Is there such a thing as a typical national character, and if so, is one allowed to acknowledge it?
Of course one must not generalise, or stereotype, or extrapolate. But one may, surely, observe and recount.
It’s early April and I’m walking through the Lazienki park in Poland’s capital city of Warsaw. It has been snowing for several days, and there is thick snow lying on the ground, although the pathways – in the park, as throughout the city – have been conscientiously and impressively cleared. The snow has been swept to one side, where it lies in big piles, slow to melt in the cold weather. The rest of the parkland remains covered in white, however, transforming the hilly, wooded park into a winter wonderland.
The park is a famous place – to the Poles at least – with a long history. It contains various buildings and features of interest, in particular the main Lazienki Palace, which is set on a little lake and contains a few grand rooms and some (not that many!) historic and artistic items of interest.
Today the lake is completely frozen over. A few tourists and locals wander amongst the stone statues outside, drinking tea from a kiosk nearby, and admiring the peacocks which sit nonchalantly on the Palace steps.
As I walk across the park, enjoying the white winteryness of it, I see a number of ducks looking out of place in the snow, and some crows – of the European variety, all patchy black and grey. And then suddenly I see a squirrel – very obviously a red squirrel! Although there are still apparently a few left in the UK, in isolated pockets, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one before in the wild. Clearly here they are the norm, and a moment later I have seen several more. Very tame, sitting on benches, being fed nuts by indulgent passers by. So pretty, with their lovely reddish colour and tufted ears and bushy tails. Bushy in a different way to those of grey squirrels.
I find myself in the proximity of a young family strolling across the park. A mother with a baby buggy, and her husband attending to the baby – a sweet toddler, just at the stage of exploring the delights of walking around on his own.
The young man is crouched down so as to be at toddler level, guiding and protecting his son as he explores his environment of snow and ducks and squirrels. They have some nuts with them and the child is patiently and repeatedly given some to throw to the squirrel. He is clearly entranced, his whole focus on the little animal beside him, which darts about, wavering between bashfulness and bravery.
Now the Polish word for squirrel is Wiewiorka, which is a rather sweet and cute word on its own. But in Polish there’s a sort of diminutive tense which makes everything even sweeter and cuter (or smaller or younger), so when a father talks to his little toddler son about a squirrel, he calls it a Wiewioreczka.
Maybe it doesn’t translate, but it seems so very special and sweet to hear him talking to his child about the squirrel.
“Where’s the sweet little squirrel? There it is. It’s looking at you. Do you think the sweet little squirrel wants some of those nuts? Why don’t you give it some? There you go. More? Does the sweet little squirrel want some more? Yes, that’s right. There’s a good little boy!”
The mother complains gently that it’s time for them to be heading home, but neither the child nor the father seem inclined to move. The squirrel – or maybe the moment of paternal bonding – is too entrancing.
I’m moved by the young man’s obvious love and care towards his child, and the element of teaching in his manner. He’s showing his son the world, he’s teaching him about squirrels and nuts – and families.
It’s such a delightful moment, I’m impressed by the kind and natural and perhaps old-fashioned display of parental care. Here is a young man who is enjoying fatherhood and taking his responsibilities seriously.
Of course there are good fathers everywhere, but it’s just not something you see being demonstrated much back home – young men being caring towards little children.
A little later, I discover in another part of the snow-covered park, a paddock in which there are two rather nice brown horses, one wearing a blue rug, one a red rug.
Again I encounter a young father with his son – a slightly older boy this time. They are looking at the horses, and the boy refers to them charmingly as the ‘blue horse’ and the ‘red horse’.
I stroke the noses of the horses, as does the little boy. And again I’m entranced by the interaction of man and boy – the way the father takes on a teaching role.
“Ile nogi ma kon?” the father asks. How many legs has the horse got?
And the little boy replies with such a certain and affronted tone of voice – “Four!” – as if to say, ‘Of course it’s got four, I know that!’
“And how many ears?” the father continues.
There’s something about this I can’t put my finger on, a sort of simplicity and innocence in the interaction, and something which I do think reflects a different national character. To this young Polish man it’s natural to be speaking to his little son, teaching him in a simple and straightforward way, finding a way to talk to him about easy things, maybe checking to see how much the child knows and understands. In England, well I’ve seen men playing with and talking to their children occasionally, but I’ve never seen this sort of natural tuition about the world, in public. It’s like the paternal role is being taken more seriously; there’s no bashfulness about it, or resistance to it.
I seriously refuse to generalise. Anyway I don’t have much to do with children, and maybe there are fathers teaching their toddlers simple things all over the place. All I can say is that I’ve never seen the equivalent before, and I shall look out for it.
Horses have got four legs the world over, but I reckon approaches to fatherhood can be very different.