Squeezed between two powerful neighbours, Germany and Russia, Poland has spent much of its history under the control of one or the other. Modern Poland established itself in the wake of World War One under the leadership of Marshal Josef Pilsudski, a war hero who reluctantly led the country until his death in 1935. Statues bearing his distinctive walrus-moustached face stand in every city; his fame is overshadowed only by Poland’s favourite son, Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II.
Poland was devastated in World War Two. A staggering six million Poles, about 20% of its pre-war population, were killed, including nearly three million Polish Jews. The country was ruined by war, and then Roosevelt and Churchill handed Poland over to Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Finally, in 1989, following more than forty years of Communist rule, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement brought down the Communist regime, making the first rift in the Iron Curtain, and initiating the end of Soviet domination in the rest of Eastern Europe and Russia.
Over the last fifteen years, Poland has re-emerged as a proud and fiercely independent European nation. It is the largest of the ten countries that joined the E.U. last year, with a population of nearly 40 million. With that workforce, it seems ready to become a major player in the European economy.
Polish is a daunting language to learn because of its abundance of consonants and accents. Warsaw, for instance, is actually pronounced “var-shah-vah.” If you learn the basics, however, it’s easy to get by. Most young people speak English quite well and are eager to practice. Also, many older Poles speak French and Russian because of a longstanding connection between the two cultures.
One Polish expression we found ourselves repeating quite often was “Prosze, dwa piwa,” or “two beers, please.” Beer has definitely supplanted vodka as the drink of choice, at least in terms of public consumption—this was clear from the prolific beer gardens that were packed every evening. Most Polish breweries produce light, refreshing lagers, not nearly as flavourful as the Pilseners brewed by their Czech neighbours to the south, but certainly adequate on a hot summer afternoon, especially at only $1.50/pint.
Throughout our two weeks in Poland, we noticed that young women almost always had straws in their glasses of beer. They used them for their obvious purpose, but also, inexplicably, to stir the beer. My wife only got a straw in her beer once, so there must have been a special way to order them that we didn’t know. Who knows, maybe the bar owners don’t want lipstick on their beer glasses.
If you go…
- No visa is required for American tourists staying in Poland for less than 90 days.
- Poland’s national airline, LOT (www.lot.com) offers regular non-stop flights between New York or Chicago and Warsaw or Krakow, but travellers from other cities can also connect through United Airlines. Several budget airlines offer flights to Poland from major European centres, such as London and Paris. SkyEurope and EasyJet fly to Krakow as well as Warsaw (and recently offered internet prices as low as £9). RyanAir flies from London to Wroclaw.
- Though Poland entered the E.U. last year, it still has its own currency: the Zloty, which has been worth between $0.28-$0.33 over the past year. Most common items in stores cost about the same as in North America, but in Zlotys, which means they’re only about one-third the price we’re used to. Travellers’ cheques are unnecessary: bank machines can be found everywhere, and credit cards are widely accepted. Euros and U.S. dollars are easily exchangeable at kantors, private currency exchange agents who are ubiquitous.
- Internet cafés are easy to find in Poland’s major cities. They are generally quite inexpensive, but make sure you get an English keyboard or you’ll waste a lot of time hunting and pecking.
Poland’s Embassy in Washington: