Two different people have recently told me how Poland exceeded their expectations. Those who’ve never been here think they’re going to get some kind of post-Soviet, post-war, depressing, grey place to live and work. When I tell people I’ve decided to make Bydgoszcz my home and buy a flat here, I’m often greeted with surprise.
I’d never thought of applying to Poland and was always amazed that other people wanted to live there. Then I visited for a few days and was pleased by how much I liked it. I definitely want to move there now.
Why on Earth would you want to come here when your TEFL certificate could open the doors to Spain, Thailand, or any number of other holiday destinations? Let’s face it, very few aspiring TEFL travellers start out on their CELTA saying “I’ve always wanted to move to Central Europe. Sign me up!”
I am so surprised by Poland as I had imagined something grey and post war. I honestly thought we would be faced with abandoned concrete buildings everywhere! I also imagined old taxis and copious amounts of grey tasteless bread. When I told people I was going to Warsaw for the weekend I was met with incredulous looks or pity that that was the chosen destination!
Popular culture has a lot to answer for. So what’s it really like?
I first fell in love with Central Europe* when I lived in Brno in the Czech Republic.
I have to admit that I started out with similar impressions to those in the quotes above, but thankfully it didn’t take me long to get over them. In fact, within 24 hours of arriving in Brno, I’d already decided I wanted to come back for a second year. I ended up staying for three, and made this video as a way of expressing my feelings for the city. I’ve since been back many times, and it always feels like going home. I left for two reasons: to be in the UK for the year before the Olympics and Paralympics and to develop my career further. Otherwise I’d probably still be there!
When I was offered the chance to move to Bydgoszcz, I knew that I would feel comfortable here and that I would get a lot out of my life and work. I haven’t regretted that decision for one moment.
*I know Germany counts as Central Europe too, and my love of the language and many trips there count too, but in this post I’m talking about the places that are still suffering from the impressions created when they were behind the Iron Curtain. I’m also mostly addressing this post to Brits thinking about where to move to as I know we have a lot of stereotypes to get over – I can’t speak for those from other cultural backgrounds. 😉
Why teach in Central Europe?
Because our schools are not at the top of the list as a dream destination, it’s in our interests to help you develop professionally to make sure we get good teachers in through the doors. (Please note, I’m speaking from my perspective as somebody who’s worked for International House schools – I can’t vouch for anywhere else!) Many IH schools in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have good reputations as places to start out your career. Accommodation is also often provided in school flats, so it’s one less thing for you to worry about when you move here.
You’ll experience a culture which is similar enough to what you’re used to in the UK that you can fit in pretty quickly, but at the same time different enough that you’ll be learning new things all the time.
Candles for All Soul’s Night at the Military Cemetary, Bydgoszcz
The food here is delicious and affordable. Czech Svíčková and Polish pierogi are two of my favourite discoveries, but any semi-decent restaurant will serve you delicious food for a really low price. I don’t drink, but I’ve also been reliably informed that Czech beer is the best in the world. One of my favourite quotes from a visiting friend:
Do you mean I’ve just eaten that huge meal and had two beers, and it cost me less than £10?
Poznan – rogale, a kind of croissant filled with almond and poppy seed, traditionally eaten for Saint Martin’s Day (11th November), but available all year round
You can get fresh fruit and vegetables from markets all year. Polish apples have a well-deserved reputation as some of the best in the world, and the berries you can get in the spring are juicy, sweet, and (did I mention?) cheap.
Zelny Trh (Green Market) vegetables, Brno
Admittedly it’s a bit harder to eat out if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, but it’s definitely getting easier and shouldn’t stop you from considering Central Europe.
There’s always something going on, especially in the spring. It’s rare that I went into the main square in Brno at a weekend without seeing some kind of interesting festival, show or performance, and the same is proving true of Bydgoszcz.
River concerts, Opera Nova, Bydgoszcz
Slackline games, Bydgoszcz
Far from being post-Soviet, the architecture on show across Central Europe is varied and interesting, and full of history.
Bydgoszcz Post Office: from the 19th century
Cathedral of St. Martin and Mikulas and archaeology museum, Bydgoszcz
The symbol of Bydgoszcz – warehouses by the River Brda
Poznan – town hall and herring houses
That’s not to say that ugly Soviet buildings don’t exist, just that there is a lot more variety than you might expect. Rare is the Polish or Czech town square that doesn’t have at least one building or monument that jars with the rest of the architecture to our British eyes. But that’s how you know you’re living in a different country 😉
Znojmo, Czech Republic, with the roof of a communist department store in the foreground
Public transport is generally cheap, clean and very regular. A three-month tram pass in Brno used to cost me approximately £40, and I could use it at any time of the day to get all over the city, with hourly night buses on offer too. That was about 0.05% of my salary if I remember rightly! In both Bydgoszcz and Brno, they also often run old trams at weekends and holidays if you want to experience a bit of retro travel.
Trams in Brno
Old tram in Bydgoszcz
There are so many little towns and villages to explore, and hundreds of castles and stately homes. Did you know the Czech Republic has one of the highest densities of castles of any country in the world, with over 2000 in the country? Most of them are easily accessible by the afore-mentioned cheap and efficient public transport (though check what times the buses/trains come back!) I can’t drive, and have managed to explore many different places easily.
Lednice chateau, south of Brno
Hrad Karlstejn, outside Prague
A much more flattering picture of Znojmo in the Czech Republic!
Hrad Pernstejn, near Brno
Torun – a World Heritage site 40 minutes from Bydgoszcz…
…and the birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus
It’s easy to travel internationally too: I’ve been to Budapest, Krakow, Bratislava, Vienna, Poznan, Warsaw, Prague, and Stockholm, all with ease, and mostly on the train or the excellent Czech Student Agency buses!
You get four seasons.
Autumn in the park nearest my flat
Admittedly, the winter can feel pretty long when you’re in the middle of it. When I was in Brno we had about 10 weeks with snow on the ground one year, and a few days of -20C. People here know how to deal with it though, and it very rarely causes problems.
Having said that, global warming seems to be reducing the likelihood of a really cold winter, and this year in Bydgoszcz we had almost no snow. It was about five months of grey and dullness instead, but when you’re at work, that doesn’t really matter when the heating’s on 🙂 When the spring arrives, it’s stunning, and you really appreciate it. The city comes to life, tables and chairs appear in all of the squares, and there’s a real café culture.
And if all that doesn’t convince you to come to Central Europe, here’s one of my favourite ever Buzzfeed collections: 27 reasons you should never visit Poland
So what are you waiting for?