• Countries Visited: 20
  • Travel Wishlist: North Korea, Georgia, Bosnia, Botswana, Morocco
  • Locked down in: Warsaw, Poland

Gender pay gaps, coal, and taking the piss out of yourself: Phil’s 5 years in Poland.

March 16, 2016.

That’s the day that I moved to Warsaw, Poland, from Melbourne, Australia.

I remember that day fondly because I left a late summer in the southern hemisphere wearing my favourite camo shorts, only to land Poland’s definition of spring. -2 degrees and sideways rain.

I must admit that I loathe starting my stories about my relocation to Poland by drawing attention to the obvious weather differences. It paints Australia as a warm, balmy paradise and Poland as a post-Soviet wasteland that is painted in dozens of dreary grey colours.

But the opposite could not be more true.

I moved to Poland for a girl, but after we split up, I stayed because of Poland and the opportunities that it presented me – a then 30-year-old something whose highest level of education was an Advanced Diploma in Audio Engineering.

Poland and its broad, rich and vibrant colour palette (with dozens of shades of grey, yes) has helped me figure out who I am, and put me in a position when I can change the world and do more good than I ever could have from the city and country that I was lucky enough to have been born and raised in.

Now, I’m a digital marketer (I was a damn welder back in Melbourne), I have a thriving freelance side-hustle as an English copywriter, and I’m the founder and president of AFL Poland. Yeah, Aussie Rules in Poland.

I’m the bearded guy – on the right

But whoa nelly, let’s back it up a bit.

When I first moved here, I moved here with the goal of teaching English. I got my online English teaching qualifications, started teaching, and quickly realised something.

Just because I can teach English doesn’t make me an English teacher.

My first few months here, I found myself speaking to Poles (in English) like they were dumb. It took me a while to realise that:

  • They’re not dumb; they just don’t understand my weird Australian accent
  • Poles speak much better English than a lot of my bogan mates

That’s because a European putting ‘fluent in English’ on their CV is like an Australian saying they know how to do their washing. It’s a simple life skill.

And I gave up teaching because I didn’t feel comfortable being the one responsible for instilling this life skill in young adults.

It was around this time that I also started to learn a thing or two about Poland. Australia and Poland are the only two countries in the world that haven’t had a recession in the last 20 years. Both Poland and Australia have enjoyed 27 years of non-stop continuous growth. And the mining industries of both countries have a lot to do with that.

While we mine and export coal in Australia, Poles still use it to warm their house. That’s why Poland, more specifically, the heavily populated cities of Warsaw and Krakow, have the worst winter pollution in the EU.

Coal for heating the house, combined with traffic congestion, and in the middle of winter, I can taste yellow every time I walk the dog. Carbon Monoxide yellow, there’s another addition to add to the Polish colour palette.

Yeaaaah get that into your lungs

But it’s the winter and the colder months, and almost 50 years of communism, that have led to some absolutely heartwarming and humorous traditions being formed. One of these traditions is buying a fish at Christmas. However, you need to buy it 2 weeks before Christmas (because that’s when it’s cheapest) and let it swim in the bathtub, so it stays fresh.

Poles know this tradition is a little weird, and they can laugh at it. And that’s one of the many reasons that I love Poles – they can take the mickey out of themselves, just like Australians. We know we do weird things, and explaining it to foreigners only makes it funnier! Who the hell is she, and why will she be right?!

So what’s lockdown life in Poland been like?

I was in Berlin in early March for football. It was on the way back from Berlin in Poland when I realised ‘hey, this was serious’. There were military Police at the border, randomly checking people’s temperatures to ensure that no one had a fever. That put the element of fear into me.

In the few days after arriving home, the first few cases in Poland started. News outlets started talking about restrictions and regulations, and everyone laughed it off – as most Poles do with any rules.

Then about a week after getting back from Berlin, I was showing all symptoms. Fever, headache, dry cough, body aches, runny nose. I did panic a little, and this was exacerbated by the fact that it was nigh on impossible to get a test. Over the phone, the nurse said to me ‘if you don’t have it, the worst place to be is a testing centre’. Let’s pretend that you do have it, so treat your symptoms, and call an ambulance when you can’t breathe’.

That was when I realised that I might be in a bit of trouble.

A week or so passed, I got better and it wasn’t coronavirus, thankfully. However, the world around me was just as sick. It was scary to see how many Poles, who’s disregard for authority stem from their life in communism. When it all hit initially, I was impressed with Poland’s foresight in restrictions, and I thought Australia had screwed up their geographical advantage. Several weeks later, and the shoe was on the other foot. Poles were still assembling in their thousands by the beach during summer; clubs were open, nothing changed.

The Australian Government put out a call for all Australians abroad to come home, and I laughed it off. And, while the cases here are worse than Australia, I’m glad I stayed here. The hardest thing was making sure that my family is safe back in Melbourne, especially since my only surviving grandparent is in a nursing home. Do I want to be back home? Yes. Would me being home change anything? No. Would being back in Melbourne make it harder for me to live? Yes.

The first wave in Poland never really came; it was a spike and then a plateau. The second wave came in Melbourne, and, as someone who’s seen a second wave here in Poland, I thought Victoria’s response (while being very extreme) was the best solution to keep the population safe.

People, when faced with something like a virus that can kill them, behave emotionally and erratically. To fix this, the authorities make rules. The severity of these rules explains why there have been second and third waves. Poland’s response to the second wave was ‘wear a mask in public transport, and you’re good’. That’s why now, in late September, we’re still having 800+ cases per day. Melbourne’s restrictions are the reason there are 4 new cases in Melbourne this morning.

Many of the people reading this may be from Victoria, my home state. And if you are, I hope you’re staying safe, and I feel sorry for the restrictions that you’ve had to put up with over the last – however long it’s been. But, as someone who’s living in a former communist country, with friends who spent the first 10 years of their life living in a Soviet puppet state, shame on those of you who compared Victoria’s rules to communism.

I didn’t want to make this political, but, like the Poles in my adopted home, I couldn’t refrain from doing so. That being said, I think coronavirus has truly brought out the worst in a lot of people but also showed a lot of people that we’re just glorified monkeys who have to share this giant rock together.

As I mentioned early, I moved here for a girl, and we’ve since broken up. I’m also writing this blog because yes, I’m single. And the dating scene is here a lot different from what I’ve experienced back home.

For starters, i’M fRoM a SexY cOunTry. It pains me to say that, but I get a lot of attention here from Polish women because yes, I am from a country that has a fantastic reputation amongst expats as well as eastern Europeans. That presents many opportunities for me, but many many challenges, too.

For one, many women I meet are interested in me just because of where I’m from. While the pay gap in Poland is small (but existent), many women see themselves as successful only if they’re married, and the extent of their success depends on the success of who they’re married to. And me, an AUSTRALIAN from AUSTRALIA, wow, imagine taking this guy home to my little town to meet my parents!

That’s an attitude that I’ve come across many many times. But for every time that I’ve come across a woman like that, I’ve come across a woman that is the polar opposite. I work with many women in my job at Packhelp who show more leadership, assertiveness and initiative than many many men I’ve worked with.

Marie Curie was Polish

And this gap between the ‘traditional’ women and the ‘career’ women is also obvious in men.

And workplaces.

And family life.

And culture.

And politics.

Poland A (old Poland) and Poland B (new Poland) is a topic that I’m too scared to touch with a 10-foot zapikanka, but it can be best summarised as this:

Old Poland is those with traditional, conservative, and most religious customs and values. They are the reason that communism was overthrown, and why Poland is economically as strong as it is.

New Poland are those that have a more ‘world’ view of their place on the earth – religion is less important to them, and they see Poland being a global contributor, giving and taking, rather than an isolated safe haven for white nazi’s pretending to be religious.

Long story short, there is a massive divide amongst Poles and what’s important to them.

And why is may seem that I’ve spent this entire article whinging and complaining about what Poland, those same reasons are the reasons I love it here. (That’s another thing, Poles complain about e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g, but they know they do, and they find it funny!)

I see change happening.

And whether that direction is to the left or to the right, there’s change.

In Australia, protesting against our Government’s 1950’s-esque environment laws is met with ‘Protesting? Get a job, hippy’.

In Poland, the Government tries to ban abortion (in all forms) during coronavirus lockdowns to avoid protests, people get in their cars, block traffic and make their voices heard.

Defend your uterus. Christ knows your Government doesn’t care for it

I see a hell of a lot of things changing in Poland in the next 20 years.

The country, despite the conservative Government’s best efforts to keep it’s culture inbred and inscestious, is opening itself up to a wider world.

That wider world is seeing that it’s a land steeped in castles that make King’s Landing look like a garden shed, an economic powerhouse that’s home to entrepreneurial minds that rival silicon valley, and people who remember being consistently kicked down, but so proud to get back up each and every time.