Poland through the eyes of a British person
We tend to think that it's our country and we know it very well. We know our culture, tradition and heritage. Nowadays more and more British people choose Poland as a travel destination, not only because of the abundance of cheap flights but also because there is a large Polish community living in the UK. British people have lots of friends from Poland and are invited for weddings, family events, ceremonies. How far away is Poland from what they imagine it looks like?
I managed to have a chat with Philip Thornett, British writer and traveller, who has visited Poland several times and has attended Polish traditional cultural events.
What do Polish traditions mean to him, what does he think about Poles and most importantly does he like our “pierogi”?
When was the first time you visited Poland? What did you think? What did you expect?
- I first visited Poland in 2016 on a friend’s Stag party, but that doesn’t really count. Something must have struck me about it because one year later I went back to visit a friend who was staying in the town of Imielin, near Katowice in the South. It was Wintertime and I was spellbound by the snow on the ground, the crisp mornings and the smell of coal in the air. The house we stayed in had a coal boiler in the basement, which had to be stoked each morning to get heating and hot water. We visited Katowice, the memorials at Auschwitz & Birkenau and went hiking in the snowy mountain region close to Bielsko-Biala.
A year after that I was back for a road trip with a Polish friend where we started in Gdansk and made our way to Bydgoszcz, Torun, Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow and Wroclaw. The rich history of the country was evident in every area that we visited and the people we met were always friendly and willing to help.
I left with a sense that Poland was a country still straddling two eras; the cities are extremely developed and rival any other major European capital, whereas the small towns and villages in the rural areas remain anchored in their past.
Have you started to study Polish? Is it difficult a language?
- I have actually started trying to learn Polish recently using a combination of smartphone apps, Youtube videos and books. I already speak both English and French fluently and can make myself understood in Spanish, but I have really struggled with Polish. The biggest difficulty is the complete lack of similarity with anything I’ve ever seen before. The latin alphabet fooled me into thinking it would be easier, but the pronunciation and shape of the words is so different that it might as well be a different alphabet. The “l” had me confused for a long time especially when I was asking for directions to Lodz, which we would write phoenetically as “Woodge”. I’m getting there though, and practice makes perfect after all.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about Polish people?
- If you mean in Britain, then I think it is hard-working and quick to smile. I’ve worked on some large construction jobs where fifty percent of the workforce were Polish. All of them worked extremely hard and were considered the best on the job, but they were also funny, friendly and always greeted me with a smile and a joke come rain or shine. In Poland it has to be friendliness; everyone that I’ve met or interacted with has been so keen to help, from navigating cities or restaurant menus to picking the best wild mushrooms in the forest.
Have you attended any Polish events? Weddings, other ceremonies? What's the difference between Polish wedding and British Wedding?
- Yes, I’ve been to a Polish wedding. It was so much fun and it was very interesting to see the religious part of the ceremony too. The reception was wonderful; located in the groom’s hometown in the autumn on the edge of a forest. The differences start with the duration. In Poland I think that weddings can go on for several days, whereas in the UK they tend to be a one-day event (although not always). In Poland the newly weds perform the first toast with two champagne flutes tied together, which they then throw over their heads to smash on the ceiling or floor behind them for luck; I’ve certainly never seen that before.
Another big surprise happened about halfway through the evening when the spotlights came on and an intense musical build-up started, I thought it must be the cake as everyone got up from their seats and rushed over to form a huge circle around the bride and groom on the dance floor. Then a trolley was wheeled in supporting an enormous fish with several fireworks and sparklers sticking out of it! Everyone was clapping and cheering so I joined in, but it was nothing like I expected. Finally the Polish wedding wouldn’t be complete without the vodka, no other drinks, just vodka, but it was a lot of fun! I hope I get to go to another one.
Polish cuisine - do you like it? What’s your favourite Polish food?
- That’s easy, pierogi! Although I also love the beetroot soup, barszcz and bigos.
Would you recommended Poland to your friends?
- Definitely! I’ve already brought my mum over to visit Katowice, Czestochowa and the mountains in the south and I’ve told a lot of people about it. It’s a country that I never really knew much about, and it’s so close and cheap to get to that it is unusual that more people don’t travel here. I have a feeling that the language barrier might intimidate some visitors, but with sign language and google translate you can always get your point across. A lot of the museums and large tourist attractions have Russian and English translations so that instantly makes them more accessible to tourists.
At the last one, what’s your favourite Polish word?
Szczyrk because it’s hilarious trying to pronounce it.