I have to start this blog by saying that Poland wasn’t at the top of my list of places to visit while living abroad, but as Dan had a work trip to Warsaw planned, we decided to make a weekend of it. As he has now done for all of our trips so far, Dan invested in an audiobook on Polish history to prepare for our travels. I think he is on to something with this approach, because the phrase “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know” accurately describes how I’ve felt since arriving in Belgium two months ago (side note: wow time flies!). I’ve realized that as an American who really does love learning about history and gets excited to experience different cultures, I am still very ignorant to much of the intricate and intertwined history of EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) and Asia. So, I also listened along to his audiobook because I’m a little ashamed to admit that the extent of my knowledge of Poland covered pierogis, pączki (those Fat Tuesday doughnuts Americans also love), and some high-level understanding of the invasion of Poland at the start of WWII. While listening to the book and doing some of my own research, I found myself becoming more and more intrigued by Polish history and culture and even looking forward to our upcoming trip, so that when we arrived in Warsaw after a quick two hour flight from Brussels, I was excited to see the city on Friday.
I worked from the hotel on Friday, but did take a detour for breakfast and paczusie (Polish Doughnut holes or mini pączki) followed by a walk around the neighborhood. I grabbed a very cheap breakfast at a café called LoveEats and was treated to friendly conversation with the guy working the cashier after he asked where I was from. I was so excited to learn that he had heard of Milwaukee owing to our superstar Greek Freak, Giannis, so we spent some time discussing the NBA and his visit to the US. This is a good time to interject and explain how wonderfully nice the Poles were to us. Throughout the entire weekend, people were very friendly and welcoming, which I had heard was the case ahead of time, but was still as impressed to see for myself. Again, we found that our English worked just fine in the places we visited and were impressed by those who greeted us in Polish, but upon realizing we didn’t speak Polish, transitioned to English flawlessly. Polish is an intimidating language, but sometimes I do feel silly for not learning common greetings… at least Dan made an effort to learn how to say thank you (“Dziękuję Ci” [jen-koo-ye]), even if it took us almost all weekend to learn how to pronounce it correctly.
Warsaw is an interesting European city in that it feels very modern with skyscrapers and wide avenues and sidewalks, but it’s also hard not to notice the buildings and apartment complexes that were so obviously influenced by the presence of Soviet communism. I learned that the reason Warsaw doesn’t have the alluring charm of many European cities and experienced massive post-WWII reconstruction was not because of the original Nazi invasion in 1939, but rather because the city was literally demolished near the end of the German occupation. The Warsaw uprising occurred in the summer of 1944 as the Soviets were advancing on Warsaw and the Germans were booking it out. The Polish are rightfully proud of the uprising that they didn’t technically “win”, but rather see as an emblem of their defiance against the occupying Nazis. The story of the uprising is very interesting and actually if you’ve seen the movie The Zookeeper’s Wife (highly recommended), you have had an introduction to it.
That night we had dinner with our fellow Brussels ex-pat friends (who also travelled to Warsaw for work) at Elixir, which was recommended by a Polish colleague Dan had met earlier that day. I was a little skeptical when he said he had made reservations at a place that had vodka pairings. I have made a deliberate point of avoiding any and all vodka, most especially when served in a shot glass, since graduating from college. But when in Poland…
In full disclosure, I actually cheated and told the waitress I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of vodka… she happily recommended a few “milder” options for my pairings. So instead of a before AND after vodka pairing for EACH course (as was the restaurant’s recommendation), I was content to try her recommended house-made vodka with my pierogis and the plum- flavored vodka made by a “crazy gardener” for my duck entre. Both were actually very good (especially compared to Fleischmann’s), but the “crazy gardener-made” vodka was my favorite!
The food was incredible, and even better, the vodka must have been of high-quality, because instead of waking up groggy, Dan and I both agreed that we felt refreshed and ready to take on Krakow. Probably owing to a couple of missed and nearly missed trains, I am especially sensitive to getting to train stations early. Therefore, we partook in a very brisk (sweaty) walk to the station on Saturday morning only to be informed that the train was delayed 20 minutes. In those 20 minutes, we coincidentally met a group of consultants from the US with whom we had some things in common (Big 4), but the real “interesting” conversation started after we were seated across the aisle from an ex-pat Brit. Actually, Dan was assigned the seat next to him, however, upon seeing that the two of us were travelling together, a very friendly Pole (again!) actually volunteered to trade seats so Dan and I could sit together. The Brit was not shy about sharing his thoughts with his new Polish seatmate and really everyone within a 20 ft. vicinity for the entirety of the train ride. He seemed to have a very vocal opinion of everything from the health benefits of cigarettes (interesting as he said he was a doctor) and the extraordinarily clean Polish toilets, to the “stupidity” of the British rails, healthcare, education etc. We were glad to arrive in Krakow two hours later despite the rainy weather, and after a quick stop at the hotel, were on our way to explore the city.
We received some great tips for exploring Krakow and with our newfound knowledge of Polish history and culture, headed for the Wawel Castle and Cathedral. The cathedral was the coronation site of the Polish monarchy and is still the burial site of notable figures in Poland’s long history, including Jadwiga, the first female monarch of the Kingdom of Poland, and Casimir III the Great King of Poland, both of whom I had never heard of before being introduced by Dan’s trusty audiobook. Throughout the cathedral and greater city, we also noted many references to Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland and remains a very popular individual to his fellow Poles. From Wawel we were on our way to the Main Square- Rynek Główny to tour the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) and St. Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki). The basilica was quite impressive and honestly had one of the more unique interiors of the European cathedrals I’ve seen (I’ve lost count of how many that is).
These main sites were beautiful and I would have been impressed with Krakow had we stopped there, but what really sold me on the city was our time in the old Jewish district of Kazimierz. Dan knows that if our visits to these cities were completely up to me, I would spend an entire day just wandering down little side streets to get away from the crowds, so Kazimierz with its Plac Nowy, winding side streets and allies, synagogues, and unique restaurants and bars was my kind of place. We grabbed drinks at Singer, where each table had a sewing machine, where Dan was treated to a vodka shot by a local Pole and I was treated to a new hair-style by our friends’ daughter (see pic below). We also made sure to stop back at the stands in the middle of Plac Nowy to pick up a pre-dinner “snack” called zapiekanka, which is a HUGE warm baguette with a plethora of toppings that comes highly recommended. The Polish food tour didn’t stop there though and I was happy to consume more pierogis for dinner that night before our long trek back to the hotel.
One of the main reasons Dan and I were both interested in visiting Krakow is its proximity to the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum, which is about an hour drive west of Krakow. We knew that this would not be an easy visit, but so, so worth it to have a greater appreciation for the destruction caused by hatred and prejudice. We had rented a car in Krakow ahead of time and a few weeks earlier had tried to reserve our free self-tour tickets online, but were unsuccessful given that there were none available at the day and time we were looking at. We didn’t know how in demand these reservations are, but after a call to their visitor services, I was told that we could still show up and purchase guided tours on the day of. We were hopeful that in getting there early we would still be able to catch a morning tour and have plenty of time for the ~4 hr car ride to Warsaw for our evening flight. We considered ourselves fortunate that upon arrival we were able to purchase tickets for a 3.5 hour guided tour and didn’t have to wait long to join our group. Turns out the guided tour was worth it and for those planning a visit in the future, I recommend.
For more context, the history of Jews in Poland goes back over 1,000 years, attributable to a long period of statutory religious tolerance. Poland was once home to one of the most significant Jewish communities in the world. This statutory tolerance ended during the Partitions of Poland between Prussia, Russia, and Austria in the 18th century, which also marked an era of political and cultural repression in Poland until it regained its independence in the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, Jews and Polish intellectuals, artists, and religious leaders (those with strong ties to Polish culture) were sent to the six concentration and extermination camps in Poland. I touched on this above, but there is a reason that the Polish are so proud of the Warsaw uprising and their large resistance movement throughout the war- they were among the first to experience the destruction of Hitler and his deliberate attempt to wipe out their society. I’m abbreviating a very complicated and intertwined history of Europe that covers many centuries, encompasses different ethnic groups, and crosses borders that weren’t in existence at the time, but the main point here is that knowing this background gives context when visiting such important places and therefore I am so glad we did our research ahead of time.
Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau was incredibly powerful. It’s one thing to know and acknowledge that millions of Jews, Poles, gypsies, prisoners of war, and other groups were brutally killed in Hitler’s death camps, 1.3M alone at Auschwitz and Birkenau, but visiting the site where this happened is indescribable. Our guide, who was Polish and whose father’s brother died in a concentration camp, did an excellent job of framing what we were seeing in an informative and respectful way. It’s truly difficult for me to put into words what I saw and felt when visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau but I can say without a doubt that the visit will not be something I forget. It’s incomprehensible and hard for us to think about, but seeing the hair (yes, hair), suitcases with the owners’ names, children’s clothing, and shoes of those who were murdered makes it very, very real. Auschwitz I was the original camp and Birkenau, which is of much larger size, was built to accommodate the more expansive destruction of lives. The tour included visits to both sites where our group covered a lot of ground at the camps, seeing everything from the barracks, starvation cells, firing wall, and even the crematorium. Ending our time in Poland at Auschwitz and Birkenau, while very heavy, seemed fitting for a trip where I genuinely feel fortunate to have learned so much and experienced the generosity of people who didn’t always experience the generosity of their neighbors. I love travel for many reasons, but this trip especially reinforced the importance of continually reflecting upon our perceptions of people and places that we don’t know well or understand.
If you’ve made it to the end of this blog, then you can probably guess what my overall impression of Poland is. We were incredibly impressed by the friendly people, very reasonable prices, and delicious food (and perhaps vodka…) of this country. Poland comes highly recommended by us, especially for those who love broadening the understanding of history. We had heard from a couple people that the Polish enjoy welcoming Americans to their country and that was so evident everywhere we visited. Thank you Poland and I hope to see you again after I’ve learned how to confidently say hello and thank you!