First impressions of a Californian influenced by Slavic role models

Old Town, Warsaw
Poland Today intern and recent Princeton University graduate, Taylor Chin, shares her experiences and insights on life in Warsaw.

When I was eight years old, my fencing coach, Ania, would make us do a standard set of drills at the start of class, one of which included the classic “butt-kickers” exercise in which you try to kick your butt with your heels. We lived in California, but since she was from Poland, she often taught us simple Polish words and used them at practice. “Kick your pupa, kick your pupa!” she would yell, sitting on her wheeled black stool and rolling around the room as she chased us. In Polish, pupa is the word for butt or bottom.

Fencing practice started and ended the same way every day. I would walk in — “Cześć, Ania! — and walk out — “Ania, do widzenia!” I told Ania that when I grew up, I would be just like her, speak Polish, and go live in Poland. One summer, after returning from a trip to Poland to visit family, Ania gave me a Warsaw postcard. I treated it like it was priceless; it quickly became one of my favorite possessions, and I hung it in my bedroom and looked at it every night before sleeping. I memorized the tiny images of the mermaid statues and picturesque town squares and dreamed about the the day I would get to see them in person.

After I switched fencing coaches, my new coach was Ukrainian. He spoke Russian to our other Ukrainian coach and replaced my Polish vocabulary of cześć and do widzenia with the Russian privet and do svidaniya. We shook hands at the end of every practice, but I was never allowed to shake his hand over a threshold and was often yanked forcefully back into the club to honor this eastern European superstition. Eventually, I moved away to college and honored my coach’s influence in my life by learning Russian and living abroad in St. Petersburg for a few months.

I tried to return to Russia this summer to find journalism work, but my parents strongly advised against it because of the current political climate. Diplomats were being expelled left and right, and my family didn’t think it would be a good idea to travel there alone for three months. Instead, I found a journalism job in Poland, which brings me to my first week in Warsaw.

The Airbnb host pickup experience:

I met my Airbnb host’s son at the airport, where he’d agreed to pick me up and take me to the apartment. “Can I take your luggage for you?” he asked, gesturing to the heavy duffel bag stacked on top of an equally heavy suitcase. Together, the two pieces of stacked baggage made up two-thirds of my height. “Yes, thank you so much!” I replied, but instead handed him a tiny tote bag filled with snacks instead of the suitcase-monster I’d wheeled out of baggage claim. The look of surprise on his face was incredible.

Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland.

We made our way out to the short-term parking garage. The host’s son unlocked the car and started digging around for something in the front seat, so I opened the trunk to start loading my luggage. I stared inside, speechless. Three giant sections of tree trunk stared back, still fresh as if they’d recently been chopped from the stump. I wondered if my eyes were playing jokes on me. “Wait, we cannot put the bags in there,” said the host’s son, running back from the front of the car. “Yes,” I agreed, “… you have trees in your trunk.” He laughed and shut the trunk door. “Don’t ask.”

“So… about those trees you have in your trunk,” I said, not ten minutes later.

“Ah, okay. I will tell you the story. I want to open my own cafe.”

“Oh! Right, makes sense…” Maybe he was going to use the trees to… build his cafe? Or maybe customers could sip their coffee while sitting on the tree trunks.

“You see, plates are very expensive to get in Poland. It is a lot cheaper if I take these trees to a stolarz. I do not know the English word. Do you know what is stolarz?”

It sounded a lot like the Russian word for table, but somehow related to a person or process. My first mental guess was table-making-person. “Do you mean a carpenter?” I asked.

“Yes! Carpenter. I take these trees to the carpenter, you see, and he will make the plates for me at a much cheaper price than buying the plates.”

“Oh! That’s really interesting! I’ve never met anyone else who’s done that before.” I wondered what the plates would look like after being sanded and polished by the carpenter.

Holding doors for people:

Back home, I’m used to getting the door for people and letting them enter first. It’s something I always do if I’m the first person to reach the door. Of course, I would let others hold the door for me if they reached the door first and offered. Here, it’s a little different. I realized soon (and people have also told this to me at work) that men letting women walk through doors before them is a huge cultural standard. I’ve already had so many instances in which I would hold the door for a man, and he would refuse to enter. Even when I insisted strongly, I never won. I’ve had this experience at so many different types of doorways — bus doors, residence doors, restaurant doors, and even thresholds that didn’t have doors at all. I’m still waiting for a day when any man at all will let me hold the door for him (in my mind, I’m just trying to be polite and offer a gesture of kindness). There was also a surprising moment in the elevator at my apartment building when I was carrying a 5-liter jug of water home from the grocery store. I shared the elevator with an old man. When we stopped at my floor, the old man wanted to help me carry my water into the apartment. I was shocked, because I felt that it should be the other way around — I should be offering the help the elderly man carry something heavy. Nonetheless, I was extremely touched by his kindness. I politely told him that I didn’t need help and thanked him for his generosity.

The cost of living:

Something that amazes me since arriving in Warsaw is the affordability. I am used to city life being expensive (for example, in New York, San Francisco, and London). However, I was pleasantly surprised by the prices I came across in Poland. The rent for my one-person apartment that included a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, living room, and full amenities (washing machine, microwave, etc) cost $750 per month, compared to $2,700 and $3,460 for the same properties in New York and San Francisco, respectively. It wasn’t only housing that cost less, but also food and supplies. The average price for a decent meal (not fast food or cheaper chain restaurants) in Warsaw is $6-10, while the price of the same meal (in my experience) typically ranges from $10-22 in the US.

Warsaw, Poland. Photo: Taylor Chin

Gym culture:

Another aspect of daily life that I’m used to in the US is the popularity of exercise, gyms, and specialized workout studios for yoga, pilates, barre, dance-kickboxing, and stationary cycling. People are constantly running around town in workout clothes, and if not, they’ll often carry tote bags with a change of gym clothes and yoga mats under their arms. Offices even have gyms or gym membership deals for their employees. The “morning workout” is a common topic of conversation among friends. In America, I think it’s fair to say that exercise has become a micro-obsession of the larger culture. When I arrived in Warsaw, I noticed that the gym culture is much smaller and harder to identify on the street. I’ve passed a few gyms (and advertisements for gyms), and I’ve seen about three people carrying yoga mats out in public. In the next few weeks, I’ll be paying closer to attention to common fitness trends throughout the city.

Eating different types of food:

After a few days of pointing at pictures and using grammatically-incorrect Polish to order food, I visited a Georgian restaurant because I wanted to be able to speak a language I felt confident in. Sure enough, not only did the manager and wait staff speak fluent Russian, but also several of the groups seated within the restaurant. Another habit I’ve developed is eating at Georgian restaurants in eastern European countries. Georgian cuisine is extremely delicious and difficult to find in America. Whether I’m in Poland, Hungary, Russia, or anywhere else I may visit in the future, I’ll never refuse the opportunity to eat at a Georgian restaurant. Since arriving, I’ve also sampled a few types of Polish cuisine, and my favorite dishes by far are the cabbage stew with pork sausage (kapuśniak) and pierogi.

Restauracja Gruzińska № 1 in Warsaw, Poland

The language:

While I don’t understand Polish well enough to hold conversations, I’ve been able to read signs or identify a few businesses if the words resembled their Russian equivalents enough. Bilety (tickets), stomatologia (dentist), reklama (advertisement), odzież (clothing), and kuchnia (food/cuisine, especially kuchnia gruzińska, or Georgian food) are just some of the words that sound enough like their Russian versions to understand. As a result, learning Polish on the app Duolingo has been a lot easier. My goal by the end of one month in Warsaw is to be able to order food and ask for directions without any problems.

In summary, I love the Warsaw that I’ve experienced so far. People are respectful, the food is diverse and delicious, and the cost of living is very affordable. Living in Poland is something I’ve been looking forward to since I was eight years old, and I have not been disappointed by my life here at all. I’ll also be documenting my thoughts, observations, and experiences as I become more acquainted with the city and the Polish language. Just one week in Poland has greatly increased my appreciation for the culture, and I’m excited to see how that appreciation will evolve after a few months.

Taylor Chin is an American intern journalist for Poland Today. She has lived abroad in Russia, Great Britain, and Poland and has a degree in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Princeton University.

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