She is French, her husband is American. They live together in Stary Mokotów – one of Warsaw’s greenest districts – and their kids feel… Polish. Culture.pl sat down with Virginie Little to talk about how she learned Polish so well.
Moving to Poland
In 2001, Virginie decided to leave Paris and move to Poland for a bit. She had studied Marketing, Law and Economy in France. When she came to Poland, she did not speak any Polish at all. After almost 16 years, she managed to master this Slavic language – Adam Mickiewicz himself would be proud.
When she moved to Poland, her first job was at the French monthly Le Courrier de Varsovie, a French newspaper created in 1990. She worked in the marketing department. Those were her first steps in journalism. When the monthly stopped its distribution in 2003, she decided it was time set up a newspaper of her own. That is how Les Echos de Pologne was born.
Moving to Poland was part of your plan, but you were always sure that you would go back to France. Instead, you ended up staying and you started learning Polish right away…
When I arrived in Poland, the first thing I did was enrol at a Polish language school and start learning the language.
I started to learn Polish right after my arrival and my course lasted around 8 months. For me, it was perfect: small groups, twice a week, an hour and a half each day. I attended Tuesdays and Thursdays and had homework to do. It was quite intense. But I had no other option: I was convinced that the only way I would learn the language was in a school. I lived alone and had no boyfriend.
There are some people that prefer to learn languages on their own. Why did you consider it so important to go to a language school to learn Polish?
Well, you have to learn the basic stuff first. I needed to already know the basics to actually start speaking the language and eventually develop my skills. This is not English, where speaking is relatively easy and you don’t need to know it on an advanced level to talk about daily life. I figured that the only way for me to actually learn Polish would be in a school. Pronunciation is not easy and I still have some problems with it, although I do know how to write well. The problem was always with grammar.
How long did it take you to have an actual conversation in Polish?
It took me a couple of months. I studied at the school for 8 months just because there were no groups for my skill-level. I was already able to speak to people. I don’t really remember how long it took me because I spoke French at work. But I very much wanted to speak to my Polish colleagues in Polish.
Everyone has a story
Other than working for her own monthly, Virginie has gained experience working with French-speaking organisations from different countries and has become a member of the Polish-French Chamber of Commerce and Industry. She also hosted her own online radio programme, for which she interviewed French speakers living in Poland. She would talk to them about their work, their place of birth and their life in Poland.
Everyone has a story. We are all equal and through dialogue we enrich ourselves. At the end of the day, I always learned something new.
Virgine doesn’t have a car and she and her family ride bicycles to get around Mokotów. Her kids, Lea 7 and Neil 5, both attended a bilingual kindergarten. Lea now attends a Polish public school. Before taking them to kindergarten, she and her husband had enrolled the kids at a Polish nursery school. They considered it important for the kids to integrate into Polish society when they were still babies. Now the kids have grown up Polish, despite not actually having Polish citizenship.
What do you do now professionally?
I have two companies and I also still work in communications. One of the companies works on projects related to sustainable development. We work with entrepreneurs on educational projects for youth and adults. We need to take care of the planet and reduce our ecological footprints. I am happy because I have the opportunity to use my creativity related to communications. In a very modest way, I can help our world. There is a lot of potential in Poland and also a lot of interest from Polish companies to invest in these innovative projects.
First impressions last a lifetime
The first time that Virginie visited Poland was in 1995 – she was a teacher in Bielsko-Biała. Afterwards, she kept in touch with the people she met then and visited Poland once a year. Virginie went back to Bordeaux to continue her studies, but she was sure she wanted to leave as soon as possible.
I had had enough of the French – they complain all the time!
The company I was working for went bankrupt and I had to find a job. I thought: well, if I have to find a job, then why not look for one in Poland. So went to Warsaw and called a Polish language school. I really wanted to live abroad and I knew Poland was the place for me.
My friends who wanted to leave France usually ended up going to the United Kingdom – to me London and Paris were pretty much the same thing: big cities of the West. There is no big difference between the two countries. That wasn’t for me. I was very optimistic. Of course, I did not plan to stay for 15 years, so I did not have a lot to risk!
You seem to be enjoying yourself in Poland. What do you think is so great about it?
The quality of life is a lot better in Warsaw than it is in Paris. There are fewer people and that is a positive feature. Warsaw is much greener, there are a lot of parks, the streets are wider, there is a lot of space in this city. Paris doesn’t have that. In Paris, the streets are so much smaller.
Another thing I also value is the approach towards children, which is very good. You can go out to dinner with kids in Poland. There is often even a special area designated for them in restaurants. In France, they don't have anything like that, which is awful. We went to France and wanted to organise a dinner with friends and our children. It was very difficult. Only one restaurant was ok with it and the waiters were horrible to the kids. Of course, French parents take good care of their children, but there are limited spaces in which kids and parents can interact in public spaces.
Do you have a similar story? What was your experience with learning Polish? Share it with us in the comments!
Written by Alexis Angulo, Mar 2017