I just came back from a two-week trip to Poland with my 6-years old daughter Ela (Elizabeth).
Visiting Poland after some time (I usually go there every two years) is always a bit of the shock. Here in Idaho we are used to a lot of room and a vastness of the surroundings. No wonder, Idaho is as big as 2/3 of the Poland, only 1.4 mln people live here compared to 38 mln that live in Poland. Poles, like many other Europeans have to get used to live in crowded conditions compared to Americans. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Americans grow so big, at least "horizontally".
Whenever I come home to Krakow, I have a hard time to imagine how we could all fit (my parents, my two brothers and me) in the apartment about 50 square meters including balcony, just two rooms, a hall, bathroom and the kitchen. Poles are excellent with storing their goods in the small apartments. The storage closets are built not only in the walls but also in the ceiling. To accommodate the automatic washing machine my parents had to eliminate one of the sinks in the bathroom. Now, this apartments serves just my father and it seems that our presence (just me and my daughter) makes it already too crowded, especially in the spots (like door, bathroom) if more than just one of us want to fit it, or in the kitchen during breakfast or supper etc.
This lovely farmer house painted blue (right photo) is still there in Krakow city. In the part of Krakow called Tyniec with beautiful monastery near Wisla river. But you have to know Krakow really well to find such a rarity.
Everything in Europe and In Poland is smaller, narrower, starting with roads and finishing with the bathrooms. But this has also many benefits, the most important stores are usually in the walking distance. One can buy fresh food on a daily basis and the food is really delicious! Even my daughter enjoyed it very much. Happily we did enough walking to compensate for extra calories.
These beautiful wooden figures of sorrowful Jesus (Jezus frasobliwy, photograph to the left) are from the collection of a neighbor (she lives in the same house as my parents and where I spent thirty years of my life).
The progress in Poland is apparent, especially since the abolishment of the communistic system in 1989. The stores are filled with goods that we could not even dream about in the past. The healthy competition lowered the prices and improved the quality and assortment of products. The change is even noticeable as compared to my last visit two years ago. The money are better spend than in the past, the structural funds from European Union are channeled to some specific projects improvement of the infrastructure, especially the roads and mass transportation system. Main railway and bus stations were just renewed in my hometown Krakow. I was astonished to hear, or rather not hear the new noiseless streetcars (trams) running around the center of the town. The road constructions are everywhere, sometimes leading to frequent road traffic jams. But this is a price for the improvement of the infrastructure.
We visited Tatra Mountains and its Polish capital Zakopane. Again, a shock - crowds of people everywhere. Zakopane was always a busy place, but I never imagined it would become so busy. The famous mountain Gubalowka where everybody can get up by use of the cable train is as crowded as the main shopping street in Zakopane called Krupowki. The shops, restaurants and booths are everywhere. So, it is really hard to find any serene conditions here. All main trails leading to the Tatra mountains are just overcrowded with tourists, in spite of the fact that tourists have to pay a fee for entering the Polish part of Tatra mountains. The ecologists are screaming "Tatras are being trampled to death!" If you are planning to visit Zakopane or surroundings do not take a private car with you. You would lose time and your gas supply waiting in frequent traffic jams. You would be better of just by taking one of the plenty of private buses that take tourists everywhere for little fee and they can manage much better in congested traffic conditions. Slovaks are lucky to have more Tatras than Poles and less people. After we crossed the boarder in Lysa Polana (Bald Meadow) and went to one of the valleys there, just on foot, we finally found a serenity and peace and also beautiful landscape and outlook into the Tatras.
Poland still faces many problems. For instance the personal safety issues that I explained in the Baba Jaga contribution Poland, Crime, European Standards and Vulnerability of Elderly People in August 2006. Happily after installing a security system no any other unwanted visitor came to my father apartment. Another difficult problem for Poles are the deteriorating socialized health services. I visited a friend in Zamosc (a beautiful Renaissance-style town in East part of Poland). She experienced an acute pain in her back. The doctors seem not to take her conditions seriously, delaying even the most basic and needed ultrasonography examination needed to diagnose her condition. Some doctors and health service employers act as like they would like to ignore patients as much as they can, completely opposite to the health services in the US where the patients often undergo extra tests, since the doctors hope to receive their share of the extra cost.
The trip back to the US was not a pleasant one since we were leaving a week after the anti-terrorist alert was enforced (August 21). Krakow airport named after John Paul II, was overcrowded and chaotic. No any airport services were directing people to the proper waiting lines. We had to wait almost 2 hours for the initial check in. Then, we had to get through more controls, finally when we were already waiting for the airport shuttle to take us to the airplane two young men were there to check the hand luggage. They were throwing away any pens, pencils, combs, toothpaste and even the cell telephones from passengers bags and purses. When the men attempted to throw to the trash the book which I bought for Ela in Poland, a famous Pyza book. This was a shock for both of us and both of us in different way started arguing - Ela with a loud cry, I just tried to argue that the book is important for us. This worked, the guy paged a book as like he was looking for anything suspicious and eventually returned book back to me. He was satisfied when he found the pen, comb and crayons (which I kept for Ela for a long trip back) that he threw away with satisfaction.
Picking edible mushrooms is a very popular pasttime in Poland. Here is Ela with Asia, her older friend. Asia found a really big mushroom in the forests of Zamosc (Eastern Poland). Read more about Zamosc history.
Every passenger lost something from its luggage. Sometimes it was just a pen, sometimes more valued thing, I was lucky that I was able to win the most important thing back. The book was entitled "Pyza na Polskich drozkach" (Pyza on Polish roads, picture on the right). It has beautiful drawings of a small girl made up from the round dumpling (called "pyza") that wanders all through Poland. Pyza became famous since the movie about her was made in early 70-es. Both, the movie and the book are great for promotion of Polish culture, history and traditions since they contain lots of information about different regions of Poland, Polish traditional songs and poems and also folk drawings. I think that the majority of the airplane passengers were taken away a bit by the overly rigorous safety regulations especially since we were not given any crayons of children or pens needed fill our custom declaration forms before landing in the US. Are combs or baby crayons on the board really dangerous? If a terrorist would like to smuggle a weapon he would find a better way for sure, for instance by hiding something inside the clothing or using the implants. Still, we finally got home and we hope to go back to Poland to visit family and friends in two years. I guess I will be probably hung between both countries and cultures for the rest of my life and feeling a bit melancholic about it.