Monday, July 20, 2009

Don't drink the water...Seriously.

Russell on the left, Jefe on the right

In our last few weeks in Europe, we went to visit our friend Russell in Kraków, Poland, a place very unlike France and a nice change of pace before we head back to the United States. We didn't know much about Poland before we got there, and Russell has only been living there a few weeks, so no one knew what to expect. (You can read Russell's summary of our trip, without pictures :( on his blog)

Russell has been slowly learning Polish for more than a year, but (as we have also learned, here in France) jumping into a conversation with a native speaker is still a daunting task. He was kind enough to help us as much as he could and we all learned a little more Polish vocabulary. We learned the words for "danger, mean dog"...Uwaga Zeypies

The sign says he's a mean dog,
but he looks more like an awkward ballet dancer

and that night we made home-made tortillas (we brought some masa with us from France) and carnitas, he learned the word for shoulder blade at the grocery store (łobotka, as in pork shoulder, the cut used for carnitas)

Of course there was a little bit of culture shock. The small grocery store across from where we were staying remained open all night, we couldn't believe it. Instead of thinking "how convenient" like an American, I thought "who would work those hours" like a French person.

church tower in Krakow
The clocktower across from our hostel.
Zoom in to see the odd typeface of the numerals.

The food was also surprising. After a few meals in a row of various kinds pork paired with piles of french fries, we were excited to find something a bit different...for instance, a place using local specialties in creative ways. Oscypek is unpasteurized, smoked sheep's cheese that has been pressed into cylinders with designs on the outside. In this case it was sliced, grilled and served with strawberries. In true Polish fashion, they managed to sneak some meat in, since it was tasted like it was grilled on the same grill used for fatty pork products, which made it even more delicious. Baked camembert with strawberries is a similar dish, which we've found here in France. We'll definitely be looking for this Polish cheese in the Polish grocers of Chicago.

smoked cheese in Krakow
Grilled Oscypek with fig jam and strawberries

After a meal of pork, or things grilled in pork fat, there is nothing like finding a good bookstore to relax. With the population of English speakers in Kraków--some residents, some tourists-- comes the local English language bookstore: in this case, the very welcoming Massolit. With three rooms of books, English language periodicals, comfy chairs, and a small cafe, it's easy to spend a whole afternoon here. I was able to catch up on a fairly recent copy of the New Yorker, which was addressed to someone in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, and had made its way to Poland, probably thanks to Chicago's enormous Polish population.

Massolit in Krakow
Taking a break at Massolit bookstore in Kraków

For better or worse, it seems that Poland is taking a lot of its cues from the United States. There are the twenty-four hour grocery stores, the poor bicycling infrastructure, and the occasional lack of government oversight. Case in point: the tap water is unsafe to drink, which I didn't believe at first. When I initially heard this, I had already been drinking it for a day or two with no ill effects. I wondered if it was unsafe like in Central America, where the effects were immediately apparent, or if the effects were more long term. Turns out the contaminants in the water cause long term in liver damage.

In the American spirit of exploiting loopholes, we noticed another phenomenon, that I though might be a quirk in the advertising laws. There were bikes covered in advertisements, locked to street signs and fences. I wondered if putting the ads on bicycles exempted them from normal advertising restrictions, or perhaps just the costs associated with renting ad space.

bike ad in Krakow

Of course there were plenty of used clothing stores, and even a used clothing market every Sunday in Kazimierz, south of the city center, but we especially liked the one in the photo below because of the frankenstein mannequin out front. They stuck a small head on a regular body...

used clothing in Krakow
...and somehow made it seem kind of gangsta

Besides all the previously mentioned American imports: greasy food, crazy drivers, the idea of convenience over sanity, there was one last blow that was especially crushing after living in France. This is a snapshot (see below) of a menu at a mid-priced restaurant. The American wines available are Sutter Home and Carlo Rossi, two wines which are particularly well known for their disgustingness and popularity amongst underaged drinkers. So why import it to Poland and feature it on the menu? I assume it is mostly to keep prices down. And to make us feel even more uncomfortable with the way Europeans imagine Americans. On the other hand, both the locals and tourists here clearly expect things pretty cheap. The French wines we found in wine shops usually cost three times as much as they would for us in France, which makes them true luxury items when you take into account Poland's otherwise low cost of living.

crappy wine in Krakow
Sutter Home can be yours for only 17 złoty ($5) a glass, the same price as bottle of good wine in France.

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