November 9th, 2018

I went to Poland!

Mark and I finally went on this trip! It was an enormous stressball to plan, per the previous post, but completely worth it! You can see photos on my social media and I’m attempting to write some deeper long-form reflections, but should I keep on in the advice vein? Yes, probably, said the no one who is currently in this room with me.

1) Flights: It costs to fly to Krakow or Warsaw what it costs to fly most places in Europe, but it’s a bit trickier and there are fewer flight and times at that lowest price point. There is such a thing as direct flights to Warsaw but not very many when it’s not summertime, and they seem to sell out. There are no direct flights to Krakow but it’s relatively easy to change planes in Germany (Frankfurt or Munich, we chose Frankfurt) although Frankfurt airport is sort of stressful (not LAX stressful, though–it makes sense basically). You can fly to Gdansk, but you have to change planes in Warsaw in addition to anywhere else you change planes, plus you have the cost of that extra little flight, rendering the exercise pointless, at least for us.

2) Hotels: Poland is basically an inexpensive country for a Canadian (a cab-driver disabused us of the notion that it’s an inexpensive country, period–they don’t make the salaries we make). We always stay in budget hotels but we were able to go one rung up and it was all very inexpensive and nice. Not super-luxurious, but everything was clean and pretty and the staff was all charming. We never paid more than about $110 a night, and as low as $45, depending on the place and weeknight versus weekend. Also, October is not exactly a hot tourist season, though several of the places we stayed were fully booked. Also we stayed in European chains like Ibis and Golden Tulip, and one local guest-house–I think the big American chains would be more costly. I didn’t look into AirBNB at all for Poland (I only do AirBNB if I can’t find/afford a hotel) so I don’t know about that.

3) People and weather: I’ve lumped these two together because both struck me as pretty much the same as in Toronto. The trees were starting to turn when we arrived in mid-October, and the weather was highly variable, ranging from sunny and 20 to raining and 5. We got more of the latter sort of weather, which locals said was unseasonable. Most of the trees and farmland looked similar to home, although people out in bad weather seemed to have a better attitude about it and fewer layers.

Although all Poles speak Polish first, most people also speak English there. To generalize wildly (there were a million exceptions) the younger you are, the more likely it is you speak English–interestingly, people over 50, even those with quite good English, seemed to have an entirely different sort of accent. Also, it seemed somewhat class-based–people in lower-paying jobs often had no English at all, even if they were public facing, like store clerks or cab-drivers. Socially, people out in public generally kept to themselves and didn’t make eye contact, but if you asked someone for directions or information, they were usually very kind and helpful. On the other hand, people would put their bags on seats on the tram and then watch you stagger about trying to keep your balance until you finally asked them if you could sit down, when they’d very slowly and grudgingly take the bag off–just like in Toronto. Most people seemed to draw the line at being outright rude, though–with some notable exceptions per below.

4) Trains: Trains were efficient, comfortable, and affordable–a good way to get around Poland easily and see a lot as we did so. Trains stations were awful–confusing, chaotic, and train station staff appeared to actively hate us. Also many of them did not speak English, which I mean–it’s fair, it’s Poland, but the whole rest of the country is full of English-speakers, so why are the train-stations only hiring the monolingual?? Anyway. No, not anyway: in Warsaw, connecting trains are not on the arrivals OR departures boards. Only trains that originate or terminate in Warsaw get to be on the board. It took me about 45 minutes of staring at the board to work this out. So if you are looking to get on a train that originated elsewhere–a LARGE percentage of the trains since Warsaw is in the middle of the country–you have to ask the lone, angry, non-English-speaking woman at the information window what platform. The huge line of people at her window, and the shooing motion she made at me when I attempted to ask a follow-up question, attests to the problems with this system. Also, all of the train stations were ugly. But the trains themselves were glorious and it was worth all the hassle to stare dreaming out the window at the rolling fields and tiny villages for two hours while kindly attendants brought me free bottles of fizzy water.

5) Other modes of transit: We took a shuttle service from the airport and then again back–Krakow Shuttle, should you care–and another one through Viator to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. Krakow shuttle was excellent, very punctual and efficient, and only about $30 each way. The Viator thing was a hassle to get organized but came bundled with a tour and somehow lunch, and ended up being a good experience. I’m not going to recommend the specific people who did the tour because I think Viator uses a bunch of vendors and it would be hard to get the same ones–they whole thing seemed to be a bit of weird–but they were good. FYI the roads out to Auschwitz are very windy and hilly, if you are prone to carsick. We took a cab to and from a visit to my publisher in Warsaw–again, efficient and inexpensive. Also, lots of streetcars in both Krakow and Warsaw, where they are both cheaper and better than in Toronto. And a commuter train out of Gdansk to Sopot, which was like a dollar for a 20-minute ride–this is the Gdansk equivalent of Go Transit and SO MUCH BETTER. Ahem. We took a lot of transit.

6) Food: I thought the food in Poland was excellent, but your mileage may vary depending on what you dig and what you grew up eating. I was worried about the fact that I don’t eat beef/pork/lamb in such a sausage-y country, but there were plenty of pierogies, which I love, and there was always pizza available somewhere–Italian food, especially pizza, is everywhere in Poland. It would be very easy to travel there as a vegetarian, but probably pretty difficult to do vegan or gluten free, I think. I loved both the “Polish” piergoies (mushroom and cabbage) and the “Russian” pierogies (cheese). There was also a meat kind I didn’t have that Mark said were good. In addition there was lots of cabbage and potatoes, both of which I like, something called “farmer’s cheese” or “mountain cheese” (I think they are the same??), smoked fish and lots of other kinds of fish in Gdansk (near the sea), chicken livers (so hard to get here–I was delighted to see them on a menu!) and also lots of sandwiches and pastries–very carb-heavy diet there! Plenty of restaurants just served North American-style food, of course, and I’m sure it was good, but that wasn’t what we were there for. We also liked the Polish chocolate and those famous jelly doughnuts!

Ok, that’s kind of a lot for now. I might try to do a city-by-city thing too, at some point… I love writing about all the great stuff we saw and did!

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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