Saturday, 22 July 2017

My 20 years in Poland

It was on this day, 22 July, in the year 1997, that I did arrive in Poland for good. I had left Britain, my young family was to follow on a month later. A momentous day in my life. And so today marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of my life in Poland; just over one-third of my life has been spent here. And over one-sixth of my life has been covered by this blog.

Before the end of communism, I had only visited Poland five times - twice as a child (aged three and eight), and three times on the Polish parish youth group holiday Montserrat (see here).

But once the political and economic transformation got under way in Poland I began visiting more and more regularly - visiting family and friends, fact-finding, taking part in conferences, on business. I came as an election observer on behalf of the Polish Government in Exile, to witness the first free presidential elections across southwest Poland.

Coming over with increasing frequency, I found it annoying to have to buy a visa each time; because the UK still required visas from Poles, Poland reciprocated. And so I joined the campaign organised by the Federation of Poles in Great Britain for visa-free travel between the two countries. I wrote a number of letters to the media and to MPs. I pointed out, among other facts, that Russians living in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia who'd been part of the apparatus of repression in those countries could travel freely to the UK, while Poles who'd bravely struggled to bring down communism had to queue - and pay for - visas. The campaign was short but intense; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave in to pressure from the politicians. Prime minister John Major announced visa-free entry to the UK for Polish citizens in 1992. The following year, the Polish ambassador to the UK awarded me with a silver Order Zasługi from President Lech Wałęsa for my part in the visa campaign.

Now that travel to Poland became cheaper, I'd fly over more often. In early 1995, I was offered the chance for some communications consultancy work for Centertel, Poland's first, and at the time only, mobile telephone network. After four week-long assignments in 1995 and 1996, I was offered a full-time job in Warsaw as communications director for Poland's largest cable TV network, PTK (now a part of UPC). I jumped at the chance; at the end of June 1997 I left the Confederation of British Industry. After nearly 16 years there, nine of which I was managing editor of CBI News, it was time to move on.

Destiny was calling. All those Saturday mornings spent at Polish school, right through to A-level; Polish cubs and scouts, Polish youth clubs, all that Polishness would come into good use, along with my work experience in a top business organisation. Today I call it 'nation building' - helping to turn Poland into a normal, Western, European nation, ridding it of its old complexes and bad habits.

We moved to a house just across the way from Jeziorki, in nearby Pyry, renting for four and half years until our own house was ready for us to move in to, in February 2002. For the first month I slept on a mattress in a completely unfurnished empty house, waiting for our belongings to turn up with the family. I say 'completely empty', but this was the summer of floods; terrific rainfall and mosquitoes everywhere. Biting me. I'd splat them with whatever came to hand, and soon there were literally hundreds of splashes of my blood  decorating the newly painted white walls and ceiling of my empty room.

I'd cycle to work each day that first month - to an office on Konstruktorska. It was a moist, humid late-July and early-August; the smell of ripening fruit - wild mirabelle plums in the air. And there was much rain. Many of the roads around here were not asphalted back then; when it rained heavily, much of ul. Baletowa was under water between Farbiarska and Sarabandy.

For my first weekend in Poland I decided to get out of Warsaw by train and explore. On my fold-up Brompton bike I cycled to Warszawa Centralna, took a look at a large railway map of Poland, and decided to take a train to Nałęczów, on the line to Lublin, for no other reason than the fact that there was a narrow-gauge train from there to Opole Lubelskie - an interesting thing to see.

By 1997, Warsaw was starting to look modern. There were foreign banks, cash machines, supermarkets (Rema 1000, Billa, Géant - remember them?), mobile phones that no longer required a briefcase-sized battery; but there were still many hangovers from the old days, not least in people's thinking.

The human development I've witnessed in 20 years in Poland has been akin to what happened in the UK over a far longer period. Poland has really done well, all things considered. No country's perfect; most countries have better and worse patches in their history. But strong countries are those that can weather those tricky times and emerge the stronger for them.

After 20 years, I've no regrets about having moved from the UK to Poland. None. Zero.

This time last year:
PiS, Brexit, Trump and cognitive bias

This time four years ago:
Portmeirion, revisited, again

This time five years ago:
Beach day, Llyn Peninsula

This time six years ago:
Down with cars in city centres!

This time seven years ago:
8am and 26C already


Anonymous said...

Happy aniversary!
Regards from soon-to-be Nowa Wola inhabitant :)

Ian Wilcock said...

Happy anniversary Michael.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous, @ Ian Wilcock

Many thanks!