Not many Brits move to Poland to work in a fish-and-chip shop. Fewer still come back wanting to be a Member of the European Parliament. A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland is the candid account of an unlikely immigrant. It is a bittersweet portrait of an unsung country in the context of Brexit and a fracturing Europe.
In March 2016, Ben Aitken moved to Poland to understand why the Poles were leaving. He booked the cheapest flight to a place he’d never heard of – Poznan. On his second morning he went to a protest about the government and got a job teaching Polish children. He moved into a flat with three Poles in a rough part of town that was put up by the Germans. He got a job in a fish-and-chip shop so he could understand the cost of living. Between peeling potatoes and boning fish, he fell in and out of love with his boss. When he wasn’t at work he was on the road: he missed the bus to Auschwitz; was drugged at a strip club in Wroclaw; stayed with a dozen nuns in a Benedictine Abbey near Krakow and nearly got kicked out for being an atheist. He was offered a job by a eurosceptic farmer; almost died in the southern mountains; went to Gdansk to learn how Solidarity rose and Communism fell. He spent Christmas with a totally random family because, having heard about a seasonal tradition, he knocked on their door and said he was alone. He did all this against a volatile political backdrop. Brexit. Trump. A divisive new Polish government.
After a year in Poland he went home the long way, the better to understand what he was leaving, what Britain was leaving. He drove beyond the Berlin Wall and through the Rhineland, then stopped in Belgium to call at the EU to see where British laws used to be made. He crossed the Channel by ferry to Hull, where a Polish butcher gave him a free sour cucumber because he knew where the butcher was from. Waiting for a train to London, he looked down and realised he was standing on the words of Philip Larkin. ‘Always it is by bridges that we live.’ It was a fitting note to finish on, to start from, to go on from.
“A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland” had its UK launch on July 4th by Icon Books. You can always order the book online.
Text: Ben Aitken/NB
Pictures: Ben Aitken, Richard Morgan, Patrick Ney
Ben Aitken is 33 and from Portsmouth, England. He is the author of Dear Bill Bryson: Footnotes from a Small Island, which was featured in The Times, The Guardian, and on BBC Radio. In 2016 he moved to Poland. A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland is the fruit of that unlikely migration.