On Poland (Mostly Wrocław)

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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.

The People

Wrocław Głowny (main train station)

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 Language

What Better Time Than Now? (mural on Wyspa Słodowa)

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

Odra River with the Katedra in the background.

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 rode my bike through these tunnels near Most (Bridge) Grunwaldzki almost daily.

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).

Rynek (Market Square) in the distance, straight ahead!

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/

Corner of Świdnicka and Piłsudskiego
Not sure what to call this: Freedom? ("Statue of Liberty" made of locks, swallowing the key.)

The Country

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.

Train station renovations around Poland.

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?



35 COMMENTS

  1. Wow, wow, wow. That’s incredibly ridiculous about the anti-American stuff, but then again, it acts as a good filter for the people you DON’T want to hang out with.

    Liked the post though. Learned a lot about Poland. In general, I know almost nothing about the country. Plus I liked the pictures! ;)

  2. Karol,

    Great post!

    I know this time in Poland was extremely important to you. I can only imagine what it must feel like to visit your place of origin, to be surrounded by your true roots, and to take in and expereince where and perhaps how your immediate family lived for so many years and where your extended family still calls home.

    Good stuff!

  3. Awesome write-up! I might have to include that in my RTW itinerary now. You know, I think one of my favorite parts of travel is the memory after it’s over. Yeah, it sucks to leave, but once you go, the memories kick into full gear.

    Anyhow, we’ll have to hang out when you get to Austin!

  4. Hey Karol, Great post, this is a post I can really relate to :) Last year I visited Poland after 11 years it was a big shock to me, a positive one. Poland has become very modern country. Everything you have here in US you can easily buy it in Poland. I would recommend visiting Poland to anyone, the social live is amazing a lot of great bars, clubs, and pubs to hang out, Wroclaw and Krakow is a dream city for any Art lover,

    Marios

    • Thanks Marios. Yeah, things are changing fast!

      Small note: I did make the distinction between Krakow and Wroclaw. ;) Krakow is a more party/touristy city. Not my style, but a fun place to visit for a few days.

  5. Awesome post. Great summary of the city (I’m bit biased living here for my whole life).

    Now I’ll be finally able to buy those famous black beans ;)

    It was great to be able to meet you in person. Have a safe trip back to states.

    Cheers

    • Thanks ?ukasz! It was good meeting up. Keep kicking ass! :)

      Hala Targowa, in the back there is a guy who sells beans (and other stuff) and he sometimes has a small bag of black beans for sale. Sometimes. :)

  6. I love the city too and I’m not biased :)
    Glad you talked to me about it or else who knows where in the world I’d be now.

    Maybe a small tip for others wanting to visit: the way Wroc?aw is pronounced phonetically is vrotzwav. When I was on my way here (through Germany) and people asked me where I was going they never understood what city I was talking about so I had to write it for them. It wasn’t till I was already here that I found out the correct way to pronounce it.

    • Ahh, man, I should’ve definitely included that! Everybody pronounces it incorrectly. The reason you had trouble in Germany is because Germans know it as Breslau not Wroclaw. :)

      I’m glad you like the city. It would’ve sucked if I had persuaded you to come here and you didn’t. :)

      • Actually, one of the people there in Germany was a Polish girl who I was trying to explain where I was going in her country, ha. I was just pronouncing it as it’s read in English.

  7. I was born in Wroclaw (currently Arizona, USA) also and have seen the city transition in an amazing way over the years, though my last trip was 3 years ago. I never came across any negativity to the U.S, but I did to Polish people who in a sense renounce their Polish heritage and become instant Americans often faking not speaking Polish.
    I concur that people should visit Wroclaw. I love Krakow, especially in the early mornings and the off season when the tourist crowds are smaller. None the less I do not get the sense that the city is over-run by tourists like in other popular European cities.

    • Hey Artur,

      Krakow is tourist destination #1. Especially for people looked to get drunk. :)

      In any case, I have not run into Polish people who renounce their Polish heritage. That’s weird. But maybe that’s what people here were talking about when they’d say “you came back? nobody comes back.” Hmm, very interesting.

      Karol

  8. I have seen similar Westernization in Hungary as well. It is a completely different country than my first visits as a child, but even every five years seems to bring major changes. It is great that the world is getting richer so fast, but also sad to see the homogenization. Developing countries are copying all the bad things about richer nations. I think Western countries have more to learn than they have to teach.

  9. When I participated in the postcrossing project I got a lot of Postcards from Wroclaw, Poland. Normally, it wouldn’t be a place I’d be interested in, but the postcards really taught me a lot about the place. I hope that when I finally reach Europe, I’ll be able to visit the place I’ve heard so much about… from strangers.

    • Oh, cool! Well, when you do reach Europe, and if you do decide to visit Wroclaw, let me know if you need anything. :) (Although I won’t be here I still know a lot of people here.)

  10. The very first time I heard about Wroclaw was thanks to a local who happened to be my first CouchSurfing guest ever.

    He told me lots of marvelous things about his city and after reading your article I’ve come to realize he maybe wasn’t that biased after all.

    I’ll make sure I make an stop it Wroclaw whenever I go to Poland. Thank you for your post!

  11. Yes, Wroc?aw is an extraordinary place and I think that every person coming to visit Poland should see it.
    But I live in Cracow and I dont’ agree that it’s only a tourist’s place, especially good for people who are only interested in getting drunk. That’s true that for the last couple of years we’ve been seing a lot of drunken Britons, coming to celebrate their stag parties in a rather vulgar way. We’re not very happy with that because they create a very negative image of our city.
    But Cracow (Kraków) is beautiful, there are many things to see (and to do) apart from all the historical monuments, and it’s not so unusual to meet someone normal and sober here :), not only drunken tourists.
    Anyway I’m really glad that you had a chance to spend some time in Poland, thanks for this great text, I like the way that you presented us, our country and all the changes. Greetings from Cracow – Serdeczne pozdrowienia od minimalistki z Krakowa :)

    • Hej Ajka!

      Yes, Krakow is beautiful and it’s not just for tourists. It’s just more of a party place than I expected. It is a great city, but not for me.

      Pozdrawiam,
      Karol

  12. Hi, I loved your post! I’m from Warsaw myself, we left when I was 3 but I’ve been back to visit several times since almost my whole family is there. I love Poland, but I’ve never made it to Wroclaw yet.

  13. I’m not a bit Polish, but my wife is, and we lived there for 2 years, and I loved it. We’ll see where life takes us, but eventually it could be back there. We lived in Opole and Krakow and I loved it, but I think I’d most like to live in Wroclaw. Glad to hear you’re getting back in touch with your roots :)

  14. Nice post–haven’t read much about Poland, so I’m excited to be reading about it through the lens of someone with your ridiculously extraordinary angle on things.

  15. Ok, you’ve definitely made me at Wroclaw to my ‘must visit’ list. (It’s a pretty long list as it is). I was in Poland last fall for the first time for a Polish/Belgian wedding. It was fantastic and I can’t wait to get back and explore the country more.

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