Working Abroad Q&A: Each week Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week we chat to Michael Gannon. He is originally from Roscommon and works as a tour guide in Gdansk, Poland.
Why did you leave Ireland in the first place?
Ireland in the early 1980s wasn't the best place to be and with the strains of the Boomtown Rats' Banana Republic ringing in our ears , thousands of my generation went sailing across the oceans looking for something different. I spent a couple of years here and there doing different things such as bar work in Brixton, steel-fixing in Berlin, carting furniture around Manhattan, picking oranges in the Peleponnese and then one misty night in Amsterdam, I decided to try something different.
I asked her in English of she felt Irish or Polish. She muttered in Polish "I feel tired" then sank back into the seat listening to Ed Sheeran's Galway Girl
A short time later I found myself in Co Derry as a mature student in the University of Ulster Coleraine. The North Derry and Antrim coast is spectacular and university life was memorable. However, the day after graduating with a degree in Irish studies I set off for Poland to see if that nice girl I had met in a campsite in Noordwikjerhout in the Netherland still had the flutters for me. As luck would have it, she did, so I thought I would hang on for a while.
Poland in the 1990s was an exciting place - there was a lot happening and at times it even had the air of the wild west about it. So it didn’t take me too long to fit in and feel at home.
Tell us about your life in Poland.
I first started teaching English in state schools and then opened my own school. It was a sharp learning curve and a fulfilling experience, imbuing thousands of Poles to speak the Queen’s tongue with a Roscommon accent.
Another important milestone that has taken me to where I am today was joining the long established Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society, which is the cradle of guiding in Poland. I enrolled on courses, and with support and encouragement from lots of helpful people became an officially-licensed guide for the Gdansk region.
What’s a typical day’s tour-guiding like?
Sizes of groups are anything from one to 40. They come from all over the world and their fields of interest could be anything from ancient Prussian forts to aesthetic medicine. We visit many world class attractions in Gdansk such as the colourful and lively streets, the shipyards that downed communism, Westerplatte, which officially opened the second World War, Stutthof the German Nazi concentration camp where evil reigned, and the magical Elblag Canal where ships slide out of water then turn into trains and roll across the fields - you have to see it to believe it. Places where events have fundamentally changed the course of history and names such as Copernicus, Napoleon, Hitler and the Polish Gandi, Lech Walesa, are often mentioned. Irish names such as Sean Lester, Bernard O' Connor and Bishop O' Rourke are also high on the list. This is a crossroads of Europe, not some sleepy outpost.
This is a crossroads of Europe, not some sleepy outpost
Being a guide is not only to be an ambassador for the local culture, you also learn about the cultures of the people you guide. You hear about their countries, encounter behavioural traits from different parts of the world and into the bargain you meet lots of interesting characters with colourful stories.This is job where you never stop learning and regularly have an eye-opener.
What is it like living in Poland?
This is a gateway country between east and west, and that is reflected in the culture - the romanticism of the Slavs blends with the pragmatism of the Germans. Others who have come and gone have left their mark on the diverse but relatively unknown cuisine, anyone for Russian dumplings, French beans or Ukrainian soup?
Nature and wildlife is my thing and Poland is a mecca for that. I live on the edge of a forest and any free time I have, I am swinging out of trees or worming my way along the forest floor trying with my camera trying to get a shot of an evasive oriole or European stag, the closer I get to nature the clearer things become.
What is it like being Irish here?
A lot of Poles have a soft spot for the Irish because of a shared history of religion, repression and resistance, and many have family and friends who have connections with Ireland. That is a good basis for swapping stories and building relationships. It’s not uncommon now to see Irish-registered cars flying around with “the steering wheel on the wrong side”.
Do you socialise with any other Irish people?
I have some Irish friends who live in different parts of Poland, but, we don't get to meet as much as I would like to. The Irish Embassy is great at organising networking events such as the one on St Patrick's day and if I can, I try to make the four hour drive to Warsaw, catch up with old hands like myself and meet new ones, which is always fun. There are very few Irish that I know of living in this neck of the woods. Elblag, where I live, is a quiet town of about 250,000 sitting on the edge of the River Vistula delta region and the hills of Warmia, east of Gdansk.
Life in Gdansk.
That pretty girl I met all those years ago on a campsite in the Netherlands is now a beautiful woman, who works as a professional on the front line of the Polish public health service. She often hears positive comments about how good the local service is compared to the Irish one, which is thought provoking considering the GDP per capita in Poland is so much lower.
We are blessed with a 16-year-old daughter, who is called Julia after my mother. Early the other morning on our way to school and in relation to this article I asked her in English of she felt Irish or Polish. She muttered in Polish “I feel tired” then sank back into the seat listening to Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl.