The Polish Experience
We’ve been talking a lot about Berlin a lot, at work recently. This reminded me of a trip I took to Poland, back in 1988. Before anyone starts, it included heading through the Berlin wall, so there is a connection here! It was an experience and a half.
I joined a group of students taking a trip to Poland, for an aid trip, bringing fruit, clothes, toys etc. for the families that we’d be staying with during the 3 and a half weeks. There were around 50 of us getting onto a coach that would drive us across Europe, through France, West Germany and East Germany on the way to our destination. The first major experience on this trip was to be going through the gates of the wall, from West Berlin to East, from West Germany to East Germany. Passports were collected and examined by armed police and the coach was searched top to tail. After about an hour, we were finally free to move on for the last stage of our journey. We arrived at our first families in Poland, my friend and I would be staying with one family in the same village as his mother and sister, who had come along too. The rest of the group were scattered around nearby towns.
The families were friendly and welcoming people and we were soon to discover that this was a big deal for them. After a night of eating hams, beef and fish, whilst drinking local vodka we went tired to our beds, okay not actual beds, but we didn’t care. The following morning after breakfast we met up with my friend’s family and we toured around the local towns meeting up with our fellow travellers and seeing where they were staying. During the day, we were invited to a gathering with the family who were the hosts to my friend’s Mother and sister, so we headed back to have dinner with our hosts before explaining that we were going out for drinks etc. This did not translate well, as they thought we meant that we wanted a drink, as oppose to going out for a drink. So we were taken back to the dining room and we sat, while they brought out vodka, lots of vodka! We talked in hand signals, but as we drank more and more we started to all speak that Universal language of drunk. We finally got it across to them that we needed to go out at about 9:30, so before we went they brought out a different bottle of vodka with a green and white label. The Green writing read ‘Spirytus’. We glanced at the bottle noticing that its contents were 97% proof. What was this stuff? Meths? So we proceeded to hold our shot glasses high, and then down this firewater. It was strong, very, very strong, in fact as we looked at my friend we all realised that as soon as his shot glass was empty his ears had gone bright red. We actually brought a bottle home for the father of one of our school friends. He took a sip, stared wide-eyed, then poured some into a saucer and proceeded to light it, producing a huge bluey-purple flame that vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the saucer dry. Great stuff!
After another couple of shots we left and made our way carefully to our party, which was in full swing, with various bottles of vodka laid out on a side table. Now, after a bottle and a half of the standard Polish vodka and 4 shots each of Spirytus, it’s interesting to see an array of flavoured vodkas in front of you. Remember, this was in 1988, so seeing cherry, blackcurrant, lemon and peach vodka was something that we’d never seen back in England. We didn’t realise at this stage how dangerous it would be. It tasted so good and you had to try all of it, so we did. God only knows how much we drunk that night, but the following morning was more than a little painful. I’d go as far as to say that I’ve never experienced such a bad hangover since.
The food in Poland was hearty, lots of potatoes, beef, pork and cabbage, which by now I could eat a little of, as long as it was piping hot, covered in gravy and mixed with other items on my plate. What we had slowly realised however, was that they had saved up food in advance of our arrival, wanting to give us the best that they could. This was a little embarrassing, that they’d gone to all of this effort to please these strangers, when without much thought we recognised the fact that they did not have money in abundance. Their hospitality was amazing and is something I won’t forget. We moved on to another town for the second half of my trip and this time the family were in a much larger house. One of their daughters had married a guy from Sweden, so they were wealthy in comparison to their neighbours.
We arrived late, so after a few drinks we headed for our beds and they were beds this time. The following morning we woke to find that their son-in-law had arrived and would be staying with them for the time that we were there, which was a godsend for us, as our Polish was basic to say the least and he spoke English fluently. We were greeted in the dining room with a table full of different meats, cheeses, breads and preserves. The apple jam that they had was incredible and would be spread thickly on bread after you’d had your fill of all of the meats and cheeses. We then left for our customary tour of the town, walking past the lone Cow in a little paddock by the side of the house down a long path and out into the local streets. That evening we were asked what we would like to eat the following day and my friend jumped straight in with ‘Burger please’, his food upbringing being as gastronomically challenged as mine. What happened the following day was a realisation of the food world and where ingredients came from. We sat down to our burgers, which were fantastic, big meaty and tasty and just what we’d wanted. However, it only dawned on us then that ‘Daisy’ was no longer in the paddock. While we had been out for the day, they had taken her out to a backyard shed and that was the last she’d see of sunlight, or in fact, of anything. Harrowing though this may seem, the following week of steaks, beef joints and stews put to rest any guilt we may have felt and it was probably the first time I’d tasted meat that fresh.
All in all, that entire trip was one of the best experiences I’d had in my short 18 years and not one to be ignored or forgotten. My advice to anyone taking a trip to Poland is bring Stirling or Dollars, as it’s gold dust to the Polish people and worth a fortune on the black market. Wood and Leather goods are the things to buy and using Stirling would prove to be interesting, as when you counted your change in Polish Zlotys, you’d realise that you actually had more money leaving the store than you had going in! At the end of the trip the Zlotys you had changed were mostly still in your pocket and being that you couldn’t take them back to the UK, you find yourself trying to buy as much as possible, like wooden walking sticks and chess boards for everyone back home and then on the last night you’re buying drinks for everyone in the bar, trying to keep back a little to give to the Polish coach driver. Zlotys meant little to bar staff and waiters in the hotel a lot of which were actually British or Australian, especially the bar staff. We found this after approaching the hotel bar where we were staying on our last night and proudly ordering ‘Dwa Pivo Prosze’ (Two beers please), to which the barman responded with ‘Two beers coming up’ in a thick Aussie accent. He did, however, provide us with a story to go home with.
A few weeks previous to our visit, there had been a fellow Brit visiting the hotel, like us, on his way home. He had a lot of Zlotys left, so proceeded to buy everyone in the bar drink after drink, but was still unsuccessful in spending all of his money. Barely able to stand at the end of the night, he decided to leave an envelop full of money for the Polish waiters and waitresses. The following morning, he went to reception to check out and the manager said ‘Hello sir, did you enjoy last night?’ He answered yes, probably worrying that he’d done something wrong, like insulted the staff. Then the manager handed him his envelop and said ‘You dropped this last night’, you cannot get rid of unwanted Zlotys, so keep them for the drivers.