Renata Kolecki serves a customer. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
‘Polla’ - a taste of home
“We set up shop, simply to have our own business and to be our own bosses,” is the response of Renata Kolecki, when asked why she and her husband set up ‘Polla’, a commercial establishment with a difference in the town of Ballinrobe.
Imbued with a strong determination to forge a better life elsewhere, Renata and her husband Andy left their home town in Poland over seven years ago, travelling 200 miles to the capital city of Warsaw before boarding a plane heading west.
During the previous decade, Poland had emerged from a communist regime to embrace liberal democracy. However, social and economic change was slow, prompting the young couple to set off on a voyage of discovery to Ireland.
“Things are a lot different over there as the communist regime only came to an end in 1989, which is not too long ago. As well as that we wanted to travel, see the world and experience different cultures. Initially, we left and spent a year in Canada. We returned home for a short while but we decided to move on again and we booked our tickets to Ireland,” explains Renata, in almost flawless English.
A brief stay in Dublin was followed by a trip westwards and five years on Renata, Andy and their two children, aged five years and three months, are firmly ensconced in Ballinrobe. The early months proved a difficult period for the young Polish family. Their arrival in a strange country highlighted a multiplicity of stark contrasts to their homeland. The native cuisine tasted strange, accents sounded odd, the sounds and sights were different, while the weather seemed much wetter and colder than at home. Adapting to and coping with the nuances of Irish life was a challenge, while seeking suitable employment tested their resolve.
“When we came to south Mayo I worked for a while in Cong in the hospitality sector and then I also worked in Tourmakeady. It was extremely difficult to find work in my profession. I am a qualified accountant, while my husband is currently completing a long distance university course in Information Technology. We could not find work in what we were qualified in and it was extremely frustrating from our point of view. We were qualified but, yet we couldn’t get any jobs,” recalls Renata.
Tired of working short-term contracts, and harbouring an ambition to open her own business, the decision to start ‘Polla’ was taken. A longing for a taste of home was also a factor in the decision, as – she notes almost apologetically – she did not care much for Irish food.
“I wanted to set up my own business as I was tired of working for a few months here and there. I wanted something more dependable in a sense. I also longed for Polish food and foods from Eastern Europe as I missed the taste of my native foods and there was nowhere really to buy any such goods,” she adds.
For the past year-and-a-half ‘Polla’, a brightly-lit, well-stocked shop, with a beautiful aroma of freshly-baked bread has been operating on Ballinrobe’s New Street.
A taste of Eastern Europe is exactly what ‘Polla’ offers. German coffee, Polish bread, tea, jams, butters, cold meats, along with a vast assortment of other eastern European basics and delicacies, sit neatly on the shelves.
The shop is not only a place to buy goods, but has become the hub of Polish life in Ballinrobe. Adverts, messages and a calendar of weekly events adorn the notice board, while a weekly Polish newspaper is also on sale.
“While the shop is a business it is also somewhere that people from Poland can drop in to. They can find out what is going on, chat and share things. It is very difficult when you come here first and when my husband and I arrived there were very few Polish people in Ballinrobe. That has all changed and the population has grown, which also makes the shop into an information point of sorts for new Polish people to the Ballinrobe community,” enthuses Renata.
While business was initially slow – ‘in the beginning some days we only took in €45 – over time a steady trade built up, including not only her own native people but also Irish, English, German and Chinese.
While Renata runs the business, her husband Andy works with a local carpentry firm as a joiner, and their young daughter is enrolled at a local playschool.
Both are complimentary of the efforts of local people in helping them adjust to their new home, while Renata gives a special mention to the local Credit Union, which was instrumental in transforming her dream into a reality.
“There are a number of people who really helped us settle in. It was very difficult in the beginning as people are slightly wary of you. However, now we feel more at ease here. My daughter is in playschool and has Irish, as well as Polish, friends while my husband and I are also getting to know more people,” she says.
Renata is most definitely not content to rest on her laurels and recently she opened a second shop on Ellison Street, Castlebar, which is managed by her sister. An entrepreneurial spirit courses through her veins, while there is also an awareness of the symbolism offered to other Polish people by a successful business run by a fellow countrywoman.
“It is hard work. I have the shop open seven days a week from mid-day until nine at night, but that is the way it is. We want to work hard, make a home here and run a good, successful business which offers something to everybody in the community,” said Renata.
Popular Polish Dishes
Polish wild mushroom soup
Top tip is to buy genuine wild Polish mushrooms and soak overnight. Use beef stock cubes, peppers, onions and make the soup as normal.
Golabki Stuffed Cabbage
Although Golabki is apparently the Polish word for pigeon you don’t need to use pigeon to make this dish, as the main emphasis is on cabbage! Ingredients include large amounts of cabbage, minced meat, brown sugar, crushed tomatoes and copious amounts of spices and peppers. Cooking time is approximately two-and-a-half hours and the dish is best served with mashed potatoes.
Savoury sausage and Sauerkraut
Described as a cold weather favourite. Tastes great served with baked beans. The main ingredients are sauerkraut, smoked sausage, apple, onion and green peppers, cooked in a low oven for 40 minutes.
Bigos Hunter’s Stew
A traditional stew with sauerkraut, pork, spare ribs and cabbage as the chief ingredients. Served with brown bread. The secret of good bigos is that it gets better the more it is re-heated.