Interview with Tomek Michniewicz

We invite you to read this interview with Tomek Michniewicz, journalist, traveler, and host of the newest edition of Gdynia Travel Workshops.

How is it then with Poles’ passion for traveling? Do we like traveling?

More and more; Poles seem slowly to be learning how to do it – it becomes obvious seeing our curiosity of the world, and the increasing amount of Poles who don’t just settle for sun, palm trees, and cheap, all-inclusive holiday packages.We begin to look around the world more, wonder what’s around the bend. For a couple of years now, I’ve been observing a sharp increase of Polish backpackers and individual tourists who organize their trips on their own.I would estimate around 30 thousand of them in Poland.Not more than 7 years ago they amounted to maybe 3 thousand.

What helps us meet interesting people on the road?

Curiosity and openness.We’re a bit shy to talk, we’re wrongly convinced our English is poor.Meanwhile, English stopped being just English – it’s a universal language with a thousand dialects and variations.We speak it our way – there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Casual conversations with people we meet on the road give birth to amazing stories.Not long ago in Zimbabwe, the driver of the car I hitchhiked in introduced me to his whole family, invited me to dinner and took me 150 km farther than he had to, just because I knew a couple of football players from Zimbabwe playing in the Polish league and we became friends.You should ask questions and you’ve got to have interest in people – that’s the secret to it.

Have you ever met on the road a Pole who became really imprinted in your memory?

Many!I have the best memories of a couple of Poles residing in Pretoria and Johannesburg – two of the most dangerous cities of South Africa. To me it seemed like a nightmare – a life in prison.Personally, I would constantly feel threatened surrounded by violence and racism…. I wouldn’t be able to live there.After having spent twenty or thirty years there, they don’t even see it any more – it became normal.Amazing people – a quintessence of resourcefulness and ability to adapt to the circumstances.

Do Poles living abroad always embrace gladly those who are just passing through?

Some do, others don’t.Those who still see Poland as their home are more enthusiastic, because coming from Warsaw or Racibórz I bring a piece of that home with me.Those who managed to set up their lives abroad are less enthusiastic. They are not Poles living in New York – they’re New Yorkers of Polish descent. Mingling with them lacks that special kind of effusiveness and warmth – it’s more like a conversation with a stranger.

What’s the easiest way to find common ground with a newly met stranger?

Talk about similarities, instead of differences, and ask more questions than give answers.On a very basic level we’re all the same. We all get sad or happy, we love or hate, we like to eat, and we like it when it’s warm and nice.These are features are common for a nomad in Sahara, a kid from Nepal in Himalaya, or a scientist from Singapore. This universality brings us all to a common denominator.If on the road you are able to define yourself withou money, your descent, or your skin color, and treat everyone as an equal instead, you will be able to communicate with everyone.It’s all just a matter of attitude, really.

Isn’t it so, that in the world of cheap and easy travel, the distinction between ‘homeland’ and ‘abroad’ becomes more contractual?

It probably depends on one’s philosophy of life.30% of Poles would probably say that homeland should be written with a capital ‘H’ and it’s where we have “Pan Tadeusz” [“Sir Thaddeus, or the Last Lithuanian Foray: A Nobleman’s Tale from the Years of 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse” – an epic poem by the Polish poet, writer and philosopher Adam Mickiewicz – trans.], mazurek [a type of Polish pastry – trans.] for Easter, and garland celebrations on cemeteries. For them, homeland is a specific place on Earth.For others – me for example – homeland is something that resides inside and it doesn’t really matter what postal code defines my location at a given time.One may feel like a Pole while living in Bangkok or Mexico, or not living anywhere for that matter – while being on the road all the time.I think that for a large portion of my generation we’re Europeans or cosmopolitans just as much as we’re Poles.

Is there something that connects the experiences of a traveler to those of an emigrant?

Not much, I suppose.We look at the same place from two completely different perspectives. In my opinion, those are complementary conditions, not identical ones.

How do you use a photo report to tell about a meeting with another person somewhere far away?

You mustn’t mold the character according to your needs or expectations.When one hears that someone lives in the African bush, they immediately imagine savannah, setting sun, and zebras under Acacia trees.Upon arrival however, it becomes apparent that everything around you is green (because it’s Mozambique in January), indeed there’s the bush, but somewhat small and littered, our protagonist lives in a house instead of a shanty, and has a bathtub and a fireplace.We should avoid chasing our vision.A reporter’s work (as well as that of a photo reporter) is all about documenting, not about unconstrained creativity.Our protagonist is a living human being, and we should treat him with utmost respect – without distorting his person or context. This honesty – or lack thereof – will be visible in photos. Maybe not on one, but in a whole series – definitely yes.

What are your expectations with respect to the Pawel Edmund Strzelecki Award?

I would like it very much if true reporters came forward – those with the right technique, with character, able to operate with words, as well as moods.If we’re successful in discovering at least one person able to use this award as a door to professional press reportage, and maybe even to publish a report book, that would make my dreams come true.I would like that a lot.

Gdynia Travel Workshops starts on Friday. What does the event offer, that one can’t find even in the best travel books?

Practice. Books are a result of work, but one has to be a very experienced reporter to be able to learn from others’ work. The workshops present the background, the creative process, and tricks one can’t find in books, but thanks to which those books come to life.Handbooks and workshop guides inevitably serve as more standardized forms of media.A workshop is a much more personal formula. Questions, answers, personal examples explained on the go, errors, unsuccessful attempts… One can take a deeper look at all this together with the author. It’s a completely different formula.

What is the most important task for the host of a travel workshop?

For me personally, the most important thing is to pass on practical knowledge.Let me emphasize: practical. Not a definition of report, nor history of the genre since the interwar period, nor a list of obligatory reading. I prefer to demonstrate what questions one needs to ask in order to find a trail of art smugglers and how to survive this ordeal.Or how to document your trip onsite so that there’s nothing missing once you’ve returned. This workshop is the sum of my report experience. I don’t wish to waste time on theorizing. Theory can be found online.

Travel workshop “Reporter on the road: how to bring home something of value” – Friday, September 13, 6 pm in the Pomeranian Science and Technology Park in Gdynia. [READ]


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