Poland has been a great trip for a lot of reasons, from it being my first proper solo trip to all the amazing places I got to see and all the things I got to experience. Landing in the middle of the night in a foreign land, taking an overnight bus across the whole nation and waking up on the other side of it – in another stranger city – was an awesome adventure, especially in a country that you can’t speak the language of and where people run away from you every time you try to speak English to them.
During my time there, I had the chance to learn a few things about this incredible nation, so I decided to list out the 5 facts that stood out to me more. These are both things that were explained to me and things that I noticed on my own, much to the dismay of a couple Poles sporting differing opinions on the matter. I’m not from there so can’t tell for sure, but here’s what I noticed!
I don’t know why I was surprised. It is the same in the UK, even the Netherlands for that matter, so I should have been prepared. Being born and bred in a country where that’s never been an issue though, the thought of not being able to take a drink outside always comes as a shock. It’s something that I truly do not understand, although I’m guessing it has something to do with the higher level of alcohol consumption of Northern countries. I am not sure. Perhaps it’s safer?
In Italy, drinking is more of a social thing, where you go to outside bars with your friends and have a drink or two, perhaps while smoking a cigarette. That’s the typical Italian vibe. When I moved to the UK, I was surprised by the completely different culture, where drinking was more of a chore to do each night, the ultimate mission being completely smashed. Hence the no drinking outside rule. However, Poland seemed to me to be a bit tamer than that, so I’m still trying to figure this one out.
Either way, the final lesson learnt is: DO NOT TAKE YOUR DRINK OUTSIDE. DOWN IT, FRESHER.
2. TOBACCO BOUGHT AT TRAIN STATIONS IS ABSOLUTE SHITE
I had experienced this one in Budapest before. Got there, happily bought two packs of cheap tobacco, only to open them and find a nasty, dry, poor excuse of a tobacco staring back at me in shame. I thought I had gotten unlucky that one time, or perhaps that Hungarian people liked to smoke a very interesting kind of Marlboro. I didn’t make much of it, aside from crying over my wasted money.
However, when taken by a sudden need to smoke (and having finished my tobacco), I decided to venture out to the Gdansk train station to buy a pack, only to be welcomed by the same old dry little shit. At that point, I figured the whole Eastern Europe had a thing for dry tobacco, and settled to smoking it without complaining too much and to never buy a pack again east of Germany or Italy.
I finally found an answer two days later, when I went out in Krakow with people from my first hostel (I switched after the second day because why not). As the hostel was pretty empty, my roommate and I decided to go for drinks with the hostel staff, a bunch of locals who took us to a nice pub in the heart of Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter. As I was having a cigarette outside with some of the girls, I tried to make conversation by discussing about my awful tobacco (I am such a good conversationist), explaining how dry and difficult it was to roll. Only then, much to my dismay, I found out that apparently you should never buy tobacco at stations, as it’s always going to be like that. In order to get proper tobacco, you’re gonna have to head to your local Kiosk, which is specifically designed to sell you decent stuff instead of what I got. According to them, it’s a thing in this part of Europe that I should be wary of.
The moral of the story, which I admittedly took a very long time to explain despite it being so simple, is don’t buy tobacco at the station, do yourself a favour and go to the kiosk instead. Your lungs will still hate you, but perhaps slightly less than before.
3. DRIVERS ARE REALLY NICE
As soon as I pointed out this one to a Polish couchsurfer (who stayed at ours right after I got back), he shuddered and told me this is an absolute lie. According to him, Polish drivers are crazy, don’t respect rules and, most importantly, they do not care about pedestrians that much. For me though, it was the exact opposite.
I admit it might have been because I was mainly in touristy places (Gdansk, Krakow, Zakopane), but I swear those drivers were some of the nicest ones I have ever encountered. Let’s be clear: I come from Italy, where driving rules are an option that no one decides to select, so my standards are pretty low in that sense. However, being in Poland made me feel absolutely safe in a lot of ways, and this was definitely one of them.
There were so many times it wasn’t even my time to cross, but still people would just stop, smile and let me walk, which greatly improved my morning moods. In the Krakow city centre, the traffic lights are not even on, as people just stop every time someone needs to cross. I can’t even begin to imagine how frustrating that must be for drivers, but to me it felt great and really, really alien compared to what I’m used to.
One thing I noticed is how fucking fast they drive when there’s no people around, but that’s another story.
4. COMMUNISM IS STILL FELT VERY STRONGLY
To people from more Western countries – such as Italy or the UK – Communism is a big chunk of history which everyone knows about. We study it in school, we discuss it with other people, we make assumptions, think we know more than we do, we sometimes praise it and sometimes demolish it, we talk about it as something which we know about, but we don’t actually know. Communism is a constant presence in our minds, yet we talk about it as a foreign mentality which can only be restricted to a hypothesis. We think its history in Europe is done and dusted, everyone has moved on, the countries which used to be subjected to it just got used to live in a different way.
And they did. New economies, new philosophies and ways of thinking, new lifestyles emerged in these countries, in a way which had been unthinkable before. Milk bars, which I talked about in this post and which used to be a normality, became a symbol of the past, a reminder of it but also a tourist attraction which significantly lost its original meaning. Shops, chains and restaurants opened up, in fact whole countries opened up to the world and to its changes, in a way which had never been seen before. And yet the scars remained, together with the imprints of a flawed system, which meant these countries unfortunately fell behind more developed ones in the rest of Europe.
As a foreigner, I had never truly thought about how these countries could feel about Communism – John Lennon used to praise it, young people take it up as a philosophy of life, some people speak of it as if it was a big saviour for our society. But the reality is different, one which highlights the hard sides of it and the impracticality of most structures preached by past supporters.
When I started talking to my friend about it, he told me Communism still plays a huge part in Polish society. Studying history, despite disliking characters such as Stalin for obvious reasons, I was always intrigued by Lenin, whom I thought was not half as bad. When I told Tomek so, he immediately looked at me and suggested I don’t share this opinion with a lot of people in Poland, as they don’t like talking about it. I thought it was odd at first, until I realised Lenin – the early voice of communism for Russia – was someone whom Polish people associate with the fall of their economy, a regime which dragged the country to its knees and denied it freedom of speech and of managing their own system for decades, until they managed to fight back. The cause of Poland’s current slow economy, which places a once wealthy country in a particularly weak position compared to other EU members.
When I asked other people about it, they mostly agreed with this opinion, and I decided to keep quiet about the matter for most of my trip as I didn’t want to upset anyone. Still, this fact together with the climate in Krakow – where you could literally breathe the history and pain of the country – made me realise how Communism is still a dark, heavy presence in these places, in a way which I had never considered before.
5. THE BEER IS NOT VERY GOOD
I’m really sorry to say this one and I wouldn’t want to, but I thought I’d throw in this piece of information for the beer lovers out there. Poland might not be the place for you. As a keen beer drinker, I love to go out and try new ones every where I go. As with food, it’s a great and fun way to experience a culture, as well as giving you the chance to discover your new favourite drink. In regards of Poland, as I have mentioned before, their food is amazing, so they excel in that department. However, for what concerns piwo instead, it is a whole other story which I regret to tell.
I am a bitter lover. I like bitter, sour, strong tastes, in beer especially. I like IPAs and I like stouts, going for the occasional lager if the situation requires it. When I walked into my first Polish pub, I immediately realised draft IPA was hardly an option and, preferring draft over bottle, I tried a blonde one which they said was “the most bitter they had”.
It was bad.
And it was not bitter.
Playing it on bad luck, I didn’t think much of it and went again to try a new one the next time, thinking I would do better on this occasion. Unfortunately, I was once again dissatisfied with the sweetish, bland taste of it, which made me feel depressed at my obvious lack of beer-choosing skills.
In Poland, most beers I saw on draft were Czech, which personally I am not a big fan of. After spending six months in the Netherlands surrounded by Belgian beers, I feel like I have a good excuse for that. Still, that meant I didn’t really enjoy my drinks, to the point where one night I literally took over an hour to finish a pint as it was so bad I couldn’t even drink it. I feel like I am sounding like a spoilt bitch but I swear it was just bad. 😦
Admittedly, I didn’t spend enough time in Poland to fully try a lot of beers. I told the same to a friend, saying I didn’t experiment enough with them. I am sure if I had, I would have found some really good ones, perhaps from local breweries. I actually wanted to go into one on my last day, but for once I didn’t feel like beer and I couldn’t carry it in my hand luggage on the plane, which meant a no on that occasion (I regret it now, cause I was curious to find out what local tasted like, but hey ho).
Still, after trying a few beers, the fact that I could not find a single one that I liked tells me something about it. Maybe I am just too picky with my beers and maybe I just plain have bad taste, but I do value what drink highly and therefore place a lot of importance on it as I am sure others do. My point being, unless you have a lot of time to go full force and try a lot of beers, Poland is not the place for beer tasting.
Food is amazing though! So definitely go for that.
So that sums it up for the five things I learnt in Poland! I tried to keep it varied and point out things which the casual traveller might not now, so that you’re prepared for when you set off on your trip.
I hope you enjoyed this post and that you’re having a great Easter!
Have a lovely day