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Working abroad: My experience adapting to a new culture in Warsaw

When I was eight years old, my fencing coach, Ania, would make us do a standard set of drills at the start of class, one of which included the classic “butt-kickers” exercise in which you try to kick your butt with your heels. We lived in California, but since she was from Poland, she often taught us simple Polish words and used them at practice. “Kick your pupa, kick your pupa!” she would yell, sitting on her wheeled black stool and rolling around the room as she chased us. In Polish, pupa is the word for butt or bottom.

Fencing practice started and ended the same way every day. I would walk in — “Cześć, Ania! — and walk out — “Ania, do widzenia!” I told Ania that when I grew up, I would be just like her, speak Polish, and go live in Poland. One summer, after returning from a trip to Poland to visit family, Ania gave me a Warsaw postcard. I treated it like it was priceless; it quickly became one of my favorite possessions, and I hung it in my bedroom and looked at it every night before sleeping. I memorized the tiny images of the mermaid statues and picturesque town squares and dreamed about the day I would get to see them in person.

I found a journalism job in Poland after graduating college, which brings me to my first week in Warsaw.

The Airbnb host pickup experience:

I met my Airbnb host’s son at the airport, where he’d agreed to pick me up and take me to the apartment. We made our way out to the short-term parking garage. The host’s son unlocked the car and started digging around for something in the front seat, so I opened the trunk to start loading my luggage. I stared inside, speechless. Three giant sections of tree trunk stared back, still fresh as if they’d recently been chopped from the stump. I wondered if my eyes were playing jokes on me. “Wait, we cannot put the bags in there,” said the host’s son. “Yes,” I agreed, “... you have trees in your trunk.” He laughed and shut the trunk door. “Don’t ask.”

“So… about those trees you have in your trunk,” I said, not ten minutes later.

“Ah, okay. I will tell you the story. I want to open my own cafe.”

“Oh! Right, makes sense…” Maybe he was going to use the trees to… build his cafe? Or maybe customers could sip their coffee while sitting on the tree trunks.

“You see, plates are very expensive to get in Poland. It is a lot cheaper if I take these trees to a stolarz. I do not know the English word. Do you know what is stolarz?”

It sounded a lot like the Russian word for table, but somehow related to a person or process. My first mental guess was table-making-person. “Do you mean a carpenter?” I asked.

“Yes! Carpenter. I take these trees to the carpenter, you see, and he will make the plates for me at a much cheaper price than buying the plates.”

“Oh! That’s really interesting! I’ve never met anyone else who’s done that before.” I wondered what the plates would look like after being sanded and polished by the carpenter.

Holding doors for people:

Back home, I’m used to getting the door for people and letting them enter first. It’s something I always do if I’m the first person to reach the door. Of course, I would let others hold the door for me if they reached the door first and offered. In Poland, it’s a little different. I realized soon (and people have also told this to me at work) that men letting women walk through doors before them is a huge cultural standard. There were many instances in which I would hold the door for a man, and he would refuse to enter. Even when I insisted strongly, I never won. I’ve had this experience at so many different types of doorways — bus doors, residence doors, restaurant doors, and even thresholds that didn’t have doors at all.

Eating different types of food:

After a few days of pointing at pictures and using grammatically-incorrect Polish to order food, I visited a Georgian restaurant because I wanted to be able to speak Russian. Sure enough, not only did the manager and wait staff speak fluent Russian, but also several of the groups seated within the restaurant. One habit I’ve developed is eating at Georgian restaurants in eastern European countries. Georgian cuisine is extremely delicious and difficult to find in America. Whether I’m in Poland, Hungary, Russia, or anywhere else I may visit in the future, I’ll never refuse the opportunity to eat at a Georgian restaurant. I'd also sampled a few types of Polish cuisine, and my favorite dishes by far were the cabbage stew with pork sausage (kapuśniak) and pierogi.

The language:

While I don’t understand Polish well enough to hold conversations, I’ve been able to read signs or identify a few businesses if the words resembled their Russian equivalents. Bilety (tickets), stomatologia (dentist), reklama (advertisement), odzież (clothing), and kuchnia (food/cuisine, especially kuchnia gruzińska, or Georgian food) are just some of the words that sound enough like their Russian versions to understand.

In summary, I loved the Warsaw that I’d experienced. People were respectful, the food was diverse and delicious, and the cost of living was very affordable. Living in Poland was something I’d been looking forward to since I was eight years old, and I was not disappointed at all. Just a short amount of time in Poland greatly increased my appreciation for the culture, and I’m excited to see how that appreciation will evolve as I continue to travel back to Warsaw.



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