Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Gdańsk and Sopot, Poland: Danzig and Driving Devices

May 12, 2011
Danzig is German. World War 2 propaganda poster.

Danzig is German. World War 2 propaganda poster.

Day Trip #2 with my homestay folks from Bydgoszcz took us to Gdańsk (I think it’s pronounced Geh-daown-sk) and Sopot (So… pot?), two of the cities along the Baltic coast that make up what is known as Trójmiasto (or, three-cities).

The trip started early in the morning, 6:30 am or so, much to the chagrin of Homestay Daughter and I. Homestay Father was ready to go, however. He woke us up, had breakfast ready so we could eat (with eyes closed) while he went and got the car. By 7 am we were in the car, and this is when I learned about Polish road trips.

You see, I didn’t know what Homestay Father actually did for work. I’m sure my friend had told me before but I’d forgotten. So, when Homestay Father plopped a GPS device, a radar detector and a two-way radio into the front seat and began assembling everything, I couldn’t help but wonder. The GPS and radar detector I understood, but the two-way radio? I ask Homestay Daughter. Apparently he works for some transportation company. The two-way radio is for contacting other drivers on highways… especially about highway cops.

Smiling, he pointed proudly to the radar detector and said “Not legal!”

I could do nothing more than nod in agreement.

And so we drove to Gdańsk, conversing with one another, listening to Polish and English pop music, and, every now and then, radioing other cars for info about cops in the area. We had no problems.


Długa Targa in Gdańsk, Poland.

Długa Targa in Gdańsk, Poland.

Gdańsk (known, in German, as “Danzig,” like the musician) is the port city of Northern Poland. Surprisingly, our stay in the city was very short despite the historical importance of this city. In recent history the city has undergone two momentous occasions.

First, World War II started here. The first attack by the Nazis occurred at Gdańsk’s Westerplatte on Sept 1st, 1939. Apparently the Poles were able to fend off the invaders for a week before they were overtaken. The city was liberated (or almost wiped off the map) in 1945 after a good ol’ bomb-fucking by the Soviets.

The next big thing that happened here were the revolts against communism some four decades later. Those revolts culminated in the “Lenin Shipyards strike” of 1980, and is now commemorated by a huge pillar with three anchors hanging at the top. It would be almost a decade before Poland would be released from communism after the so-called “Round Table” discussions of 1989.

Whew. (Shot of Żubrowka.) History lesson over.

Nazis, Soviets, and revolts aside, our stay in Gdańsk was more of a walking tour than anything else. The main street is ulicia Długa (dwoo-ga), marked by many pretty buildings and turns into Długi Targ after the Town Hall (see picture above.) Długi Targ is made memorable by Neptune’s Fountain, which sits in front of the historic Dwór Artusa (Arthur’s Court). The Court was apparently built by some folks who were inspired by King Arthur’s Knights of Camelot and wanted their own place to assemble and scheme.

Whoops, that was more history learning. Sorry. (Another shot.)

Then we walked through the Green Gate to the waterfront, admired the view and took pictures.

Gdańsk Waterfront

Gdańsk Waterfront.

We couldn’t miss, however, the staple of any walking tour in Europe: a visit to a church. (Are there any tours in Europe that don’t have a visit to a church?) Walking down ulica Mariacka we visited the monumental and old Bazylika Mariacka, or St. Mary’s Church, built sometime in the 14th century. It was a nice church, complete with images from the Bible, Latin inscriptions, and icons. The bleached-white interior didn’t look anything like the brick exterior. Unlike St. John’s Church in Toruń, which is the oldest brick building in Poland, St. Mary’s Church is the biggest brick church… in the world.

St. Mary's Church altar, Gdańsk, Poland

St. Mary's Church altar, Gdańsk, Poland.

Jumping back into the car, we drove to Sopot.


Funky building in Sopot, Poland.

Funky building in Sopot, Poland.

We did a quick tour of Sopot on foot. The main street is ulica Bohaterów Monte Cassino, complete with a funky looking building and a boy on a rope. The main street stops at the beach facing the Baltic Sea and is taken over by the Sopot Pier.

Steve Among Swans.

Steve Among Swans. It was very cold that day.

We walked the pier and took a look at the marina they are building at the end of the pier. Along the way we saw swans, ducks, the Baltic Sea and a camera crew. Maybe my host family and I will be in a Polish movie as unsuspecting extras.

We stopped for dinner, but I forget the name of the place. I thought it was funny that I could try something call gypsy pie. I remember making some comment about “them wretched gypsies,” which Homestay Daughter didn’t find too funny and thankfully Homestay Father didn’t understand. Noting that gypsy-jokes were off-limits, we made other conversation.

The last cultural experience of Sopot was smoked cheese, called “oscypek.” It was good and greasy.

Polish oscypek.

Polish oscypek.

And then we drove back to Bydgoszcz.

I’d been staying in Bydgoszcz for a week before I accepted the fact that my Polish wasn’t going to get any better. Deciding to leave Polish lessons and a singing toilet behind, I decided it was time to leave. Saying thank to my host family and trying to figure out how many kisses on each cheek I was supposed to give, I returned to Warsaw for a few weeks before finally going westward to a town called Poznań.


Polish Rock and Metal Muzyka

May 5, 2011

Alright boys and girls, it’s that time again. Following posts on Asian, Korean, Winnipeg, and country music, it’s time for another round of Steven’s Musical Selections. This time I’m covering the muzyka from Poland.

While in Krakow, I walked into the Empik store in Stare Miasto, Krakow and asked the info guy to guide me through Polish music: metal, electronica, reggae, rock, whatever. Give me Poland’s best, I said. He pointed out a few Cds, I ended up taking all but one. Now before you think I just splurged on a bunch of Cds without listening to them (which I am prone to do), Empik has this really cool listening station. Every CD in the store has already been digitized which means you can listen to the CD without opening the package. All you have to do is wave the barcode under the scanner and it pulls up the CD in the player. Neat.

So we go, some of the better rock and metal music I found while travelling through Poland. In the next post, I’ll cover pop/hip-hop, raggaemuffin, jazz, traditional and classical music.


Łąki Łan's latest album, Łąki Łanda.

Artist: Łąki Łan
Album: Łąki Łanda

Well, for us beginning Polish learners, hearing a band named Łąki Łan (pronounced Wanki Wan), you kinda wonder what you’re getting yourself into. But this is the disc the music man at Empik picked out when I asked for the craziest Polish music he could think of. Amazing disc right off the bat. Hard to classify, but this group has elements of rap, rock, funk and some elements of klezmer. Rapping vocals with groovy bass and poppin’ drum beats. It’s really hard to write very much about this band simply because you have to hear them. This CD played as a soundtrack to my Search for A Cemetery in Southeast Poland (forthcoming). My only complaint is that the first half of the CD is absolutely amazing but trails off in the last 2 or 3 songs. I hope this band continues releasing new material.

HEY Poland

HEY! from Poland.

Artist: HEY!
Albums: Fire and Re-Murphed!

This band has been around forever. Since they’re already releasing “best of” discs (actually, I don’t think those “best of” discs are authentic), I believe they’ve had quite a career. 1990-grunge music with female vox full of attitude and for that reason they reminded me of Alive in Chains, a little bit anyway. Their remixes, however, can go way out there. I was lucky to get both discs of their remix album Re-Murphed! Disc 1 was kinda too slow for my liking, but Disc 2 rocked my world.

Zepół Intercity

Zepół Intercity from Poland

Artist: Zespół Intercity

From Warsaw (I think). Although this band doesn’t have a CD yet, I was shown this band by one of the workers at the Oki Doki Hostel. The Sunday night performance brought out 50 or so people who appeared to thoroughly enjoy the onstage antics of the lead singer. Even though I didn’t understand what he was saying, his stage props (all carried in a briefcase) helped in interpreting what the songs were about. Don’t know how this band would fare in disc format, but live they were great. Think a mixture of Gogol Bordello and Winnipeg’s Trousermouth.

Lao Che's latest album.

Artist: Lao Che
Album: Prąd Stały / Prąd Zmienny

Probably one of the more bizarre discs I picked up. Elements of jazz, electornica, spoken word and rock, I’m not sure how to classify this disc. For those in the West, think elements of John Zorn with some of Marilyn Manson‘s Mechanical Animals and rock music. The whole disc is a mixture of good elements with some questionable choices. The chants in the song “Krzywousty” were pretty catchy while tracks like “Czas” had a weird 1980’s feel that didn’t work. Each track would stand on its own in a “shuffle”, but together on one disc doesn’t work.

KNZ from Poland.

Artist: Kazik Na Zywo
Album: Las Maquinas de la Muerte

Clocking in at over an hour, this disc’s great dynamics are broken up with annoying slurred and mumbled spoken word tracks. Of course, they’re in Polish so maybe they actually contribute to the overall theme of the disc. This is a funky disc, given to me by the same casting agent who brought me down to Łódż. Some of the music reminded me of Gwar, fast and heavy but not as abrasive, though the disc remained uniquely KNZ’s own style of rock. Lots of attitude in this disc, sounds like great party music.

Marcinera Awaria - Rebus

Marcinera Awaria' album titled Rebus

Artist: Marcinera Awaria
Album: Rebus

From Łódż, Poland! Good train listening music, maybe for saying goodbye or even on those days that you feel kinda displaced as a traveller. The disc I got had a laid back singer/songwriter style to it. Not sure I’d listen to this on a regular basis but I’d let it play through in a shuffled playlist. The album ends with an upbeat feel with the dance-beat fuelled track, “Road.”


Unfortunately, there weren’t too many recommendations for Polish metal. I asked if there were any other notable metal bands but everyone told me Behemoth and Vader are all Poland has to offer. Most of the good metal comes from Norway, Finland or the USA. The two bands I did find have toured all over the world and are pretty well known. They are Behemoth and Vader.



Artist: Behemoth
Album: the apostasy

Who knew that Behemoth hailed from Poland? Apparently they’ve been banned from playing in Poland because of their Satanic image. The trio, though very scary looking, use a lot of symbols with their artwork ranging from pagan and satanic to images and references to ancient history. Musically the disc is amazing. Even with the constant battery of the double bass drum, their compositions are artfully put together while the vocals, though growly, complement the music. The only thing I hate about the disc is the fact that they put it in a cardboard outer sleeve, the CD case was right proper lodged inside. Once I got the disc out, however, I found it cool that they included a paragraph explaining the lyrics and inspiration behind each song, even if I don’t agree with much of their written content.

Vader - Necropolis

Vader's 2009 album, Necropolis

Artist: Vader
Album: Necropolis

More death metal from Poland, but these guys haven’t been banned from playing. Their vocals are a little easier to understand than Behemoth’s, but the music is just as assaulting. Would love to see these guys live as they can settle into a face-paced metal groove or hash out some blast beats. The track “The Seal” was a pretty cool chant piece breaking up the thrash of the album and the track “Anger” makes it clear that they are, well… angry. Interesting to hear their version of “Fire Fire with Fire” on the Necropolis album. For those looking to get into metal, this would be your disc.

Next up, I’ll bring ya some reggaemuffin, pop, hip hop, jazz, traditional and classical muzyka from PO-Land.

Bydgoszcz, Poland: A Polish Homestay and the Great Blood-Giving Debacle

April 28, 2011
Church Interior, Bydgoszcz, Poland.

Church Interior, Bydgoszcz, Poland.

The same dziewczyna with whom I travelled through Laos extended an invitation to stay with her and her family in Bydgoszcz. They graciously accepted me into their home, generously fed me and gave me a glimpse into their day-to-day lives. I was lucky enough to stay for a week.

The apartment was a comfortable place. Not only did the shower have a built-in radio and TV, the toilet sung too! When you opened the door and turned on the light, the radio came on! So all those pips and squeaks are covered up by none other than ’80s and early ’90s pop rock! Amazing invention. The only downfall is when you wake up and have to go the radio is a little startling.

One thing that confused me when I first walked into the apartment was where the bedrooms were. Sure, I was shown them but I was confused as to where the actual beds were. As I was to find out, my host family had couches that doubled as beds! As I was to find out, this seems to be common in much of Eastern Europe.

One morning I tried to make “Canadian style” eggs for the mother but my effort was less than stellar. What are Canadian scrambled eggs? Eggs, milk, sausage, pepper. That’s it. And it failed to impress. I believe it was missing maple syrup and bacon. Why didn’t I try to make French toast? At least the effort appears greater. It is here I learned that if you’re going to stay at someone’s house, make sure you are ready with one or two recipes to impress the folks.

Bydgoszcz (Bid-gosh-ch) itself is a moderate-sized city of 500,000 and offers a vintage look of what Poland was like before the war. Although a quarter of the population (then 200,000) was killed at the hands of the Nazis, the city itself wasn’t destroyed as much as other cities. As a result, Bydgoszcz has a very old look to it. (The city’s website, however, boasts a simple, but neat music section.)

Basiclia Interior, Bydgoszcz, Poland

Basilica Interior, Bydgoszcz, Poland.

We spent a lot of time walking the streets, visiting pubs and cafes in between viewing churches and the basilica. We stopped by quite a few churches, most of which I forget the names, except St. Peter and Paul’s… only because I took a picture of the sign. On my first night in Bydgoszcz we caught up and practiced Polish at a neat pub in a boat, called Barka, on the river. Lastly, we went out with some of her friends (one of whom said that carrying a small bottle of vodka in my jacket pocket is a “sign” of a problem) to a local pub in which there was a Belarusian musician with an accordion, kinda like the American version of Jason Webley. He sang mostly Polish and Russian songs but obliged when I asked for Ukrainian songs.

Crossing the River

Crossing the River Brda monument, symbolizing Poland's joining the EU.

We also went to the ballet… for kids. There was a limited engagement of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the Opera Nova. My friend was thrilled to see the ballet but I was thinking of the small bottle of “research” I had left in my jacket pocket which was at the coat check. I’ll give it to the performers, especially the dwarves: they did a marvellous job of conveying the story through dance and pantomime.

After the ballet, we headed to a cafe called Cukierna Sowa, apparently it’s a local start-up. A swank joint, it had a live pianist who played classical music. I wanted to request something but my friend dissuaded me unless I asked for them in Polish. I relented. He was good. We also visited their second, more prominent, shop at the base of the bridge at ulicia Mostowa 4. They offer a wide variety of coffee creations, some with alcohol and others without. Both were neat places.

Bydgoszcz streets at night.

Bydgoszcz streets at night.

There was also the day my friend wanted to donate blood, something her parents told her not to do. She said it would be no problem… and then fainted. The amusing part about the episode is that it happened the day after an argument we had about Polish health care. We had both experienced health issues in SE Asia, she had dengue fever and I was bitten by a dog. But I told her: “This trip, I am determined to stay out of hospitals, especially Polish and Ukrainian ones.” Naturally, she thought I was overreacting and we argued about the state of Polish health care. Seriously, what do I know about Polish health care? Nothing. And I kinda like it that way.

So when she fainted, I seriously thought she was just joking around. Kind of like, haha Steve, I’ll show you. Surprise surprise, it was a true faint. No harm done, an IV and an hour later she was fine. The nurses promptly picked her up and moved her into her own room. They took very good care of her and even told her father and I to put away our cameras as we were causing undue stress. On the plus side, the episode convinced me that the Polish health care system works rather well.

After the Great Blood-Giving Debacle we were supposed to go to Torun. I said it was fine if we didn’t go since my friend needed to rest. However, after some Polish conversation it was decided we were going anyway. Kudos to my friend for having the strength to carry on despite the eventful morning!

And with that, the three of us: father, daughter and me, hopped into the car and drove to Torun.

Kutno, Poland: Zapiekanki and Coffee… “Polish Style”

April 19, 2011

I missed the direct train to Bydgoszcz so I had to transfer in a small town called Kutno. As luck would have it, this transfer would not be without a cultural experience.

I arrived Sunday morning, still a little wobbly from the previous night’s escapades, only to find all the restaurants closed. The only places open were the kiosks near the train station. I had an hour to kill before the train to Bydgoszcz and, though I wasn’t hungry, I figured I should find something to quell the riotous behaviour of my stomach. For starters, I figured I’d order a coffee, it’s the easiest thing to order.

My need for coffee is no secret, you can witness it in written and movie formats, I was fascinated to witness coffee “Polish style.” In my poor Polish language, I ordered “kava, chorna, nie sugar” (coffee, black, no sugar). The wonderful lady, hearing my terrible accent and believing me to be some village-hick, asks me some other questions, to which I respond (in Polish), “Pzpreszem. Nie rozumiem. Moj Polsku nie jest dobze,” (“Excuse me, I don’t understand, my Polish isn’t good”) and thus furthering her belief that I was an uneducated hick from Nowhereski, Poland.

She gives me a small plastic cup and puts some coffee grounds into it. I stand there wondering what to do. I look around for some hot water. I notice a small cart over to the left of the kiosk with a kettle on it and I wonder if I’m supposed to boil the hot water myself and somehow find a strainer for the grounds.

Nay nay, my friends. My wonderful server explains to me, in Polish, that the hot water will be ready in about five minutes. Of course she’s speaking pretty fast and I don’t really know much more Polish than to impress women at the bar (or swear). I give a “backpacker’s moment,” that is, I wait and observe the situation while smiling and agreeing. I figure I’ll wait and see what happens.

Finally, she brings out the kettle and pours the hot water into the small plastic cup, over the grounds, and stirs it for me.


Polish Style Coffee, before and after.

Polish style coffee. Pretty hard to screw up.

Weathering that storm, I decide that I should probably get something to eat. The problem is that the “food” sold at these kiosks isn’t really food. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and something called zapiekanki. My head was a little fuzzy and couldn’t recollect ever trying a zapiekanki before, so I decide to give it a try. I sputter some Polish, “Zapiekanki, prosze.” It’s 5 PLN or something like that.

For those of you who don’t know what a zapiekanki is, take a look at the picture below, taken in Warsaw. It’s Polish fast food. Popular amongst the Poles as a snack between classes, on the run, or after the club (as opposed to eating kebabs). There are a number of toppings ranging from pizza toppings to dessert toppings to the one I got, which was kinda gross. On a long piece of French bread she put (I think) tomato sauce, mayonnaise and some other red, gooey BBQ-like sauce.

Zapiekanki and hot chocolate.

My eyes warned my stomach, “Dude, I don’t know about this.”

But my stomach insisted, “Just give it a try. How bad can it be?”

I bite into the “sandwich”… and almost lose it all. To this day I don’t know what was on that piece of bread, but mayonnaise, tomato sauce that red sauce mixed with remaining vodka in my stomach made for some bad chemistry.

“Don’t you complain! You wanted it!” Scream my eyes.

To which my sickened stomach responded, “But I was soooo hungry.”

Finally, my brain, awaken by this commotion, declared the cultural experience over. It recalled that the one I had in Warsaw was better.

Time to find the platform and stare into space until the train arrives.

At least I learned a new way to make coffee.

Acting Up in Łódź, Poland

April 13, 2011

Piotrkowska Street at night, Łódź, Poland.

While in Warsaw, I befriended a man who introduced himself as, literally, a clown, and that he was in Warsaw for a few auditions. Bewildered, I ask for clarification. He pulls out a little advert. Turns out he’s a clown, an actor, and a casting agent, too. And his real name is Kamil. He invited me to an audition for a commercial in Łódź (pronounced “Woodge”). I figured, “Why not?” The city isn’t far from Warsaw, about 2 hours.

So off I go to the audition. The first time I’ve tried to act since making Coffee and Milk in Korea.

The task was pretty simple: I had to imagine standing on a beach with no one else around, sad and lonely, when all of a sudden a penguin walks up and gives me some ice cream. After that, I’m supposed to fucking lose it with happiness. The one note they gave me was to keep eye contact with this imaginary penguin. That’s a lot more difficult that it seems.

Next, I was supposed to imagine being a date with nothing to say (yeeeeaaaa right!!) when that same fucking penguin walks up and gives us ice cream. We’re supposed to lose it with excitement. My colleague (who might have been the co-director of the commercial) did well, but me? Not so much. I didn’t get the part.

The experience, however, truly exposed my ignorance of Polish cinema. Turns out Łódź, and Poland in general, has cranked out a few famous directors. You may have heard of Roman Polański (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist) and maybe Andrzej Wejda (Pan Tadeusz, The Promised Land and recently nominated for an Academy Award for his film Katyń) but Krzystow Kieślówski? No idea. (He’s known for a TV series titled The Decalogue and a trilogy of films, Three Colours: Blue, White, Red). Those folks belong to the Łódź Film School (Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Filmowa, Telewizyjna i Teatralna).

Łódź Walk of Fame - Roman Polański (Roman Pola...

Roman Polański's star in Łódź, Poland. Image via Wikipedia.

The studio I was auditioning in, however, was called Se-Ma-For. Turns out the studio has won a couple of Academy Awards for their work: in 1983 for Tango and in 2008 for Peter and the Wolf. The studio specializes in stop-motion animation (think Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas.)

After the audition, Kamil took me on a tour of the museum behind the audition studio, called the Museum of Fairytale. It was a neat little museum dedicated to their stop-motion work, complete with sets and props and a screening room for their latest work. They also had one of their Academy Awards on display.

Auditioning aside, I stayed only two days in Łódź so I didn’t get to see everything the city had to offer.

Though Łódź is mainly a student city now, it has been an industrial city for much longer, particularly for textiles and other manufactured goods. It has been dubbed the “Polish Manchester.” The factories used to be powered by underground rivers, apparently there are 19, but only one is visible.

I contented myself with visiting Manufaktura, a huge shopping mall made from renovated red-brick factories and warehouses. The mall is located at the end of the “longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe,” Piotrkowska Street. Along the way I saw the sculpture of Arthur Rubenstein (a famous pianist) and his piano near some stars on the sidewalk commemorating the film directors mentioned above.


Manufaktura, Łódź, Poland.

I was told to try a restaurant called Bierhalle, a German-themed brew house and restaurant. There’s one in Manufaktura, so I stopped in. Not only does Bierhalle have some eye-popping marketing tactics, the restaurant chain is renowned for their naturally-brewed beers. So along with my meal I order a litre of beer. These Europeans seem to think serving a litre of beer is nothing unusual. I can recommend going to Bierhalle. The food was affordable and the beer was much better than the typical Polish beers you can buy (Królewskie, Warka, or Żywiec).

After my Bierhalle experience, I head on back to the club near the hostel. I meet up with some folks I met the night before to embark on another night’s escapade. A few shots of vodka, some beer and more craziness and I wake up in another apartment. Bad night to do that since I’m supposed to be on the first train to Bydgoszcz to meet up with a friend. I locate two of my bags, leave the third wherever it was (gifts for my host family!!) since I didn’t have time to get them, and I get myself to the train station.

If I had the chance, I’d visit Łódź again, but next time I’d be sure to do a little more sight-seeing, including the museum and the film school.

Warsaw, Poland Part 2: Women, Movies, Booze and the Policia

April 7, 2011

This is (probably) the last post on Warsaw… until I go again. 🙂

One memory that stands out is the amount of joviality of the people. If aliens were to land in Poland and meet the people, I think they’d doubt that the country and its people were nearly eliminated within the last century. Instead, they’d think the Poles have been sucking back laughing gas. Makes me wonder if they were laughing with me, or at me.

On that note…

I did get asked out while sitting in a coffee shop, first time that’s ever happened. After visiting the museum in the Pałac Kultury i Nauki (the Palace of Culture and Science) I went to the nearby Coffee Heaven for my espresso and sandwich. Not long after sitting down this girl leans over and asks if I want to go to a movie… without even introducing herself. Immediately I thought, “Finally! Women the world over have realized my sex appeal!” Well, not quite, but I quickly responded, “Sure.” The movie was to be held at the MultiKino of Złote Tarasy, one of the newest and biggest malls in Warsaw.

Zlote Tarasy, Warsaw. It's a mall.

Turns out it was an actual movie premiere for Wojna żeńsko-męska (Voy-na zhen-sko meow-ska), a movie about this female reporter who hits a slump in her career. She comes up with the idea to psycho-analyze men by testing their cock either by observation or physical manipulation. It’s a comedy, by the way. I didn’t understand everything (it was all in Polish), but I think I got the gist of the movie.

After the screening we got to mingle with the celebrities. Well, I didn’t mingle because I wasn’t sure if they spoke English, so I just drank the free wine and ate the sandwiches. You can see some photos of the premiere on the movie’s website. I am not in any of them. 😦 The lead actress is a lot hotter in person, so is her sister (they were both in the movie). My bragging was cut short, however, as no one at the hostel knew anything about the movie or the celebrities. Such is life. To add insult to injury… I didn’t even get a picture so I have nothing to prove my attendance. 😦

I did go to the coolest chocolate shop ever, called Wedel’s. Apparently Poland boasts this family (the Wedel’s) who’ve been making chocolate for some 200 years. Do you remember, as a kid, your parents saying “Don’t eat so much candy or you’ll get sick” and how you, in your invincible youth, would think you know better?

They were right. Go figure.

I was kinda hungry when I went there so I ordered a regular sandwich which cost twice the amount I would’ve paid anywhere else. Before I could finish the sandwich they served me my cup of hot chocolate. This wasn’t just any powdered shit, however, this was a right proper cup of melted milk chocolate. Ffffffffffffffuckin’ awesome. Made me think I was visiting Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. A boy at heart I am.

Since I was there, I tried some of the pralines they had on display. I was given a menu of chocolates to choose from. And they didn’t give me just any dish for these chocolates. No no, they served them on a silver platter. This is when I felt a little out of place. The whole visit left me about 56 PLN poorer and kinda sick from a sugar overdose.

Wedel's Chocolate Lounge in Warsaw, Poland.

I’ve already written about Poland’s national beverage, vodka, complete with its procedures and protocols and the many types that exist. By the way, drinking on the streets is actually illegal and is actually enforced. I found this out the hard way. We were innocently smoking and drinking our beers in a dimly lit, garbage-infested nook when the cops stopped and made their presence known. As luck would have it, I didn’t have my passport on me. The cops didn’t like that.

To add to the friction between us and the dutiful cops, my lady partner refuses to accept the ticket they want to write up! Of course, the entire conversation was in Polish so, at the time, I had no idea what was going on. In my view, it was a very calm conversation with several sideways glances toward me. Turns out she might have to show up in court one day to answer for her refusal.

Chocolate, women, movies and booze aside, my favourite activity, however, was strolling through the streets of both Old and New Towns, arms behind my back, tipping my hat to ladies and police officers alike with a gentle smile, just like an old man. If there is one reason I would like to return to Warsaw, it’s to walk the Old and New Town streets in the summer. It was by walking around like an old man at night that I came to realize that Warsaw looked great at night as the street lights bounced off of the wet pavement.

Walking the streets of Warsaw at night.

And that about sums up my time in Warsaw. I see the hope and feel the energy of great hope among the people. Here you can see the thriving arts scene, booming construction and economy, and have a chance to meet the generous and hospitable local folks.

Warsaw impressed me and I continue to think of it fondly. I missed it as soon as I left.

Kudos, Warsaw, on a job well done.

Warsaw, Poland Part 1: Sight-seeing and The Gift of Communism

April 6, 2011

Royal Palace in Warsaw, Poland.

I found Warsaw to be an amazing city full of life. After taking over over the privilege of being a capital city from Krakow some four hundred years ago, Warsaw has made great strides in politics, economics and culture. Just take a look at the range of arts in Poland and you’ll soon realize that for them to exist there must be a tolerant political party and the right amount of money to make it all happen.

You might think Warsaw has always looked the way it does but you’d be wrong. Due to a major revolt during World War II, Warsaw bore the brunt of Hitler’s wrath and was levelled by a massive bombing campaign. Warsaw, and Poland itself, was eventually “saved” by Russia. Finally, enduring Communism after the war, Poland rebuilt itself being faithful to the original layout, design and architecture where possible. Warsaw, I believe, now stands as a pinnacle of recent Polish achievements.

I’ll give it to the Poles for having some pretty amazing museums. The uber-cool Chopin Muzeum was enough for a 2 hour visit, though I’m sure you could stay longer listening to all the exhibits (entrance is free on Tuesdays). This museum is “interactive” which means you get this little keycard programmed with the language of your choice to unlock some of the exhibits. Pretty cool I thought. There was this one exhibit where you sat down at a desk and flipped through a blank book except for a small barcode at the top. As you flipped through the book the barcode would be scanned and pull up the next page. This allowed you to listen to different compositions while reading about the people in Chopin’s life. Some of the exhibits didn’t work but, overall, I enjoyed my visit to the museum.

Kudos also to the Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie (The National Museum). Massive. I took two hours to go through the painting gallery only to realize that there were still entire collections of Greek, Roman and Egyptian artifacts to be examined, mulled over, and make my brain mushy from cultural experiencing. Well worth the price of admission.

And then there was this other museum, I forget the name, but on display was some bizarre (to say the least) collection of modern art by an artist named Katarzyna Korza. O.M.G. She made this one piece of art from a dead horse, cat, and dog and stacked them up onto each other. I didn’t understand the history of the work but apparently it wasn’t well-received. Animal rights activists voiced their opposition and may have said some bad things to her and about her… and that sent Ms. Korza in a completely different direction. So she decided to lay bare everything. I mean… everything.

She undressed, shaved her head, took photos and, if that wasn’t enough, made a short film, titled Il Castration, about a woman who attends a gay party dressed as a man: complete with a 6-pack abs, and male accoutrements. I hope travel has broadened my mind at least a little but I had trouble understanding, and watching, this film. This film showed this woman get found out, undressed and castrated. This is art folks.




I imagine Polish parks would be better in the summer, so too the cemeteries. I thought it was cool to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (in Saxon Garden) guarded all day and all night. Respect to the dead. Oh, and don’t walk into the tomb area or else the Honour Guard might have to say something to you.

Speaking of respecting the dead, I did spend one afternoon observing the well-sculpted tombstones in Jewish and Christian cemeteries. I don’t normally go to cemeteries but if I were to go again I’d go on a day when it’s not drizzling and more depressing than a Hollywood movie about the holocaust. Apparently the cemeteries contain the remains of some famous folks but I couldn’t find anybody I’d heard of.

Lastly, Warsaw’s most noticeable monument, the Pałac Kultury i Nauki (the Palace of Culture and Science), is also a great beacon for those nights when you’ve forgotten where your hostel is. I’m told it’s best to visit if there’s an exhibit going or on a clear night so you can see the city at night. The tall building (pictured below) is a gift from Stalin. Some folks think it should be torn down, others think it’s a symbol of the city. Anyway, I like the building because they light it up with all these pretty colours at night, green, orange, purple, and blue! Puurrty. Who said Communism couldn’t be colourful?

A Stalinist building in Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science.

Happy Birthday, Blog!

April 4, 2011

Sunset on a Manitoba farm.

Well, it’s been one year since I started this blog. That’s right, April 4th, 2010 I made my first post right here, which I think 6 people viewed… over three days. Over the year I’ve managed to survive 17 countries or so, visiting around 60 cities and (trying) to learn Korean, Thai, Khmer, Polish and now… Russian. As a result of those travels, I’ve been fortunate to meet and talk with many people all over the world.

I’ve managed just over one post per week, or about 67 (including this one). Readership continues to grow at a breath-taking pace and is almost equal to global daily Google searches. If you like what you read, remember to share it with your friends and family (using the “Share” button below) or maybe even the people you don’t like, since there are probably more of them. You can even use this short email:

Heeeyyy dude! I remember us talking about teaching English abroad and found this website. This guy has taught English and travelled the world. Thought you might like it.

See ya!

Don’t forget to personalize it with your name or else it’ll just look like spam.

Anyway, your favourite posts included Taipei? Fucking Eh!, the tale about my life on the farm in The Thanksgiving Day Chicken, and my Third Impressions of Poland. The Coffee and Coffee Shops in Asia post garnered quit a bit of attention from search engines, so too the second part of my report on Polish Vodka, and Winnipeg Music.

I appreciate you taking the time to read comment on The Thanksgiving Day Chicken, Winnipeg Music, and parts one and two of  Reminiscences of a Winnipeg Musician. My First Impressions of Poland, however, sparked many conversations while travelling through Poland. Thank you for the comments both online and in person.

Although I started the blog with the intention of making a documentary about my southeast Asian travels, I changed direction and focused more on writing, leaving the video and photos often unattended. All is not lost, however, as you can view a portion of my photos on Flickr and some videos on Vimeo. I’m slowly adding more.

There was a time I thought I could make a useful travel website, you know, somewhere you could look up what to do, what to see, etc., but there are other people who do it better than I ever could, among them Art of Backpacking, Road Junky, World Nomads and Frommer’s while the travel guides Lonely Planet (particularly the “shoestring budget” books) and Let’s Go remain your best offline sources. And if you need somewhere to stay, Hostel World is a good choice. As for airfare, I use and I don’t pretend to be a travel website, but I have travelled quite a bit.

In any event, my travels are (hopefully) far from over. There is still time for me to be of some service to you and your travel plans. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me at stevensirski [at] gmail [dot] com, or you can look me up on Facebook, though I’m wary of adding people I don’t know. A good conversation is appropriate, but a night or two out drinking is a minimum before I can commit to a Facebook relationship.

Thanks for reading. I’ve enjoyed writing. 🙂


A Farewell to Poland

March 31, 2011

Stalinist Building in Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science.


I came to this country with one particular image in mind: a sinister Rob Zombie paying homage to A Clockwork Orange and it’s Milk Bar sequence in his music video, Never Gonna Stop (The Red Red Kroovy). Moreover, I’d recently read a book by George Friedman (the head honcho of the STRATFOR intelligence company), titled The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, in which he suggests Poland will be one of the world’s super powers by 2050. I was intrigued as to what gave him that idea.

And so for 2 months I called this place my pissing ground. For 2 months I met, spoke, and drank with the people of this land. For 2 months I told people I’d find a job here. For 2 months I didn’t.

On March 6th, 2011, I finally boarded a train and left Poland.



Do I want to come again?


Poland was a great country to me and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. When I landed I immediately felt a sense of being “home.” That’s a scary word because whenever I talk to ex-pats they always mention how their new country immediately felt like “home.” And, as I was to find out later, I do indeed have some Polish roots, so maybe they’re starting to spring up? (Well, technically, they’re Austro-Hungarian roots, but I’d like to avoid that whole argument.)

Perhaps that’s why I spent so long in the Land of the Po. After reading over my first, second and third impressions of Poland, I take a look at a map and see that I’ve covered a good part of the country. In the next few posts I’ll give a brief overview of my adventures through Poland, including almost everything ranging from the sights of Warsaw and the goats of Poznan to the dwarves of Wroclaw and a search for a cemetery in southeast Poland.

Polish Vodka, Part 2: The Contenders

March 3, 2011


The infamous Polish, 95% vodka, Spirytus.

(Note to my Mom: maybe skip this post, too.)

The follow up to Part 1 in my research on Polish vodka. I realize that you might think that all there is to do in Poland is drink. Well, you’re not completely wrong, but you can also read my impressions of the country so far.

In this post I list 12 different brands, though some brands have two or three types of vodka. The short list for Polish vodkas include Luksusowa, Lubelska Cytrynowka, Żubrówka, Sobieski Pure, Wyborowa, Krupnik, Stock, Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka, Chopin, Polmos Spirytus Lubelski and the foreign vodkas, Bols, Maximus and Norska. Quite a list, I know. Research was tough.

A word on my research. Like most folks, I simply went to the store and picked a bottle. All of the vodkas below were sampled straight before being sampled in other mixtures and I mention the mixtures that stood out the most. For me vodka is best served chilled, but some can be served at room temperature and not lose any quality. Finally, I think the smoother vodkas are best served straight while the harsher vodkas might find a better home in mixed drinks.


First vodka I tried. It says “Polish luxury” on the bottle. How can you go wrong? Well, you can do better even within its price range ($8-$12) for the standard 750 ml. Although this vodka tastes like a typical vodka (more gross than a burn in the throat), it also makes you wonder why you are drinking it in the first place… and that you should stop while you’re ahead. (The website isn’t working, but you can read what’s in the vodka.) No mind, if you’re on a budget (as many backpackers and students are), then this vodka is for you. If you have a larger budget, try something different.

Lubelska Cytrynowka

Lemon-flavoured vodka. This brand makes a few different types of flavoured vodka. Brings to mind Aboslute’s attempt at making flavoured vodkas. Not my type of vodka. I would rather mix with real fruit juice, etc.


Two kinds, Biała and regular. Perfect for gifts both in Poland and abroad, I actually bought several bottles for my family only to have them disappear by morning. This vodka burns a little going down it has the most distinct taste. The clear, Biała, tastes like a regular vodka while its bison grass counterpart is more unique, in a good way. Żubrówka is made double distinct by the bison on the front image and the strand of bison grass inside the bottle. I tried to convince one Spanish guy to eat the grass, but he didn’t go for it. (I’ve never tried it either.) One club served this vodka with apple juice and cinnamon. No harm done, but to get the full flavour of the bison grass try it straight up.

Sobieski Pure

This one was reminiscent of lao-lao, the truly intoxicating 50% rye/vodka from Laos, except I enjoyed lao-lao more. Though the website boasts that this vodka goes down smooth and delicate, I found this one burns real hard. There is also the “premium” Sobieski Estate which I’m not sure if I tried. In any event, Pure was okay, but not the best.


Reeeeal fuckin smooth. So smooth that you could probably drink this one in a beer (a so-called U-boat in Poland), though I never tried it. This one will disappear quickly in a crowd. Most folks prefer their vodka damn near frozen, but this one vodka can be sipped at room temperature and still go down real nice like. Not only that, I found one place in Krakow, called Starka, that made their own flavoured vodkas using clear Wyborowa and natural fruits. Interesting. I tried the cranberry, very good. I highly recommend this vodka.


Made by the same folks who bring you Sobieski (which apparently was recently taken over by the French Belvedere beverage company). For this one, my enjoyment depended on how I drank it. The Poles I was drinking with thought the clear vodka was a good bottle, but I wasn’t impressed. However! The fine folks at Krupnik came up with a very intoxicating idea: mixing in honey to make a “vodka-based honey liquer”… Sure. In any event, kurwa! That’s a tasty mixture! Though it’s extremely sweet (and I’m not sure I’d want any more than a few shots), it’s very good. Probably the best mix I tried was a slice of lemon, orange, some cloves, hot water poured over top, and then a shot of the honey liquer over top. Amazing. Well worth the price of admission folks.


Somehow this bottle disappeared shortly after purchase but I think that was a product of the circumstances, and not the vodka itself. I do remember it being a night that I didn’t want to go out but the Brazilian Ju Jitsu guy who lost his fight and had one night left in Poland wanted to go out. So, we buy vodka. We drink vodka. Whoa. In any event, the vodka had a slight burn and tasted alright. Apparently Stock also makes the popular and hard-to-pronounce Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka.

Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka

When Poles say the name, to foreigners it sounds like, vozhawdkagor-zska. Yea, make sense of that. There are a few kinds of this vodka, I tried the clear orange, and honey types. The clear vodka burned too much for me, the orange kind tasted like Jagermeister, and the honey vodka was dangerously tasty. The clear vodka didn’t stand out and I think the orange type (which tastes like Jager) is an acquired taste. As for the honey vodka, I only tried a few shots and that was enough for me, taste-wise. I’ve heard of some folks mixing this, or chasing it, with Sprite.


There are a few types of this vodka, I tried the one in the red bottle, which I believe is the rye vodka. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the pianist’s offering. I had never tried this vodka before I presented it as a gift to my homestay folks in Bydgoszcz. This vodka had such a burn that it in no way made me like it and actually made me regret giving it as a gift. Possibly this vodka, like whiskey, needs to be sipped and not done in “one-shot.” That being said, the burn is the “common pain” in which all guests may partake.

Polmos Spirytus Lubelski

Oh fuck. 95% folks. This shit kicks reeeal hard. A few weeks ago, before I tried this vodka, I was told that Spirytus is used as a cleaning detergent. Yea, it can be. Apparently it’s banned in much of North America. So, while in Rzeszow (zhe-zhov), Poland, I jokingly waved the small bottle I bought in front of some Polish guys and, well, it disappeared… so did the night. We diluted the vodka with water, probably 60/40. This is also how I found out that it is highly flammable. We poured the Spirytus into one pot and water in another. He took out his lighter and, placing the bottle close to the water, lit it. Poof! Into the bottle went the water. I would like to try it again but I was told of a special way of preparing it. Mix together some lemon and sugar and let that sit for a few days in the fridge. After, add water and Spirytus and boil the bottle so it seals properly. Let that sit for a month or so in the freezer (I think?). Finally, drink. I’ve yet to make the effort. When I do, I’ll let you know how it is.

Now, the foreign entries.


Though the original company, Lucas Bols, is Dutch, Bols vodka itself is made by another group called the Central European Distribution Center (which apparently also owns Żubrówka and Sobieski Pure). This vodka was actually recommended to me by Mr. Montreal during the 62-Hour Bus Trip and My Polka With A Fighter. And this was the one stolen while I was making movies about snow falling in Warsaw, Poland. I tried it again and couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t anything special. Other than that, I have some pretty pictures of falling snow.


From Finland, goes down real smooth, no chaser. Like Wyborowa, this is a good one to drink on your own simply because you won’t wince after taking a shot, so people will think you’re drinking water. That is, until you try to stand up to go to the pisspot and fall over. Could also be transferred into plastic bottles for consumption at sporting events or train rides.


(Couldn’t find the website.) From the land of death metal and church burnings, this Norwegian vodka offers more of a burn than its Finnish neighbour, Maximus. This is a good one to take around the hostel and pass out shots. A slight burn will give you that needed “sympathy pain” but won’t leave you with the feeling of “WTF did I just do that? Meh, at least it was a free shot.” Take the conversation wherever you need or want.

For now, I will be taking a much needed break from my research.

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