March 13, 2013: Completed forty days in Poland. I have begun to assimilate – started attending aqua-aerobics classes at the local spa. A return of snow, ice and temperatures in the 20’s, with a wind chill that feels like the teens, have prevented me from making it to a second class. I checked out the gigantic Aqua Park Center which has year-round slides, a variety of pool activities and special programs for us seniors, but I was overwhelmed by the Disney-like atmosphere and opted to go to the closer and smaller Wroclaw Centrum Spa and Gymnasium – a five-minute walk and six-minute tram ride away.
The New Horizon Theater sponsors weekly movies for seniors, in collaboration with the Wroclaw Senior Center. Easy to get to in bad weather, the tram stops near the theater. I’ve seen “Some Like it Hot” and “Passione”, a musical history of the music of Naples, directed by my new idol John Turturro. I look forward to “Cinema Paradiso” next Monday. The Poles love movies, especially American-made. (The stylish lady sitting next to me at this week’s showing was devastated that she had to miss “Some Like it Hot”.) And they do their research. I have learned more about Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis than I ever knew. Cost of movie with a fact-filled lecture before and discussion after, a warm drink and biscotti, is 12 zloty which translates to about $3.80. And a good listening and reading (the subtitles) exercise for my floundering Polish.
Poland is still affordable for the American, not so much for the average working class Pole who makes 15-17 zloty/per hour ($5-$6) and, more likely than not, is forced to share his or her living space with friends, family or strangers. It is common for unrelated and uninvolved adults of any gender to share a room. Unemployment in Poland is 14.4%.
Changes, in the name of progress – or not, have invaded Poland. Here are some that I have been most aware of.
Kiosks, little more than oversized wooden boxes with a corrugated roof, an overhang and a sliding glass window for communication and transferring of goods and money, used to be found on nearly every street corner, painted a universal bright green and yellow so you can spot them from afar. The small interior is jam packed with goods. Here you can buy anything from cigarettes to telephone cards to tram tickets, razors, cosmetics, random snacks and children’s toys, also – shoe laces, nail polish of many hues, porn, small hardware items, magazines and comic books and just about anything you might need at the last minute. And you know that if they don’t have what you are looking for today, they will most likely have it tomorrow. Many of these kiosks are still in business, but in the past few years, little corner stores and chain convenience shops like the Zabka (“Frog”) have sprouted throughout Poland. It’s only a matter of time! A good stiff wind, and stiff competition, and the kiosks could be history.
I hope the Bar Mlecny (Milk Bar), a low cost – very low cost – no frills cafeteria-style eating emporium which is a throwback to the Communist era, will never cease to exist. For $2-$3, you can get a wholesome, hearty meal. Choices include home-made soups, pierogi of all types, cutlets, goulash and bigos – a meat and sauerkraut dish. A delicious “surowka” – a beet or cabbage and carrot slaw – and home-made noodles or potatoes – a generous portion – usually complete the meal. Everything is fresh and tasty. Poland potatoes rival the taste of those from Ireland or Prince Edward Island. The Bar Mlecny is great for students and low-income seniors, or anyone who needs or wants a good meal for very little. If you are a fastidious diner, the Bar Mlecny is not for you.
The Polish diet is high in simple carbs, but most Poles are very active so the calories do not accumulate on one’s body as they seem to on US bodies. But, even the Polish diet is changing. Vegetarianism is accepted if not common, and though tofu is still unheard of in the neighborhood stores, it flies off the shelves in the larger super markets. Judgmental eyebrows no longer furrow as they used to when you order “bezmiensne” at a restaurant or announce at a gathering that you do not eat meat.
Giving flowers has been a tradition in Poland. Though still popular, the practice is slowly fading. It is customary to always give an odd number. Something about good luck. I once made the mistake of bringing an even number, and couldn’t understand why the glares and puzzled expressions.
Cost of flowers is reasonable. Flowers are appropriate for just about any occasion: the usual Christenings, house-warming events and any celebration, real or imagined. You don’t accept a dinner invitation without a plan to bring flowers – and something alcoholic. You give flowers when you meet a visitor at the airport or train station. You give flowers to your sweetheart just because. These days, I see fewer people carrying the single rose or tulip, held gingerly in the traditional upside down position, sometimes adorned with greenery and fancy ribbons, but more often just held naked in one’s hand, always upside down.
March 8 was International Women’s Day – very popular in Poland. I was delighted to see the streets exploding with flowers. Tulips, roses, daffodils and many other unidentified flowers burst forth from the “Kwiacarnia” (florist). Little old ladies sat on street corners with boxes and bundles of flowers. I spotted upside down flowers clutched in hands of all ages on the streets and in the trams. Janice was given a beautiful yellow tulip by Credit Suisse where she teaches business English. I vowed to keep a fresh flower in the apartment during the rest of my Poland stay.
I have not seen the egg man, the farmer who sells eggs and fruit out of his car trunk. I’m hoping it is because of the weather. I have vowed to buy more from him. We have to keep him in business. When he does come around, he backs his tiny car, just a tad bigger than what I consider to be the tiniest-in-the-world car – the Polish Fiat – onto the sidewalk near our apartment, opens his trunk where he keeps his stash of eggs and fruit – the biggest, sweetest apples, sets a folding chair on the pavement and sits there until his products are sold. He doesn’t come often. I imagine he’s busy on his farm.
I have not seen the lady who sells local honey on the sidewalk. Also, I’m sure, weather related.
Last week we had temperatures in the mid fifties and the outdoors teemed with people. It was hard to find an empty park bench. The seasonal outdoor markets were booming for a few days, until dipping temperatures and nonstop snow flurries returned. Many outdoor markets set up their wares year round. They shut down only when it pours rain or snow. A rain or snow “mist” does not deter them.
Snow days and school buses are nonexistent in Poland. Students walk or take public transportation. If they miss a day because of weather, they have to make the work up. Young people chuckle when they see US school buses in films. On the other hand, it is not considered cheating if a student whispers the answer to another student during an exam. It is a sign of solidarity to help the weaker student so he or she does not get left behind – even in adult classes. Janice has a hard time with this one. So do I.
Poland has joined the ranks of the “take-out” or as they call it, the “take-away”. For some time now, it has been possible to get a “doggie bag” in restaurants if you did not finish your meal, but you had to pay a few “groszy” (pennies) for the styrofoam or plastic container. You still do. Today, “take-away” has been expanded. You can order meals to go. And, lately I see people walking around with lidded hot cups filled with take-away drinks. I see these cups littering sidewalks and parking areas. Not a good thing. I also spotted two, not one, but two Starbucks at the old Town Square. Also, not a good thing as far as I’m concerned.
I have yet to see pizza delivery to the home. I’m sure it’s coming.
Public transportation in Poland has improved by leaps and bounds. Train stations and tram stops have moved into the twentieth if not the twenty-first century. When I was in Wroclaw fifteen months ago, the local train station was in the throes of a two-year renovation (it took longer), partly as a result of the post communist boom, but mostly because the city was preparing to host the 2012 Eurosports (Soccer Championships). During renovations, the timetable for arrivals and departures was tucked away in an outdoor corner near the entrance to the tracks. Arrivals weren’t a problem unless you were running late to an appointment, but departures were a different story. Track announcements weren’t posted until 3-5 minutes before departure, causing a mad dash for the train akin to the bull running at Pamplona. You had to stand at the outdoor timetable, sometimes for hours through delays and cancellations, often with frozen fingers and toes, because the public address system announcement was undecipherable. The only people who understood what was being said were those who belonged to a secret club who knew the meaning of the echoing and booming garble. In the old days, those who belonged to the same secret club knew the stops. The rest of us had to rely on the secret society’s benevolence or trial and error. Train travel was stressful and uncertain.
When I visited Poland in 1984, a friend bought me a first class overnight ticket from Warsaw to Krakow. I mistakenly wound up in the second class section and was only discovered when the conductress came around several hours later. In 1984, Poland was still under communist rule although the general atmosphere was changing and members of the old guard were frequently under duress, which only increased their normal bitchiness and demeaning grumbles. I’ll never forget, as I was being escorted into my proper first class seat by the grumpy conductress, a trail of chuckles followed me, chuckles which exuded from my previous compartment mates. They were laughing at me. I was mortified and terrified.
Train travel was no fun in those days. It has gotten better. At least many of the stations have a sign, visible from inside the train, so the astute traveler can make it to the right stop. It’s not as much of a guessing game. And fellow passengers are much more accommodating in sharing the “secret” information. But I can’t say that I have not been affected by the bullying.
Electronic signs at tram and bus stops in Wroclaw are new since my last visit. Not only do they post the stop, they also give you the current time and post the times for all the trams that stop there. Many of the trams and buses have automated announcements before each designated stop. And, they are rarely late. Now the drunken sports fans and revelers have a better chance of reaching their destinations. Me too!
Wroclaw has been elected one of two European Cultural Centers for 2016. Hopefully this will bring more innovations.
It does my heart good to see growth and progress in Poland. Now, I wish someone would help move the Ukraine into, at least, the twentieth century. Communism was quashed in the Ukraine in 1991. Sadly, I’m told, the leadership has opted for corruption rather than progress.