How I became an expat writer
I started as an expat writer, meaning that the stuff I wrote that got paid for was published in the English-language press that serves the expatriate community in Poland. I also wrote for a (now sadly defunct) magazine for English teachers and students that had a circulation of about thirty thousand, which beat hell out of the libertarian journals I give my stuff away to. My essays for vocabulary building for non-native speakers have been published in book form in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Novosibirsk, Russia and an English course I wrote has been used in places like Turkey and India.
Of course, I had always wanted to become a writer and from time to time made desultory attempts to set myself essay-writing assignments to practice and polish my technique. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t work for you either, does it? The fact is that for years, everything I wrote that got published was stuff I gave away to amateur publications such as the Oklahoma LP newsletter, read only by the faithful. I simply could not, without the discipline of a classroom assignment or a deadline, pick a subject, research and write something about it.
Stephen King, a writer I don’t read much, said that if you lift weights every day, you get big muscles, if you write every day, you get to be a good writer. Yes, it’s probably about that simple – but notice how many people can make themselves exercise regularly. For me, forcing myself to exercise has always been easier than forcing myself to write.
Then, in 1991, I moved to Poland. For two years I lived in a small town, Brwinow, which had a charmingly archaic phone system. The whole town was served by an operator exchange, the like of which I had never personally experienced in the States. The family I lived with had a party line, which I am just old enough to remember in America. All the phones in town were served by three-digit numbers, which you had to tell the operator – in Polish. For our house and the neighbors, we had a code of rings worked out with the operators so we’d know who had to pick up the phone.
To say the least, I felt a little isolated and as it became evident that I’d be in Eastern Europe for a while I realized that I’d have to start writing letters to keep in touch with my friends back home. In my first year in Poland I believe I wrote more letters that I had written in my whole life up to that point. And in my letters I, of course, told stories about what I had seen and done in Poland.
Now writing for publication is like losing your virginity. It’s not racking up scores that’s so difficult – it’s going from zero to one. (I’m counting only published and paid for. Unlike sex it doesn’t really count if it’s given away.)
For me it happened, appropriately enough, in a bar. I was drinking in Warsaw’s expat hangout in 1994 with a decayed Austrian baron who edited Okecie the Airport Magazine, one of the kinds of slick mags they give out at tourist agencies and put in the seat pockets of airplanes.
At one point this fellow turned to me and said, “Gee Steve, you sure can talk. Can you write?”
“Yes I can write.”
“Can you write funny?”
“Yes I can write funny.”
“Can you write me something funny about Polish health services?”
“Not even difficult.” I said.
So what I wrote was basically an article pointing out that the remnant of the socialized health service was not something you wanted to trust any major health problem to and illustrated with a few anecdotes of things that happened to people known to me, including a story of a friend who severed the tendons of his hand pounding his fist through a window at a party. (Where else?).
My friend went to an emergency room where he got sewed up, but was placed on a waiting list ten months long. Might as well not bother, after ten months he would never have gotten back full function of his hand due to tendon shrinkage. This was common in Poland and all the former Communist countries, which somehow never gets through to the admirers of socialized medicine
I also pointed out that many doctors were going private and providing excellent care. My friend eventually went to a private clinic in a converted apartment. The examining room was the kitchen and a bedroom had become the surgery – all spotlessly clean. He was in and out within a week of applying and his hand works just fine now. The price – you wouldn’t believe it for a fairly serious operation. It put a crimp in his beer budget for a while though. . (To give you a further idea, I have a Polish associate who is an MD. She doesn’t practice though because she makes more money providing English lessons.)
Bottom line was advice to expats to make arrangements now, rather than wait for an emergency when you’d be standing like a schmuck with a phone in one hand and a Polish phrase book in the other.
So, after the magazine hit the stands I met my editor at the pub. He was drinking as per usual and sporting a cast on his arm. He informed me that the very morning the magazine was issued the Minister of Health, not the secretary but the Honorable Minister himself had called the offices and demanded to know, “Who is this Stephen Browne guy and why is he saying these awful things about our wonderful Polish hospitals?”
“Jesus, are we going to get in trouble for this?” said I.
“No, no problem. By the way, you haven’t asked me what happened to my arm.”
“So what happened to your arm?” I asked. “A couple of friends of mine broke it.” he said.
(A fairly frequent occurrence. I eventually had occasion to damn near break his arm myself.)
“I got it taken care of in the hospital right away. Of course I had to give them two bottles of cognac to see to it!”
To say the least, he was not very sympathetic to the Honorable Minister’s complaint.
That’s how it started. My editor was delighted to have somebody who could write on any subject on short notice. I was given lots of assignments to write “adverticles”, advertisements thinly disguised as articles, and got to eat free with a date in some of the best restaurants in Warsaw. In return my editor published some of the stuff I was proud of, essays on the history and environs of Warsaw. I even got to write stuff considered a bit dangerous to publish, such as an article about taking taxis in the city. (Dangerous? More about this at another time.) For a while I was writing most of the magazine under my own byline and columns called variously; An American in Warsaw and Through the Eyes of a Foreigner.
My editor has since returned to his true profession of drinking himself to death but I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for him and the great story he gave me about How I Became a Writer.