Every place on Earth seems to have a less sophisticated neighbour nearby that ends up the butt end of a lot of jokes about how uncivilized, uneducated, or ridiculous they seem. For every Toronto there’s a Hamilton, for every Eagleton there’s a Pawnee, and for the Czech Republic that punch line appears to be Poland.
Perhaps due to a neighbourly rivalry, as the northeastern part of the Czech Republic borders Poland, the land of Chopin and Marie Curie doesn’t get a lot of love around here, perceived as an unsophisticated and cruder version of Czechia. For example, every time I told a friend or colleague that I’d be taking a weekend trip to Poland, I was met with a stare as they tried to read my face and see if I was joking. When they realized I was sincere, the response was often a confused, “Why?”
The reason is simple: Poland’s a great place. Although a lot of the language, culture, and landscape is similar to the Czech Republic, it’s certainly different enough make a trip outside of Prague interesting. That said, here are some small and superficial things I really dig about Poland.
Cakes and Coffees
I’m not a big fan of sweets, more of a salty snack man myself, but Poland is one place where you’re almost obliged to indulge in cakes. Due the to the amount of time spent in cafes while visiting the country, as well as the sheer availability and high quality of a variety of cakes, I find myself unable to say no.
The cafés are something special too. There is no shortage of unique places to sit down and calmly take in the atmosphere. You’ll see folks from all walks of life shooting the shit over a cup of coffee in a place that’s been around for ages. Some cafés are dark and mysterious with old wooden tables that make you ponder who’s sat there scribbling with a glass of wine, while others are bright and traditional with a lot of goldleaf on red background. Either way, the country is filled with innumerable places to stop and have a decent cup of coffee and a damn fine piece of cake. Ideal for breaking up an afternoon of sightseeing.
Although not a unique experience, since there’s nearly twenty locations in Poland, the Wedel Chocolate Lounges are one of my favourite places to go nuts. Like I said, I’m not a sweets guy, but when I go for it, this is where I want to be. If you’ve ever fantasized about dipping a cup into Willy Wonka’s chocolate river and then drinking from it, that can be arranged at Wedel. Add along a piece of cake or a slice of apple pie and it’s hard not to return every time you’re nearby.
A problem that a lot of countries face is how to import foreign-language television into their countries. Do they hire actors to overdub all of the dialogue like France or Germany? And if that’s too expensive do they go the cheaper route and use subtitles like the Scandinavians? Poland has found a third solution and it is as annoying as it is head-scratching.
Instead of getting actors to dub over the dialogue, Polish television utilizes a process which sees one man, known as a lektor, translate over the English. For every man, woman, and child on screen, one solitary guy plays every single part. What’s more, is that he does it with as little emotion as humanly possible, basically just reading the script in front of him without any emphasis whatsoever. His vocal range is on par with Kristen Stewart facial expressions.
Someone could be screaming bloody murder and all you’d hear is the first half of the scream in English, followed by a Polish man monotonously saying “Ah.”
It is no doubt distracting for anyone wishing to escape into the fantasy of television, but it must be cheap as hell. All you really need is someone to translate, and someone to read (halve your overhead if you can use the same guy). If you’re fortunate enough to get hired as a lektor, I believe that right there is certainly a contender for the world’s easiest job.
Drinking beer with a straw
One thing that’s hard not to notice when you go to a pub in Poland is that a lot of the girls are drinking their beer through a straw.
I asked some Polish friends why this occurs and no one really knows. Some hypothesized that it wont ruin your makeup when you’re out for the night, while others evoked a rumor that using a straw helps the drink go to your head quicker. Another theory was that a lot of girls in Poland actually order what’s called piwo z sokiem (beer with juice), which mixes a syrupy shot of juice into the pint.
Whatever the reason, it’s kind of funky, and will elicit a double-take if you’re not used to seeing straws bob along in beer.
Alkoholes and bison grass vodka
The first part of this is really only funny if you’re an English speaker. The Polish word for alcohols is alkohole, so a lot of local liquor stores simply have signs out front reading: Alkohole.
The reason I can’t help but chuckle is that it’s such a perfect word for your friend who’s had a little bit too much to drink and starts acting like an ass. As in: Oh yeah, Johnny showed up, but he kept doing Jagerbombs and quickly turned into a gigantic alkohole – it was embarrassing.
Johnny’s behavior aside, there are some great gifts one can find down the alkohole. You probably don’t need me to tell you that vodka is extremely popular in Poland and one of my favourite brands is Zubrowka or Bison Grass Vodka.
Zubrowka, a vodka that’s flavoured and coloured from a buffalo grass extract, has been around since the 16th century. It has a pleasant flavour and even contains the all important danger factor. This is because the FDA has banned the import of Zubrowka to United States as a result of a potentially toxic chemical, coumarin, that occurs naturally in bison grass.
The drink is immensely popular and commonly mixed with apple juice to make a szarlotka (which translates as apple pie), a drink which, true to its name, tastes eerily similar to a slice of apple pie.
Yup – living dangerously with an apple pie flavoured beverage.
Chuck Norris shilling for banks
Chuck Norris: Old school martial artist, action star and a contemporary Internet meme that become so popular it could not be ignored. His popularity reemerged a few years ago as a result of the online rise of Chuck Norris facts and then, for the most part, the Texas Ranger drifted back into obscurity. Or so we thought. Instead, it seems that he parlayed that newfound fame into a sweet gig as the pitch man for a Polish bank! Hard to ignore, a print and television campaign for Bank Zachodni WBK in Poland has featured Chuck Norris for the better part of a year now.
The choice of using Chuck Norris to endorse your bank is not only an odd coupling, but the timing a little past its best before date. It would be like seeing Psy do a commercial for home insurance … in three years.
And while I’d like to say it certainly fits into the stereotype many Westerners have of Eastern Europe – that any and all trends arrive way too late – I wouldn’t put it past an American bank to try this exact same thing.
They have to be paying my man Chuck mad zlotys to do this though.
This last one is relevant to the city of Wroclaw only, but definitely one of the cooler things I’ve seen in a long time. In Wroclaw there is an army of gnomes scattered throughout town.
In the past, whenever anti-establishment art or graffiti was covered up by the communist regime, a protest group calling themselves the Orange Alternative returned to the painted-over, and therefore censored, works of art to draw little gnomes atop the fresh government paint. It was the Orange Alternative’s means of absurdest protest against the state.
The gnomes became a symbol of the city as well as a symbol of underground protest. After the fall of communism, the gnomes continued to be linked with the city of Wroclaw and, in 2001, a small statue was installed near the city centre to commemorate the legacy of the Orange Alternative’s shenanigans. Beginning in 2005, the gnomes began to multiply and disperse throughout the city. Currently, there is an estimated 180 gnomes throughout Wroclaw.
It really is a trip to walk around and stumble upon these little buggers. Some will be in obvious locations, others hidden in corners and windowsills. There are times that you’ll walk down the same street five times, oblivious a gnomes presence, and finally notice it standing there on your sixth pass. Occasionally, a gnome will be thematically linked to the location it calls home: letter carrying gnomes in front of a post office, paper distributing gnomes in front of a newsstand, gambling gnomes in front of a casino … you get the point.
It really is something to see and a lot of fun to “gnome spot” while you’re walking around town.