A quick visit to Warsaw with Polish, Belgian and Canadian friends!

After visiting Georgia, I had planned to fly out of Kutaisi on my favourite low-cost airline in Europe, Budapest-based WizzAir. Flights offered went to Budapest, Sofia, Katowice and Warsaw. I had been to all these cities except Warsaw, so the choice was easy. It was a quick few days, but enough to visit a beautiful town near the Belarus/Ukraine border and spend the week-end in Warsaw, with friends who would visit from Paris on the kind of super low-costs flights we can only dream of in North America.

Once more this story is very late and a little superficial, but I had a nice short stay in Poland; my second in two years, after my visit to Krakow, Auschwitz and the incredible salt mines of Wielicza.

Lublin is a pleasant and easy to reach city, host to a huge number of festivals (none of which were happening when I visited).

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The 14th century Kraków Gate stands at the entrance to the Old City and is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the city.

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At the center of the Old City, the Lublin Castle.

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And at the center of the castle, the 13th century “Donjon.” Compared to many cities in Poland, Lublin was relatively undamaged during World War II. But the history is no less dramatic. Tens of thousands of Polish nationalists were detained by German authorities within the walls of the castle. Many died, but most were saved from being killed by the Germans when the Soviet Union liberated the city. Then they were killed by the Soviets.

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My friends in Warsaw recommended I try Cebularz (onion cake), a traditional local recipe. Googling it also revealed the sad past of the area. This is a traditional Jewish recipe of the region. There used to be tens of thousands of Jews in Lublin. They had been allowed to settle there by King Casmir III in 1336. Today the recipe survives, but there is no longer a Jewish community here, apart from a handful of mainly elderly people.

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More history on the walls, beautifully painted, perhaps more joyful. For those who read Polish.

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And my favorite in any city, pedestrian streets.

After a short stint in Lublin, I headed back to Warsaw to link up with the friends I had met in Armenia (actually, we met in Georgia and travelled together in Armenia). We were on the same flight from Kutaisi and they were nice to wait for me forever as I went through immigration (it took me 0.5 second to go through, but I was behind a long line of people from, well, more complicated countries). Their intention was to help me through the surprisingly complicated Polish train system. I didn’t notice any complication going to Lublin, or on my previous visit to Poland, but the airport train has some sort of issue caused by different competing companies or something like that.

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Michal, Aleksandra and her sister (in case it wasn’t obvious!) whose name I unfortunately forgot (Magda?). They took me to an old fashioned restaurant which had not been redecorated since the 1980s. The funny thing is that styles come and go, and if I had been shown a picture and told this was the hippest new restaurant in Manhattan, complete with elaborate bamboo chandeliers, I would have believed it. Granted, I am not known as the king of hip. And had I been alone I never would have realized it, but we were sharing a table with Polish movie stars from the 1960s!

I also took advantage of being back in the world of “EU/America-style food safety rules” to enjoy steak tartare, complete with raw egg, and salmon carpaccio. All delicious and non-disease causing. Now, I admittedly don’t follow travel food safety rules; if the local middle-class eats it, so will I. But I draw the line at raw beef. In case I never mentioned it, I once had steak tartare in Syria. How can I say? It was not a good idea.

Before heading home, they drove me around town, including to a neighbourhood apparently described in a Lonely Planet guidebook as a no-go area, where you could “get your fingers cut off”! It looked pretty safe to me and we all laughed. They also explained the ongoing Constitutional Court crisis affecting Poland, but that didn’t go so well. If you must learn about a country’s technical judicial issues of a constitutional nature late at night after a big meal accompanied with vodka and beer, this is who you should try to learn it from, in order of preference:

1) Educated people;

2) Average people;

3) Highly educated people with subject matter expertise, some of whom practice law;

4) Idiots.

Unfortunately, my friends fell in category 3, so I got a little confused. Still a most pleasant evening; thanks a lot guys!

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The waitress, at least when it came to technology, was closer to category 4. This is the best picture she took.

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As I mentioned before, a friend joined me for the weekend from Paris. If you have been a follower of my travel stories for a while, you may recognize Geneviève to my left. My friend and former colleague also travelled with me in 2013 for a week in Portugal, and for a 36 hour whirlwind visit of Portugal, Spain, the UK and “Africa”. She came with her Belgian colleague Pascale, and we visited another former colleague of mine, Richard, who was working in Warsaw for a few months. On a side note, after observing the same phenomenon in Armenia, I have come to the conclusion that white eyes in pictures is caused by cigarette smoke filled restaurants. A theory, at least.

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We also visited a “milk bar” (bar mleczny), an old type of inexpensive cafeteria which became very popular in the communist days. The menu was limited, but the food was great. Certainly better than a similar short stop in an average fast food shop. I especially remember the Brussel sprouts soup. It didn’t look very good and the texture was strange… And it was absolutely delicious… And now I miss it. In his few weeks in Poland, Richard had tried a few milk bars and found the least expensive to be not quite as good. So we went “high-end.” In reality, although the bill was still quite low, this is probably the most expensive milk bar in all of Poland. Downtown Warsaw, next to the fancy Centrum Arkadia shopping mall.

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I actually mentioned to my Polish friends that unlike what I had recently seen in India, where you don’t see women anywhere, in Polish malls, it was just the opposite; almost only women. They said malls were primarily a female attraction around here.

I have nothing else to say about women in Warsaw. I certainly won’t lower myself to making superficial and objectifying comments about them. Instead, I will talk about something completely unrelated; working in Poland. Imagine, hypothetically, that you are looking for some change in your life. You are, for example, a guy working in IT, maybe single and heterosexual, and you are offered a job in Warsaw. You have to say: “YES!” Thinking about it, reading the contract, etc; those are all very stupid things to do. Just say “YES!” as loud as you can, set fire to everything you own and move to Warsaw immediately. You will later thank me for this career advice.

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A few more sights. The Palace of Culture and Science. A “gift” from the Soviet Union dating back to the 50s. Still the tallest building in Poland and still controversial.

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For an exaggerated price that only a tourist would pay, you can climb on top to look at the more modern constructions in Warsaw. Since so much of the city was destroyed during WWII, little of Warsaw is very old. If you look online you can easily find videos of flights over Warsaw in 1945. Not a lot of structures standing up.

Richard also took us to visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum. I took few pictures. Not a happy story, but a very well done museum. Here is my extra short version of the history of Polish nationalists between 1939 and 1963. First they were stabbed from both sides by the Soviets and the Nazis. Then the Western democracies stabbed them in the back. And then the Soviets again, in the heart. In a nutshell.

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And finally, I also took some time to visit a small museum, the house of Marie Curie (born Maria Salomea Skłodowska). You see about 75% of the museum on this picture. Not for everyone, but nice for science nerds like me.

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Apparently, bureaucrats in Canada are debating putting the picture of some woman of great accomplishment on Canadian money. It would be a first (other than Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II, of course). I think the same debate is happening in the USA. Well, when you are the only person in history to be awarded Nobel Prizes in both chemistry and physics, you are in a category of your own and historical gender discrimination doesn’t keep your face off any country’s cash. In fact, it gets your face on more than one country’s currency; in her case, Poland and France.

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You are also the only woman invited to the Solvay Conferences, and you sit in the middle of the first row, to the right of the Conference Chairman, with Albert Einstein on the left. You don’t sit on the sidelines or rear rows with unimportant people like Niels Bohr, Max Plank, Ernest Rutherford, Werner Heisenberg or Enrico Fermi.

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And in case you didn’t know any other Polish scientists,” here’s one a few people have heard about. (Hint: the Earth is not the center of the Universe)

#Poland

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