Review: TWO YEARS IN POLAND by Lawrence Biddall (Poland)


two-years-polandTwo Years in Poland, and Other Stories: A Sixty-Seven-Year-Old Grandfather Joins the Peace Corps and Looks Back on His Life
by Lawrence Brane Siddall (1997–99)
Pelham Springs Press
255 pages

Reviewed by David Gurr (Ethiopia 1962–64)

In Poland, Lawrence Brane Siddall taught English in the town of Swidnica, pronounced as shvid-NEET-sa, according to the author. He was the only PCV assigned to that city of 65,000 in southwest Poland, and replaced a Volunteer who had taught English the previous two years at the secondary school to which he was assigned.

Parts I and III of his book are devoted to his experience in Swidnica, travel to major cities in Poland, one of them as part of his in-service training, as well as a six-week summer project organized by another Volunteer followed by a vacation in Russia. Sandwiched in between these two parts is Part II, which describes his life and travel from 1953 to 1957 as a guest of Uncle Sam.

Siddall was born in China where his father was a volunteer physician, but shortly after his birth his mother died and the family returned to America. It is fairly obvious that he was prepared to go overseas in the capacity of a Peace Corps Volunteer, both because of the tradition of service in his family, but also his experience in the military. And, his military experience was the exception rather than the rule, fortunately being assigned to Munich, Germany — the most delightful way to spend the required two years of active military service. The other alternative would have been Korea, though the war (read Police Action according to the UN) was over. He made the most of his assignment in Munich by learning German — which would be of some assistance in Poland, and traveling extensively.

The first chapter of Part I should almost be required reading for any Peace Corps invitee before s/he leaves for staging in Washington, DC prior to leaving for the country of assigned service. Upon arrival in country Siddall learned that his predecessor had prepared a report on the school, but he was not given a copy of the report. As a result, while he knew that he would be teaching English, he assumed that it would be confined to writing and reading. On the first day of his arrival at the school, after in-country training, he learned that he had to teach grammar, something that he was not prepared to do because he had not been forewarned. However, his maturity and discipline pays off because he immersed himself in the topic of grammar and soldiered on, rather than request a reassignment.

He lived in the school in which he served, in a one-room dimly-lit and isolated part of the building. But, he took full advantage of what the surrounding community had to offer. He met host country nationals not affiliated with the school, and carefully planned his meals and recreation so that he could live within his stipend and enjoy his newfound friends.

As with all teaching situations, he found that students were a mixed bag even though the vast majority of them recognized that completing high school was necessary to getting into college. One class in particular had its share of disruptive students. However he is persistent and consistent in his approach to these disruptive students and discovers with patience that he came to appreciate at least one of them. His efforts paid off in making the class as easy to run as the others. He became friendly with a woman student and found her an internship with one of his friends.

After he completed his first year successfully, one of the other PCVs in his project set up a six-week English summer school to which she invited him to teach. Again, his skill and maturity made for a rewarding experience both for the other PCVs and for the students.

During summer school, he mentioned that he was intending to take his vacation in Russia following the session. To his surprise, his students were mostly horrified by this, given the continuing hostility between these two countries following the breakup of the eastern block.

Upon his return to school, he was assigned to what he had envisioned the assignment to be before he got to Poland — teaching reading and writing. One of his innovations was to teach the students to sing American songs. They particularly loved “Home on the Range” and “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain.!”

Siddall mentions the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and particularly the veneration of Mary in Poland. It is not something that he had experience before in his religious life. It may be recalled that the single most massive riot in Poland occurred when the Soviet-backed government attempted to take all of the pictures of the Virgin Mary out of the country’s classrooms. It should also be remembered that the Solidarity movement that eventually drove the Russians out, was really a coalition of unions and business interests. This followed the American model of union-management relations as distinct from the European model where friction between the two and the desire on the part of unions to own the means of production is paramount.

One of Siddall’s hobbies is medieval art and architecture, including cathedrals, and he spent many of his off hours looking at these sites and taking pictures. His photographic record, though none appears in the book, also include photos of his students, which he has obviously enjoyed viewing after returning to the United States. He even returned to Poland to attend the wedding of an acquaintance from Swidnica.

Between the first and third parts of the book that describe his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer, he shares his experience traveling in Europe and Asia in the mid-1950s. He and two friends set out from Oslo by Volkswagen and wend their way through Europe to Istanbul. From there, one passenger is dropped off and he and the other traveler continue to Delhi, where they part. From Delhi, he takes a train to Mumbai and flies to Vizagapatnam where he boards a freighter, working his passage back to the United States.

Along the way, they visit historic sites which he describes with the knowledge of having studied them before. The travelers arrive in the Middle East at the height of the Suez Crisis, which forces them to bypass Israel. As with his Peace Corps travel and touring in Poland, he described architecture and art that he encounters, sharing my fascination with icons in the Eastern Church. And, he is an excellent travel writer. Even his writing about his return as a laborer on a freighter is vivid and fascinating. It also further attests to his zeal in taking on a difficult job assignment, even crawling inside of a steam boiler daily, when it is shut down, to scrape the carbon deposits off of the steam pipes inside. It turns out to be the dirtiest job on the ship, besides having to work in a tightly confined space.

In sum, this is a great read, both as a travel piece and as a record of his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer working in an isolated setting. I would just love to see his slide collection!

As a Peace Corps Volunteer reviewer David Gurr taught auto mechanics at the secondary level, and economics at the college level in Addis Ababa, and played the flute with the Ethiopian National Symphony.

He spent 40 years working and studying anti-poverty programming with the Federal Government, and the City of New York, and serving as the Executive Director for the Day Care Council of Nassau County. He retired in 2005 where he last served as a project officer for AmeriCorps*VISTA. He also served as president of the Corporation for National and Community Service employees union, as well as the predecessor agency, ACTION, for 13 years.

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