Why is it that the only people ‘liberals’ think it's OK to laugh at these days are the white working class and Central and Eastern Europeans?
The best-selling spoof travel guide, Molvania: a land untouched by modern dentistry, has been described by the doyen of comedic travel writing, Bill Bryson, as, “brilliantly original and very, very funny.” But is the book a witty satire on the travel guide genre, or just a re-hash of some outdated stereotypes about Central and Eastern Europe?
Molvania, of course, is a fictional land whose name incorporates many countries in the region. And it certainly is a brilliantly produced book, looking just like one of those titles aimed at the so-called ‘independent traveler’, such as the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide series.
The blurb on the back cover says: “Molvania, birthplace of the polka and whooping cough. But [thanks to this guide] the keen traveler can now enjoy one of central Europe’s best kept secrets.”
It has the usual opening chapter, which includes sections on ‘history’, ‘the people’ ‘traditions and customs’, ‘language’ ‘food and drink’, and so on.
Under the ‘getting there’ section it says, “Most people arrive in Molvania by plane, or by accident.”
In the history section the authors say that Molvania was invaded in the Middle Ages by Goths, Tatars, Lombards, and even at one point by a surprisingly militant band of Spanish nuns.
When visiting a Molvanian’s home, customs include, “not blowing one’s nose in sight of the kitchen, and remember to bring a small gift, such as flowers, fruit, firearms, or in the case of children, cigarettes.”
The national sport of Molvania is ‘plutto’, which is a cross between lacrosse and polo, played on a donkey.
The religion is something called ‘Baltic Orthodox’. Core beliefs include smoking cigarettes in church, and, on Good Friday, believers should refrain from domestic violence.
The language is described as being particularly difficult to learn, with four genders: male, female, neuter and a special collective noun for cheeses.
On food, Molvanians are said to be very fond of eating out – preferably in Germany or France! The people are said to have a particularly sweet tooth – which is often the only tooth left in their heads.
And so the book goes on.
Europe's 'white trash'
The authors – three Australians – have not only invented a history and culture for Molvania, but they also include some very confusing maps and some grainy old photos; one of which looks suspiciously like Krakow.
The humor of the book – which, as you can see, is sometimes funny in a kind of sniggering, schoolboy type way - is mostly pretty harmless stuff. But they do, on occasion, go a little too far.
In the section ‘Advice for Women Travellers’ they advise that woman who are traveling on their own can expect few problems, “aside from the usual assault, armed robbery and stalking that one usually sees in most eastern European countries.”
Now wait a minute! That is not the experience of women travelers in this part of the world, at all. In fact, many feel much safer here than they do in most western-European or American cities.
Although, that said, one woman from Britain I know once had a nasty experience with some very unpleasant men when she was traveling in the Balkans with a female friend. I asked her, when was it, exactly, that she went there? She said it was, “in the early 1990’s.” Of course, as I am sure you know, the early 90’s was a period when Yugoslavia was breaking up after the demise of communism. Civil war was just about to break out and law and order was breaking down. Packs of aggressive males roamed many of the cities making life very uncomfortable for the locals in general and foreign travelers in particular.
The moral of that story is pretty obvious – don’t go on holiday in a civil war zone.
Thankfully, much of the region is now welcoming visitors in the hospitable way that it always used to. If you don’t believe me then ask one of the many thousands of holidaymakers – particularly Italians – who visit Croatia every summer. (Although I wouldn’t advise a weekend break in Kosovo at the moment, which, sadly, is just about as bad as it was before Nato started bombing the place a few years ago.)
Molvania: a land untouched by modern dentistry was brought to my attention by a Polish female friend of mine who had read the book and found it unfunny and ‘offensive’. She said the real butt of the joke was “Slavs in general’.
And she is right. The book is both a satire on Slavs and a satire on the sometimes toe-curlingly earnest travel writing so common to the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet.
But mostly it just uses central and eastern Europeans as the butt end of some pretty nasty little jokes.
Basically, on the receiving end of these jokes are the poor. For instance, the only people who I have seen around here with only one tooth in their heads are poor people from rural areas, who are untouched by modern dentistry because they simply can’t afford it.
There is something a bit strange happening in the West. If this sort of book had been written about, say, African people, then, quite rightly, there would have been uproar and outrage. Words like ‘racism’ would have been used by lefty-liberal reviewers. But it seems that Political Correctness extends to all groups these days except poor whites from urban, rural or semi-rural areas in America and Europe. Central Europeans are being presented as the Chavs of the continent.
And that is just not funny at all.
Update, Monday: Kurczeblader.pl develops his argument (see comment 1) about ignorance of this part of the world, and Poland in particular, with his point about "Polish death camps' and the New York Times. In fact, if you google 'Polish death camps' you get 362 results. A common mistake, obviously. In the UK last year a poll showed that 40% of school kids had never heard of Auschwitz, let alone a 'Polish death camp'.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Posted by beatroot at 1/21/2006