Culture shock is a phenomenon that effects most of us brave enough to move to foreign pastures. As many Poles have traveled abroad they must be very aware of the difficulties they face when living in other countries around the globe. Having met many Poles in the UK (my homeland) I’m pretty certain I have seen this feature in their terrified faces as I crack another witty ripost that I didn’t understand let alone them.
The term culture shock is not a medical condition or an emotional syndrome but the common expression used by eggheads to account for the fact that moving to a new culture is difficult. Unsurprisingly, all aspects of culture can account for the shock, which according to some comes in 4 phases: the honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery phase. Since reading in more depth about this very topic over recent weeks it got me thinking about these stages in more detail and about my first few years in Warsaw. How was Warsaw responsible for my culture shock and how did I cope?
Firstly, the honeymoon phase. I had previously been to Warsaw on holiday and found it absolutely delightful. The people were all very friendly, the beer was very cheap and my accommodation comfortable. During the first few months I was invited to many pubs and parties where I felt somewhat like a star. Everybody would come and talk to me and I would inevitably end up having to drink vodka with the guys discussing cultural differences of which I was about to find out, naively thinking that I understood. I ignored my initial feelings like looking out of the plane window when arriving and only seeing a white carpet and as I stepped from the plane the biting cold ripped through me as if I had arrived totally bereft of clothes. Trust me to move in February!
I turned a blind eye when I handed over my documents to the surly customs official only little did I realize that this level of service would continue from the airport to the bars right down to the kiosks where I would buy my cigarettes. In England it is the custom to be polite at all times, please, thank you, are words thrown about as a necessity of contact between two human beings. The Polish reality was quite the opposite as getting even the faintest of acknowledgments was like getting blood from a stone.
I even found traveling around the city quite easy. After I had got my bearings and familiarized myself with names of places I found the transport system to be efficient and cheap. The only difficulties were when I had to get on a bus or tram as in England it is the norm to queue at stops while in Warsaw it is a free for all. After several weeks I realized that being polite doesn’t translate into effectiveness and my first real feeling of fitting in came as I forced myself onto packed city transport. I lived close to the city centre and my landlords were friendly and hospitable although my flat was quite archaic, my television prehistoric and décor, how should I say, postwar. It was home though. My girlfriend at the time putting in great effort with her friends to make me feel at home, which I can say they happily achieved.
The second phase is known as negotiation but I will refer to it as the nightmare phase. Everything was different, maybe not in glaringly obvious ways but in minute and strange manners. The most noticeable was when it came to details as small as tea. As any normal Englishman will tell you tea should be served with a dash of milk unless it is earl grey then a slice of lemon is acceptable, although not to most peoples tastes. Every person who offered me tea would make some remark as I answered, 'with some milk please'. Normally the response would be, 'this is known as bawarka' or 'are you pregnant?' both came with a detailed story of their wife’s nine months in labor and a splash of milk became half the cup. The next issue that caused me many moments of anguish was the language barrier. I knew not one word in Polish when I arrived in the country and for some reason people would approach me on the street speaking incredibly quickly and animatedly. Only after learning some of the language would I discover that they were asking for directions rather than the fact that I had done something wrong.
What was the hardest to adapt though was, and still is, Polish bureaucracy. On numerous occasions I had to go through some sort of procedure that entailed a visit to some sort of department. In the UK this is a relatively simple and painless procedure. In Poland it is a day or two of stress, queuing and hoping that all your documents are correct, that you filled out the form in the correct color pen and without mistakes and learning the different systems that each individual office employs. It is these idiosyncratic offices that can really depress the foreigner in Poland, the fact that some offices have methods that are beyond belief and that each different department will try their hardest to send you somewhere else rather than help some incoherent Englishman speaking in broken Polish. It is frustrating at best and soul-destroying at worst. It makes you appreciate why so many Warsaw citizens have sour expressions on their faces as I obviously assume that they had visited a government office that day.
Even through all these challenges I feel I came to the adjustment phase relatively unscathed. What truly helped was the hospitality of the Warsaw people. Visiting a house in Warsaw you will always be met by people in the friendliest way. They will ensure your glass is full, that your stomach has grown and despite the language barrier they will find a connection of some description with their foreign guest. In Warsaw people seem most at ease in their homes. Surrounded by the pictures of their loved ones and in the sanctity of their furniture and their walls. With all the presumed violence that threatens Warsaw it is in this setting where the people truly open and warm, outside they wouldn’t probably even acknowledge your existence. In England our social network revolves around the pub and in Poland this is very much a new tradition. At first it was difficult to adapt to the fact that you don’t visit the same pub three times in a row, as you would in England. After a while I found it normal to visit different areas and locations, although as Warsaw doesn’t have an area which is known for its pubs it is quite obvious that you must visit a variety of places. The ‘local’ pub as it is affectionately known in the UK doesn’t really fit to Polish lifestyle when they appear to feel more comfortable in the home. In England we have a saying, 'home is where the heart is' and through long evenings of food, drink and conversing with friends I think it definitely helped me appreciate the Polish lifestyle more.
Finally came the mastery phase. If you can ever truly master a culture. As time has gone on I have become more at home with dealing with these cultural barriers that exist and the small peculiarities that endure are slowly crumbling away. Now I have no reservations about helping people find their way or asking for a little milk with my tea, I feel like I understand Warsaw a lot better. I got married in a catholic church and had interesting discussions with a priest which helped me enter into the spiritual lives of Poles, I got a mortgage which helped me understand the bureaucratic aspect of life in Warsaw and I was invited into the domain of a Polish family which gave me an insight into the closeness that a Polish family has with each other. Furthermore, I realize that you cannot generalize about a culture as the nuances of every person is totally different and that after an extended period you meet so many different characters that we all have our similarities and differences.
Warsaw is a hard, troubled, dirty place but when you start to learn its workings you find that there is always light within darkness. I now think that Warsaw is a mirror reflection of Polish friendship. It takes many years to build up trust and honesty but when you finally achieve the highest level of closeness the rewards are loyalty and acceptance throughout your entire life.
The other bonus of course is that in our global world England is only two hours away by plane.
Text by Christopher Moore