat and drink when visiting Poland.
Ben Aitken is a freelance writer, playwright, and the author of three travel books. Today, we’re talking about his book, A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland.
- The relationship between the UK and Poland and how that changed while Ben lived there during the referendum
- How travel can change attitudes
- Finding beauty in the ordinary
- Recommendations for food, drink, and places to consider visiting in Poland
- The joy of travel without planning
- The possibility of a return to more local travel in the wake of the pandemic
- Why Ben chooses unusual trips like taking coach tours with the elderly as he writes about in his latest book, The Gran Tour
- Recommended books about Poland
You can find Ben Aitken at BenAitken.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Ben Aitken is a freelance writer, playwright, and the author of three travel books. Today, we’re talking about his book, A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland. Welcome, Ben.
Ben: Hello, there. Good day. I should say good day because I’m down under. I’m locked down under.
Jo: Locked down under indeed. But you are a Brit.
Let’s just start with the question of why Poland and what sparked that trip in the first place?
Ben: What sparked that trip? Curiosity. It was a bit of an Alice in Wonderland-style adventure down an unusual Eastern rabbit hole. Of course, a lot of Poles had moved to the UK since 2004 so there was a new relationship with the country and a lot of the coverage of the country and the people was limited, sometimes negative.
I’m always in the mood to challenge the received wisdom and go on an adventure and hopefully return with a bigger picture and a bit more understanding.
Jo: We get a lot of international listeners to the show who might not understand how Polish people are part of life in the UK. You and I both being British. I live in Bath in the Southwest, we have a Polish supermarket, generally, a lot of British people will know Polish people. But to anyone listening who might not understand how our culture works. Explain a bit more about why, a few years ago, people started coming here.
Ben: In 2004 Poland, along with a few other countries in that part of the continent, joined the European Union, which enabled its people to work and live in any of the 27 member states of the European Union. And an awful lot of them, perhaps over a million, it’s difficult to know exactly, chose to come, and live, and work, and study, and bring up children in the UK. And that’s a significant number.
Polish is now the second most spoken language in the UK, and that happened quite quickly and it was quite exciting, to be honest, but other people reacted in a different way to the migration, as I’m sure you know, and as I’m sure people can understand. It doesn’t always strike people as a good thing or a progressive thing. But for me, it is those things. It is good and it is progressive, and it just gave me new things to consider doing and new places to consider looking at.
Jo: And I guess we should also say we’re recording this in June 2020. Because I read it quite recently, going through that at a time of Brexit is kind of crazy. Officially, Britain has left the EU now although, of course, you wrote the book over that period, didn’t you?
Ben: Yes, that was an interesting element of the year and the narrative and the journey. I knew that Britain was about to have a referendum. I didn’t expect the result would be that Britain would be leaving the European Union. That happened about a quarter of the way into my year in Poland and it did alter things a little bit.
Prior to the referendum, the Polish people had responded to me exclusively positively. After the referendum, less exclusively positively, because the way that that result was interpreted rightly or wrongly was that the Polish people were no longer welcome in the UK because it was interpreted that the UK wanted to leave because they were fed up with the amount of Polish people.
Of course, that’s a very simple and unrealistic way of looking at it but nonetheless, that’s one of the messages, one of the sentiments that came through to Poland and registered with the people that so all of a sudden somebody from the UK in Poland wasn’t as well received.
Jo: I will circle back to the European stuff in a minute, but let’s come back to the book. So one of the quotes from the book…and I’m going to give a few quotes, it’s a great book.
“One reason for moving to a new place is to challenge one’s attitudes and intuitions, to destabilize one’s common sense.”
What attitudes and stereotypes did you overturn as you did your trip?
Ben: I should say that the way I was often destabilized in Poland was by drinking too much of the lovely vodka they have there, but that’s a different conversation.
It’s not difficult to have one’s understanding of Poland and Polishness completely blown apart because the common wisdom, the shared understanding is very limited, very narrow within Britain and that’s our fault. That’s to our disadvantage.
When I got to Poland, it wasn’t at all hard or long before all of my modest preconceptions were blown apart because it’s not only high rise, Soviet-style flats, it’s not only strong men working on construction sites, it’s not only people drinking vodka and eating gherkins. Of course, you get a wide range of humanity on every street and in every part of the country.
It doesn’t necessarily have to resemble a rainbow, but you can still get that variety of humanity in any country. And that’s what struck me within probably hours, days of arriving in Poland, that it’s just as various and heterogeneous as anywhere else in the world.
Jo: You mentioned there the high rise Soviet-style flats. And I do think that Eastern Europe, for many people, brings to mind those sort of gray Soviet buildings.
What are some of the beautiful or different places that you visited?
Ben: Well, for me, beauty can be anywhere. It’s not necessarily a terrific landscape or a beautiful old town like Kraków. I’m reminded of something Sally Rooney was going on about just the other day, celebrating ordinariness. Her book that’s been incredibly popular and now the TV series, Normal People, it’s there in the title of the book. She’s drawn to, and in many ways, fascinated and in love with the concept of normality and ordinariness and going after it and uncovering parts of it and elements of it, which shine and are brilliant and perhaps unsung and unrecognized.
And with Poland, it was spotting the 10 men digging a hole on my street and seeing that one of them was forcefully pondering a display of dresses in the shop across the road. And it was towns like Łódź which used to be big manufacturing, industrial places, which now are struggling or attempting to find a new way and a new identity.
And it’s also the mountains and the beaches and the old towns like Kraków, and it’s also in the people, the beauty. It was the students I taught and some of their witty responses. It was the people I lived with and their warmth and their kindness. And if you’ve a mind to, you can find beauty anywhere, I think.
Jo: I agree with you on one level, but I also challenge it because I don’t think most people travel for ordinariness. But that is interesting about the type of books you write, because you’re quite different from the adventure travel people or the Instagram travel people.
How do you think that seeking beauty in ordinariness can be done by people who are only there for a shorter amount of time or are there ways that more tourists could experience Poland?
Ben: I think there definitely are. And I think you’re right to counter me and say that most people don’t want that sort of stuff. Most people want the highlights and the hotspots and the stuff that they can share and be proud of, and what have you. There’s value in seeing those things and experiencing those places but for me, rightly or wrongly, I’m just inclined to a different type of brilliance and beauty.
I would say don’t take a guidebook with you for a start, if you go to a place. Consider going somewhere that’s less popular, less celebrated. Poland is a good example, but maybe not Kraków or Warsaw, maybe go somewhere…like you could go to Łódź. I just mentioned Łódź. You could go to Bialystok.
You can go to Szczecin even, places that aren’t accustomed to receiving attention. They’re just doing their ordinary thing. And there, I promise you, there is as much stuff there that’s of interest and of value than anywhere else.
And another tip would be to jump on a tram or a public bus and just sit there for two hours. Let the bus or the tram take its entire course. Go to the terminus, let it turn around, stay on it. You’re not going anywhere. Just look out the window, look at the other people, just get a real sense of the whole place where you are because a town, a country, wherever, it’s the sum of its parts. It’s not some of its parts if that makes sense.
I enjoy that. I find it meditative just sitting there on a tram and watching rather than hurrying around trying to see all of the cultural highlights in 45 minutes or whatever. But I can’t prescribe to anyone the perfect vacation trip, city break, or whatever. You’ve got to do what appeals to you, but also, perhaps have an open mind and jump on a bus or a tram sometimes.
Jo: And it’s interesting, these places that you mentioned, for example, being off the general tourist route. What is the language situation like in those types of places in Poland? Because if you go to Kraków, as you mentioned, you’ll get menus that will have English or signs in English and people might speak English with tourists.
But if you go out of the way like that, is it primarily nobody’s speaking English or how did you get on with the language?
Ben: I was learning the language so I was always able to at least make my basic needs understood and heard. But you can go to just about anywhere in Poland and half of the population of that city or town will speak some English.
Now, 20% of that population will speak it well and 10% will probably speak it better than you. That’s what I found. And it’s to do with age as well because before 1990, the second language being studied in schools was more likely to be Russian and now it’s more likely to be in English or German.
And so the millennials in Poland and the ones coming up beneath them, the generation Z’s or whatever they are, they’ll have English in their back pocket, no problem. And so I don’t think it would be an issue for tourists.
If you learned a dozen phrases on the plane over or the train over, however you’re coming, they’re always good icebreakers. That’s what I did when I went to Poland for the first time, I learned a few phrases. One of them was, I love you. And I was just using that as an icebreaker.
Kocham Cię, I’d say it to the bus driver and to the receptionist at the hotel and the barman and everything. If nothing else, it just gets you chatting and laughing and connecting.
Jo: Yes. That makes me wonder about what would the Polish stereotype of the eccentric British traveler.
Did you come up against any stereotypes in the other direction?
Ben: I did, yeah. And now that I come to think of it, a lot of Polish people of my age and younger thought I was there for the Polish ladies because they have a reputation of being unusually attractive, the Polish ladies. And so that’s why they thought I was some sort of romantic tourist or whatever, I was out to find my partner, my wife, my husband, whoever, and they couldn’t quite believe that I was actually there to work in a fish and chip shop for the minimum wage and go to places like Łódź and Białystok and Szczecin. But on the whole, I was well received and people were good and kind to me. That was good.
Jo: You mentioned that you worked in a chip shop, and of course, many people think of that as quite British anyway, sort of fish and chips. But you have mentioned the lovely vodka as well.
What are some of the Polish food and drink options that you enjoyed?
Ben: I ate very well in Poland. What did I enjoy? Well, I must mention Pierogi because that’s a big deal in Poland. The dumplings. And yeah, say a bad word about the Polish dumplings at your peril because they’re very important. And I find them “jako tako” which means average, okay. Just all right. They’re nothing special.
You’ve got there’s something called Smalec, which is bad on paper, but good in the mouth if you know what I mean. It’s a terrible idea. It’s basically just lard or fat, but they whack it on some bread with a gherkin and then turns out really good actually, but don’t eat too much of it. Otherwise, you might not be able to return to your home country. Certainly not in the same shape you left it.
And other than that, Bigos, that’s a lovely national stew which has got lots of different meats and lots of cabbage. And it takes about 16 months to stew and that’s delicious. And I actually included a recipe for Bigos in my book because I was seeing how many cookbooks were flying off the shelves of bookshops. And I thought, “What do they have that my book hasn’t? I suppose recipes.”
So I just slipped one in for the fun of it. And so there’s a recipe for Bigos and that was quite an adventure that day, going out to buy all the ingredients and then coming home and then making a mess of the national stew.
Jo: My husband is half Hungarian so I know about the Pierogi and the dumplings. And Eastern European drinking schnapps, some form of fruit schnapps is often common. Is that something that happens in Poland as well?
Ben: Schnapps? No, I didn’t see much of that. There’s lots of flavored vodkas. So just about every flavor of vodka you can imagine is available. Cherry, plum, banana, pineapple, cheese and onion, whatever, but schnapps no, I didn’t come across schnapps. And I did pay attention to what the Poles were putting down their necks so I think I would have noticed that, but could be wrong.
Jo: You mentioned before about not taking a guidebook and another quote from the book says,
“I tend to think that too much preemptive research takes away some of the joys of travel, surprise, revelation, chance.”
Now I am someone who plans a lot so this challenges me as a traveler. What are some of those specific joys you mentioned while you were away?
Ben: They were quite modest joys, to be honest. They were sharing a flat with Poles who were strangers at the beginning and who later became friends and two of them are now living in London. It was cycling home after a long shift at the chip shop in the summer, going across the river Warta on my bike.
And it was talking to anyone I could in the garden of a pub that I loved called Dragon in Poznan. It was just the whole thing was slightly joyous, to be honest. It was just being elsewhere and amongst others.
And it was the thrill you get when you go to a new place, but somehow concentrated and lengthened at the same time. It’s a difficult one to explain, moving away to a new country you know nothing about for a year for no other reason than to have a look, it’s really quite thrilling and quite a subtle and modest way.
I’m a big fan and a big admirer of Poland now and it will be in my life for the rest of it. I do encourage anybody listening to this podcast to go and have a look at the country, or just look at some of their literature or films, they’ve got some cracking stuff, and music. Put some Chopin on, maybe avoid disco polo. That’s a genre of music, popular Polish music that I can’t quite fathom. There are many brilliant elements to the country.
Jo: I want to ask you then about your attitude to travel in general, because you mentioned you are in Australia now and obviously you’re British and you’ve lived in Poland and you write various books. And as I mentioned earlier, they are quite different I think to normal…I say ‘normal,’ like many travel books are more glamorous in a way.
You’ve actually got this, your latest book, The Gran Tour, which is about traveling with older people. Again, not something that many people would write about.
Tell us more about how do you choose these more unusual trips and what does travel mean to you?
Ben: It means an awful lot, and there are different ways to travel, of course. You don’t have to jump on a train or a bus or a plane. Traveling can be a state of mind. There was a French guy that wrote a book a couple of hundred years ago called Travels in my Bedroom. He spent six weeks in his bedroom traveling.
Now, there wouldn’t have been a lot of people who were able to do that recently because of the lockdown. They could have spent an awful lot of time investigating what was under their bed or on the top of the cupboard or looking at the window frame or the tracery or what piece of furniture and really scrutinize an environment is a form of travel. And also we travel through books, films, music, of course, we do.
I like to go to places that may be a little bit unsung. I think that’s fair to say. I’ve always been a bit contrary as well. My mother used to struggle to wash me in the bath because I insisted on getting in the sink in the kitchen and being washed in there, so I’ve always had that slightly contrary instinct to go against the flow, against the grain and that ordinariness that we talked about before, going after some of that and that’s some of the energies and motivations that influenced my thinking when it comes to writing and traveling.
The Gran Tour: Travels with My Elders, that was similarly that was about looking at a demographic, my elders, people 70 plus and seeing what would happen if I just traveled with them. Would they kick me off the bus? Would they ignore me? Would they marginalize me? Would they trip me up with their cane? I don’t know. They didn’t, I made an awful lot of friends and it was pretty fascinating and fun.
And again, like going to Poland, you realize that we’re all cut from the same cloth. We’re all doing the same thing, we’re just passing through. This is but a brief candle that’s burning here for all of us and yes, just have a good time.
That’s always my bottom and essential motivation is just to have a good time. And everybody’s idea of a good time will be different. And just important, I suppose, to have a sense or an idea of what makes you happy and then go after that.
Jo: It’s interesting because my mum, she’s in her 70s and she’s single and she goes on these Saga Tours, which if anyone listening doesn’t know, they are a tour company for over 50s. My mum did the Silk Road last year, Uzbekistan and stuff like that with Saga.
And I was like, “Mum, that’s brilliant.” I’m almost looking forward to when I’m in that demographic! So I’m interested because they don’t actually allow people who are not in that age demographic on the tour. Did you just get on a broader trip? I’m wondering how they let you on.
Ben: I think that’s disgraceful actually that they don’t let younger people jump on board. That’s ageist officially.
Jo: Totally is.
Ben: I went with a company called Shearings who sadly were a victim to Coronavirus only a couple of weeks ago. They collapsed because they’ve not had a booking for four months and everybody’s asked for a refund and they’ve gone under.
So I went with a company called Shearings, went on six coach holidays, four nights in seaside towns in the UK, went also to Italy. And they cater for anyone, but they are very popular with people that are retired. So I was a big fish out of water and I was the youngest by about 50 years on every holiday.
I played a lot of bingo, and some of them were very suspicious of me and though I had uncommon interests or whatever, or wanted to find a sugar mama. I don’t know, some interesting looks I got. Shearings didn’t mind younger people going there at all. And so that’s how I managed to get on board. But as I said, sadly, they’ve gone bust now. So bust rather, not bus.
I hope that somehow they’re brought back from beyond the grave and revived and rescued because they deserve to be. It’s a fantastic way of traveling, not only the UK but Europe. I liked the slowness of it, being in a coach is part of the experience, cutting across the whole of the country, seeing how the land changes, color and shape and getting on a ferry and going across to Ireland. I loved it. I loved it all.
Jo: And it is interesting, thinking as we are recording this sort of in the pandemic, is will people start to travel their own country more?
I absolutely, for myself, I’m ‘guilty,’ of jumping on a plane to Spain more quickly than going over to Wales, which is only 100 kilometers away from me. When we think, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a weekend away,’ we generally think abroad.
Domestic travel and local travel may well have a resurgence because of the difficulties in international border crossings due to the pandemic.
Ben: It may well, so long as the companies and the infrastructure is there. We need to think about how we can support and keep afloat such companies as Shearings in this really difficult period where there’s not the cash going around and whether that’s the government intervening.
I know the government can’t intervene in every situation. It just doesn’t have the means. But it’s going to be a damn shame when come the autumn, October next year, next spring, when the country, touch wood, got a clean bill of health and wants to get out and about and those places aren’t there anymore because for that period of time financially, it was so hard that they died.
We need to somehow get businesses through that because yes, I suppose that instead of going on a coach holiday, instead of staying at a hotel, you can just drive there yourself and get an Airbnb. That might be what actually happens, but that’s not as good, in my opinion, as doing it the old fashioned way and jumping in with a bunch of people you don’t know and going for a holiday.
We’ll see. I don’t want to be too pessimistic about the situation. There will be more people traveling within the UK but whether they’ll be doing it in the old fashioned ways, I don’t know.
Jo: I’ve certainly been looking at a lot of photos and planning trips because planning trips for me is fun. I am the guidebook type.
I want to circle back on Europe because you say in the book, ‘I love Others. I am one.’
And I feel like we — you and I — have grown up as Europeans. I’m a bit older than you, but we’ve both grown up as Europeans. I certainly didn’t choose not to be a European; they took my passport away basically.
And I wonder because I still feel European. I still feel like, ‘Well, I want to jump on the ferry or the Eurostar and go to France. And I want to go back to Spain.’ And for them, like you said about Polish people coming to the UK because they could then work in the European Union. And how do you see us, people who value European identity? How do we retain those values in a world where we’re not officially that anymore?
Ben: I don’t know, Jo, I don’t feel any different for the referendum results, to be honest. I don’t think I ever counted myself as European either. I don’t often count myself as British or English.
People might say where you’re from, I’ll say probably Portsmouth because that’s the environment I’ve spent the most time in. I’ve always connected myself more broadly with what’s going on on this planet rightly or wrongly. Which is why when I discovered that a guy called Ludovic Zamenhof was Polish.
This was the guy that invented the language of Esperanto, which was the universal tongue. This was back in the early 1900 when the world and in particular, that corner of Poland, was a very fractious and divisive and adversarial place. And part of the problem was people didn’t speak the same language.
And instead of just moaning about the situation to a few mates at the pub, this guy said, ‘Well, how can we help people understand each other more and get along and see each other’s needs and humanity? They need to share a language,’ and he went ahead and built one.
Most people would be out playing football or going to the pictures or roller-skating, and he’s there building a language, for goodness sake. And very nearly it became the official language of the League of Nations, which was the predecessor to the United Nations. But one country vetoed it.
It was France and if they hadn’t have done, that language, Esperanto, 100 years later might well have been everybody’s first second language, so to say, and it could have done some seriously good things on a geopolitical level in that period as well because speaking in the same tongue helps. It really does.
Coming back to the question about identity and things like that, I’ve always felt, I think I’ve mentioned it already in this conversation, that we’re all cut from the same cloth. We might have different hairstyles and different sneakers on and different senses of humor, but we’re all up to the same stuff and we’ve got the same basic motivations, concerns, needs, wishes, and dreams. And that hasn’t altered for me in light of the referendum result.
I’m disappointed. I’m really disappointed. It’s going to be a bit trickier to visit those countries and to live there and work there but I might dig around the family tree and see if I’ve got an Irish grandparent or something and see if I can get a passport through them.
Jo: That’s fantastic. I guess it comes back to curiosity, which is what you said at the top of the interview. And I feel as well, curiosity is what drives travel of any kind and hopefully, we can all continue to be curious about each other.
Apart from your book, what are some other books about Poland you would recommend?
Ben: There’s a lovely book called A Country in the Moon by an author called Michael Moran. And that’s a very nice, very different sort of travel book. Very erudite and talks a lot about classical music and Polish history. And there’s a romance that runs through it as well. Very charming book, very elegant, very suave.
And because of it’s those things and very different to my book, which is I’m probably not elegant or suave or erudite, but everyone has a different motivation, a different ambition when they set out to write a travel book.
There’s also a chap called Patrick Ney. He’s probably the foremost British ex-pat in Poland. And it’s not a book but he’s got an awful lot of online content, blogs and videos, and it’s all about that experience of being British in Poland and then British and turning into a Pole. This guy’s now more Polish than John Paul II, it’s ridiculous. And he’s writing epic poems in Polish, and they’re getting 4 million views. He’s a credit to the very concept of migration and celebrating other countries, other cultures. So I’d go after him, I’d go after Michael Moran’s book, but I’m sure there are other accounts of Poland.
There’s, of course, lots of Polish history to be read now by guys like Adam Zamoyski and Norman Davies. It’s no secret that Poland’s had a bit of a rough ride event the last, well, 200 years, especially.
It’s in between a rock and a hard place geographically. Russia on one side, or the former Soviet Union on one side, and Germany on the other. And if it wasn’t those two playing up, the Swedes came down in the 17th century and conducted a genocidal campaign. Can you believe that, the Swedes of all people?
Jo: I can’t actually. That’s interesting.
Ben: It was 1650s, it was the Swedish Deluge. They came down and wiped about 40% of the population out of Poland, which was nice of them. And if it wasn’t the Swedes that were coming up from the South, it was the Ottomans.
There’s a lot of history there and it’s not all cheerful but it’s a shame when that’s the only thing, that’s the only literature that seems to be connected and associated with Poland because in the Polish language, you can get as much literature, diverse range of literature as anywhere else, but in the English language, it tends to be mostly history.
Olga Tokarczuk, I hope I’ve pronounced that right, is an exception to that rule. She just won the Man Booker International prize for, I think, one of her novels, but she’s got a few that have been translated brilliantly into English and they’re winning people over left, right and center. So you go after her as well. So there’s stuff to look out.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Ben: If you want to find my books, the easiest way is just to type in the name and they should be available online, and in bookshops in real life, or just pop into the library. And if it’s not there, you can request it. You can always do that. I think they’re accessible. At least I hope they’re accessible.
The latest one, The Gran Tour, that’s coming out in September and that’s available to preorder now. So anybody that’s keen to read about my experiences with my elders and playing bingo and learning one or two things from them, then please, you know, consider doing that.
Jo: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Ben. That was great.
Ben: It was absolutely my pleasure.