PvN reflecting two cultures

Below we present an article written by Renata Głuszek for Multilingualism in the Educational Space. Issue VI, published by Udmurt State University, Russia, 2014. The author wishes to thank prof. Nella Shutova from UdSU for inspiration and audits of the article.

 HOW TO MAKE A WEBSITE REFLECTING TWO CULTURES

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In today’s increasingly globalized world, learning about the cultures of other nations becomes a necessity. With such intense and more and more dynamic migration intercultural communication, understood as a process of exchanging words, thoughts, habits and patterns of behavior between people of different cultures, becomes a very important element of a peaceful coexistence of representatives with very different cultural patterns.

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If the motto of the Polish-Dutch website “Polen voor Nederlanders” (PvN) –“Poland for Dutch people” which is the subject of this article – “One can’t love the unknown” sounds a bit exaggerated, certainly it fully justifies the statement that knowledge is the best way to understanding. Because with a good understanding of the reasons of certain phenomena, even with a lack of acceptance of some traditions or patterns of life, unrecognized values can be protected from disdain.  Another positive aspect of learning about other cultures is exploding harmful stereotypes which lead to the negative attitude towards other nations.

In the modern world a very important educational role in this field is fulfilled not only by traditional mass media, such as books, newspapers, radio, television, but also by communication via Internet: indirect (website, blog, email) or direct (chat, Skype). It allows for an easier way to enter into the mentality, customs, mores, religion, traditions, social norms and other factors affecting the cultural pattern of representatives of the community. And here lies the basic reason for creating the “Polen voor Nederlanders” website which was conceived not for purely informative purposes, like one of many of this kind, but as a tool for explaining the nature of Poles and why they behave the way they do. “Polen voor Nederlanders” exists since January 3, 2012 (in the network – since April 9, 2012), the number of unique clients is over 733 000 (August 20, 2017).

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Present logo – designed by Andrzej Kopka (2014)

At first PvN was addressed to a specific recipient – the Dutch-speaking community, and especially the inhabitants of the Netherlands. But there was also a secondary idea – the idea of giving some information about another country (its history, culture, geography) for the purpose of learning a foreign language. Every foreign language student needs a text to study, when it is taken from a website like PvN, it gives an opportunity to get some knowledge about the country of interest. The student can choose a story to his (or her) personal liking and the language learning process will be less boring. Originally our website was written in three languages: Polish, Dutch and English, but in 2013 the content was translated into Russian by young Russian translators from Udmurt State University (the Department of Translation and English Stylistics) who were in this way attracted to Poland.

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Old logo (first draft) –- made by Renata (2012)

Why “Poland for Dutch people”? This choice was made just by accident, through making the acquaintance on Skype of Han Tiggelaar from the Netherlands. Inevitably, there was an exchange of information on both countries and cultures, but there had to be more reasons and conditions for creating such an extensive website, like a desire to better understand Poland and its inhabitants, the need to explain a number of issues and get answers to many detailed questions.

Other factors that contributed to the PvN are:

  1. The growing anti-Polish campaign in the Netherlands initiated by the nationalist party of Geert Wilders, which caused a wish to break the negative stereotypes about Poles (their being poorly educated and culturally backward).
  2. A wish to show Poland as a country rapidly developing due to the grants from the European Union.
  3. A wish to present tourist attractiveness, which for lowland Netherlands can be fairly interesting. (The immediate impulse was a joint trip of PvN creators in 2010 to the beautiful Lower Silesia, which resulted in the idea that Dutch people should have a chance to see the wonderful landscape. Since then every next summer an expedition (so far 5 of them) was specially arranged for collecting information and pictures for the website, with particular attention to the Dutch clues).
  4. Realization of the fact that the knowledge of Poland in the Netherlands was very poor and Dutch people were quite ignorant in many fundamental issues related to everyday life in Poland (this is because Poland is hardly a great tourist attraction for Dutch people).

When it comes to the harmful stereotypes, both sides, Polish and Dutch, are not blameless. Most Polish people reside in small towns and villages, for them the Netherlands is associated with euthanasia, prostitution and drugs. Just as Poles know very little about the Netherlands, Dutch people often wonder if there are any brick houses, fast trains in Poland and if there is snow there all the year round.  It is obvious that there is a need for a two-side exchange of information.

“Polen voor Nederlanders” tries to give a very broad view of Poland and the culture of its inhabitants. There is basic information about the country, its political and administrative structure, festivals, cuisine, Poles, currency, entry and travel (by plane, car, train, bus, hitchhiking), hotels (which are very important for visitors, including tourists). There are also photo galleries and travel descriptions.

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In Crakow – September 2009; Nederlander in Polen

The main idea is to give a true to life image of Poland, so the authors try to avoid idealization of the country. But you cannot understand another country without even a sketchy knowledge of its history.

We expressed this clearly in the introduction to the historical section of the website: Why should youlogo 2 know the history of other nations? Because it has an important impact on their current attitudes and behaviours. Every nation has its traumas and experiences that have deeply engraved in its memory. It is worth to know about them to understand why people of this or that country behave as they do, where their fears and prejudices come from. You should also find out what success they can be proud of and which of them contributed to the common heritage of mankind”. In the picture: logo in design, made by Renata with the use of the pen, paper for breakfast and… lipstick (2012).

The historical section in the PvN content is a “compact history,” very concise and aggregate, which can be easily digested by an average Internet user, accustomed to short texts and pictures. To spice up the content, the authors have posted lots of links to videos on YouTube, leading to the materials strictly historical or video montages containing fragments of films. The knowledge of history is most important in the contact of different cultures. As for Poland and the Netherlands the historical background is very significant, it could be easily seen on the stage of translating the historical part of the website. For Han Tiggelaar, an inhabitant of the country which has been in contact with the Roman Empire since ancient times, it was difficult to comprehend that the period of great brick strongholds (“Teutonic Knights castles”) occurred in Poland not earlier than in the end of the 13th century (at this time the cities in the Netherlands were already quite well developed). It is difficult for a Dutchman to understand the Napoleon Bonaparte cult in Poland, which is even reflected in the Polish national anthem. For the Dutch people the Emperor of France is associated only with the French occupation, loss of independence and world power.

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Renata and Han in Poznań (2011)

Without the knowledge of history it is also difficult to understand the great religiousness of Poles and its impact on their attitudes and behaviour. It will be a great shock for average Dutch people to see Pope John Paul II in the Polish parliament sitting above the deputies’ chairs. Meanwhile, the reason of this religiousness originates in a painful past of Poland, which for more than a century was being erased from the map of Europe and speaking Polish was at times prohibited. After World War II people sought in churches some substitute for freedom. But here comes the problem of the (still strong) stereotype of the Catholic Pole because in our days the influence of the Church has strongly decreased and the Catholic Pole is increasingly becoming only a statistical Catholic. Therefore PvN has an article Sacrum contra profanum which shows that Poles are changing, becoming closer to atheists.

It seems to have been a good idea to present Poles in The Poles: a self-portrait on the basis of press articles, which are supported by scholarly research. In terms of mentality and attitude to law (for instance) Poles and Dutch people are very different, but it is possible that thanks to this article Dutch people will understand that some of the negative (from their point of view) features in the Polish character have been shaped by the hard realities of life: a need to circumvent many ridiculous rules and adapt to the difficult economic situation (in the period of socialism) or a wish to oppose the invaders fighting against any sign of Polish patriotism (the 19th century). The popularity of text number 6 on the Top Posts list (in all 4 languages) among the website visitors proves that such information is badly needed.

When it comes to intercultural communication it is very important not only to explain the differences between cultures but also show the things which unite them. The awareness that there are common cards in history, common cultural and economic heritage helps to overcome indifference. The desire to show these cards, search for Dutch clues to the Polish land was present in the website concept from the very start (it appeared probably after learning that there were palaces in Lower Silesia that once belonged to Dutch aristocracy, including the palace in Kamenz built by the daughter of the first king of the Netherlands Marianne of Orange).

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Kamenz palace on archival photos; Lady from the Netherlands

Maybe clues like this are not so important for the neighbouring countries with high intensity of mutual contacts, but Poland and the Netherlands seem to be very distant worlds for contemporary people. Although in the past their relations were quite strong which is evident in many facts (trade in Gdansk, which was considered a Dutch city, the settlement in Zulawy, etc). There are also some Polish clues to the Netherlands (for example the friendship of Erasmus with Polish nobles, not to mention Holland’s liberation).

The author of this article grew up in the epoch of the iron curtain, when a trip to the so-called West was very difficult because of the socialist authorities’ policy and the lack of money. The knowledge of the Netherlands was very obscure and full of stereotypes (windmills, marijuana, tulips), few people knew of a significant contribution of the Dutch people to Polish culture or its history (and vice versa). The search for some signs of the Dutch presence on the Polish soil has brought many surprises. It was known that  Zulawy was once a strong Dutch (Mennonites) settlement but there came many other discoveries – the knowledge that many houses in Gdansk were built or decorated by Dutch architects;

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Green Gate in Gdańsk, built by Amsterdam master Regnier, Szczecin – Gdansk 

…many palaces in Warsaw were designed in the second half of the 17th  century by a Dutchman – Tielman van Gameren (a typical Polish manor house owes him a characteristic front appearance) – Architect from Utrecht; the Vasa royal dynasty portraitists were Dutch painters Peter Danckerts de Rij and Pieter Claesz Soutman – Vasa dynasty portraitists; Queen Beatrix was kept as a baby in a beautiful wooden cradle from Poland – a gift for her mother, Queen Juliana – The royal cradle. Similarly, the Dutch people can be highly surprised at many historical facts. Many Dutch readers of the PvN website have no idea about the centuries-long presence of Mennonites in the Polish lands and many other aspects of the intercultural exchange.

The presence of the Dutch in Poland is not just a matter of the past however. Many of them have recently settled in Lower Silesia, where they run various activities, such as guest houses and agro tourism pensions. The very new idea is a new section on the PvN: “Poland – my second home” (in 2016 turned into: Stay with Dutch).  So PvN was meant not only to fulfill an informative mission for both societies – Polish and Dutch, it also works in favor of breaking barriers of outlandishness.

It is a specific case as Poland and Russia are neighbouring countries and the mutual knowledge about them should be good. However, according to the inquiry of young translators, an average young Russian knows Poland only superficially and is not much interested in that country. Translating PvN website made it more attractive and let them learn about many tourist values as well as let them know history and understand Poles better through it. So the cognitive value of the website has proved to be very precious. On the other hand a different approach to the common history and presenting some facts in a negative light for Russians – what could raise some concerns – has not brought big changes in the perception of the history.

As our website is frequented both by Dutch and Russian people, it is very interesting to compare their interests.  According to the list of the most read stories, the Dutch are mainly interested in Polish cuisine and Polish ladies, while the Russians – in Polish songs and dances. This is also supported by the queries in the search engines – the YouTube footage presenting Polish dances and songs are the mostly watched and the Dutch people also gladly look up the Polish songbook article.

To expand the knowledge of the Polish culture in the Netherlands PvN willingly publishes information about Polish cultural events in this country. We also try to help Dutch artists who turn to us with requests for assistance. The formula of the website has proven to be very interesting for the Dutch and Russian recipients. The comments they leave speak of a very positive feedback.

The value of the website is also evident in a wealth of links posted on other sites, including Wikipedia (“Mennonites in the Lowlands,” “Olędrzy”). Google search engine often places our articles on top positions of the list (such articles as: “Polen Toersime,” “Polen Mennonites,” “Krakau,” “Polen in II WW,”  “Polish songs” and some others).

In conclusion we may say that as the work of two dilettantes the website “Polen voor Nederlanders” was rather a big success. The success of the PvN website brought about the idea of creating a twin website – Holandia bez tajemnic (“The Netherlands without secrets”).

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Logo Hbt – designed by Andrzej Kopka (2014)

It exists since February 10, 2013 (in the network – since March 27, 2013), the number of unique clients is 300 000 (August 20, 2017). Having more collaborators we can make both websites even more attractive – more visually advanced and rich in terms of content. It would be nice to back them up with the help of young people, young representatives of Polish and Dutch culture. Thanks to the English versions they are available for many people knowing English. We want our websites to have a universal appeal. May be our example of creating websites like this will be followed in Russia and our cooperation in the field of translation will continue.

wizytówka PvN

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Renata Głuszek:
How to make a website reflecting two cultures have a universal appeal. Multilingualism in the educational space. Issue VI, published by Udmurt State University, Russia.

Published: February 11, 2015 / update: August 20, 2017

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