Customs and Culture

It’s been said that Poland is the North’s first outright Eastern European nation on the continent, and it is definitely true that there are a number of dividing factors on this geographical confluence of Germania and the east that perhaps make it a starker change to deal with for many travellers than say, France and Germany in the west. For one thing, there’s the telling Latinate-Slavic language line, starting with the Polish border on the Baltic Sea, and continuing right down into the Cyrillic states of the Balkan Med. There’s also the historical iron-curtain divides of east and west that neatly cut lines that would divide Europe’s communist states from her post-war boomers in the longer half of the 20th century. But, even with all these ostensible dissections of Slav Europe and its counterparts to the west, in 2004 Poland joined the European Union as a European state, and today the visitor to any of the countries east of the historically accepted divides, will probably be surprised how similar, not different, the countries, cities, people and way of life this side of the line actually are.

Today, while Polish traditionalism is very much alive, in cities like Krakow there’s a definite sense of a more casual and secular outlook to life emerging. For one thing, numbers of Roman Catholics are declining, indicating that the historical source of traditional customs in the country may be taking less of a commanding role over the country’s direction. That said, if there are two things inseparably entwined in Poland, it is history and religion, and today ten of the country’s thirteen national holidays are related overtly to the church. In a similar way, don’t expect to find too many shops open on a Sunday. Many people, especially from the older generation, still attend church regularly, and wouldn’t even think of working.

It’s also worth noting on the religious note, that in Krakow in particular, the prestige of John Paul II is a subject of almost city-wide zeal. Being the only Polish Pope in history, and a local Cracovian (born in Wadowice), he is highly venerated, again, particularly among older people.

But not all the Eastern nuances stem from Poland’s religious past. Firstly, with denominations of coin as low as 1 groszy (0.002 pence), it’s always good to keep a healthy supply of change when buying goods in supermarkets, or tickets from kiosks; it will definitely save you some unsavoury looks, and stop long queues building up as the poor shop assistant fumbles for the right change. With bills and tipping, the etiquette is the same as in the UK, so around 10% is normal, while with deliveries it’s often easier to just round the bill up to the nearest 5 or 10 to avoid difficulty.

Visitors to Krakow can often get caught out by some of the laws that Polish police pay special attention to. Of these there are two most worth noting. Firstly, drinking in Public in all of Poland is illegal, and hefty fines of up to 500 PLN will be given without warning. In Krakow, the law has actually worked well to stimulate local bar culture, and keep the city’s parks clean, so it’s best to resist temptation and avoid it altogether. Secondly, jaywalking, while not as serious or worthy of immediate fine as public drinking, is still punishable up to 100 PLN.

In general the prevailing customs and etiquette of life in Poland are very European. It’s a five day week, with 9-5 hours; public holidays are dotted throughout the year, so on and so forth. But, there definitely are some cultural differences, nuances in custom, and traditions that any visitor should bear in mind.

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