Man since time immemorial has made preparations for sleep, either laying an animal pelt on the ground or using plant matter as some sort of mattress. The most important change in the history of sleep was the ‘invention’ of the bedroom. Originally we all slept together on the ground, mainly because we had nowhere else but also for security. Even in the 16th century the poor slept on the floor, men and women, children and animals and even passing travellers all bedded down together near, but not too near, the fire.
Most houses were simple constructions with a fire in the middle of the main room – the smoke escaping through holes in the roof. This meant that the upper parts of the house would have been very smoky and, for this reason, it would not have been possible to have an upper floor to the house. However when we started using non-flammable materials to build our houses, this allowed us to construct chimneys to vent the smoke.
One consequence of this was that it allowed people to create another floor to their homes, giving them the extra space to construct a separate, dedicated bedroom. It was at this time that, for the poor at least, we developed the idea of the bed as a separate piece of furniture, because we now had the space to keep it separate from our living area.
Through history, we have preserved the idea of the separate bedroom in our homes; however, during the Communist era many people in Poland lived in apartments with limited floor area (30–40 sq m). This meant that, for a family with children, there was no room for a separate bedroom for the adults, who therefore slept in the living room. This lack of space also meant that there was no space to have a dedicated bed, rather people slept on a sofa-bed (a wersalka).
The wersalka, unfortunately, was neither a comfortable sofa nor a comfortable bed. It seems as though Poles of that generation have no concept of comfort with regards to beds. Happy to ‘make do’ they seem able to sleep pretty much anywhere and regard any flat surface as a possible bed, with no regard to what I would consider even the minimum amount of comfort. There is also a more ‘communal’ view of sleep, so that when family or friends visit, guests are distributed around the available beds with little respect for privacy.
One of the consequences of this style of living was the need to negotiate about sleep at home – it is difficult to insist you want to sleep when the rest of the family are sitting on your bed watching television. Therefore, individual sleep needs and expectations had to be subsumed to the common good. And someone once said: “Compromise just means there are two miserable people.” Living conditions also meant that noise from neighbours and from the other occupants of the apartment were easily heard, and this has lead to a toleration of other people’s noise and the ability to sleep through levels of noise that should really disturb sleep, perhaps explaining why the hourly Krakow Hejnał does not seem to disturb the nights of local inhabitants.
Polish life may make it difficult to obey some of the basic tenets of ‘sleep
hygiene,’ e.g. :
■ Avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine before bed (in a country with a 24hr alcohol shop on every street),
■ Have a cool bedroom (Polish heating seems to only have two settings ‘off’ and ‘24hr oven’),
■ Fresh air is good for sleep (but who is going to open the window when it is -15C),
■ Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep, no TV, computer etc (difficult when your bedroom is also your living room),
When I moved to Poland, one of the few things I insisted on was bringing my 200x220cm Vi-Spring bed with me. My partner said don’t bother as she could sleep anywhere and she did not need a ‘good’ bed as she found the sofa bed she was sleeping on perfectly comfortable.However, nothing was going to get me sleeping on a wersalka and so the bed duly arrived and now my partner has a very different view of what constitutes a comfortable bed.
So does the Polish way of sleep have any effects on the Polish character? I will leave you to decide.
Read a daily sleep tip written by
Dr Neil Stanley on Twitter @vispringtips