After crossing Germany, we spent time in the south of Poland, visiting a variety of places and driving almost the full width of the country. Here are some of the things about Poland that I think are interesting:
- The Republic of Poland is the largest of the previously communist countries in the European Union. At 38 million it has about 5 million more people than Canada, but has much smaller area.
- Due to the Nazi genocide and the forced relocations that took place after World War II, Poland is very uniform ethnically. 98% of the people are ethnic Poles.
- We had thought that Poland would be very different from the countries of Central Europe. It looks a bit rougher than eastern Germany, but differences weren’t as great as we had imagined.
- The campgrounds in Poland are plentiful and nice. They have free wi-fi and the one we stayed at in Krakow even had free washing machines.
- The Polish language is harder to figure out than German, which seems to have more in common with English. As a result, food shopping was more of a challenge.
- In 1795 Poland ceased to exist. It was partitioned between Prussia (controlled from Potsdam in today’s Germany), Russia, and Austria (controlled from Vienna). It was not reconstituted until 1918 at the end of World War I, but then immediately had to defend itself from Russia under Lenin who had visions of spreading socialism across Europe and eventually the world. After the 2nd World War, Russia installed a communist government in Poland, despite its promises to the Allies to hold free elections. Along with Hungary, it was one of the least repressive of the Communist Bloc countries.
- While we were there, Poland celebrated the anniversary of its constitution, initially established on May 3rd, 1791. It was the first set of modern supreme national laws in Europe, and second only to the American Constitution of 1787, which is something the Poles take great pride in despite the fact that their current constitution dates from 1997.
- Poland is the birth place of Chopin, Goethe, Marie Curie, and Pope John Paul II.
- Marie Skłodowska-Curie (Marie Curie) was a Polish physicist and chemist born in Warsaw in 1867 who did pioneering research on radioactivity in France. She was the first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first person to receive 2 Nobel Prizes. She died in 1934 of aplastic anemia caused by her years of exposure to radiation.
- Pope John Paul II is revered here. He was born Charles Joseph Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice in 1920. He suffered various hardships as a child (his parents died young), during WWII (he narrowly avoided deportation and had to study for the seminary illegally), and under the communists. Despite this, he learned to speak 9 or more languages, became a philosopher, and a thought leader in the Catholic Church. He took the name ‘John Paul II’ in honour of his predecessor (John Paul I), who died only 33 days after becoming Pope. John Paul II was generally accepting of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution regarding the human body, but believed that the human soul was created immediately by God.
- In 1980 the independent trade union Solidarity, which opposed Soviet rule, was formed in the shipyards of Gdańsk, Poland’s largest sea port. Despite attempts by the government to curtail it, it spread until its cofounder Lech Wałęsa won the national election in 1990, ending the period of communist rule in Poland and leading to the eventual demise of communist regimes across Europe.
- Many women in Poland try to dress in Western style, but the quality of the clothes and their fashion sense sometimes results in them looking cheap. A lot of young women (and some older ones) prefer short, tight skirts, revealing tops, and platform heels to the point that they look like prostitutes.
- In 2011 Poland elected the first transsexual Member of Parliament in European history. Italy elected the first transgendered MP.
- Poland seems to have whole-heartedly embraced capitalism. Many of the big European chains are here (e.g. Lidl, Carrefour, Ikea, Mediamarkt) and there is advertising everywhere.
- Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by Poland. Diane described it as a “diamond in the rough”, with lots of potential as it develops.