I recently returned from a trip to Poland. It was a tough but enlightening journey. Throughout the years of running this website, I met lots of people throughout the world — but only virtually. For the most part, I stayed in the NYC area. I figured that all of the best stuff in the world is already here. Why bother traveling, especially considering that I hate traveling by airplane? But surprising, I found myself on the way to Gdańsk. In doing so, I learned some new things.
One of the things that I didn't learn is my hate of buses with wings. I already knew that. The plane was even called an "Airbus". But while flying on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), I got to experience some modernization of air travel. The seats had little monitors in them. I could watch movies, play music or see travel information. I could see the location of the plane on the globe. It was like one of the slowest progress bars ever, as the little plane moved over the Atlantic Ocean. At 39,000 feet, the outside air temperature is much colder than on the ground. At first I thought -70° and lower was a mistake. Yet, I was flying through thin air, at night, over some frigid territory. It reminded me of the massive technology that was required to make this trip happen.
And those jokes I heard about airline food, it doesn't seem to be true — at least not anymore. I had my Thanksgiving dinner somewhere over Canada. It was quite nice, even though I didn't feel much like eating. Well, I did get hungry, but it was hard to get comfortable when stuck in a chair for over eight hours. The first flight was filled with several noisy children. I felt trapped. Fortunately, I had a window seat with an amazing view. Even though it was dark, I could see stars and a beautiful display of lights from the cities below.
Since there weren't any direct flights from New York to Gdańsk, I had to switch planes at Copenhagen, Denmark. This is a lovely airport. I was impressed with the hardwood floors and numerous shopping areas. New York is often called the capital of the world. If that's the case, then it might be hard to realize that from the airports. I've been to the JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports. I found it to be much nicer in Copenhagen.
After a short plane ride over the Baltic Sea, I landed in Poland. Growing up in the 80's, I was influenced by the cold war. We were taught to distrust the Russians and their allies. I didn't imagine myself traveling to this part of the world. But now that the communistic era for Poland is over, the country is becoming Americanized. I was surprised to hear English on the radio. There were lots of great stores too, like Biedronka. Throughout my travels in the Pomeranian providence, the smiling ladybug store could often be found.
Other stores like Real (kinda like Walmart) and Obi (kinda like Home Depot) are quite similar to popular American stores. The Polish stores seems a lot cleaner. I was also surprised by cashiers that could sit instead of stand. It made shopping America feel somewhat barbaric. Why do our cashiers have to stand all day... and why don't the back wheels on the shopping carts turn? The shopping carts in Poland were more maneuverable than the ones I'm used to in New York.
I could find many of the foods that I'm accustomed to, but many items were difficult to find. Cranberry Juice was surprising difficult to locate. The best I could find was a mix of cranberry and some other juice. I couldn't find Vegetarian Beans, Eggos/Bisquick or Provolone Cheese. But for the most part, I was able to eat the same things that I would in America. To a world traveler, that might seem absurd. Isn't the idea to experience the local culture? I did try some new Polish food, but I like hamburgers and pizza. I was eating rather well.
I especially liked the chocolate pudding, which is something else that I found amazing about Poland. This was one of the best chocolate puddings I had in my life. It felt and tasted rather fancy, but it only cost about one złoty. That's like 30¢ in New York. Life can be hard in Poland. With high unemployment, it can be tough to get a job. So while the country appears to be growing economically, it's still recovering from the darker days.
Many people use coal and firewood to heat their homes. I was surprised at how polluted the air felt. In New York, if you see a black column of smoke, it usually means to call the fire department. In Poland, it usually means that gas and electricity is too expensive. I did see quite a few windmills, so perhaps Poland will improve in this area. Recycling didn't reach the area I was staying, so the plastic bottles of my trip could be around for hundreds of years after my journey.
That's what was interesting about Poland. Some things are quite modern, while others things were so backward. Television is an excellent example. In New York, I don't have cable or satellite TV, but I still have lots of shows to watch. But on an old TV just south of Słupsk, only three broadcast channels were available. Much of the time, American movies and shows were shown — with a Polish man talking over the English dialogue. It made for a frustrating viewing experience.
Here's an excellent example of the difference. On a Sunday afternoon, the movie "What Planet Are You From?" was on. It was something of a sci-fi comedy, with many elements of soft-core porn. In America, that movie would be rated "R". In Poland, the number 12 was shown on the top-left of the screen. Apparently, the Polish people are cool with young kids watching Garry Shandling on top of a woman with her breasts exposed. I had to leave before the movie ended, so I didn't get to watch what happened to the alien with the vibrating penis.
While Polish TV was a disappointing experience, I'm impressed with Polish Internet access. A company called Play offered 1GB of mobile data for 19 złoty. That's about $7 — less than what I pay for my mobile phone. It was pre-paid. No contract, not even a name was necessary. Just drop the sim card in a USB stick and play. (It was 129 for the stick and 1GB of data.) Although, I was glad that I downloaded the City Maps 2Go app. Having an offline map made it easier to get around.
Almost two weeks into the trip, something weird happened. I started dreaming in Polish. This is especially weird considering that my understanding of the language is about the same as a Polish toddler. I was eager to go home, but it wouldn't be easy.
It started snowing in Poland. In general, the skies were gray. If you're interested in visiting Poland as a vacation spot, it might more enjoyable during the Summer months. The winter in Poland seems tough. I was shoveling lots of snow and it wasn't even officially winter yet. I was also sick for most of the trip, constantly coughing from the cold air. Although, the snow did add a nice background for the season. The weather made it feel more like Christmas.
The snow delayed my flight, which lead to a quick trip in Zürich, Switzerland. Apparently, I was making up for all the years I hadn't been outside of the United States. The flight home was on Swiss International Airlines. I still hate flying, but the Star Alliance seems to do a good job. I enjoyed eating lasagna and pizza on the return flight.
Things are different in Europe. The people seemed rather cool. Even though I was a foreigner, I felt welcomed. When I arrived in America, I felt the difference. Getting through customs was rather annoying. I'm thinking that this is a bad introduction for foreign visitors. I travelled through Denmark, Poland and Switzerland without much trouble. In America, it was quite a hassle. I didn't enjoy the body scanners or being searched for contraband. The whole process of leaving and returning to the United States just seemed more serious and less friendly. That's unfortunate, because it can be a deterrent to traveling. In Poland, there was security, and it was strict too, but somehow it was friendlier.
Will I return to Poland? I don't know. I did learn some valuable information that could make a return trip easier. Although, I am happy to be back home. That's what I learned the most from my trip. It gave me a renewed appreciation for the little things in life... like sleeping in my own bed or driving my own car. I also think that I gained a new respect for those that live abroad. Considering that Photics.com is visited by people from all around the world, I think it's a very good thing to have had a more worldly experience.