Warsaw, Poland Report of what it's like to live there - 09/28/19
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?
First post as an expat for work. Previous experience living abroad had been for studies (all Western Europe).
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?
Canada. There's an 8.5-hour direct flight from Toronto to Warsaw. Other Canadian cities require a connection, usually through Toronto, Brussels, London, Amsterdam or Frankfurt.
3. How long have you lived here?
One and a half years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing was provided by the embassy. Many diplomatic families live in houses in a commuter district of Warsaw. From the city center, it's a 20-40 min drive (depending on traffic), 40-min bus or 30-min bike ride. Younger and/or single diplomats may prefer to live in an apartment closer to the city center.. There are many new/modern condo-style apartments available. Housing is generally larger and newer than what you would expect in most other European capitals (a consequence of Warsaw being completely destroyed in WWII and therefore "recently" rebuilt).
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries and household supplies are generally cheaper than in Canada. A sales tax (VAT) of either 8% (for food and food-service) or 23% (for alcohol and most other non-food goods and services) applies; however, diplomats can apply for a quarterly VAT refund.
Product availability differs compared to Canada. For some products, Poland has more variety, e.g. for groats ("kasza"), pierogi, sausage (kielbasa), pickled vegetables. For other products, selection is very limited, especially "international" foods. Vegan, lactose-free and gluten-free products are readily available in Warsaw. Large supermarkets ("hipermarkets") have similar product availability as typical Canadian grocery stores. These are generally found in shopping malls ("galeria" or "centrum handlowe") throughout Warsaw. Specialty international foods and ingredients may be found at Kuchnie ?wiata (international food store). It's also possible to order groceries online and have them delivered directly to your home.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Maple syrup, protein bars, Asian spices and sauces, cream of tartar, and vanilla extract.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Restaurants, coffee shops, food festivals and stalls (both one-off and more permanent/established), breakfast markets, and food halls are all widely available in Warsaw. Food delivery apps like UberEats and Pyszne are also very popular and reliable. There is a wide range of restaurants available, including Italian, Japanese, Thai, American, Spanish, but also other types that are not commonly found in Canada like Georgian, Uzbek, and (of course) Polish.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Diplomatic mail bag arranged by the embassy. The local postal system (Poczta Polska) is cheap and relatively reliable, though there are often long queues at their offices when you need to drop off or pick up registered mail.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is cheaper than in Canada, but not at cheap as in many other parts of the world. Many expatriates employ a weekly house cleaner for about 50 PLN/hour. Cleaners are often Ukrainian, not Polish, and so a language barrier may exist.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are readily available, including at popular chains like McFit and Zdrofit. Other sports facilities include: tennis, badminton, dance, yoga/pilates, basketball (indoor and outdoor), soccer/football (indoor and outdoor), swimming pools, ice hockey, ice skating and curling.
Gym memberships typically range around 100-150 PLN/month. Other facilities rentals vary by sport. However, many companies in Warsaw offer a MultiSport card as a benefit program, which grants free and/or discounted memberships and facilities rentals around all of Poland.
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 are widely accepted, including with "tap" features. ATMs are common and safe to use.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It is possible to get by with English only; however, many people (especially those born before 1990) do not speak English at all. Signage and announcements around the city are typically in Polish only. Government services, like the tax office, do not offer services in English. Official government forms for taxes, social assistance, etc. are also exclusively in Polish. It is recommended to learn the Polish alphabet and basic words/phrases help significantly when doing groceries, giving directions, and asking for help.
Local language classes/tutors are readily available. In Warsaw, I would personally recommend: IKO Institute of Polish for Foreigners, Polski Instytut J?zykowy ("Frog"), and European Academy of Diplomacy's "Polish for Diplomats" course.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, local public transit is very safe, reliable (timely) and affordable. ZTM offers single tickets for 3.40 PLN and monthly passes for 110 PLN (and 3-month tickets are even cheaper).
The Warsaw transit system consists of 2 metro lines, trams, buses, and local trains. In the summer, "Veturilo" city bikes are extremely popular and cheap (free for the first 20 mins, 1 PLN for the next 20 mins, 2 PLN for the next 20 mins, and so on). The app "Jakdojade" is very handy for figuring out bus schedules/routes, and in 2018, ZTM GPS data was finally available in GoogleMaps.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High-speed home internet is readily available and does not take long to install at all. No issues.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I brought an unlocked Canadian phone and used a local SIM card from Orange Polska. Local providers are cheaper than in Canada (though to be fair, almost anywhere is cheaper than Canada). For example, Orange offers 55 PLN/month for unlimited data. You also get a certain % of your data available for roaming in other EU countries at no additional cost.
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?
Local salary levels are about 1/3 what they would be in Canada, for the same job/type of work. Many local spouses of Canadian embassy employees did not work. Those that did either teleworked from Canada (if possible), went back to school, or (for those with EU citizenship) worked full-time in the local labour market as language teachers or in the corporate/private sector.
Warsaw is an operations hub for many international/multinational companies and is eager to hire English-speaking workers. Other language skills are also highly-sought (Spanish, German, French, etc.). Polish is often not required. However, a work permit is normally required, and the process to obtain one can be burdensome. Unemployment in Poland, and especially in Warsaw, is extremely low.
Of course, the low salary level (compared to Canada) acts as a disincentive to work for some Canadian spouses. In our case, the spouse was a young professional and eager to work for the experience and career advancing opportunities, more than the salary. The spouse's local salary was sufficient for local expenses like groceries, eating out, recreation/entertainment, and travel, while the Canadian embassy employee's salary covered rent, utilities, credit card bills, and savings.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are many international/expat organizations as well as religious (mainly Catholic) organizations, which may offer volunteer opportunities.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
People in Warsaw are fairly well-dressed (European-style). Women often wear high heels. People certainly dress up more than they would in Canada.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
The political climate in Poland is increasingly intolerant towards immigrants and racial minorities. Non-white employees at the embassy were advised to avoid parades/protests on national holidays, such as Independence Day (November 11). The Praga district has historically been known to be the "rougher" side of Warsaw; however, it is gentrifying and has becoming noticeable safer in recent years.
Beware of intoxicated soccer/football fans on game names, especially around the Legia stadium.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
No major health concerns except air pollution (see next question). Good quality medical care in English is available at some private clinics.
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 pollution is a huge (and surprisingly not internationally-known) problem in Poland, and especially in major cities like Warsaw and Krakow. This is due to burning coal for fuel, as well as the widespread use of diesel cars. The air pollution is especially bad in the winter months (often at similar levels to Beijing). Embassy employees have air purifiers in their homes. It is also becoming increasingly common to wear smog masks in the winter, particularly among cyclists.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Ingredients lists on food items are often only available in Polish. Even when the original packaging listed the ingredients in English or another language, it will be covered with a Polish-language sticker.
That said, vegan, lactose-free, and (increasingly) gluten-free food options are becoming increasingly common. However, peanut/nut labelling is rare.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
S.A.D. (winter blues) tend to crop up in the winter months, from November to March, as the days are short and the weather is overcast/grey. You rarely see the sun in the wintertime. Polish people recommend taking vacation outside the country in November and February, which are decidely the least festive and most depressing winter months.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Moderate to hot in the summer (20-30 degrees Celsius) with mostly sunny days and occasional thunderstorms. Mildy cold in the winter (-10 degrees Celsius) with overcast/cloudy skies and limited sunlight. Snow tends to melt shortly after falling.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
British, French and American schools are available.
2. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, check out the website "Kids in the City - Warsaw" for ideas!
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There is a growing expat community in Warsaw, particularly among young professionals from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and other European countries with high unemployment rate. Morale among expats is generally good, especially as there are so many festivals/events/activities happening all the time. Among Canadian diplomats, as Warsaw is not considered a hardship post, diplomats do not stick to themselves that much, and most enjoy branching out and making friends with other expats and locals alike.
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?
Attending festivals, events and activities. Participating in sports. Working with locals. Joining language tandems and pub trivia nights. There are expat groups on Facebook, including the very popular "Warsaw Social". Another great resource is the website "Odd Urban Things Warsaw".
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes, it's good for single people (Tinder is popular!), couples and families alike. Lots of events and activities for people of all ages. Relatively safe. Young, vibrant population, especially as young people from smaller Polish cities and from other European countries move here.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Same-sex marriage is illegal in Poland. The Catholic Church has a lot of political power, including on public opinion toward homosexuality. Discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is very present. There have been recent reports of violence against Pride Parade participants in Bialystok (though not in Warsaw). Warsaw is probably the most liberal city in Poland in this regard.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Yes, it is easy to make friends with locals, especially young people as they tend to have better English skills.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
The Polish population is extremely homogeneous and the current political climate is generally unfriendly to minorities, especially non-white minorities, and ESPECIALLY against Muslims. Individuals who wear non-Christian religious garments, such as turbans, hijabs or burkas, are rarely seen and may draw attention or be subject to outright discrimination by some locals. In terms of women's rights, abortion is illegal.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Exploring the city by the (virtually) free city bikes. Visiting the Mazuria region (cottage/cabin country) in Poland. Discovering fruit and sweet cheese pierogi. Visiting the geological side of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Spending summer nights drinking by the Wisla river.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Attend the events recommended by "Odd Urban Things - Warsaw" (website). The Uzbek restaurant "Manty" is definitely a hidden gem.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Clothes shopping is quite good, particularly at Galeria Mokotow (designer section). Local Polish pottery is also a popular souvenir item, as are flavoured Polish vodkas.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Excellent public transit. Safe city. Tons of festivals/museums/things to do. Vibrant restaurant/bar scene. Mild winters (for a Canadian). Affordable.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I had known how bad the air pollution is.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, but I would have brought proper air masks with me and been better prepared.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Home country's alcohol, and get to know the world of Polish vodkas.
4. But don't forget your:
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"God's Playground" by Norman Davies, as well as the films "The Pianist" and "Zimna Wojna (Cold War)".
6. Do you have any other comments?