I didn’t know what to expect when I first arrived in Poland. Would it be safe? Would I have enough to eat as a vegetarian? Was I going to Western Europe, Eastern Europe…or Northern Europe?
As for the last question, it would turn out that it was a fusion of all three, yet at the same time, none at all. Partitioned by Germany and Russia, western Poland has an intricate system of train lines and highways built by the Germans, and the east has barely any infrastructure at all. As for the cities, when I first arrived in Krakow, it felt like Western Europe, where capitalism and globalization meet cobblestone streets and thirteenth century buildings, which I couldn’t stop snapping pictures of, because, well, I’m an American, and anything built before the twentieth century is as awe-inspiring to me as the Pyramids of Giza.
Yet the Polish people are, in fact, Slavs, and I could see Eastern influence on restaurant menus, which includes borscht, the traditional Russian soup that made me cringe when my grandma made me consume it as a child (it’s not as bad now). More confusing, many look like Northern Europeans, with blond hair and fair features, yet they practice Catholicism, the religion that pervades Southern Europe.
I would soon discover though that despite the influences from other regions, and the most common label being Central Europe, Poland is uniquely its own. It is one of the most homogenous countries in Europe—97% Polish. Of all the nations controlled by the USSR, Poland was the first to break free by establishing a non-communist government in August, 1989, Today, Poland is one of the only countries in the European Union that has its own currency, the zlotsky.
Poland pretty much has it all, I realized, while chowing down on pierogies—even vegetarian food—and at a great price. I had stumbled upon one of Europe’s hidden gems.