In recent years, Poland has become a very consumer-driven, capitalistic society. It’s something I noticed on my recent trip there, and I will explore this topic in future posts. In this post, I will provide a basic overview of Polish currency for those who may not know what it looks like or what the denominations are.
Polish currency is called Złoty, which literally translates to “golden” in Polish. One Złoty subdivides into 100 Groszy, just like one Dollar subdivides into 100 cents.
There are six different denominations of Groszy coins:
100 Groszy is, naturally, equal to 1 Złoty. Unlike the Dollar, however, 1 Złoty is still a coin instead of a paper bill. In fact, there are still coins for 2 Złoty and 5 Złoty.
It’s only when you get to 10 Złoty that the paper bills start, and here is how that works:
The 10 Złoty bill has Poland’s first king, Mieszko I on the front and an illustration of a coin used during his reign on the back.
The 20 Złoty bill has the image of King Bolesław the Brave on the front, and, similar to the 10 Złoty bill, an illustration of a coin used from Kings Bolesław’s reign on the back.
The 50 Złoty bill depicts King Casimir III The Great on the front and a white eagle with regalia on the back.
The 100 Złoty bill contains King Władysław Jagiełło, victor of the Battle of Grunwald, on the front. On the back you’ll find a shield with a white eagle and the coat of arms of the Teutonic Knights, whom he defeated.
The 200 Złoty bill depicts King Sigismund I The Old on the front. On the back there is an eagle mixed in with the letter “S” in a hexagon.
Overall, Polish currency regularly uses more coins than American currency and goes one denomination higher (to 200 Złoty). Having shopped quite often during my stay in Poland, though, I can tell you that one Groszy is just about as worthless to Poles as one Penny is to Americans.
Well, Crazy Polish Guy is in his ancestral homeland. A week ago I set foot in Poland for the first time in eight years. So much has changed, and yet much remains the same. As I visit the same nooks and crannies that I visited as a kid, I cannot help but be overwhelmed with a nostalgic happiness to be here. I don’t want to leave. The landscapes are breathtaking; the castles and old churches are intriguing, and every woman that passes me on the street makes my knees weak (why are they so beautiful?)
I anticipate several blog posts dedicated to my trip when I return to the United States next week. For now, I just wanted to express to everyone that Poland is still that same country I fell in love with as a child. Although there are some negatives that I’ll discuss in future posts, overall, there is no place I would rather spend my vacation.
Right now, I’m writing as I listen to a CD of the latest Polish songs while getting a little drunk from some homemade Polish cherry liquor. There’s no place I would rather be…
The year 2007 was the last time I visited Poland. Nothing about it in particular seemed like an ending. In many ways, it was just another trip. I had been visiting Poland roughly every two years since 1994, and I just thought this would naturally continue.
During that trip, I stepped into more old castles, like one in Dębno, visited new towns, like the mountain resort of Krynica Zdrój, and prayed in beautiful churches. When I visited the wooden church of Saint Leonard in the small hamlet of Lipnica Murowana, I came upon an old graveyard dating back some 500-years. Faintly inscribed on one overgrown tombstone was the name Klimek, which was the surname of one side of my family. My aunt mentioned that she had recently discovered this grave, and that our family had ties to this place, seemingly frozen-in-time, where chickens were literally still crossing the road.
When I learned that a forgotten ancestor of mine was buried in this grave, a chill ran through my spine. In my last entry, I mentioned that ruins have a powerful romantic effect on me. Here was a ruin of my own family. This one-hundred-and-fifty year old tombstone, coupled with the rustic church and timeworn surroundings did more to interest me in my Polish roots than anything else had before.
In retrospect, seeing that grave was a grim foreshadowing. The next time I visit Poland, I will have to visit one more grave—my grandma’s.
That 2007 visit was the last time I saw my Polish grandmother and, unknown to me then, the last time I ever would. She had always been there. In fact, she had always been the primary reason for my trips to Poland. I had no idea that when I hugged her tightly on that last day in 2007, I would never ever see her again. In 2010 around finals week at college, I would learn of her passing.
In the months and years after my grandma’s passing, I lost several other Polish relatives. So many people who I remember alive and breathing are now gone. As I meditate on this, I realize that it was not until after I lost my grandma that I truly became dedicated to my Polish heritage. Prior to this, I lacked the passion for Poland and Polish culture that I have now. In a sense, I believe this passion stems from a subconscious desire to keep my grandma’s memory alive.
I hear many things have changed in Poland since 2007. Some people have told me that my romantically naïve view of the country will burst the next time I visit. Realistically, I don’t expect it to be the same. My trips to Poland between 1994 and 2007 represented the best of my childhood, and nothing can ever take that away from me.
But that doesn’t mean that my future trips won’t be equally fantastic in a different way. Currently, my passion for Poland is at its peak. I understand the culture and history better than I ever have in my life. I am fortunate enough to be able to share my writings and musings regularly with all of you. With all this energy, I am more than ready to go back. Can you handle me, Poland?
Ask anyone—I’m a history and social science nerd. I can tell you everything from what the Schmalkaldic League was, to the capital of Kosovo, to the year Charlemagne was crowned. Why do I know all this, and why do I care? I think my trips to Poland had a lot to do with it.
When I visited Poland again in 2003 and 2005, I was in my early teens and could begin to appreciate Poland’s history and culture more.
This time when I visited Krakow, instead of breaking down the door to see the Wawel Dragon, I was interested in seeing Wawel Castle itself. The castle has a high wall running along the hillside that always impressed me. I would imagine a medieval battle with attackers trying to storm the ramparts as arrows showered from above. As I walked through the iron gate, I would picture it closing as defenders were summoned to protect the king.
Meanwhile, the cathedral’s bells would sound the hour and the distant “Hejnał” would be heard emanating from Saint Mary’s Basilica in the town square. Down below, the narrow, cobblestone streets traversing the city had their own charm. Centuries ago, merchants would have pushed their carts through these same quaint paths, and the Polish king himself would have taken this route when returning from a hunting trip or military foray.
Just outside Krakow lies the ruined castle at Ogrodzieniec. Ruins particularly fascinate me because they symbolize a forgotten, “overgrown” past that speaks to the temporary nature of life. Everyone reading this is alive, and it seems like everything that happens to us is somehow important or special. But where will the memory of our existence be in 500 years? I’m sure the people who lived in that ruined castle when it was brand new felt just like we feel today—that now is the time to be alive. It’s sometimes easy to think that the world cannot exist without us and that life’s petty, day-to-day dramas are of grandiose importance. One look at the ruined castle at Ogrodzieniec, however, and your perspective changes.
Krakow’s historical beauty is rivalled only by the natural beauty of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland. I had the great privilege to visit Zakopane, Poland’s premier mountain resort town. It is difficult to verbalize the excitement that filled me as we drove toward the mountains. First you see a dim mound of grey in the distance (You can actually see this vague outline from the top of Wawel Hill all the way in Krakow). A little closer and that dim mound begins to take shape. You begin to notice individual mounds next to each other. Then those mounds start to get big…really big…indescribably big for someone who has never seen mountains before. Pretty soon the mountains are right on top of you, and you become very small.
Like the medieval city and castle ruins, the mountains instilled in me a romantic feeling of nostalgia. The Tatra have their own history, a history that dwarfs the lifespan of mankind and reaches back millions of years. The romantic poets found great inspiration in mountains and for good reason. Their sheer age and size bespeaks an immortality that man can only dream of. We will be gone, our children will be gone, our grandchildren will be gone—the mountains will remain.
Poland’s historical and natural past seeped into the deepest recesses of my mind during those trips. The romantic longing for a bygone era sprouted in my soul and has been growing ever since.
….Ok, this was a very serious post, so I’ll add something funny to the end here! While I was in Zakopane, there was a Góral (mountaineer) strutting in the town square with a goat. We were videotaping everything so we thought, “Why not capture this Góral and his goat?” So we did, and I actually went up to pose with him. He was very friendly until we began to walk away, at which point he demanded money for being in our video, as if he was some kind of celebrity. We totally refused. Flustered, the angry Góral stomped away.
I visited Poland again in 1999 and 2001; I was eight and 10 years old. Taking the trip to Poland was becoming so common that I failed to fully appreciate its significance at that time.
Instead of buying actual souvenirs during those years to remember my travels, I would blow my money on toys I could have bought in the U.S., because, with the exchange rate, they were cheaper. Puzzles, Legos, Pokemon…I hauled so much junk over the Atlantic that I’m surprised LOT airlines didn’t think I was smuggling merchandise in for resale. I probably could have turned a nice profit selling that stuff for much more in the U.S.
The other highlight of these trips was cats. Yes, cats. Specifically kittens. The other boys sometimes made fun of me in grade school because I really liked cats. The reason being was that in Poland, my grandma had a cat that would have a kitten each summer I would visit. From a young age I fell in love with the animals, spending hours playing with them. Even though I was allergic and they used my arms and hands as a scratching post, I adored them.
One kitten took a particular liking to me—I believe during my 1999 trip, perhaps even 1997. Each time I returned with my family from a day on the town, as we pulled up to the house, he was visible at the window, scratching and pawing. When I opened the door, he would crawl down and start meowing at me. I would immediately pick him up and cuddle him close to me. I must admit that those were heart-touching moments of my childhood that I will never forget. Sometimes I wonder where those kittens are now. My grandma would always give or sell them to somebody after I left. If they are still around, they must be pretty old cats by now.
It was during these years that I had my earliest clear memories of places I visited in Poland, especially Krakow. I was still too young to appreciate the historical, architectural and cultural wonders of that medieval city, but there was one aspect that I became obsessed with—the Wawel Dragon.
I won’t recite the legend (click here to read it), but there is a cave and fire-breathing statue dedicated to the Wawel Dragon in Krakow. At eight, I was still young enough to believe in the dragon and treated my family’s vacation video of the “dragon’s lair” as indisputable evidence of the beast’s existence. I remember seeing markings on the cave wall and made sure to point out to my mom filming that those were scratches. In any event, my obsession with the legend helped the Krakow economy because I bought all sorts of dragon toys and statues. When a street artist drew my portrait in the town square, I demanded that he include my little dragon statue in his sketch.
Another major memory of Krakow was feeding the pigeons in the town square. Of course somebody figured out that a good way to make money in Krakow was to sell seeds to tourists to feed to the birds. I was a sucker for that. I enjoyed chasing them too.
For lunch in Krakow, I always liked to go to………McDonalds. I know. You’re judging me for flying all the way to Poland just to eat at McDonalds, but in all fairness, this was a special McDonalds because it had a dungeon. Yes sir, the building which housed the Polish McDonalds was quite old and had a deep basement. So it didn’t feel like an American McDonalds at all.
Thinking back, the memories in this post are very simple. Playing with kittens, fantasizing about dragons, chasing pigeons…these are all things I could have done somewhere in the U.S. There was nothing particularly Polish about them (except there are no American dragons). In the years to come, I would begin to appreciate Poland more for its own sake, but I realize that these early memories aren’t so much about a place as about a time—my innocent childhood.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy!” Click here to read