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EU > Poland > Cracow

Polish Exodus

Cracow, PL (View on map)

Poland was isolated from Western Europe between World War II and the 1989 revolution. Before then, very few people managed to travel beyond the countries belonging to the Warsaw Pact. Emigration waves started to develop in the 1990s and came to a climax during the years following Poland`s integration into the European Union. Poles can now be found all over Europe. Some people in the rest of Europe could find it hard to believe that most Polish people still live back home in Poland.

Barbara (23):

`My mum is crying every time I leave back to England`
Going abroad has rapidly become an integrated part of many young Poles` career. Between 1989 and 2004, most of Poland`s emigrants were truck drivers and manual workers, leading to the stereotypical image of `the Polish plumber`. Young girls reached Western Europe by applying for jobs as babysitters and nurses. A handful of exchange students found their ways to Western Europe. Since the day Poland joined the European Union, on 1st May 2004, the open borders have allowed for a bigger and more diverse workforce to attack labour markets abroad.

While many old EU member states appealed to `transition arrangements` that limited the intake of Central European workers, the United Kingdom and Ireland were the first to abolish such limitations. That, combined with the fact that many young Polish people had a better command of English than of most other European lanuages, caused entire herds of Poles to head for the islands. Few of them disguise the motives of their international adventures: finding jobs is much easier in the UK and Ireland than back home in Poland, and the salaries are much higher. Most young Poles leave their home country with the idea of returning once they earned sufficient money, or find that time it is time to think about starting a family.

Beside the UK and Ireland, the third most popular destination is the United States. The `Work and Study` program that I first came across in Bulgaria also exists in Poland and it provides young Poles with plenty of opportunities to gain some pocket money at the other side of the Atlantic. The service is specifically targeted towards students, and specialised agencies help candidates prepare all the necessary paperwork for their working holidays.`

Ahead of the rest
Kamila (26) left Poland before the big 2004 emigration wave. She has lived in The Netherlands since 2002, first working as an au-pair and then installing herself as a photographer. `I felt like I was ready for something new. Poland was somehow pressing on me, and I wanted to get away from it. Being an au-pair seemed the easiest way. At the time, there were plenty of offices in Poland specializing in recruitment of au-pairs. I could go to Spain and Portugal but they only offered employment for two months. I wanted to go for at least a year and the choice was then limited to Sweden, Norway and The Netherlands. I thought Norway would be too cold, I had already once been to Sweden and I was curious to know more about The Netherlands. Tulips, drugs and windmills seemed like an interesting starting point. I was wondering about the rest.`

Kasia`s first job as an au-pair was not entirely satisfactory and she soon needed to look for a new job. Since her papers were only valid in case she continued to work for the family that had contracted her, she preferred to stay in The Netherlands illegally. She only needed to wait until the 1st of May 2004, before becoming a legal resident. `I then decided that I wanted to specialize in photography, and I am now studying at the Academy of Arts and assisting other estabilished photographers. I am living in Amsterdam and have collected a group of international friends around me. I think I will have a hard time ever returning to Poland to live there, although I am always happy to return home to my family.`

Living abroad
Barbara (23, left in photo) tells me that she knows about 50 compatriots who are now living abroad. She then explains that she herself is part of Poland`s foreign work force. `I am just in Poland for a few days to go see the dentist and say hello to my mother and the couple of friends who are still living here. Otherwise, I have been living in a small village in the North Yorkshire, England for the last couple of months. My sister went there first and she told me to come as well. She found me a job so I had something to start off from. I am now in my fourth job, working as a waitress in a small village pub.`

Barbara explains: `Many Poles obviously go abroad because it`s the easiest way to make some decent money. Unemployment is high in Poland, although the situation is improving. Salaries are low, so why not go for a country where wages are higher. Geographically speaking, it would make sense for Polish people to first consider Germany, but Germany has so far been quite fanatic at keeping Polish workers out of the country. On top of that, German is not a very popular language among young Poles. I wouldn`t say that every Pole who goes abroad speaks English though. At the time when my sister first went there, her friends invited her to come along because she was the only one in the group who could make herself understood in England.`

`The biggest change for me was to go move from a big city, Krakow having 1 million inhabitants, to a village populated by barely a thousand people. Everybody knows everything about anybody, with the fortunate advantage that people are very helpful. I like the English and I enjoy my time in their country. It may have been different if I lived in a big city, where I would be seen as another Pole rather than just myself.`

Missing home
`I find it hard to have to miss my family in Poland and I am always happy when I can go see them. Little of my schedule depends on holidays or birthdays. I only come home whenever the flights are cheap. Although I have many friends who are working in other European countries, we usually see each other back in Poland. Traveling back and forth between all these different countries sounds nice, but it`s too expensive.`

`My mum (right on photo) doesn`t like to see her two daughters live in another country, but she understands why we do it. She cries whenever we go away, but she knows there`s not so much she can do about it. Whenever my sister or I have money left over after having covered our basic expenses, we often send money back home to her. A little bit of money in England already represents a decent sum if you spend it in Poland.`

`I am now enjoying this short time I am spending at home in Poland, which is a lot better than staying in touch by internet or mobile phone. Whenever I am here, my mother and I always try to find time to church together. I can`t attend church in England so often. I work on Sunday mornings, so there is simply no such opportunity.`

Barbara plans to get back to Poland when her English project comes to an end. She moreover thinks that most Poles have the same idea in mind. `I don`t know when exactly I will return home. I think it will also be quite difficult. Some Poles come back to Poland with a new attitude: the one of the former emigrant who now knows all and can afford everything. I think that it all depends on who you`re dealing with. Fortunately, I know myself quite well. That`s probably the best way for people to prevent themselves from changing by the simple fact that they have increased their financial wealth.`

Living abroad
Tomek (22) spent two months in Edinburgh, back in 2005. `I was there with a group of Poles and I think the Scots at the time were not so familiar with Polish in the city. Looking back, I think that was an advantage. Now that so many Poles have flooded the UK and Ireland, they are no longer as welcome as I felt when I was there. I remember how we spent a lot of time partying, but also learning English.`

Aga (26) left Poland to study English literature in Minnesota, USA. She now has two jobs in Poland: one as a teacher, one as a translator. She explains that her international experiences in the USA were very much worth the efforts: `It wasn`t easy in the beginning. The exposure to a culture that is so different from my own version of reality opened my eyes and made me think about things in a different way. It allowed me to reconsider myself, my culture and my religion. And so I did. It was refreshing to be part of a minority, which I was not used to in Poland. In Poland, everybody is catholic so you don`t have any opportunity of `testing` your values against a different background. The two years I spent in the USA helped me confirm that I actually believed what others had already told me to believe from the start.`

Think twice
Aga thinks that almost every young Polish person has the ambition of spending some time abroad. `But for some, it`s more difficult than for others. Somebody who has a job with high status in Poland may be able to earn more abroad, but he will not enjoy the same status and therefore oftentimes prefers to stay in Poland. Somebody who has started a career to become a lawyer will feel quite uncomfortable exchanging Poland for Ireland to go wash some dishes. Then afterwards having to start all over again in Poland as if they do not have any experience within the field they initially specialised in.`

Bartek (28) has his own company and sees no more need to go abroad. `I am a programmer, so I could easily work wherever I want. But wherever I want is here in Poland, where I feel good. Gosia (28) has the same opinion. `My father works in The Netherlands as an electrical engineer, but he never encouraged me to do the same. We just went there for holidays a couple of times. He himself would also prefer to work in Poland if I could make the same money here as he does there. I think many people make their choice to emigrate based on whether they can really make more money when they work abroad. Some people forget that it`s quite hard to find a job at the level of their educations. I know quite some people who live abroad and work in pubs, but I know few Poles who manage to find proper office jobs that correspond to their level of education. They may have learnt better English, but it is now equally easy for their competitors to learn English while in Poland. The advantage of speaking English fluently used to be an advantage a few years ago. Now, it`s almost taken for granted that young people who apply for an office job can speak proper English.`

Lack of labour
Mieszko (30) thinks that Poland is suffering from the huge emigration. `We are organising the Euro 2012 football tournament, and a lot of infrastructure is still waiting to be built. Unfortunately, most of our manual workers are spending their energy on construction sites elsewhere in Europe, which means that we need to import people from Ukraine or even China to get the jobs done. We are also waiting for people to come back and share their new ideas about management with us. The Polish management style is still traditional, conventional and hierarchical, even in foreign companies. Most of those will only send in a couple of foreign managers to keep an eye out on the general operations. They train locals to do their jobs and then return to their countries of origin. Some more foreign influence would probably take the sharp edges off the Polish way of organising companies.`

Wojtek (21) knows that money is the main motivation for young Poles to go abroad. He does think that it`s also possible to become rich without leaving Poland. `Opportunities depend on people`s specializations. If you work within IT, as an entrepreneur, as a lawyer or a doctor in the private sector, you can earn some good money. Polish Politicians are usually also rich and so are people who work in the banking sector. Whoever chooses the right profession and knows the right people can make a good career without having to go abroad first. I myself am in a somewhat different position. I study geology and I have not yet spent too much thoughts on whether to spend some time abroad or not.`

Staying home
Asia (18) works in a pub but is by no means planning to do the same in another country. `I learnt French, and I enjoy whenever I have an opportunity to speak it. But I love Poland and I don`t want to live anywhere else for now. Kasia (19) shares Asia`s opinion. `I have a couple of friends who left abroad. I will try to stay in touch with them until the moment they come back. Which is hopefully sooner than later.`

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