Warsaw, Poland Report of what it's like to live there - 04/05/08
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?
No, this is my fourth expat experience.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Employee of the U.S. Embassy.
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
From Washington DC to Warsaw, about around 12-13 hours including layovers. There are also daily direct flights from JFK, Newark, and Chicago on Lot. This is a very Star Alliance friendly city, but all your major European airlines fly here too.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Singles and couples without kids normally get apartments within a 10-minute bus ride from the Embassy. Families with children tend to get housing further away near the International School.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Everything you would want (with the exception of Ginger Ale and root beer which is in the commisary) can be found here in any of the major or minor supermarkets in Warsaw/Poland. Poland has great produce, meats, cheeses, and so forth, perhaps some of the best in Europe. Embassy staff has access to the commisary but I cannot understand how people would want to shop there when the same things are available on the local market (and of better quality). Things have gotten more expensive however given the falling dollar.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Car parts and liquids since these things here are VERY expensive. Shoes and clothing should also be brought.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
You want it, you got it! Burger King, McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut (and the better Polish version, Dominium), TGI Fridays, Hard Rock etc. Every kind of ethnic cuisine is available here and most of it is very good (surprisingly the Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine, despite the large number of Vietnamese and Chinese, isn't that good). Mexican food can be hit or miss at times (Unfortunately Taco Bell closed here several years ago). By far the best food in town is Polish food. I came here thinking I was going to lose weight...WRONG!!! Great coffee shops can be found on every corner. Starbucks is supposed to open up here this year, but quite honestly, WHY?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
APO, DPO and pouch are all available. In addition, Polish mail is pretty reliable.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We don't have anyone yet, but folks here employ local panies for around 15 zl an hour and up.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Can be used everywhere.
4. What English-language religious services are available locally?
All kinds I believe for all of your religious groups.
5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
On cable TV you can find BBC, CNN, MTV, Turner Classic Movies and other channels (I have heard they have Comedy Central here, but only in Polish...DOOH!!!). USA Today, Newsweek, Time, International Herald Tribune and other major English media is widely available.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
While many young people speak English, you will win many more friends and have better conversations by learning Polish.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Uneven roads and pavement, however I have seen people in wheelchairs and crutches navigate themselves around.
1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?
Right side, but when driving outside of Warsaw/major cities, it is anything goes when passing cars. Cars are allowed to drive in the oncoming traffic lane when passing cars and oncoming traffic has to yield to the cars that are passing. Sometimes you will have a car passing another car being passed by yet another car-all while another car is coming towards you going 100km an hour. Do not blink during these moments.
2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes but be very careful when taking buses since bus drivers will slam on the brakes and gas/cut shartp turns for no known reason whatsoever. I was thrown from my seat one time when the bus went around a traffic circle-much to the delight of the on-looking Polish passengers.
3. 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?
I would say buy something here since American imported cars cannot be resold on the local market due to EU regulations. I would go for a Honda Civic/Ford Focus type of car since the roads in Warsaw are not meant for big cars. German cars are the best bet. Despite its strategic location in Europe, Poland has the worse roads I have seen this side of the Urals. Major highways are two-lane roads that are shared with cars, bikes, trucks, and every other mode of transportation. There are plans to do a major overahul of the roads in preparation for the European Cup that Poland and Ukraine will be hosting, but it will be a while before the roads will be up to standard
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High speed is available and costs starting from US$35 a month). Plans are available.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Get one but get one yourself and not through ACA. Rather than get locked in a very expensive plan (which ACA will gladly do for you), just buy minutes on your card and go from there. I found this to be pretty easy and much cheaper.
3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?
People here use Skype and Vonage or the tieline at work. I go for the Telegroszik cards you can pick up at the store which gives you around an hour of phone calls to the US for 20 zloty (more time is possible for more money).
1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
I have been pretty impressed with the level of pet care here. This is a very pet friendly country. All kinds of pet food and supplies can be found on the local market, ableit a bit more expensive than in the States. I'm not sure about kennels 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?
Careful with this one. Despite what is written in the post report, it is difficult to get a job at the embassy since many of the jobs require Polish and budget cuts have meant that many positions have been cut. Working on the local market is possible but you will most likely need Polish and the pay is much less than in the U.S. The school may have several positions available.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal at work, on the street, euro-chic.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
The usual concerns in any major Eastern European city-petty theft, I guess, is the most concerning.
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is available but not necessarily to the level of American health care (which may in fact not be a bad thing come to think of it). Basic things can be done here (eyecare, dental, etc.). Fortunately for us we have a medical facility at the Embassy with good medical staff.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Normally winter is pretty cold but this year, like last year, it was VERY mild (too mild if you ask me). Summer time is your typical Eastern European summer weather. However, given the warm winter we had this year, I would not be surprised if it snowed in August.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most embassy families and the beautiful people of Warsaw send their kids to the American School of Warsaw which from what I haven seen is HUGE!!! Be careful and register for classes ASAP as it tends to fill up really quickly and be advised that your spot at ASW is not guaranteed.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
None that I know of.
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?
Normally people here have panis (nannies) from here and elsewhere.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge. Warsaw is a major commerical/diplomatic hub so you have a lot of folks from everywhere. There are at least several thousand Americans in Warsaw, and even more outside.
2. Morale among expats:
Warsaw is a medium sized embassy which is good and bad. Good in the fact that you are not forced to associate with everyone at the embassy if you don't want to, but bad in the fact that there really isn't a strong family community as you would get at smaller posts. By and large people tend to do their own things here. There is an interesting mix of people here from those who have served around the world and are totally comfortable with expat living, to the first time off the boat people who only buy their food at the commisary and watch AFN without getting out and seeing all that Warsaw and Poland have to offer. It depends on which section you work in-the morale in the section I work in, while not superb, is much better than what I have heard morale is like in other sections. Overall,I would say that while not perfect, morale here is medium, but leaps and bounds better than where I was before.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
As previously written, Warsaw is chock-full of things to do. Depending on what you want to do you can do it. Poles tend to be a bit reserved and it is difficult to break into their circles, but once you are in them, they can be the best of friends.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes, Yes, and Yes. Warsaw is a happening place and there are many a nightclub to get your drink/dance on. The single guys at the embassy have no problem dating here. I'm not sure how it is for single women though.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Anti-gay sentiment is still alive and well here, however I have heard that there is an active scene in Warsaw as well as elsewhere in Poland.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Anti-Semitism does exist here but largely among certain segments of society (the ubiquitious skinhead/far right clique and Radio Mariya listeners). However, by and large most Poles condemn such views and many here believe that the government has taken great strides to make up for the past and has a very strong relationship with the Jewish community. The government is quick to condemn any and all manifestations of anti-Semitic violence and places big importance on preserving Holocaust/Jewish sites. However, it does get a bit tiring to see artistic renditions of old Jews counting money at the local art markets.
There are large groups of African and Indian students, as well as a pretty large Vietnamese contingent here and they seem to get by pretty well. Those with former Soviet spouses should keep in mind that old memories are alive and well here and should expect some coldness/rudeness from Poles. One such spouse who came her not speaking Polish had problems before she learned Polish.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
What isn't there to do?! By far everyone loves the sightseeing both inside and outside of Warsaw. There are many museums and historical sites around town that are a must see (including the Uprising Museum). History buffs will fall in love here (I definitely have!) Shopping opportunities abound, as well as going to concerts, clubs, theaters, and movies (recent run English language movies are shown here daily, except kids movies which are dubbed in Polish). It is very easy to travel outside of Poland as well given the excellent train and plane routes from here.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Boleslawic pottery (it is cheaper to buy it in Boleslawic than Warsaw), crystal, glassware, amber lamps, Soviet and German militaria (but this is fact drying up and there are more knockoffs than origianls these days).
9. Can you save money?
Yes, but this is becoming more and more difficult. Our COLA went up to 50 percent but we lost our differential (Krakow is still at 10 percent by the way) but even still...fortunately for us we can get our VAT back which over time takes away some of the sting. However, this will continue to get worse so long as the dollar continues to plummet.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Provided I don't have to go through FSI language training again, I would say yes. While I haven't been here long, this has been the smoothest past couple of months I have had at a post.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Groceries...you'll find them here. Car parts and tires.
3. But don't forget your:
Winter clothing, car parts, sense of humor, sense of adventure, camera, spouse and kids (they may not appreciate it).
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Any of the Andrzej Wajda/WWII films, but most importantly is Katyn which is a very powerful portrayal of Katyn and the aftermath. Another must see is the three part series-How I Started WWII which is downright hysterical!
7. Do you have any other comments?
Poland has changed dramatically since the first time I was here. Forget the stories about Warsaw/Poland from the days of old. The people here are genreally pro-American/Western and you will have a blast here.