Warsaw, Poland Report of what it's like to live there - 03/24/16
Personal Experiences from Warsaw, Poland
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Colchester, England; La Paz, Bolivia; Guatemala City, Guatemala; Lusaka, Zambia; San Salvador, El Salvador; Prague, Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria.
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. Usually layovers are in Frankfurt (when the government is paying) or Amsterdam (when we pay our own way). There are direct flights to Chicago and New York City on LOT, the Polish national airline, and probably a couple of others.
3. How long have you lived here?
Since summer 2015, the total will be two years at this post.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
U.S. Foreign Service family member.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Diplomats and other expats are spread out, mostly from the center of the city going southward to the suburbs of Wilanow and Konstancjin. The American school is located in Konstancjin, so many families live there, although that is not the only school that expats use, by any means. The houses are big out in that area.
We live in Srodmiescie, very close to the American embassy. It is a ten-minute walk for us. If you live Konstancjin, I hear the commute by car can be up to 45 minutes each way. It really is a long way outside the city. Public transportation is good, but takes longer than driving because it is primarily buses going out to the suburbs.
Other popular suburbs for families (Mokotow, Wilanow, Sadyba, etc.) are basically located between Konstancjin and the city center. Singles and couples tend to live closer in, as we do, in apartments.
In general, there are a lot of options for housing, even for American embassy families, so you just have to balance factors like commutes, yards, size of the houses, etc. and figure out what works for your family.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Everything is available, just maybe not where you first expect to find it. Also, fruits and vegetables are much more seasonal than in the States, and the quality in winter is not that great. But with the exception of a few imported items, everything is very affordable.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We brought good desk chairs and a computer desk. But if you don't ship those, there is always Ikea here. You can get pretty much anything household-related locally.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway, etc. Lots of good Polish and generic "Continental" European restaurants. Really good ethnic restaurants are a little harder to find, but we have had very good Indian and Thai food. Also sushi is a Warsaw thing. Much cheaper than Washington, DC. We eat out a lot :)
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We have not had any problem in town, but I hear that mosquitoes can be a problem out in the suburbs.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We are with the embassy so we can use U.S. mail. But the Polish postal system is very modern, as far as I can tell. We order pet supplies through local mail with no problem.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
I don't employ anyone, but practically everyone else I know has a cleaning lady. I don't know the exact cost, but I am sure it is very affordable, and good help seems to be easy to find.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, and they are affordable. We pay $40 per month per person for Calypso Gym, which is a chain. It's not quite up there with Gold's Gym, but the equipment is OK, and the place is clean. Also, the Poles believe in air conditioning their gyms to at least some degree, which you will appreciate if you have ever previously experienced the joy of un-air conditioned European gyms!
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?
Credit cards (especially with chips) are accepted almost everywhere. ATMs are plentiful, though maybe not quite as common as in the States.
I don't actually carry much cash here because I prefer to use credit cards. Polish stores never have any change for some reason. It's really weird. Cashiers are always begging you for change, and they hate it when you hand them large bills. So, credit cards are much easier, even for small purchases.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
We don't attend church, so I can't be specific, but I know that there are some services.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Many people have practically no Polish and seem to get by just fine. I think it is worth the trouble to learn a little though. Courtesy phrases, numbers and dates, and some relevant vocabulary. While many Poles speak at least a little English (or will go find someone who does), you don't see a great deal of written English here. It's good to be able to read signs, menus, etc.
It is a really tough language, so very few people even come close to really speaking it as a second language. But if you want to try, there are several language schools and for Embassy personnel, the post language program is good.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Not handicapped friendly at all, and lots of walking is required. Not all buildings have elevators. Old people seem to get around pretty well with canes and walkers, but I can't remember seeing a single wheelchair on the street, ever. That said, taxis and Uber are cheap and plentiful.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, yes, yes. Very good public transit on the whole. I buy a 90-day pass which I never have to pull out again except to renew it. I just hop on and hop off wherever I want to go. It's a great and convenient system.
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?
Don't bring a huge vehicle because you will have trouble parking it. Parking garages are tight, and street parking is both somewhat chaotic and very tight. You will refine your parallel parking skills here. For driving outside the city, almost any car will work: the roads are not that great, but they are not third world bad. All-weather tires are a good plan.
I also would not bring a very expensive car because it you will very likely see it get dinged up due to the parking situation, or to aggressive Polish drivers.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
We have really good internet for about US$80 per month. That's a fair amount, but we watch almost all our TV that way, so it's worth it to us. Quality of internet depends on which company serves your area, so it's worth asking about that before renting a place or accepting a housing assignment. (We use UPC and have been satisfied with it.)
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I actually tried using a local plan but it was such a hassle--too many options and spam messages and all in Polish--that I just reverted to using my US account. I have T-Mobile which gives me free texting and data in Europe and 20 cents a minute for calls. Since I mostly use texting and internet anyway, this works out much better. Local businesses don't seem to have a problem calling my U.S. number.
If you have a home country plan that allows cheap calls and free data in Poland, I'd recommend trying that before fooling with a local plan.
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?
No quarantine. I have been to the vet once, and would describe it as adequate. Very cheap though.
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?
My impression is that there are some opportunities, but the pay is not that great. I do not know any expat spouses that work full-time on the local economy. I know several who are self-employed, teaching classes of one kind or another or telecommuting.
Many US embassy spouses are employed at the mission. MGMT here does a good job with that. However, the jobs are all the usual underpaid EFM positions.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots of opportunities with the groups above. I don't know about many charitable opportunities, but I am sure there are some.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
At work, just like the States. On the streets, people dress maybe a little more formally than Americans, except for in the (brief) summer, when they dress exactly like Americans. Shorts, sandals, t-shirts, sundresses.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
I feel very safe here. There are property crimes, like breaking into cars, and I have heard of some burglaries, but violent crime is very low.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
I've been happy with the health and dental care so far, though I fortunately haven't needed much. Dental and orthodontic care is considered to be a major bargain.
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?
It is not bad in the summer, but pretty unhealthy in the winter due to automobiles and coal smoke. AQI can get up to about 200 for pm2 in the winter. It's not up there with places like Beijing or Delhi, by any means, but I am not the only person I know who has developed a persistent cough. Bronchitis is pretty common. I eventually ended up using a daily inhaler due to "reactive airways" which I never had until moving here.
I have heard that they are banning coal fires so eventually it will get better, but it will take a while. They still sell portable home coal heaters at the hardware store as of this writing.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I don't know anything about food allergies. Seasonal allergies can be a problem because of all the flowering trees in Europe in the spring. Also, central air conditioning is pretty rare, so you won't get the filtering that you would in the States. We run portable air filters year-round in our apartment for that reason.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Short, but hot, summer (at least last summer was like this) and very long winter.
Do not underestimate the winters here. I thought after Prague and Vienna I would be ready, but this is worse. It's about as cold as you might expect--comparable to northern Germany, etc.--but there really is VERY little sunlight here from October-April. The days are short, and there is heavy cloud cover most of the time. Be ready to take vitamin D, use a "happy lamp" and to take a trip somewhere sunnier at least once during the winter for your own sanity.
I knew I was somewhat susceptible to SAD, but I was surprised by how much I was affected. I know many people have had a similar experience. On the positive side--lots of cheap flights to warmer places!
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
My kids are grown, but I know that people are generally happy with both the American school and the British school. I really don't know anything about other schools, but I know there are a variety of options available in English and other languages.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge expat community, morale generally good, though not great (especially in winter!) There are several expat organizations which help a lot. I belong to the International Women's Group of Warsaw (which is not limited to women, though it is mostly women) and participate in several activities through that group. There is also an American Friends of Warsaw group that is equally active. I am sure there are other organizations targeting other groups of expats, I just haven't explored it any further.
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?
Dining out, primarily. In the American embassy community there are happy hours, wine nights, trivia nights, CLO coffees, etc. The expat organizations also arrange dinners, wine and cheese events, and tours. I have been pretty busy here.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families seem pretty happy here due in part to the school community. I think it's a pretty good place for everyone--with the caveat that job opportunities are not that great for spouses who wish to work due in part to the high language hurdle.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Poland is a very conservative Catholic country, so I can't imagine it would be the best place to be gay. There was a rainbow sculpture in a plaza near our apartment that was torn down several times because some people thought it was an LGBT thing. However, I know some gay people here who do just fine while keeping a low profile.
I guess I would just recommend that gay people thinking about moving here do some research first: don't assume that it is just like any Western European city in this regard.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. Poland is 98 percent white, nearly that percentage "ethnically Polish" and nearly all Catholic. They just aren't that used to anyone who is different. And some, of course, are just plain racist. However, there are a few people of other colors/ethnicities in Warsaw.
I am white, so I have no personal experience with prejudice. However, I am pretty sure that if you look different here, you can at least expect to be stared at sometimes. And there IS a significant right-wing nationalist movement going on here at the moment. So, take all that into account.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Warsaw has a fascinating history, and we have really enjoyed learning about it. There are some good travel opportunities within the country. Very comfortable express trains go to Krakow, Wroclaw, and Gdansk, with more routes on the way. Polish people are very friendly to Americans and generally more open and polite than many other Central or Eastern Europeans.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are more museums that you might think, and they are very well done with lots of English translations. The Warsaw Uprising museum is fabulous, and the new Museum of Polish Jews is excellent as well. Lots of smaller museums with changing exhibitions. We just visited the Ethnographic Museum and had a blast. Warsaw in Your Pocket is probably the best resource for these (magazine and website) - check it out.
Warsaw also has some lovely, well-kept parks if you like to walk and hike. There are hiking/biking opportunities outside of the city, but unfortunately it is very difficult to find any English-language information about them.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Polish pottery, amber jewelry, basketry, local art. It's not the greatest shopping country, as far as unique items go, but there are some nice things.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Poland is very affordable at this time. It is also relatively undiscovered by tourists (except for Krakow, which is totally overrun by package tours). As far as day-to-day living, we eat and entertain ourselves very inexpensively. There are lots of cheap flights to other destinations in Europe from Warsaw.
10. Can you save money?
Yes, unless you blow it all on travel. Ask me how I know this. :)
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How very, very long the winter would be! Otherwise, it has been pretty much as I expected--but I have lived in two other countries in the region before. If I had not, I guess I would have wanted to know that it is not the same as western Europe. There are many things in common, but despite the shiny buildings in central Warsaw, don't expect it to be Germany. It isn't quite there yet, and sometimes that can be frustrating.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I think it is a good post, on the whole. I did not know how hard the winter and the pollution would be for me personally, and if I had, I might not have come. We are leaving after two years, and that will definitely be enough for me. However, I would say that if you are OK with a really LONG DARK winter and do not have a history of respiratory issues, it can be a very good post. I know many people who love it.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Flip-flops and sunscreen.
4. But don't forget your:
Really warm coat and boots!
5. Do you have any other comments?
I have a blog with travel articles and lots of photos of Poland at http://wellthatwasdifferent.com.