Poland is a country of approximately 38 million people, all of whom will stop and stare at you as you drive by. This is especially true in the smaller villages (i.e. any town that is not Krakow or Warsaw) where they assume they know you and your car, and are puzzled when you and your car do not look like anything or anybody they’ve seen before.
Poland has a rich history. Rich in getting their asses kicked repeatedly by aggressive neighbors. From the Germans to the Russians to the Swedes and more, the Poles enjoy a rich history of ass-kicking. As a result, they greet every stranger with warmth and kindness, in the effort to make them feel bad if and when the visitor kicks their ass. It is with great amazement that I learned the Swedes kicked anyone’s ass, for in all their rich history all I’ve ever known them to do is give the world Abba.
Years of ass-kicking have left the Polish in a much poorer economic state than their European brothers. As a result, the U.S. Dollar is strong and you can enjoy a fine meal or Ukrainian whore for the price of a sock.
Poland has worked hard to embrace their status as Most Fatal Road System in Europe. Notorious areas of tragedy are marked with signs showing how many people died there and how many have been hospitalized. Drive carefully in the area where the 31 folks died. At once. It’s a nasty intersection.
The Polish road system consists of four types of roadways. The Primary system, which an American would consider a simple highway, consists of two lanes in each direction. This roadway will only be found nearest the main cities, and usually only lasts long enough to pass five or six apple trucks before you’re condemned to the secondary road system.
The Secondary system is a one-lane road in each direction. In order to achieve speeds of greater than 30 mph, one needs to engage in the act of passing. Passing involves entering the opposite lane and passing the car to your right, all the while being mindful of the apple truck you are about to have a head on collision with. If you are unsuccessful and do have a head on collision with the apple truck, you will be memorialized with a sign telling other drivers how many people you killed.
The Tertiary road system is a road. This road serves traffic in both directions, yet oddly is only wide enough for one and a half cars. This results in the act of dodging, which is to say one must straddle the road and the shoulder, allowing the other car enough space to pass. Usually the shoulder is dirt or grass, however there is a Polish fondness for trees placed at the edge of the asphalt, so be wary. Bikers fully understand the dodging procedure and will frequently opt to roll down an embankment rather than risk paralysis or death. Birds however are more daring, as the one smeared on my undercarriage will attest to.
The Fourth Polish road system (I’d call it quaternary or something, but Microsoft Word Polish Edition has no English spell-check) is a sign-less dirt road. No Polish road system is plagued by streetlights.
The Polish road system features wonderful signage. Roads are well marked, and areas where you may have trouble are indicated. The “wypadki!” signs are of particular interest. Meaning “accidents!” they tell you of areas with frequent pedestrian hits (stick figure being struck by a car), collisions (two smashed up cars), and people who drove into the river (car flying into river). Another sign, “koeiliny” means the road you are driving on has been damaged by heavy apple truck tires which create depressions in the hot asphalt. The depressions are not noticeable when dry, but in the rain they become traction-free zones that resemble two rivers running right underneath where your tires are.
Although the Polish Police force is apparently notorious for their ignorance and corruption, I have not experienced any either of the times I was pulled over for various traffic violations. My perfection of “I do not speak Polish” works wonders with law enforcement.
While driving in Poland, you will undoubtedly encounter the Fiat 126 Maluch. With the exception of the Overloaded Hay Tractor and the Apple Truck, this 0.6 liter, 2 cylinder tin can is the most undesirable car to be behind. Its top speed rivals that of an amputee on a skateboard.
In addition, your drive will be plagued by the following: Dogs, Cyclists, a shirtless drunk man that looks like Wolfman Jack straddling the lane, multiple motor-vehicle accidents and a parade of 400 Catholic youth doing a 600 kilometer penance walk on foot to the city of Czestochowa, a holy site where an ancient painting of Madonna and Child is hidden under a blanket for most of the day.
Most impressive is the fact that not once in my travels have I seen a bumpersticker. No “flick a booger on your windshield” crap, no “Jesus” stuff. Just 100% car. Unfortunately, it’s usually 100% Fiat 126 Maluch piece of shit car.
There are 2 or 3 stations one can pick up anywhere in Poland. Unfortunately, one of them is Radio Maria, a Catholic station that plays chants and has old women call in props to Jesus and discuss their daughters’ troubling sex lives with the DJ.
The music channels are identical. They display a perverse interest in the careers of Britney Spears, Queen and Jennifer Lopez. When not hearing those three, you’ll chance upon Polish Techno-Polka, which needs no explaining. The remaining songs in rotation were apparently collected from a yard sale in Dayton, Ohio.
Most incredible is their ability to get their hands on obscure, dreadful, trite American songs that no one in America has ever heard. Imagine if you will a shitty local band in your town, one that plays on a Monday night at 1 a.m. in some crappy bar near your house. They’re on heavy rotation in Poland delivering lyrics like “You Are The Sun To Me/Shine A Beam On My Face.”
Poles have a ways to go if they’re to compete with the Western concept of shopping. While the mainstream cities like Krakow and Warsaw have made great strides, the smaller villages lack the retail spirit. This is due mostly as a result of the post-Soviet atmosphere, where you needed a coupon and a 4-hour wait in line for your weekly Klondike bar. Stores are bare boned. A shoe store has a shelf with shoes on it. A bakery has a shelf with bread on it. And not a single store is identifiable from the exterior. One must enter to discern what is sitting on the shelf. Regardless, it’s dirt cheap, so buy it.
The exception is the General Sklep, which has a little of everything. Even in the most remote parts of Poland, you can count on the local General Sklep to have a titanium-tipped Ron Jeremy limited edition prosthetic penis if you need one.
If you’ve ever wanted to visit the crotch of a drug-addicted Romanian or Ukrainian girl, one needs go no further than the local long stretch of wooded highway. There, miles from a city, you’ll find someone in a sexy outfit looking like they need a ride. Is it the hitchhiker of your dreams? Probably not. Talk to her pimp, who’s usually squatting in a bush somewhere, making sure you’re a decent guy. Most legitimate hitchhikers can be found on the outskirts of a city, frantically waving their hands at you as you drive by. Then, when you drive by, they’ll turn and stare at you to make sure you’re not someone they know.
Polish food is as excellent as it is unpronounceable. They do wonderful things with chicken, pork, beef and fish that taste great and cost about three dollars. They have also mastered cabbage, beets and potatoes.
Mushrooms grow throughout Poland, and it is common after a rain to see cars along the side of the secondary and tertiary roads, their occupants strolling the woods for fresh mushrooms. Unfortunately, the art of mushroom-picking is a science. For every delicious and tasty mushroom, there are four that look just like it but will kill you. Every day, one will see people riding bikes along the roads, bags of fresh, free mushrooms strapped to the handlebars. Nine of those people are dead as of Saturday.
In Poland I was amazed to discover their mastery of Scatological Technology. In particular, I encountered a toilet of such technological superiority that I considered bringing one home. This toilet featured the Poo Button and the Pee Button. Press the larger Poo Button, and a hefty gush of water arrives to carry your troubles away. Hit the Pee Button and a lighter wave of water gently guides your tinkle to its new home.
Warsaw is the capital of Poland. Unfortunately, it is also most likely the ugliest city in Poland. The reason for this is twofold. In 1945, some Poles got the silly idea to kick the Nazis out of their city. They believed they’d be getting support from the Soviet Red Army. This was wrong. The Poles fought the Nazis, the Red Army took a deliberate coffee break, and the Polish resistance was crushed. To make matters worse, the Nazis got pissed off. Their way of saying “Hitler says fuck all y’all” was to level 85% of the city before heading back to Germany. Any building of historical value was demolished. And minutes later, the Red Army stopped by for a 40 year visit.
One of the downsides of being under Communist rule, besides Communist rule itself, was Communist architecture. Communist architecture is a concrete rectangle with some space for people. Soviet concrete is an experiment in how little concrete one can actually use in the concrete mix. As a result, Soviet concrete is made of a slight bit of concrete with milk added to make up for the difference. Most buildings have been shedding concrete since their birth. The rest was eaten by birds.
As a result, much of Warsaw is gray, rectangular, and eaten by birds. The only exception being “Old City” which is technically not old, since it too was flattened by the Nazis. However, the architectural style of “Old City” stayed true to its history. The buildings look like they came from the 1500s, although they were built at the same time the Soviets were building Shitsville everywhere else.
Krakow is considered the arts capital of Poland. This is because there are lots of arts there. Plus, it’s a lot prettier than Warsaw because the Nazis didn’t have time to level it. Krakow’s “Old City” is much nicer than the new part. The streets are lined with cobblestone and people who would like a Zloty or two if you could spare it. They were selected one of the best cities in Europe for 2000 and have been rubbing that in everyone’s face since.
Birthplace of Copernicus, Torun is old and beautiful and quite small. You will be approached by little children offering to sell you postcards that were taken from the free postcard racks you find in most bathrooms and bars these days. For only 6 Zloty (about $1.30) I was offered approximately 300 postcards. Sadly, I do not have 300 friends. And more so, I do not want to send my friends the same postcard advertising the new Fiat 126 Moluch, which is a dreadful piece of shit.
The port town of Gdansk is perhaps best known as the cradle of the Solidarity movement, where shipyard workers rose to oppose Soviet oppression and eventually won the country’s freedom.
Gdansk is not as well known for their “Klub Intertnetowy” Internet Cafes. Here, in theory, you would log on to the internet while savoring a cup of cappuccino. In reality, you will sit in a basement of a mobile phone store and scream at the 12 minute page download you experience immediately prior to losing your connection.
You say Auschwitz, they say Oswiecim. Imagine what a notorious murder camp in your back yard would do to property values. As you can imagine, Auschwitz is as bleak and miserable a city as you’d expect. What’s more mind-boggling is the fact that anyone would move next door to a place where 1.5 million people were murdered. But they did. Maybe they found a good fixer-upper.
The death camp itself is as unsettling as you’d imagine. The tour takes you past a warehouse of hair from 150,000 victims and another warehouse of tens of thousands of shoes. You walk by Doctor Mengele’s workshop, past the Death Wall where people guilty of crimes like “stealing a turnip” were shot, and on to the vast expanse of cell blocks and ultimately the gas chambers and crematoria. It ain’t a bit fun, but it’s darn moving. What’s truly creepy are the tour buses of old Germans. Are they there for a reunion?
Imagine staying in a luxury hotel situated in a 700 year-old castle on the banks of a beautiful river. For $50. Now imagine that “luxury” meant you had to drag your luggage up a cobblestone walkway, across a drawbridge, through a door built for 14th century dwarves and up infinite steps to your bedchamber. Then imagine the 20th century grumpy caretaker informing you the castle locks up at 10 p.m. and you have to be inside or you’re out of luck. I need to talk to the guidebook people about that one.
Aside from that, most places are most hospitable. The staff at hotels and restaurants immediately detect from my shitty Polish that I am not in fact Polish. So they speak to me in German. This forces me to say, in ever shittier German, that I am not German. This creates a puzzled look as in “Who else would visit our country?” followed by “Are we being invaded again?”
To sum, Poland is a wonderful place where fruit grows on trees everywhere and driving is a suicidal act. People are nice. Women are beautiful. Food is great. Everything is cheap. They have great history and culture, advanced toilets, and 700 year old castle-hotels where you can reenact the dragging of a 100 pound suitcase up 400 stairs, just like they did in the 1300s. Weather is lovely in summer, mushrooms are free whether they kill you or not, and the beer is twice as strong and a fifth as expensive. I strongly recommend we invade.