With no clear-cut definition of what constitutes 21st century Eastern Europe, it may be tempting to bundle up all the countries which used to be under the Soviet influence during the Cold War together. However, this division forgets other geo-cultural factors such as religion and completely dismisses the recent political and economic developments. So, unless you are a referring to a specific historical concept, Poland is in Central Europe.
Before you start fearing running into a polar bear in the middle of Warsaw, brush up on your geography. Poles don’t live in the North Pole. Located in the transitional zone between oceanic and continental climates, Poland may have quite cold winters, but it also has really hot summers.
Even though the array of bizarre vowels and consonant combinations may be intimidating at first, learning a few phrases could help you break the ice with the locals. Don’t get discouraged or upset if your pronunciation makes them laugh, as poking fun at others is a sign of friendship in Poland.
In line with European Union regulations, the tap water is safe to drink, however older generations still approach this fact with a pinch of salt. Similarly, asking for a glass of tap water in some restaurants will earn you a weird glance from the waiter, but an increasing number of venues are catching up to meet Western standards and will accommodate your request.
Kiss on a hand is a rather old school greeting, but many older men still equate it with a sign of gallantry and respect. Young people, on the other hand, prefer a simple handshake when they meet a new person and a kiss on the cheek when they are with people they already know. Three kisses are reserved for family gatherings.
Polish people rarely say things they don’t mean, so when your Polish friend asks you what’s up, they really want to hear all about your day. Polish language does not have an equivalent of the standard English “how are you/fine, thank you” exchange, making the concept rather foreign to Polish speakers. This is why when your Polish friends greet you in English, they pause and expect an honest answer.
“Guest in the house brings God to the house,” a Polish proverb says, illustrating the Polish approach to hospitality rather nicely. And since everyone knows that the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, your Polish hosts will surely offer you uncomfortable amounts of food. No matter how full you may be after the first serving, always accept the second helping and observe how their faces light up with joy.
Poles reserve milk for coffee, cereals and White Russians, so trying to add some to your tea will be met with some questions and making fun of your Britishness, regardless of your actual place of birth. If you want to order tea the Polish way, ask for a slice of lemon instead.
It is possible that you have heard many legends about Polish drinking culture which could lead you to believe that drinking in the streets is allowed. Wrong! Opening a beer in a park or any other public space is an offence and if the police spot you, you will have to pay a fine.
If you choose to surprise your Polish date or host with a bouquet, always remember to buy an odd number of flowers. Even numbers are reserved for funerals and would make for an extremely uncomfortable first encounter.
When invited to a Pole’s house always take your shoes off. Unless they explicitly tell you that you can leave them on. Which also means that you should remember to bring socks without holes on your next trip to Poland.
When invited to a Polish house party always bring something for everyone to share. Chocolate, cake or a bottle of alcohol are all a great choices. Traditionally, guests should hand the gift to the female head of the family, but with changing housing arrangements this custom is no longer so strictly followed.