For Extraordinary Life

By Stephanie Roh • Łódź, Poland

Folks bundle up in Warsaw’s colorful Old Town.

During my semester abroad in Copenhagen, I booked a trip to Łódź (pronounced like Wooch), a city in central Poland, to visit my friend Adam who I hadn’t seen in 4 years! We met at a UCLA summer program in 2014 and he was the first person from Poland that I had ever met. Since I knew a local and I was close by, I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to visit. However, I was hesitant at first. Adam told me it is hard to get around Poland as a tourist because many people do not speak English. I also had a vision of Poland as a place stuck in the past with outdated architecture, infrastructure, and technology. I really didn’t know what to expect out of this 3-day trip — would things be awkward or boring? Whatever the outcome, I knew that it would be a unique experience.

Right as I got out of arrivals at the Warsaw Airport, I spotted him — tall, slim, and blond. Nothing had changed! Instead of taking the train to Łódź, Adam said his family’s driver would drive us to his house. A family driver? This was some next level traveling. From the car ride to watching Rick & Morty in his living room (dubbed in Polish of course), we had wonderful conservations catching up on everything we had missed in the past 4 years.

On the first day, we went back to Warsaw to explore what Poland’s capital had to offer. As Adam was finding the right platform in the Łódź train station, I kept asking “How do you say that word? Wyjście. This word? Pociąg. I was fascinated that this language looked like gibberish to me, but made perfect sense to someone else. The first thing I noticed as we got out of the station was the massive Soviet-era Palace of Culture and Science, a defining part of the Warsaw skyline. In contrast to this dull blocky structure, Adam took me to see all the new modern buildings that have been popping up everywhere in Poland.

The Złote Tarasy is a mall/office space complete with a geometric glass façade that resembles the way waves shine and ripple. The outside of the building was beautiful, but it was nothing compared to the inside. The skylights gave the space a surreal, utopian feel that reminded me of the “modern tropical” architecture of Singapore. Next, we got some grub at the Hala Koszyki, a revived industrial food hall that sells everything from Polish pierogies, German beers, and Indian curries, to Japanese sushi, Italian sausages, and Vietnamese bánh mi’s. I was mostly impressed by the beautiful typography and neon signs; it felt like I was at the trendiest spot in Brooklyn.

When we left, Adam pointed out Złota 44, a residential skyscraper designed by renowned Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, who is famous for designing the One World Trade Center in New York City and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The building is equipped with a 10,000-bottle wine cellar, a 25-meter swimming pool, a Finnish sauna, a private cinema, and a golf simulator. The last place on the agenda was the Gucci store in the Vitkac luxury mall. Adam had saved up enough money through modeling jobs to buy a $500 t-shirt that he’d been wanting for a while. Meanwhile, it was my first time in a Gucci store and I was flabbergasted by the sheer grandeur of the space. I was trying to play it cool when BAM! I tripped up the marble staircase in front of the poised shop keepers. Instead of rolling their eyes, they giggled and asked if I was okay. Picking up my dignity, I smiled and nodded.

When we got back to Łódź, Adam introduced me to his older half-brother Kacper, who had driven up from southern Poland to visit his family for the weekend. Kacper is the type of person everyone gets along with — friendly, funny, and light-hearted. We went to a restaurant downtown for dinner, and the conversation flowed like a family reunion. Back at Adam’s house after a full day of exploring, I met Adam and Kacper’s dad — another warm, hospitable character. He insisted I treat his house like it was my home.

The next day, Adam told me that I would have to hang out with Kacper for the day because he had a Saturday class that he could not miss. “Okay . . .,” I thought. I wasn’t sure what to expect this time. Moments later, Kacper showed up in swim trunks and a towel. “Have you ever heard of a polar plunge before?” My jaw dropped. It was only 45 degrees Fahrenheit! We drove 30 minutes to a suburb called Konstantynów Łódzki and parked next to a frozen pond. Kacper met up with his buddies and ran a 10K around the pond to warm up. While sitting on a bench perfectly amused, I watched a man in short swim trunks and a pom-pom beanie whacking at the ice with an axe to create a path for people. As time passed, about 50 people showed up in similar beanies and swimwear and started to wade into the ice-cold water. I couldn’t believe I was witnessing a polar plunge in the middle of suburban Poland with someone I had just met.

When I thought things couldn’t get any stranger, Kacper drove me to meet his grandmother who lived in a high-rise apartment. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t understand a single word that the sweet woman was trying to tell me, but I was still flattered. On the way back home, we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall Polish restaurant and both slurped up rosół, the Polish version of chicken noodle soup. At night, Kacper and Adam took me out to the main drag Piotrkowska Street to experience Polish nightlife. It was a night full of craft beers and way too much Polish vodka. I was introduced to so many people who were so friendly and curious to know why in the world I was in Łódź! We even sneaked into an 18-year-old’s lavish birthday party because Kacper knew the owner. You definitely don’t get this treatment as a tourist. In one of the bars, I asked what some writing on the wall meant — za życie niezwyczajne. Kacper replied, “For extraordinary life.”

On the last day, Adam’s dad called everyone to breakfast before I headed to the airport. After hearing that I wanted to try Polish food, Adam’s dad went all out. There were sausages, pastries, marinated herring, bread, eggs, potatoes, coffee, and tea laid out on the table. “Hangover cure!,” he jokingly proclaimed. Somewhere between all the laughs over how a small Asian girl can drink as much as tall Polish men, I realized how rewarding this trip had been. I felt like I was accepted into this family for a little while and saw a whole other side of Poland that tourists don’t get to see. I was astonished to see how modern and trendy Polish cities are when it comes to architecture, infrastructure, and technology. Even though Polish people love freezing their butts off in frozen ponds, they have the warmest hearts and hospitality. All my preconceived notions of Poland were rightly squashed.

About the Writer: Stephanie from Weehawken, New Jersey and her favorite city is Copenhagen. She adores their design and architecture scene, fashion brands (Stine Goya!), sourdough bread, elderflower juice, and most of all cycling!

About Guac: Guac is an award-winning travel publication run by an interdisciplinary group of students at Cornell University. We aim to inspire our readers to celebrate cultural diversity and view the world with an open mind through delivering unique stories from people around the world.

Join us on our journey and follow along real-time on our instagram.