THE FIRST (AND WORST) 24 HOURS IN WARSAW
I always say that the best travel stories come from what, at the time, can feel like the worst experience. Like when we almost got kicked off the train in the middle of the Italian countryside because I bought tickets for the wrong day (and realized half way through the trip, after we had already deprived an elderly couple of their seats), or the time we gave the cab driver in New York City the wrong address for our hotel, and were almost dropped off at a deserted Harlem street corner in the middle of the night. While these stories are great, and will appear in future columns, none of them can top our first day in the Polish capital Warsaw.
Fresh off a relaxing four nights in Gdansk, and eager to continue our journey, we departed for Warsaw early in the morning via train. We arrived in the afternoon, after an uneventful journey, hungry, cold, and eager to take in the capital. We had booked a hostel the previous day in the centre of Warsaw’s old town, which was too far to walk from the train station, so we had settled on taking a cab.
After emerging from the labyrinth that is the Warsaw’s main metro station, and spending the better part of half an hour searching for a cab, we spotted one outside the building. We explained where we wanted to go, and after some desperate sign language and map brandishing, we were off.
The ride itself was nice, and it allowed us to get a feel for the location of the sights, and size, of Warsaw. The cab driver made small talk in broken English. The usual where are you from, what are you doing in Poland, how long are you in the capital. At the time it felt like idle chitchat, but later I suspect it was a way of assessing how much of a threat we were, and how many Zlotys could be squeezed out of us.
When we arrived on the outskirts of old town, the cab driver informed us we would have to get out and walk the rest of the way to our hostel, and proceeded to prepare us a receipt. After reviewing the receipt, Kristen and I gave each other a “you cannot be serious” look. For the less than 10 minute drive, the cab driver had given us a bill for 80 Canadian dollars.
At this point, a lot of thoughts went through my head. Did he mean 80 Zloty (the equivalent of 25 Canadian dollars)? Did he add an extra 0? Is this the cost of taking a cab in Warsaw? Is gasoline still such a luxury in the former communist country that they have to gouge tourists to pay for it? If I get out and run, will Kristen be able to immobilize the cab driver, grab both bags from the trunk, and meet me at the hostel?
I wasn’t able to fully answer any of these questions before our once friendly and smiling diminutive cab driver started yelling in Polish demanding payment. When this did nothing to change the shocked expressions on our faces, he then began pointing at a crudely taped sign on the backseat of the driver’s seat that showed a thousand fold increase in cab prices on holidays.
Despite the fact that it probably wasn’t a Polish Holiday (and really, why would cabs be more expensive on a holiday?) I responded the only way a trained lawyer knows how. At first, by attempting to reason with him, then arguing, then simply trying to make my voice louder than his. All of which, of course, was done in English.
Eventually, realizing our bags were in the trunk, and that we were unlikely to get anywhere with this man, we settled on giving him 25 Canadian dollars. While we were informed later that this was 20 dollars more than we should have given him, we realized it was a small price to pay for being able to emerge unscathed with our backpacks. Even if we were able to get help, and flag down a police officer or concerned resident to come and help us, who were they likely to believe? The sad old Polish cab driver with the duct taped sign, or the Western tourists, whose knowledge of the Polish language extended to the words thank-you, ice cream, and waffle?
At this point, sweaty from our scuffle with the cab driver, and having not received the welcome we had hoped for in the Polish capital, we arrived at the hostel Kanonia in Old Town (as mention in the Truth about Hostels). If our moods were already at an all time low, the hostel did nothing to improve that. The bunk bed we were assigned seemed to have been built out of wicker, with every movement and breath threatening to bring the whole thing tumbling down. This was not made better by the staff at the Hostel, whose sense of hospitality extended to grunts and eye rolling whenever we asked a question or happened to walk by.
Settling in as best as we could, and praying that our bags would remain safe in the cardboard box that passed as a locker at the hostel, we headed out for some food. Hoping to avoid any more incidents, we carefully combed the guidebook, settling on Podwale 25, a local establishment that is celebrated for its cheap heaping portions of German food.
Let me preface the following review of Podwale 25 by saying that, as a budget traveller, whenever you see the words “cheap” and “heaping” to describe a restaurant, despite your understandable desire to stretch your dollar and fill yourself up for the day, stop. Just stop, and do not go any further. Spend the extra Zloty and eat somewhere else.
That is what we should have done, but instead, were greeted with “heaping” plates of what I assume was German food. I don’t know, maybe the point of the restaurant was to be bad? A not so subtle way for the Polish people to retaliate against the Germans for their complicated and difficult history together? A sort of culinary slap in the face? Maybe we should have waited until Munich to go and get real German food, and settled on something else in the mean time. Regardless, the meal put an unsettling touch on an already difficult day. And by unsettling I of course mean I was nauseous for hours after the meal, forcing ice cream and bread into my mouth and stomach, just so I could get rid of the taste.
To start, my schnitzel was covered in something resembling cream of mushroom soup gone horrible wrong, topped off with more beets then I have ever knew a single plate could hold. Kristen, hoping to avoid the mountain of beets and cream of mushroom surprise, ended up with potatoes stuffed into a large sausage casing (something neither of us knew you could do).
It was at this point that I began to silently weep. Not only for my stomach, which would be paying the price for my frugalness for hours, but for our first day in Warsaw. Between being ripped off by the cabbie, having to endure the next four nights sleeping on dollhouse furniture, and concluding the day with the worst collection of ingredients I have ever tasted, things just had to get better, didn’t they?
After a horrifying night on the most delicate bunk bed ever, in which I spent hours too afraid to move for fear of crashing through the bed and impaling Kristen below, we had a tour the next day where that question would be answered.
It was not the tour itself that was bad, although the weather did put a damper on things (it was rainy, cloudy, and incredible cold for early May), but the lead up to the tour that would put a Stalinesque twist in our time at the capital.
As we got to the designated meeting spot for the tour, we realized that we were actually late, and that the tour guide was nowhere in sight. Panicking, Kristen and I went off in separate directions to try and track the tour guide down. Having raced around the block and come up empty, I crossed the street to where I had set off from, only to be greeted by the meanest, crankiest, pistol-totingist, police officer I had ever seen.
Instantly, the officer began yelling at me in Polish. Thinking he was yelling at the person directly behind me, I started to walk off. This was a mistake, and must have seemed to the officer as a sign of immense disrespect. Hoping to correct my perceived slight, the officer grabbed my arm, all the while yelling in a language I did not understand, and pointing to a sign behind me. The sign, a man walking inside a green circle, is one that I had never seen before, and would otherwise assume meant I was able to walk freely. I guess not, because angry Warsaw cop continued to yell and hold on to me.
It was at this point that my fear turned into outright indignation. Did this officer not know who I was? I was a Canadian, and recent law school graduate, for crying out loud! I should be afforded all the respect in the world, whatever traffic laws I may have been breaking.
To show the cop my anger, in a way that I hoped would not get me shot, I began yelling back. Saying words I hoped he understood like, ‘Canadian,’ ‘no Polish,’ and ‘I don’t know what the hell is going on.’ When this got me nowhere, I simply began shouting ‘I am a lawyer, I am a lawyer.’ You know you’re in a rough spot when you begin throwing the L word around, hoping it will gain you some semblance of respect (and not make you look like a desperate fool). I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the lawyer utterly failed, and did not manage to buy me any Warsaw street-cred, given that ‘Canadian’ had already failed.
It was then, when all hope was lost, and I was staring down a short, sharp jail sentence in a communist prison, that Kristen had found our tour guide, and perhaps realizing a police officer was holding onto me (although, Kristen didn’t notice…) came rushing over to me. My Polish savior explained to the cop, in the nicest way possible, that this dumb Canadian lawyer tourist had wandered off from the crowd, and that we would soon be invisible – literally saying “invisible”. This seemed to suffice, although the tour guide later informed us the officer had tried to shake me down for 50 Zloty for jaywalking, a crime I am still not convinced I committed (what else could a man in a green circle mean?).
After my near arrest, things finally started to look up. We spent the rest of our time in Warsaw drinking vodka, eating digestible and delicious food, walking through museums, and actually left the capital with fond memories. Really, our first 24 hours aside, Warsaw is typically a city I recommend to anybody who asks where to go when visiting Eastern Europe, as it is impossible to put into words (in a good way).
However, if you do decide to make the trip to Warsaw, in order to avoid having a bumpy start to the trip as we did, I would advise following these simple rules to avoid the above-noted mishaps:
1. Take a marked taxi with a working meter – We were informed after our ill-fated adventure in the cab that Warsaw is rife with these kind of shady cab drivers, who troll the streets with their fake incomprehension of the English language, scrounging for naïve tourists. We didn’t realize until after our ride that throughout the trip the meter was not working, and failed to display any numbers whatsoever. All Polish cabs, we discovered later, are equipped with working meters, and have differing fairs per kilometer as set out on a sticker on their rear passenger windows (both of which was absent from our trickster cab). As long as the cab you are taking has these features, you will not have to part with more money then absolutely necessary.
2. Avoid Podwale 25 – Seriously, avoid it. I just checked online reviews of the restaurant now, hoping to see paragraph after paragraph of people sharing my disdain, however the place still has a solid rating on TripAdvisor, and is still a feature of Lonely Planet’s guide to Poland. Maybe we went to Podwale 25’s lower-rent, diet-cola version instead of the real fabulous one, or maybe what we ordered was just wrong. That being said, any place that brands itself as a “cheap” and “plentiful” alternative to other dining establishments, no matter how much money is saved, should generally be avoided.
3. The man walking in the green circle does not mean what it should mean – Maybe if they would have had an X through the sign, or at least used a red circle, I would not have jaywalked and incurred the wrath of the Warsaw police. Nevertheless, the man in the green means stop, and Polish police officers do not care how many degrees you have, or where you went to school in Canada.
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