Feature - Polish culture

The Pole position

The arrival of thousands of Polish immigrants is transforming Scotland’s cultural scene and we are all reaping the rewards, finds Claire Sawers

Pictures: Jannica Honey

‘If they wanted to, a Pole could live a whole year here without ever speaking English,’ says Iwana Zurawska, who moved to Edinburgh from Malbork, North Poland in 2003, a year before the country entered the European Union. ‘The community is really establishing itself here now,’ she adds, picking up one of the glossy Polish magazines which are distributed around bars and cafés in Scottish towns and cities.

It’s easy to see what she means. From bilingual newspapers and magazines to Polish club nights, cafés, delis and shops, the burgeoning Polish community is making its presence felt all over Scotland. As if more proof were needed, one of the key events at this month’s Ceilidh Culture in Edinburgh is the Footerin Aboot Baltic Ball, featuring Scottish and Polish musicians and dancers.

An estimated 100,000 Poles now live in Scotland, with 30,000 in Edinburgh alone, the biggest hub for their fast-expanding community, and many more thousands in Glasgow and Inverness. Strolling up the capital’s Leith Walk - or Little Poland as some have nicknamed it - there’s Deli Polonia, selling Slavic treats like pigeon casserole, chocolate covered plums and bottles of rose petal vodka. Owner Kelvin Ellis and his Polish wife Lucy say their customers are a 50-50 mix of Poles and other nationalities. A few doors up there’s Polski Smak, selling traditional comfort foods like pierogis - stuffed dumplings - and cold cuts of smoked meat. Take a left along London Road and find a Polish hairdresser and tattoo parlour Rock’n’Roll. Up the road a bit, St Mary’s Cathedral runs Polish services on a Sunday, and round the corner on York Place, there’s Spirala, a Polish bistro-bar, with Polish football on the big screen.

Last month saw the publication of the first issue of bilingual newspaper Gazeta z Highland which was set up in response to the huge demand for local and international news in Polish and English.

Iwana Zurawska’s visit was meant to be a short stopover before she moved to Australia, but the 26-year-old fell in love with Scotland and is now firmly settled, and expecting a baby with her Polish partner, DJ Jacek Zamojski. They’ve recently been joined by Zurawska’s cousin, Natalia Trzmieleska. When she first arrived, Zurawska worked in pubs and flyered for clubs, but now she runs her own events company, Out of Space. She’s been organising club night Polished for three years now, flying over superstar DJs and bands from Poland, to entertain crowds of up to 500 at Cabaret Voltaire, Ego and the Liquid Rooms. ‘It was mainly Poles to start, but then someone would bring a Scottish girlfriend or flatmate, and it really grew in popularity.’ The night was never intended just for Poles, and she hopes the dance, house and electro beats offer something different to Scottish crowds.

‘It’s not specifically Polish music,’ Zurawska explains. ‘But all the DJs we bring over are massive back home.’ She thinks good production values are universal, and music lovers recognise quality artists wherever they’re from.

The celebration of traditional Polish culture at Ceilidh Culture, Edinburgh’s answer to Glasgow’s Celtic Connections, takes place on Friday 30 March. Organiser Angela Dreyer-Larsen says, ‘Traditional Polish dances are not unlike Scottish ones - they dance in lines, circles and formations like at a ceilidh. The music sounds quite similar too with fiddles and accordions.’ But Dreyer-Larsen, who has a Polish father and a Scottish mother, says there’s one major difference from Scots. ‘Polish men absolutely love to dance. They are quite a macho lot, and very attractive, but when the tunes start, even if it means dancing with another man - they can’t get enough.’

The Scottish Executive’s Fresh Talent scheme, launched in 2005, was devised to stop Scotland’s population falling below 5 million by attracting a bright young workforce from overseas. In Poland, where employment is at 20%, a lot of people jumped at the chance to relocate when Poland joined the EU. Karol Chojnowski runs Szkocja.net, a Gumtree-style portal for Poles migrating to Scotland.

‘At first, workers came to find basic jobs in factories and hotels, but now more and more skilled professionals are migrating,’ says 25-year-old Chojnowski, rattling off a list of Polish graphic designers, concert musicians, sportspeople, photographers and journalists who have recently moved to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee.

In fact, the brain drain from Poland has caused real concern there, as the country haemorrhages talented young workers. To counter this, the Polish government launched an incentive scheme, Stay With Us, last year, with funding from the country’s biggest corporations to persuade twenty and thirtysomethings not to leave by offering them £5000 scholarships.

Like many of his countrymen, Chojnowski has no immediate plans to return to Poland. ‘It takes a while for a community to really make its mark on a country,’ he says. ‘Indian and Chinese populations were here for decades before their customs and culture caught on. But we’re catching up. I think the culture here is getting richer and more colourful all the time.’

Tad and Dariusz Krzysiak, who run Polish restaurant Bigos in Edinburgh, say Scots customers greatly outnumber Poles. ‘When we talk to our Scottish customers, a lot of the young ones have been skiing in Poland or taken a cheap flight to Warsaw, so they know a bit about the weather, or our pop music or language.’ With flights from Scotland to Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk for £50, the gap between the two countries is getting smaller.

Decked out with boar skins on the walls, Bigos has a cosy atmosphere and offers traditional comfort food. Tad says, ‘I think Scottish people are glad to find something different. They maybe want a change from Chinese and Italian food.’

As well as club night Polished, Habakuk, Poland’s number one reggae band, and OSTR, a freestyle rapper, have appeared at Glasgow’s Arches and the Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh. Cinemas have begun adding Polish subtitles to films, and there are plans afoot to show Polish language films this year at Edinburgh’s Omni cinema.

Glasgow bar TigerTiger holds a popular Big Polish Night Out. In Motherwell, Mona Bishira recently organised a charity night to mark the Polish Karnawal and pulled in a crowd of 250.

The 19-year-old moved to Scotland last March, and studies musical theatre in Glasgow. She says, ‘Most of my friends are Scottish. They wanted to know what to expect at the karnawal. I said, “it’s a party, just like anywhere else in the world. We have a laugh”.’

As for Iwana Zurawska, she’s just happy people are finally seeing her homeland as something more than a dark, cold, poor former communist country. She says, ‘It’s great that creative, young people are beginning to blend into Scotland. It’s giving the country something different, keeping the cultural scene fresh. People are moving away from the stereotypes of cabbage and vodka and seeing that we have an awesome culture that we would like to share.’

The Footerin Aboot Baltic Ball is on Fri 30 Mar as part of Ceilidh Culture (www.ceilidhculture.co.uk, 0131 228 1155).

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