Scandinavian Studies - these were intimate studies

Jacek Gdański, Polish chess player, FIDE International Chess Grandmaster, since 2016. Vice President of the Management Board of Polski Gaz TUW


You are a chess grandmaster, your brother is a chess champion. You chose Scandinavian studies, your brother chose a more numerically oriented course - economics. It seemed to me that a chess grandmaster would have more in common with numbers than with language. Why Scandinavian studies and not, say, mathematics?

Language of course can be used to make beautiful literature, but it is also a system in itself - a very logical and very ordered system. This has always fascinated me in languages. I wrote my master's thesis on the structure of language, or grammar, and I see this as similar to chess, because chess is also a logical system. I swapped the world of philology for the world of finance, while keeping in mind that the world of language is fascinating because it is an extremely logical creation. The very fact that during our studies we compare the structures of Slavic, Germanic and non-Indo-European languages - if we touch them, it allows us to perceive reality in a slightly different way. For me, Scandinavian Studies, as a language study itself, was very interesting. I speak and write several languages, but Swedish is still my favourite today. I keep in touch with several colleagues from Sweden also so that I don't lose practical skills. Scandinavian culture is very rich and you can really learn a lot from it, e.g. in terms of the organisation of society. I have very fond recollections of my time as a Scandinavian student, not only in terms of academic myths - "it used to be fun because we were young", although maybe a little bit too. It was a time of breakthrough - I started my studies in '89, when everything was changing and it turned out that Scandinavia was not just a distant land. First of all, it was the time when economic cooperation started, and I cooperated with my colleagues at that time, for example with a Swedish trade office that was starting to operate in Gdynia.

I understand that the fact that in language studies grammar is a very extensive subject - because we have historical grammar and general grammar - did not surprise you as it did some philologists who choose their course convinced that they will mainly analyse literature?

There were a lot of subjects devoted to the grammar of the language and its history, a lot of literature, but also a lot of cultural knowledge. Today the latter is, one could say, easily accessible knowledge, because you can find it on the Internet. But then it was very interesting for us to learn about Swedish culture. It made a big impression on me. Not idealizing, because today's Sweden is full of social problems, but the foundations of the Scandinavian countries are very sound and resist criticism from various sides - both left-wing and conservative. There is a lot of common sense in this, which we could also use - if we do not know what to do, let us at least behave decently and hold a real dialogue.

Did you have the opportunity to get to know this culture at close quarters? Because the 1990s was a time when it was easier to go abroad.

Yes - the university tried to organise trips to so-called folk schools. As far as scientific projects were concerned, these were not leading institutions, but it was more about immersing oneself in the language and culture and doing things on the spot. Back then, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, there was a big economic gap, cultural differences too, but knowledge could be gained on the spot, you couldn't learn it via the Internet. At that time, I was the newly crowned youth vice-champion of Europe in chess, and I also divided my time a little bit for travelling, doing more travelling around the world and less travelling in Scandinavia. I started working in Scandinavian studies very early on and immediately as a translator. While still a student I translated a book on ecology that was published in the Tricity, I also translated technical catalogues. We tried - I say "we" because at least a few people did - to use what we had learned at university in a practical way. The alternative was cleaning carriages or working as a bartender. Some of my classmates stayed in this line of work - one of them still runs a very successful translation agency. This micro-experience shows that it's very good to combine learning with practice.

Were you not tempted to leave and stay in Sweden?

No. As a chess player I have travelled all over the continent and often met with Polish people. I experienced a lot of kindness and support, and I looked at them with a little compassion. Today we live in different times, but back then it was harder to move around, it was harder to send information. When I saw some rugs from Cepelia or symbols of Poland, I thought I wouldn't like to be in such a role. It also seemed to me at the time that it was very difficult to immerse oneself in the language of a foreign country in order to feel completely comfortable in it - for example, you open a satirical newspaper and you know the language but you don't understand the context. I feel very comfortable not having a problem with my identity while drawing from other cultures. When I was studying, there was also no such thing as being forced to choose - in Poland, different possibilities started to appear, and this probably also influenced my choice at that time.

Did you spend time in Sweden on an internship or just working in the summer?

No, I missed that because I played a lot of chess back then and I am still an active chess player in the Swedish chess team. But I happened to work in Poland with Swedish entrepreneurs, and those were good memories. They turned out to be experiences with well-prepared entities, calm, balanced, paying attention to the environment, environmental issues, social issues, even in the predatory 90s refraining from creating excessive pressure.

How do you recall your studies? Did the fact that, as you say, you travelled a lot interfere with your studies? Did you ever fail an exam?

No, I don't think I ever failed an exam. Scandinavian Studies was a small college. There were about twenty students at the beginning: there was a Swedish group of twelve and a Norwegian group of eight. And, as it happens in life, because someone dropped out and someone stayed on, the studies were really very intimate, which was nice, because the lecturers were very accessible. After the first year, I took a one-year dean's leave so I could play chess in peace. I finished those studies unhurriedly. In total it took me probably 7 years before I defended my Master's thesis. My thesis supervisor was Rita Kozlowska-Ras, PhD, who I met some years ago and was very happy to meet. Andrzej Kubka told us very vividly how the political and economic system in Sweden worked. Dr Andrzej Chojecki, who taught us about the history of Scandinavian literature, is unfortunately no longer alive.

Were there moments when you regretted not having gone into economics, for example?

Later - yes. When I was working for the government, in government administration, I thought that if I had finished economics it would have been easier for me. Then again, when working for other entities, I thought it would be easier for me to study law, until I finally decided that there was no point, that it was fine the way it was and it was nice to extract from studies what was needed for your own development and then, if there was a possibility, learn what was needed in the dimension that was needed. Further education is necessary because in order to do something well and lightly, a lot of work is needed. There is no way around it. Sooner or later a lack of basics will reveal itself.

When you were a student, didn't you have the impression that the breakthrough period wasn't the happiest for your studies - the buildings weren't that new, the scholarships were mediocre, the dormitories were outdated, there was no money at the universities to finance, for example, horse-riding instead of physical education classes, etc.? Itd. Wasn't this bump especially striking to you, who knew a different world?

The first thought that comes to my mind is to trust your passions, don't just look at the job market. Now this market is very flexible. Such interdisciplinarity will be more valued in the profession. And it's worth setting your sights higher, because university matters in your future life.

Thank you for the interview.

Interviewed by: Magdalena Nieczuja - Goniszewska