AFTER FINISHING Lawrence Siddall’s memoir I looked at the photographs of Poland and Russia on his website, and that is when his Peace Corps experience came to life for me.
The first and third parts of Siddall’s memoir concern his experiences as a teacher of English in Świdnica, Poland, and his travels in Europe and Russia during his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
The second part of the memoir details his fascinating overland trip in a Volkswagen Beetle from Oslo to Delhi and related side trips. It took place at a much earlier time in his life, after he served in the military in Germany and before graduate school, professional life as a psychoanalyst, and retirement. The maps showing the route taken, along with the vivid descriptions of the landscape, people, cities and food, depict places we are familiar with because of the Gulf War and the war in Iraq at a time when there was another conflict in the Middle East, one over the Suez Canal, when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt in 1956.
What Siddall leaves out of this memoir is as interesting as what he writes about. There is very little about his professional life as a psychoanalyst, which he describes once to students in his high school English class in Świdnica after being asked what he had done to make a living. At the beginning of Chapter 2, Part 1 he writes, “I was in excellent health, I had no debt, my grown children were doing well, and my ex-wife was working.” That, along with the desire “to do something out of the ordinary” and “restlessness” led him to submit his application to the Peace Corps. Disappointed at first to be invited to Poland and not a Latin American country, he ultimately realized that Poland was right next door to Munich, where he had spent two happy years serving in the military. It is almost as if the 34 years he spent working as a psychoanalyst and raising his family were simply a bridge between his days as a young man in Europe, the Middle East and India and his return to Europe (Poland) as an older man. I am curious about the years on the bridge.
There are a lot of thoughtful ideas for teachers of English as a second language. I was particularly intrigued by the English summer camp Siddall describes. Half of the campers were Polish and half were Russian. He writes, “The overall theme of the camp was learning how democracy works. Our goal was to have each cabin vote on a representative, and then the representatives, with our help, would draft a constitution.” I like the idea of English as the language of democracy.
My only major complaint about Two Years in Poland is that I found the dialogue to be wooden and unconvincing. I attended a screening of “quarterlife” recently and got some interesting advice from Marshall Herskovitz on writing dialogue: record yourself making an unscripted news announcement, and then listen to the recording. He said that he considered himself to be an articulate person and was really surprised by how many pauses, “ahs” and other unexpected turns of phrase appeared in his own speech.
Martha Martin is an Admissions and Academic Consultant at the School of Management at George Mason University. She is working on a story about her own Peace Corps experience and is an avid runner, currently training for her fifth Marine Corps Marathon in as many years.