A Chip Shop in Poznań, Ben Aitken, Icon Books, £10.50 (paperback)
Ben Aitken arrived in Poland, he writes, ‘just after [David] Cameron came to Warsaw to cut the Poles some slack’ and left ‘with the sound of the triggered article still ringing in my ears’. In 2016, as the UK was on the verge of an unprecedented schism over Brexit, Aitken emigrated from Britain to Poland.
He intended to find out why so many Poles have been moving to the UK in recent years and what they were leaving behind. Taking a minimum wage job in a fish and chip shop, Aitken embedded himself in the ordinary lives of Polish people and gained surprising insights into their cultural traditions, social mores and political views.
Pitched somewhere between a travelogue and a memoir, A Chip Shop in Poznań adeptly balances personal ruminations on love, attraction, and friendship, with cultural evaluations that subvert British stereotypes of Polish citizens. One of Aitken’s most successful strategies is to highlight similarities over differences: ‘What do the Polish do at the seaside?’ he asks. ‘They stroll and play and read and build castles from sand, as others elsewhere’.
Playing with the conventions of the life writing genre, Aitken undermines seemingly trivial or innocuous observations with humorous footnotes. There’s a refreshing honesty about his own fallibility as a chronicler of his and others’ experiences. After all, he admits to knowing almost nothing about Poland before he sets off there. But as he learns more through his travels so too does the reader, who becomes a mutual beneficiary of his newfound knowledge.
At the end of A Chip Shop, a visiting British friend remarks on ‘things she didn’t think they had in Poland, like pavements and electricity and disposable income’. Most readers will be able to look back on their own state of ignorance and empathise, to some degree, with this tongue-in-cheek surprise at finding our preconceptions to be untrue.
For all this bridge-building, Brexit still haunts this book. Wherever Aitken goes, Brexit looms large – even trivial occurrences seem touched by its grasp. Back in Britain, Aitken visits Bolton, which has the highest level of Polish immigration in the UK, to research local politics. One interviewee suggests that the day the Brexit result was announced was ‘waking up day’ rather than the media-coined ‘independence day’. While not a polemic, A Chip Shop is arguably an anti-Brexit book lamenting the rich historical and cultural connections undone by the referendum.
In direct contrast to the attitudes he encounters in Bolton, Aitken comes to appreciate first-hand how low pay and long working hours has driven a generation of Poles to seek a better life in Britain. This leads to the realisation that, for all its flaws, a set-up like the European Union has helped to foster unity and integration between different peoples: ‘I love Others. I am one, for heaven’s sake, and you are too.’
However Aitken never lets politics distract from his quest to understand Polish culture as he celebrates the country’s unique attractions. There are vivid descriptions of towns and cities – big and small, bustling and quiet – as well as rural settings populated by farmers and nuns. At the same time, Aitken never shies away from Poland’s more objectionable quirks, arguing irreverently that the phrase Polish Riviera has an ‘oxymoronic quality’. Errors such as missing the bus to Auschwitz also present opportunities to examine the darker aspects of the country’s history. Aitken’s willingness to grapple with the good and the bad leaves the reader with a nuanced and layered perception of Poland.
One of the most amusing anecdotes concerns an experiment he conducts to find out whether Polish families still uphold a Christmas tradition of allowing a stranger into their home for dinner. Come Christmas Eve, Aitken randomly knocks on the door of a family and his courage is rewarded. What follows is a heart-warming account of compassion and hospitality, culminating in a funny bonding session with the family’s pet rat.
A Chip Shop in Poznań is an engaging romp through Polish culture, with a resonant political message of the importance of interacting with other cultures and preserving our ties with Europe. While Aitken unveils the gritty realities of life in Poland, he never fails to inject humour into his accounts, nor ignore the vibrant traditions of a country he comes to love.
Words by Georgina Monk.
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