Culture Shock - Poland

As some of you know, my employee, Mike is leaving at the end of December. Due to that, I have been hunting for a new teacher. In my hunt for a new teacher, I was able to talk to an Australian  woman who has lived in Canada and the US and now is living in Gdansk. So of course, we immediately hit it off because when I first moved to Poland, I moved to Sopot (close enough!).  Subsequently, we started talking about the cultural differences and so many memories started to rush into my memory. The strangest part of our conversation was that we were able to name the same exact things. Here’s a list of those cultural differences:

  1. “Angry” Faces - The first thing we spoke about was the “angry” faces which so many people apparently have. As many of you know, I come from Florida and Florida is known to be weirdly friendly to everyone, even strangers. As any Floridian will tell you, it is perfectly normal for us to wave at people that come to our neighborhoods and of course, flash the big American grin! I moved to Poland in the summer of 2013, so as soon as I arrived I was excited to explore Sopot. In my first trip, I was walking alone, when I saw a grandpa coming my way. My first thoughts were “Aw, what a cute Grandpa. Maybe I should wave. Wait…is that normal here? Maybe a smile will be enough.” And so I smiled at him and to my surprise, his response was an angry stare. I justified his reaction by telling myself that he’s probably just a grumpy old man. As I walked a bit farther, I stumbled upon a grandma. Again, I flashed a smile, and again, I got the same reaction. After that I quickly learned that smiling at strangers in Poland is not really a thing and most likely they will think that you are suffering from a mental illness. So I stopped doing it. However, I did notice that Polish people change their demeanor on “Fat Thursday.” If you walk around, you will see people smiling and, in general,  in a good mood. I guess all you need to do to make Poles happy is give them their traditional paczek (doughnut) :D 
  2. Cashiers - Another topic that was brought up was Polish cashiers. It may come as a shock, but Polish cashiers are not very friendly and they hate to give you your change back. Again, when I first moved to Sopot, I went to a nearby shop because I wanted to purchase some sweets. I only had a 50PLN bill. So I went inside the shop, grabbed the sweets I wanted and proceded to the check out aisle. I put my things down for the cashier to scan them, she gave me the total, and I handed her my 50PLN bill. She fussed about it and I said “I don’t have more money” in English. After puffing and huffing, she finally gave up and gave me my change back. Another instance was in good old Carrefour. Again, I went into the shop to purchase something small. And again, I only had a 50PLN bill. Of course, this time, I was preparing myself mentally for a battle with the cashier. I waited patiently for my turn and it finally arrived. The lady scanned my things and the total came out. I handed her my 50PLN bill and she literally did not do anything. She stared at me blankly for what seemed to be hours. I was amazed by her reaction and this time, she won. I just walked away and left the things I wanted to purchase there. 
  3. Street Names - Honestly, I have never visited a country with such a lack of imagination when it comes to street names! It is kind of hilarious when I look back. I can recall when I was fresh in Poland that my friend, Paweł invited me to his home. So as a lazy American, I called a cab (to my defense, it was winter too :D). I showed the cab driver my cell phone screen in which showed Pawel’s home address. The cab driver took me to the address. I paid him. Got out. And called the telecom to Pawel’s flat. A lady answered in Polish and I was baffled. I thought, “how could this be? I am in the right street, right flat number.” Of course, I immediately called Pawel. He asked me where I was and I told him “Sopot.” He laughed at me and said he lives in Gdansk. Later on I noticed that it was crucial to inform the taxi drivers the city in which the address is located. I mean, I have to say…in Florida at least, sometimes we get carried away with our silly street names - I mean you can find street names like Pancake Street or Fluffly Landing Street. 
  4. Standing in line - I don't know how but I almost forgot this point! Standing in line in Poland is extremely different than in other countries, especially in the US/Germany. When you are waiting in line here (in the US), you give the person in front of you at least three feet of distance. There is such thing as a personal bubble, and that bubble gets even bigger when you're paying for something. But not in Poland. First of all, Poles are terrible at making lines and also, most of them are unaware of this "personal bubble." My initial experience was when I was waiting in line at a pharmacy and then trying to get in the train. So I went to the pharmacy to purchase some vitamin C (you can never have enough in Poland, especially if you come from Florida). I was waiting in line and as usual, I gave the person in front of me 3 feet of space between me and her. Suddenly the door swings open, a granny walks in and gets in front of me. I let it slide, since it was a grandmother, after all. There was another instance in another pharmacy, in which I actually got yelled at for not standing in line correctly by a grandpa. Thankfully, there was a younger woman who defended me. The story about the train I only realized after I had visited Germany. In 2014, I decided to meet my cousin in Cologne. While visiting,  we were taking the train quite often to get from one place to another. There, I noticed how orderly Germans were at making lines. Once I got back to Poland I literally started laughing out loud because the contrast was so huge. People in Poland don't make a single line. They instead just try to get in through the door all at once. I have to add, it does seem that Poles are changing this behavior, so perhaps in 5 years this will not be the norm. 

I hope I am not offending any readers. This is after all, why I loved Poland so much, this is what makes it charming. These quirks the country has makes it somehow colorful. And honestly, many foreigners that live in Poland will find it funny because we have all experienced something similar. 

So if you enjoyed the post, please write a comment. Or if you have similar experiences tell me about them! It would be fun to compare and contrast cultural shocks from not only Poland but from other countries too.