becoming an american expat in poland

words & images david street

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday last year, I quit my job as an aerospace engineer. At work, I gave vague reasons about my departure, saying that I wanted to become a scientific journalist of some sort instead, but I said this just to give my shocked coworkers a sense of continuity. At the time, I didn't know what I would be doing with my life, except going on a two-month mission in early December to find a new place to live.

I had grown up in Alaska and studied at the University of Virginia before moving on to the University of Georgia for my master’s degree in aerospace engineering. My interest in the aerospace industry wasn’t casual—at the age of twenty-four, I was in Colorado supporting two large NASA-manned spaceflight projects in succession. This, I thought, is just the beginning of my long career in engineering.

Within a couple of years, though, I wasn’t satisfied with just going into work everyday. I started to learn French, and it quickly became my favorite hobby. During boring meetings, I would scribble down verb conjugations just to test myself and studied obsessively to prepare for regular trips to France and Quebec. I wanted to soak in the language and the culture while keeping my stable life and simultaneously being adventurous. But I couldn’t find a balance between everything, and the change became inevitable.

My itinerary for the December journey had me spending two weeks in the northeastern United States, two weeks in France, ten days in Switzerland and Belgium, and, finally, two weeks in Poland. The first four countries seemed justifiable: I’m American and I speak French. I selected Poland on a whim because the people seemed nice and genuine, like the plucky European underdogs. I didn't speak Polish. I didn't have any Polish family members, and I did not have a long-distance Polish lover.

When I flew the last leg of my trip from Brussels to Warsaw, most of the people on the plane were Polish, and I felt excited to be heading somewhere I knew little about. The airport shuttle dropped me off in the center of Warsaw, and I immediately recognized a few large American chains. Later, when I met up with some American expats and a Polish woman who spoke impeccable English, I thought confidently, "I got this." But this confidence also brought me dissatisfaction. My experience in Poland felt too familiar, too comfortable.

I do not remember how Łódź made it onto my itinerary. It is a big industrial city located in central Poland, about a two-hour train ride from Warsaw. After World War II, it briefly served as the country's capital because Warsaw had been almost completely destroyed. But other than for this reason, it is not particularly well-known in the United States, and I certainly had not heard of it before deciding to stop there.

When I arrived, the Łódź Widzew train station was under construction, as was most of the surrounding area. It was barely above freezing outside, and I emerged from the train into a cold stinging mist on a gray January day. A dirt path led me from the tracks to the main parking lot, where I hailed a cab and managed to tell the driver the address in my basic Polish. I was renting a room in a split-level house through AirBnB. Once I got there, I put on extra layers of warm gym clothes and bundled up in a couple of wool blankets before falling asleep for the night.

I awoke as the sun was coming up and revealing a thin layer of snow that had covered the ground and the trees. The brightness of the snow collided with a low-hanging ice fog, dulling everything. After breakfast, I put on all of the warm clothes I had in order to go for a walk. The morning commute seemed to be over already, and the snow muffling my footsteps added to the sense of calm and quiet.

As I left my modest suburban house, I felt as if I were in a trance. I walked around Łódź, looking at the strangely colored buildings, with lots of pink and lime green, and thought of it as an awkward attempt to brighten up the landscape. I passed some derelict buildings and stumbled into a pretty little park, neatly hidden in an otherwise urban industrial landscape. As I wandered, my mind kept debating where I should move and what I should do with my life.

Should I go to journalism school in the US? I wondered. It would be the safer option. But then, I would second-guess myself: I have always wanted to live abroad, I'd think. Or, maybe, I should just write? Should I try to write fiction? Would I be good at it?

I made my way to the Jewish cemetery on Bracka Street, which was established over a hundred years ago. More than 180,000 people have been buried there now, making it one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. During the Nazi occupation, the grounds were part of the Łódź ghetto, and over 40,000 burials took place just during that short period.

I entered through an inconspicuous metal door, and walked past the main building and down a wide path, where large mausoleums with intricate stonework lined both sides. Then I veered down a humble path that led off into thick overgrown shrubs and trees. The contrast with the well-preserved mausoleums was striking.

As I walked away from the main path, the tombstones disappeared more and more into the forest. I found the effect to be indescribably beautiful. The decay seemed natural, of old things going back to the earth, and I felt less inclined to fight my innate impulses in this raw place. Want to move to another country? Then move. Writing? Write. The questions simplified themselves, and the noises of logistics, time constraints, money, and so on faded into background where they belonged.

I sorted through my thoughts and reflected on the day over dinner. The awkward lime green and pink buildings mirrored my own feelings of awkwardness with a life transition so large that it seemed impossible to do gracefully. The thought of the Jewish cemetery lent an air of inevitability. The hidden gardens in Łódź give me hope that I could find refinement and beauty in and around my own rough edges. I laughed, thinking that these stories are ridiculous. But with them, the idea started to form that I should move to Poland.

When I returned the United States, I found myself at a barbecue in San Francisco on a warm spring day. I had traveled to the city to visit friends and make some money working part-time.

“I’ve heard you’re going to Poland? To be a journalist?" one of my skeptical friends asked me. "Do you even have any credentials?” Most of my friends there didn't understand why I wouldn't just stay in San Francisco.

I replied with practiced calm, “Yeah, I visited in January and was just fascinated by the place. I was walking around an odd city called Łódź and felt a real connection. It’s an industrial city, kind of like the Detroit of Poland. And no doubt, I still need to figure out the specifics with writing and journalism."

Most of my friends and family have been more polite and encouraging, but I have learned that it is best to have a punchy response on hand, and thus have tried to patch together a clean narrative. I am getting better at answering the questions with more self-assurance. I tell myself that these stories are for everyone else and that I know exactly why I want to move to Poland.

But, truthfully, I do not know exactly why. I only have the same vague notions that I had that night in Łódź. It is taking me some time to get comfortable with this ambiguity and, sometimes, my internal monologue still sounds like my skeptical friend: I’m going to Poland? To be a writer?

Still, the passage from old to new gives me enough to persist in the face of money worries, skeptics, and my own second-guessing. Writing, learning a new language, and exploring a new culture give me energy. The old narrative that I had clung to for so long—an American aerospace engineer—has the opposite effect, producing such a deep malaise that it was no longer an option to keep going into work or even to simply change companies.

There is no preexisting narrative for why a thirty-three-year-old American aerospace engineer would leave his profession to become a writer in Poland. And, it isn’t easy to look at my dwindling savings while patching together part-time work. But my flight back to Poland is September 3rd, and I'm looking forward to becoming an American expat in Poland.

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