On the 23rd of June we celebrate Father’s Day in Poland. Because of that I have something special for you today.
In 1988 my dad went for a year to Australia, where he worked trying to save money for his own business he was planning to start in Poland.
Back then Poland was under a communism regime. The reality was depressing. Certain food was hard to get, there wasn’t much in the shops and human rights were constantly violated. Imagine going from a reality like that to sunny, laid back Australia.
During those 12 months my dad was an expat, just like me right now. I don’t really remember his absence. I remember phone calls, which were always of a bad quality and very often got disconnected. I remember drawings I made for him and which my mum would send to him every week. I also remember how in love he was with Australia when he came back.
Recently I have been thinking about what he felt when he finally got off the plane in Perth, what surprised him the most and what he felt when he came back. So, I asked him a couple of questions and think that his answers will be interesting to those, who are also thinking of going and living somewhere else and also to those, who are always fascinated by other people’s stories.
Where did the idea of going to Australia come from?
The idea came from your mum’s friend, Ewa Sokolowska, who lived in Australia with her family.
It wasn’t an easy time for us back then. So, my wife and your mother, called her friend and asked for advice. She offered to help me get a visa and a job in Australia.
Was it difficult to get a visa? I imagine it wasn’t easy to leave the country back then? How did you manage that?
I applied for the visa in 1988 and the embassy in Warsaw declined my request.
Sokolowski family appealed to the Court of Peace, where they had to prove that they were able to afford to host me for a year. After a while I got a phone call from the embassy and I was asked to come for an interview. It took ages to convince the clerk I had the interview with that I wouldn’t work there. Finally I got a visa for a year, until November 1989.
Tell me about the trip? Was it difficult? What surprised you during the flight?
It was my first such a far away trip. First I flew from Warsaw to Singapore.
The plane, Russian IL, shook the whole way. I really thought that it was going to crash. We stopped to get fuel in Tashkent, which belonged to the Russian Federation. During the short break the plane was guarded by soldiers with big machine guns.
When we landed in Singapore I saw a different world. Shops were full of things! In Poland we didn’t have much and very often we couldn’t get basic necessities. It was a sad, grey country.
The plane we arrived on was too small for the sleeve and we had to land at the end of the airport, so we could get off safely. The plane I took from Singapore to Perth was so big and I was really surprised by its size.
When I arrived in Perth our friends were waiting for me.
I can hardly imagine what you felt when you got to Perth. You were brought up in tough times. Poland was a poor country and the political system was very different from the one in Australia. I know what cultural shock is as I went through it myself. What were your first impressions of Australia? Were you surprised by how rich the country was, that there was so much in shops, that people were different? What surprised you the most?
I spent a couple of days at my friends’ house. I was a bit bored there, so I cut the grass and did some small repairs for them. After a few days they took me to a farm, where I was supposed to work. During my stay at their house I noticed those small differences between a Polish and Australian households. Sokolowsky family kept everything unlocked. Their house wasn’t fenced and they kept tools in a garage. There were no pavements in the area as everyone drove cars.
Once I didn’t feel too well and went to see a doctor. They gave me a card, which they swiped every time I came for a visit. It seems that they already had GPs back then and every patient’s details were in a computer system. That was 25 years ago and that was something you couldn’t even dream about in Poland. I remember that the bill for my first visit was $80AUD and I only paid $12 as the rest was covered by the government.
Our friend, Romek, broke a leg once. He was in a hospital and I went to visit him. He was in bed reading some kind of a document. It turned out it was a menu with dishes to choose from. He could choose 4 courses, including drinks and a dessert – even now we don’t have such privileges in Poland.
When I was leaving Poland it was grey and cold. During my weekends in Australia I travelled a little with Sokolowsky family. To me Australia was the sunniest and the most amazing country.
I remember once we passed these older people all dressed in white, playing cricket. I asked my friends ‘are these some kind of rich people?’ He said that these were retired people. When you retired in Australia you sold your house and half of the money you gave to your children and the rest you kept for yourself. They then moved to special homes, where they lived independently. They rented flats for $30AUD a month. Their pension was around $700AUD a week and they spent around $200AUD. I just couldn’t believe that. Back then a doctor in Poland earned $25US per month!
How did you manage to get a job in Australia? What were the living conditions?
I worked on a vegetable farm. The owners were from Yugoslavia. They owned a gold mine and 6 other vegetable farms. One of the brothers looked after the business, the others worked with us on the farm.
I lived in a camper van, which was actually pretty nice. Next door there was a concrete building with a toilet and a shower. I remember that we had a lot of scorpions there.
There were 25 other Polish people working on the farm. At first I worked picking up cauliflowers. I don’t recall this as a hard job. It was pretty easy actually. Later on I drove a tractor.
Crops were enormous there. They used a lot of pesticides and they would collect 1 tone of onion from only 1 hectare of field.
They didn’t grow vegetables on a black soil, there was just sand, like on a beach. I was also surprised that they didn’t lock anything. They had containers of petrol just standing there, without locks.
Australia is a beautiful country, sunny and the people are just amazing!
What did you think of Poland when you got back?
When I got back I was in a bigger shock than when I got off in Perth. Poland was grey, rainy and just seemed so depressing.
On our way back from the airport your mum, my friend and I stopped at a restaurant. They had Coca-Cola, so we all ordered it. I asked for some ice and the waitress looked at me like I was crazy and said ‘what? Ice? In November?’ I remember this like it was yesterday. That was the moment when I realised how different this country was from Australia.
You left because of financial reasons, but do you think that this experience gave you something more? Do you think it changed you in some way? Do you think that experiences like that make people richer?
Despite the occasional loneliness and the fact that I missed my family a lot, I don’t regret my decision. I saw a different country, I learned a lot and I earned a lot of money to secure my and my family’s future. It was something that a lot of Polish people did back then. I sometimes think that Poles very often travel, discover, but we also fight for our future. That’s just in our blood.
I would recommend everyone to go somewhere, even if it’s a trip to earn money. It’s really worth it.
I remember how you always said that Australia was amazing. You never wanted to stay there?
Yes, I did but your mum didn’t want to. She didn’t want to leave her parents. I think that in a way it was a good decision, but on the other hand I think that we probably had it easier in Australia.
After he came back my dad opened his own company. He worked hard for years and always thought of his stay in Australia with nostalgia. He planted a seed of curiosity in me and he was the reason that I bought a ticket to Oz and wanted to check if it was really a paradise like he described.
My dad has always accepted my life decisions with an open mind and has never criticised them, even if he didn’t understand them. On this Father’s Day I wish every father to be like mine – loving, open and always there for their kids when needed.