I promised to write a little about the food, culture and “vibe” in Warsaw and Krakow. First of all, these are two beautiful, historic European cities. Warsaw is largely re-built after the destruction of World War II (though it has an old-European feel in many parts, along with a very modern skyscraper-filled downtown), but Krakow was spared destruction and has castles and churches dating back to the 12th century, or earlier. There is serious scholarly debate about whether the Russians should get some credit for their military strategy of quickly driving the Nazis out of Krakow before the German army could destroy the town (the Nazis had already looted it almost completely of ancient art and relics), and guess on which side of that debate I alight, given how Russia handled the Warsaw Uprising. 

Dominating the country much like the Mississippi River does the U.S., the Vistula connects the three main cities, running from the Carpathians South to North into the Baltic Sea, Krakow to Warsaw to Gdansk. The Vistula similarly even has a large delta where it joins the Baltic that also is prone to flooding and has been re-settled several times in the last century. I have already referenced in a prior update the historical importance of the Vistula when Russia was pushing the Nazis back across Poland. In Warsaw there is a gorgeous Calatrava bridge over the Vistula, translated as Holy Cross Bridge, and it rivals his Woman’s Bridge in Buenos Aires. The Vistula appears in several written records from the 1st century, AD, including the writings of Pliny the Elder, and Ptolemy. 

The food in the two cities, and even in Przemysl nearer the border, is first rate. The restaurants are fantastic and very reasonable. Three blocks from my Warsaw apartment is a restaurant that serves the best lobster bisque, with a diminutive spoon of black Polish caviar on the side. The coffee shops are joy; I include below three pictures of some history (including interesting notes on the communist regime’s take on coffee) on the wall of my favorite nearby coffee shop in Warsaw. And the café offerings range from authentic Polish food to some of the best French and seafood restaurants I have ever patronized. My cheap studio apartment in Warsaw is right off of the main pedestrian mall/walkway in Warsaw, in Stare Misto (Old Town) and so sitting at a coffee shop writing these updates when in Warsaw and watching so many nationalities walk by has been very pleasant. All of the ubiquitous planters on this boulevard (free of all traffic on the weekends, only taxis and buses during the week) are all as shown below, in Ukrainian colors. 

My go-to in many restaurants, sometimes as a main course and sometimes as an appetizer, is the native Polish soup called “Zurek.” It is a sour rye (fermented) and broth-based soup with interesting spicing and white kielbasa sausage and at least one divided boiled egg. It is nourishing and fortifying (especially when it was colder and rainier early in my visit). I cannot wait to make it at home, though I may wait until temps cool in October. It is variously described as a seasonal soup served around the Easter holidays, but I find it is still on almost all menus. If in doubt, I order the Zurek. But I have for the most part avoided the borscht. Except at one very good restaurant in Krakow, Farina, I’ve twice had the best pickled beat salad with goat cheese mousse I could ever imagine—probably one of the top ten dishes of all time for me. 

In both cities there are wonderful cigar lounges, so I have not been deprived of my weekly smoke (when near the border I’m carrying). I have met some very interesting characters in these two shops, from “contractor”/mercenaries headed to or returning from Ukraine, to a German birthday vacationer (who sent me a set of mugs in Fort Worth he designed featuring an interesting take on former President Trump), to a Brit with Polish girlfriend (with a grandfather who survived WWII), to many others. Watched with a British soccer coach Manchester City lose a two-goal lead in the third period to Real Madrid, so that was a master’s class for me in true futbol. Something about a relaxed cigar smoke and folks who will chat. And yes, these always feature very-reasonably-priced Cubanos cigars, and delightful Cuban music. Takes me back to my ruminations on borders in an earlier update, in light of the antiquated U.S. embargo on Cuban products.

The beer here is, surprisingly, not very good, the Polish wine same. Since I do not drink vodka, I must struggle when enjoying a cigar and make do with Cuban dark rum. What I am sacrificing for this work!

One thing that drives me a bit nuts is that in all coffee shops and restaurants they play almost exclusively American music. Almost always covers, covers I’ve never heard before. Not the Aretha Franklin “I Say a Little Prayer” B side kind of cover. Pretty good American music, but gives even the most authentic restaurant or coffee shop an other-wise unmerited “tourist” feel. At the coffee shop next to my apartment last Saturday, as I ordered my late-night decaf mocha before heading to bed, the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” came on, and I’d had enough: I broke out into full-voiced sing-along to the lyrics, to the bemusement and delight (???) of those in line and behind the counter. A man’s got to sing what a man’s got to sing. Even if baritone and not tenor, and nowhere near the sound of Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Jackson Browne. Ugly American, with chord structure.  

The Polish are highly educated, a seemingly happy people as a group, comfortable with their place in the world and economically thriving. I do not get the sense the rank and file has the same overly-nationalistic tendencies as their leadership. And clearly, they did not hesitate to step up on the Ukrainian refugees as no country has in a refugee crisis in a century (with Moldova and Romania tied or a very close second). While I still struggle to pick up Polish vocabulary and pronunciations, there is a lilt, a positive up-lifting note in almost every conversation I overhear.  Everyone has been between exceedingly polite, warm and welcoming. 

The country between Warsaw and Krakow is beautiful—rolling hills, terraced fields, some thick forests, and wide stripes of yellow flowers that are spectacular in the spring (canola seed flowers, which go by another name locally, as I learned thanks to my “Ugly American” curiosity, followed by chagrin). 

There is a housing construction boom underway in Poland, mostly in the outlying villages and suburbs near the large cities, unprecedented since the early 70’s. Some of the construction is of housing that is investor-owned. For decades the houses were built without incurring debt, so work on building a house would take years. It was common to see very little progress on a house’s construction over several seasons or years. But now there is apparently loan/mortgage capital widely available, and the housing construction boom is a result. The average mortgage is €422, or under $500 a month. These newer, 50%-larger houses manage to keep a traditional look, plaster outside with tile or standing metal seam roofs. Almost 1.7 million new homes have been built in Poland in the last decade.  And this new construction is everywhere one goes in Poland.

It is difficult for an outsider like yours truly to determine exactly how much the events of WWII still shadow the Polish; there is very little vestige of the communist era, except the almost universal loathing of the Russian leadership, and a few dreadfully ugly buildings. I have heard Polish leaders encourage visitors to visit places like Auschwitz, and in Warsaw there is a recently finished museum in remembrance of the Jewish ghetto that existed in Warsaw between 1940 and 1943. But even it is somewhat controversial as possibly eliding over the Polish collaborators’ role in the creation and operation of the Jewish ghetto, and also in the evacuation of the ghetto and the operations of the death camps. For an excellent account of this historical ambiguity, please see this article. By mentioning this problem, I apparently am at risk of being arrested for violating the law mentioned in the article.

One detail from German Nazi propaganda widely circulated in the ghetto before its destruction: “join a work detail and there will be food and shelter.” This is hauntingly similar to the “offers” the criminal traffickers are currently circulating in Poland to displaced Ukrainians. The German Nazis were using the fiction to send Jews and other ghetto residents to the Treblinka death camp.

My studies indicate that Poland sent legislators to Ukraine very quickly after Solidarity was victorious over the communists, and there was a fulsome exchange of ideas and strategy before then. This was despite a history of partition and some animosity between the two countries, owing mostly to Ukraine being the country from which the Soviet tanks would likely come in case of an uprising. Poland was the first to recognize the break-away Republic of Ukraine, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and pretty quickly Poland and Ukraine signed mutual support peace treaties, and most importantly, each declared that there was no territorial dispute between them. We are all the beneficiaries of now-thirty-years’ of serious efforts at creating peace between these two peoples.

Shortly after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, an overly optimistic radio broadcast indicated that Polish army fighting would be stronger than it was, and without irony closed with the declaration: “Long Live Poland!” This became a rallying cry in the ghetto, the resistance, and later in the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, just three years after St. John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Poland, an anti-communist demonstration broke out in Warsaw with this mantra. So I close with this: Long Live Poland!  And Long Live Ukraine.