I arrived in Warsaw alone on Friday evening. It was the dead of winter, so when I emerged from the airport after 5 PM the sun had already long gone. The small airports the budget airliner RyanAir operates out of are often far out of town - and this one was no exception, with few public transit options into the city. So I made my way out to the curb and attempted to navigate the spotty cell service to call what would soon be one of the more eventful Uber rides of my life. Not the most exciting, however - that title still belongs to a fateful ride returning home from an Italian restaurant in San Francisco when a car flew off an overpass and fell right on top of me in the back seat of the Uber below. (All parties involved thankfully walked away just fine.)
No flying cars would collapse the roof in on me this trip, but I knew I was in for an adventure when my car pulled up at Modlin airport and I was greeted by a man who immediately let me know he had terrible English skills as we zipped off onto the highway.
The unreliable cell service apparently plagued the outskirts of Warsaw, and I watched as the app on his phone struggled to maintain a route into the city. The thing to do would have been to let it think while we continued down the highway, but he pounded away at the screen - and in doing so deleted my ride on his Uber app. My phone was no help - my UK phone plan barely gives me reliable access in London, so I stared blankly at the “No Service” notice and prayed for it to show a bar. My heart rate jumped a bit as he muttered in Polish and took the nearest exit off the highway. He pulled over and with a shrug told me I’d have to pay in cash. I had none - I’d just come from the airport, and I don’t like to carry cash when I travel besides. My heart continued to race as I wondered if he would dump me at this gas station, still over a half hour’s drive into the city, with no cell service. Through broken English we decided that he would drive me to an ATM near where I was staying (the service was back on his phone - though not mine yet - and he plugged in the directions to Google Maps) and we were off again. I was still uneasy, and part of me worried this was all an opportunity to scam me.
I didn’t have much time to worry about finding that ATM though, as shortly after we merged back on the highway, he started to experience some serious car troubles. I recognized it immediately - I’d run my car out of gas a couple times as an irresponsible high school student - but he did not. His steering wheel locked up as he pulled over to the shoulder of the road, frantically dialing a number and yelling at someone on the other end in Polish.
Just as he did so, my phone hopped on the Polish cell network in a stroke of good luck. The first thing I did was text my parents in a panic - not sure if I’d be able to call a new Uber from the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere. I tried just that, and sure enough I matched with a new driver, 5 minutes away. He was still yelling on the phone as I hopped out of the car. If he noticed, he didn’t care.
5 minutes later salvation arrived in a Toyota Prius. This new driver was fluent in English, and spent the ride into the Old Town sharing stories of Warsaw’s history, telling me why I shouldn’t expect men in Warsaw to smile (because of the sadness they experienced in WWII) and making fun of me for coming to “boring Warsaw” instead of visiting Krakow, where the history of the city was not destroyed by bombs.
When I finally arrived at my hostel in Old Town Warsaw (a misnomer - the original old city was completely destroyed in the war, so the locals rebuilt a new neighborhood on top of it designed to look as if it was old), I found a sandwich and settled in to wait for Amy to arrive on her later flight and begin our weekend.
Two things will stay with me when I look back on Warsaw: the biting cold, and the amazing food. Growing up in Great Falls, Montana - I am used to cold. Frigid winds blowing sideways snow is not an odd occurrence where I’m from. However, when you live in a cold place, especially in the US, it’s not really the same experience as traveling to one. You spend most of your time indoors or in a car - hopping between heated places and hiding from the cold. Proper tourism is a bit more of a challenge because it requires a lot more travel on foot and time spent outside. So we pushed through the chilly days to visit the sites as our noses turned pink, and we were rewarded with mostly empty attractions and streets.
When walking in the cold became too much, it was time for a food break. I cannot possibly explain the feeling of settling in for a Polish meal after being outside in winter. Hot soups and ciders, hearty pierogis, and warm bread. I’d never understood why people claimed chicken soup could soothe a cold until my first dinner in Poland. Meal times were by far my favorite experience in Warsaw and I can’t wait to return to Poland to experience food in Krakow or Gdańsk as well.
We spent our nights out on the one street holding most of the bars and clubs in Warsaw. The prices were a great reprieve from the costs of going out in London (where a gin and tonic can sometimes set me back $15). On our Saturday night we spent $10 each the entire evening - and that included the burger and fries at the end of the night. It was also the only time we really got to interact with other locals, who mostly kept to themselves during the daylight hours.
As we were walking down the street looking for the best place to start our night, a group of guys stopped in front of us. “I love your closet,” one of them said, looking at me, and his friends burst into laughter and said something to him in Polish. “Oh, I mean jacket,” he said, flushing. I recognized the mistake - I remembered from my days learning French that you learn similar words in groups - he probably learned the word for closet on the same day as jacket. I understood why so many Poles avoided us, especially while sober. My command of French is dismal, and I’m very nervous to use it with a native speaker. Polish people don’t need to lean on English the way many other Europeans do, so its more than understandable that their English would be about as good as my French. Later that night we ran into that group again, and he beamed at me, “it IS a very nice jacket.”