I had a job in a chippie after a month and was in love after six weeks: my brilliant year in Poland


In the winter of 2016, a few months before the Brexit referendum, I decided to move to Poland. I thought it best to get out there while I still could, before my liberty to earn the minimum wage in 20-odd countries was irrevocably lost.

I can’t say it was love at first sight. It was too cold for that. It’s not easy to fall head over heels at -4C. When I boarded the bus outside Poznań airport, I shared with the driver the only phrase I had mastered on my journey from Luton. Kocham cie. I love you. The driver’s reply was to raise an eyebrow, shake his head and usher me on board. It was an auspicious beginning.

Ben Aitken at Poznań airport.
Ben Aitken at Poznań airport. Photograph: Ben Aitken

The bus delivered me to Poznań’s old town. I was instantly taken by the colourful building fronts, the elaborate gables, the engrossing main square. Despite the cold, I stood looking in the windows of shops and bars and wondered at their unsubtle inducements to sample such things as wódka wiśniowa (cherry vodka) and legginsy (leggings).

Within an hour I was in a pub called Dragon sampling śliwowica (plum brandy) and pierogi (dumplings). Within a week, I was sharing a flat with an engineer called Jędrzej. Within a month, I had a job in a fish and chip shop. And within six weeks, I was in love.

I fell for the places first. Over the next year, whenever I wasn’t required to peel spuds or bone cod, I skipped town and hit the road. I went north to Gdańsk and the Polish Riviera, east to Warsaw and the lakes of Masuria, and south to Wrocław, the mountains and Łódź, the Polish Hollywood.

I liked what Poland was made of. I liked what it had, what it could claim as its own. I liked its cities and towns, its bricks and mortar. Szczecin. Białystok. Katowice. Even industrial Bytom in Upper Silesia. These places aren’t top of the Polish charts. They are the Polish equivalents of Bradford, Wrexham, East Kilbride and Carrickfergus. They may not have signature landmarks, picture-postcard districts or vast followings on Instagram, but what they do have is the advantage of being beautifully normal and utterly unaffected. These places aren’t posing; they’re just going about their business. Each one gave me something: pause for thought, cause to swoon, a fraction of the whole.

Ben Aitken book cover
Cover of Ben Aitken’s A Chip Shop in Poznań

The bits in between aren’t bad, either. The medieval forest. The lake district. The enchanting undulations of Lower Silesia. The glimpses of sea, the flashes of desert, the accidental beauty of industrial hinterlands. I took delight in joining the dots. By train. I’d sit in the restaurant carriage, take my time over a paper plate of kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet) and pickles, and watch Lesser Poland (or Małopolska) gradually slide past.

I’d make small talk with the staff. Ordering a second cup of black tea, or a third bottle of piwo (beer), I’d bring their attention to the passing motion picture and say, in faltering terms, that all that goes by is a blessing.

A lot of Polish trains have old-fashioned compartments, accommodating six, with three on each bench, facing off. The atmosphere can be tense, for while your average Pole will treat a guest in their home like a God, they will also think nothing of sitting opposite a person for six hours without saying a word. But the atmosphere in those old-fashioned compartments can also be light and casual and chatty, especially if you’re prepared to kick things off by saying something stupid like I love you.

Which brings me to the Polish people. I can’t claim to have met them all, but of the several thousand I did meet, I have only positive things to report (with the notable exception of a bartender called Ziggy, who all but throttled me for badmouthing pierogi).

There was Hubert the dairy farmer, who insisted on giving me a lift home from the ski resort of Karpacz, refused take no for an answer when it came to stopping at his grandmother’s house for dinner, before finally offering me a job milking cows on his farm near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

The dragon pub in Poznan
The dragon pub in Poznań, where Ben warmed up on his first night in the country. Photograph: Alamy

There was Sister Stefania, a senior nun at St Adalbert Abbey near Kraków, where, for about £20, you can get a room for the night, three square meals, and Stefania’s take on such matters as Roman Polanski and carp farming.

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There was Jerzy, the wizened custodian of a hut high in the southern Beskid mountains, where stray hikers with more ambition than sense are liable to be greeted first with frosty suspicion then with impeccable kindness, the latter in the form of stew and tea and a hand starting the fire.

Then there are the Polish celebs. I fell for them, too. Like Marie Curie, who discovered polonium and radium and won two Nobel prizes in the process. Like Lech Wałęsa, who discovered that a humble worker at a shipyard in Gdańsk can rise to the highest office of the land (and in so doing precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire of satellites). Like Witold Pilecki, who discovered what happens when you volunteer to be captured by the Nazis and interred in Auschwitz (he organised a resistance movement and secretly drew up reports about the atrocities which were later shared with the allies). And like Pope John Paul II, who discovered that if you dig deep enough into the pockets of your character, you’ll find enough decency to forgive someone who just shot you four times.

Gdansk old town harbour.
Gdansk old town harbour. Photograph: rangizzz/Alamy

On top of its people and places, a country is a constellation of tiny quirks; a galaxy of shifting bits and pieces that, while neither constant nor objective, nonetheless make a solid contribution to a nation’s impression, its aura, its romance.

It is a thousand ways to use a certain swear word. It is buying pants by the kilo. It is the length and intensity of a Polish wedding. It is a statue of the pope on every other corner. It is the sense of a country still recovering, still correcting itself, and yet still flourishing. It is a hundred variations of coleslaw. It is the word “no” meaning yes, and the consequent confusion. It is mushroom picking in autumn. It is a penchant for pickling. It is a day set aside for the consumption of doughnuts – Fat Thursday. It is 16 ways of spelling banana, depending on its mood.

I left Poland for reasons that were a touch cowardly. After a year in the country, I was smitten with the place, and I didn’t want that to change. I didn’t want to put that fondness under too much pressure. I didn’t want to give it a chance to unravel or wane. You might say that I upped sticks and left in the thick of our honeymoon; that I wrapped my affection in cotton wool, stowed it carefully in a drawer, and snuck off in search of a new adventure.

I found that new adventure, for the record. It involved a series of budget coach holidays with people three times my age. But that’s another love story.

Ben Aitken’s books include A Chip Shop in Poznań and The Gran Tour: Travels with my Elders. His latest, Here Comes The Fun: A Year of Making Merry, will be published by Icon on 25 May. They are available from guardianbookshop.com