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Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

An article for possible comment. Found in the San Franciso Chronicle.

Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists


I remember a bleak time in Poland when the economy was so maddeningly out of touch with the needs of its people that anyone lucky enough to own a car would remove their windshield wipers at night and take them inside. In their command economy - oblivious to the laws of supply and demand - some official forgot to order wipers and consequently, they weren't for sale anywhere. Inspired by a hungry black market, thieves would work late into the night snapping them up.

Many Americans remember Poland as bleak and rundown - full of rusting factories and smoggy cities. I remember a time when the air was so polluted it turned my hanky black the day I entered the country. Glum locals used to stand patiently in line at a soda stand to sip a drink from the same tin cup tethered to the stand by a rusty chain.

Of course, those days are long gone now and many American visitors are stunned speechless when they step into Krakow's vibrant main square, Gdansk's lively streets, or Warsaw's colorful Old Town.

While a new affluence has arrived, visitors can still see a variety of Polands: Lively and cosmopolitan urban centers; breathtaking medieval cities showing off a dynamic history; grimy industrial zones still cleaning up the mess left by the Soviets; and hundreds of traditional farm villages in the countryside.

As I'm more nostalgic for the humble old days than most locals, I'm sure to venture into the countryside. City dwellers often talk about the "simple people" of Poland - those descended from generations of farmers, working the same plots for centuries and living an uncomplicated, traditional lifestyle. Spending time with this large contingent of old-fashioned, down-to-earth folks can be a great way to get a true sense of Poland's story.

Sometimes my nostalgia for the old times confounds my Polish hosts. In Krakow, my friend, Kasia, wanted to treat me to a fine dinner and asked where I'd like to eat. I said a "milk bar." Kasia said her mother would never forgive her if I took her American friend to one of these bleak government-subsidized workers' diners. I begged, promising I'd never tell, and Kasia agreed.

For me, eating at a "bar mleczny" - or "milk bar" - is an essential Polish sightseeing experience. These super-cheap cafeterias, which you'll see all over the country, are a dirt-cheap way to get a meal, and, with the right attitude, a fun cultural adventure.

In the communist era, the government subsidized the food at milk bars. The idea: to allow lowly workers to afford a meal out. The tradition continues, and today Poland still foots the bill for most of your milk-bar meal. Prices remain astoundingly low - my bill usually comes to about $3 - and, while communist-era fare was less than lively, today's milk-bar cuisine is tastier.

Milk bars offer many of Poland's traditional favorites. Common items are delicious soups, a variety of cabbage-based salads, fried pork chops, pierogi (ravioli with various fillings), and pancakes. At the milk bar, you'll often see glasses of watery juice and - of course - milk, but most milk bars also stock bottles of water and Coke. Try a Polish pastry, especially the classic paczki, a glazed jelly doughnut typically filled with a wild-rose jam.

At milk bars, the service is aimed at locals. You're unlikely to find an English menu. If the milk-bar lady asks you any questions, you have three options: nod stupidly until she just gives you something; repeat one of the things she just said (assuming she's asked you to choose between two options, such as meat or cheese in your pierogi); or hope that a kindly English-speaking person in line will leap to your rescue. If nothing else, ordering at a milk bar is a fiesta of gestures. Smiling seems to slightly extend the patience of milk-bar staffers.

Every milk bar is a little different, but here's the general procedure: Head to the counter, wait to be acknowledged, and point to what you want. Two handy words are "to" (sounds like "toe" and means "that") and "i" (pronounced "ee" and means "and").

My milk-bar dialogue usually goes like this: Milk Bar lady says "Prosze?" (Can I help you, please?). I say "to" (while pointing)... "i to" (pointing again) ... "i to" (pointing once more). It means, "That ... and that ... and that." It's not pretty, but it gets the job done.

Chowing down with the locals you'll marvel at how you can still eat lunch for $3 while experiencing a little bit of nostalgia from Poland's communist days.

Re: Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

The milk bar in Gorzow closed down long ago, but my wife used to eat there almost every day when she was pregnant.

I went a few times, but couldn't get over the cutlery being chained to the tables.

Re: Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

T.O.M.-

"Agata" (the milk bar in Gorzow) hasn't closed down, but it has relocated. And expanded. There are two branches now. One is across from the train station and the other has taken over the old Chinese restuarant on ul. Sikorskiego (the one all the way at the end of the street in front of the tram stop by the bus station). And let us not forget "Pod Labedziem" (Below the Goose), the restaurant/milk bar, across from "Rolnik." I preferred the Goose to Agata. Smaller and a bit better selection, though what they did to potatoes should be criminal.

Re: Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

I meant "Under the Swan" not Goose.

Re: Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

"Glum locals used to stand patiently in line at a soda stand to sip a drink from the same tin cup tethered to the stand by a rusty chain."

I'm afraid I don't recall this at all. Must have been pre 1980...


"and, while communist-era fare was less than lively, today's milk-bar cuisine is tastier."

I remember eating really well in Poland during commie times. They used to have these outdoor cafes where you could buy freshly fried fish with bread. It was the most deliciously fresh fish that I've ever tasted. They also used to sell toasted sugar powdered "gofry" (waffles") and the freshest cream ice cream (of course you used to get lead poisoning drifting onto it from car exhausts in those days...). As during that era, everything in the UK was not organic, it was quite a senses explosion at the time. I had a poor appetite before I went and Poland is famed as being where I got shot of that.

Re: Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

"I had a poor appetite before I went and Poland is famed as being where I got shot of that."

Oh no, Aniu, you're not ... tubby, are you?

Re: Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

Nope lol I'm slim and exercise regularly! I just used to get my mum fretting about my not eating enough as a child ..."Ania nie ma apetytu" conversations all the time. Feeding me zupa (yeurgh!). My mum used to also force feed me cod liver oil and making me freshly squeezed orange juice with added glucose to give me energy. Of course I had plenty of apetyt for Lody and cipsy.... Just not the three course meals we used to have with a zupa starter (yeurgh!)....

Re: Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

A few years ago I ate in a milk bar in Gorzow, close to the cathedral. The other customers and rude service made me decide never to visit the place again.

Re: Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

Milk Bars vary from place to place. I've always found the Kraków one's rather scuzzy, whereas the Poznań ones are smarter. The Milk Bars in Warsaw are quite good generally - some have been modernised, and are respectable enough.

Some of them get a subsidy, others just get tax relief for having certain menu items/prices. The value of the real estate often means that they close to become trendy bars, which is a bit of a shame if you're looking for cheap, wholesome food.

Re: Krakow, Poland - Nostalgia only for the tourists

Milk bars introduced me to grain coffee in the Eighties.