A few weeks ago, I asked on my Instagram stories (because those polls give me life) whether anyone would be interested in reading about living abroad as an expatriate in a more personal, diary-like style, and the majority of the people who answered said ‘yes’. (Wise choice – I would have probably sprung this series on you anyway.) This will be an approximately bi-monthly or monthly installment, depending how much time I can justify to put in writing posts instead of hoping that my thesis will write itself if I just keep opening up the Word documents diligently each day. (So far, no such luck.)
For now, gather around children, for these are my stories from Krakow, Poland.
February 2. Friday – Fri-yay?
Finally, after 38 hours of travelling I have arrived, and I’m slowly moving around my new room, placing my things in wardrobes and shelves as if I had any claim to this strange place. None of the furniture is mine – all I have in the world now is a small backpack and a suitcase wrapped in a belt boasting Finnish flags on it. I have brought postcards, though. They’re light-weight and easy to carry, and they immediately make the place feel more like home. The two Finnish ones I post at the head of my bed. ‘Finland for holidays’, the other one says. ‘Come to Finland’, the other.
My flight from Helsinki was delayed by four hours, first because of bad weather and the because of a technical fault – always a reassuring thing to hear – and by the time I got to Stockholm, I had missed the last outbound flight to Krakow. Luckily, Norwegian wined and dined me well and put me up in a comortable little airport hotel for the night. Well, as much as there was night left at that point since my alarm – currently ‘Ocean Drive’ – rudely interrupted my beauty sleep at 3.30 a.m to catch my morning flight through Oslo.
My flatmates seem nice. They came to meet me at the train station. They’re a couple, a few years younger than me, stumbling over English words bravely and mostly successfully. The girl has wispy dark hair that can’t help but curl around her temples; the boy wears glasses and has a strange fascination with Franz Josef. (His portrait – F.J.’s, not my roommate’s – on a postcard is the only picture on their fridge door. He looks stern even surrounded by pink flowers.) They served me Mexican bean soup and hot tea and, hopefully, are coming to the conclusion that I seem pretty nice, too.
Oh, and I went to the supermarket. I love shopping for groceries, but navigating the supermarket scene in a whole new country provides its own unique set of challenges. For example, where do I find the coconut cream? (Nowhere, it turns out.) How do I know which spices to buy when they all look the same? I spend fifteen minutes in front of the tea shelf, deciphering the names of Polish herbs with the help of the eager but rather unhelpful Google Translate app. When I go pay, I just smile a little and nod to the cashier. I was going to thank her in Polish because I knew the word, I’ve been practicing on my Duolingo, but then in the moment I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it anymore and I felt like I might end up saying something accidentally offensive so I just opted to say nothing.
Cooking in a kitchen with these two people feels wrong. I am acutely aware that I am just passing through and nothing in this apartment is mine. It is as if there was no space for me here, in this apartment or in this city; it is just a painting but I am not one of its characters, I am simply walking on top of the canvas. Franz Josef Junior is giving me pointers on cooking rice. He says I’ll lose all the nutrients in it if I let it boil too much. I don’t care. I just want my palak paneer, or whatever is left of this wet, spinachy mess.
I suddenly feel my aloneness like a hand on my shoulder. I have travelled extensively; I have even lived abroad for extended periods of time, like in Australia when I was fresh out of high school or last year in Brazil. But this time it’s different. First of all, I don’t speak the language. Secondly, this time I am not planning to go back. I have sold all my furniture and the only thing left to do in order to get my degree is finish writing my thesis. This is everything I ever dreamed of – living in different places, no clear plan for the future, no permanent address. Now it is right at hand, and I feel terribly alone in the middle of my new adult life.
A few friends have texted me to ask how I’ve settled and if I’ve managed to get to Poland all right. I appreciate it. It makes me feel loved. But right now I just can’t reply to them.
Damn, I’m tired. All I keep thinking about is sleep. So I do. Sleep is great; it’s like the human version of have you tried turning it off and on again?
February 5. Monday – werk werk werk werk werk
Last night, as I was making my way towards the bar where the language exchange group was going to meet, I felt butterflies. I’m very comfortable being on my own and independent to a fault, so if I want to meet new people, I actualyl have to push myself to talk to them. Independency is a great thing when you travel the world solo – not so much when you actually need to meet others.
The meet-up went pretty well. I got stuck for a bit talking about the Finnish education system with a boring Turkish guy and a regular Polish mansplainer, but by the end of the night I was already discussing communism and dogs with a couple of Irish teachers.
And today’s teh first day of my internship! Luckily my new colleagues seem nice. There are four interns in the office – two Spanish, whose Northern speech runs way too fast for me to understand, and a Dutch guy who introduced himself as ‘not very outgoing’. Yikes. I might need to make other friends, too, otherwise this whole Erasmus experience with all of its 1-euro-pints might go to waste.
Of course I’m not here to party. (Well, not too much, anyway.) I’ve come to Krakow for a four-month internship at a small IT recruiting firm where my tasks include social media management, translation, editing and guide writing – a dream internship, really, even if it is an unpaid one. Doesn’t matter; the financial support I get from my university is enough to make do here, because as it turns out, Poland is ridiculously cheap. Well, clothes, yoga mats and bananas still cost about the same as back home. But beer, avocados, movie tickets, rent, cheesecake and everything else essential? Damn affordable, son.
It adds up quickly, though. Eating out is cheap at three to five euros per meal – but if you could cook at home for 1,5 euros, wouldn’t that be saving even more?
I need to save money for my upcoming four-month tour through the Balkans. Just thinking about it makes me giddy with excitement. I crave to pack up a tent and run away to the mountains. I know I need to make a real effort to get everything done before the summer so I can then just enjoy wandering, but it feels hard to concentrate on repsonsibilities when your dreams seem so much closer than anything else. It’s like they get on my skin, become a second one, actually – I want to be struck by wonder so hard I fall back and land on my ass. I miss that about incredible places and drunken nights in backpacker bars. I miss South America. I miss Finland and the wilder parts of it that I never saw. I wonder when I’ll be back, and I wonder when I’ll be gone.
It is not easy having resteless feet. You never know whether you belong somewhere or nowehere.
February 10. Saturday.
Today’s my name saint’s day, and mum calls me to congratulate me. I’m pretty sure no other family ever made a big deal out of a name day – some people probably don’t even remember when theirs is, if they have one at all. Maybe this is why I am a sucker for special days: blame it on my parents. Valentine’s Day is in a few days. I’m plannign on going out with my new friends from the office. Turns out that Girl Spanish is basically me: we both love Grease and Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we both have a degree on English translation. And the Dutch severely undersold himself at introduction, since he’s been the most vocal one to get us out and drinking almost every night.
It snowed a few days ago and the whole town was in a frenzy. There were some Spanish exchange students playing in the snow at the central square. I’m a summer person to the extent that I have a sun tattooed on my shoulder, but somehow I like the snow here. It reminds me of Finland.
Besides, it’s nice to see people enjoying things. With these Polish you can never be sure. It is almost as if no one in this town knows how to smile. A friend quipped that it’s because only the tough ones survived communism. The strangest part is that the few Polish I have met have actually proved to be incredibly warm and friendly people as soon as I have started talking to them; for some reason they all just have scary faces.
Not that I mind. It’s kind of nice to be able to go to the store and take your time selecting the right type of bread without having to fend off overly enthusiastic sales personnel. Again, like being back home.
February 14. Wednesday AKA ULTIMATE SINGLE AWARENESS DAY
When I texted my exchange friends that I was moving to Poland, the first thing my Mexican friend said was: ‘Looking forward to your Tinder stories from there!’ I, uh, might have made myself a reputation in Brazil last year. There is no denying it, though; I was up and swiping already on my first night in Krakow, and by Valentine’s, I have already established cheesecake dates as my selling point.
You know, it’s funny; I haven’t actually matched with one Polish guy so far. Plenty of Spanish, though; I am convinced that Krakow must be the largest populated Spanish city abroad. I mean, I knew I was going to have difficulties with the language – I just never would have guessed that the language would be Spanish instead of Polish. Most of my friends here are Spanish. Well, more like friends of friends. We keep joking that we need to make non-Spanish speaking friends but I’m Finnish so who am I going to talk to? Seems like we’re stuck with the surprise Spanish inquisition. No one ever expects the Spanish inquisition.
I went out to grab beers with a Spanish guy last weekend. We set out to meet up in Kazimierz, an old Jewish suburb which is renowed for its night life, cheap eateries and overall awesome atmosphere. We randomly wandered into the first bar that wasn’t crowded, and as soon as we walked in, the familiarity hit me: I had been here before! I couldn’t believe that all of it had been restored in my mind so intact for almost four years. Last time I was in Krakow, I only spent two days there: one day in Auschwitz, the other getting fined for riding the tram without a valid ticket. (Don’t – traffic cops n Krakow are strict.) I had also had time to pop out with a guy who was working in my hostel. I don’t remember his name or face. I think he might have been American. I remember that he told me he got robbed off all of his valuables in Thailand and his parents wouldn’t send him more money, and that he took me to that particular bar.
I’m glad that my date seemed to find my nostalgic enthusiasm cute, but unfortunately the feeling wasn’t mutual. At the end of the night he tried to kiss me, and I ducked, yelled ‘Byee!’ and strode home a little buzzed from cheap beer and smoky bars.
I might change countries and continents, but I will forever be awkward.
February 20. Tuesday.
I’ve been to Poland twice before, and to Krakow once. It was almost four years ago. I had been working in Germnay over the summer, and as I was returning home, I wanted to overland it and travelled through Germany, Poland and the Baltics to get home. Twenty-one days saw me in almost as many cities. It was a whirlwind, but I do remember liking Krakow’s vibe.
A lot of people, mum included, wondered why on Earth would I want to move to Poland. I mean, there’s nothing there, right? Just grey communist high-rises and deteriorating old houses, and rude people and cold weather. Right? Right??
Personally, I think Poland is one of the most underrated countries in Europe. It is rich in history and culture, it’s got good food (and filling, too – they sure love their potatoes), and it’s safe and cheap, making it the perfect destination for a solo traveller. I was excited to return to Poland and explore some more of it.
However, I don’t think Poland would have been my first choice. I also got offered internships in Porto, Amsterdam and Barcelona; Prague and Madrid were in the works. Sadly, my two top choices – Croatia and Slovenia – never came through for me. I applied for this internship almost as an afterthought. I saw that they were looking for a social media manager intern, and I was like sure, communications degree things, whatever. When it came down to choosing which place to accept, the decision wasn’t easy, but ultimately Krakow won me over with its geographial location. And I mean, because I felt like the internship would be very beneficial for me. But also did you know that you can get to like five different countries in like two hours from Krakow??
This spring is looking great for travels. My poor thesis might have to wait.
February 25. Sunday, damn Sunday.
I am settling into a routine, and I like it. I have managed to find familiaity in strangeness. Every morning when I get up, I put on some Coldplay or Death Cab for Cutie or Vance Joy, and I roll out my yoga mat and do some sun salutations. I eat my breakfast – a fruit bowl and surprisingly good bread – with Rory and Lorelai Gilmore, and as I put on my make-up, I watch as the white-haired man in the opposite building smokes on his balcony. In my last apartment in Finland I also had a view of an elderly man smoking on the balcony. It feels comforting to know that no matter where you are, some things never change.
For example: I still can’t fucking work doors. On my first night in my Polish apartment, I had to knock on my roommates’ door and sheepishly ask them to help me open the door because keys are too high-tech for me. My eyebrows still do whatever they want, no matter how I pluck them, fill them, leave them, curse them or coax them. And I’m still runnign late for everything, always.
I spent the weekend in Wroclaw, a beautiful Polish city some three hours away from Krakow. As beautiful as the city was, I was happy to get out of there – I might have accidentally stayed, had it not been for the nice Uber driver man who, defying all rules of traffic and good manners, managed to drop me off at the bus station just three minutes before my bus back to Krakow left.
Wroclaw is a great trip for anyone travelling through Poland, although like most of the country, it might be better to visit during the summer. Right now Europe is suffering one of its coldest winters ever – some Siberian side wind that usually blows right over to Greenland has decided to nest upon Central Europe, and because of this the temparatures have been a steady -22 Celsius with windchill. Greenland is actually above zero at the monent, could you believe that. I had to duck into an H&M and emergency-purchase two more pairs of gloves and a beanie just to keep from dying, and even then my bones were shivering and I took every opportunity to escape into a cafe or a cheap restaurant to get away from th wind chill.
The beanie is pretty cool, though. It says you go, girl. I do. I do go.
Follow along my adventures! Will I finally miss a bus? When will cheap beer no longer excite me? Will I ever learn to pronounce thank you? All this and more (?) still to come!
Have you been to Poland? How did you like it?