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Living in Poland
9 Things to Know Before Moving to Poland
Poland is strongly underrated as a destination for both expats and tourists, but there may be a lot you don’t know about the country, even if you have lived here for a while. Here’s our top nine secrets you may still have to discover about the great country of Poland.
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1. English Isn’t Widely Spoken
Perhaps this isn’t a big secret, but English is not spoken much throughout Poland — especially not outside of the big cities. With 37% of the population speaking English, it may not be impossible to get by, but compared to its neighbor Germany (70%), the percentage of English speakers is quite low. You might have more luck with Russian, which many people (especially older residents) learned during the Cold War. Learning Polish is not easy, but just mastering a few simple phrases at first will help you a great deal — for example “czy mówisz po angielsku?” (“do you speak English?”). Although Polish is a Slavic language and shares similarities to Russian, it has a Roman alphabet which makes it slightly easier to learn for speakers of European languages. Why not get in touch with other expats in Warsaw or Wroclaw and take part in a language exchange with InterNations?
2. Green is Good
We’re not talking about being environmentally friendly here (although Poland is good at that, too), but about crossing the road. Depending on where you’re from, the rule of waiting for the green man might be quite flexile —in the UK, for instance, it is very common to dash across when there is a break in traffic. Never do this in Poland! In fact, turning a blind eye to our friend Mr. Green could land you a 500 PLN fine — that’s a hefty price for gaining a couple of minutes. These rules apply even in the midnight hours when there may not be a car in sight, so just be patient and wait your turn.
3. Stay Indoors for “Wet Monday”
After the holy and peaceful celebrations for Easter Sunday, Poles get a little bit silly. “Śmigus-dyngus” (literally “Wet Monday”) is the tradition of throwing water over your friends, family, and often unsuspecting strangers. It originated with people sprinkling water from palms onto loved ones, in a sort of Baptism, to symbolize new life. Today, it’s an all-out water fight. Bottles, water pistols, and buckets are just a few of the weapons in the watery armory, so be prepared! Long ago it would be boys who doused girls with water, but nowadays everyone is a legitimate target and “collateral damage” is to be expected. Pack your anorak for this one!
4. Getting Short-Changed in the Sandwich Department
The sandwich takes on many forms around the world, but a standard expectation universally is that the bread encompasses all of the filling. You’re in for a big shock in Poland, where asking for a sandwich will more often than not lead to a slice (or two) of bread with the filling placed on top. This is not necessarily a bad thing (they’re often very tasty), but just be warned next time you sit down expecting something different.
5. Smile Like You Mean It
It takes a lot of muscles to smile (26 if you’re interested), but like in other Eastern European cultures that energy is not wasted. Smiling just isn’t that common, but that doesn’t mean that Poles are miserable — quite the contrary! In fact, when a Pole smiles at you they really, really mean it. Other cultures throw around laughter very easily and to the Polish this seems fake and superficial. If you walk around with a permanent grin on your face in Krakow people might start to question your mental integrity — only show those pearly white teeth when you really mean to!
6. Names Are a Big Deal
As most of the Polish population is Roman Catholic, naming your child after a saint is rather common here. As a result, each day of the year is designated to two saints (one male, one female) and so most people get a “name day”. This celebration is actually bigger than birthdays in Poland, with parties being thrown and plenty of toasts being raised to the person celebrating. An addition to the annual birthday and Christmas is not a bad idea in our opinion.
7. Religion is Important
It’s probably not a secret that religion is still a major part of everyday life, but it might surprise you to learn that Poland has a huge percentage of Roman Catholics compared to other nations (85% puts it in the top ten worldwide). Needless to say, it would not be a good idea to start discussing the ins and outs of religion with new colleagues — you’ll probably be met with stern looks. The upside to this is the number of public holidays you get, which is more than secular countries thanks to the number of important catholic feast days, not to mention the stunning cathedrals and churches in Poland’s many gorgeous towns and cities.
8. Italians Look Away Now
Pizza in Poland is done a bit differently to the rest of the world, and many Italians might want to get under the comforter at this point. There are a lot of options when it comes to choosing a pizza topping, but tomato sauce is not usually one of them, it’s a staple. In Poland however, there are a whole range of options, including tropical sauce, as offered by one restaurant in Gdansk. If you opt for the traditional tomato sauce you might well get handed a bottle of ketchup to distribute on your base. Not traditional but efficient — it’s enough to keep a Neapolitan up at night!
9. The Poles Invented Vodka
Well, they sort of invented vodka. This one is hotly disputed with its neighbor Russia, who also have historical documents from the 9th century referring to vodka but the first distillery is not seen until the 11th century. The Poles, on the other hand, claim they qualify thanks to an 8th century drink called vodka — although this was made from distilled wine and is technically more of a brandy. . Nobody really knows the absolute truth, but we’re going to go with Poland and we suggest you do too during your stay here. Na zdrowie!