Warmer: Would you consider living abroad? If so, why? What problems do you think you could experience? Will you try to assimilate yourself completely or would you try to keep some elements from your Polish heritage? What things do you think you would miss from Poland?
Now read the text below, answering the questions that follow.
From Leicester to Kraków… twenty-two years on
An original article written by Roger Hartopp, updated and expanded 25 May 2020
It was while sitting down, updating reading texts for my conversation lessons when it occurred to me that it was twenty… wait, no, it was twenty-two years ago last April that I officially left the UK to live and work in Poland with my Polish girlfriend.
Joanna and I had met in October 1994 in the United States where we had both signed up on a touring holiday of California and many of the national parks that lay East. We kept in contact, began a relationship in 1997 (after I made what was the second bravest decision to drive all the way to Poland to see her) and then I made the move in 1998. Six months later we were engaged and then in the summer of 1999 were married.
Looking back at that time in 1998, I think that leaving my country to live in another – a land that was still emerging from the clutches of communism – was, and probably still is - the bravest thing I’d ever done. I was leaving a steady job at a bus company (but NOT driving buses), and going to live in a country very much uncertain as to what use my bus administration skills would be. That is, nothing, probably. In other words, I had no idea what I was going to do for a job. But at the same time I would be entering a country and living in a city that had not changed a great deal in appearance from those tumultuous years.
Most of Poland’s motorways were still the ones Hitler had built – yes, most of these roads were in former pre-war Germany, and I'd probably driven on half of them when I drove there in 1998. They were concrete and bumpy (the overtaking lane was the smoother surface), but although of pre-war construction, were very quiet.
In the cities, most of the residential tower blocks still had the appearance of being built to house the citizens, not to please them, although there were signs of a change in that policy with more private ownership. Unfortunately, if you wanted to buy a decent flat, it was best to have one being built. And often, you would have to pay all the money up front before the contractor had even started building. Before the rules were tightened, it wasn't uncommon for these builders to run out of cash, leaving those who'd invested much of their money with just land and barely a few walls, and would often have to find tens of thousands of zlotys elsewhere.
When I settled down in Kraków, there was only one shopping centre of any description in the city (although there was a local Macro). Any major food shopping had to be done either in the handful of larger supermarkets that were around, or in a local grocery shop. There was no Tesco, Auchan or Carrefour as yet. (Geant had the only hypermarket, which over the years would be taken over by Real and finally Auchan. Even Żabka hadn’t started yet.)
The city's railway and bus stations were still in their post-war states. Polski Fiats – the 126p – probably accounted for nearly fifty per cent of all the traffic on the city’s roads (and Polonezs - Poloneze - what exactly is the plural of a Polonez? - which made up the vast majority of Krakow's police cars). The airport had recently been refurbished, but still only had the one small terminal building: when I first flew there in 1996, we had to be bussed from the plane, were driven outside the airport grounds, and then into the new arrivals terminal. I was also supposed to declare the UK money I was bringing into the country, but nobody bothered. Poland was not yet an EU country, so to live and work meant applying for work permits. Once I had a job, that is.
Because these were the days when low-cost airlines were still a distant dream for Poland, the cheapest way of getting there was by taking a bus, a journey that lasted over 24 hours. If you wanted to fly, a return ticket would cost you well in excess of a 1000 zlotys, something unheard of these days unless it was last minute or peak time. But at least by taking the bus instead of the plane, I could pack two full suitcases, an amount (and weightload) that would have cost an awful lot of money in extra baggage fees for flights. Once I arrived in Opole (my girlfriend lived forty kilometres down the road) some four hours late, I remember just spending the rest of that day resting and being so happy to be with Joanna.
But for my first two weeks, I remember the prospect of living in Poland permanently being very depressing. A few days after arrival, we took the train to Krakow and made straight to a city centre hotel that we'd stayed at previously (formerly a hostel/hotel, now the Hotel Wyspiański). As we were on a budget, we had to stay in one of the many rooms which consisted of four sets of bunk beds - and so sleeping up to eight people in one room. This would be our base until we found a place to rent, an act which itself was rather discouraging. The weather wasn't very good for those first two days or so, and much of the property we found was through looking at the small ads in the newspaper (no Gumtree or anything like that then, or easy access to the internet, which could only be done through internet cafés). We’d take a taxi and go to old, depressing places located well away from the central area. My memory is of only looking at rooms for rent in old houses, and I have to admit I just wanted to go home. I had already made up my mind that I could maybe stand this for just two years.
So that particular exercise proved fruitless. Fortunately, Joanna was having her flat built in the Bronowice area of the city, so at least we would eventually have our own place to live in. But this wasn't going to be for another year, and now we had to try and find somewhere else to stay.
Now I don’t remember whether it was my insistence or we generally agreed on this course of action, but when we got up from our bunks - the weather had now turned sunny and warm, a good sign - we decided to go to a rental agency, even though we knew this would mean having to pay a bit extra for rent. We visited one in the old town (on Sławkowska, I think), and they informed us that there was a fully-furnished property for rent in the Bronowice area, the same area where our future flat was going to be. It was only a couple of years old, pretty much next door to the Bronowice tram terminus, and just a ten-minute journey to the city centre.
With the agent – and the apartment owner meeting us there – we taxied over. I felt a cautious optimism, perhaps brought about by the positive change in the weather. The location looked excellent - just off the main road and quiet - and when we were shown around inside I remember feeling much better and enthusiastic, even with the extra cash that would be needed. After the short tour, we agreed to rent the place.
As we sat on the lawns outside, I felt more positive than at any time since I arrived. This was going to be our home for the next twelve months, and soon that feeling of homesickness duly dissipated. I started to think that perhaps, maybe, I could live here for more than two years…
Of course, there were certain bits of administration that had to be done, along with the bureaucracy, and a system still operating at a snail’s pace, particularly as I was still technically just a tourist, albeit allowed to stay in the country for up to six months, which was more generous than other European countries at the time. But one necessary visit was to the foreigner's office in Sebastiana Street, today the main centre in Krakow for getting passports. There was a room which I would refer to as Room 101 (You'll understand this if you've read George Orwell's 1984), although I think in reality it was 102, but the fact I thought of it as 101 shows how I felt about the place. All foreigners were made to sit outside a door, taking turns to enter. I was greeted by middle-aged, unsympathetic, old-school staff who, despite the department, didn't speak any other languages apart from their own. It was depressing filling in pages of documentation by hand for residence and work permits - also available in Polish or French languages only.
But this was still a time where, to get things done in other areas of bureaucracy, I would learn that it would be helpful if you were able to present a ‘gift’. I remember, when registering to live at the flat (which we did with the owner, who was actually very helpful and generous with his time) being faced with paperwork that was in Polish... or French. There was no telephone in the flat, we hadn’t yet acquired a mobile phone, and so we would resort to using callboxes (remember those?), a method that was still the most popular way of making calls. Indeed, phone ownership was so low that many of the post offices would have rows of phone booths inside, all usually pretty busy, and all needed colourful phone cards to use them. I remember a number of young children and teens waiting around to collect any used cards, as their pictures made them collector's items. I haven't come across anyone in Poland yet - or since - who has still proudly got their collections...
Anyway, if you wanted a landline phone installed, you would be lucky if you got one in less than a year. Fortunately, the 'gift' system meant that our landlord managed to get us a phone in about a third of that time.
Unfortunately, this being 1998, banks and other offices still relied on old-fashioned paper filing systems. Remember, these were the days when the internet was still in its infancy, and when it came to sorting out your affairs at these places, you’d often have to wait in line for several minutes – or even hours – before you’d even get served.
Now with finding work, there was one job that was crying out for native speakers. In fact, it was not uncommon to be asked in the street or even in the supermarket if I would like to teach! Around two months later, my now-fiancée fixed up an interview for me at a recently set-up major language school. Now I have to say that at this point my teaching experience was zero which, under normal circumstances, was a definite minus: officially, one had to be qualified. But there was insatiable demand to learn English in the country, and there was a shortage of teachers, so some schools resorted to breaking a few rules, which was at considerable risk to them.
After a week's training - along with about eight others who were also applying - I think what really got me the job was that, in England, I had to deal with the public as well as writing letters and copy for brochures, so having this particular mastery of English and handling people was good enough.
As the school slowly established itself and became more popular – indeed, the shortage of schools and teachers at the time meant that this was quite a well-paid job even by today’s standards - it soon occurred to me that I’d not only found a job, but soon realised that this would be my vocation here.
One interesting quirk about those early experiences was that I had to return to the UK and the Polish consulate there to obtain my first work permit, which would last a mere few months. When the permit was about to run out, Joanna and I had to make a journey to the Slovakian border for me to get my exit stamp from Poland on the last day, after which I would reenter the country just after midnight! I didn't really fully understand the logic of that at the time and still don't, and after that the issue of work permits, for whatever reasons, was never raised again.
But soon other language schools started making an appearance and, in the space of just a few years, teaching English in Kraków went from one of the best-paid jobs for natives into one of the worst; the competition increased to the point that the money earned per lesson at the school would never increase again in my time there.
Anyway, that was all to come, and a year later, after working on the inside of our nice new flat, we moved in. Six months later, we got our phone and a metered internet connection (remember you had to wait for all the squealing noises to finish before you finally got connected?). Things were definitely looking up. Three months later, we were married.
Those first few months in Poland and Kraków were tough, but over the following years I would be witness to a complete change to the country.
I've observed a city that has been completely transforming itself from one still recovering from the adversities of communism – and the financial hardships that followed as the country made its transition to a market economy – into a modern, efficient centre. The old bus station and railway stations have been either torn down or completely renovated to the points that it's almost a real pleasure to arrive in the city via public transport. There is a direct rail link to the airport. Money has been spent on updating the trams. More shopping centres have appeared, although some are now struggling with the competition (Krakow Plaza, Centrum Handlowy Krokus).
But the best thing was the decreasing queues at all those government offices and banks (as much of the business can be done online), and best of all, Poland joining the European Union. (Hooray, but boo sucks for Britain leaving it.) So no more visits to Room 101 in Sebastiana Street, filling in pages of documentation for residence and work permits (available in Polish or French only), with unsympathetic staff speaking only Polish and no knowledge of English. Indeed, when it came to renewing my residence permit in 2019, I was greeted with young, efficient staff who were very happy to speak English with me. I like to think that they do it as it's good practice. I hope they'll be just as nice to me when I return but not as someone from an EU country. Indeed, I hope Poland moves forward politically - there is a concern that so-called 'traditional' values by the current government may see a country 'progress' backwards.
There are still things from home that I miss. Every year I get my family in the UK to send a parcel containing mainly food items which, even to this day, I still can’t get here unless, for some of them, I pay extortionate prices at stores that specialise in selling these. For a long time I missed British TV, arranging to get a satellite box over from the UK and even paying a subscription. Today, I can get what I want on the internet – but I don’t watch as much TV as I used to as being self-employed and a family man now takes up much of my time. And there is some regret in the fact that I wasn’t home when my beloved football team – Leicester City – won the English Premier League in 2016. I wish I had been there to have heard the roars and to experience the excitement that followed.
Today, I still teach (as you know), but free of the rules and methods often enforced by a language school, and at the time of writing (during COVID-19) all my lessons are conducted online. The internet has made my life many times easier. Even though when I go back to the UK – and often feel like a stranger in my own country – I’ve now reached the point that I’ve got used to the life here. But I sometimes feel helpless at the fact that Brexit may well make many young Brits’ ambitions of living and working abroad a whole lot more difficult although, paradoxically, it may well make my life even better as the result of leaving the EU could lead to a shortage of native speakers.
Finally, to my shame, after 22 years I still haven’t mastered the Polish language. Sorry Poland.
1. At the time of writing, how many years ago did the writer leave the UK to live in Poland?
2. How did he feel at the time he made the move to Poland?
3. How many shopping centres did the author have to choose from in his first year?
4. What was the most popular car on Poland’s roads at the time?
5. What did he do in his first two weeks? How did he feel at the time?
6. What were the plus points of the flat he and his girlfriend found through an agency?
7. What problems did the author then face once they found a place to stay?
8. How did the author get the job of teaching English? Did he have any experience?
9. What was Room 101? Why does the author have unpleasant memories there?
10. What does he still miss from the UK? How does he feel now about his home country?
VOCABULARY & GLOSSARY
to assimilate – to become an accepted part of the way of life that is being led in the place you have chosen to live in. It can be difficult to assimilate into a foreign culture.
the clutches of communism – a political system that believed that all people were equal and workers should control the means of producing things, but forced this system over the way people lived their lives. When the Berlin Wall fell, East Germany finally emerged from the clutches of communism.
tumultuous years – a period of time that involved many exciting and confusing events or feelings. The period after the Second World War were tumultuous years for Europe.
to be refurbished – to make a building or room better by cleaning it, decorating it and making it more attractive or better equipped. Several million zlotys were spent refurbishing the hospital.
bunk beds – a pair of beds that are made so that they are above the other. I remember sleeping in bunk beds with my younger brother sleeping in the lower bunk.
to be fruitless – to do actions, events or efforts that do not achieve or result in anything at all. We’ve tried everything but nothing seems to work – it’s looking fruitless.
to taxi over – to arrange taking a taxi to get to a particular place. We’ll taxi over the documents. You sign them, and then get the taxi to send them back to us.
lawn – an area of grass that is kept cut short and is usually part of a garden or backyard, or part of a park. The grass is looking long in the garden; who’s going to cut the grass – that is, mow the lawn?
to dissipate – to become less or becomes less strong until it disappears or goes away completely. It took some strong winds to dissipate the smog over Kraków.
operating at a snail’s pace – to work at a very slow speed to the point that it is unnoticeable. I’ve been waiting an hour to get my tyres changed – they seem to be operating at a snail’s pace!
to present a ‘gift’ – here, to offer cash or some kind of item to persuade someone to do a job more quickly. Also known as a bribe. After hearing there was a two-year waiting list for weddings at the church, he presented a gift to the priest.
old-fashioned – here, methods that are no longer used because it has been replaced by something more modern, or ideas, values and customs of the past that people feel should not apply today. Dear me mother, you do have some old-fashioned ideas on how we use telephones these days!
in its infancy – to be new and has not developed very much. The technology for driverless cars is still in its infancy.
to wait in line – to be in a line, or queue of people that are waiting for something. Don’t push in! Wait in line like everyone else!
crying out for – to say that a particular thing or action is really needed. With such a long waiting list of patients, the city is crying out for extra hospitals.
writing copy for brochures – writing texts for magazines or thin books that gives information about a product or service. Can you write some copy for this brochure on night life in Kraków?
vocation – a strong feeling that you are especially suited to do a particular job or to fulfil a particular role in life, especially one which involves helping other people. I always knew that my vocation was going to involve helping people, which is why I became a doctor.
transition to a market economy – here, the process of changing the way the economy works from communism. It took many years to make the transition to a market economy.
unsympathetic staff – people who work for an organisation but are not kind or helpful to people with difficulties or problems. The staff at the hospital are unsympathetic towards people who don’t speak Polish.
to pay extortionate prices – to pay prices that are a lot more than those that are usually paid. Don’t buy from those people on the internet or you’ll pay extortionate prices.
to have heard the roars – here, to hear the voices of a mass of people celebrating. You should have heard the roars over the city the night when Leicester City won the English Premier League!