Travels in Poland
This is off topic, I recognize, but this was only the second time in eight years I stepped away from TFL for more than a day or two, so I hope you'll allow me to indulge in a couple of off topic posts! Hopefully they'll be a of interest to some of you. -Floyd
It wasn’t until we arrived that I realized how long it had been since we last visited Poland. Seventeen years.
We didn’t plan on staying away that long, things just happened: on our next trip to Europe we visited family members in France and Germany, then came pregnancy, babies, toddlers. Road trips and shorter visits to grandma and grandpa’s seemed to make more sense than trans-Atlantic travel. More recently, our travel have been focused around migrating to Canada. Next thing you know, seventeen years have passed. A generation, basically.
The last time we were in Poland was less than ten years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Coke and jeans and Metallica, basically all things Western, were still a little edgy and cool. English was rare. The shortages and queues of the Communist years were gone and young men with cell phones in suits getting into black Mercedes at the airport signified the arrival of some kind of capitalism, but there was an uncertainty about the transition to a market economy. Frequent small crime like cars being stolen and pockets being picked, rumours of ex-KGB agents driving rogue cabs that would kidnap and blackmail Westerners, and fresh memories of hyper-inflation added to the insecurity. My impression at the end of that trip was of a culturally rich and spiritually strong country but one that had suffered immensely through centuries of oppression, horrific violence, and, more recently, exploitation, under-investment, and neglect. It was difficult to reconcile the heroic Poland of tradition and legend with the run down country before my eyes. It was hard to imagine Poland catching up with Western Europe any time soon.
All that has changed.
The first change that caught my eye this time after getting off the plane into the glassy new terminal at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport was that all the signage and the PA announcements were now in Polish and English.
I’ve read about how English has become the lingua franca of international tourism and business but didn’t particularly experience it in my last trip abroad, which was to France. But in Poland we heard Poles, Danes, Norwegians, Spaniards, Japanese, Scots, Irish, and Chinese -- both Cantonese and Mandarin speakers -- all communicating with each other in English. Most everyone in hotels, restaurants, and shops spoke good English and didn’t seem put out doing so. I tried my best to use my limited Polish, but usually before I could the person I was speaking with would have flipped to English. This was before they knew for certain that I was American or Canadian: English has simply become the language that Poles expect non-Poles to communicate with.
The next noticeable change were all of the new building and cranes in the skyline.
The Warsaw skyline is full of cranes, almost as many as in Vancouver. And new buildings, evidence of the 15 straight years of economic growth.
I won’t go into all the details of our trip, but we spent the next two and half weeks with my wife’s family and saw some amazing sites, travelling from Warszawa, to Kraków, down to the Tatra Mountain village Zakopane and back again.
I'd never been in Europe this time of year. As you can see, it was cold but beautiful.
In terms of travelling, the trains were about the same as I remember them -- comfortable and quick, but not yet high speed the way they often are in Western Europe now. Supposedly they are still upgrading the tracks and in a few years they'll have high speed rail.
Everywhere else we saw signs of economic development and investment in infrastructure. The train stations themselves, for example, were much improved. The major roads were as good as any in Europe. Museums, parks, and historic buildings had many signs of renovation and frequently were marked with information about the grants the EU has been making to Poland to help it upgrade its infrastructure and achieve parity with the rest of Europe.
Internet in Poland was reliable and easy to find too, as was cell phone coverage. A ten minute stop in the train station and we had SIM cards so we could text family members while travelling. Overall, travelling in Poland was much easier than I remember it being and no harder than travelling in any other foreign country.
I love this: the former dead zone between the Kraków train station and old town, the area which one used to scurry through quickly to avoid the beggars and pickpockets and which we'd warned our kids about, has been replaced with a four story shopping mall.
New malls were everywhere, actually. The nearest one to my wife’s grandmother’s flat in Warszawa is less than half a mile from an old style flea market, which still exists but I expect whose days are numbered.
All in all, Poland was much easier to travel in that I remembered it being. The country felt optimistic and welcoming, like it was open for business and that the generation that is coming of age might be the first in centuries that has the opportunity to live up to its potential on home soil. We are already trying to figure out when we can go back and have a long list of other places we’d like to visit: Wrocław, Gdańsk, Toruń, Bydgoszcz, Lublin, Posnań, and Malbork, just to name a few.