Castle Square, Warsaw
While in Poland, I’ve tried really hard to be a sponge and soak up anything and everything I can learn about the culture. I spend bus rides looking out the window observing and even this week I spent an entire hour just sitting in the Castle Square in Warsaw people watching. There were 6 brides and grooms who walked by during that one hour taking wedding photos! Anyway, here are some tidbits I haven’t shared in my general posts but are still (slightly) important:
Niegazowana (Still water)
Water is expensive here. Unlike in the U.S. where tap water is generally free, you have to pay for water here and from what I gather it’s not tap. Sometimes the water costs more than soda (5 or 6 zl). They have two options, still and sparkling (niegazowana and gazowana) but sparkling has been easier to find. They also don’t often put ice in their drinks, or at least not nearly as much as they do at home.
Typical meal: breaded chicken, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots.
Food is very heavy on the meats, breads, and cheeses here. When we visit places and we’re all in a group of about 18, we typically get the same meal which is some sort of meat (usually breaded and fried), potatoes/french fries, and coleslaw with cabbage, carrots, and dill. (Just as an aside, they put dill on literally everything here) I’m not sure if this meal is because our hosts are trying to serve us what they think is American food but I’m pretty sure this is a common Polish meal. There haven’t been a whole lot of salads here on the menu. Food and drinks are typically much cheaper here and as long as you stay out of a tourist area, you can get a meal for a really inexpensive price (I got a plate of pierogis for 12 zl in Warsaw which is about $3 or $4).
Graffiti is big here. It’s on many buildings, even residential ones, and it’s everywhere. The only exceptions were in Zakopane which was more of a mountain town than a city anyway and in the more tourist areas like an Old Town where Poland would want to keep the walls clean.
Washing clothes in the hotel bathtub.
The fashion here is different. For the most part, it seems like people tend to dress up more (I don’t see a lot of sweatpants or gym shorts); pretty sure that’s a European thing. Also, the fanny pack has either never left Poland or it has made a resurgence because every other person on the street has one and they aren’t even tourists. We’ve started to remark at how cool they look and that’s when you know you’ve been in a foreign country for too long! Laundry is usually done by hand (we couldn’t find any Laundromats so we roughed it and washed our clothes in the hotel bathtub) and they use drying racks outside their apartments or houses (we improvised and used a combination of the heated towel rack in our bathroom and our balcony furniture).
European women’s soccer!
To pass the small amount of time we have when we’re in the hotel, we occasionally watch some TV and have gravitated toward EskaTV which is a Polish version of MTV. There are some American songs but other interesting music that we’ve grown quite fond of including a song called La La La which we overplay constantly. I also got to watch some European women’s football (soccer), which I was very happy about. A side note about hotel rooms here…they like putting twin beds right next to each other. You get to know your roommate well!
Hotel Chopin in Kraków
As Americans with no real cell phone service, our entire group relies on wifi a lot. It seems so stereotypical but wherever we go, we search for the free wifi that will connect us with the outside world (even though our friends and family are not usually awake until late afternoon). Some places are more difficult to find wifi than others and even some hotels haven’t been the best about internet access. There was a period of at least 42 hours in Kraków where we were cut off from internet access and no one was happy about that.
Driving is a little different here. Most vehicles, even our large Mercedes-Benz bus, are manual transmission but they drive on the same side of the road. Traffic lights turn yellow before and after they turn green. Crossing the street while not in a crosswalk (jaywalking) or even when the green light is not on is illegal and people will look at you strange if you do either of those things. I’ve learned this from experience; going from Boston which is such a pedestrian city to Warsaw was a little bit of a change. I also formulated a hypothesis about the license plates while we were driving to Kraków that ended up being correct. After hours staring at the road, I noticed that the beginning letters of the license plate numbers were KRA or GDA and they actually represent whatever district you are from (in this case, KRA= Kraków and GDA=Gdańsk). It’s very similar to having different license plates for states but nonetheless, I was impressed with that catch in my delirious bus ride state.
Tram in Warsaw
Public transportation is usually quite reasonable. In Warsaw, the subway is shut down for construction so we only used busses and trams but with our monthly pass it was inexpensive and fairly painless (except for the extreme heat on the bus back to our hotel). People typically don’t speak on public transportation so we learned early on not to be yelling in English unless we wanted to make some Polish people upset. The trains in Gdańsk were pretty easy to follow as well. I only wish that I could have extended my trip and taken a train from the main station in Warsaw to other parts of Europe. Next time!
There are some interesting prejudices here, some of which might stem from a leaning toward conservative values here. Obviously, anti-Semitism was and still is a problem in Poland. The Poles and Jews refuse to agree about what happened during WWII and Soviet Occupation and so there are still discrepancies in those stories. I also don’t think I’ve seen any racial minorities here at all, which is rather strange to me. Throughout our time in Poland, the group (which is made up of 3 guys and 12 girls) has noticed a lot of subtle sexist remarks or actions. When we went to Auschwitz, there was only one individual who was mentioned during our tour, a priest who gave up his life in return for another person who was saved from the gas chambers. The fact that he was both Catholic and male said a lot about who was considered important when there were certainly women and Jews at the camp who could have easily performed the same selfless acts. There are undoubtedly inequalities that exist among men and women in the United States, but we all got the feeling that Poland still has a long way to go in that regard.
Atypical grave in Zakopane
Poland is a very Catholic country. To give you an idea of exactly what I mean, apparently about 95% of the Polish population is Roman Catholic. All of the cemetaries we’ve passed have fresh flowers and candles on them which is because many Poles visit their family’s grave every week after church. It was an interesting contrast to the United States; I’m Protestant but my family is mostly from Connecticut and I’ve only seen their graves at funerals.
I think in every single place we’ve been, the tour guide has mentioned something about Pope John Paul II. In Kraków, he was the archbishop before becoming Pope and therefore mentioned very heavily when we visited Wawel Cathedral, where a little container of his blood rests on the altar. Not only did PJP II visit Zakopane often, a church was erected as an offering when his life was saved from an assassination attempt in 1981. In Gdańsk, we were told that he visited the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers, as if the monument wasn’t powerful enough to stand alone. Finally in Warsaw, they spoke not only about the Pope’s importance to Poland but of the time when he gave a mass in Victory Square in Warsaw that gave hope to the Solidarity movement in 1979. Obviously religion is one thing that has helped the Polish nation stick together through really devastating events, even when it wasn’t considered a nation. I feel as though I could recite a lot of Polish history just because of the repetitive nature of our experience when there are multiple tour guides all telling similar stories.