krakow, poland - anonymous' reflections after years there in their 30s

posted by anonymous on 12/06/14.

4

How much time have you spent in Poland?

I moved here on or about August 15, 2005. I think it was actually the 17th but it's been awhile and I'm not great with things like dates and names and such. So, 9 years and 3.5 months.

How old were you when you came to Poland? Where were you before?

Uh 27 I believe it was. Prior to moving to Poland, I'd been living in a suburb of Portland (Oregon) named Milwaukie.

What brought you to Poland? What made you choose Poland over any other place you could've gone?

My future wife. We met via a mutual friend of mine, who I'd met the year prior in a BBC chatroom that was setup to discuss the recent presidential election/results in the US. This mutual friend mentioned that she knew a friend - my future wife - and that she thought I'd also like talking to her. So, I shot off an email, got one back, and it quickly escalated to chatting via Gadu-Gadu (Polish chat client) and then some phone calls and more emails and basically talking every chance we possibly could.

As far as a choice as to who was to move where... it was simple. My wife could move to the US and try to get a job there, which would have involved a lot of paperwork and BS. Or, alternatively, I could move to Poland which was easier to do. So that's what I did.

Describe the city you live in in Poland and your impressions of it.

I live in Krakow. There are about 1 million people here, including the suburbs. Lots of students here. Lots of smog, especially in the winter - the levels are shocking. Not a lot of tall buildings - maybe only one or two buildings with 20+ floors - but lots of apartment/condo blocks that are 5-12 floors. The city centre is a huge market square and is great place to visit at any time of the year. It's quite warm in the summer, hitting highs of 38-40C and can get quite cold in the winter (first year I moved here it was down to about -30C, but is currently just -4C). The traffic isn't that bad even when it is bad. We have a surprisingly poor selection of restaurant options - no good Chinese food, few Indian places, etc, but it's getting better (slowly) but of course it's easy to find great places serving Polish, Italian, and central European cuisine. Excellent public transport. The taxi service here is the best I've experienced in Europe and the cheapest as well. Jobs are reasonably plentiful, especially in the business outsourcing/finance sectors. There aren't a lot of parks and green spaces like there are in US cities - we have such spaces, but they aren't as big and aren't as well-maintained.

Generally, I feel that - for the things I care about - it is better here than in the US. Of course, there are many things that are wrong in Poland. It's too homogenous in terms of race, politics, and religion. The church and the state are way too close. Sadly, like the US, politics here generally starts at "center right" and gets more "right" from there. There is much to be done in terms of infrastructure, health care, etc, etc.

I would rate just about any European country as good on the following points, but Poland is right there as well: the political landscape isn't completely fucked like it is in the US. There is generally decent and for-all health care. There is a slightly better understanding of history and a general reluctance to start wars (perhaps for obvious reasons). Generally, people have a clear understanding of their culture and take pride - but not undue pride - in it.

On a day-to-day basis, there are pros and cons - like everywhere else. Poland isn't a rich country; it's not Norway. It has its pretty places but, again, it's not Norway. We have a reasonable job market and, unlike everyone else in the EU, we didn't go into recession in the last decade. We did get thoroughly fucked when the Zloty went into the toilet against most currencies about six or so years ago - a lot of people got burned on home loans taken out in Japanese Yen, Swiss Francs, etc, but that's not really a Polish problem as the Zloty was massively over-valued for a time.

We're not very environmentally friendly. Lots and LOTS of coal. The PM2.5 and PM10 counts in Krakow are enough to make a brave man weep (and cough) and that's without mentioning the NOx levels. Our smog is as bad as LA ever was, if not worse.

In many things, Poland is progressive or is as progressive as elsewhere in Europe. NFC payments are increasingly common, as is ultra fine control over banking and financial matters - internet-only debit cards, terminal-only debit cards, quick loading/unloading of cards for one-off payments, etc are all quite commonplace.

There's not as much bullshit regarding mobile phones, certainly not like it is in the US - one of the most bassackward phone places on the planet. It's perfectly easy to buy a phone with or without a contract, to get a very reasonable amount of data per month (say 5GB) and (phone off contract) and pay $20/mo. One of my phone plans has 2GB/mo and unlimited minutes and SMS's for something like $18 or 20/mo, through T-Mobile. T-Mobile is also pretty good about not SIM locking even when a phone is on contract. If you visit another country and want to pick up a local SIM for local data roaming rates, you can usually get 500MB - 2GB for maybe 20 EUR which includes the SIM card. Sometimes as little as 3-5 EUR depending on where you're at.

Stuff like Amazon.co.uk makes it easier. Sometimes it can be hard to find a specific food item or bluray or whatever. So, just order it. Shipping from the UK is free for Amazon-fulfilled items.

Smoking is very, very common place. When I first moved it seemed like it was about a third of the population that was smoking and I'd say that roughly half or more of my friends smoke. However, there's no more smoking in pubs - that was banned a few years back, thank the gods. Pre-ban those basement pubs hadn't had a whiff of fresh air in years.

Driving skills tend to be quite poor here and there's little incentive to improve them as fines are also very, very low. Speeding, say, 20-30 kph (e.g. 110 in 90) in Norway or Sweden will get you a fine of perhaps 5000-10000 PLN ($1500 - $3000). Here, a couple hundred dollars at MOST. There are also few cops patrolling and often few speed cameras, fewer WORKING speed cameras, and often no cameras at all. Many drivers seem to have a poor understanding of physics and are often discourteous and/or impatient. On two lane roads the national pastime of trying to pass as many cars as quickly as possible irregardless of legality, weather conditions, oncoming traffic, etc can be seen. Here, too, though things are SLOWLY getting better. Too slow for my taste; my recent vehicle acquisition had every goddamned safety-related thing I could get on it and there are like front/side/curtain/who-knows-where airbags in it as well. Pedestrians are generally not treated well and the same can be said for bicyclists - a family member of mine was run over by a semi/lorry a month or so ago which mangled his legs; he was hospitalized for quite awhile.

Poland, like the rest of Europe, has access to a vast array of small, efficient gasoline/petrol and diesel engined cars. No one is driving a big truck anywhere. Many people walk and many people use public transport. Cities tend to be much more compact, perhaps 2-3 times more dense than in the US.

There, of course, are many fewer guns than in the US. It's really rare of hear of gun violence - the last few times I can recall something like that in Poland is when ex-cops got suicidal. Seems like a couple of months or longer will go by before I hear about another shooting incident like that but that might just be my perception. Gang violence is rare, but fights between football club supporters happens on a larger scale once or twice a year and on a smaller scale whenever someone is drunk and singing in the park at 2 am and comes across someone else from a rival team. These people are semi-evolved simians, though, and little can be done to help them.

Racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism (not to mention anti-anything-not-Catholicism-except-for-maybe-Jehovahs-Withnesses-(really!)) is sadly more common place than the more enlightened parts of the US (e.g. anything north of the 42nd parallel) and probably equal to anything in the rest of the US. The anti-Semitism is very, very casual here despite the fact that there's something like 3,000 actual Jewish people left in the country.

There's a lot of graffiti and its rare for it to be painted over or cleaned up in a timely manner, if ever at all.

The level of education is generally quite good, although I think that most people spend too much time memorizing stuff and not enough time learning to appreciate the value of knowledge. I come across a lot of university graduates who do not seem to possess a lot of (or any) general business skills.

There is a great deal of outsourcing and insourcing being sent to or done in Poland; Krakow has shit loads of it. A lot of new buildings have gone up in the last decade just to support this and they seem to be building more and more. These are not what any young person dreams of doing when they grow up but they are a very tidy way of paying the bills.

There aren't a lot of parks and green spaces, not like in the US. Of course, there are 37 million people in a place that is roughly the size of Oregon. Such spaces are often commercialized in a way that is unusual for the US. Truly remote places without people or a lot of people and no one hawking beer or some bullshit is really quite rare. However, if you want such places you can always visit the Slovakian side of the Tatras or just go to northern Finland.

Polish girls tend to be reasonably fit and good-looking. Polish guys - well, that's harder for me to judge, but I don't see them importing a lot of girls from outside of Poland... whereas a Polish girl importing a guy or being in a relationship with a foreigner is common (IMO).

Most of the modern (anything in the last, oh, 70 years) architecture is bland, terrible, or hideous. Some of the newer apartment blocks are ok, but anything prior to about 10 years ago should probably just be knocked down and undoubtedly will at some not-too-distant point in the future because it will be falling apart.

The adverts everywhere are just trash and depressing. There's a very slow backlash forming against this, though, but I will NEVER understand why ANYONE would think that the appropriate avertisments leading up to some village in the middle of fuckall are "Good furniture!" (it's never great or bad furniture, hmm), "Bathroom tiles!", and "Pallets!". It's also awesome how all advertisements have war and peace on them because, as we all know, it's possible to read a bunch of shit at 70 kph. It makes me want all those villages to dry up and die off.

Other than that, though, life in Poland can be summarized by a quote from Douglas Adams' "Life, the Universe, and Everything". "The Campaign for Real Timers claim that just as easy travel eroded the differences between one country and another, and between one world and another, so time travel is now eroding the differences between one age and another. 'The past,' they say, 'is now truly like a foreign country. They do things exactly the same there.'"

Most of the time I never think about it being "foreign" or "different". It's just how it is; it's home.

How does the city you live in compare to other cities in Poland? What drew you to the city you live in over other cities in Poland?

Krakow is where my wife hails from and there wasn't any reason to move somewhere else. I've spent a fair bit of time in the Tri-Cities area (Gdynia, Gdansk, Sopot) and think it isn't quite as nice as Krakow but as it is on the coast it has its own, different kind of charm. Wroclaw is, for my money, the nicest city in Poland - just the right size, beautiful, and a very distinct and unique character that I haven't seen elsewhere. Warsaw is quite big and there's a very old rivalry between it and Krakow, so I'm obliged to say that it is inferior in every way. :)

What are the people of Poland like? In what ways are they different than people in other places you've lived?

Compared to where I originally hail from, the people of Poland - but specifically Krakow - aren't generally as friendly or courteous to strangers. Once you get to know someone they're as friendly, open, and gregarious as anyone from the US - may even a bit more so - but there are a dozen very little courtesies (stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks / pedestrians giving those that have stopped a little wave ... moving to the side in a grocery aisle without being asked / apologising for asking someone to move to the side in a grocery aisle ... holding doors open for strangers / being thanked for holding doors for strangers). Generally, Poles are very curious about what people think about their country - they can be a little self-conscious and defensive about any criticism, regardless of whether or not it is valid but that is probably true of anyone anywhere. Poles are a bit more religious than other EU folk but they aren't usually weird about it - no one keeps a bible/holy book on their desk or big crosses or whatever, but there's usually a cross or two above some doorways at home. Poles can sometimes be a little narrow-minded when it comes to new stuff/different cultures/etc but that is because Poland is a very homogenous (white and Catholic) place and they just haven't tried whatever ...which is ironic because Poles are often huge and adventurous travellers (a trip to Egypt or Croatia or Thailand or Cuba is notable but not necessarily special). Ultimately, like any group of people anywhere, what may be true for a group may not be true for an individual and vice-versa.

Was making friends and meeting people in Poland in general easy or difficult? How did your social life evolve? What did you do to meet people? How does your social life in Poland compare to how it is/was in other places you've lived?

I have a lot of friends of friends (Poles) and some folks that I meet up with occasionally (ex-pats). I don't often make new friends (nor easily) because I'm quite picky about that sort of thing but that was true for my life in the US as well. Poles are pretty social in my experience and are usually up for a bar crawl or a house party.

How does your race, nationality, gender, accent, etc. affect how you are treated or how people react to meeting you in Poland? Positively? Negatively?

Race: I'm white, so no issues as (previously noted) Poland is generally white as well.

Nationality: this is a little trickier. Poles have a lot of stereotypes about Americans but so does everyone. People that know me know I am not a "regular American" but I don't think any ex-pat is "regular" (regular people stay where they are put and don't move across the planet).

Gender: It's not really an issue. Some older Poles are a bit gender biased but there are tons of examples of women in management at my company (and plenty of others). I would say that it is somewhat common for women to raise kids (stay at home for awhile) rather than having their husbands do that (or split it evenly) but this isn't always true of course.

Accent: Polish people know I'm not Polish because I have an accent but I can't tell that I have an accent.

How I'm treated: Generally fine. Occasionally I get a little second glance on the bus/tram.

How does the language barrier affect you (if it all)?

Most Poles speak English to some degree and many speak it very well indeed. Since I am absurdly lazy and quite stupid when it comes to learning another language, this works out very nicely for me and I am forever grateful that so many Poles know English. I know some Polish at this point and between my broke-ass Polish and everyone else's English, we usually get along ok.

Do you have any observations or stories to share about dating, relationships, gender norms, or sex in Poland? Or any impressions of how these things are different in Poland than in other places you've been?

Since I met my wife outside of Poland (sorta) I can't comment on this too much. I think Poles are probably a bit more conservative than some other places in Europe or the US and thus less likely to jump into bed after 1/2/3 dates, but this is just a guess. Generally, people seem to be fairly open and casual about dating, relationships, and sex.

Any social/cultural advice for others who might come to Poland? How do people in Poland socialize differently than other places you've been?

Poles will ask what you think of their country and they will not be thrilled hearing a bunch of negatives. However, many will also think you're being over the top if you enthusiastically rave about everything. I've gotten plenty of funny looks when I tell people the things that I do like in Poland (public transportation, use of the metric system, how easy it is to get a mobile phone and how great the plans are, lots of bars, and the fact that I've got a great job) aren't always the same things they think of when they think of Poland.

One other note here, when Poles meet up they almost always drink. If it is dinner at a restaurant, there WILL be beer and/or wine. If you're going over to someone's place then it is customary to bring a bottle of wine, some beers (enough for you and yours plus a handful for others), or some vodka.

What sort of work/school do you do in Poland? What's it like working (or studying) in Poland compared to what it was like where you lived before?

I work in the business process outsourcing/finance outsourcing industry. I didn't do this kind of work before I moved here, so I started out at the bottom and have slowly worked my way up to a lower mid-level position. Work here is broadly similar to the US with the following exceptions: 1) workers are VERY well protected from abuse by their employers. This means that there are strict rules regarding overtime, break times, lunch times, vacation time, etc. This is mostly good except when you've got some jackass that needs to be fired - it can be a real bear to get it done then. 2) Poles are generally very hierarchical. The boss is always right and doesn't want your suggestions/input on how to make things better. 3) Time off. For college/university graduates, regardless of work experience, people get 25 vacation days a year. Sick time is paid at 100% for the first month and then 80% thereafter if I recall correctly (and doesn't come out of vacation time). There are a handful of public holidays as well throughout the year.

Does your money go further or not as far as it does in other countries and cities? Are you able to afford a better standard of living than in other places you've lived, or able to afford less?

Poles generally earn about a third of what their German, French, or British counterparts earn. Anything imported into Poland - which is virtually everything - is expensive. It's very common to pay US prices on Polish wages. E.g.: say you earn 20 PLN/hr after taxes (3200 PLN/mo aka about 1000 USD). This is a typical "ok, not great" wage. The usual things are going to take chunks out of that - rent/mortgage, groceries, electricity (highest or nearly so in the EU), gas (if applicable), etc, etc... afterwards there ain't a lot left and so if you want something like a new BluRay, it's going to hurt more than it would in the US. The above being said, there are different expectations here - no one lives in a house with 2500 square feet when they can get away with half that (and they can). Two car families are rare. Instead of a clothes dryer, people just hang their stuff up to dry... and so on.

What things are more expensive than you are used to and what things are cheaper?

Food is sometimes a bit cheaper. Otherwise, everything else is more expensive - sometimes literally with VAT, sometimes less literally but still realistically in terms of how long someone needs to work in order to by a particular product.

How much is an average rent for an apartment? A beer at a bar? A meal at a restaurant?

I'm not sure what the average rent is as we own the apartment (condo I guess in US terms) we live in. We paid about 5500 PLN/square meter which is very reasonable for Krakow and our loan's interest rate is about 10 percent and is considered very good for Poland.

Beer: in the Krakow market square you'll pay 10-12 PLN (3-3.75 USD) at a bar (club prices may be even higher) and 7-9 PLN (2.20 to 2.80) off the square. In smaller towns you may save another zloty or two.

Meals: I'd say that a decent meal (appetiser, main course, dessert, and a couple of beers) would run you at least 120 PLN, not including tip.

What are your favorite things about Poland? Least favorite?

This is tough and it evolves for me over time. Generally, my favourite things aren't necessarily Polish things. Like the use of the metric system, or how easy/quick it is to travel somewhere else, or how everyone tends to drive small(er) cars, or how Poles aren't invading a bunch of countries in the middle east. My least favourite things about Krakow/Poland are the smog (Krakow), the drivers (generally quite poor - the death rate here is shocking (Poland)), how conservative the government/mindset can be sometimes, and sometimes the level of paperwork and PITA BS that is necessary in order to get something done.

What is the nightlife like in Krakow?

I don't know much about any underground party scene. I think most partying is done right out in the open - there are like 200 some odd bars, pubs, and clubs in town and they're almost all always doing pretty good trade. I don't think there are any national/city laws regarding closing times so they normally shut down when the last people leave which is, as often as not, around dawn give or take. I don't normally make it that long; I've only managed to shut a place down once.

Otherwise, it's probably a lot like wherever you live. We work and we play and we live our lives. :)

What things about Poland surprised you?

How close families are. They're really, really close.

People vacation in Croatia - when I first moved here, I was thinking "hey, wasn't there just a big war there???" but it's apparently quite beautiful.

What do you miss while living in Poland (could be something tangible or a cultural/social phenomena)?

Rye whiskey, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Amazon in the country (there's always Amazon UK and DE, but they don't always ship here or sometimes it is expensive), a really good microbrew selection (getting better tho), a huge variety of places to eat (Lebanese, Thai, Greek, Mexican/Tex-Mex, steak houses all more or less right next to each other). Some of those common courtesies that I noted way above.

Would you recommend Poland as a place to live, travel to, or neither?

Absolutely. Poland is just as valid as a place to live as just about anywhere else in the EU. Definitely as just a place to visit for a few weeks - sure. Poland is an interesting place to live. We're still dealing with the fallout of WWII and, more recently, communism, which held the country back for four decades and brought about a lot of really ugly buildings and ugly (but few) roads and a lot of pretty crappy mindsets but there are a TON of opportunities. I've seen Poland change - clearly, obviously - in less than a decade. Despite the many missteps there is so much here that is being done right and so much that I believe will be done right in the future.

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