Steffen Möller – a German actor, comedian, and writer who has lived in Poland for over 20 years – talks about his decision to move to Poland and the national differences in attitudes toward migration and cultural integration.
Olga Lenczewska: We hear about Polish people moving to Germany, but rarely the other way around. What made you decide to move to Poland?
Steffen Möller: I’ve always enjoyed different environments and new challenges, which isn’t very “German” of me. In 1990, when I completed my studies in philosophy and theology in Berlin, I left the country in search for adventure, and found myself in Poland. I know it sounds weird. To many people I seemed like a loser. But one day I simply realised I already know all about Germany. I saw a poster at my university that advertised a Polish language course in Krakow. Suddenly it all seemed really exotic. German tourist offices were full of brochures about Thailand, the Canary Islands, and Tenerife. That’s what Germans were familiar with, whereas Poland, despite being so much closer to us, seemed completely alien.
OL: What did you learn during your first visit to Poland?
SM: I felt fascinated by Krakow, its history and contemporary atmosphere alike. I found its graffiti very intriguing. A friend of mine showed me a piece of graffiti which presented Donald Duck as a Pole. She explained this could be interpreted in three different ways. One interpretation was strictly political: the presidential elections of 1990 were approaching and, apart from Wałęsa, there was a candidate called Mr Tymiński, who came all the way from Canada. My friend explained that if Mr Tymiński thought he was properly Polish and can become the President, so could Donald Duck. The second interpretation evoked a common belief shared by Polish people – that everyone in the world comes from Poland. Finally, the last one alluded to the fact that Polish people, just like Donald Duck, don’t have any luck. In any case, the duck had to be Polish. If they couldn’t be the chosen nation anymore, they wanted to be special in other ways. This is the ever-present Polish light-heartedness and national pride.
Möller during one of his stand-up comedy performances
OL: Are many German people interested in living in Poland nowadays?
SM: I receive a number of emails from young Germans who wish to move to Poland for work purposes, but the majority of them are Polish by ethnicity. I suggest that they start with teaching German, but they usually reply they don’t want to take on a new job. They are afraid of this, just like of everything else – that’s why the Germans take out more insurance policies per citizen than any other country.
OL: Is the attitude of Polish people toward migration any different?
SM: Yes, it is much braver. Not only due to the common perception of the West as paradise, but also because the Poles aren’t afraid of new challenges. As goes the famous line from the Polish TV series “Czterdziestolatek”, “I am a working woman, I’m not afraid of anything”. That pretty much summarises their attitude. German people tend fear jobs they weren’t academically prepared for, that’s why it takes longer for them to make up their mind about emigrating.
OL: You’ve been living in Poland for over 20 years. Has your perception of the Polish people changed since?
SM: Before I moved to Poland, I knew a few jokes about the Polish people. Since then, I have realised in some of them there isn’t even a grain of truth. To give one example, I never see the Polish “mess” or “chaos”, which is the central idea of some of the jokes. Surely this or that could be improved on the organisational level, but this is true for Germany as well. I try to distance myself from any frustration Polish people may experience – it’s actually quite easy because in Warsaw I live amongst artists, not businessmen.
OL: In the 90’s, when you started your life in Poland, there weren’t many immigrants there. How did people react to your presence?
SM: Generally speaking, German people who come to Poland are treated much better than Poles in Germany. I was actually quite surprised by that only 50 years after the end of the war.
OL: Your first occupation in Poland was teaching German. Did you find it rewarding?
SM: This is a difficult question. There are two issues at stake here. Firstly, German is a very challenging language to be taught at schools, just like Polish. English, French, or Spanish are much easier. An average student who attends two or three German classes a week won’t be able to communicate in German even on a basic level even after the first few years, which can be frustrating and off-putting. Secondly, the Internet has made the idea of learning foreign languages that aren’t English rather redundant. One doesn’t need to know a foreign language to explore a foreign culture. In order to comment on a Youtube video, it suffices to know very basic English!
Möller’s newest book about Poland
OL: In your first book, “Polska da się lubić” [“Poland is likeable”] you wrote that Polish people can be described as individualistic and loyal at the same time. How do they maintain these seemingly conflicting characteristics?
SM: Polish people have an individualistic approach towards their nation and national issues. They are loyal towards their families and friends though – much more than the Germans. German people have an opposite approach: individualistic when it comes to family matters (for example, they don’t feel a need to come home for Christmas), but very faithful to their country.
OL: What are your favourite “national characteristics” of Polish people?
SM: I like the fact that in Poland there are no strict rules. When a cloakroom attendant says she has no more space to hang your coat, it only takes your smile to make her say “Fine, give it to me!”. In Germany, on the other hand, a “no” is a “no”, and that’s that. German rigidness annoys me. Polish people are also nicer in every-day communication. Furthermore, I like the Polish self-mocking comments such as “There’s no need to watch tonight’s football game – our team will lose anyway!”. Their general scepticism amuses me – although at times it can be exaggerated and auto-destructive. Polish people employ scepticism to serious matters like politics, too, which makes it impossible to really discuss politics with them. However, everyone in Poland has a good sense of humour – from university professors to housekeepers! That’s what we lack in Germany.
OL: Thank you for the interview.