a new yorker in warsaw

words & images ona abelis

Every time that I get on a flight to Warsaw, I'm afraid that I'm never going to come back to New York: I'm going to like it too much; the universe will align; someone will offer me a fantastic job; and that will be how I change my life once and for all.

The last time that I was in Warsaw, one of my friends decided to nudge me into action. "If you really want to stay in Warsaw," he said, "here is my resume to use as a template for the Polish format; here are links to online job postings; and here is the name of a headhunting agency. You should sign up with them." So, I reworked my resume, submitted it to the agency, and within two days, a headhunter contacted me and asked me to take some online language tests in French and German. I passed those, and was called in for an interview. Had it been that simple all along?

The agency had an office in the city center, on the upper floors of a building that faced an open air market. I arrived early, and was seated in a small conference room. When the headhunter walked into the room, she seemed flustered and quickly sat across from me at the table, flipping open a manila folder that included a printed copy of my resume. I saw that she had made notes in red along my resume's margins—little arrows and words next to seven years of higher education in the US, stellar grades, plus work experience.

"What language would you like to use for this interview?" she asked in halting English. Her chopped bob cut needed a trim, but her nails were an immaculate gray.

"I don't have a preference," I replied in English. "Any of the languages is fine." The headhunter seemed to breathe a sigh a relief. She pulled out another page from the folder, covered with handwritten notes, and I turned my head to the left to look out the window. Somewhere across the Atlantic ocean, my friends back home were drinking on rooftop bars. It was almost the Fourth of July.

"You have a very impressive resume," the headhunter started in Polish. I snapped my head back to attention. "But, unfortunately," she continued, "your undergraduate degree is not really useful in Poland."

"Okay," I said, immediately embarrassed. "But what about my graduate degree?"

She laughed nervously, and then smiled. "Even less so," she said. "We have a whole different system here. You would have to go to school again."

Within the next ten minutes, I would find out that those language tests were for a French telecom giant that needed a friendly, young woman answering client service calls, and if I wanted to take the job, it could be mine for 1,500 złoty a month. In my mind, I quickly ticked off the costs: an average meal in a cheap restaurant, 20 zł; an average cappuccino, 8 zł; an average dress at Zara, 180 zł; renting an average one bedroom apartment in the city center, 2,000 zł per month...an average tomato, 2 zł.

"Would you like to accept the position?" the headhunter asked.

The night before, I had met two friends at a bar near the plac Zamkowy (Castle Square), where we had ordered beer after beer for an average of 8 zł for each. We managed to grab a table outside, and I could hear a violinist playing in front of the majestic Royal Castle, her shadow dancing behind her on the castle's burnt red wall. A group of skaters were hanging out on the stairs of a monument nearby, and the evening sky was lit up by vendors who were hawking flying, glowing toys. Compared to New York, the air smelled fresh; there was no noise pollution; and everyone was ambling along the sidewalks and down the cobblestone streets at a leisurely pace.

"There are no jobs here," one of my friends, Martyna, had said. She had just finished her second Master's degree, in international affairs, and was waiting tables in her family's restaurant. "I can't even get a job interview anywhere," she added.

"What are you talking about?" countered my other friend, Mariusz, "There's plenty of jobs. There's American companies coming in. German companies. The economy is booming. It's one of the few European economies to be booming right now."

Mariusz worked as a consultant for a German firm, but put in nowhere near the amount of hours that my American friends did at their consulting jobs back in New York. I had noticed that people in Warsaw tried to maintain a work-life balance and that, once they had checked out of the office for the day, they also didn't really talk about their jobs at the bar.

"All of my friends from high school are living abroad," Marytna continued, "In Italy. The UK. Belgium. Everyone. I'm the only one still here, trying to find a job."

"Well, my friends are all here, working," said Mariusz, "and Ona has a job interview tomorrow."

"It's not really a job interview, guys," I had said, quickly. "I'm not really sure what it is, but they invited me to come in and maybe the universe will align."

The next afternoon, as I was sitting with the headhunter in the conference room, my universe was definitely not aligning. She had asked if I would like to accept the position, but my mind was still reeling: If I was only earning 1,500 złoty a month, I would have to use my life savings to be able to afford to work for the French telecom giant and still live in Warsaw.

Could I swing it by being really frugal? I wondered. By cooking at home and not going out? By not buying anything for myself for the next few months? And yet, did anyone really need a college degree to do this job? Maybe this was something the wives of French expats did, only to have a place to go in the mornings while their husbands went to the office to earn the lion's share of their income?

I still hadn't said anything, and the headhunter was looking at me expectantly. I crossed and uncrossed my legs under the table, and shook my head at the impossibility of the situation.

"I don't think I can accept this job," I said carefully. "This is full time work for only 1,500 złoty a month—"

"—the company can pay you 1,700 złoty a month, but that's the limit," said the headhunter, looking down briefly at her notes and then up at me again. "You must realize, you're not really qualified for any other work in this country. If you do not accept this position, it will be really hard to place you somewhere else."

It's a strange feeling to have all of your academic and professional accomplishments completely erased simply by crossing a border, and then to have that fact deftly pointed out to you during a job interview. At first, I was so embarrassed that I wished humans could fly, so that I could just walk to the window, jump out, and glide happily over the open air market and then down to the safety of the bus stop below. Instead, I started hoping for this interview to be over soon while, all around me, my dreams of ever staying in Warsaw came crashing down in the small conference room.

"I don't think that I can accept the job even at 1,700 złoty a month," I said. "It's just impossible."

"Alright, well, it may be possible for you to find another job, but it will be similar in pay," said the headhunter. "Do you have any questions?"

With my dreams of Warsaw in ruins, did I have any questions? I did, but not for the headhunter. I thanked her for her time, left the agency, and took the long way home, walking past little supermarkets, cafes, banks, kebab shops, and clothing stores. Near a pharmacy, a friendly flower cart parked to the side caught my eye. It was overflowing with single stems and bouquets that looked like they had just been picked from a field.

I approached the vendor, a woman who looked to be in her late sixties wearing a white blouse and a kerchief neatly tied around her head. She was chatting with two friends, and the trio watched me select a bouquet of violets.

"Eight złoty," said the woman.

I took out a 100 złoty note. The woman looked at it, wide-eyed. "Do you have anything smaller?" she asked. "No," I said, "unfortunately, this is all I have."

The three women started to look through their purses for change and finally pooled together ninety-two złoty. The vendor handed me my change and wrapped my bouquet in a piece of tissue paper.

"Ach, do you know what I would do," she said as much to me as to her friends, "if I had 100 złoty?"

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