Post Eagle Newspaper


Sep 28, 2023

69°F, clear sky
New Jersey

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This Is Not Your Grandmother’s POLAND!

By Isabella Szutkowski

This year we decided to do something different for Christmas  and “different” landed us in Poland.  Specifically Warsaw.  With my older son going off to college in the fall (where did the years go?!) I had decided that it was time to have my husband show both of my children (and myself) a traditional, cold, snowy Christmas in Poland with our families. And I got my wish! It snowed! Well, at least the first day.

We arrived at the now more cosmopolitan sounding and cosmopolitan looking Warsaw Chopin airport (formerly Okecie) to a Winter Wonderland, in more ways than one. We had chosen to fly through Germany to Poland for flight convenience and I have to say, it was one of the best choices. Our connection from Germany to Poland had become a domestic flight and that meant deplaning in Warsaw was as fast, comfortable and convenient, as I never before had experienced. We were free to start our adventure immediately. And it was a wonderful adventure.

009_(2)webWhen we travel to Poland, we seldom stay with family.  Chalk it up to the Americans in us. We prefer to be on our own to explore and do as we please. But hotel stays have their own challenges. Europe including Poland, has very strict fire codes which allow only two people in a hotel room, so for the 4 of us, that is 2 rooms from the start.  So for this stay we rented an apartment. And since my son had last minute homework assignments and we needed to have Internet access, staying in an apartment made sense and proved to be cheaper.  And what an apartment!  We stayed in a modern, 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom, very clean apartment complex near the Hilton conference center, with a flat panel TV in each room, Internet access and secure underground parking.  We had windows, floor to ceiling, in our open plan kitchen (which also had a washing machine and dishwasher), dining and living room area with an absolutely beautiful view of Warsaw, facing towards the Warsaw Uprising Museum.  A luxury Manhattan style apartment in the heart of Warsaw for a bargain price (we got a really good last minute special).  The apartment lobby had a reception desk where the staff was very helpful and the complex had … get this … a sushi place, a wine shop, a pizzeria, a supermarket, a doctor’s office and a pharmacy.  The adjacent Hilton had a health club that we had access to and a casino.  This certainly was not your grandmother’s Poland! And the people … everywhere and everyone without exception that we met in the complex and in the shops that we went to in Warsaw was amazingly professional, welcoming and nice.

1020forwebNext stop. The family meal at Christmas.  We tried something new here as well and very much against typical Polish tradition. We celebrated the holidays in restaurants. My sister-in-law’s apartment was too small to host all of us (a typical communist era apartment), so we decided to go out for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  That is correct. In Poland.  During Christmas. Where everything is closed for the holidays … or at least it used to be. The Sheraton hotel had started a Wigilia dinner a few years back for tourists, and it had caught on so, that the locals started coming to it.  Imagine … all the traditional Christmas Eve dishes … mushroom soup, barszcz, all types of fish, salads, pierogi … enough to even be able to address the vegetarian restrictions of my niece and her husband.  The next day, we again went out, this time to a Polish Restaurant in a part of Warsaw called “Saska Kepa”. Think of this as a milder Greenwich Village of Warsaw where a lot of the artists and Bohemians live.  We had our Christmas dinner in a manor house of sorts that had been converted to a restaurant. The menu was amazing … salads, smoked fish, fish in aspic, roasts, desserts.  But the biggest surprise came when my younger son decided to be “funny” and started speaking to the waiter in Spanish. Yes, Spanish.  But the reaction of the waiter was even better … switching between Polish and English was no big deal for the waiter … but when he answered my son in Spanish, my son was astounded.  My son’s joke was taken in stride and he loved it! And that is an impression of Poland that I want my children to take away:  a memory of a happy Poland, a normal Poland, a progressive Poland, a cosmopolitan Poland, a surprisingly multi-lingual Poland and a Poland that they will want to visit.170forweb

The next day was the second day of Christmas. In Poland, this is a holiday. Period. No stores are open, and, just as on Christmas day, there is a ban on trucks on the roads. Even though Poland, sadly, continues to be notorious for the number of car accidents, many changes are occurring. The roads are much, much better and can hold their own with other European roads.  Gone are the “koleiny”, those ruts in the road that get formed by the incessant wear of car tires against the pavement… at least on the route from Warsaw going north to Olsztyn.  And I really should correct myself.  The “route” is now a highway, perhaps not a mega-highway but without question, a highway where we were able to make a quick round trip run to Olsztyn and back in about a half day.  And as we found out, Poland now has the same traffic picture boxes as the rest of Europe that snap your photo if you cross the speed limit. They work. Trust me. Don’t ask.

The next few days we spent visiting family and being treated to those sumptuous meals that I can only dream of cooking.  You know the ones. Where the grandmother, mother, sister, aunt, kids … anyone that has even the remotest idea of how to cook, participates in, coming up with the most amazing holiday dishes made of chicken, goose, rabbit, lamb. And the elegance of the presentation! How important that is to the entire meal. I remember my mother always saying “Remember, even if you may not be the best cook, a beautiful presentation always sets the stage.” How true.

With the holidays behind us we decided to venture out into the shopping malls in Warsaw, or “galerie” as they are called. Architecturally they are quite impressive with their airy feel, glass all around, shiny escalators and international shops: United Colors of Benetton, Victoria Secrets, Dorothy Perkins to name a few.  I finally had to take a photo of a Polish chain, the toy store Smyk, to prove that I was in a Polish shopping mall! And the food court was just as cosmopolitan – a McDonald’s and a Burger King (hand in hand as always) but, in addition, a sushi place, an Italian restaurant, a pastry shop, an ice cream shop … and many, many Asians assimilating themselves into Polish culture.  Yes, that is correct. Welcome the new immigrant group to Poland. This is not your grandmother’s Poland!

073forweb  But no trip to Warsaw would be complete without a stop to “Stare Miasto”, Old Town.  For the holidays, Stare Miasto and the area around it get transformed into a fairy land with holiday lights across the streets everywhere.   In the square in “Stare Miasto”, artists, artisans and food vendors bravely fight the cold tending to their Christmas market.  These have been set up over the last couple of years, a tradition that has come to Poland from Germany.  This is where I had the best mulled wine that I have had in a long time. We also managed to see a Polish version of “The Nutcracker Ballet” at Teatr Wielki. This was a very enjoyable production with Polish heritage themes woven into the storyline.  And even here I was amazed at how quickly and politely our last minute ticket purchase was accepted. When we asked if there was a dress code, we were told: “Whatever is comfortable.”  Imagine. No dress code. Not your grandmother’s Poland!

But we couldn’t leave Warsaw without paying our respects to the horrible history that Warsaw went through before it got to this point.  I took our children to the Warsaw Uprising museum where they were face to face with a revelation of history as it happened in the location of where it happened.  The Warsaw Uprising museum is built right at the edge of what was the Ghetto in Warsaw.  The history contained there, including film footage from the uprising itself, sends shivers down one’s spine.  These films were the fragments that were not destroyed or “taken care of” as the subtitles on the movies indicated.  They saw the moving 3D movie “City of Ruins” (you can find it on YouTube as well).  This is one of the most heart-wrenching films.  For those that do not know, about 85% of Warsaw was destroyed during World War II, with Stare Miasto completely destroyed and subsequently, painstakingly rebuilt to its former splendor.  This documentary film of Warsaw from 1945 shows the absolute devastation of that destruction as captured from the flight of a bird. It is hard not be moved by it.  We left the museum in silence.

But Warsaw has moved on, rising to the challenge and re-inventing itself.  Even the communist blocks of grey buildings that had been built during the Cold War are getting a facelift.  They are being painted in pastel colors.  Balconies and sleek, modern elevator shafts are being added to their cold rectangular shapes transforming them into something more palatable.  They are entering a new era, an era where the youth has forgotten the turbulence of the 80’s, where the vocabulary of the language is no longer littered with expletives and curse words, where one does not see the gangs on the streets that used to traverse them and ride the trams, where the people appear to be happier and more content.

Are there problems still in Poland? Absolutely.  Are there problems in other European countries and in the States? Absolutely.  But we have to acknowledge that Poland has come a very long way in the last few years.  I have been traveling to Poland and other European countries since the seventies, and have been to Poland several times in every decade since then. I am fully bilingual. I can blend in and sense the culture that permeates the air.  In my opinion, if we continue to cling to the images of what Poland once was, we will never give her the chance to become what she is trying so hard to become … a strong player in a modern tomorrow. This is not your grandmother’s Poland!  This is the Poland that your grandmother had hoped for.  It is time to spread the word … now is the time to visit Poland. She can hold her own with any European country.  May you embark on your own adventure and discover your own Polish heritage.