We arrived before noon knowing we’d have to wait for the restaurant to open. We’ve been in Poland for more than a month now and have learned that lunch is mostly a later affair here. Restaurants don’t usually open before noon, and will be at their most crowded after 1 or 2 pm. Bar Bambino however was already open and there was a short line waiting to order food at the cashier just inside the entrance. We were pretty excited.
The large menu sprawling above the cashier’s glass-enclosed booth was in Polish. We stood there off to the side, just inside the doorway, and tried to figure out how to order white – or sour – borscht and some perogi. The line inched its way along. No one spoke English. We decided just to try showing the cashier the Polish translation of our goal soup. She handed us a roughed-up laminated sheet of paper with English on it, a sign of the times. We stepped back to study it. When we knew what we wanted, we stepped up to the cashier and ordered.
We had spent our morning walking Warsaw’s communist past, exploring the monumental architecture built mostly during the Stalinist 1950s. In the course of doing this, we decided to find a traditional bar mleczny to have some lunch. The literal meaning is milk bar, and they’ve been around in Poland since the late 19th century. Originally serving dairy-based foods, they quickly became very popular cafeterias offering simple, traditional polish dishes at very affordable prices.
Since we landed here in Poland, we have wanted to eat Polish food. Our friends Ania and Irek took us to some places in their hometown of Szczecin, but everywhere else people here keep suggesting non-Polish things: Indian, hip vegetarian, Vietnamese, Japanese or Thai. But we wanted classic Polish comfort food. Besides, we’re from Vancouver. We won’t eat Sushi in Toronto, let alone Warsaw.
Bar Bambino delivered the comfort food, but also something even better. The social experience of eating at this traditional cafeteria hasn’t changed much. There is the first line waiting to order, followed by the second line waiting to be handed your food through a passbar window. Through the window into in the back we could see about a half a dozen middle-aged women manning frypans and very large pots, or rolling out huge sheets of dough for dumplings and pancakes.
Despite the strict design of the lineups, there was chaos. When you pay for your order you are given a slip, which you then pass to the woman behind the pass bar window. Then you are completely ignored. The number of people waiting for their dishes to be put up began to grow, so a kind of third group (not a line) had started forming around the pass bar window. It’s anxiety-producing when you don’t understand Polish and don’t even know what your dishes will look like.
People come from behind you in the crowd and snatch a dish they’ve been waiting for from the counter. Some have waited for much longer than others and there is no system to call out numbers. However, the woman serving food seems to know exactly who ordered what.
When Scott sprang forward to pick up a soup he thought was ours, she held up her hand and said something in Polish. Realizing he didn’t understand, she shouted “Please Wait!” She wasn’t shouting because she was irritated. I think she raised her voice so Scott would hear her, in the way we all assume someone who doesn’t understand our language is also hard of hearing.
I waited at a table for Scott to grab, and then deliver, each dish as it came up. When we had all our food, we took a photo and dug in. The menu and the interior at Bambino Bar haven’t changed since the 1960s. We ordered some sour soup and two plates of pierogis: spinach and “Ruskie” style with cheese and potato. Everything was delicious. The people eating at Bambino Bar were very ordinary. Some appeared to be poor, and many would order their lunch and then take another meal to go (presumably for dinner). During the communist era, these places were subsidized by the state and served an important social function. But even though the milk bar predates the era of Soviet domination, their association with those decades has left them occupying an unflattering image for many Poles in modern Poland. Despite the bad image, there are several still around in Warsaw, some are very popular with tourists, and almost all of them remain authentic places to eat.
We’ve been to a few former Soviet-bloc countries. In some of them, there’s an almost nostalgic recollection of the Soviet era among some people. Not in Poland. We came upon an official tourism guidebook for Warsaw while we were at the Thai Embassy. It outlined a self-guided walking route to explore the communist history of the city and contained a description that seems to sum up Poland’s feelings toward those years. Below a photo of the high-end luxury mall that was once the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party is one line: “Commie puppet HQ.” Tell us how you really feel, Poland. From the fall of the regime until 2001, the building was made the home of the Warsaw stock exchange. Now there’s a Ferrari dealer in there among other luxury storefronts. The irony is deliberate and lost on no one.
Across the street from commie puppet HQ is the former headquarters of the censorship ministry. There is now a large memorial to free speech that runs between the two places. No one here in Poland misses the communists.
Freedom of Speech Memorial’s cleverly censored [redacted] quote of Tacitus: “It is the rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks.”
The PKiN or Pałac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science).
A ‘gift’ of Stalin’s to the Polish people in 1955.
It was universally mocked as a symbol of Soviet occupation.
Examples of Soviet-era socialist realism adorn many of Warsaw’s buildings. They glorify the role of ordinary labour and working people.
Polish people have put up with foreign aggressors interfering in their sovereignty for a long time. Swedes, Russians, Prussians, Austrian Hapsburgs, Nazi Germans and Russian Soviets all vexed this nation and its people many times in its history. The history of the Polish people is a study of hardship and bravery.
Under Nazi occupation, there thrived a vibrant and effective resistance. Free Polish army units pressed Italian and German forces during the Second World War. And even under communism Poles resisted strenuously, waiting for the moment when they could break the regime and once again be a free country. Modern Poland is in the midst of recovering much of its own history. One of the most courageous acts of resistance of the Second World War occurred in August 1944: the Warsaw Uprising.
Poster art from the Nazi occupation encouraging Polish citizens to rise up against the Nazis, “In the fight – revenge for the blood of thousands of Poles.”
Despite receiving little support from the Allies, and massive betrayal by the Soviets, popular units made up of ordinary people seized much of the city from the Germans and held out for ten weeks against the odds. None of the history of the Polish resistance was allowed to be discussed or taught during the communist years – the regime could not tolerate celebrating dissent. Today there is a vibrant story-telling occurring about this part of their history. The museum of the Warsaw uprising is, along with the Jewish museum, two things that shouldn’t be missed here in the city.
Warsaw is not often talked about in very complimentary terms. We were told to spend little time here and devote energy instead to places like Krakow or Gdansk. But I love this city. We already pointed out our problems with Krakow in the last blog post, it’s a tourist trap that feels inauthentic. But Warsaw is really great. In fact, I’ve decided it ranks among my top favourite cities, sitting up there with some illustrious company, namely Hong Kong.
Why do I like Warsaw so much?
It’s a city you can feel anonymous in – you don’t feel like a tourist here – people treat you the same as anyone else (local people have even tried to ask us for directions, surprised when we don’t speak Polish). The city is relatively quite and not crowded. Food and accommodation are not expensive. One of the best apartments we’ve stayed in is here in Warsaw. The city has cheap traditional food, vegetarian or any other type of cuisine you want. It is the first city that we have been able to actually get really good, really healthy food. It’s easy to find beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables at local markets, and it’s not hard to find things you need. People don’t get frustrated with us for not speaking Polish, they’re patient and willing to resort to hand gestures if they don’t understand English. There is a politeness here. Even though we can’t speak polish, you can pick up on the cultural cues. Mobile data service is plentiful and cheap. The city is easy and pleasantly walkable. There is an enormous amount of green space and lots of tree canopy. There are almost no touts and the tourist crowds are not too bad. Despite the fact that Warsaw is not exactly representative of the rest of the Poland – it’s more globalized and wealthier than most other places – it still feels very Polish and not just like everywhere else. Warsaw has a fascinating and important history. People here are kind, polite and helpful.
If we hadn’t needed to process a special visa at the Thai Embassy, we would not have ended our visit to Poland in Warsaw. We’re really glad it worked out this way. All of Poland has been a spectacular and pleasant surprise. This is a lush, green country dense with natural beauty and lovely rural towns. Despite the heatwave that is plaguing Europe, the weather has been mostly tolerable. There were several very uncomfortable days on the Vipassana course in Malanow when the heat really spiked into the high 30s, and there were no fans or air conditioning. But the 110 Polish students sitting the course bravely and stoically faced the sweaty heat without a single complaint. Very Polish.
Poland has a dedicated Vipassana Centre. Designed and built from the ground up and completed last autumn, it is a beautiful and modern facility. The local Vipassana meditators here are justifiably very proud of it. Ideally situated just outside a small rural town called Malanow, the Centre is surrounded by a large forest and several farms. During construction, local people were very curious about the place, even a little suspicious. But when the Centre held an open house last fall, over a thousand people showed up, mostly from the surrounding area. Local residents are now enthusiastic and supportive of the work of the Centre. We conducted a course for about 130 students and volunteers who came from all over the country, as well as from many other places in Europe.
We had traveled by train to get to the Centre from Krakow. Poland has a (mostly) great train system, (mostly) very modern and convenient. There are a few old trains that still run without AC and cram six people into one first class compartment, and trains can become so crowded that people sit in the aisles. But our experience has been quite good. And watching verdant European countryside roll past the window is a very civilized and satisfying way to spend several hours. Poland is quite beautiful.
One of the highlights of our visit was the chance to spend a few days with our friends Ania and Irek in Szczecin. They were born and raised there and were spending a couple of months visiting family and volunteering on a few courses at the Vipassana Centre in June. They are among the very few Vipassana teachers anywhere who speak Polish.
Szczecin is very close to the present-day border with Germany. It has spent much of its history as part of Prussia and Germany until the end of the Second World War when it was made officially part of modern Poland. It is a lovely place, situated near the Baltic Sea and along the scenic Oder river. It has been an important seaport and shipbuilding facility for a very long time. Ania and Irek showed us their school and the places where they spent their time as teenagers.
Both left Poland for Canada in 1989 and they told us how much had changed since they left. But they also expressed some surprise at how much had stayed the same in the intervening years. Szczecin is a well-preserved town, with a compact historic city centre and a castle that once housed the Duke of Pomerania. The city is green with many large public parks. Leaving “communist” Poland for prosperous, “capitalist” Canada must have been quite a shock. After growing up in such a lovely and idyllic little town, they found themselves in the monochromatic industrial splendour of Hamilton, Ontario. We wrote about Ania and Irek in a blog about our friendship back in Dec 2017 – you can read it HERE.
We explored a large public market being held around the cathedral, and sampled many (many) tasty things at the delicious Polish food stalls. Once among Europe’s large shipyards, Szczecin’s shipbuilding facilities – like many Western shipyards – have shut down, taking family-supporting jobs with them.
The now decrepit former industrial facilities are gradually being revitalized into public spaces for the arts and cultural endeavours, shopping malls, restaurants and cafes. The river shoreline boasts a very long, scenic boardwalk. Ania and Irek also treated us to a day trip to the Baltic Sea.
We hung out at the beach, walked around and ate unhealthy and extremely tasty local treats. If we had simply stayed in Krakow or some other place in ‘tourist’ Poland, we would have come away with a very different experience. Fortunately, given our time at the Vipassana Centre and time spent with our dear friends here, we leave reluctantly. Poland is a great country.
Next we are traveling to Vilnius. We’ll spend a week or so getting to know Lithuania’s capital city and then head off to volunteer on another 10-day retreat. More soon.