The Fresh Loaf

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Travels in Poland

Floydm's picture

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.   


clazar123's picture

Good to hear about your trip. The pictures were beautiful and nothing like I would have imagined. Interesting to hear that English is so commonly spoken.

Poles really take their winter outerwear seriously! I'm referring to the person in the polar bear suit. Any ideas on that?


Floydm's picture

Zakopane is a tourist destination, with skiing in the winter, hiking and mountain climbing the rest of the year.  The bear and a few other guys in animal suits were cruising the shopping district, trying to find kids who'd ask to get their picture taken and then charge their parents 5 złoty (about a buck and half) for the privilege of doing so.

I actually saw this guy with his head off smoking a cigarette about 10 minutes later.  I wish I'd gotten a picture, but he looked pretty surly and didn't fancy being chased through the snow by a pee dee ohdeed polar bear.

Polish Babka's picture
Polish Babka

Hi Floyd,

I really enjoyed reading your post and the pic you took in Pl. I'm Polish and I'll be visiting home in May.Can't wait :D

I'm planning on baking Tartine bread for my parents and will take some of my starter to give to my mom. My mom will spoil me with her cooking and baking.

For sure she will bake her rye bread.

My husband will have to feed my starter here at home :D

It's nice to know that you and your family enjoyed the trip.



Floydm's picture

Thanks, Magdalena!  I hope your trip goes well.


PS - I'm still working on my post about Polish cuisine.  I'll probably have it ready to post tomorrow.

chouette22's picture

Amazing what changes this country has undergone in your absence, malls and English suddenly everywhere. I take a group of college students to Europe every summer and last year I did an Eastern Europe tour that took us, among many other destinations, to Krakow. What a wonderful city!
I am looking forward to your post on Polish cuisine. 

Floydm's picture

Kraków is wonderful.  I read that they had over 9 million visitors to Kraków last year.  It must be a zoo in the summer there now!


breadsong's picture

Hi Floyd,
Thanks for sharing these wonderful photos and your impressions of Poland - so interesting to read what it is like there.
The buildings and art are just gorgeous, as are the lamp standards! The snowy landscapes are very beautiful, too.
I am glad you had a good trip - welcome home!
:^) breadsong


Floydm's picture

Dziękuję, breadsong!


Alpana's picture

Beautiful place &  photos, Floyd. Thanks for showing a different side of the world

Floydm's picture

Thanks!  My pleasure.


Ruralidle's picture

A great write up Floyd.  I love the pictures and the fact that English is so widely spoken - it makes us native English speakers even more language-lazy than we were :( .  I am really pleased that you had such a great time and that you were able to catch up with family.

Best Wishes


Floydm's picture

Thanks, Richard.

it makes us native English speakers even more language-lazy than we were :(

It's true, it is tough.  

I'd been working hard the past few months to bone up on my Polish.  It came in very handy when I was listening to conversations or the TV -- I could pretty well follow most discussions, read signs and menus, all those sorts of things -- but I never was able to get more than a few words out of my mouth! 


Isand66's picture

Thanks for sharing your travels with us Floyd...looks like Poland is realling modernizing and thriving which is so nice to see.

Beautiful photos you have taken and I'm sure your kids will remember this visit fondly when they are older.


Floydm's picture

Thanks, Ian.  Yes, I think they'll remember it for sure.


dabrownman's picture

what a little individual freedom and a less oppressive and controlling government can do in short order.  Look at the old East Germany.  It came around even faster since the Germans from the West were so rich and were willing to pour tons of investment into the East.  Sad that Russians never really got it and still prefer criminals and ex KGB types running their country.   We can only hope that they will figure it out some day.

Your post is a ray hope for all who still suffer from the ill effects that socialism, Marxism  and communism always bring with them. It makes simple things like visiting Poland and so many other places possible today - something not allowed a few short years ago.  Glad you enjoyed your trip.  So how was the bread?

Floydm's picture

I'm working on a Polish food post now.  Stay tuned!


larryparis10's picture

What a nice surprise your post was, and even nicer was its reminding us of our visit several years ago. My wife and I went really to see the town my father grew up in, so I had no preconceived ideas about the country, except perhaps it would be somewhat drab. Wow. I don't understand why Poland isn't the trendy place to visit now: Warsaw and Krakow are just gorgeous, and the people weren't so bad either :-) Thanks.





varda's picture

Who is that guy in the picture with the big mustache?    Wonderful pictures.   I have never even thought about going to Poland but thinking now.  -Varda

Floydm's picture

Ah... That painting is a self-portrait by Stanisław Wyspiański, a favorite Polish artist of mine.  The stained glass windows in the Franciscan church in Kraków were also designed by him and are beautiful in an Art Nouveau style.