Saturday, January 21, 2006

Molvania: a land untouched by modern dentistry

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 But is the book a witty satire on the travel guide genre, or just a re-hash of some outdated stereotypes about Central and Eastern Europe?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: 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'.


DBN said...

Part of the problem is the absolute lack of any knowledge about central Europe by Westerners. The proverbial "do bears roam the streets of Warsaw?" isn't so far from the truth.

In Poland's case, this lack of even basic knowledge (which is excusable; after all, most Poles don't know much about Australia, etc.) is compounded by evidently false historical information that is thought to be common knowledge.

What I have in mind, is the use of the expression "Polish death camp" instead of German or Nazi death camp.

While there still is a lot to be said about how some Poles behaved during WWII, there certainly were no Polish death camps.

The New York Times is famous for consistently making this mistake. Mistake? I hope that's what it is.

Michael M. said...

Thank you for this post. I always thought this was an idiotic book, and am glad to see it so articulately taken apart. I think that nationalist humor is almost always tedious, regardless of where it is applied. (See stuff like: The French smell, ha, ha! etc...) Making a whole book out of the fact that easterlings are relatively poorer than their western European counterparts strikes me as just lame. I'm mystified by the warm reception its gotten.

Frank Partisan said...

Well written review.

Who are Australians to be stereotyping anybody Outback Jack?

Pan Emigrant said...

I was Melbourne airport in January and my girlfriend and I, both Poles, were refused our boarding cards because... we didn't have British visas! Luckily it was explained to her that visas were no longer necessary since Poland joined the EU in 2004...
I was a little surprised at the common Australian's ignorance of European affairs, given how many of them are lagering it up in London on any given night of the week.
Having had some exposure to their fully Murdoch-ated media perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised.

Pan Emigrant said...

I think these prejudices will endure as long as the new Europeans enjoy only a fragile welcome in the West. Once they stop worrying about their jobs, and enjoy the same rights as local employees, it will be much easier to turn around and clock someone making these comments in the mouth.

beatroot said...

I was in London once visiting friends, drunk, and I started coughing, and something - a bit of phlegm - flew out of my mouth.

Not very pleasant, for sure.

But do you know what one of the women I was talking to said?

"Peter! You have been in Poland too long!"

I was speachless. These are people who I thought were civilised Londoners!

What ever came out of my mouth was not half as bad as what came out of hers.

DBN said...


I too was in London a fe months ago: When I told an educated (I though) journalist that I am interested in Polish-Jewish affairs, he sais: "It must be hard for Poles to face this problem. After all, you guys guarded the concentration camps"

As I said, in my previous comment: There is still a lot to be said about the evil commited by some Poles (Jewabne opened a pandora's box). But such a discussion cannot negate historical facts: Poles did not create death camps durring WW2, nor did they man them.

If you have any doubt, read the word of the Isreali ambassador to Poland:

beatroot said...


I am 100% with you on this. And I have lots of stories that I will be milking on this blog for a long time to come about this.

At the moment though, Irish and UK economies are going relativly well, so things are good for Poles. But when the economy faulters, there will be some problems.

(In Northern Ireland, where you have two groups fighting for resources already, and the economy is not as good as the mainland, Poles are getting beaten by some locals).

Under a multicultural policy, groups compete with each other to prove how discriminated they are.

Give Poles a decade to settle down, and then see them form another 'indendity group'.

The only way is for governments to stop the competition between groups, and to make sure they apply legislation to everybody equally.

StefanMichnik said...

Nihil novi sub sole!

There is an excelent book by Larry Wolf, "Inventing Eastern Europe," in which he talks about how the West European Enlightenment invented the whole notion of Eastern Europe because of different cultural standards and different languages that were incomprehensible to the Enlightenment West Europeans, mainly the British and the French and to some extent Germans.

Wolff exposes the condescending and negative attitude pervading these documents, which portray the region and its people as backward, barbaric, and uncivilized. The negative image reflected in the documents presented by Wolff are crucial to the understanding of the development of the concept of Eastern Europe in Western Europe and to the understanding of the degree to which Eastern Europe adopted the negative concept of itself presented to it by Western Europe. That is why the idea of "barbarians from the East" is embeded so deply in the Western European way of thinking.

beatroot said...

That's an interesting comment.

But what about the Polish Enlightenment? In many ways, eighteenth century Poland was one of the most advanced in Europe - first Education Ministry on the continent, that sort of thing.

Doesn't the dating back to the 'barbarian east' date from when Russia, Prussia and Austria took Poland from the map?

Anonymous said...

I photo on the cover of the book is of the uncle of Santo Cilauro (one of the authors)

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