1. You’d never park your car on the sidewalk.
“Now I know why everyone in Chicago parks on the sidewalk!” a college friend once said to me. “Chicago is full of Polish people.”
In Warsaw, it’s very common to park on the sidewalk, especially in the historic parts of the town, where streets are narrow and curb space is limited. In places where sidewalks are nonexistent, drivers will park on the grass turning it into a mud patch.
Drivers trying to park on the sidewalk will often rev up their car engines just enough to put the car over the curb which scares the living daylights out of tourists, and they dash away as fast as they can or stare at it like a confused puppy. Natives just amble past the parking car, though the driver may occasionally yell some obscenities out the window.
2. You buy Absolut.
Nothing against Absolut Vodka, but you’re in the country where the spirit was invented. Try one of the plethora of authentic Polish vodkas: Żubrówka, Pan Tadeusz, Wyborowa, Sobieski, Absolwent, Belvedere, Biała Dama, Chopin, Cracovia, Luksusowa, Monopolowa, Soplica, Polonaise, Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka, Wisent, Starka, Polmos Łańcut…
There is nothing like coming home during the freezing cold of the Polish winters, and pouring yourself a shot of Żubrówka. You feel the fire coat your throat, eventually reaching your stomach like a wave; the fire will spread through your veins, clearing the cold out of your fingers and toes.
3. You worry about getting attacked by bears.
When I volunteered for the UEFA European Championships in 2012 in Warsaw, a lady told me a tourist once asked her where he could see bears. Apparently, he’d heard they roam everywhere, since there are lots of forests around Warsaw. We do have a couple of bears, mostly living in Praga Park, but they’re nothing to worry about.
Up until relatively recently, the Praga district was considered Warsaw’s “Bermuda Triangle” due to its high crime rates. But, taking Ulica Ratuszowa, a street that turns into cobblestone roads, the buildings turn from grey concrete to brick — the warehouses and pre-war factories are now home to trendy bars and restaurants, frequented by artists and musicians. It is the SoHo of Warsaw.
4. You try to cross the busiest streets at street level.
There are some streets in Warsaw, like Aleje Jerozolimskie, where cars, buses, and trams meet at huge roundabouts, honking and speeding through lights. You should not, under any circumstance, try to cross at street level.
If there’s no crosswalk, look around you to see if there are any stairs leading below ground. Think that’s for the metro? Think again — Warsaw has only two metro lines. Head downstairs and find long, grey hallways filled with stores. Forgot to buy flowers for your wife’s birthday? Look no further than the flower store underground as you head to your bus stop on the other side of the street. Need to buy Chinese food, baked goods, cards, books, shoes? Welcome to subterranean Warsaw where you can do all that while safely crossing (underneath) the street.
5. You don’t understand why the city shuts down on August 1 at 5pm.
Every August 1 at 5pm, all of Warsaw comes to a standstill to commemorate the date in 1944 when the Warsaw Uprising began. The city’s standstill is in memory of all the men, women, and children that perished trying to liberate the city from its Nazi Occupiers. Be respectful.
Two years ago, I had the pleasure of riding the tram with a young man who, instead of standing up with everyone, continued to sulk on the tram and shake his head as if this was a waste of time. It left a sour taste in my mouth because these were people who fought for the Poland that we have now. We have freedom, in part, thanks to them. Modern Warsaw built from ashes of that destruction.
6. Your favourite donuts have pink glaze and sprinkles.
If you’re looking to Homer Simpson for your inspiration for delicious, fried breakfast sweets, you’ve never had pączki. Pączki are fried and puffy rounds of yeast, filled with rosehip, black currant, blueberry, strawberry jam, or, in some cases, cheese filling. They are traditionally sprinkled with granulated or powdered sugar, but in recent years, many also come glazed.
Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent in the Christian tradition is dubbed Pączki Day in Poland, during which families concoct pączki out of whatever leftover ingredients they have on hand.
As a child, I loved to munch on pączki with a glass of warm milk. I’d bite into the soft sphere, feel the powdered sugar form a sugar mustache, and taste the slightly sweet dough as the rich jelly would ooze out of the dough. They are not sweet enough to give a sugar rush, but enough to boost your energy. And they always hit the spot.
7. You think honouring the dead on November 1-2 is a Mexican thing.
In Poland, November 1 is known as All Saint’s Day, and, while we do something similar to Dia de los Muertos, the celebrations here are simples.
Family members living in the cities head into the countryside to their parents’ or their childhood home the night before and the day of November 1. In the days leading up to November 1, family members head out to the graveyards to wash tombstones, clean gravesides, and replace flowers.
Then, on All Saint’s Day, it is time to layer up and brave the cold, dreary fog common this time of year to visit the cemetery. Along the sidewalk, or in the case of smaller towns, the road, there are little stands selling znicze (candles encased in plastic that burn for hours), chrysanthemums (we only use those flowers for this particular holiday), candy, and ringlets of dough.
After buying znicze and flowers, we head out toward the graves, leaves rustling under our feet, silently passing all the other families by the graves of their loved ones. We stop at the grave of our grandparents or parents first, and light up the znicze, place the chrysanthemums, and pray for their safe return to the afterworld, as well for their restful, eternal sleep. Then we pack up, and head to the next grave of family members, friends, professors, or any other person that has made an impression on us. Once all the rounds are made, we head back home to talk, catch up, reminisce, eat, and drink. At the table, there is an extra place-setting in the belief that those who have departed are here amongst the living to cherish one last meal.
People continue visiting into the night, when it gets cold enough to freeze your fingers, especially when they have friends or family members that are in a different cemetery. It is during the night when the graves truly become mysterious and gorgeous at the same time, with thousands upon thousands of znicze lighting up the air, and leading the way for both the living and the souls.