I traveled from Berlin to Wrocław largely to visit my friend Russ, although I have a general interest in former Warsaw Pact Europe. Poland made its borders known immediately by its poor road quality. The DB bus I rode in stopped selling alcohol and offering wifi as well, finally stopping in a rush hour traffic jam as we approached Wrocław. Remaining in high spirits, I changed euros into złoty and walked a short distance to my friend’s apartment. I immediately noticed signs of crass Western capitalism, including Starbucks and KFC, perhaps Krakow Fried Chicken, but otherwise entirely Polish language.
I knew Russ from my Austin days but I have not seen him for six years since he attended an Esperanto congress in San Francisco. He married Anna during this visit, although I did not attend since the entire proceeding used Esperanto! They both met over ten years ago at another Esperanto congress, sharing only the Esperanto language and completing a romantic fantasy for some Esperantists. Russ and Anna have both lived in Wrocław this entire time, with Anna speaking in near-fluent English but Russ still learning Polish. To my ear, he makes convincing Polish sounds but both assured me that native speakers can clock him.
Russ keeps vegan and it was a welcome change to share a diet, even if only a subset, during my trip! Almost all my knowledge of contemporary Poland comes from his previous US visit and I am glad to see that the restaurants exceed his previous descriptions. We headed towards Baszta for Thai food which was housed in an old multi-storey building that looked like a storybook. Anna joined us from work and we caught up on the many intervening years. After dinner, they showed me around town, including many small islands on the north end, and we caught up with an actual gas lighter working his route! This throwback adds consistency with some of the older architecture of the city, although many of the buildings were reconstructed after the second world war. We ducked into a vodka bar and each partook, although we encountered some resistance asking for tap water. The staff claimed that all the pipes have lead in them and thus the water is unsafe, helpfully selling me a bottle for 4 złoty. We headed home and saw a tout luring men into a nearby strip club, a curious addition to an otherwise family friendly town square. We abbreviated our evening and Russ and Anna played their daily game, a ritual similar to how Usha and I solve the daily New York Times mini crossword.
The next morning we started with a vegan breakfast at Vega, a serviceable pun restaurant. I have not eaten vegan “eggs” before but they contain tofu, oil, and tamarind, producing a reasonable facsimile. Anna left for a planned cabin camping trip and Russ escorted me to the Wrocław city museum which discusses over 1000 years of history. A former palace hosts the museum, because of course, this is Europe and they have such things. The exhibits break down into ancient and religious history, the former palace accommodations, and recent history including the shifting borders and Soviet influence. Truthfully the first two held little interest for me and do not work as a narrative but the last lies in my wheelhouse and I learned how Germans once lived in Wrocław but post-World War 2 migration repopulated the city with Poles. One curiosity was a gigantic religious mural which the artist painted using nude models in front of an audience.
I took a break to do some dwarf-spotting, a clever commercial acknowledgment of the dwarf mascot of the Orange Alternative, or anti-communist resistance. While the city started with the single statue, now many businesses have commissioned their own of various forms. I only saw about 20, but the city hosts over 350 dwarves! Having museum feet, I ducked into Vinyl Cafe for a coffee and a honey pie. Poland has little ethnic variation although I saw a Korean conversing with a Russian in English, the only such conversation I heard the entire weekend. There is little English, oral or written, but the Polish language stands out with its harsh k sounds.
I headed home to meet up with Russ and we left to attend a beer festival at a football stadium. The Wrocław transit seems good by American standards although it only has above-ground trams and not a subway. Curiously the vehicles are skinnier than American or even German trams, with a single seat on each side. The beer festival exceeded my expectations, with over 50 vendors, several food stalls including vegetarian options, and at least two bands playing outside. The beer varied and I had an interesting huckleberry cider, a crappy pale ale, and finished with a satisfying porter. The earlier band drew a large crowd but we only ventured down for the second, Dianna Kross. I must be living some European dream because I listened to a Polish band sing an Indonesian song and drank Irish beer from Germany with an Esperanto friend! Russ and I headed home and played an interesting game based on the Little Prince book, where one builds a planet with some three choose two asymmetry.
Sunday I woke up early for a planned run along the river. Actually, I woke at 4 due to the crazy early sunrise, but I endeavored to sleep in and went out later. I hoped to run about 8 miles along the north side of the river, but I got lost and ended up running over 10 miles south of the river. I apparently missed a better view and there were no bridges for me to cross over. On my way back I saw the zoo and some cool graffiti on one of the underpasses. Russ warned me that I might see some fascist logos, apparently a black plus sign, but thankfully I did not. Poland apparently has a significant minority of right-wingers which have marches, oppose gay rights, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. I returned with sore feet and unfortunately Russ walked me pretty far the rest of the day! We tried to go to a few different vegan restaurants but many of them do not open until 1 PM for lunch, I suspect out of respect for the church services. Our Indian meal at Ahimsa exceeded my expectations for Poland and I tried to teach Russ how to eat with his hands like a proper south Indian.
I hoped to go to the Panorama to see a historic battle fought near Wrocław, but its popularity booked all the slots for the entire afternoon! Instead, we climbed 300 steps up the St. Elizabeth’s Church tower to take advantage of the vantage point. Russ narrated several points of interest, including a vaguely phallic Trump-wannabe tower, but the main attraction was the town square and old church. My feet hurt from so much circumambulating so we returned home to play another game, Mr. Jack, where one player attempts to hide which character is Jack the Ripper while the other tries to expose him. I did not immediately grasp the strategy although it seems clever with all the characters having unique abilities. Russ ran an eponymous gaming group for many years and has an impressive selection of games.
Anna returned home and we went out for a two-part veggie burger and pizza dinner. Food trucks have hit Polish shores and I enjoyed sitting outside and watching the too-late sunset. My burger at Green Bus was excellent although the vegan pizza at Piec Na Szewskiej was just OK — vegan cheese is not my thing. I have not done a good job noting various interesting conversations but I drew a lot of satisfaction just catching up with Russ. While we have some overlapping interests in politics, I enjoyed talking about Poland generally and various language esoterica specifically. Russ advocates for Esperanto use and I casually suggested reforming English to improve its accessibility for future ESL speakers. Russ challenged this idea, correctly pointing out not just the transition costs, but failed efforts to simplify Chinese. I have some dated memories of his first impressions of Poland from 10 years ago and I am happy that Wrocław appears more colorful and interesting than I had imagined.
Monday I woke up early to make another attempt at the Panorama. I had a noon flight so I hoped to see the earliest showing, at 9 AM. A gigantic class of schoolchildren booked this same slot and initially, the usher denied me entry but later relented. I was the only English-speaker in attendance and got my own earpiece, although Russ assured me that had I spoke Esperanto that he and Anna had provided a translation. I struggled to follow the story and find the relevant parts of the artwork although this seemed like a decisive battle for Polish independence. One of the fighters, Tadeusz Kościuszko, also fought in the American Revolution. I hurried home to bid adieu to Russ and catch a bus to the airport. Wrocław airport has only 12 gates, some of the fewest of any airport I have flown through. I transited through Copenhagen on my way to Belgium and spied an automated Starbucks in the terminal. Automation in everything but distressingly someone kludged empty cups into part of the infrastructure.