Living in Poland, Olivia Alford

Since Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004, the country has re-established itself as one of the economic and cultural powerhouses of Europe. Gone are the impressions that Poland is a grey, backward country stuck in its Communist past: the only country in the EU to avoid recession since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, Poland’s economy is poised to continue to grow in 2013. Along with its open business culture, keenness to attract new ideas and inward investment from abroad, many British business people and entrepreneurs are moving to Poland to take advantage of a largely untapped business market. But it is not only business opportunities that have attracted British people to Poland. The lower crime rates, higher quality of life and lower cost of living have all contributed to an increase in the number of Brits living in Poland.

Many Brits who end up in Poland do not just work there teaching English in one of the thousands of foreign language schools throughout the country – it is becoming an increasingly popular place for students to spend one or two semesters as part of their Erasmus programme with on average 100,000 students descending on Poland annually. The increase in English-language taught undergraduate and postgraduate degrees offered at Polish universities will hopefully attract British students to take the plunge and study at some of Europe’s top institutes of Higher Education.

I ended up in Poland as a postgraduate student between 2008 and 2010, pursuing my Master’s degree at the prestigious Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Moving to Poland was a big decision for me, but ultimately it was something I had wanted to do ever since I had first visited the country back in the summer of 2005. I fell in love with its history, culture and people and ever since have been finding ways and excuses to return. ..

My first experience of Poland was way back in 2005, when I plucked up the courage to go and undertake a language course at a private language school in Krakow during the summer. My experience of the Polish language had been somewhat limited up until that point – I had dabbled in some evening classes but nothing could prepare me for the onslaught of consonants that make up some Polish words such as dżdżownica or cześć that I would spend the best part of my month trying to pronounce successfully. However, once I had learnt the seemingly impossible sounds which make up part of the Polish language I enjoyed being able to read words aloud through a Polish set of eyes and not an English set and understanding that “cz” is the same as “ch” in English and my favourite letter, „ł”, is really just a “w” in disguise. Although the Polish language is difficult in terms of its grammar, once you have mastered the alphabet, everything seems so much clearer and more understandable! After a month of intensive tuition in Krakow, my knowledge of the Polish language in all four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking improved massively. I had great satisfaction in being able to order my favourite Polish dishes, bigos and pierogi ruskie in Polish and even if I made silly mistakes with the language all the Poles I met were impressed that I would even try to learn their crazy language and would be very encouraging and patient with me as I tried to get the words out in the right order.

Although most Poles speak beautiful English (sometimes even better than us native Brits) it is definitely worth investing some time and a little bit of money to undertake a Polish language course if you are intending on staying in Poland for any amount of time as not only does it open up a whole new culture to you but also makes things more accessible to you. My teachers were absolutely fantastic – friendly, encouraging and, most importantly, very patient! During my first time in Krakow I was able to go to the train station and buy tickets to different destinations and visit various places with my new-found knowledge of Polish. Having a good grounding in the language allowed me to navigate my way around various towns and cities without the need to rely on a guidebook and to get off the well-trodden tourist track.

Poland is a vast country with everything from the Biesczady, Tatra and Świętokrzyskie mountains in the south to the Mazury lakes in the north, the Baltic sea coast with popular resorts such as Sopot and the Białowieża Forest in the east. In order to get the most out of Poland, it is worth travelling around as both bus and train travel is relatively inexpensive compared to the UK and there is so much to see. There are also heavily discounted train tickets for students and people under the age of 26, which makes seeing other parts of Poland affordable and worthwhile!

Poland is made up of 16 voideveships (województwo in Polish), each of which is named after a geographical or historical region or in some cases, the main city it is centred on. Poland’s diverse natural landscapes means that it is home to a wide-range of outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, sailing, kayaking and cycling. During my postgraduate studies in Krakow, I was able to do various hikes in the Tatra mountains as well as visit the beautiful lake Morskie Oko, undoubtedly the highlight of any trip to Zakopane. I would thoroughly recommend getting out into the great Polish outdoors as there is certainly something for everyone. Poland’s regions are extremely varied, offering a multitude of local dishes, customs and history that are unique to that locality. As well as the fantastic scenery, Poland’s cities are steeped in history, filled with both medieval and modern architecture. The highlight of my time as a postgraduate student in Krakow was just the sheer pleasure I derived from living in such a historic and beautiful city. My daily walks into the city centre would often take me past some of Krakow’s, and indeed Poland’s, key landmarks including Wawel hill, where the kings and queens of Poland are buried, or Europe’s largest market square (rynek). My journey into class would usually involve taking one of Krakow’s many trams, which certainly beat my commute to university in London on the crowded, often delayed Tube network. The tram network in Krakow is certainly easy to use, fast and convenient and apart from the odd “tram jam” was the best way of getting around the city. Driving in some Polish cities is completely pointless as you will just end up in a traffic jam, moving at snail’s pace. I am a big fan of the Polish public transportation network and in other cities I have visited such as Warsaw, Poznan, Wroclaw and Gdansk, their local public transport really shows us Brits how much better it could be at home! As well as being well-connected domestically, Poland’s major cities are also well-connected to the wider European network and therefore allows for easy travel to other cities further afield such as Vienna, Prague, Budapest or Berlin for a weekend or longer holiday. I found that being based in Krakow not only allowed me to travel regularly to Warsaw for research on the very comfortable and reasonably-priced InterCity express train but I also was able to pop over the border to Ukraine by train and visit cities such as Kiev and Lviv, which would have cost a small fortune if I’d have flown from the UK. Overall, Poland’s position at the very heart of Europe means it is at the cross-roads of Western and Eastern Europe, and lends itself to be discovered by those with inquisitive minds. As a student of Central and East European Studies, being based in Poland was invaluable as I got to see so much more of the region then I could ever have imagined.