by Barbara Scrivens
Unless one knew his full name, the young man who introduces himself as Chris could come from almost any English-speaking nation.
Krzysztof Dzikiewicz’s easy accent and genteel manner stem from a life helped by being born on a fortuitous side of his birth-country’s history.
As he looks out of his windows high above Macandrew Bay on the Otago Peninsula, he admits that he did not imagine ever living away from Poland, or Europe.
Krzysztof was born in Warsaw in 1985, the same year that Polish communist prime minister General Wojciech Jaruzelski took over as Polish president. On 13 December 1981 Jaruzelski declared martial law and looked to have crushed the Solidarność union’s on-going strikes over wages and food prices. As the fourth prime minister in a year, he apparently wanted to show Moscow that he could control the protesters.
Jaruzelski’s hard-line communist resolve slackened after new Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev repudiated his predecessor’s regime in a December 1988 speech to the UN. On 6 February 1989, following more crippling strikes, Jaruzelski sat opposite many of the same Solidarność union leaders he had jailed years earlier. By 22 December 1990, after the first free elections in Poland for 40 years, he lost his job to Solidarność leader, Lech Wałęsa.
Krzysztof: “I was four when the transformation happened in Poland and I remember when I went to primary school, there were still more Russian-language teachers than English. Out of five or six classes there was only one teacher speaking English, so I spent some time learning Russian.
“My parents then made the wise choice to give me some private classes in English, so I started learning English very early on, and I picked up some German and Spanish. I like languages. They allow me to communicate better and have proven to be useful.”
Krzysztof became the first in his family to study economics, choosing that degree because he thought it would bring opportunities to travel and “explore the world.” His parents were both engineers, as was one grandparent. Another grandparent was a doctor.
“But I didn’t have a passion for physics or chemistry so that’s why I chose something else.”
Krzysztof’s wanderlust made him investigate the opportunities offered by the Erasmus student exchange programme, which pays for students’ university fees in the host country and subsidises living costs.
The programme, established by the European Union in 1987, follows the philosophy of Renaissance Catholic monk and classical scholar, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536). Erasmus opposed dogmatism. He studied, lived and worked in England and several countries in continental Europe and used his interactions with the people he met as a means to expand his knowledge and gain new insights. Fitting then, as a Pole born during martial law and social oppression, Krzysztof could avail himself of the opportunity to expand his horizons with Erasmus, or European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students.
“Erasmus encourages students to study abroad for a semester or a year. It gives people the ability to see how other people live. They get experience in a country, learn the language, make personal connections. I was deeply involved in promoting exchanges. I believe in this concept so I went on two exchanges myself and worked and lived in many countries. I enjoy being able to see a country not as tourist but more as a local.
“In 2008 I lived in Canada as student. Towards the end of my stay I met a girl from New Zealand at a United Nations youth conference. It was a very interesting conference; many passionate people trying to help change the world. That’s where I met my wife, Gemma.
“Luckily we were able to move to Europe together. I was in Warsaw and finished my studies, while Gemma was in Switzerland, doing an internship for WHO (World Health Organisation). Then we moved together to the Netherlands, got engaged and then lived in South Africa.
“That was not an exchange. Gemma secured an employment contract and I followed with my passion for travelling and seeing the world. It is a very beautiful country with a complicated history, but it is a fantastic place to live, in my opinion.”
Krzysztof and Gemma came to New Zealand with the plan to stay for two years, long enough for him to get to know his wife’s family and country. Although Gemma comes from Westport originally, they both secured jobs in Dunedin.
“I got in touch with the Polish embassy in Wellington and asked if there was any community down here. And then I got introduced to Cecylia Klobukowska, who is very active in the Polish community in Dunedin. She discovered that there was this Polish church—Polish in the sense that it was built by Polish settlers at the end of the 19th century—moved from its original location to where it is now in Broad Bay on the Otago Peninsula.
“I was very warmly welcomed by the Polish community here, which is great because there are very few of us and it just makes it easier if we stay close. The church is the physical element in our Polish heritage here.”
The church became the obvious place for Krzysztof and Gemma to marry. Krzysztof’s parents visited New Zealand for the first time to attend the ceremony on 12 November 2011.
“We made a booklet for the ceremony and we put all those details about the history of the church. It creates this link [with] the past. I’m so far away from Poland and yet I’m linked.
“I was lucky enough to travel to New Zealand by plane in very comfortable conditions and of my free will, my free choice and following my love story but those people who came here towards the end of the 19th century, when Poland was under partition, and not able to speak Polish in schools in occupied Poland at that time, keeping the Polish language, keeping the Polish faith, which was the Catholic faith, it must have been very important to them and their experience of travelling was very different.”
It soon became apparent that New Zealand would not let go of Krzysztof.
“We kind of settled down here. I got my first car here. I got my first house. I had my first child in New Zealand, so it’s definitely home.
“It took time to find a house we liked. Views were important. Warsaw, a big city, has not many views and lots of tiny flats, apartment blocks from communist times that are 20, 30, 40 square metres, so having some space and having views were high on my agenda, and it is much more affordable here than it is in Europe.
“In Poland straight after the transformations you had this rush to improve yourself, to get better off and then you had a bit of what I would call a rat race. From my experience of travelling and seeing different places, New Zealand is a very peaceful way of life, being so close to nature.
“I go down the street and go kayaking. For the first two years I was biking to work. That kind of thing makes life a little bit comfortable.”
Krzysztof’s decision to live away from Poland was especially hard for his mother, who had been “very focused” looking after him and his brother. Modern communication helped and spending Christmas 2015 with three generations was a time the whole family has locked into their hearts, especially as Krzysztof’s mother died suddenly months later.
As a mother, she would have understood her son’s happiness in New Zealand and the home he has made for his family overlooking the bay towards Dunedin—the same bay that in December 1872 the Polish settlers who built the little church sailed into.
A Polish saying states that a man is fulfilled once he accomplishes three goals: builds a house, plants a tree and has a child. By those measures, Krzysztof has achieved fulfilment in New Zealand.
© Barbara Scrivens, 2018
THE POLISH EMBASSY IN NEW ZEALAND FOR TRAVEL AND ACCOMMODATION EXPENSES IN DUNEDIN.
THE NORTH AUCKLAND RESEARCH CENTRE IN THE TAKAPUNA LIBRARY FOR THE LOAN OF AUDIO RECORDING EQUIPMENT.