Few days ago, while accidently looking for something in my old files, I found an article which I wrote 6 years ago entitled The Polish Experience. It was published in 2004 in the Warsaw Business Journal (WBJ). After that, out of curiosity I entered my name in Google to see if the article is still available and to my surprise, not only is it available, but it is used with students as part of their English vocabulary lessons! ;) Anyway, you might now start to wonder how that is connected with this article. Well, the thing is I have agreed to start writing for Kontynent Warszawa and after remembering that article I decided that it would be a good starting point for this column. Writing a follow up article to the article I wrote 6 years ago about my life as a foreigner and experience in Poland seemed like a good idea…

Where shall I start? I guess with the most important news: after 8 and half years in Poland I have mastered the Polish language! :) I’m really proud of the fact that with a lot of hard work and almost by myself I learned Polish. I read and speak Polish fluently, but still have some difficulty with the writing. The reason for that is that I hardly write in Polish, so I haven’t really had the chance to work on my Polish writing skills. There are a lot of foreigners living in Poland, but very few of them really get to master the language. Learning Polish is not impossible. It takes time, patience, desire, and dedication.

You are probably now thinking that it is obvious that I’m fluent in Polish after such a long time here, but the thing is (and this is not to frustrate you!) I became fluent after 3 years with the support of some great people who forced me to overcome my fears and start speaking. The reason for that is that as with most languages understanding comes first and confidence and naturality while speaking come later. So for all of you out there learning Polish right now, please hang in there and don’t lose hope. I’m not going to lie, Polish is a really difficult language, but be patient and I’m sure it will come to you!

The first time I realized I understood Polish was while watching on tv a Polish comedy show: Kasia & Tomek. I loved to watch that show on Saturday evenings and was always frustrated that I couldn’t understand their jokes. Until one Saturday…while watching the show I heard one of the jokes and started laughing so hard that few minutes later I stopped and realized that I was laughing because I had understood by myself and no one had translated for me. An amazing feeling of self accomplishment…!
Learning the language of the country you live in, is in my opinion quite important. It opens you the door not only to job opportunities, but also to new people. People also perceive you completely different when you speak their language. They treat you differently, they are more eager to help and even provide you more information in case of need. I’m not saying that they wouldn’t help you if you don’t speak the local language, but the truth is that is you speak it, people will normally be more open to contact you than they would if they knew you don’t speak the language.

Speaking the language of the country you live in helps you integrate to your surroundings. It allows you to comment with people and friends about the weather, economical situation of the country, politics, etc. You become another ‘citizen’ of the country. Language also helps you understand people’s mindset, the country’s history, people’s behavior, etc. You’ll accept, tolerate, and understand different things through language as you get under the ‘country’s skin.’ You’ll see that soon you will identify yourself with the culture, your new environment, and people; you won’t feel as a ‘foreigner’ any more.

I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but the truth is that being a foreigner in Poland is not easy. Especially at the beginning if you don’t speak Polish. If you come here due to family reasons, it’s easier because you are surrounded by people that can explain things and support you. It is slightly different when you come here on your own. You’ll probably face bigger challenges and will have a bit more of difficulty getting settled. On the other hand, governmental procedures and laws in Poland have changed a lot in the last couple of years. It is easier and faster to settle down in Poland and get all the legal formalities completed, than it was 8 years ago.

Another event that has marked my live in Poland was the birth of my daughter 4 years ago. She was born in Warsaw. Currently, she goes to pre-school and on September 2012 she will hopefully go to first grade! ;) I was pretty lucky that my pregnancy went very well. I was very nervous and excited about how things will go since I wasn’t going to give birth in my home country. I wondered how I was going feel, how different everything would be from my home country. I had a lot of questions about healthcare in Poland. Luckily, I had a very good doctor and during labor I was in the hands of a very good midwife at Bielański Hospital. I will discuss further the topic of foreign women pregnant in Poland and give some of my advices and share my experience as perhaps topic for a different article.

Moving from a country where the average yearly temperature is 29 C to Warsaw was a huge change. I had seen and being in places with snow before I came to Poland, but living permanently in a country where most of the year is cold was hard for me to accept at the beginning. I think I will never get used to the cold, but I’ve learned to accept it. I sometimes still get depressed during winter because of the lack of light and the cold, but for sure I’m not the first or last one! For the long and cold winter season my best advice is: focus on doing the things that you like and please don’t think about the weather outside your window! ;) Go to the swimming pool, look for interesting recipes in cook books and cook them at home with friends and family, practice yoga, learn a new language, meet up with friends for a cup of coffee, read a book or rent a nice movie to watch in the evening. If you try to have an active live within your own possibilities and taste, you’ll see how fast the winter will pass by!

Anyway, that’s all for now folks! ;) As I mentioned at the beginning, this is the first of a series of articles I plan to write for Kontynent Warszawa, so if you have any suggestions or there is a particular topic that interests you, please feel free to write and send your suggestions. I will try to investigate and write about topics which are of interest to the foreign community in Warsaw. Considering that February 21st was the International Day of Mother Tongues, in next month’s column I’ll discuss about the importance of teaching our children our mother tongues while living in a foreign country and the challenges of raising bi-lingual children today.

Alma Jenkins