I have lived in Poland for about nine months now. It’s hard to believe that time has gone by so quickly, and yet there have been moments when I felt that time has stood still, frozen. It is no exaggeration to say that my journey has felt like a roller coaster, with many ups and downs. I’ve experienced joy and love, and I have also felt the frosty bite of loneliness. The best way to describe my time in Poland so far is like looking through a window. Most of the time the window is clear with viewers on both side. I see Poland, and Poland sees a curious American girl. At other times, it seems as if I can look through this window, but on the other side there is just a mirror.
For the most part, what I have seen through this window has been good. Through my observations, I have seen and learned so much about Poland. I have breathed in the mountains, the trees, the old town squares of Bielsko, Krakow, and Pszczyna, the lakes, the blossoms of spring, and the snow covered trees of winter. It’s all very beautiful. In many ways, the nature reminds me of my home in the Midwest, and yet it is also very different. There are four distinct seasons in Poland. Spring time has lifted my spirits in many ways, and has stayed at a nice cool temperature, gradually getting us ready for summer, but not skipping over it entirely. (*cough cough* Minnesota!!!) There are some cities like Pszczyna in Southern Poland with beautiful parks and walking paths. As I am writing this, I’m sitting next to a small lake in Pszczyna looking out at the green around me – the green grass, the green leaves on the trees and the weeping willows, bowing next to a quaint, little bridge. Poland has beautiful nature that I never would have known about if I hadn’t accepted the teaching position here in the first place. Spring has pleasantly surprised me.
These last nine months, I have observed a country filled with people who has survived communism, regained their freedom, and maintained their religious values. There are many countries in Europe with people who claim atheism and agnosticism, but in general, Poland has upheld their Catholic beliefs. They take pride in their religion, their Polish pope, and the community they have maintained all these years. Just last Sunday, I walked the streets of Bielsko-Biala to see many boys and girls of about eight years old dressed in white robes. Proud parents would take photos and reserve a place in restaurants to celebrate a child’s first communion. I am not Catholic, but I can’t help but admire some of the genuine joy and pride these children have on their faces during their First Communion. In one of my English classes, half of my students are young girls who were getting ready for their first communion about a week ago. Prior to First Communion, the mother of one of the girls told me how proud she was that her oldest was getting ready for this day. She and the other mothers helped teach the girls how to sing “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (the Polish version of course.) Towards the end of my lesson with these girls, they begged me to let them sing “Hallelujah” for me. I couldn’t say no to that and found the music for the song on YouTube. As soon as the music started playing, the girls sang out with all their hearts. I couldn’t help but be touched. It reminded me that while I am a Protestant and they are Catholics, we have a belief in God as a commonality.
With religious values at the core of Poland, I believe with much certainty that this influences the strong marriage and family values that the Poles highly uphold. Even if they are not as religious as the generation before them, family, friendships and relationships are clearly important. I see it almost everywhere I go. Just sitting by the lake and observing the people around me, I see mostly couples, and then families, and after that same-sex friendships. Oh, don’t forget a few dogs in the midst! Rarely do I see someone sitting or walking by themselves on a beautiful, sunny weekday. Somehow these relationships seem stronger here in Poland than most places I see in America.
In a recent article I read, couples get married at a much younger age in Poland. Several Polish teachers in the school I work at are married. If they are not married, then they are likely to be in a relationship. If not that, then they are probably seeking to be in one. Sexual desires are in our human nature no matter where we are from, but Poland tends to seek for love that is long term than instant gratification. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it doesn’t happen in Poland. I just see more young couples, young families, and strong ties.
Sadly, there are also broken families in Poland and children who have one or more absent parents, like many places around the world. Teaching at a private primary school in Poland, I see that it is more common among the wealthier families – a tale as old as time. Divorce is not as common in Poland compared to other countries in Europe and North America (mainly because the Catholic church frowns upon it), but I have heard stories of spouses living separately or trying to push through unhappily. I might not know the back stories of each parent, but I do see some of the children I teach crave for attention.
I have learned so much from observing the people here in Poland. As I mentioned earlier, I had described my observations as looking through a window. As a a young American female temporarily living in Poland, I have seen much but am also very aware of the glass between. I see an overall loving community, and yet I have felt very alone on many occasions. A huge part of this is due to language barriers. Even after living here for nine months my Polish is at best minimal, mainly because my job requires me to teach English and also because the language is difficult, and Poles will comment on how Polish is one of the hardest languages to learn. On the other hand, many people in Poland, including the young people are too shy and afraid to use the English they know. Talking to a young man who goes to the church I attend most weeks, many Poles are afraid to use the wrong verb tense and don’t want to mess up. On another occasion I was talking to a young Polish couple who had asked me about my time in Poland so far. Most of the time I will find something positive to say, but on this occasion, I found myself becoming misty eyed. I admitted that I was having a hard time getting to know other people Polish young people and mostly spent time with other Native English speakers I work with. I gave her a truth, and she returned with a truth of her own. She admitted that she feels like she does not have enough vocabulary to have a full conversation with me. What she told me is true for many people in Poland.
Another reason why I believe I feel occasionally lonely in Poland is the strong family and relationship ties. As I mentioned before, the strong family ties are beautiful, but in a strong friend and family group, it can be very hard to step outside of the comfort zone and meet new people. The same can be true for many countries and cultures around the world, include America. It is human nature, but sometimes you cannot help but wish that someone is willing to take that step, especially when you took a giant leap out of your comfort zone.
Despite the lonely moments on this crazy roller coaster ride, there have been times when the window opens. Sometimes it just takes me opening the window, using the little bit of Polish I know to let others know that I am not afraid to make language mistakes and I do not judge language mistakes. Sometimes it just takes a friendly smile and me just constantly approaching people. On other occasions, the window opens from the other side. These are the unforgettable moments. I find myself going to church most weekends because a single woman in her forties wants to pick me up from my apartment building and translate the sermons for me. This same woman took me shopping during my first few months in Poland and introduced me to her mother. On another occasion, there is a Polish teacher who saw me eating a waffle alone outside and she sat next to me, talking to me for about an hour because she wanted to. Parents of some of my young students take time to chat with me, wanting to know who I am. These are the moments you carry with your forever.
So maybe the window isn’t closed – just ajar.