One American’s Experience of Living in Poland as an Ex-pat
by James Massey
Lately, Zenon from PolishOrigins asked me to consider the pros and cons of living in Poland, as well as my general impressions of the complex, enigmatic Polish people. I smiled and said I’d give it a try. Although not a Pole myself (I don’t even have Polish roots, though there is a bit of Lithuanian somewhere in the mix), I’ve lived here for the better part of 20 years and therefore feel reasonably well qualified to say a few things about this equally fascinating and frustrating place and its proud people.
So, where to begin? Well, how about the ever-changing Polish weather? Back in Southern California (where yours truly grew up), the weather was rarely, if ever, discussed. What for? Here in Eastern Europe (or is it Central? It depends on who you ask. As the old Polish saying goes, “Where there are 2 Poles, there are 3 opinions”), many conversations begin with a general comment about the current meteorological conditions. And by “current”, I mean in the last 20 minutes or so. Chances are, any farther back in time than that and the state of the heavens was entirely different. It really takes some getting used to, trust me.
Poles will of course grumble about this fluctuating state of affairs (good natured complaining is a Polish pastime, even an artform), but one suspects that, deep down, the natives are quite proud of their rather challenging weather. Poles take everything in stride, ready for just about anything, it seems. They are a “rough and ready” people, warm-hearted but tough; poetic dreamers to a fault, yet endlessly practical; constantly complaining, but possessing an earthy, yet just as often bizarrely abstract and sometimes shockingly dark sense of humor. In the end, perhaps it’s not all that surprising that the mercurial Polish temperament is reflected in their homeland’s utterly unpredictable weather.
The second thing a newcomer to the area is likely to notice is, of course, the language. Here again, the contradictory nature of all things Polish is on full display. “Język polski” is, as any self-respecting native speaker will happily boast, one of the world’s most confoundingly difficult languages: full of seemingly impossible tongue twisters and built upon an almost sadistically difficult grammar.
It takes quite a while to learn (at least it did for me – honestly, I’m still learning, and probably always will be). But the flip-side – there’s always a flip side – is that any visitor who makes an honest attempt to use Polish, no matter how pathetic, will be applauded by anyone in hearing distance, their Sisyphean efforts greatly appreciated. And then, with their characteristic humor, the listeners will (only after the unfortunate foreign visitor has made a complete fool of him or herself, naturally) smile innocently while informing the hapless victim that they speak English. It’s all just part of the fun, you see?
But enough whining about problems (it comes naturally after living for so long here in the “heart of Europe”, I’m afraid). Let’s move on to something more positive, shall we? The topic of Polish cuisine hasn’t been tackled yet, and as it’s such an integral part of the culture, it simply can’t be skipped.
When discussing Polish food, one dish comes before all others: glorious pierogi. And to be more precise, confusingly named pierogi ruskie (literally “Russian dumplings”). This tasty treat will be known to many Americans (whether of Polish ancestry or not) as the “potato and cheese” variety. Why Russian? Who knows?! The name is even stranger when you stop to consider that these delectable dumplings are, for all intents and purposes, the national dish. Then again, “Pan Tadeusz”, the national poem and pillar of Polish literature, which is dutifully studied by every school aged child, is set in…wait for it…Lithuania! See what I mean? Poland is quite a confusing place.
Moving on, another well-known Polish delicacy is kiełbasa (sausage), of which there are surely hundreds of varieties. And what distinguishes Polish sausage from other popular types, like Italian? Mainly the seasonings used. If it absolutely reeks of garlic, it’s the genuine article. No vampires in these parts, I can assure you.
But here we run into yet another contradiction. Although Poles love strong flavors such as garlic, they generally run from spicy food. A pinch of black pepper is often enough to send one of the “tough” natives running off in a desperate search for a cool glass of water. Oh, and did I mention salt? The local cuisine is positively swimming in the stuff.
One thing I’ve learned after being away from the States for so long is that, while a lot of American food – even the all too common soft, over-processed “bread” on sale in every U.S. supermarket – is rather sweet, Polish food is generally salty. For those of us with a sweet tooth, it can come as something of a shock. But not to worry, friends. There’s loads of chocolate and sweets of all kinds here and, at risk of sounding unpatriotic, Polish candy and chocolate is often better than the sugary treats back home: the chocolate actually has chocolate in it (gasp!), and candy often contains fewer chemicals here.
A final topic we should spend some time on, which, as it turns out, is also related to food, is famous Polish hospitality. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of being invited to a Polish family gathering will know what I’m talking about. And once again we must point out the perplexing nature of these people – the sharp distinction between the public and private behavior of most Poles.
Many Americans, upon first setting foot in the Old Country, will quickly notice that, out on the street and in more official situations, the natives can come across as very formal, even cold. I personally experienced this, as did my parents, when they first crossed the pond to visit me (okay, they really came all this way to see their precious grandbabies, not me, but never mind). Likewise, when I first brought my young family to the States, I remember telling my wife something along the lines of, “Okay, sweetie, now remember: Smile. Smile often. Smile at everybody. And say hi. And wave. And be prepared for people you’ve never seen before in your life to smile, say hi, call you by your first name and ask how you are. Yeah, I know it’s kinda weird, but you’ll get used to it.” And Lord knows she tried! But after a while she looked at me, visibly exhausted, and (careful she was out of earshot of any Americans who might take offense) quietly said, “Honey, my face hurts. I can’t keep smiling like this.” I could relate. That was reason number 273 that I left sunny Southern California to come here. But that’s another article…
Predictably, my very American mother, who is one of the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet, ran into the opposite problem when she visited Poland. After a few days of her walking around town smiling, waving and even greeting total strangers (receiving a nervous smirk in return at best – but more often a look of total confusion – if not barely concealed alarm) I finally felt I had no choice but to intervene, take my dear, well-meaning mother aside and explain to her that that was simply not the way strangers interact in Poland.
The very important thing to take away from all this is that Poles aren’t unfriendly. Far from it! It’s just a much more formal, structured society than in most regions of the U.S. Two Polish neighbors can have known each other for years, invited each other over for dinner – heck, they can have even babysat each other’s kids – and they still might not be on a first name basis. I know. Crazy, right? After almost 20 years living here, I still have trouble navigating the Byzantine complexities of Polish social interaction.
But all of this has been a round about way of pointing out what a big deal it is to be befriended by one of these seemingly cold, formal people. If you’re lucky enough to have that happen, then consider yourself truly blessed. Once you walk through the front door of a Polish family’s home, everything changes in a flash. It’s like night and day. The masks come off and the hard looks quickly melt away, revealing warm smiles. All the stiff formality flies right out the window. You are now officially a friend. And around here, that really means something. Suddenly, your formerly standoffish acquaintance is cracking jokes (and just as likely cracking open a bottle or two of the “good stuff” in recognition of the occasion).
And I’d be remiss if I failed to once again mention the food. Oh, the glorious food! Any social visit here absolutely requires eating, and lots of it. I’m sure it’s a law. And how fortunate we are that that’s the case. As the honored guest of a Polish family, you will likely eat until you can’t take another bite. Not that you won’t want to – every dish is likely delicious. Yes, ladies, you will most probably put on a few pounds during your visit here – but it’s so worth it.
Before I call it a day, I’d like to mention something a bit more practical. Recently, there has been an uptick in interest among Americans in their golden years concerning the possibility of living in Poland, either to vacation here or to stay and perhaps even pursue long term Polish residency.
As someone who’s been through the (relatively painless) process, I might be able to shed a bit of light on the ins and outs of coming here to stay. However, I should remind readers that, as someone fortunate enough to have married a Polish woman, my experience has obviously been a bit different than that of, say, a retiree.
The first thing a potential resident of Poland should know is that, fortunately, Polish-American relations have been, and remain, very good. Being someone who has lived and worked all over the world (and run into nasty anti-American sentiment more than once), I can’t over-emphasize what a huge plus this is. Poles, generally speaking, genuinely like Americans. Importantly, this includes most Polish officials. Speaking of which, there can be quite a bit of paperwork to wade through at times when trying to get a long term visa.. Polish officials, like bureaucrats everywhere, love documents. But most of the time, once they discover that you’re a friendly American, it’s pretty much smooth sailing. At least that’s been my experience.
Another big advantage for potential residents coming from the U.S. is that prices here are (still) comparatively low. I say “still” because, since joining the European Union in 2004, prices here have been steadily increasing. Now, don’t get me wrong. Poland has benefitted greatly as a result of EU membership, and the overall standard of living has noticeably increased. But this increase in standards has come at a price, of course. Having said that, the average retiree from the States will find living here pleasantly inexpensive and will be able to live well on a fixed income.
On an important side note, most doctor visits, medications and hospital stays are “free” (socialized) in Poland, or nearly so. There is, of course, always the option of doing things privately. Happily, most Americans will find that even paying for their medical needs in cash is surprisingly cheap. And the level of medical care in Poland (depending on where one receives treatment, obviously) is generally high. Clinics and hospitals are clean and medical staff is typically very well trained.
If one is interested in finding a place to live, houses and flats (apartments) are plentiful. As in the States, property values vary greatly depending on location. A nice place in the center of a city can be surprisingly expensive. On the other hand, a cute place in the very pretty and peaceful Polish countryside can usually be had for peanuts. So there’s a wide choice of surroundings. And if nothing on the market catches your fancy, you can always take the plunge and build your own house. Predictably, that can get a bit complicated and take a considerable amount of time. Still, it is an option that many home-hungry Poles prefer, as you can often get exactly what you want for a reasonable price.
To sum up, coming to Poland to stay, while it does require jumping through a few hoops, is really not all that hard to do, particularly for well-regarded Americans. If you’re considering living here for a longer period of time, I strongly urge you to look into it further. As someone who’s done it (hey, I’ve even discussed the idea of moving here with my sweet mother from time to time, and I wouldn’t lie to her), I highly recommend Poland as a place to settle down happily, safely and cheaply.
Alright, folks. I think it’s time I wrapped this up (to be honest, I’ve made myself hungry with all that talk of food). Enjoy your time in this wonderfully confusing country. You’ll probably face a few challenges while you’re here, but the kind-hearted citizens of this ancient land will help you out (or at least try) and I’m certain you’ll fall in love with Poland and it’s amazing people. But all bets are off on the weather…