As a way of building intercultural connections between Poland and America, we have started an interview series with Americans living in Poland to find out about their story. We will learn about things such as what brought them to Poland, some of their memorable experiences, and what are their favorite things about living in Poland. Follow along with us on this intercultural journey!
This week we spoke with Russell, who is originally from Texas and moved to Poland in 1999. He lives in Częstochowa and operates an English School called Base English. He also runs a popular YouTube Channel called Love My Poland, where he shares his experiences about life in Poland.
We know that Polish-Americans have always been the largest group of Slavic origin in the United States, but American who decided to move their lives to Poland is still quite a big surprise for Poles. Can you briefly share with us your story? Where do you currently live in Poland?
Great question! First of all, it’s necessary to point out that I have an uncle who is 100% Polish. We are not blood related in any way, but I remember him talking a lot about his family history as a child. So, he sort of planted a seed about Poland in my mind. When I finished university in 1998, I wanted to take a 1-year break from studies and travel a bit. I found an English-teaching job with a church organization, and they gave me 3 countries from which to choose. My options were Germany, Poland and Kazakhstan. The choice was simple, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Warsaw. I began my work in Warsaw and was then transferred to Częstochowa. I worked as a teacher for one year in Częstochowa and then returned to Alabama to finish my masters degree. In 2005, I took a job at a private university in Częstochowa and have lived here happily ever since.
America is a mix of cultures, languages and traditions from all around the world. Poland, although it is slowly becoming more diverse, seems to still be very traditional in relation in the United States. Can you tell us about your first impressions after moving to Poland from the US?
Well, the fact that Poland has maintained much of its culture and tradition did not surprise me in the least. I learned a lot about Poland before making my journey over and immersed myself in much of the history. However, I was amazed at how warmly welcomed I was here as an American! Poles are a hospitable bunch, and being a guest at someone’s home is quite a positive experience. What’s more, I was blown away at how well Poles can organize a wedding party or even a house party. On another note, I was amazed at how strongly the Catholic church influenced and continues to influence the everyday lives of people in Poland. I think the biggest contrast in that regard is the very clear separation of church and state we have in America. Looking at the political atmosphere in Poland at the moment, though, I think Poland is in store for many changes both culturally and traditionally, particularly with the number of Poles working abroad and returning with a slightly different approach to the way they run their lives.
I remember that for my wife's parents it was a big surprise how modern and interesting Poland was. What was your image of Poland before moving there and how does that compare to how you see it now?
I arrived in Poland in October of 1999, and Poland was just 10 years removed from communism. It was evident that Poland was in a deep state of transition. The general infrastructure needed much work and many buildings were in desperate need of repair. This is true for the cities that I visited mainly like Warsaw, Krakow and Częstochowa. Most of the cars on the road were Fiat 126p’s, Ladas or Fiat 125’s. My first impression was that of a combination of shock and intrigue. However, it’s been thrilling watching Poland come so far in so little time. The strides Poland has made are nothing short of amazing. Today, when I take family and friends from America to visit bigger cities like Warsaw or Wroclaw, they do seem impressed indeed, and it is clear that Poland is truly becoming a modern nation with a strong economy. As for me, I am proud to say that I have physically witnessed so many things change for the better.
Polish language is always a big challenge for foreigners and there is a reason why it is described as one of the most difficult languages in the word. We are very interested in what your progress in Polish looks like. Do you have any tips for those who would like to learn the basics of Polish? Are there any funny stories you have associated with the Polish language?
The Polish language is so incredibly difficult that there are no words to really describe it. I grew up speaking Spanish in Texas. My family and I would travel to Mexico every summer where I could practice a bit. When I think of how easy it was to become fluent in Spanish and compare it to my adventures with Polish, I am still stunned at how challenging the Polish language is. Today, 20 years later, I can say very modestly that I can communicate and understand quite well. The biggest challenge for me was finding situations where I could speak Polish and be corrected. Most Poles you meet will try to be polite and tell you your Polish is good, great and sufficient when you know deep down how terribly awful you must sound to them. I would advise anyone trying to learn Polish to find a private tutor who will help them with pronunciation and intonation and facilitate vocabulary learning. I would encourage them to read as much as they can in Polish and speak as much as they can. English speakers have a disadvantage because many Poles can speak English well and just switch over to accommodate you. In terms of Polish language adventures, the funniest story I can remember was when I was attempting to flatter my future mother in law on the delicious supper she prepared. I didn’t know at the time that “śmierdzi” meant only that something “stinks”, and used the word like English speakers use “to smell”. So I told her that the food “smierdzi dobrze”. Obviously, she wasn’t overly thrilled with my words. I’ve put myself in many awkward situations like that over the years.
As Key To Poland we want to promote sustainable tourism to Poland. Our goal is to support local businesses and people as well as promote extraordinary places with rich and unique culture. Can you tell us about a few of your favorite places in Poland that still amaze you that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a travel guide? What would be a tour to Poland you can recommend to Americans?
Well, I certainly have a lot more traveling to do in this beautiful country, but I’d like to start out by recommending a little town at the Polish seaside called Dębki. I was utterly fascinated when I saw a river flowing north into the Baltic Sea. We actually kayaked our way up the river into the sea itself. It was an extraordinary adventure indeed, and we plan a return this summer to repeat the experience! I would also recommend the town of Solina in the Bieszczady mountains. There are lovely views, cozy cafés, a charming little town square and an enormous dam that is worth exploring there. If you’ve got the time, you really ought to explore the “Crooked Forest” just south of Szczecin to see trees that grow in a really unique and twisted way. Being there gives you the feel of being on another planet. I am also surprised that more people don’t visit the underground salt mine near Krakow called the “Wieliczka Salt Mine”. This is most definitely a must see. Finally, I feel that the city of Katowice is underrated and needs more tourists. I would particularly recommend seeing Park Śląski, a gigantic and gorgeous park with a zoo and amusement park nearby.
We can’t really talk about Poland without mentioning food! Pierogi is one of the best known Polish words among Americans, and of course Poles are proud of them, but Polish cuisine is so much more than that. Do you have a favorite dish you can tell us about? Are there any foods in Poland that still can’t bring yourself to taste?
This is an easy one for me! I love Gołąbki with all of my heart. The vegetarian option is equally tasty. I can’t forget to mention Kluski Śląskie which are so hearty and filling. Also, everyone visiting Poland absolutely must taste a sausage straight from a backyard grill. There are no words to describe the delicious flavor. Be sure to grab a good, Polish beer to accompany your sausage!
It is always very challenging and a difficult decision to move so far away from friends and family (I know from my own experience). What do you miss the most after moving from the US?
I most definitely miss my family back in America. Fortunately for me though, we spend over a month each year in the USA and get to spend quality time with them. They also visit Poland for Christmas or summer holidays from time to time so, all in all, not much time is lost. Having grown up in Houston, Texas, I miss authentic Tex-Mex cuisine and a good Texas-sized steak. It’s just tough to find such food anywhere close to those authentic flavors in Poland. If I can name one more example, I do also miss being able to buy certain types clothes at a much lower price. Levi’s jeans is a good example. Here, they run double the price, so I try to stock up when I am Stateside.
After reading Elizabeth’s text about Polish weddings, I realized how unexpected and unique Polish traditions can be for Americans. Listening to her stories, I have an opportunity to look at my “normal” reality through her eyes and it always intrigues me. Can you describe a Polish tradition, event or history that form a Pole’s perspective seems normal, but seemed interesting or unique to you as an American?
Wow, how can you top a good, old-fashioned Polish wedding!? Well, I really enjoy a Polish “Parapetówka” party. This kind of housewarming party is a lot more fun and lively than the parties I’ve attended back in America. One has to see it to believe it! However, being in the education business, I find the “Matura” exam session to be fascinating. There are so many differences in the way we complete our high school years and move into college. I love how everyone dresses up so nicely for the event. What’s more, it’s such a stressful time for pupils in Poland. I just can’t imagine having to do an oral exam to pass exams in order to graduate high school. Our SAT or ACT exam in the US is nearly all multiple choice, and we buy study guides to practice for it. It’s all so different, and it’s one of many reasons I’ll never get bored living in Poland.
Thank you so much for the interview. What are your plans for the upcoming months?
My plans for the upcoming months involve summer travel within Poland. We plan to visit various locations along the Polish Baltic coast, and I’m really looking forward to exploring the Mazurian lake district. I’m a huge barbeque enthusiast, so I will be perfecting my craft out in the backyard preparing delicious meats for the whole family. In other words, a lot of relaxation ahead after a busy school year.
Looking forward to meeting you the next time we’re in Poland!
It would be a sincere pleasure to meet you as well when you get here. Thank you for the interview, and I wish you the utmost success in your aims to promote Poland to the world.
Read our other interviews with Americans living in Poland. We have spoken with Leah who runs and English language school and popular blog about life in Poland and Lois who runs a food blog and has published a cook book on Polish cuisine!
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