I moved from Portsmouth to Poland for a year without knowing any Polish - but loved every bit of it
By his own admission, Ben Aitken likes to go against the grain. The 33-year-old has never feel comfortable living a normal nine to five life.
Always on the hunt for new experiences to write about, the Fratton resident decided to pack in his job as a carer and take off to somewhere he had never been before to immerse himself in a different culture.
It was the start of a wonderful adventure which resulted in the book, A Chip Shop in Poznań: My Unlikely Year in Poland.
‘I’m contrary by nature, I like to do things I shouldn’t really do’, says Ben.
‘Sweden would have been a desirable and pleasant place. But at the time, in 2015, there was quite a lot going on regarding Poland. Lots of Polish people were settling in the UK and the European Referendum loomed.
‘I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go against the grain and try and understand a bit more about that country.’
Once he’d settled on Poland a major factor in which city he’d live in was the cost of getting there.
And so it was in March 2016 he set off on a £20 Ryanair flight to Poznań, a picturesque city in western Poland.
Ben says: ‘I had never heard of it before – and that was one of the criteria. I wanted to be as big a fish out of water as possible.
‘The only thing it is famous for is its football fans who, to show they are enjoying a match, turn their backs to the action and dance wildly for about 25 minutes to show their affection.’
He admits his choice meant his family raised their eyebrows ‘about as far as they would go’ but by now they were used to him taking off taking the road less travelled.
‘My plan was to stay for about a year, I was quite committed,’ recalls Ben.
‘Although it was a bit of a daft undertaking, my motivation was serious. At the time Polish people were getting quite a negative press.’
Unable to speak the language, Ben picked up a phrase book at the airport and learnt a few words on the plane.
He had no hotel booked, no smartphone – he simply jumped on a bus at the airport and went into town.
‘On the third day I was offered a job at an English language school by a man who overheard me ordering some beer,’ explains Ben.
‘I worked there for three months and it was a nightmare. Trying to control a classroom full of eight-year-old Polish kids was not easy.’
Then he heard about a friend of a friend who wanted to open a pop-up fish and chip shop.
Ben laughs and says: ‘They heard there was an English guy in the town and assumed I’d be an expert at making fish and chips.
‘It was a disaster. I kept on dropping things and over-frying things. I spent five hours a day peeling potatoes and I couldn’t understand what the customers were saying. And this was all for £1.80 an hour, minimum wage. I worked flat out.’
But outside of work, life was good. He rented a room in a beautiful period building with high ceilings and wooden floorboards where he lived with three Polish housemates and paid just £140 a month in rent – a fraction of what he would pay in the UK.
It was then the idea for a book about his travels began to form.
He says: ‘It was around the time of the European Referendum.
‘I’d booked a flight to go home and vote on June 26 but it was the wrong day. By the time I realised I had been scheduled to work.
‘But I would have voted remain. There I was, taking advantage of freedom of movement, freedom to work, connect, to love. I was enjoying the fruits of the union.’
Theresa May’s triggering of Article 50 in May 2017 felt like Ben’s cue to leave.
He says: ‘There was a poetic neatness to that.
‘Instead of flying back to London I took a train across Germany and Belgium and a ferry to Hull to drag out my departure and get a sense of what Britain was leaving, if only symbolically.’
Ben is already working on his third travel book, based on a six-week pensioners’ coach trip he took around the British Isles earlier this year. His hope was that some of the other passengers’ wisdom would rub off on him.
But he’ll never forget his year in Poznań and all the wonderful friends he made. Ben adds: ‘I love Poland and love the Polish people, it’s a real treat when I’m in my bedroom in Fratton and I overhear the Polish kids playing in the street. It really makes me smile.’
Buy A Chip Shop in Poznań: My Unlikely Year in Poland go fromamazon.co.uk.