Tales of an Englishman: John's experiences and thoughts on living and working in Poland

It's been nearly a year since John moved from England to Poland, where he lives with his girlfriend and works as an English teacher. Here he gives information on finding a job (which is especially useful for native speakers of English), shares his observations on Polish attitudes and behavior, and talks about not losing hold on his roots even as he absorbs the culture in Szklarska Poreba and elsewhere in Poland.
 

John Connolly

-Where were you born?
London, England

-In which country and city are you living now?
Szklarska Poreba, Poland

-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my girlfriend and her family.

-How long have you been living in Poland?
I first arrived here ten months ago but I was living in a different part of Poland (Zielona Gora) for 7 months.

-What is your age?
25

poland-When did you come up with the idea of living in Poland?
I was planning to travel and/or work somewhere in Europe for a while, just waiting for the right moment. Then I got involved with a girl from Poland and it all fell into place that I would spend a year at least in Poland.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
There was no need for anything like that. I just had to register with the residence I was staying at when I entered the country and this lasts for 3 months. After three months you can register again or register to another residence if you move. Signing a contract for work removes the requirement to register.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
For medical insurance you can acquire an EU card from the NHS before you go but I don’t know how difficult it is as I did not get one. Also when you sign a contract for a job, you will be provided with medical insurance. Many native speakers I met over here did not have insurance at all as contracts are avoided to reduce tax payments by the employer and employee. If you need medical attention you will have to pay without insurance but it is much cheaper here for medical care anyway so many take a chance that they will not get ill or be involved in an accident. With hindsight, though, I would get a med. insurance card from England to avoid any problems here.

-How do you make your living in Poland? Do you have any type of income generated?
Although Poland has one of the highest, if not the highest, unemployment rates in Europe finding work here if you are a native speaker of English could not be easier since many people want to learn English, especially since joining the EU. A teaching job is virtually guaranteed in a private school even if you have no teaching experience or qualifications (this might not be true in e.g. Warsaw or Wroclaw – the bigger cities). There is a method of teaching called the Callan method, which is perfect for native speakers because it is designed to get learners used to hearing and understanding English at a fast pace. Callan method is therefore suited to native speakers who just read questions quickly to a class and elicit answers. Alternatively there is traditional method teaching (like you had at school when learning e.g. French) which you can get training for.

I had already done a 20-hour TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course in England (it cost 200 pounds) and it was definitely a plus to have this. There are many types of teaching qualifications you can get but the most widely known and respected (in Eastern Europe at least) is TEFL. However, as I said earlier the main qualification employers here want is that you are a native speaker of English because there are not a lot of them here. I preferred private tuition in which I put an advert out in the local paper saying that I was available to teach English and I got a lot of work from only this. I could charge anything I wanted and still got work. It paid well per hour but for a week it would be less than a private school because you only gave 1 or 2 hour lessons and then had to travel to another lesson, perhaps across a town or city, whereas in a private school all the lessons are in the same place.

Private tuition can pay around 50zl an hour (10 pounds) and in a private school roughly 3000-4000zl a month (500 pounds). Although this might not seem like a lot, it is a very good salary here and you can live very comfortably on that.

Obtaining work came mainly from adverts in the papers where private schools and people wishing to be taught one-on-one could phone to arrange teaching but it also came through walking into private schools directly or through word of mouth and it is easy to get work this way. As soon as you want to work, you can.

Unfortunately if you do not like teaching you are stuck for work unless you know Polish. I was not keen on teaching constantly as it can be quite time-consuming especially if you concentrate on private tuition (1 on 1) as you have to prepare lessons and materials and I wanted to experience as much of the Polish culture as possible. And because most things are far cheaper, I was not pressured to work full time (3 hours teaching a week covered the rent of my house!).

Conversation lessons are an alternative and are not really teaching. You just have to talk about a topic with the student to give them practice in real, natural conversation. Being paid to chat sounds great but it can be tiring and very hard work depending on the student. One-sided conversations in which the other participant can’t or refuses to talk can really sap your will to live. Also you need to be chatty by nature and feel like talking all week round, otherwise awkward silences increase in both length and intensity.

Another less likely option is to work for a multinational company, e.g. McDonalds, Tesco or Coca-Cola as some type of international representative in the company. But I think this is difficult from within Poland as they are more likely to hire native speakers from e.g. England and bring them to Poland rather than hire a native speaker looking for work directly from Poland.

-Do you speak Polish and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I have tried to learn Polish as quickly as possible while being here including the use of Polish course books. After one year I am not as fluent as I had hoped because I have not been forced to use the language a great deal and can get by with using basic Polish and English. I think it is extremely important to try and integrate into the society you find yourself living in and a major part of that integration is acquiring the language. After being here only a couple of months I could speak an incredibly larger amount of Polish than another American native speaker which I met who had been here several years! He had to ask Poles to order a taxi for him. I think you have to actively prevent yourself from picking up the language after that amount of time and it can be confused with arrogance and a need to only know English and nothing else. I think English speakers are guilty of expecting everyone else in the world to learn English so they do not have to learn anything. Although English is close to an international language I don’t like native English speakers (and any native speaker from any country) who refuse to integrate even a little with the culture that surrounds them.

On the other hand I think it is important for expats not lose a sense of themselves when integrating. I have integrated to a large extent with Polish culture but I have not lost my roots. I still see myself as second generation Irish (my parents are Irish) and English (I was born and brought up in London). Even if I never saw England or Ireland again and never met another person from there I would still have the same sense of who I am and where I am from. When I was younger I was always confused why my parents referred to Ireland as ‘Home’ since by this stage they had lived much longer in London than they had in Ireland. However, now I realize why because I do the same now and would in 80 years' time even if I never returned ‘home’.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
I think friends and family are the only thing that I truly miss about London but I get excited about sharing all the things I’m experiencing with them when I do see them and I try to visit as often as possible. Differences in culture breed sayings like ‘Oh, in London you can do this’ or ‘Why can’t I do/get that here, In London you can...’ etc., but this is what I like about being absorbed, to a certain extent, in other cultures.

Since English is not the first language here I can feel isolated in that I can not communicate as fully as I can at home. At first it felt like being a child again because I was dependent on my girlfriend if I needed to find some information or even go to the shop to get something that I would have to ask for. There were times in these early days I yearned for home and to not be dependant on others. Of course this improved as my Polish did and my confidence to use the language and I feel a sense of achievement now that I am independent and can confidently navigate around any situation I find myself in (although still relying on a heavy use of hand gestures and hand motions to get across what I am saying more fully).

My main recreational activity has become finding out as much as I can about the culture and writing about it in my blog. I get to combine this with photography and photo manipulation, which I also enjoy.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
I have many plans and ideas for the future but which ones materialize is uncertain and depends largely on circumstance. One is to get my masters degree here in Poland. I am feeling the urge to study again after a long break and studying abroad was always a desire I had and it is extremely expensive in London. I believe I can study here for a fraction of the price, or even free, but it would depend largely on which subjects are on offer in English. I also think it is a good time to invest or start up businesses here especially since Euro 2012 is being jointly held in Poland. What businesses? I’m not entirely sure yet but we will see.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
Housing costs are extremely cheap compared with London, both renting and buying. We rented a new ground floor flat in Zielona Gora with its own kitchen and toilet, internet and bills inclusive for 650zl pcm (110 pounds), 25 pounds a week. And this was on the more expensive side.
Concerning buying or renting in other areas and cities, I don’t know.

-What is the cost of living in Poland?
Answered above

-What do you think about the Polish people?
I love integrating with the locals and here in Poland they are extremely friendly. I think it is a more polite society but a society not afraid of telling you their mind in a direct way. English people agree all the time to avoid offending people which makes life more difficult in the long run. I remember teaching a teenage girl about how to debate and give her point of view in English and after I said you should use these half and half, so-so agreeing instead of outright disagreeing to avoid offending people in England, she just said to me why is it more polite to lie, to which I could not answer.

I find it quite strange when I talk with an English accent in English and children stare at me like I have two heads. In fact adults do this just as much but I like it because I feel famous. Furthermore when I speak Polish in shops, the people really appreciate the fact I do this probably because they are expecting me to stick to using English and it is a very nice surprise that I am attempting to use Polish. There have been many situations where I talk in Polish and the shop or bar worker speaks in English as we both are trying to practice on each other. It must be quite strange for an outsider to witness this dialogue.

Generally locals are extremely happy for me to be here especially when I speak Polish (also surprised since there is an exodus of people out of Poland). Of course I have had people who resent the fact I am here; perhaps because they had a bad experience in England, but they are isolated cases. Actually I am accepted more by strangers as an Irishman or even as Scottish more readily than an Englishman but not to any degree that is insulting.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Poland?

Positives

Beautiful Polish girls everywhere you look
Cheap cigs and alcohol
Strong sense of tradition evident in the culture
Rich and varied cuisine (which is very cheap also)
Very friendly and hospitable people
Proper winter with lots of snow and skiing
Poles like to and know how to have a party

Negatives (Many negatives are those that apply to where I live but will not apply in big cities)

Paying extremely high prices for imported goods (e.g. clothes, trainers, electrical goods)
No draught Guinness
Chinese/Indian restaurants being rare and not good quality
Old people being rude because they have a superiority complex and acting like children.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Poland?
Try to learn even just basic Polish – the locals will make you feel wonderful for it.

Be open-minded and do not cling on to any stereotypes you might have had about the culture or people.

When you hand over money to pay for a round in a pub, do not say thank you too quickly as this is a sign to keep the change. Wait until you receive the change to say anything.

Be prepared for a dodgy stomach for a few weeks when you first start eating the bread (it has a different type of rye that takes some getting used to).

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Poland?
I have a blog about my time in Poland in which I comment on every aspect of my stay in Poland including places I have been and my thoughts about all things Polish as well as an array of pretty and colourful pictures:
An Englishman in Poland www.talesofenglishman.blogspot.com

Another blog is devoted to information and recipes I have picked up from my adopted babcja (grandmother) Ania concerning Polish food:
Polish food and recipes www.polishfoodrecipes.blogspot.com