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Is “Vodka and Apple Juice” a book about Poland, or a book about Australia?

Armchair Travel Through Fiction, is the title of one of the sessions I’m appearing in at the When Words Collide readers and writers festival in Calgary, Alberta, August 9-11. It’s made me think, what would I say about writing a faraway place – as the session outline promises – “accurately, vividly, and with sensitivity”?

My book, Vodka and Apple Juice, is at least in part typically described as “a book about Poland”. It is set in Warsaw, and in large part takes you along on my journey to try to understand a country that was a stranger to me when I moved there.

Yet here I was, an Australian with a tenuous grasp on the language (on a good day), who lived in the rarefied air of the diplomatic community for three years. How could I say I could write a book about Poland – let alone do so “with sensitivity”?

It struck me as I went along, that Vodka and Apple Juice is as much a book about Australia as it is about Poland.

When I write about Poland, I write about things like the freezing winters, the ‘liberal’ (shall we say) approach to parking, buying seasonal fruits from old ladies on the street, and my wonderment at boil-in-a-bag rice.

They are the things that I found interesting not because they are in any way uniquely Polish – which they’re not – but because I am Australian. They are interesting to me, because they are different to what I know.

And while many of those things are quite trite, some of the things I noticed really made me think about my country and my culture. The Polish trait of diminishing the country’s successes and pointing out its flaws frustrated me no end when I was there. Every time someone pointed out a dozen short-comings in response to an achievement, I wanted to yell at them for not taking more pride in their history and heritage. Yet when I got back to Australia, I found it frustrated me that we didn’t seem more willing to consider where we could do better. Don’t you see, I wanted to say, how acknowledging our faults can drive us to strive to be better, to do better?

Other people who’ve lived I Poland have since written to me, saying they also noticed the kinds of things I talked about. Like the lack of change in shops (where is it all?).

Yet my amazement at going on a sleigh ride in the snowy forest is not shared by friends from the northern hemisphere. (Neither, I have to say, is my obsession with pre-packaged rice, so this might just be me.)

And as for some of the jokes about the terrible Polish winters, these always get a laugh from Australian audiences. Since moving to Canada, I have found this is also not universal. In Canada, winter is no laughing matter.

I was most curious, of course, about what Polish people would have to say.

Some thanked me for pointing out things they hadn’t noticed about their country – like the ‘never-say-die’ fighting spirit, and the reverence for babcia – the older women. As one woman wrote about the book, maybe it wasn’t that they were new things for me, but seeing it through eyes of a foreigner was like seeing them new.

I’ll give the last word to writer Julia Raczko, author of Julia jest W Australii (Julia’s in Australia – Polish language), about a Polish woman who moves to Australia. “I found your book very interesting and your experiences so similar to mine, just the opposite,” she wrote to me. Of course, that makes me curious about her experiences in Australia. Did she find our parking conventions unduly strict? Did she start to take the endless blue sky days for granted? Did she pine for par-cooked rice?

I don’t know as yet, but I have it on order. I’m interested to know what she points out to me about my Australia. As well as what that says, to me, about her Poland.

Jay Martin is appearing at the When Words Collide Writers’ Festival in Calgary, Alberta, from August 9-11. Armchair Travel through Fiction is scheduled for Sunday at 12 pm. †