Warsaw, Poland Report of what it's like to live there - 11/25/14

Personal Experiences from Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland 11/25/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. Lived in other cities in Europe and Latin America.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, DC. There are no direct flights to Washington. The only direct flights to the U.S. are on LOT Polish Airways to Chicago and New York. Travel typically involves transiting through another European city such as Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam, London, etc. I've never flown on the LOT flights to the U.S. but hear they are fine.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Arrived in June 2010.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Embassy and private sector.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Warsaw housing mostly consists of apartments and townhouses, with a sprinkling of single-family homes in the outer suburbs where a lot of expats live. You have the whole spectrum to choose from. Yards/gardens are generally small though since space is at a premium.

There are many great apartments in the central part of the city, though they tend to be on the smaller side and don't offer a lot of closet space. If you want bigger you must be prepared to pay for it.

As mentioned, most expats (typically those with families) choose to live in the outer suburbs such as Wilanow, Ursynow and Konstancin since it's closer to the American School. Traffic can be heavy during peak rush hours in the morning or evenings but otherwise it's not too bad. I've had to live with much worse traffic in the Washington, DC area and New York City!

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

The grocery stores here are well-stocked and you can find pretty much whatever you need. They also have a growing number of "international food" aisles so you can get whatever you need if you want to make a variety of ethnic dishes. There are huge foreign chains such as TESCO, LeClerc, Carrefour and Auchan. They rival any Walmart super store in the US (for what that's worth), and they also have a lot of smaller Polish and European chains as well. They offer everything from food to household supplies to electronics and clothing. Used to be that peanut butter was hard to find but they have that as well now. No problem getting fresh fruits and vegetables either.

The cost of groceries is much less overall than in the U.S., which goes along with just about everything else in terms of prices when it comes to food. I'm always amazed at how little my cart full of groceries costs me, and then shocked when I see the total price for that same cart of food back in Maryland.

In terms of household supplies, they have every kind of cleaning supply and toiletry/personal care item you could possibly think of. Razor blades are as expensive here as they are in the U.S., for example, but everything else is pretty much less expensive.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Let's see - as I mentioned, you can get just about anything you want or need here. Some comfort foods from home would be helpful but I really can't think of anything I just HAD to have and couldn't find.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

You have the full range of restaurants here and the variety improves weekly. Most expats will tell you that you can get any kind of food you want here, which is true. Polish food is great though you won't lose any weight eating it! Portion sizes are generally huge. I often joke that I can get any kind of food here except good Mexican food. Pol-Mex just doesn't cut it no matter how hard some of the Mexican restaurants try. There is a growing number of great Asian restaurants, especially Thai, and the quality is surprisingly very good. Hamburger bars are all the rage these days, and it seems you can't swing a dead cat and not hit a burger joint of one kind or another.

When it comes to fast food, you have it all here. Poles adore their KFC so you see them everywhere, and McDonald's has around 350 restaurants in Poland with new locations being added every week. I'm not sure if that's a good thing for the Polish diet but I can say that when it comes to McDonald's here they're the cleanest, brightest and liveliest McDonald's you'll ever see. Burger King, Pizza Hut, Domino's - they're all here. Not so sure if that's good for the overall state of Polish nutrition but it is what it is.

As mentioned previously, prices are about half of what you'd pay in the US and Western Europe, in general, and it gets cheaper the further you get from the big city.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

There can be lots of flying insects in the summer months, particularly after long periods of heavy rain. Mosquitoes can be particularly aggressive. Otherwise there really aren't a lot of problems with insects. You must be particularly attentive to ticks though, especially if you walk in the many parks and green areas of the city. Dogs are obviously also at risk.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

When I was at the Embassy I used the unclassified pouch and DPO. Since I left government service and work in the private sector I now get mail through the company pouch, which limits the size and type of mail I can send/receive. DHL, FEDEX, UPS are all here but you have to consider the customs charges you might have to pay for things.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Domestic help if readily available and affordable. It's usually best to talk to people around your office and find somebody they recommend. It's not cheap but then if you want cheap you get what you pay for....

Most "panis" don't speak much English so be prepared to pay more for somebody who does.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are many excellent gyms and workout facilities in Warsaw. There are two main chains - Holmes Place and Jatomi, though there is no shortage of other, smaller facilities anywhere you look. You can get anything you want, as the bigger ones offer everything you'd see in the U.S. or other European cities, while the smaller ones can be sparse and the facilities lacking in terms of equipment and cleanliness. They are particularly crowded at certain parts of the day. I belong to one of the nicer gyms and pay around US$100 per month but am very happy with the facilities. Be prepared for a heavy sell by the staff for personal fitness training. They're required to do so as part of their employment contract.

Wodny Park is not to be missed. It's got an Olympic-sized swimming pool (50 meters) to go along with a smaller pool adjacent to it that parents use with their small children. There's also a water slide and "river flow" area to go along with the pool area. There's an outdoor pool in the summer, as well as a Winter Garden for that summer feel in the middle of the harsh winter weather. Finally, you can go to the sauna/steam room/ice room/banya area and get the full range of "biological renewal" you want. They also have a gym, squash courts, cafeteria, restaurant and sports bar. It's centrally located and easy to get to.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

You can use credit cards and ATMs around here very easily. If you bring a credit card I strongly recommend getting one that has the chip in it, as the ones with magnetic strips are increasingly difficult to use in Europe. They're also much more susceptible to being cloned or skimmed. Major stores accept the magnetic strip ones but they're harder to use in restaurants. Lots of credit card companies are dropping the foreign transaction fees they used to charge but be sure to check just in case.

I hear occasional stories of cards being skimmed or cloned so you should always be careful about which ATM you use to withdraw money. It's not as big a problem here as it is in other Central and Eastern European countries. It never hurts to keep a close eye on your bank account just to be sure.

It's quite easy to open a bank account here as a foreigner and I strongly recommend you do so in order to pay bills for various utilities, etc. Electronic bank transfers are quite common here and it will make your life a lot easier. Of course, you may be subject to paying taxes on interest and you must report it to the IRS come tax time, but it's worth the convenience.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There is an English-speaking Catholic church that is quite popular. I'm not sure about other religions.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Of course it never hurts to speak as much of the language as possible, and Poles love it when you try to speak their incredibly difficult language. They're quite proud of how hard it can be to speak Polish. It's always helpful to learn as much as you can before you come here, and there is no shortage of companies and institutes offering Polish for Foreigner classes.

I'm always amazed at how well younger Poles speak English, even those who've never lived in or travelled to an English-speaking country. I suppose it speaks to the universality of the English language. You can almost always find somebody who speaks English, though don't expect most police to speak it unless they work in specialized units. As a rule, I would say that there's a good chance if somebody is under 40 they will most likely speak some English or at least understand you. People older than that were forced to learn Russian, and though most of them speak it, they'll never admit they do. Let's just say that Russia and Russian is not really popular around here, especially these days. They never bothered to learn another language so it helps a lot to speak as much Polish as possible. Even knowing basic numbers and phrases is greatly appreciated.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Overall I would say they would have a hard time though I've seen improvements over the past five years I've lived here. Don't expect ADA requirements widely enforced. There are lots of handicapped parking spaces and the number is growing. Don't make the mistake of intentionally, or unintentionally, parking in a handicapped space because you'll be quickly towed and made to pay a hefty fine to go along with the towing fees. Sidewalks are uneven and not wheelchair friendly. The Metro system makes a lot of accommodations and it seems Poles in general are helpful to the handicapped. Still, although there are improvements there is still a long way to go.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Local transportation is plentiful, excellent, safe and affordable. I allowed my teenage daughter to ride alone at night on public transportation and she never had a problem. They can be crowded at times but not like the Tube in London or the subway in Tokyo. Taxis are particularly affordable and easy to call from home or anywhere in the city.

I've heard of some rip-off incidents but that usually happens late at night when a dishonest taxi driver posts are higher rate than what is normal. Also, taxis outside of major hotels are generally three times as expensive than regular taxis so don't get caught in that trick bag unless you have no other option. Learn which taxi companies are reliable, have them on speed dial, and you should be fine.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Parking spaces are small here and roads can be narrow, so it's best to avoid bringing a large vehicle if you can help it. Fuel is expensive as well, though if you are a diplomat you will end up paying about as much as you would in the U.S. if you're coming from the States because you get the VAT and excise taxes refunded.

A small SUV would work well here as long as you are prepared to deal with the tight parking spaces. American cars are quite common here and there aren't any restrictions when it comes to bringing one from the States. Of course, if you're a diplomat check with your embassy. It's quite easy to buy a new or used car here and departing diplomats and expats are always looking to sell their cars.

Good service is readily available here. If you want to take it to the dealer and have it worked on by a certified Ford/Chevy/Chrysler (whatever) dealer you can have it done here but be prepared to be gouged at the same rate you would in the U.S. There are many highly competent service locations that can do the same work, or better, for much less. Parts are also readily available as well. Your embassy/company should be able to help you out on this.

Carjackings are almost unheard of here. I've been here almost five years but don't recall hearing of a single carjacking incident in Poland during that time. What I have heard of, and had to deal with, is cars being broken into if thieves see something of potential value in plain view inside the car. GPS, bags, backpacks, cell phones, etc. offer a tempting opportunity. It's definitely a hassle to deal with a broken window anywhere in the world, and Poland is no different. Dealing with the police on this kind of a matter will eat up a LOT of your time and will only be helpful in terms of getting the report for the insurance claim. Don't expect them to solve the crime. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure - don't leave anything of value visible in the car. Leave it in the trunk/boot of the car when at all possible.

Speaking of cars - I heard a lot of people complain about Polish driving before I got here. Obviously those complainers had never lived or driven in Latin America or many other parts of the world. I find Polish drivers are generally safe and responsible, and drive as well here as they do in North America or other parts of Europe. That being said, I'm constantly amazed at some of the ridiculous and discourteous driving habits I've seen here. Poles are not always the most helpful when it comes to allowing you to change lanes ahead of them, particularly when it requires merging in heavy traffic. On the other hand, I like the way Poles will give a quick blink of the emergency lights to those drivers who allow them to merge in or otherwise make their drive easier. On one hand they can be courteous and at other times they can be madly impatient or impolite, sometimes exceedingly so.

Probably the biggest threat to your safety in Poland comes not from crime but from driving out on the two-lane highways in this country. Be prepared for high-stakes games of "chicken" when driving at higher speeds, as people always seem to be in a rush to get around heavy trucks that tend to stack up along the highway and slow down traffic. I've seen countless numbers of high-speed near misses in my time here - ones that make me shake me head and shiver when I think about how close I came to a head-on collision no matter how safely I was trying to drive. I've also driven past the results of these collisions and it's not pretty. The papers are filled with endless stories of horrible crashes and it's particularly dangerous around major holidays when Poles take to the road en masse to go see their families. I read once that Poland has one of the highest vehicle fatality rates in Europe. Forewarned is forearmed!!!!!

Another odd quirk about driving in Poland is that it's quite common for traffic on the right to have the right of way at intersections. I know this is common in most countries but for some reason Poland extends it to times when you'd think you had the right of way driving along a major road, and somebody coming from a small side-street legally has the right of way and will come darting out right in front of you. I've seen lots of diplomats and expats end up in fender benders that were their fault because of this.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Internet access is readily available thought it usually requires a long-term contract. All the same providers for cell phones offer internet. UPC, Orange, etc. seem to be the most common. You can get very high speed if you want. My internet costs me about US$30 per month for 10 mb of speed, which is usually all I need.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Cell phones are also very affordable and plans are inexpensive. You could get a calling plan but, as in most other countries, it usually requires a two-year contract, etc. It's quite easy to buy a phone and a SIM card here and then just "top off" your account as needed. You can purchase minutes at just about any gas station or other store, but can also do so through that local bank account I talked about earlier. So many ways, and so cheap and easy. Lots of providers here eager for your business, such as Orange, Play, T-Mobile, etc. iPhones are popular but then so are Samsung and others. You can get anything you want here.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

Pet care is readily available and there are all kinds of people willing to watch your pets for you and take care of them. Veterinary care is also plentiful, good, and reasonably priced. Again, I wish I could get the same level of high-quality care at these prices here than I get in the States. Poles love animals and take good care of them.

Boarding pets in a kennel is also quite easy to do here and they offer a lot of great care and attention for the animal.

Pets don't need to be quarantined and getting them here is relatively easy as long as you can figure out the airlines' most recent policies.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Unless you have a work permit here it's pretty much impossible for expats to work legally on the local economy. I know people who offer English language lessons but they're not getting rich off of it. It's more a way to pass the time as a spouse or to live hand-to-mouth as a young expat living under the radar in Poland.

There are a lot of professional courses and university classes offered in English so this offers a way for spouses to make good use of their time if they can't work.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are all kinds of volunteer opportunities here, usually offered through some of the expat organizations mentioned above. I recommend contacting them for advice and guidance on where to go and how to help.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Poles are generally quite formal at work so expect to wear a suit, or coat and tie for men, and similar dress for women in the office.

In public, Poles dress well overall so if you dress shabbily you can expect to receive shabby treatment. Eurofashion is quite popular here...

I often feel I am in the U.S. when I see the way young people dress out in public with their friends or in school. I can see that the hip hop culture is quite popular here, as are sports jerseys and baseball caps.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The overall crime rate here is very low and I've felt much safer here than in many other U.S. cities for example. The violent crime rate is particularly low, and most of what you see or hear about usually involves alcohol use in the later hours of the day or night. I often ask women if they feel safe walking alone at night here and the almost always say they do feel safe, both on the street and in public transportation.

Poland is still a very homogeneous country, meaning if you don't look like most Poles then you MAY be subject to lots of long stares and sometimes abusive language (usually if the person in question has been drinking). There is a rapidly growing Asian community here (Vietnamese are said to be the largest minority group in Poland), as well as others from North Africa, the Middle East, and Africa.

I'd be lying if I said that racism does not exist here. Nationalist sentiments and a "Poland is for Poles" movement does exist. It is not widespread though but it's always best to exercise caution. Check the various embassy websites to see what their consular officials say about this issue. It also helps to speak with others who've lived here to get their take on things.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

There aren't many serious health concerns, other than seasonal illnesses such as the cold and flu. Medical care is generally pretty good for diplomats and expats, and there are a lot of very skilled and highly-trained medical professionals here. I wish I could get the same high quality dental care and prices in the U.S. that I get here in Poland. I know a lot of people who've chosen to have their children born here in Poland and are quite pleased with the overall level of care and facilities.

There are lots of 24-hour pharmacies here as well, so it's not a problem getting a prescription filled. Expect to have to speak to a pharmacist for just about anything other than band-aids and basic vitamins. They see themselves as quasi-doctors here so you need to explain what the problem is and they'll get it for you from behind their counter.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Air quality in Warsaw is generally very good, though it can sometimes be a bit smoky when people burn their leaves and other brush in the many family-owned small farms/weekend getaway parks within the city. There is not a lot of heavy industry in Warsaw so you don't have to worry about industrial pollution like you might in other large cities of the world.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

There are a lot of trees and weeds here so be prepared for seasonal allergies such as ragweeed, etc. You can get every over-the-counter medicine for allergies.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

This is definitely a four-season climate. Summers are generally warm but not overly humid. It can get hot but the heat waves don't seem to last long. Spring is usually short but beautiful. Autumn is probably the most beautiful season of the year here and seems to last quite long. Winters can be brutal, not so much for the snow and cold but for the long hours of darkness. Even when it's daylight you may not see the sun for weeks, as it is often overcast for long periods.

I've lived in other parts of Europe with similar long and dark days so I'm somewhat used to it. If you're not used to it, be prepared. It definitely affects people's attitudes and outlook on life. You'll notice a definite change, as people seem to just focus on getting through the day and the winter.

Summers are the opposite, which make for great long days and which allow for a lot of after-work activity during the week such as bike rides, walks in the parks, outings with friends, etc. The beer gardens and party atmosphere certainly come out in as soon as the weather allows.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

My experience revolves around the American School of Warsaw. It's an excellent school overall and I had a very good experience with my child going to high school there. The facility itself is top-notch. The classrooms are nice, and they have everything else - labs, performing arts area, sports facilities, cafeteria, etc. One look at it and it pretty much sells itself. Security at the school is very good as well.

I've had other friends send their children to the British School and they all seem very happy with it. It's smaller but I've been told the academics are challenging, the teachers are very good, and the administration very supportive. They are located closer into the city, in the facilities that used to house the American School before it relocated to Konstancin. Security at the school is also very good.

There are other American schools but I've heard mixed reviews. I recommend you seek out parents who send their kids there for their opinion. I know there are other schools for different languages, such as the French, German and Russian schools but they are small and generally serve their respective diplomatic communities. I can't comment on their quality.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I believe this varies quite a bit. The American and British Schools reportedly offer different accommodations but I can't comment personally. I've heard they offer certain things such as extra time for test-taking, etc. Best to look for other input from parents with direct experience.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

There are lots of preschools and daycare facilities. I generally hear very good things about them but can't comment from first-hand experience.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, though they aren't always given in English. I have lots of friends who enroll their kids in martial arts classes and other such activities to include hockey, basketball, and even baseball out at the American School. Opportunities exist for soccer/football and other popular sports.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The expat community is quite large here - lots of diplomats, Eurocrats and business people. I would say the morale is excellent, as there is a lot to see and do and people are generally very friendly and happy with the way things are. There are lots of organizations for expats here, with the usual assortment of international women's clubs, American Friends of Warsaw, Hash House Harriers, etc.

There is so much to see and do, and Poland is so much more cosmopolitan these days than in the past, that people don't necessarily see or feel a need to seek out and hang out exclusively with other expats.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Again, no shortage of restaurants, clubs, movie theaters,etc. in Warsaw. You are only limited by your imagination and how extroverted you want to be. People often host parties at their homes but it's not like other countries where entertainment options are limited outside the house.

There are several expat bars where English is commonly spoken, and which are popular places to go watch certain sports on a big screen. Several bars show American football on Sunday evenings, and of course there is always no limit to the amount of soccer/football being show on TV at any time.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

This is a great city for everybody. Poles are very family-oriented and it's reflected in the many things to do around the city. You'll see large, extended families out doing things all the time, and family walks on the weekend are a great Polish tradition.

Singles are also very happy here, as there is a lively bar/restaurant/club scene if that's what you like, but also many other things to do if you are looking for something else. There is definitely no shortage of opportunities to meet other singles. Couples also seem happy here for the same reason. There is no lack of things to do and no lack of entertainment and recreation opportunities.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I've been told there is a lively gay scene here but it's definitely underground for the most part. The Polish Catholic Church is vocally opposed to homosexuality and the general public's attitude towards this can is reflected in the many times the rainbow arch at Plac Zbawiciela has been burned down over the past few years.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Generally no, though as I mentioned I'd be lying if I said racism does not exist. See my earlier comments.

The Catholic Church is extremely influential here and it's not at all uncommon to see religious symbols displayed in public buildings. No city hall or police station is complete without a crucifix on the wall - usually more than one. Catholic religious education is also taught in public schools, if that tells you anything. I'm not aware of other religions having that same access in the schools.

Although you do see Muslims in the city they are a small minority and I believe there is only one mosque in all of Warsaw, which pretty much appears to exist to serve the diplomatic community. I know there was another one people were trying to build but there was a lot of opposition to it.

I also think there is only one functioning synagogue in Warsaw. I don't personally hear anti-Semitic comments though it's not uncommon to see negative stereotypes of Jewish money counters on display in Old Town or other areas where artwork and crafts are sold.

As a man, I can say that it seems women generally enjoy a lot of equality overall thought it's definitely still pretty much a male-dominated society in many ways.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

I've loved being able to explore the country and get to know the country much better. There is always something to see and do, both during the week and on the weekends. There are great museums that regularly host temporary exhibits.

I've also enjoyed getting to know the Poles are learning more about their culture. Easter is a very special time here, and they greatly value their family life.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

It's hard to know where to start. Warsaw is a very "green" city in terms of parks and other outdoor areas. They truly appreciate a good walk in the woods, in other green areas, and along the river front. I think this is an escape from cramped apartments and the concrete blocks of the old communist housing estates that still dominate a lot of the city.

The Old Town/New Town area is always nice to visit, as is a stroll along Nowy Swiat. Beer gardens in the summer dot the city and that's always a lively scene in warmer weather. The city is doing a great job of developing the river front along both sides of the Vistula and they try to keep it "wild" while still offering improved beaches and recreation areas for the masses.

Visit the many museums in Warsaw, as they place a great premium on them. The Uprising Museum is a must. Also, you can always take advantage of Lazienki Park and the many different areas to stroll around.

Go to a Legia Warszawa soccer/football match but don't make the mistake of showing up wearing the colors of the other team! Be sure to pick up a Legia scarf or t-shirt and you'll suddenly have a hundred new friends to hang out with at the game.

Visit the many forests and parks on the outskirts of Warsaw - Kabaty Forest is great all year around, and Kampinos National Park offers a lot of variety when it comes to hiking, biking, etc. There are also excellent bike paths, paved as well as dirt roads, along the Vistula on both sides and you can ride all you want all around the city.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Polish crafts, pottery, and artwork are excellent and highly sought after. You can also spend your saved money on ski trips to the Tatras or summer weekends in Gdansk and the Tri-Cities.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Poland is a beautiful country with a wide variety of geographic diversity - it's not always as flat and open as popular culture in the U.S. suggests. The Tatra Mountains in the southern part of the country are beautiful and offer many different activities and cultural adventures. The lake district in Mazuria is also beautiful and can be reached by car from Warsaw in just a few hours. The Baltic coast in the north offers many different seaside resorts and beachgoing opportunities. Gdansk is a great city to visit.

Poland is loaded with castles, estate homes and many other historical wonders. You could spend your whole time here visiting castles, monasteries, etc.

Sadly, it also has a lot of Holocaust sites which are truly worth visiting in order to fully appreciate what happened here. The new Museum of Polish Jewish History (POLIN) is proving to be very popular and is receiving rave reviews.

Warsaw is central to so many other parts of Europe so if you want to see the rest of the continent it's readily available at relatively low cost if you fly. The drive to Berlin now takes about 4-5 hours, though you'll get tired of having to stop all the time for the toll booths. The train takes about the same amount of time.

The cost of living here is still very low, especially when compared to other European cities. It gets even cheaper when you travel outside of the bigger cities.

The weather is generally great three seasons of the year. I've seen long, cold winters, and relatively mild winters here. Every one seems different. You must get used to the short hours of daylight in winter, as it can be pitch black by 4pm at the height of the winter season. Of course, the summers are opposite so it evens out.

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10. Can you save money?

Generally yes, assuming you don't blow it all on beer gardens, weekend trips around Poland and the rest of Europe, and eating out every night. Prices are generally much lower and life is very affordable here. You may not get a huge differential for here if you're from an embassy but you definitely save money by not having to pay the 23% VAT!

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

I thought I had a good understanding of Polish history but when I got here I quickly realized how much I didn't know. I strongly encourage people to learn as much as they can about Poland before coming, and not just Polish history from 1918 onward. The past resonates strongly here and the Poles are rightly proud of their past and their culture. They've needed it to survive as well as they have under very difficult conditions.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Impression that Poland is a flat, communist country where people stand in line all day for basic goods. Life is not lived in a black and white picture here, as many friends and families seemed to think (jokingly) when I told them where I was going. "You're going to Poland? Be careful there." Or, "Warsaw? I hear Krakow is nice." It's a beautiful country with great people, and you live a very good life here and do many interesting things.

There are still some vestiges of the communist past here, and not just in the concrete jungles of the housing estates. The bureaucracy can be mind-numbing at times, and sometimes the level of customer service in certain places leaves a lot to be desired. For some reason, cashiers seem to think they're doing you a HUGE favor by taking your money and they get downright nasty sometimes if you don't have the exact amount of zlotys and groszy the want/need. Somehow making change is a problem for them. I used to see this in Moscow but I never thought it would extend to Warsaw. The police, although generally very professional and proud of their work, can be less than helpful at times and I've heard countless stories of times when people were victimized twice - one by the criminal and the next by the police who came to interview and investigate. Older people, who lived most of their lives under communism and the social safety net it offered, are quick to offer a lot of unsolicited advice and are also quick to provide a stern lecture on something you're doing that they don't like. Some things take a few generations to change...

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4. But don't forget your:

Optimism and patience. Be ready for the dark and gloomy days of winter, and be patient when it comes to driving and getting around town.

Poles will be the first to tell you they are the world's biggest and best complainers. It won't take long for this to manifest itself once you're here. Perhaps it's what made them ultimately successful in their fight against communism. So, be patient when it comes to learning how to deal with this and why they are this way.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Poland: A Novel is a popular book that covers a lot of Polish history in the way only Michener can, although it's a bit outdated now. It could use an updated chapter or two on life in the post-communist age.

A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country is excellent.

Jack Strong (DVD) is also good to watch if you can get your hands on it.

Spies of Warsaw and

Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw are also good books, as is A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II.

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Man of Marble and

Man of Iron are good movies, as are

Katyn and

Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films (A Generation / Kanal / Ashes & Diamonds) (The Criterion Collection)- all of them by Andrzej Wajda.

A really popular and excellent mini-series to watch, if you can get your hands on it, is "Czas Honoru." It tells the story of the Polish underground in Warsaw during the German occupation.

In Darkness is a recent award-winning film by Agnieszka Holland.

There are so many others, but that's a good start.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

This is an exciting time to be coming to Poland - the economy is doing fairly well and Poland increasingly plays a very important role in the EU and in NATO. Poles will tell you that life is better now than it has been in a long time, but then they'll also be quick to tell you how it could be better...

Just about all expats I know who lived here and then left for the next assignment were very sad when leaving and missed Poland greatly once they were gone. Almost all of them have found a way to come back for a visit, and many of them come back routinely even if they live far away. That should tell you something.

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