As of the 15th of August I start my seventh year of life in Poland. I thought I’d take some time to look back on the previous six years and think about what has changed and what hasn’t.
We have, for the most part, more choice. Just this summer I’ve found loose habanero peppers at Alma, something unthinkable just a few years ago. It’s also been possible to have stuff shipped often for free from Amazon, from the UK, for a year or two now. While you need to visit Warsaw and Warsaw only to buy a Ferrari, you’re spoiled for choice if you want to buy a Porsche as there are dealerships spread across Poznan, Warsaw, Sopot and Katowice of all places. A few years back we saw the arrival of Subway sandwich shops and, in the last year, we’ve seen both Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafe show up in Warsaw and Krakow. The restaurants in general are getting a bit better as Poles start to appreciate true, authentic dishes that taste just like what they’ve had while on holiday. Apple’s iPad was even simultaneously released here at the same time as Canada, Japan, the UK, and Norway received it, although there is still no iTunes store and no Apple stores.
While we have more choice, I’m not sure that customer service has improved. I know that many decry the American style of cheery, upbeat – almost maniacal – customer service but against the alternatives of disinterest, indifference and downright incompetence, I know which I prefer. If things are improving, it is sporadic. I hope that as more Poles return from working abroad they will both demand better customer service and provide better customer service, having provided it and experienced it away from Poland.
Speaking of being abroad: we can travel, often do and now more than ever any destination is reasonable even if it is exotic. I don’t know if this is a Polish thing, a Central European thing or a European thing …but Poles travel widely. Of course, all the usual, fairly close or cheap places are frequently visited. However, I have friends or colleagues that have traveled to the Galapagos Islands, Peru, China and elsewhere. In just six years my wife and I have spent at least one or more nights in 13 European countries. Since we’ve been included in the Schengen Zone and since a number of countries have opened themselves to Polish workers, it seems as though Poles travel even more.
The political situation here is better as well. Note that I say “better” not “good”. Right after I moved here PiS gained power and it was like Bush III: Po Polsku. A few years back, though, and PO gained power and turned the dial down on the rhetoric. Smolensk happened and paved the way for a PO PM and President, removing an outlet used by PiS to maintain the appearance of popular legitimacy while at the same time allowing them a platform from which to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. A few years back Jerzy Buzek was elected President of the European Parliament and his time there has been largely a success, even if he has presided over the European Parliament at a difficult time. Just recently Poland assumed the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
For Krakow, in particular, the job situation seems to be very good. There’s been an explosion of outsourcing companies here and for workers with a bit of experience and/or education it’s possible to earn, relatively speaking, quite a lot of money. The problem is that things are almost too good – the market is extremely competitive and as such has driven wages up very rapidly. I’m worried that this isn’t sustainable but only time will tell. Elsewhere the job market seems good and I’m sure it is booming for people that export, as the Zloty has recently dived into the toilet for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately, the jobs need to be good since so many young couples took out home loans in Swiss Franc and have seen their payments balloon by anywhere from 50 to nearly 100 percent. Since it is likely to be a bureaucratic nightmare to file for bankruptcy in Poland, I suspect that most will simply accept the utterly crushing debt and make budget cuts until they can just barely afford it, keeping whatever remains of their sanity by repeating the mantra “it will go back down”.
Unfortunately, a critical point that hasn’t changed for the better – at all – is how people drive. It’s as terrible as ever, with the most unthinking, self-centered, and reckless behavior occurring constantly. There seems to be very little desire on the part of the government to honestly crack down on this sort of thing and so it continues with no improvement in sight. As a result, people routinely die on Polish roads at rates that are many times higher than in almost every other country in the EU. Poland is a dangerous place to be a pedestrian or a driver in and will be until Poles stop making excuses like “the roads are crap”, “the trees…”, “it’s OTHER drivers that are bad, not me”, “I’m not drunk; I can drive ok”, etc. At least there are “more” roads and they are a bit better but from a visitor’s point of view it is still abysmal.
Another thing that hasn’t significantly changed is how religious people are and, in general, how religion here is treated. While I know of a few others that haven’t been married in a church, they are in the very, very small minority. Remarkably, I recently did happen to see a Hasidic Jewish person working at Makro here in Krakow. I think it is the first time I’ve seen someone who is clearly a local and who clearly is Jewish. I was quite pleased to see this but, in general, Poland remains very deeply monotheistic. I do think that the influence of the church in most Poles daily lives is waning but there is a vocal minority that continues to agitate for zero abortions, no business on Sunday, etc.
Last but not least: the situation for foreigners in Poland. I believe there has been a slight improvement here. More people speak English, for one, but coverage is sporadic at best. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of stick for this but, I’m sorry, if Poles want tourists, if we want to do business with foreigners, and if we want visitors to have a positive impression of Poland we need to speak English. Signs and information at museums, monuments, government-owned sights and other similar locations need to be provided in at least Polish and English and, ideally, Polish, English, German and likely one other language (French?). Don’t bother telling me that everyone that visits or moves here needs to learn Polish; every ex-pat has heard it a million times. The fact of the matter is there are a billion people that speak English and about 50 million that speak Polish. You can also stop calling it “Polish for Foreigners” and start calling it “Polish as a Second Language”.
There are probably a dozen or more things I’ve missed or not included here but, in general, I would argue that things have improved. I would also argue that they haven’t improved quickly enough and that there is still a long, long, long way to go before Poland is equal of France, Germany or the UK. My hope, though, is that we get there some day and my belief is that we can get there if we are determined.