Warsaw: Five Pros and Cons

“Five Pros and Cons” posts are something of a Foreign Service tradition. So, here’s my personal take on Warsaw for anyone who may be thinking of bidding on, or accepting an assignment here.

Pro # 1: Public Transportation

Of course, all European cities have great public transportation compared to just about anywhere in the U.S. Warsaw’s system comes close to being as good as Vienna’s—which is generally considered to be the best in the world. OK, it’s a bit more dinged-up and maybe not quite as prompt, but the Metro, trams and buses are fast, frequent, and not usually overcrowded.

Many expatriates do not even bother owning a car here, as you can get anywhere in the city more easily by public transport, and trams and taxis/Uber are very affordable. We do have a car: I generally use it about twice a week. I drive to one art class that is located outside the city, and sometimes it’s just easier to haul groceries in the car (especially when it’s freezing outside). But otherwise, I take public transport everywhere.

If you are with the U.S. mission, and have kids in the American school, you will probably want a car, because most families with school-aged kids are housed WAY outside the city near the school. Still, I have gone out to those suburbs by bus and tram, and while it may take longer than driving, it’s definitely do-able.

Con # 1: Traffic and Parking

Some people find Warsaw’s traffic to be terrifying. I wouldn’t go that far. However, there are some quirks.

The main thing that gets to me are all the traffic lanes which change direction or disappear without warning. Practically every time I drive somewhere new, I will find myself in the wrong lane at least once or twice. So do many other people, which leads to a lot of sudden and aggressive lane-changing. So you definitely do have to stay alert on the road.

Drunk driving is absolutely outlawed, but it is still a problem, particularly at night, and outside the city limits. We do not drive more than a short distance at night in the city, and never drive after dark on rural roads.

Parking is pretty nuts. Spaces in parking garages are small, and there are always tight turns to get to them. Street parking is basically wherever a car can fit, so you need a car that can be parallel-parked, squeezed into small spaces, parked on any surface (sidewalk, gravel, grass, mud, etc.) and backed up all the way down a bottlenecked street! Our own cul-de-sac street is frequently jammed and totally chaotic. I fully expect to have to do some weird maneuvering every time I drive in or out of our garage.

Bottom line: don’t be afraid to drive here, but I wouldn’t bring a huge vehicle or anything that you are particularly worried about dinging up.

Pro #2: Dining Out

For a city that is not all that wealthy by European standards, Warsaw offers an amazing variety of restaurants. Better still, Warsovians have a pretty broad palate. They are not afraid of a little spice in their food either. While a three-pepper dish here won’t be as hot as the same dish in Washington, DC it will definitely have a bit of a kick.

I’ve had very good Italian, Indian, Nepali, Thai, Georgian, Mexican, and Middle Eastern food. (The Mexican food was just OK, honestly, but it came with a decent margarita, and I was glad to have it!) There are lots of good sushi places. And it’s all very affordable (even the sushi!) A typical meal in a nice restaurant for the two of us, with drinks and appetizers, will run about $40-$50, while lunch out in a more storefront-type place will be half that. Needless to say, we eat out a lot!

Osczypek, or smoked sheep’s cheese, is often served at outdoor markets. It’s odd, but pretty good with red currant jam and hot wine on a cold day.

As for Polish “typical” food, I wouldn’t want to eat it all the time, but there are some good dishes. Pierogies, especially the sautéed kind, are yummy, and I really like zurek, or sour rye soup. As long as you are craving exactly that kind of rib-sticking, hearty food, a Polish-style restaurant can be quite nice on a cold day.

Con #2: “Foodieness”

This is more of a caveat than a con. Warsaw is a getting a reputation as a “foodie” city. I love the variety of international restaurants, but as far as the “continental” or “modern Polish” restaurants are concerned, I remain contrary—and underwhelmed.

This is partly a matter of personal taste. I’m not a vegetarian, but when a meal starts out with a pot of smalec (lard), offers steak tartare as an appetizer, and goes on to half a roast duck, well, that’s just really a lot of critters on the table from my point of view. It’s too heavy, it’s not healthy, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think it’s all that creative, no matter what kind of sauce you drizzle artistically on the plate.

Meat also shows up everywhere, even when you least expect it. For example, a few weeks ago, I ordered a salad with bacon as the last ingredient listed, expecting a little crumbled bacon on top. It arrived with two thick slabs of fried fatback on the plate. Um, no.

Menus as these sort of restaurants also tend to be pretty limited. Thankfully, I can usually find a trout or salmon dish! Bottom line: even for omnivores, the so-called foodie restaurants can lose their shine pretty quickly. Take advantage of the plentiful, affordable international restaurants and food trucks if you want to enjoy the best of Warsaw’s cuisine.

Pro #3: Polish History

Duh, it’s Europe. Of course there is history. But, history in Poland means something different than it does in other places. History in Poland is 20th century history: depressing as heck, but at the same time, kind of amazing and relevant.

Without getting into too much detail, Warsaw was basically flattened in World War II. And the Poles would like to tell you all about it. Unlike Vienna, which kind of coughs at the mention of WWII and politely redirects you to some more Hapsburgs, Warsaw works hard to document and share its entire story.

Some people believe that the Poles “wallow” in their history and need to get over it. I appreciate that they are (mostly) willing to deal with it. I also think they have every right to be proud of reconstructing Warsaw (and Poland in general) from the ruins. The more I learn about that, the more astonishing it becomes to me.

Every few blocks, there is a well-tended plaque or monument commemorating an event, usually a massacre…

Monuments and plaques commemorating events (mostly Nazi massacres) are absolutely everywhere. Extremely well-informed and earnest history students will take you on walking tours just for tips, and spare no details along the way. Bottom line: if you want to understand just how huge and awful WWII was, Warsaw is just the place to do that.

Con #3: The Polish Language

When we moved to Prague back in the day, I thought Czech was a difficult language. Then, 15 years later, I tried to learn Polish. OMG.

When I hear people speaking Spanish, I understand 90-95 percent of it. When I hear them speaking French, German or Italian, I can get the gist. When I hear them speaking Czech, I can at least identify a few nouns and tell one word from another. But when I hear Polish, to this day, I still mostly hear “ZCZYWYCZWCYCWZYZ….”

I tried, I really did. I can read some Polish, in part thanks to four years of reading Czech. So, I’m not completely lost in stores and restaurants. I can mostly read menus and food packages. I can say “hello,” “goodbye,” and “how much does that cost.” But as far as speaking goes, just forget it. I have spent the last two years smiling apologetically and saying, “sorry, I don’t speak Polish.”

That said, most of the gringos here speak little to no Polish. So, I’m in good company. But living in a language bubble comes with a certain low-level daily stress factor. Bottom line: unless you are a serious language whiz, the language barrier will be at least somewhat of a downside to living in Warsaw.

Pro #4: Outdoor Culture

Most people in Warsaw (including expatriates) live in apartments. For that reason, public spaces are important. There are lots of beautiful, very well cared-for parks in the city that are populated throughout the year. As soon as it gets the least bit warm outside, restaurants set out tables on the sidewalks and in the squares of Old Town. Proprietors know they’ve only got a four- or five-month window for outdoor dining!

Keep calm and drink Prosecco. Okay.

Vendors go to where the people are, so there are outdoor food trucks, ice cream stands, coffee stands, flower sellers, fruit vendors, all kinds of items for sale on every corner. Street life in Warsaw is really very interesting!

Con #4 Winter

Warsaw’s winter can best be described as “relentless.” You would expect it to be cold because of the latitude. I have lived in other very cold places, such as Prague and Vienna, but never anywhere this dark and gray for weeks—months!—on end. The clouds hold in the smog, which reaches very unhealthy levels for extended periods. Respiratory issues such as asthma and recurrent bronchitis are very common. (If you or your children are prone to such things, be wary of a tour here. Do your research first. Seriously.)

Mid-day winter sky and smog in Warsaw. Gross.

The winter affects some people mentally more than others, but I don’t know anyone who actually likes it. Heck, not even the Poles like it. It’s definitely a disadvantage to the post, and for some, the health issues and “winter blues” can be a real hardship. I personally think that Warsaw’s winter merits an R&R ticket for U.S. diplomats, but that’s clearly not going to happen any time soon…

Bottom line: if you come to Warsaw, be prepared to finance your own winter R&R. You’ll definitely need it!

Pro #5: Friendly Polish People

The Poles have a reputation for being honest, hard-working, and friendly compared to other former Eastern Bloc countries. That reputation is deserved. There is also a kind of blue-collar vibe and (relative) informality that works well for Americans. The dress code is only about one notch above that of an American city. You can wear your jeans here—even shorts and sandals in the summer. And you won’t automatically get treated like a rube because of your American accent, as you might in certain other European countries. In fact, in general, the Polish people like Americans. That’s a nice perk to be enjoyed while it lasts!

Bottom line: while Poland poses significant cultural and linguistic barriers and remains very foreign to me, I will always think of the Polish people as being generally among the most welcoming of any country in which we have lived.

Con #6: Unfriendly Polish People

Every now and then, maybe once a week, you’ll run into a Communist holdover in the customer service department. The waiter who is well-practiced in never looking at your table; the store clerk who acts offended when you walk up and put your items on the counter to pay; the cashier who is just plain mean. Mostly, you learn quickly which stores employ these relics and shop elsewhere.

Grouchy customer service is a problem in all former Eastern Bloc countries and certainly not specific to Poland: I only mention it as a counterpoint to Pro #5, and because if you haven’t lived in this part of the world, it may be a surprise.

With that, happy bidding—and may be odds be ever in your favor!

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9 comments

  1. Love this – plus, as a Pole, I can confirm this is all accurate – glad you had a wonderful tour in Poland. Even with our little faults, one thing Poles can all agree on is that we love visitors and there is “always room for one more” and glad that you could make this your home for a bit!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So enjoyed your review! I visited Warsaw for a just a couple of days a few years ago and loved it. I didn’t realize smog was an issue.

    My great grandparents and one grandparent came to the US from Poland in the early 1900s (not Warsaw though) and I was always wanted to visit. They spoke Polish a lot and heard what you hear. That’s a great t-shirt.

    Food was delicious and people were kind and helpful. I don’t think many Americans visit the city, but I think they’d enjoy it. Loved Krakow too.

    I’m looking forward to reading your other posts about Poland….

    Like

  3. I live in Warsaw for almost a year, and I relate to your point of view so much! I can’t only agree with the #6 con – all of the Polish people are know or have met are really friendly. Maybe I am just lucky 🙂
    My favorite pro is #2 – Polish food is incredible! So delicious and diverse. I really love exploring different gastronomic spots and go out to different restaurants. My last discovery is a great restaurant in Mokotow, near the Lazienki Park. It is called the Akademia and it is a place with modern versions of traditional Polish dishes. Everything they serve is so creative and always delicious:) I love going there and I never leave without eating their excellent cheesecake 🙂

    Like

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