Maciek Machalak arrived in England, despondent. In his native Poland, he sold cars and kitchen equipment. He watched a dance studio fold and managed a toy store. Nothing worked. So in 2005, he left his wife, baby, and friends in the small city of Copernicus and joined the exodus to a Europe opening its job market.
Mr. Machalak was determined, but had a low opinion of himself – a residue of post-communist torpor, he says.
Today, after rising to a top waiter post in a swank London restaurant, he has a new outlook. "Before, I felt feeble, a nobody," he says. "Now, I am ... confident. I feel new possibilities."
Somewhere along the way, Machalak imbibed certain ideas, which he calls his rights. Indeed, a generation of Poles working abroad are adopting cosmopolitan values that are now seeping home. The election last month of a new pro-Europe president, Donald Tusk, was aided by youngish expatriates.
"In Poland ... I just accepted getting pushed around," says Machalak. "Now I will ask to speak to the manager. If you work hard ... you deserve decent treatment. I've learned to fight for what I think are my rights. I will bring this back to my country, as many other Poles are."
Since the European Union opened up to Eastern Europe in 2004, some 2 million Poles have flooded Britain and Ireland in one of the most intense shifts of migrants in Europe in recent memory. For years, immigrants in Britain were mainly Irish and South Asian. Now Poles, in an overnight flash of jet landings, are the third-largest ethnic group in England. Bucking immigrant tradition, they don't just settle in cities, but are spreading into towns small and large, according to a new Home Office study.
Contractors with college degrees
They have university degrees from Warsaw but rebuild bathrooms in London. They take crash courses in English. They farm, clean, wait tables, cook, fix machinery, go to night school – and save.
Poles have hit London so hard that an entire subculture of 'Polandia' is developing. Near Marble Arch, a Lebanese market sells Polish meatballs and sausage. Polish newspapers hang on downtown news stands. Poles have so quickly developed a reputation for home repair that most in the business have back orders.
The Institute for Public Policy Research here found in a recent study that Poles work for $5 to $7 cheaper per hour than do Britons.
Highly skilled immigrants "work harder" and are more reliable than Britons, according to the Home Office study, which included input from the British Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions.
"What distinguishes the Polish community is that they all came at the same time. Almost 600,000 arrived within a two-year period," says Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the Center for European Reform in London. "I think it could be the political landscape in Poland. People have come here, worked hard, fought for themselves, been successful, so they can go back to Poland and will demand something better and different."
In many European cities, Poles are quietly achieving a classic success story at a time when the word "immigration" is often mouthed in Europe, however unfairly, as code for migrants that don't want to integrate. In 2008 in France, Poles will be allowed access without a work permit. "We will be coming in large numbers," says Samuel Kuca, a Paris cook from south Poland who moved west two years ago with four of his five college roommates.
Politically, there's been a conservative backlash against foreigners in the EU. France recently passed stricter laws for non-EU immigrants. Swiss elections won by the conservative People's Party last month had opposition to immigration as a key issue. In Italy this week, opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi asked that Romanians be blocked, and other immigrants expelled, and Pope Benedict spoke of immigrant obligations. Bulgarians and Romanians are still blocked from working in England, since their accession to the EU is so recent. There is also an openly negative public attitude about them in England.
A Financial Times editorial this week stated that in Britain, "the debate about immigration … has exploded," arguing that more than half the new jobs in England in the past decade have gone to foreigners under a flexible EU job program. But it noted that all studies show the newcomers make "most existing residents better off."
In the past year, the influx has slowed somewhat. Between June 2005 and 2006, some 574,000 immigrants came to Britain and 385,000 left, the Home Office study shows, a drop of nearly a quarter. But the official figures are widely regarded as an undercount.
Apart from economic benefits, some experts say the Polish migration is transforming both the intrepid workers and Poland.
Machalak, for example, waited in line eight hours at the Polish Embassy last month to vote for Mr. Tusk in the elections. He and his friends watch Polish TV every night on new Polish cable stations, and hear expat Polish radio in London, including Hey Now, a popular new station.
"I went down the line at the embassy asking people why they were voting for Tusk," says Machalak, who holds a degree in political science. "Most said they were voting for change, for the kind of life they see abroad."
In Warsaw, experts point out the Polish expats changed the character of the elections. "You have all those young people from small towns phoning home and telling their parents that the money they are sending will be aided by a pro-European outlook," says one observer. "Believe me, those families weren't going to vote for Kazcinski," the former president, perceived as suspicious of the EU.
Spurred by 'Thriller'
Machalak's story is typical. When Poland first broke from the Soviet Union, he was in the Army. Machalak remembers the euphoria of independence well. At age 23, he saw Michael Jackson's music video "Thriller" and decided to start a dance school.
"It was a way of being free; dancing was freedom." He started a club, but it failed and he went bankrupt. "I barely had enough to buy bread. I had thought everything would be great. I could open a business. But no one told us how to keep it going."
Like many Poles, he "soured on freedom."
When he came to London in 2005, it was his second try. In 2003, he had been put in an airport customs holding for 10 hours and then shipped home. But the next time, he was legal. His sister-in-law picked him up, told him to buy black shoes and trousers, and go downtown. He wandered into the Landmark Hotel and got a job in the kitchen. He memorized the menu so thoroughly that he was promoted to a runner between kitchen and dining room. He went to night school for English, and is now a waiter.
"We spent 50 years under communism. I came here feeling I needed someone to take care of me, to help me," says Machalak, whose stern professional demeanor quickly softens when he speaks. "It was a new culture, a new language. I was alone, no family or friends. I had to think for myself. Now I'm sure I can stand up. I'm not afraid."
But like many Poles, Machalak does not plan to stay on. His wife feels "stressed out." He says the life in London is too complicated and "too fast" for him, and he professes shock at the kind of language and rowdy behavior he sees among young Londoners. He doesn't want this for his daughter. "I'm not going to be a waiter all my life," he adds. "Here, I love it, but I will always be a foreigner."
Machalak plans to go in on a business in Poland with a friend who just returned from England to his hometown. "If we fail, I can always come back here."