How do you like Poland? What do you think about Polish people? – these are the questions any foreigner living in Poland or staying here for a while has to answer, sooner or later. What do I, a Dutchman living in Gdańsk, think about Poland? Some weeks ago I was interviewed by Wyborcza.pl, one of the leading news papers in Poland. This post is a translation of the original article which can be found here.
Ewa Karendys: You moved to Gdańsk due to your wife, who is Polish. How did you first meet?
Peter Horsten: I came to Gdańsk in April 1995 for a week-long trip organised by the faculty I studied at. On the fifth day of our stay we were supposed to have some classes at the University of Gdańsk. Kasia, who is today my wife, was our host. As a matter of fact, she was there by accident. She stood in for a colleague who was supposed to welcome us but eventually could not make it. In the evening we all went to the Kwadratowa student club. So that is basically how we first met and how our relationship began. Our second meeting was in Warsaw. I remember that flights were expensive then so I spent half of my salary to get there by plane. A few years later I was ready to move to Poland but Kasia thought it was a crazy idea. In the Netherlands I had a place to live and a permanent job. Besides, I still had to finish my second course at the university. For Kasia my home country seemed to be a better place to start our life together than Poland where no-one would understand a word I said. So when she graduated from the university she joined me in the Netherlands. We lived 10 years in The Hague but I was convinced, and kept repeating to my wife, that one day we would move to Poland anyway. We both had good jobs but craved for a change. It was quite complicated though. We had financial and professional stability, three kids and we were considering turning it all upside down.
What was it then that you finally decided: „We are moving to Poland”? Why did you choose Gdańsk?
Well, it was quite natural. Kasia comes from Gdańsk and her family lives here. Business issues were of much importance to us too. It was the time when Dutch companies started to launch their outsourcing centres e.g. in India, but were not very successful. I made an analysis of the Polish market and visited several Polish companies. I was astonished at how innovative they were and by the quality they offered. Also, Polish IT graduates were and still are very well-qualified. And finally, the costs of living as well as renting office space were much lower in Poland than in the Netherlands then.
Was it a challenge to start your own business in Poland?
People like to moan about the conditions of starting and running one’s own business in Poland but it seems we were lucky. In the Netherlands if you want to set up a business you do not have too many formal issues to deal with. In fact, you can have them all dealt with by a legal advisor. In Poland however we were required to appear in each and every institution in person. Luckily, we had a great legal advisor, well-acquainted with all the formalities, who helped us deal with them. It took us only three days to register the company. Many people claim it was a miracle! The major drawback of running your business in Poland are tax issues. You have to submit your tax returns every month, which means you have to hire an accountant right from the start. In the Netherlands you are required to submit your tax return no sooner than a year after your company was started. It is so much easier and it saves you the accountant’s salary. In Poland you have to have an invoice for anything you order or buy. If you don’t, you have a problem. By contrast, in the Netherlands all you need is a receipt. You pay for a taxi or a business lunch with your private money and then you simply claim it as a business expense. Dealing with all that administrative stuff is much more flexible there. In Poland we often hear “You have to do it this way. Period.”
What about work culture?
That’s what puzzled me most in Poland. In the Netherlands employers and employees base their relations upon mutual trust and cooperation. We wanted to introduce such an approach in our company. We were surprised to see it did not work. Our employees either abused our trust and freedom we let them enjoy or felt awkward. I know it sounds absurd but it turned out they were distrustful due to the fact we trusted them so much. I got it one day when I came across an article by a sociologist who claimed that Poles are characterised by a high level of mistrust towards each other. That is why there are so many rules you have to conform to in Poland. The government does not trust citizens, citizens do not trust the government. It is the same with companies – employers and employees do not trust one another. Similarly, we had problems establishing business relations with Polish clients. We were not able to cooperate as they did not want to treat us and be treated as partners. Their priority was to get the lowest price. They did not get it that for an adequate amount of money we were ready to provide them with top quality services. They could not understand that if you want a good service or product you need to spend some money on it. Often when we were just about to sign a contract problems started to arise. We were making final arrangements with a Polish client and suddenly it turned out they had doubts about a certain statement included in the contract. And we had discussed it before! Luckily, that approach has changed a lot over the last 3-5 years and I can see some changes for the best as regards mutual trust.
Perhaps it is due to the fact that borders have been open and we travel much more than we used to?
It is due to globalization for sure and to the fact that there are a number of international companies operating in the Polish market. Today we have contracts signed with renowned Polish companies. Poland has a great potential and it is catching up with western countries. The key to success is to make good use of the last round of European Funds. It is not enough to spend money on infrastructure and roads. You need to know how to invest them wisely. Polish people had to quickly learn how to be consumers. Now it is high time they have learned how to invest money and to earn it to be able to spend it.
You used to lecture at the Faculty of Management at the University of Gdańsk. What do you think about Polish students as compared to their Dutch colleagues?
Well, they are pretty much alike, I would say. As a lecturer I have noticed an interesting thing, though. Some students want to pass a course without putting much effort to it. In my course students were required to prepare a presentation and write an essay to pass. I told them about it during the first class. And guess what – most of them did not turn up for the next class! They preferred to attend another course where they were only supposed to be present to get the final grade. In my opinion Polish universities are doing a good job although to be honest I have to point out that the higher education system does not fully respond to business requirements. To change it universities would have to start cooperating with companies. There is another problem – some lecturers are pure theoreticians. They do not know the practical side of business. I also think the final diploma thesis is some sort of misunderstanding. Students should work on business projects to get their diplomas and not to deal with theory as they do know. Luckily, I can see the light in the tunnel. Professor Stanisław Wrycza runs a pioneering dual course at the University of Gdańsk. It combines theory with practice and deals with IT applications in business. It seems to me such solutions are the best option for the future.
Let’s go back to your first visit to Gdańsk? What were your first impressions?
It was a sunny Sunday. I had no idea what Poland would look like. There were some images connected with industry in my head, related mainly to the Solidarity movement. So I was pleasantly surprised. And I was astonished with the Old Town.
When we say „the Netherlands” we think windmills, canals, coffee shops and bikes.
Some of those images are true though I have never been to a coffee shop. It is mainly a tourist attraction. My Polish colleagues cannot believe it. They keep asking: “How come you were passing by and you didn’t pop in?!”
And what images do you associate with Poland?
Stereotypes about Poland are most unfair – a poor, colourless country, drunk people in the streets… To tell you the truth, Polish people living in the Netherlands do not do much to change that image. You keep hearing about car accidents caused by drunk Polish drivers or drowning incidents in which soaked Poles are involved. They really spoil your image. Luckily, I can see it changing. When we invite our Dutch clients to Tricity they are all pleasantly surprised. Dutch people highly value Polish construction crews. In the Netherlands you can wait ages for such guys. If they have a spare while for you, you are lucky. Polish workers are quick, motivated and can really deliver.
Polish cyclists envy inhabitants of Amsterdam their cycling infrastructure. Can Gdańsk compete with Amsterdam in that matter?
The cycling infrastructure in Gdańsk is impressive, indeed. And ten years ago it was not there at all. Still, it cannot be compared to Dutch solutions, especially when it comes to safety. In the Netherlands cyclists claim priority and it is hard for a driver to get through. It is the other way round in Poland – drivers do not care about cyclists at all. There is a cycle lane next to Olivia Business Centre, where Goyello office is located. It crosses the entrance to the car park. Several times a day dangerous situations can be spotted there because drivers ignore cyclists. However, Polish public transport is awesome. You can get wherever you wish, which is not always the case in Dutch cities.
And what about public space?
Streets are very clean – I noticed that when I first came to Poland and I must say it has not changed since then. But roads in Gdańsk… they are in such a poor condition! When you are in Tricity driving your car, you always know when you are driving into Gdańsk. The potholes and bumps will guide you. It is so much better in Gdynia, Sopot and even Warsaw. In Gdańsk the city authorities focused on the roads connecting the suburbs with the centre of the city. Unfortunately, they forgot about the ones in the centre.
As for architecture, well, the new buildings match the old ones and I am really impressed with Sopot in that matter. When standing on the pier and you look at the city, you can see that someone put an effort to integrate the new buildings with the older ones. The new office buildings in Gdańsk – Olivia Business Centre and Alchemia – are really beautiful as well. As for PGE Arena, I think a few Dutch football teams would envy you for the stadium. Pity it is so costly and does not really earn money for its own maintenance though. And I am sorry for Lechia. The team is not very successful these days.
Is there anything that puzzles you in Poland?
Yes, there are a few such things, for instance the service in restaurants and shops. I admit it is getting better and better but sometimes you can still get that impression that the staff is not quite willing to help customers. Let’s take this example: we wanted to buy a fridge. The shop offered an assembly but not in Gdańsk. I mean, is it really impossible to provide such a service? It is unbelievable that a customer who is willing to buy a product and can afford it, is left empty-handed. It is basically the same with restaurants. It is quite a problem, especially in summer in Sopot. Most of the staff there are students working part-time during holidays. They are not trained and have no idea about the standards of customer service. All they care about is to take your order, bring your meal and get their tip.
Do you learn Polish?
I have attended a number of courses, I have also had tuition. Due to my duties at work as well as my three kids I cannot devote as much time to learning Polish as I would like to. I can tell a shop assistant, a waiter or a taxi driver what I want, but I am not satisfied with that. Tenses are quite a challenge though, as well as cases. My wife has recently laughed at me when she heard me say “krzan” instead of “chrzan”. Well, they sound pretty alike, don’t they? Image credits: Wikimedia