An unhelpful guide to… Poland

Recently, I was lucky enough to be offered an all-expenses paid trip to Poland.

Whaaaaaat?  That sounds amazing!  I hear you cry.

Ok, perhaps I misrepresented somewhat.  What I meant is: I was sent there for work – to film three stories for a British food-related TV series.  But all my expenses were included – in fact, I was even paid to go there, for three whole days! And it turns out you can learn a fair bit about a country in three days.  Granted, it might not be the sort of stuff that’s remotely useful to other travellers, but I’m not going to let that stop me writing about it anyway.  Obvs.

So here for your (useless) education, is the second of my Unhelpful Guides – or What I Learned About Poland In Three Days.

1. It’s a good idea to buy a ticket to the correct city

We (the presenter, cameraman, location assistant and I) flew to Warsaw from Brussels with Lot Polish Airlines after a day’s filming in Bruges (you can read my Unhelpful Guide to the city here).

Although we arrived at the airport in plenty of time, we nearly missed our flight.  This was not due to excessive dawdling in Duty Free (who buys all that shit anyway?).  It was because the office had decided that the best (ie cheapest) way to get us to Warsaw was to book a flight not to Warsaw (because that would be crazy, right?!), but to Poznan, in West Poland, via Warsaw.  This was apparently less expensive – and all we would have to do was just get off in Warsaw and not use the second leg of the journey.  Simple, right?

But when we handed over our bags at the airport we were happily told by the obliging assistant that they would be conveniently checked through all the way to Poznan.  Which, given that they were full of camera gear and we had filming to do the next day, was Not Helpful.

The check-in assistant, who in a previous career had actually been a TV producer herself, was very sympathetic.  But there was nothing she could do.  After an hour of waiting and frantic calls back to the office they eventually bought us new, direct tickets (nice saving there then!), and we made the flight by the skin of our teeth.

The plane was like any other budget carrier – an ageing interior and not much legroom.  They handed out water and Prince Polo chocolate bars which are to the Poles what Tunnocks Caramel Wafers are to the Scots – except these are the poor man’s version and sadly lacking in caramel.  The wine I had to pay for – but it was necessary medication after the stress.

We made it to Warsaw, but I’m beginning to think quitting TV to work for an airline might not be such a bad idea.

2.  The language is impossible

After a night in an airport hotel (the Hampton by Hilton, since you asked), we set off the next morning to drive towards the town of Rzeszow.  To be honest, I have no idea where that is (or, for that matter, how to pronounce it) since I have very little sense of the geography of Poland – all we did, as usual, was put the postcode into Google Maps and off we went.  Thank heavens for free European mobile data roaming.

It took us most of the day to drive halfway across the country.  No doubt we passed plenty of pretty towns and villages, and probably quite a few sights of interest, but I can’t tell you anything about them since we didn’t leave the motorway.  The only stops we made were at service stations like the one above, from which I learned two things:

  1. BP petrol stations look the same the world over.  In Poland they even have the Wild Bean Cafe. Though I’d have thought this should really have been called the Kawiarnia Dzikiej Fasoli (thanks, Google Translate!)
  2. The Polish for a shop is sklep.  I should have known this already because I live in West London where there is a Polish deli on every corner (always with the words Polski Sklep – Polish Shop – printed on the front).
Polish shop

One of West London’s many Polish Delis

Clearly I was now on a roll with the language-learning, so I took the opportunity of the long car journey (and that free mobile data roaming) to learn the two most important expressions a TV producer needs to know: ‘sorry’, and ‘thank you’.   Since I spend my life asking people to do stuff and getting in everyone’s way, these words are absolutely vital, and I thought it might help with international relations if I learned them in Polish.  So for your future reference, they are:

Sorry –  Przepraszam (pronounced sha-PRA-sham)

Thank you – Dziękuję (pronounced jen-KOY-yeh).

Look at that spelling though. I mean, FFS!  How is anyone supposed to know how to pronounce anything?!  These Polish are crazy.

3.  Polish people love gherkins

I didn’t know this before I arrived in Poland, but it turns out gherkins are basically the national dish.  You can buy them everywhere – even in the motorway service stations.   ‘Shall we stop for some petrol, Piotr? Yes, Agneta, and also I need a wee and I’ll just pick up a jar of gherkins for the road…’

IMHO, Gherkins are repulsive.  I’m pretty sure Roald Dahl was thinking of the pustulant slimy green vegetables when he described the snozzcumber in the BFG.   If a stray slice of gherkin sneaks into my burger I have to throw the entire thing away.  And the plate too.  I’d rather walk around wearing a gherkin on a string round my neck all day than actually put one in my mouth.

The presenter and cameraman, however, loved them. We made several stops on our drive south, and every time they came back from the shop with plastic bags stuffed with fresh gherkins which they munched on loudly in the back of the car.  Here is a picture of some of their snacks for the journey.  Admittedly, the green gherkin does boost the healthiness quota just a tad, but that may be all you can say for it.

As you can see from the photo, we didn’t do brilliantly on the journey as far as food goes.  It’s always weird shopping in foreign supermarkets – you never quite know what you’re going to get.  I quite liked the peanut crisps (they were a bit like cheesy wotsits but peanut butter flavoured) but the pretzel sticks were a bit dry and tasteless.

Generally I found the food in Poland to be a bit hit and miss.  We only had two dinners while we were there, and both times I was disappointed.  It was either heavy and stodgy – boiled or mashed potatoes and hard bread – or greasy – things like fried breaded pork or fried dumplings which oozed oil when you cut into them.    To be fair though, we always just ended up eating in the hotel or the nearest restaurant, so it was pretty much pot luck.  I’m sure Poland has some excellent establishments if you do your research.  Obviously this blog is not the place for that.

We did, however, luck out one lunchtime when we were filming in a suburb of Warsaw called Piaseczno (sorry, no idea how to pronounce that either).  The nearest place to eat just happened to be a sushi restaurant – and look what we ended up with.  Best meal I had the entire trip; it’s just a shame sushi isn’t exactly a local delicacy…

4. There’s a LOT of farmland

If you’re taking a trip to Poland, you might have considered venturing outside the cities for a bit of fresh air and nature.  Hiking, cycling, watersports and skiing are all big in Poland, or so I’ve heard.  Clearly on a three-day filming trip we didn’t get so much as a sniff at any of those so I can’t recommend anything.

We did get to see a fair amount of nature of a different sort, though, as we drove across the country.  It turns out that Poland has vast swathes of farmland, where they’re busy growing fruit and veg ready to export across Europe, including to British supermarkets.  If you ever buy apples, plums, cherries, potatoes or cabbage in your local Tesco, chances are at some stage you’ll have had some from Poland.

**Disclaimer: that list may not be entirely accurate. I just wrote down a bunch of different fruit and veg – we might not actually import all this stuff from Poland.  But since Poland is the leading EU producer of potatoes and the world’s 6th largest exporter of apples (I did bother to google that), I’m confident at least part of it is right which is good enough for me.**

As well as fruit, the thing we saw more of than anything else on our journey was this tall plant with the pink flowers.  I had to ask what it is… can you guess?

Answer: it’s tobacco.  See, you did learn something from reading this blog!

We passed acres upon acres of the stuff.  It was everywhere. So if you’re a smoker, you can pat yourself on the back.  You may be killing yourself by degrees and running the NHS into the ground, but at least you’re helping to keep the Polish economy afloat. Well done!

5.  They grow amazing blueberries

Personally, if I’m going to either kill myself or help support the Polish economy, I’d rather do it with a tonne of blueberries.  The Polish for blueberries is Jagody – but I didn’t need Google Translate for that one – yay me!

Learning the language with the help of handy pictures

Blueberries were basically the main reason we went to Poland and drove halfway across the country.  We spent the next day filming on a blueberry farm in glorious sunshine and 35 degree heat, drenched in sweat and getting attacked by horseflies.   What can I tell you – TV is super glamorous.

Here are some things I learned about blueberries:

The berries are picked by hand.  As they ripen at different times, pickers have to go over each bush 3-4 times, and then the last few berries are gathered by the harvesting machine in the photo above.   Most of the pickers come from the Ukraine – probably because all the local people have left to move to West London and open delis.

They have to handle the berries as little as possible to avoid them turning into jam by the time they arrive in the store.  And they’re not allowed to eat them while they’re picking. (Confession: I may have had a little taste.  They may or may not have been juicy and delicious.)

A friendly blueberry picker – probably from the Ukraine

After they’ve picked the berries, they blast chill them down to 10 degrees and then process them.  Any that are the wrong colour or too squishy get sent off to make jams and juices, and the rest are weighed into punnets by this handy machine.

They’re then shipped all over Europe.  If you’re eagle-eyed you might be able to spot that these ones are headed for Lidl.  Who knows, if you bought blueberries there a couple of weeks ago you might have had these exact ones.  I promise I didn’t touch them.

6.  It can get really hot

As mentioned above, the weather when we were in Poland was in the mid-30s, which I found rather surprising.  You don’t think of Poland as a hot summer holiday destination – the stereotype is more of snowy mountains and biting chill wind.  It’s on the Baltic sea and the world Baltic means bloody freezing, after all.

But perhaps we should all be sacking off the Costas and heading for Krakow instead.  As you can see from this photo taken in the town square in Piaseczno, it was definitely the sort of temperature for taking off your clothes and running around in a fountain.  I’d have loved to have had a go, but as ever, we didn’t have time.

However the heatwave did give me a possible answer to why Poles like to buy gherkins from motorway service stations.  Look what happened to our chocolate when we left it in the car:

You wouldn’t get that with a pickled cucumber.

Have you been to Poland? Any top tips you’d like to share?  Comment below – I’m sure they’ll be more helpful than what I’ve got to offer.

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2 Comments

  1. Nice insight into filming – oh the glamour! Is that Matt Tebbutt you were working with?

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