I have a great new office space with a wonderful location in the center of town. The only problem was that the building’s bathrooms didn’t have any toilet paper nor any paper towels in them. This is a problem when you have clients coming to see you and it could possibly be a reason for not returning. I started buying toilet paper for the building but I realized that I couldn’t keep that up indefinitely since I would be paying for all of the offices. Thankfully, other business owners have been chipping in and this has gotten better. A grass roots toilet paper movement if you will. However, what to do about towels? It is extremely unpleasant and awkward to walk out of a bathroom with wet hands. So I called up the owner of the building and asked if they could supply some paper towels. I made sure to speak with the janitor first to see if there would be any problems on their end in the implementation and there were none. However, the owner informed me that they had once tried to have towels and toilet paper in the bathroom but they kept getting stolen so they gave up. She said that people were even coming in and taking the fresheners that sit in the toilet! (Seriously people) Ok, so I asked if she could just install a towel rack and I will provide the towels and take the risk that they will be stolen. So I chose the ugliest dish towels I could find and we will see if they last. It will be an interesting experiment. If these disappear I plan to sew GPS tracking chips into the next ones.
I have recently discovered a new cultural phenomenon that occurs within the realm of large bureaucratic systems and organizations. I got a notification through the internet that a package from the states had been delivered but I wasn’t home so I had to pick it up at the post office. After waiting in a long line,(of course) I go up to the window and give the postal worker my tracking number. Only there is something wrong with the number and she can’t find the package. She says the package isn’t there. (But I know it is there) I ask if it is possible to just search by my name and she says that she can’t do that. She needs the tracking number or she can’t help me. So, I go home empty handed. The next day I find the right tracking number and head to the post office. This time it is a different postal worker and I tell her that I am looking for a package so she asks me for my name and types it in the computer. “Don’t you need the tracking number?” I ask. “Nope, just your name is enough” and she finds the package right away.
I have found that these government workers and workers in large organizations will say they can’t help you even if they have the power to help. What they want is for you to just go away and not to bother them. This is especially the case if you are asking them to do something that requires extra time or effort on their part.
This happened to me again this week when I needed to get a copy of my marriage certificate. The worker there told me that I would have to go to a different branch because I didn’t have the marriage number and I have to have the marriage number on the form to get a copy of it. This time however, I called the other branch while I was there in front of the worker and got the number and the woman on the phone was wondering why the worker in front of me couldn’t just look it up on the computer.
I was talking to a Polish friend of mine and he was surprised that I didn’t know this, that this was just obvious. In the culture I grew up in however, people were willing to do the extra work if they could help you. Sure, every once in a while you would run into someone who didn’t feel like it, but that was the exception rather than the rule and written off as personal character rather than cultural phenomenon. Well, I am glad that I know that this is a “thing” so that I know to be a little more pushy and not walk away so easily next time.
We have been living in Poland for two years already! Two years ago we packed up all of our stuff in boxes and drove down to Chicago to ship it across the ocean. Two years ago we had a wonderful going away party and said goodbye to our amazing community in Minneapolis. I remember the first night in Krakow and staying in our new apartment that we hadn’t even seen before we rented it. We just had our suitcases and the walls were all empty. My wife’s family had brought us some basics so we could live for a month before our boxes arrived. Now we have made this place a cozy little nest where many a traveler has rested their weary feet. Two years ago I began Polish lessons shortly after arriving and my wife started writing her dissertation. A lot has happened in those two years. My wife finished her doctorate and is now a professor at the main university in town. I finished three semesters of full time Polish language courses and started my own therapy practice and have my own office in a great historic part of town. I remember not being able to order chicken at the deli and now I can spend hours conversing (albeit choppily) in Polish. We have grown a lot in this journey and there have been both difficult times and beautiful times. We will see what the next years have in store for us.
Those who know me would probably never describe me as an angry person. I am usually very calm and peaceful and a good listener. Early on in my marriage my wife would smile and giggle when I got angry because it was such a rare occurrence. I can safely say that I have never experienced more anger in my life than I have this last year living abroad. I feel as if it is constantly there just under the surface and can sometimes feel like it provides a low-level background hum to my day. The first year that we were here I didn’t feel this at all. Sure there were a few cultural frustrations but for the most part things didn’t bother me. But now I am starting to feel it.
I didn’t go through an obvious moment of culture shock having come to Poland about 12 times before moving here and consider myself rather adaptable. Yet it seems like now little things have just started adding up over time and are creating a long lasting underlying frustration. I have found myself walking down the street on occasion swearing to myself with fists clenched, which is new. I have also gotten into a few arguments with cashiers over little misunderstandings where I am usually in the wrong and even have the hunch that I am in the wrong while I am arguing.
If you think about it, I am constantly experiencing small frustrations throughout my day, everyday. With language I am still making a lot of mistakes and still have plenty of misunderstandings where I think I am saying or hearing one thing and really it is another word that is similar or I have been saying it wrong for a long time. I have been here for two years so this makes things a little more difficult because I now more often expect to know what is going on and when it turns out differently than I expect, then it frustrates my brain. For example, I learn after two years of being here that there is a different way in which you are supposed to address nuns and priests and this whole time I have been saying hello to them in the wrong way. Then there is the frequent feeling of being “other” where even my body language gives me away and I receive different feedback from other’s body language than expected. For instance, when I smile at others on the street, I get a strange look rather than a smile back. When I whistle as I wait for a bus, people automatically know that I am a foreigner. All these things add up and affect you after a while. If you throw enough small pebbles into a backpack, it starts to get heavy.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still happy and joyful. Now I am happy, joyful AND angry. 😉 This is a new experience for me and is both a challenge and opportunity to get to know and work through my own anger.
“So, I went to Sweden the other weekend.” Those are words that I never expected to come out of my mouth. A visit to Sweden for the weekend? Unthinkable. That was a trip that in the past would have cost thousands of dollars and required a full day’s travel across the Atlantic with months of planning ahead of time.
One of the great things about living in Europe is that you are already a lot closer to a lot of destinations that you would want to visit. With the advent of cheap airlines such as RyanAir, traveling is quite affordable. I recently went to Sweden for three days just to visit a good friend who used to live here in Krakow and the entire trip cost me $200, the plane ticket costing $70 of that. Granted we cooked all of our meals and spent a lot of time just talking and watching action movies rather than seeing the sites. That sounds really strange to say that I went to Sweden to visit a friend and watch action movies, but like many great places here it is comparable to visiting Chicago for the weekend.
It is that time of the year when the weather changes and the smog starts to envelop Krakow, giving the city an atmosphere of mystery. It would be quite romantic if not for the fact that the air quality is comparable to that of industrial London back in the 1800’s. I guess I can say that I am connecting with my ancestors by sharing the same cough and eventual lung diseases.
Because of this, I have been hitting the home remedies hard in hopes of not getting full on sick. Poles love their home remedies. If you say that you are starting to come down with something, everyone in the room instantly becomes a professional pharmacist, each offering you a different home remedy. “Make this concoction with ginger and lemon, eat a raw onion a day, eat raw horseradish, take this herbal tea, put garlic in your nose.” Ok, I made up the last one, I think. But I have taken to two home remedies that were the most bizarre to me but once trying them I have now come to like them. For the last week, I have been making and drinking a concoction of warm milk with garlic, butter and honey. And although it is not the greatest for kissing, it actually tastes good! More importantly, I feel it may actually work. Another one, even worse for kissing is onion syrup. You take chopped onions, add them to a jar and add sugar. You let it sit in the fridge and it creates a sweet oniony syrup that doesn’t taste so bad going down, but anyone standing within 10 ft. will be overwhelmed by the onion smell. A nice side effect is that people allow you more personal space on the bus. So drink up lads. To your health!
I just returned from a few weeks in the States, my native country. For most of my life America has been my home base, the return trip, the final destination. Now it is a two-week whirlwind visit where I have to divide my time between a professional conference, family and a plethora of friends. It is strange to hear the customs officer say “welcome home”. I want to correct him that I actually live somewhere else now but at the same time he is right. This is where I have spent most of my life and where people have known me the longest. I try to do the best I can to be present where I am and to the people who are around me when I’m in Poland. Yet there is something that feels very cozy and really easy about being back in my homeland. I can walk confidently into any restaurant or social situation confident that I won’t misunderstand the language being used.
Every day of my visit gets packed with breakfasts, lunches, dinners, walks, and golf games in a mad dash effort to see people I love, if only for a few hours. These reunions fill my soul in places that haven’t been touched yet in Poland. Don’t get me wrong, there are great people here that I really enjoy and hope to become good friends with. Yet when I get together with folks from back home, there is an ease there that comes from many years together and an ability to quickly enter into deep conversations and discuss or joke about things we have a shared context for. The hard part is that it is always too short. I get to spend a few hours with people I wish I could spend days with and some I don’t get to see at all.
People always ask me what I miss most about America. It is without a doubt my friends and family who I have known and who have known me for years. And Chipotle. I do miss Chipotle. The burritos here just aren’t the same. ☺