An incredible change of pace from my normal articles, but since I’m leaving in 48 hours, and since this is the place of my birth, I thought it would be fitting to write a little about Poland. Specifically Wrocław, which is the capital of the Lower Silesian Voivodeship (think Province). Wrocław is in the south west of the country, close to both Czech Republic and Germany.
Phonetic English pronunciation of Wrocław: Vrots-wahf. 2 syllables.
Some preliminary details: I was born in Wrocław, Poland, but my family moved to the US 4 days shy of my first birthday. Prior to this current trip I visited Poland twice. Once in 1992 for 1 month and in 2005 for 2 weeks.
All told, that wasn’t very much exposure to the culture. I’ve now been here since 10 May, over 4 months. Although it would be delusional to consider myself anything other than a tourist in my own country, I do feel I’ve experienced a closer connection to the place and its people.
A few glaringly obvious observations between my first trip 18 years ago and this one: the “Western” (or Modern, or whatever you’d like to call it) influence is strong. I remember the first time I was back here it was like a completely different world. Obviously some of that may have been due to the fact that I was 11 and everywhere new seemed like a whole different world.
Today it doesn’t look like a completely different world. Almost anything I can find in the US, I can find here. (Except black beans. I literally bought every black bean I could find in the city. There weren’t many. My apologies to the other black bean lovers.)
It’s just little, superficial things I remember from my first trip. The first Pizza Hut. Or the only milk available having a layer of fat on top (gross, two times!). Now Pizza Hut is everywhere and you can find soy milk at every supermarket. I also remember people “looking” a lot healthier. That is, skinnier. Now, with KFC, McDonald’s, et al. running rampant across the city and the country, waistlines have expanded along with more economic prosperity. The former is sad, the latter is awesome. This may sound judgmental, and again, superficial, but it’s fact.
In general, the people I’ve interacted with have been exceedingly kind.
Something that caught me off guard:
Twice I’ve had a person tell me they don’t like Americans. (In Sydney, Australia I had someone tell me I should apologize for my country after they found out I was from the US. Hate, unfortunately, is universal.) On two different occasions a person stopped talking to me (we were talking in Polish) after they found out I was born here, but grew up in the US. This type of stuff doesn’t affect me. It’s obviously a personal problem exclusive to a select few people. And yes, I could paint a rosy picture that this stuff doesn’t happen, but it does, so no sense in hiding the truth. My only hope is that these types of people continue at the lower rungs of society as opposed to becoming leaders. When hate and leadership combine, well, we have far too many examples to show what can happen.
A few months ago I was asked what I think of the people here. Specifically, “do you find them to be closed off?” It’s a difficult question to answer, because I find most people are closed off. That’s not based on region, it’s based on the human condition. While we’re definitely social creatures, we also stick to our own.
The fact that I did 90% of my socializing through CouchSurfing means I was exposed to an open, welcoming group of people on a regular basis.
Usually when someone would find out I came back here to relearn the language and experience my birthplace I would get nothing but respect. And many times, surprise: “Why would you come back? Nobody comes back after they leave.”
For every old man who tried to push me off my bike, I had 20 positive interactions with friendly people.
English speaking is still in its infancy here. You’ll find that most younger people speak English, because in post-communist Poland they commonly teach English (and German) as second languages in school. If you interact with someone who grew up in, or went to school during, the communist era then English is much less common or completely non-existent.
Obviously this didn’t affect me because I didn’t speak English unless I was interacting with someone who didn’t speak Polish.
I feel like the lack of English makes visiting a place more fun. For example, most of my interactions in Thailand were in “Traveler’s Sign Language” because my Thai was limited to approximately 5 phrases. It’s a fun challenge.
I wouldn’t worry about the language barrier. Come visit! You’ll figure it out.
The City of Wrocław
I’m completely biased, but I love this city. I love that it’s big (~630,000 people), but has a small feel to it.
I love that there are bike lanes everywhere.
I love that there are massive parks throughout the city.
I love that the public transportation is safe and generally efficient. (Even though I used it less than 10 times since I rode my bike everywhere.)
I love that it’s just touristy enough, but not overrun with tourists (like Kraków, for example).
Wrocław is a very artsy city, which I also love. All over the city you will find art installations, some of them without explanation. The city is currently competing to be the European Capital of Culture for 2016 (Edit: they won!). More info here: http://www.wro2016.pl/en/
Poland is in transition. It’s a member of the European Union (since 2004), and with that comes a lot of change. It is expected the country will adopt the Euro as its currency within 2-3 years, but a lot of people are saying it won’t happen so soon. I obviously can’t speculate. [Edit: This was written in 2010. It’s now 2012 and Poland is still on the Złoty.)
It seems the whole country is under construction. For example, train stations across the country are currently being renovated. The whole time I’ve been in Wrocław, the main train station has been under construction. It’s a massive complex and the first time my family visited Poland I distinctly remember taking the train from Berlin > Wrocław and being a little bit in awe of all the activity going on there.
I can’t speak too much else of the country as a whole, since I spent the majority of my time in Wrocław. What I can state is that I feel a general sense of prosperity here. Although the per capita GDP is currently just over $11k USD, the economy has been growing steadily in the post-communist era.
Should You Visit Poland?
Yes. Specifically, come to Wrocław. :) Most foreigners I talk to don’t end up here on purpose, but every single one of them are happy they stumbled upon the city. I’ll be here again in 2012 for EuroCup2012. Let’s hang out?