I first visited Warsaw for a week in 1999. It was love at first sight – despite the fact that the love I had come to visit turned out to be sharing his love with someone else. Warsaw replaced KK in my heart with only the tinniest of flutters of sadness for what might have been. Poland’s official transition from communism had come to a close just 8 years earlier, and Warsaw still had the grey vibe of repression; however, it was surpassed by the city’s heart glowing with the kind of grand creativity that blossomed and flowed in Eastern Europe against Soviet tyranny. I was 21, living in Edinburgh, Scotland, and my Ukrainian blood began singing through my veins being so close to my ancestral home. (My family lives 5kms from the Polish border in Western Ukraine.) So, when a job opportunity arose the following year in Warsaw, I took it. (Thank you, ED.) I moved to a tiny room in the Ochota district of Warsaw. It was essentially a shoebox. I could touch both walls with my outstretched arms. Walking home from the tram, I would pass the local police station where the sounds of drinking and card-playing would waft out of the barred windows. Despite the natural concerns that arise with drunken authority, I felt safe in Warsaw. I was so in love with the city that felt like home right away regardless of the fact that I only spoke about ten words of Polish at that point. Luckily for me, the company I worked for offered free Polish lessons to its staff. KB, the Polish teacher, was not only an incredible teacher but also became a wonderful friend. In addition, a group of my fellow Polish-language-learning colleagues turned out to be the type of friends that few are lucky enough to find in this life – a group of people who just happen to meet and click at just the right time and place and who remain linked forever. After our Polish lessons, we would search for a feeling of home in Warsaw together.
Currently, I’ve escaped from my days at the Zentralbibliothek in Hamburg, and I’m spending a week in Warsaw. I expected to have a lovely week in a city I know and love before returning to my new home-to-be of Hamburg. The moment I stepped off the plane in Warsaw, I was hit by a tidal wave of emotion: Czuję się, że jestem w domu - I feel like I am home. Except I’m not. Not only did I leave Warsaw 7 years ago but home often implies a place that we are free to live in. I’m not free to live here. I don’t have Polish or EU citizenship, so living here was a constant challenge. Each year, I had to apply for new permits that would allow me to live and work in Warsaw. The process got a tiny bit easier as years went by, but it was still an annual process that lasted for about 3 months during which I would have to leave the country and re-enter and spend hours in government offices while worked piled up on my desk. In order to live and work in Warsaw for the company that employed me, I needed to have two permits: a karta pobytu (residency card) and zezwolenie na pracę (work permit). The biggest bureaucratic challenge was that in order to get a residency card, you needed a work permit, and in order to get a work permit, you needed a residency card. (There were many, many more challenges, but if I described everything, this post would be the length of a book.) So, how was this ridiculous feat accomplished? Basically, you had to file paperwork for both the residency card and the work permit at the respective government office at the same time and come up with excuses why one office was waiting on the other one. In order to gather all of the documents needed to file for these permits, many, many trips had to be made to other government offices. The majority of my time, however, was spent at one government office: Wydział Spraw Cudzoziemców – The Department of Foreigners.
Not only were there crazed amounts of blazing hoop-jumping to get through, but just getting an appointment to submit documents at The Department of Foreigners was a stunt in and of itself. In order to get an appointment, you needed to collect a number on a piece of paper. If you arrived at the time that the building opened, there would already be a massive group of fellow foreigners ahead of you, and the number you got would be so high that it would never get called. A number expired at the end of the day, so getting a low number was the equivalent of finding gold. Essentially, you had to start queuing at 5am, which was less than ideal in the cold, winter months. Before the police eradicated the practice, you could pay one of the żul (men and women who were homeless and could often be found in a park drinking) to queue for you so that you didn’t have to get up before dawn. They would wait until the building opened and get you a number. When you arrived, you would pay 5 or 10 PLN to the brave, vodka-warmed soul who helped you out, collect your number, and still have to hope that it was called before closing time. I once waited 2 days at The Department of Foreigners to get an appointment to drop off documents. It was do or die – if I didn’t get the documents submitted on day 3, I would lose my right to stay in the country. It was time to pull out all the stops. Foreigners usually gathered according to nationality or ethnicity. I ended up having to make friends with a drunk Ukrainian woman named Luba who reeked of old cabbage and kept kissing my cheeks with vodka-drenched breath. However, she knew a Ukrainian nun who had access to a lower number that would allow me to submit my documents before closing time. We do what we have to do to find home.
Despite this inanity, Warsaw is the one place that I felt closest to the feeling of home in. It may take a couple of burly men to force me onto the plane in a few days.