“Life is a mirror, if you frown at it, it frowns back; if you smile, it returns the greeting.” ____________________________________William M. Thackeray
The New Normal: 6 Months Later at Nr. 17
Home: the feeling of returning to a familiar address after days away, opening the door of the flat, setting your suitcases down in the hall and taking in the aroma of the place, hoping you didn’t forget to take out the trash before you left a week ago. Some familiar dust motes have gathered to welcome you. Number 17 has become home for us in Kraków. Pint-sized it is, still, there is a place for everything.
It is April. We arrived here in late September. We have spread some roots and like spring, we are starting to bloom. In Kraków, the waking from the long grey winter sleep began in March and quickly morphed into the season of bloom and birds. In the Planty, the park that circles the perimeter of the old city, you can sit on a bench, enjoy wearing a light jacket and watch the changes. Two weeks ago, after a rainy night, the trees burst and the forsythia raised a yellow riot. The birds were in full song but they were new strange songs for this displaced birding novice. In the middle of a wide path, I sometimes come to a full stop to listen to some enchanting ongoing trill. My cell phone is in hand with a new download of a European bird App. I search the files and listen to the sample songs that I’m sure confuse the real birds looking down at me from the tree branches. The grassy lawn has spreads of daffodils, anemones and violets. Some feathered imps are bouncing and scrounging for sprigs for nest building. The stark outlines of winter trees are flounced with light green sprays that add new accents to the venerable brick buildings, domes and walls of the old city. The rain is just another harbinger of a lively flourishing Spring. Sun-block lotion time will be here soon enough.
Going with the Flow in Poland
When we first arrived, we were told that Polish people would be aloof, unhelpful, slow to smile and help. We were told that Poles would refuse to speak English even when they knew English. Not true. Generalizations are damned as their only service is to block cultural growth and understanding. “By the seat of your pants” criticism is easy. To work on cultivating a new understanding of an unfamiliar culture is difficult. We are happy to be able to disprove any negative profiling of what it’s like to live in Poland. Without the baggage of generalizations, we have tried to make our own way with the locals. The experience has expended a valuable reward gained only with an investment of time. Think: ‘it takes time to grow a diamond’.
American culture is big and friendly with expectations that other people, raised in a completely different way with a different history, will instantly respond to that style of ‘big and friendly’. Yes, there is a reserve in the Polish people. Work it lightly and you find that it is generously layered with graciousness, humor and patience. The sincerity and warmth are just under the surface. It takes more than a big friendly burst to break the surface of ‘get to know you’. In fact, ‘big and friendly’ can sometimes be ‘big and off-putting’. Better to try to be like a local, walk in Polish shoes, embed to gain insight, learn a few words of the language, ask questions, and shake-off negative experiences. You can be on the receiving end of ‘nasty and negative’ in the USA, too.
One holiday morning, we were walking in the market square. There were some cultural events being held on a set stage in the center of the market. Participants were performing in folk dress. As we walk the cobbled sidewalk, a group of older Poles were leaving a restaurant. The women were wearing decorative embroidered shawls, the men had embroidered vests and the typical felted hats of the mountain region. As we passed each other on the narrow walkway, Greg and I made eye-contact with the folksy group. Their response was wide smiles and “dzien dobrys” (good-days). A sweet natural moment with strangers that I will cherish as a memory of a Sunday morning in Kraków.
Greg has become the ‘procurer of the tram tickets’ at the little corner all-purpose kiosk staffed by a lady who does not speak English. He has learned the Polish phrase he needs to buy the tickets. It requires knowing the Polish numbers for quantity (of tickets) and duration (of journey). I watch him bend over to speak into the little opening in the partition and I can see the effort it takes from his body language. To date, the lady in the kiosk has not dissed him. He always comes away with a handful of tickets and a smile and story. The lady in the kiosk is learning that not all Americans are loud and abrasive. Trying to learn this enigmatic difficult tongue can be an ice-breaker on the befuddling corners of cultural exchange.
Wrestling In the Customer Service Sector
There is an adjustment curve to living off the grid of American life. Language, bureaucracy, medical visits, transportation and even shopping can be daunting, confusing, frustrating and just plain crazy.
Customer service is generally gracious and punctual. Young Poles contribute their modern, upbeat personalities and it’s blended with a cultured, aristocratic hospitality. Restaurants in this tourist town have English-speaking staff and English menus. It is when you go off the grid that your patience and know-how of “how to get things done in a foreign country” is tested. For example: arranging for furniture or appliance delivery or installation of cable TV service can be a challenge. Or shopping at IKEA, which can be a muddle anywhere in the world, is an enigma in Polish. Follow that up with arranging IKEA assembly service in your flat. And working with measurements, colors, materials, service charges, addresses, questions, and delivery times can make you dizzy. Shopping for a simple Allen wrench in a hardware store can be mystifying. Some mundane labels don’t come up in the electronic dictionary and when the items are not readily visible on the store shelf, finding something simple like sandpaper or nail polish remover becomes part of the rite of passage. In truth: not easy but it’s really fun.
Delivery and installation in your home is a pleasant surprise in Poland. When you make an appointment for a delivery, they arrive on time. Score one for Poland. Delivery windows are about 3 – 4 hours, not all day. If the delivery team get bogged down in traffic, they call you on your cell phone to let you know that they are stuck in traffic and then give their estimated arrival time. Cross my heart. If they are early, they call to ask if they can arrive early. This is a natural job for cell phones, i.e., facilitating the complications of modern life through communications. Of course, the phone call or text message comes in Polish so you have to learn a little of the language of polite business interaction. Chalk it up to a brain exercise. Dear senior people, stretching the limits of daily mental manipulation is surely a deterrent to the aging process.
If you go to the doctor’s, the cable TV office (one provider is called “Orange”) or a civil affairs office, there are settees or folding chairs for waiting: so sit down and relax. As new customers arrive, they ask the waiting persons who is the last one in line. People are not necessarily sitting around in queued order and no one comes out to call your name when it’s your turn. Pay attention, wait your turn, be respectful, and prepare yourself to listen to some rapid fire Polish as you maneuver through your problem with the agent or representative.
Recently, we returned from a four day trip to find our Orange internet and cable TV service disconnected. Somehow or other, we missed a bill for 23 złoty ($6 USD). Bills are sent through email and paid on-line through a transfer from your bank account to the service agency. It’s really quite a simple process but you have to be able to read your bill correctly. This is the biggest mishap we have had so far. We lost internet for two days. It was pretty awful because we had to spend a generous portion of our day in a cafe in order to connect with the internet world. Some lattes, hot chocolates, cheesecake and lemon tarts later, the internet at the flat was restored.
We have all heard the warnings about taxi drivers in foreign countries. The regulations in Poland are clear: there should be a meter and the cab must be marked with appropriate legal identification. Cab drivers are polite and helpful; a classy lot overall. We thoroughly enjoyed the taxi drivers in Warsaw. They laughed and joked readily, and shared stories that were not about the dark past of the city. One driver told us, as we drove by the venerable Victoria hotel, that the best disco in Warsaw in the 1970’s was in that hotel. And there is the old stadium where the Rolling Stones held a concert while Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain. We weave and roll through the thick Warsaw traffic and laugh as they recollect and joke with an upbeat vive and an elegant Warsaw accent. We arrive at our hotel which the taxi driver has already told us he knows very well. It used to be the US Consulate and Richard Nixon stayed there once during the Cold War. And this driver was born right next door, behind a gate he points out to us as we cruise by. I often exit a cab feeling like I’ve made a friend.
Working through the Bureaucracy
To acquire Greg’s long term visa to live in Poland and the European Union, we visited three different administrative offices, at three different locations, seven different times. The process took four months from start to finish. We picked up his visa card in late January; it expires in December 2016. So we’ll be hitting the foreigner’s offices again before the end of the year. Or Greg will be spending some time in a non-EU country for three months. He’s hoping for Scotland.
Here’s an aggravating note: government bureaus for the management of the affairs of foreigners do not staff English speakers. Hah-ha!! And every application is in Polish. I learned Polish as a child but stopped acquiring any new knowledge of the language in my teens. Managing to get through these kinds of processes has expanded my vocabulary but more importantly, it’s given me confidence. I was offered some advice the other day from another ex-pat. In bureaucratic situations: Insist don’t ask. That’s the way business is done here. I try to act as-if I know what I’m talking about even when I’m reaching for the correct words and they are not coming.
I keep a notebook of Polish survival notes. Notes about tram numbers and routes, the names of the stops, new Polish words and phrases to remember, restaurants and specialty stores, measurements for under the bathroom sink (still looking for a hamper for under there), doctors names and addresses, health insurance offices, and the names and addresses of the bureaucratic places we visited to get Greg’s visa. I start new lists every week. For a chuckle, take a look at some of the titles used for the governmental agencies and processes: The Department of Foreigners is called: “Wydział Spraw Obywatelskich i Cudzoziemców”. The name of the application to have your marriage registered in Poland is “Wniosek O Sporzadzenie w Polskich Księgach Stanu Cywilnego Zagranicznego Akty Małzeństwa.” I have a whole list of these. Tongue twisters they are too.
Will I Find my Size?
How does a foreign woman used to American ‘size-ology’ cope with European clothing sizes and general shopping for girl-stuff? First thing I learned, “XL” in Europe is more medium than large; select sizes marked by numbers not letters. Shop early, check stock often and when you see something you like in your size, grab it. So it’s not that different from shopping in the US. C&A stores, inexpensive and trendy but not wild and trendy, stock good size selections and have a ‘big and tall’ department. There are also small boutiques in the little neighborhoods around town that might carry a style in a larger size. I found a winter coat by dropping into a small shop and asking for my size. I am no longer shy about asking. These days, I walk around perpetually in ‘question’ mode.
There are five malls within the city limits and they are grand, clean, modern and sophisticated. They have classy food courts that don’t smell like old grease. The Hypermarket stores like “Auchon” make Wal-Mart look like a bodega. “Auchon” carries about 500 different varieties of tea, three aisles of cheese, and an entire aisle of just frying pans. I always drop into “Auchon” when we visit the Bonarka mall. Greg usually waits outside “Auchon” for me because I tend to wonder and wander. I text him when I check out to tell him at which cash register number I will be exiting. Last time I was at 12 and he was waiting at 47.
I hit a homerun finding a hairdresser on my first try: Agnieszka at the Akademia Berendowicz & Kublin in the Kazimierz quarter is just a tram stop away. Agnieszka “understands” my aged hair and how much of the ‘trendy’ I can handle. The direction in European hair products is a couple of notches ahead of the US. There are not as many regulations in Europe so the launch of new and innovative processes produces a lively competition. The hair color trend is edgy. I have been tempted to try something edgy – a sectioned strand in a lovely violet shade? No, I’ll stay with my conservative style with a hint of red maybe. When a girl finds a good hairdresser in a new city, she can relax and feel a ‘part of’ the local turf. With my tame, trendy hair, I can shed my wild woman persona and feel less like a loose hinge. Thank you, Agnieszka
A great Kraków hairdresser on Szeroka Street, check it out: http://www.berendowicz-kublin.pl/salon-fryzjerski-krakow/
Not the End of the Story
Kraków is a huge part of our ex-pat life style. It is the place that defines our new lives. Recently, we have been asked what it is that we do all day. We have some travel plans on the horizon as we sit out our Spring in Kraków and wait for our European Health Insurance cards. While we wait, we hit the streets every day. We go shopping for groceries in the open market and fill our personal wheelie-cart full of exotic staples. We walk back with our pet cart and fill up our pint-sized refrigerator that fits right under the kitchen counter but requires a yoga exercise to stock the bottom drawer. We go to the movies (with English sub-titles), look for free concerts, attend our expat book club or photo club, or go to visit a new museum or an old one that is worthy of a do-over. Now with the warmer days, the outdoor cafes are full. The Rynek Glówny, the medieval market square is our favorite eye candy in Kraków. It is the place to watch people, children, pigeons, and the lovely horses leading the hansom cabs. There are flower stalls and pretzel vendors and there is musical talent of all kinds. Or we can sit on the lawn near the Wisła (Vistula) River with a book and a camera and the historic profile of the Wawel castle just ahead. Have a sandwich and watch the boats and the swans on the river. All in the general neighborhood of our mieszkanie, our flat, at number 17 – home.
For more beautiful photographs from our ex-pat life, see Greg’s photos in Assignment 2015 http://bit.ly/1mtVVTW and Assignment 2016 http://bit.ly/1RsaN1M