Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed, A

Beata Chomątowska
Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed, A

It's true to say the Dutch town of Breda doesn't sound as familiar as London, where it's impossible to cross the street without hearing someone speaking Polish; in fact, it seems downright exotic. Just like the wild stories collected in Beata Chomątowska's book, A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed. The author of the well-received book Muranów Station, a monumental work of historical reportage about a district of Warsaw built on the rubble of the former Jewish ghetto, now recollects the year and a half of her life during which she lived in Holland as a Tempus scholarship student. But this time it's not reportage – it's something so cleverly woven together that it eludes genres. Although the author herself admits that it has a strong foothold in reality, her artistic processing of events linked with narrative talent cause this book to soar into the realm of the novel.

The protagonist of the book is a student who, in the late 1990s, travels to Holland with her boyfriend in search of adventures which do not befit a young woman – like her – from a well-educated home. There is mention, of course, of various kinds of stimulants, as well as sexual freedom, which is the daily bread of this haven of liberalism. In Breda she is supposedly attending courses at the university (getting to know her classmates without excessive enthusiasm, and finding it hard to acknowledge the fact that what is generally known in Poland as "a student's 15-minute grace period" doesn't exist in this country of perfect punctuality). But then she finds a job at a bar that enjoys – as she soon finds out – cult-like popularity, where she meets the array of bizarre, freedom-loving friends alluded to in the book's title. Chomątowska describes the youthful adventures of the two central characters and their continual amazement at the sharp cultural contrasts between Holland and Poland in a very playful and dynamic manner, prompting the reader’s surprise again and again, as well as evoking memories from not so long ago. Yes, after all, little more than a decade has passed since the times when Polish people regarded foreign currencies as a luxury item, and found it hard to believe that there could be lovely clean toilets in public places with mysterious flush handles.

A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed is an honest, ironic, occasionally insolent portrait of young Polish emigrants at the end of the 1990s, very different from those who emigrated before the fall of communism. No longer seeking asylum abroad, and no longer obsessed with putting money aside to buy a house in Poland, emigrants at that time were increasingly more courageous (although still struggling with Polish complexes) in their attempts to profit from life and to become part of that famous and mythical United Europe which a few years later became for Poles an irrevocable fact.

Patrycja Pustkowiak

Excerpt

Intoxicated by new friendships, I didn’t pay much attention to the approaching exam. But, to my total surprise, I passed it. I got one of the lowest marks, but so what, all that mattered was that I’d passed. I began to get excited about the next task given to us by Meneer Hors in the second semester – to draw up a promotional plan for a wine-producing firm at a Dutch vineyard. To start with, a whole group of us was taken there so that we could take a look at the place and talk with the wine-maker about his needs. When we got to the huge farm in the countryside close to Tilburg, of course they had arranged a wine-tasting session for us. We alternately tried white and red, convincing the owner that they tasted no worse than wines from traditional wine-producing countries, although we had no damn idea by what miracle he managed to brew even dishwater like that in such a cold, damp climate. Frankly speaking, the hangover was just as bad from that stuff as from mixing more sophisticated booze, so we weren’t being entirely dishonest. I started to get interested in the subject, using my spare time to figure out how I could really promote this Dutch wine, since it actually existed. I shared my excitement with P. (“in fact it’s quite interesting,” he said), and took the group work really seriously. This time I was working with Victor and Katelin. We had a whole heap of ideas, starting with selling the wine on the VVV tourist information network as an original gift for foreigners to take home from Holland, and ending with the shape of the box that it should be packed in, which would make reference to traditional emblems: a herring, a clog or a windmill. The group’s best idea was supposed to be put into practise. We were sure we’d win. We were simply the best. When the day came for the final presentation of our ideas in front of all the students and a judging panel of teachers, we didn’t even have to cross our fingers for Victor, the one we’d chosen to present our wisdom, since we knew he’d do it with flying colours. And we were right. He went out, took a bow, and started off on a really theatrical speech, a brilliant, freestyle rap about Dutch wines, pausing meaningfully at just the right moments, emphasizing everything with gesticulations, while perfectly coordinated slides were projected behind him. It all lasted about a quarter of an hour, fifteen minutes of ripping his guts out in public for the sake of our group’s victory. We had all played a part in preparing the performance, of course, but it was Victor of whom we were proudest. He finished, wiped the sweat from his forehead and waited for a storm of applause. But silence filled the room. The students were staring at him in mute fascination; it was clear they’d liked it. The jury had impenetrable expressions on their faces, as if the excess of words and sounds had turned them to stone. Meneer Hors was the first to awaken from his lethargy and raised a sign with a number on it. Zero! Victor squinted, thinking the old fool must have made a mistake, in a moment he’ll reach his quavering hands behind him and change the score to the correct one. The rest, in one quick gesture, also raised signs: zero, zero, five zeroes, only Janka Kapusta, out of pity, gave us a 2, but was then mortified, terrified about breaking free of the rest in this way. No, no, it’s not possible! Victor swept his gaze one more time around the room, making sure that he wasn’t hallucinating. We two girls did the same. To hell with you! Lul! he shouted angrily in Dutch at the audience, and rushed out of the room with his blond hair streaming behind him. We could still hear the patter of his running shoes on the stairs when Meneer Hors announced in a calm tone of voice, as if nothing had happened, Next, please, and returned to his seat, ready to judge. Nobody wanted to hear any more from us. The rest of the presentations were as proper and boring as hell. Girls in ladies’ suits stuttering things, boys in gentlemen’s suits with hackneyed Powerpoint slides. Everyone got decent marks. Something wasn’t right here, but only later was I able to comprehend what it was, when I myself failed the second exam set by Horst, despite having genuine commitment to the subject and a million wonderful ideas about the promotion of spirits made in Holland. Listening to my answers, he didn’t even blink, and later he said, Hmm, perhaps your undeniable talents could be profitably applied elsewhere, and when I’d already begun to rejoice that his comment indicated the highest kind of praise, he gave me an F. His dubious compliment had been intended as honey coating a bitter pill, so that I’d swallow it with no protest. Nobody expected any creativity from us, the kind that’s rewarded in America – just obedience to standard procedures. Victor proved from the very beginning that he didn’t have any respect for them; he broke all of the beleid in force at the school. What else could he be trying to prove by being late all the time? When he presented our group’s idea so over-theatrically, he revealed his ignorance – after so many trial conferences he should have known it wouldn’t be regarded very positively. In Holland the serious audiences aren’t seduced by rhetoric, only by arguments that follow set patterns. And to top it all off, he ruined the nice mood that had been so painstakingly created. He didn’t show up for the exam at all, and so they failed him, without saying a single word about him and remaining tactfully silent about the whole incident. I was expected to show up for an exam retake in a month. None of the teachers offered me help, I had to ask for it myself. In Holland everyone is considered a mature individual, responsible for their own actions. Students aren’t led along by the hand, unless they clearly indicate they want to be; in which case the bureaucracy prepared in advance for such circumstances gets rolling right away, directing them through the proper procedures. Among all of the Poles and Hungarians, only Katelin offered any help. Even my Polish admirer could no longer be found at the hour of need – maybe I’d effectively scared him off. I couldn’t expect anything from the rest. They were now absorbed by a totally different kind of drama that was playing out right in front of our eyes. Krisztina and Istvan had broken up. But it wasn’t a typical break-up. Istvan had turned out to be a “loverboy.”

    In Dutch slang, this term, borrowed from English, by no means indicated a hot young lover, but a specific kind of pimp who preyed on foreign girls. He lurks around the campus and in bars where foreign students hang out, trying hard to spot the one (or even better, more than one) in the crowd with a sad gaze, who seems slightly lost. He knows that even though everyone seems to stick together in such circles, it’s difficult to find real intimacy so far away from home. Girls start longing to find someone to be close to here, on the spot – someone they could share their problems with. With some it’s possible to detect it right away, while others, such as Krisztina, disguise themselves with fake confidence, but the sharp eye of a loverboy has seen many such cases, and can easily pick them all out in a crowd. He also knows very well, since he has spent time surveying the scene, that females who have recently arrived from Eastern Europe are all hoping to find long-term partners in the West. The best would be a Dutch guy, but if a Moroccan or a Turk born in Holland turned out to be civilized enough, they won’t stick all that stubbornly to their original plan. Once the object of attack has been chosen, the loverboy gets down to business. He’s got to snag the girl and convince her that he’s interested in her. Usually it goes quickly – after only a few fairly lavish dinners, the target softens up, and even falls in love. The next task is to sustain the passion for a few weeks, a month at the most, all the while paying compliments and buying gifts, until he reaches the stage at which he can confide in her about a serious problem: he has run into a bit of debt with a certain guy he knows. This pal of his works in a difficult line of business, it might sound shameful, but here in Holland, as you’ve undoubtedly already noticed, it’s a profession like any other. He has seen us together, he likes you. If you agree to meet with him just once, the business will be settled.

    We never found out if Istvan had managed to coax Krisztina into this, or if, skeptical about the situation, she had cut off contact with him just in the nick of time – we only saw her now, in tears, with makeup smeared across her cheeks, totally oblivious to our presence. But never mind us – the worst was that eventually she had to tell the teachers about it, since Istvan refused to take the break-up seriously and she was beginning to feel unsafe.

Translated by Scotia Gilroy