A Bus Stop In Warsaw
I have been fortunate enough to travel all over the world during my 25 years on this planet. I am becoming something of an experienced traveller now but something I have always struggled with is feeling out of place when I first arrive in a country. My partner always says I am one of the most British looking people around. That if there was a picture of British people in the dictionary my face would be there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, I fear it does make me stick out like a sore thumb, and with our reputation as tourists not being the best, this does cause me to worry about how much people are staring at me and judging me for being a British tourist.
But, there is one region of the world where this doesn’t seem to be a problem … Eastern Europe. I love Eastern Europe and have recently moved to Latvia. It must be something to do with feeling so comfortable when arriving. I have never quite put my finger on why, until last summer. Running the Gotoco programmes involved travelling across Europe by train. One of my favourite programmes we run is in Poland. Poland is a hidden gem with a tourism industry on the cusp of breaking out. It is a must visit within the next five years before it goes the way of other countries like Croatia, which has become the ‘New Italy.’
I had been listening to the audiobook version of ‘A Chip Shop in Poznan,’ on my travels from Venice to Warsaw. This was a 36 hour long train journey, so plenty of time for audiobooks. Ben Aitken does an amazing job of showing the differences of living in Poland compared to the UK, through quirky and fun stories of his time living there. I love the idea that drove him to move out there for his book. Why do so many Poles come to the UK to live? Why do they leave Poland? What is making Poles move back to Poland? It made me think about possible cultural exchange between the two countries and how similar they are. I have been to Poland before when I was straight out of college and not thinking so much about the deeper cultural connections between Poland and my home country. So this time I was on the lookout to deepen my understanding of Polish culture.
It was at a bus stop in Warsaw where I first realised just how deep the cultural connections between Poland and the UK are. I was heading into Warsaw Old Town from our hotel on the outskirts of Poland’s capital. Our hotel was a towering Soviet style block with a bus stop to take you into town just outside. There was something about the bus stop that made me feel at home, not sticking out for the first time in weeks. As we stood in the grey weather, all dressed in jeans and t-shirts, I felt invisible. It was great. It was almost like British and Polish fashion were exactly the same. Not turning pink from burning hot sun also helps to cover up the Britishness.
We all stepped on the bus in an orderly fashion, after letting other passengers alight, not with the crush that I had become accustomed to, having been in Italy for two weeks prior. I stood looking out of the window as the grey apartments of Warsaw’s suburbs whizzed past, the same orderly passenger alighting and getting on procedure taking place every 3-5 mins. Total silence. This felt almost alien to me. Having been in the depths of touristic Italy, the idea of silence on a mode of public transport is insane. My experience of public transport in Italy is one of noise, loud noise and a total disregard of the embarrassment us Brits feel. I am terrified to infringe on someone’s personal noise buffer. However, in Poland it is deftly quiet, I can hear the audiobook in my ear without having to turn it up. It was very comforting. Are the Polish more similar to Brits than any other Europeans?
If you were to enter certain pubs in the UK this thought certainly would cause some kind of disagreement. For some reason a small minority of people in the UK believe that Eastern Europe is another world to them and see the presence of Eastern European workers as a serious issue in British society. But, just think about it. Due to the large Polish minority in the UK the sheer amount of cultural exchange passing back and forth is incredible. If you walk into any Sainsburys in the UK you will find similar products to a Zapka in Warsaw. The need for a beer after a difficult day’s work is something else the two cultures share. Even Wetherspoons sells Polish beer. Although, some people don’t want to admit it, the UK’s story is a story of immigration and cultural exchange. It is not Michael Gove’s ‘island story,’ for those of you old enough to remember those dark times of history education. Our history and Poland’s history has intertwined since the beginning of WWII and I for one am proud of that.
As the bus trundled into town the grey suburbs disappeared to be replaced by the reconstructed mediaeval town centre. The vibrant red bricks cut against the now clear blue sky. A picture began to form outside of the bus’ window that could be snapped in almost any classic European city. The story of Warsaw and Poland is similar to the story of a Phoenix rising from the ashes. 85% of the old town was destroyed in WWII and has now been rebuilt to save this element of Polish culture. I got off the bus to go and explore the old town, the smell of pierogi and dill filled my nostrils.
Walking through the Old Town brought another happy similarity to mind … the importance of history. The UK has long been a leader in historical preservation abroad and at home. The Old Town of Warsaw is similar to York in North England. It is a great place to go if you feel you wish to step back in time surrounded by mediaeval architecture and when you think of the effort it must have taken to reconstruct, especially in a country that has not been the most financially fortunate, it shows how important their history is to them. If you go to Warsaw you will see the importance of remembrance and history around every corner, the city is covered in Museums, plaques and tour guides.
I love the feeling of cultural exchange that Poland gives and the similarities it has to the UK with its own twists are fascinating to see! Exploring and living in Poland is a great opportunity to further understand the culture and country of one of the UK’s largest diasporas.
Poland has its problems, especially given the current governmental situation, but then again so does the UK. But on a person to person level the Brits and the Poles are more similar than most people think. Culturally and socially, and it was all on show at a bus stop in Warsaw.
About the Author
Hi, I’m Matty! I’m one of the Gotoco team and worked on the European programmes over the summer of 2022. I have a huge passion for travel writing and exploring the lesser travelled places in the world, looking for good stories.