I’ve just spent a few weeks in Eastern Europe, and it sure was a learning experience. I’ve discovered over the years that people are people most everywhere you go, with the same needs and desires as anyone else. It’s the traditions and history that make the difference. If there is one thing that will turn off people to an American, it is showing up with the idea that “this is the way we do it in America,” as though that answers all questions. A better way is to consider yourself a guest in their house and act accordingly. Works most every time. A few words of the local language help, too. I’m sorta handicapped there, as Polish is judged one of the hardest languages in the world; I can attest to that. They seem to have a shortage of vowels in Poland. They have words with 15 letters and only two or three vowels. How in the heck would you pronounce that? I’m thinking of drilling a well to produce vowels; they obviously have a drought.

I was sitting in the dining room of the hotel one morning, eating breakfast. Since I was the only one in the dining room, I figured nobody would mind if I found the buttons, and tried to watch something on the big screen TV. I dialed around a while, and came up with a John Wayne movie. That’s better; I can deal with that. You haven’t watched John Wayne properly until you’ve watched him dubbed into Polish. Somehow that just takes the macho image to another level. I laughed so hard, the chef came out of the kitchen to see if I was choking.

Fortunately, a large number of the Poles speak English, having had it in school. They generally read and write English very well, but do not have a lot of practice with spoken English. If you think about it, written and spoken English are two very different animals. We commonly use slang and abbreviations that don’t translate well to written languages, and are not taught in school.

One example of this: I went down to the bar one night to have a nightcap before bed. As usually happens, several of the staff would come in and ask me questions, or get me telling a story so they could hear English spoken. As you probably have guessed by now, it doesn’t take much to get me into story mode. After a while, one of the staff asked my about something they didn’t learn in English class. He said, “Can you teach us to swear in English?” I tried to explain that I didn’t do much of that myself, but I had heard my brother, Willard, do it – and the lesson began. They took notes and practiced pronunciation. I’m glad there were no ladies around. I may be the only English tutor in Poland who will get your mouth washed out with soap if you pass the class. Oh, well, just trying to further international relations.

There is one big difference between most of the Eastern European cultures and the United States. When the Allies won WWII, the soldiers came home with the attitude that they could do almost anything if they put their minds and backs into it. During the ’50s and ’60s, we built the largest, strongest and most successful economy in the world. Then something happened. The parents of the Baby Boom Generation worked off their tails, trying to make a better life for their children. And it worked, too. Too well. Now, in America, many people just sit in front of the TV, all fat and happy, playing games and waiting for the government to give them something, with no thought as to where that something comes from, or who had to work to produce it.

The attitude in Eastern Europe is totally different. It has been just a few years since the area escaped the boot heel of the Soviet Union. They know what life under communism is like. That is something we should learn here. If we don’t learn it from history, we’re going to learn it the hard way, and I can tell you, it’s no fun.

Several people there told me that in the old days, before freedom, there usually was at least one member of the family whose full-time job it was to stand in line. There were lines for food, clothes, consumer goods, anything. There was a 2-year waiting list to buy a ratty Russian car. These cars were worn out junk before they were delivered, but everybody had a right to one. (GM or Chrysler anyone?) People who truly understand and value economic freedom aren’t afraid to work 12 hours or 14 hours a day to make a better life, and don’t expect anyone to bail them out if they make a mistake – a very refreshing attitude.

It was plenty cold for a Southern boy. We went for 10 days, and the temperature never got above 0. My idiot brother, Willard, had never seen cold like that, so it was new experience for him. “Hey, watch this, I can make icicles!”

Willard found out about ice fishing, and thought that looked like a pretty good idea, except for the trolling. He bought all the gear, and went out on the ice. He started chopping a hole in the ice to fish. A huge voice came from the sky, “There’s no fish under the ice,” it said. Willard looked around, and moved down the ice and started chopping a new hole. Once again a voice came from the sky and said, “There’s no fish under the ice!” That spooked Willard pretty badly and he looked up and said, “Is that you, Lord?” The voice came back and said, “No, I’m the manager of the skating rink.” So much for Willard’s ice fishing.