Last weekend two of my friends and I traveled to Gdansk, Poland for a three night getaway from the slow-paced life we have in Norway. It was absolutely an adventure, and very different from the adventure that we found in Brussels. Our first night in we had nothing but praises to sing for Gdansk. We ate pierogi at a little underground pub for $4. We went to a high end coffee shop and had drinks for a few dollars (my hot chocolate was almost like pudding!) and while our hostel room had a ridiculous sports theme, the female receptionist was very nice and very helpful. (The male receptionist who worked nights was also very nice but not so helpful.) So we went to sleep, feeling pretty good about the adventure we were going to be having.
The next day we wandered around taking pictures of all the cool buildings that we had seen the night before and then proceeded into one of the basilica's to attend mass (it was Sunday). We were absolutely freezing. I doubt that this place ever gets above 40 degrees in the summertime (which might be nice then if it's super hot out) but in the winter it was absolutely frigid. Fortunately they put heated pads on the pews so your behind stays nice and warm! Mass itself was definitely an interesting experience, though. No one in the congregation talked (except for responding to the priest) and no one sang. The singing of the hymns was done by someone else and even during the part when people usually shake hands and say "peace be with you" they just silently looked around and gave a curt nod to anyone they made eye contact with.
Another interesting experience that we had was when we were looking for a place to eat dinner, we were walking along the walking streets and looking at various menus posted outside of restaurants trying to find one that we wanted to eat at. We came across a Turkish restaurant that didn't have a menu outside so we hesitantly walked up to the windows to see if anyone was inside. (There was one couple.) Suddenly, the owner comes out and says "Yes, please, come in, we are open!" So we asked to see a menu and he said of course and directed us towards the waitress. She asked if it was the three of us and we asked again to see a menu and she replied "Of course! But please, sit down first." So we followed her to a table and gave each other a look of "well, I guess we're eating here tonight..." Had we taken the time to read our pocket guide before heading out for dinner, this is what we would've read about this restaurant:
"Over-eager waiters swoop like vultures on solo diners, though the enthusiasm of these frontline troops is clearly wasted on such a venture. Previously described as ‘desperate and despondent’, what was formerly the Kreta restaurant has re-emerged as the equally glum Sakarya. Find lonely chefs stalking between plastic pillars and the Greek detritus left by the previous occupants, only stirred by the accidental intrusion of curious tourists."
Which is exactly what it was like. My friend Lisa unwillingly ordered a Turkish "minced meat pizza" because the owner asked if she liked pizza and then said she would have that. Megan had a pasta that she did rather like, and I had lamb skewers which were pretty good. My drink, however, was terrible. Looking at the beverage list I saw one drink that said "yoghurt drink" and I was intrigued. I love Indian lassi so I foolishly thought "how different could this be?" Even despite the waitress telling me that it's what people drink to settle their stomach when they eat spicy food, I figured I'd give it a try. So out comes this glass of what looks like frothy milk with herbs sprinkled on top. I try a sip and... nearly lost the contents of my stomach. If you ask either Lisa or Megan what my face looked like when I drank it, they would probably bust a gut laughing just thinking about it. The owner then came to ask if I liked it and said that it was like kefir which frustrated me because the menu said nothing about kefir. The menu said yoghurt. Kefir is milk that has been fermented so that it won't spoil at warm temperatures. Kefir tastes like cottage cheese without the cheese part. It was like drinking spoiled milk. I somehow managed to down about three more tiny sips before I absolutely gave up. I can't blame that on the restaurant, though. It was my own fault for ordering it.
Anyway, the next day the three of us got on a tram (for about $1 each) and traveled into the neighboring city of Sopot. Sopot and Gdansk are 2/3 of a tri-city area that also includes Gdynia, but we didn't have time to travel into Gdynia. Sopot was very, very different from Gdansk. In the summertime it is well known for being a spa resort city. There were new and modern buildings lining the walking street with shops of all kinds, all leading you towards the beach of the Baltic Sea and Europe's longest wooden pier. We were made to take pictures with a man dressed (poorly) as Santa Claus, we bought some amber jewelry at a couple of the many amber stands that lined the entrance to the pier, and we had McDonald's for lunch. (Don't scoff, when you've been away from home for two and a half months, familiarity can be a godsend. And this actually tasted like McDonald's from home whereas the McDonald's we went to in Oslo was crap, in my opinion.) We then ate gelato for about $1.50 for two little scoops inside a waffle bowl, and all in all had a wonderful time walking around Sopot. The sea was beautiful and the pier offered a great opportunity for taking photos, and walking on the beach we found a bunch of beautiful shells and rocks. We were hoping to find some amber that is apparently so abundant there, but I'm pretty sure we didn't find any. Regardless, we had a great day in Sopot.
It was amazing to me to see such a stark difference between the two neighboring cities, but it presented a unique opportunity to witness the medieval, post-war, and modern aspects of Poland all in (basically) one place. And since Poland doesn't use the euro, that's why things are still so cheap there for Americans. It was a refreshing break to be able to afford going out to eat and eat well for that matter. The language barrier was a little difficult (we found it actually hindered our efforts if we asked people in Polish if they could speak English) and with something like 10 different coins ranging from 1 cent to 10 zloty we sometimes had difficulty managing our money, but overall it was a unique and wonderful experience, and I would recommend Gdansk to anyone who feels confident enough to try it out. It can feel like a sketchy place at night, but we were safe the whole time. The uneasy feeling stems from the fact that there are many buildings still in ruins after WWII and it's definitely a city that is still trying to pick itself up after the war. But the people are very nice and despite the lack of English on the part of most people there, you can do pretty well with pointing and basic hand gestures. I had a great time and hope to get back there sometime in the future.