Saturday, 4 June 2011

Review: Europe on a fork, Wrocław

Or "Is the 'Wrocław: The meeting place' concept real?"

Till the 5th of June one still has the chance of visiting the 'Europa na widelcu' event on the market square.

It consists of the ability to buy tickets for 5 złoty per dish from thirty different 'national' dishes; additionally there are various stalls selling food and drink (including cheap good beer, hence the writer of this blog having a hangover while writing this) from around Europe.

The event's website can be seen here.

I was there last night.  The market square was packed, and contained a party atmosphere with tons of Poles (this is apparently the biggest culinary event in Poland) as well as tourists.  Bands were playing music on the street.  People were enjoying the food and drink.

'Wrocław: The meeting place'

The tourist passing through Wrocław at this time will most definitely receive a positive impression of Wrocław, 'the meeting place', to use the brand name attributed to the city.  To quote from a tourist site: 

Wroclaw is increasingly often referred to as the meeting place. "A city of meetings," a "city that unites" was Pope John Paul II's reflection on Wroclaw during the Eucharist Congress in 1997. The reason is that Wroclaw is the melting pot of different nations, religions and cultures. The term “meeting place” has gained more contemporary meaning recently as Wroclaw is more and more often selected as a meeting place for people of art, culture, science and business.

An alternative look

Wrocław is a strange place.  Last evening I walked from where I live in Ołbin (a rather poor area of the city).  Walking down streets with potholes on the roads, poor parking systems (cars are largely parked on pavements), dogshite on the pavements, alcoholics in droves hanging around and people whose clothing indicates a reliance on second-hand shops I then walked through Ostrów Tumski, the island where the RC cathedral is, through into town.  Along the way I saw few people.  Even in the city centre only small groups of people were to be seen.

That all changed when I entered the market square.  Suddenly I saw thousands of people and heard lots of noise.  It is this view which dominates the view of Wrocław.  For the tourist, Wrocław is indeed a cool, colourful, lively, multicultural place.  Look, I can eat food from Bulgaria!

The reality of Wrocław is a lot different to the 'Meeting place' which is being marketed.  For example, all of the food made as part of the event was cooked by Polish chefs.  Nothing wrong in that (I daresay ferrying in chefs from abroad would be costly; saying that, non-Polish chefs do live in Poland and indeed in Wrocław). For me though, it is in living in Wrocław where one sees the deprivation of places like Ołbin and Nadodze; the meeting of people from all over Poland and abroad, going to an Orthodox church, seeing Romany people not too far away from where I live; that is the 'Meeting place' for me.

Does the concept of 'the meeting place's stated aim of multiculturalism mean a real encounter of different people, or is it a marketing ploy to boost business?

The Slovenian  philosopher Slavoj Žižek has said that

The idea is that the fundamental conflicting areas are no longer those of vertical up-vs.-down social struggle, but more horizontal differences between me and you, between different social groups: the problem of tolerance; the problem of tolerance of other races, religious minorities, and so on. So then the basic problem becomes that of tolerating differences. I am not saying this is bad, of course we should fight for this, but I don’t think that this horizon—within which the ultimate ethical value is then that of tolerating difference—is the fundamental place for question.  [...]  This kind of politically correct struggling for tolerance and so on advocates is basically not only not in conflict with the modern tendencies of global capitalism, but it fits perfectly. What I think is that today’s capitalism thrives on differences.
(Emphasis in italics mine.  The full text can be read here.)

Now, Žižek was here talking about the nature of identity of individual human beings.  I would like to, however, expand this to the identity of Wrocław.  Apart from promoting the culinary traditions of Europe and the brand of Wrocław as being 'the meeting place', is it considered that this event will lend itself to the aforementioned 'melting pot'?  (I am very unsure as to whether the term 'melting pot' is the best one, but I shall take it to mean a growth in tolerance and less discrimination).

I am unsure whether this is the case.

Andreas Zick, the Professor at the Institute for Inter-disciplinary Research into Conflict and Violence said, in an article with Amnesty International:

We accept the Italian in the pizzeria on the corner.  However, the refugee who, so to say, has nothing to offer, will be rejected.

Could it be the case that the 'Europe on a fork' event, while having good aims shows something common to various initiatives, namely that a sense of difference is being reduced to likable commodities, in this case food?  This 'meeting place' is therefore not a place where a real 'meeting' (i.e. a human encounter that enables both people to be changed by the other person) can occur, rather a place where commodities are bought and sold and the average person living in Wrocław will remain unaffected by this marketing of Wrocław.

Lisiunia A. Romanienko was recently quoted in the 'Wrocław International' newspaper in saying
We should not continue to silently continue to accept the enormous theft, greed and faux multi-cultural consciousness that seems to accompany some international promotional activities taking place in our city.
A multiculturalism which reduces the 'other' to the food that he or she produces, to the 'benefit' that that person brings to 'my' country (i.e. the commodication of the person) is not a multiculturalism that actually works deeper at the issues of acceptance of difference with a view towards working together to live together in harmony*.

To put it plainer: Eating foreign food an open person does not make.  Even Nick Griffin admitted that GB has benefited from  the culinary dishes brought into GB by immigrants**.

From my point of view a few other issues spring to mind (forgive me, I'm a perfectionist):

The reliance of meat in most of the dishes: The mass consumption of meat is not sustainable, and ignores the way in which animals are treated or even that they are killed.  Of course, perhaps (if one was to forget for a moment ones rejection of the murder of animals) the animals killed in the production of the meat used were treated 'humanely'.  I doubt this, however.

The use of plastic: Last year when I got the food we were given them on paper plates, if I recall correctly.  We were however given plastic cutlery.  Very standard, of course.  It would be more sustainable however if recycling bins for plastic and paper were to be put on the market square.

Stop complaining

'Europe on a fork' is a nice event, and I am not saying it should not take place, or that those behind it are evil or anything like that.  I enjoyed being there last evening.  I am simply raising a few issues that would lend deeper and more sustainable results from the event.

Vratislavians still have till tomorrow to visit it.

* In fact, Ms Romanienko is scathing about the '(Institutions and resdients of Wrocław's) xenophobic treatment of its international residents, those speaking with an accent, those with piercings or other body modifications, or those with any unique orientation.

As anecdotal evidence I can say that I know of a British man who is fluent in Polish, who is however not able to work as a state-recognised translator in Poland (for a lot of things are state-controlled, a hangover from communist statist rule times) as he is not Polish.  I myself have offered to do voluntary work and projects for a few NGO's, but was rejected for, as it seems, I am not in the 'we-group'.

** The EU's 'Youth in Action' programme which includes the aims of working for tolerance and fighting discrimination enables various youth meetings (to use the word largely used; occasionally 'encounter' is used) and being a volunteer.  In my opinion tolerance for many of those who benefit from the programme (participants as well as some youth leaders) means 'a tolerance for new foods and alcohol drinks' and 'a tolerance for things I like', not so much a 'tolerance for things I find uncomfortable'.

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