Evelyn and I went to Poland this past May, with her dad, uncle and cousins. Her second cousin was getting married and we were invited to the wedding.
I have to admit, I didn't know what I was going to get out of this trip. Poland was never really on my list of places to visit. The Lonely Planet guide, a book whose job is to make you excited about the place you're visiting, said that Poland "wore its charms lightly". What was that supposed to mean?
I mean...one of the main draws of Kraków is...a decommissioned salt mine? A salt mine?
I'm saying all of this to give you a sense of what my feelings were going in. They were not the same going out. Spoiler alert: the salt mine was amazing.
Here's what people told me going in:
- Polish is a really hard language to learn
- Kraków is pretty, and Warsaw is not
- Polish weddings have a crazy amount of food and booze
So did the rumours pan out?
The first thing I learned about Kraków is how to pronounce it. It's not pronounced as an English speaker would imagine. It's pronounced more like Krakuf - the w's are like v's (and sometimes, as in this case, like f's) and the accented o's are like u's. This was my first indication that I was going to have difficulties with Polish.
The second thing I learned about Kraków is that the Old Town, where we stayed, is indeed gorgeous. It mostly survived World War 2 and the Communists mostly left it alone. The same cannot be said of other cities in Poland, like Warsaw. Evelyn's uncle had rented an apartment very close by, so we were pretty lucky here.
The Old Town of Kraków is, for lack of a better term, pleasantness on steroids. Pretty buildings, cobblestone streets, charming cafes and restaurants.
This is a theme that would crop up again and again. Poland is pleasant. When you visit Paris or Athens you can almost feel the weight of hundreds of years of global history bearing down on you - and you are sharing the experience with throngs upon throngs of tourists. In Poland, a lot of the history (with the large, glaring exception of war history) is local and self-contained - this famous Polish person did this famous Polish thing at this famous Polish location, so the significance is often lost on foreigners.
The first evening's meal was just myself, Evelyn and her dad (the rest of her family was arriving the next day), and it was spent at a local pierogi house. Pretty cliche, I know, but the place also served zurek, which I was desperate to try. So I learned a couple of more things that night:
- Poland is inexpensive for someone from Canada. A very filling meal will not cost you more than $15 Canadian (including tax and tip) at, it must a be said, a tourist trap.
- I love zurek and I want to learn how to make it. Seriously, you would not imagine that fermented rye soup could taste so good.
The next day was spent exploring the Jewish Quarter. It's an experience - the Jewish Quarter in Kraków is kind of like Chinatown in Montreal - it's the standard, textbook ethnic enclave for Polish people.
I found it a bit odd to think of Jewish people having an "enclave". In Montreal a lot of the food that one would normally think of as Jewish, like bagels and pastrami and smoked meat, are so tightly integrated into the culture that Montrealers often don't think of them as "Jewish".
I know, I know...
At this point, we had a choice: Auschwitz or Wieliczka? To be honest, though, I had misgivings of visiting Auschwitz as a tourist, and it would have taken the entire day as well, so we eventually decided, a day later, to visit Wieliczka- the aforementioned decommissioned salt mine.
I still had my doubts. A salt mine? A salt mine? How is this interesting? But peer pressure won out, and people kept telling me that it was worth it. Shrug. We went.
So, it turns out it's not just a salt mine. If it were just a salt mine, I think the entire excursion would have been a lot less interesting. It's a salt mine, yes, but it's also:
- a large collection of rooms and sculptures carved out of salt rock
- a gigantic, underground working Cathedral, again carved entirely out of salt rock.
- gift shops, reception halls, restaurants
It reminded me a bit of Asimov's fabled Caves of Steel. I could easily imagine a whole apartment complex being built down there.
The salt mine, surprisingly, was one of the highlights of the trip. The Cathedral alone was worth the price of admission.
Our next stop after Kraków was Łuków, a smallish town in northeast Poland. The wedding was to take place in Siedlce, which is a short drive from Łuków, and we were staying with some of Evelyn's relatives (specifically, her dad's cousin).
A Brief Linguistic Detour
Like Kraków, the first thing I learned about Łuków was how to pronounce it. You do not, as you might imagine, just sound out the letters. No, the decorations mean something and, in this case, a line through an 'l' turns it a 'w'. So the town is actually pronounced Wukuf.
For a little while, this threw me for a loop. You put a line through an 'l' it becomes a 'w'? This seemed completely random and I didn't understand it at all.
At some point during the trip, I learned that the word for Polish sausage is actually spelled kiełbasa, not kielbasa as I had hitherto thought, which means that I've been spelling and pronouncing it wrong all this time. It actually sounds like kiewbasa.
And, at first, this made things seem even more hopeless for me. I mean, I actually know the word kiełbasa - except that I didn't. Not at all. This didn't bode well.
Then, of course, you realize that if you say kiewbasa really fast, it could almost be mistaken for kielbasa, which I'm sure makes complete sense to someone which a background in linguistics, but which seemed like a new discovery for me. And that made me feel a bit better.
So maybe the connection between l and ł isn't so random after all.
At any rate, Evelyn and I got to see a bit of Łuków which, honestly, after Kraków, was less interesting. Nonetheless, our host and hostess were generous with the food and the booze and the attention, and we were grateful.
They were also quite tolerant - a lot of my time there consisted of me shouting basic but totally mangled Polish words like "toothpaste" and "door" at them. If they were annoyed they never showed it.
The wedding itself is deserving of a few paragraphs. Everyone says the same thing about Polish weddings, namely that there is a lot of food and a lot of booze. Did it measure up? Let's find out!
The reception begins around 6pm. You are led into a big room with lots of tables. You sit down and you immediately notice two things:
- the tables are laden with a bewildering variety of finger foods - fish, eggs, salads, jellied meats of various descriptions.
- the tables are all in possession of various bottles of soft drinks and an ice bucket containing bottles of vodka.
There is also a common deli station with sausage, terrine, etc., a dessert station with different cakes and pastries, a coffee station and a wine and booze station (in addition to the vodka on the tables). I hasten to add that all this greeted us upon entering the room. It was not brought out later.
My attempts to nibble at bits of the salad was met with a stern admonition of "No, it's for later". Alright then.
We sit down. We take a shot of vodka. The soup comes out. It's tasty. The main course comes out. It's roast pork with potatoes and vegetables, and is also tasty. We take another shot of vodka. The panna cotta comes out for dessert (but there's a dessert station! What's going on? I don't understand how this works at all) and, not wanting to buck the trend, it is also tasty.
You take another shot of vodka and everyone starts dancing. Phew, we're done! That wasn't so bad. I mean, the portions were pretty big and, combined with the deli station, dessert station, and all the hors d'oeuvres, one could indeed, without any exaggeration, call that a lot of food, but I think I handled it like a boss, even if I do say so myself, which I am indeed doing.
It's right around my second or third self-administered pat on the back that everyone takes a break from all the dancing to sit down to second dinner. Second dinner is very similar to first dinner - a plate of roast meat with potatoes and cabbage, almost as big as the first. Oh, and another shot of vodka.
(By this time, I had gotten wise to the whole thing and I was taking sips, not shots. Nobody seemed to care.)
And as you're finishing, you're thinking to yourself "This is it, right? We're done! Anything more would just be crazy". And everyone gets up to dance again as if to confirm your thoughts. Notably, no one is raiding the dessert station yet.
Except ME, of course, because I think that I deserve some coffee and cake after packing away all that food like a trouper, which I proceed to procure at the dessert station. I mean, now would be the appropriate time, right? Because, you know, we just finished second dinner and, well, third dinner would just be silly and excessive.
Right...so third dinner is waiting me when I arrive back at my seat, with cake and coffee in hand, LIKE AN IDIOT. It's a kebab with cabbage and rice. I almost cry. It is followed by yet more dancing (it is preceded by another shot of vodka, but you knew that already.)
And I do mean dancing. Everyone knows how to dance here, men included. Hell, children included - there was one kid doing that Russian kicking dance that looks easy but is really hard. The band would play an unfamiliar song, except that it would be instantly recognized by everyone in the room, with the exception of myself, and everyone would know exactly which dance that was supposed to go with it, and would proceed to demonstrate said dance in an energetic and enthusiastic manner. Needless to say, it was intimidating, especially considering that I have no sense of rhythm whatsoever.
Around 2:30 in the morning, you're tired and sweaty and drunk and embarrassed. It's at this moment that they choose to ambush you with borscht and sauerkraut rolls. I wasn't even surprised anymore. It was after this, and only after this, that I see people helping themselves to cake.
We finally hand in the towel around 4 am. The party itself ends around 5 am or so.
So...yeah. A lot of food.
The first thing I learned about Warsaw was how to pronounce it. Or, rather, I learned that the Polish name for Warsaw is Waszawa, which by this time I could, thankfully, pronounce (it's Warshava).
The second thing I learned was that Warsaw, like Kraków, has an Old Town, but it's different. It's lovely, but it's...new. A new Old Town. The old Old Town, including the Royal Castle, was more or less destroyed during World War 2. They rebuilt the whole neighbourhood from old paintings. The Royal Castle itself was built from donations in the 80's - the largest crowdsourced project in history, I imagine.
As I said, it's quite picturesque, but I couldn't help shaking the impression that I was walking though a theme park. A really, really elabourate theme park.
I mean, some of the buildings had plaster coming off. And yet I knew that the buildings weren't more than 60 years old or so - enough time, I suppose, for the plaster to be peeling, but it does make you wonder if they built them that way because, you know, that's how they looked in the paintings.
When I play an open world game like Infamous, or Arkham Asylum, I always wonder how far the developers took the simulation. Can you open doors? Do the buildings have interiors, or is it all facade? Well, I felt a bit like that in the Old Town, especially when touring the Royal Castle. The tour is very much on rails - you're guided from the beginning to the end. I would sometimes begin to wonder what was behind the walls. Did they recreate every room? I never found out.
As I said, I wasn't sure what to expect from this trip. I didn't know the first thing about Poland, except that it used to be Communist. To give you a sense of my ignorance, I thought Poland was always cold. I'm not entirely sure why I thought that, but I suspect I was mislead by the "Pole" part of the name, which I associated with "North Pole".
See what I mean?
But Poland was not cold and, although it used to be Communist, it isn't now and it shows.
Like Greece, I'd be curious to see what Poland is like outside the touist zones. For that to work, I'd need to learn Polish. Admittedly, that could prove problematic.
Im any case, it's always nice to show your preconceptions the door. I would totally go back.