It has been a little over a week since I arrived in Poland. I spent my first four days in Warsaw, then three in Lublin, and right now I’m in the small and charming renaissance town of Zamosc. The trip has been a lot of fun so far, leaving me with little time to work, let alone write for my blog. I spent the first seven nights of my trip couch surfing, with three different hosts. I always find CouchSurfing a great way to immerse myself into a new culture quickly (although the argument could be made that it is a very particular subset of each culture you find on CS), but it does take up a lot of time and energy.
Poland and its history
Over the days I’ve had ample opportunities to walk around Polish cities and to talk to some of the locals. One of the things that struck me most is how present World War II still is in current Polish society. After having read a bit about the occupation of Poland by Germany, having visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum, and having walked among the remains of the Majdanek concentration camp, I believe that Poland is the European country that suffered most at the hand of the Nazis. There seems to be not a single town that was unaffected by the War.
Even though this war ended 70 years ago (at least in Poland it did), its memory is kept alive by the monuments, memorials, and museums constructed everywhere. It is hard to walk around a city without being reminded of the atrocities committed during WWII. School-age children have to study the War intimately. This is very different from what I’ve seen in other countries that were occupied by Germany during the War. My own country (the Netherlands), for example, was invaded by Germany too, but reminders of that period are few and far between. While every child learns a bit about WWII in school, it rarely enters our thoughts these days.
While being the most drastic period in Polish history, WWII certainly wasn’t the only time Poland suffered occupation. Rather, independence has been the exception to the rule for the country during the last 200 years. Before 1918, Poland was divided and ruled by Russia, Prussia, and Austria for 123 years. After the end of WWII the Soviets held sway for 44 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. In the face of this history it is remarkable that the Poles have managed to preserve their own culture, language, and sense of identity through the ages.
As one of my CouchSurfing hosts told me: “People of different countries live in different times. Some live in the past, like the Polish; some live in the here and now, like the Spanish or Italians; and some live in the future, perhaps like the Dutch.” I thought this a keen observation, and one that certainly rings true to me, having been in contact with people from many cultures (although my conclusions about the time-orientation of specific cultures may differ). It affects hoe we live our lives, what we are proud of, how we plan, how we act, and what we value.
Being a nation that mostly lives in the past (according to my host), and that past not being the lightest, the present-day Poles are both modest and realistic. They know how much worse things can be, and take nothing for granted. On one square in Warsaw I looked at a picture exhibition showing the changes of the city after Poland finally regained its independence. Rather than an uncritically optimistic tone, the exhibition (organised by the government) struck a balance between praising the improvements made and lamenting the cases where modernisation and commercialisation had gone too far. I encountered the same attitude in the people.
Walking around a Polish city gives you a feeling of mismatch. Some historic buildings from before the 20th century remain or have been rebuilt. Many drab concrete blocks put up by the communists are still in use. And then there are the ultra-modern edifices built in recent years. Young and well-to-do Poles loves to hang out in Starbucks or Coffee Heaven, while little old ladies shuffle along the streets to get their groceries at the tiny shop next door. One time you’re riding a state-of-the-art tram through one of Warsaw’s great boulevards, another time you find yourself in a rattling and creaking train to the countryside. Present-day Poland is a somewhat unfocused mix of proud history, Soviet legacy, and modernity.
The future of Poland
Despite its turbulent history, I also found plenty of forward thinking. I met with some young entrepreneurs, a TEDx organiser, and a scientist, among others. They were all thinking about the developments taking place in their country, and how they could help shape its future. Especially Warsaw has a buzzing startup community, and although it lacks the atmosphere of a city like Barcelona or Prague, it certainly has the right attitude. This shows great promise for the future.
The Poles are a hard-working people. They are creative, well-educated, and speak good english. The country has a modern infrastructure. Telephone and internet costs in Poland are among the lowest in Europe. For now, Polish wages remain relatively low by European standards (the Polish GDP per capita lies between that of Northwestern-Europe and Eastern-Europe). All of this gives Poland a competitive advantage. If location isn’t an issue, Warsaw wouldn’t be a bad location for service centres for multinationals (and indeed some have already established themselves here), and location-independent entrepreneurs like myself would find anything they need in the Polish capital.
Will Poland ever become a popular place for expats and digital nomads? I doubt it. Despite the low cost of living, the competitive advantages, and the cool local people, the country has one thing against it: its climate. With winter temperatures below -20 °C not uncommon, it takes some perseverance to live in Poland year-round. It would also be the number one reason why I would never move to Warsaw. But if you can wither the cold, you should give Warsaw a try. It is certainly a city that is still on the rise.