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The Warsaw Voice » Society » June 27, 2013
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Falling in Love with Poland
June 27, 2013   
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They came to Poland to teach English and to help Poles understand democracy and American culture. Between 1990 and 2001, a total of 950 volunteers lived and worked in Poland as part of the U.S. government’s Peace Corps initiative.

They worked on environmental projects and helped small businesses develop. After the program ended in Poland, some chose to stay here for good. Here are the stories of three of them, in their own words.

Angelo Pressello went to Przysucha, southwest of Warsaw, got married and then earned his MBA degree in Poland. He is now the CEO of a software company.

Sean Bobbitt’s first Peace Corps assignment was in the eastern city of Chełm, near the border with Ukraine. Since settling in Poland, he has worked as a journalist and a film producer and co-owned a movie theater chain. He now pursues various business interests.

Charles Frederick first went to teach English in Włocławek, central Poland, before settling in the southern town of Nowy Targ. He is still an English teacher. He is married to Małgorzata, with whom he has a son.

Angelo Pressello
I’m of Italian descent, my father was born in Italy and emigrated to the U.S., my mother is an Italian American. So I’m an Ohio-born Italian.

The United States was a rich country, one of the richest, and elsewhere in the world things weren’t as good as there. So I wanted to do something with my life, something like the Peace Corps, go to other countries and help people who lived there. Later in my life I would have a career, money and so on, but for two years, I could try and make a difference.

When I sent in my application, the Peace Corps told me to get ready for Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. I bought a couple of books, started reading, thinking I was going to live on the steppe and drink milk from strange animals. And then they told me, “You got Poland.” Poland? That’s Europe, man! It’s boring! I was even close to declining, but thankfully I didn’t.

Once I knew I was going to Poland and told older Poles in America that I was, they said to me, “Why are you going there, there’s poverty over there! There’s a war going on!” Or, “If you find a wife there, get her to a dentist first to fix her teeth before you bring her back to America.” They were Polish, I felt so embarrassed for them!

I used to say back then that if you don’t feel good about yourself, join the Peace Corps and come to Poland, because Poles like Americans. It’s not like that everywhere in the world, but here, they liked us. It was like I was the first American they had ever met in their lives. So we had to drink vodka together right away, at 8 a.m., no less. Or somebody would touch me, saying, “I want to touch you, because if you are here, then America must be real.” That’s the way it was back then. Now that’s certainly no longer the case.

(About Przysucha:) I liked winter, because it was dark outside and I could walk down a street without being immediately recognized, without all this “Hi, Angelo!”, “Hi!,” “Hi!” from everybody, everywhere. One day I was in the teacher’s room and another teacher said to me, “I hear you’ve bought a lot of tomatoes?” What? Did everyone know what was on my shopping list?

I came to Poland in 1994. Staying in Poland wasn’t in the plans, but that’s how life is.

My wife and I first went to Italy in 2005. I have family there and I told the Italians there that they’d made a huge mistake by allowing Poland to join the EU, because Poles were such a hard-working and ambitious nation that in 20 years, “you’ll only be serving coffee to Poles who will buy land and live here.”

My child, who is Polish, can go to England or France if he likes and easily get a job there. That’s his prerogative. We are living in a paradise. We’re in the Schengen Area, we don’t even undergo border checks any more. This is a great place and right now is probably the best time for Poland ever.

Charles Frederick
When I was an officer in the navy, I went to different countries—the Philippines, Hong Kong, Korea. I even lived for year in Germany when I was in high school. When my job with the navy was over, I went back to college. When I was in my graduation year, there was a job fair where the Peace Corps had a stand. I talked to them and thought, “Peace Corps in Europe! Great idea, why not!?”

I chose Europe, because I had lived in Germany before and wanted to return to Europe.

Poland was the hardest to get assigned to, because it wasn’t the Third World, it was the Second World, so to speak. So when they asked me if I wanted to go to Poland, I felt honored by the offer. I said, “I guess so, but when do I have to decide?” And they answered, “Now.”

When we arrived in June, the weather in Poland was hot and the cultural orientation lady said, “Girls, if you have mini-skirts, you can trash them right now, because when a girl in Poland is wearing a mini-skirt it means she’s a prostitute.” So there I was in Poland in June 1992, thinking, “Damn, look at all these prostitutes!” Mini-skirts were in fashion back then and all the girls were wearing them. They weren’t even mini-skirts, they were more like wide belts.

We also had a quick class in Polish and learned how to say Dzień dobry [Hello] and Do widzenia [Goodbye] and “I am a volunteer of the American Peace Corps.” We only knew those three expressions. There was a Polish lady at the airport and she started talking to me. I thought, “She’s asking what I’ll be doing in Poland. Good, I know the answer!” So I said, “I am a volunteer of the American Peace Corps,” mispronouncing pokoju (peace) as pokusy (temptation). She just laughed and said, “Well, that’s a good corps too!”

I came to Warsaw in summer and then continued to Włocławek. I spent two years there, until 1994. I returned to Colorado, but I missed Poland, because I had good contact with the people and I liked the job a lot. So about a year later I called Warsaw and asked them if I could return. But the second time around, I wanted to come here, to Nowy Targ. I went on to work in a high school for five years. In my third year there, I met Małgosia. I’d been planning to return to the States to get my M.A. degree, but when I met Małgosia, love prevailed.

Today I have a good job, a beautiful wife, a great house, a son. People here are so nice and kind. I live like a king here.

Sean Bobbitt
I like to say that those who last in Poland the longest must be from the Midwest. I’m from Kansas City, a Midwestern boy. I think it’s easier for people from the Midwest to feel comfortable in Poland because it’s not a big environment or culture shock for us.

For me, it was also about curiosity. I hadn’t really been abroad, I had only spent one semester in Spain. And I was an international relations student!

It was rush hour in Warsaw. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9... 10 cars! A Maluch, a Polonez, a Syrena, not a single Western car. That was my first day here, 4 p.m. When I walked down a street, people didn’t talk to one another. Back home, even on my first trip back to Kansas City, to my grandma’s funeral, I went to a gas station and this guy shouts over, “Hi, what nice weather today, eh?” And I was dumbfounded—I was stuck, I didn’t know what to say, I’d become so accustomed to everybody keeping to themselves, to the fact that no one in Poland talked to other people on the street.

I noticed how Poles excelled in pointing out various problems. I was calm and would ask, “How can we get around this?” It’s all about staying open-minded rather than just pointing out problems, saying why one thing or another can’t work.

The first time I went to a local restaurant, there was this big menu. I was hungry and didn’t know how to buy things from the grocery store. So there was the menu and I said, “Chicken.”
“We don’t have chicken.”
I asked about five things, but the lady kept saying they were out of them all. So in the end I asked, “What do you do have, then?” and she said, “Scrambled eggs and fries.”
“Ok, I’ll take them.”
But just six months later, they were serving everything they had on the menu. A lot changed, a pizzeria opened, even if the pizzas were heated up in a microwave. Many things became available, such as washing powder from the West. Everyone, including my students, started making money by selling jeans in Turkey, buying cigarettes in Ukraine and so on.

That’s how things worked back then and it was wonderful to see how resourceful the people were. Now when I hear “Polak potrafi” [A Pole will find a way], I know that’s really the way it is. I mean, given the circumstances, hats off to people who managed to make a living for themselves. Really, those weren’t easy times.

Today, taxi drivers who notice my accent still ask me, “Everybody’s trying to get into the States and you’ve been here for so many years?” I’ve been here 21 years this June.

What I find the most upsetting is the lack of consideration for other people. All Poles complain about the lack of freeways in Poland. But why aren’t there any? Well, because somebody’s arguing with someone else, won’t give this or that away—it’s like the liberum veto where one person can obstruct any development. “A freeway is a must, but not near my property!”

I remember how people invited me to their homes shortly after I came here. I was afraid to walk into the apartment towers, all devastated and dilapidated. They looked terrible, but then I got inside the apartments and bang, all luxuries. “Why won’t you put some money into renovating the stairwell?” I would ask, only to hear, “But it’s not mine!” It’s a lack of a sense of community. This is only emerging in Poland, in part thanks to NGOs which organize different things and bring neighbors closer together. This is another thing that will be interesting to watch how people become less and less selfish and lose the liberum veto attitude.

When times were tough and adventurous, that was really the best time for me. I think I emerged a better man than I would have been had I immediately taken up a job.

I stayed here because, for a while, I really couldn’t find a reason to leave. Now that Poland has become a “normal” country, I miss the States a little more.

The Peace Corps is a volunteer program operated by the U.S. government to provide technical assistance to underprivileged countries and help Americans and foreigners understand each other’s cultures. American volunteers live, learn and work with a community overseas for 27 months, providing grassroots assistance. In Poland, the Peace Corps was active in 1990-2001, over which time 950 volunteers came to Poland to teach English to Polish students, support environmental education and help small businesses develop.

These first-person accounts come from a feature by Hanna Bogoryja-Zakrzewska and Amy Drozdowska broadcast by Polish Radio
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