July 18, 2008

The Milky Bar Experience
Kraków, Poland

Since we're living outside the (well-defined) tourist zone, we're getting a proper dosing of local prices and language. From day one we've been out and roaming about, sticking our noses into all sorts of little businesses within the area. We've already picked our favorite corner market, where exchanges with the jovial man behind the deli counter are a smile-filled test in non-verbal communication skills. We don't expect English, and work on the default assumption that the person we're interacting with doesn't speak it.

Frankly, I feel pretty pathetic walking around without the ability to say basic things like hello, thank you, and pardon me in the local language. Tatiana, a natural linguist, is thrown way off kilter herself. As usual, some words look very familiar written out, but to learn how to speak them will require some effort.

Polish language conversation essentials

Unfortunately, my LP guidebook doesn't include a phonic pronunciation column in its translation section for Polish. Given the general complicity of language (crazy characters not found in English, plus rules such as 'a' like the 'u' in 'cut' and 'y' like the 'i' in 'bit') and the extreme character count for the simplest of word (leaps and bounds beyond that of German), something like that would've been greatly appreciated.

Noteworthy: This Web site's text-to-speech speaks words and sentences in Polish.

Lacking any dictionary, the only do it yourself option I'm really left with is to take photos of items and translate their text online later. Translating the packaging of Polish baby foodstuffs is certainly not the mental image I had for my travels in this part of the world this time last year, but I suppose I can be thankful that the written language isn't in something like Cyrillic (…yet).

Bar Mleczny

The only restaurant meal I was interested in having (read: spending money on) here in town was from something called a bar mleczny, or "milk bar", invented by the communist authorities of Poland in the mid-1960s as a means of offering cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official cafeteria.

Its name originates from the fact that until the late 1980s, the meals served there were mostly dairy-based and vegetarian (especially during the period of martial law at the beginning of the 1980s, when meat was rationed). And while the communist-era fare was famously unappetizing, today's milk bar cuisine is notably tastier, offering up classic Polish food to shoestring backpackers and locals alike.

The sad thing is that milk bars are disappearing fast from the country—my searches only turned up a few in the whole of Kraków.

Searching around for one of these locations, we ducked into a travel agent's office for help (deciding that was the best place to seek out an English speaker). He seemed rather puzzled when I asked for assistance finding one (after slaughtering the pronunciation of the word 'milk'):

"Ah! Bar mleczny—a milky bar! Do you know what a milky bar is?"

The emphasis on the question was like someone saying, "Do you know how high that jump is?" As if I was about to do something with unforeseen consequences, or asking for something totally unexpected.

He entertainingly turned to Google Maps, and pointed me in the direction of my backup location.

Now, every resource I found online that mentioned the milk bars, also recommended bringing a Polish-English dictionary for ordering. Venturing a look at the menu before we lined up to order, cafeteria style, I understood why. It was all in Polish—naturally.

Polish milk bar menu

I had hoped that there would be pre-cooked items that we could point at, like a buffet, but such was not our luck. Some words on the menu (like pierogi) were perfectly understandable, but the majority of it was completely unintelligible (…and unpronounceable).

Patrons with meals on their trays were walking past at a steady pace, so I decided to employ the trusty "I'll have what he's having" technique, stopping people as they went by and having them point to the item they ordered on the menu.

This was working quite well, until we encountered an English speaker, who turned out to be our interesting character of the day. Kai was his name, and he was a small gallery shop owner from a block away. We were still playing around with the menu by the time he'd already finished his quick meal, and took the time to make further recommendations, translations, and even waited with me in line to order (so that I didn't have to write it all out on paper for the guy at the register to read).

We didn't want to overdo it (as the prices aren't that cheap), and ended up with this:

Potato pancakes with mushroom sauce; pierogi filled with meat and pierogi Ruskie (filled with mashed potatoes, farmer's cheese and onion); chkodnik litewsik z jajkiem (some type of popular cold summer soup made with yogurt, cucumber, beet, chives, and a hardboiled egg); and kompot, a non-alcoholic beverage made of boiled fruit.

It was a pretty decent food experience—except the potato pancakes, which were amazing—and fed the both of us for about 18 Polish zloty (US$9). We met up and chatted with Kai for a while at his gallery afterwards, still thankful for his assistance as we left his company for a second time.

Damn I loved those potato pancakes.


The United States


July 21st, 2008

Polish potato pancakes… Better or worse than SOU's "German Bar" cakes?


Craig | travelvice.com

July 22nd, 2008

Oh yeah, much better. It's all about the sauce. :)

The United States

Bob L

July 22nd, 2008

Here's a couple to try.



Don't feel bad, I have been around polish speakers all my life and still can't pronounce more than a half dozen words.

Bob L


Craig | travelvice.com

July 22nd, 2008

Turning up more and more often in my Google searches these days are the book (excerpts) that have been scanned into their system. Pretty amazing stuff.

The LP Polish-English Phrasebook is in there, and is the best reference point I've found yet: http://books.google.com/books?id=3DBNVghyAfsC&printsec=frontcover

The United States


July 22nd, 2008

Think you can afford to hang around that part of the globe for 5 more months? My girlfriend and I will be taking a two week holiday (that's short even by my standards) starting in Athens and departing from Istanbul.

I'm envious, by the way. I miss Krakow now. Try some pierogis with strawberry filling if you can find it. That and cheese / potato ones were my favourites! And I'd bet the riverbank is a great place to go for a long walk with Aidric.


Craig | travelvice.com

July 22nd, 2008

Oh yes — Tatiana loved the strawberry-filled pierogis. We found half a bag in the shared kitchen freezer here, and liberated them after a few days. :)

…and the riverbank was a nice place to walk with Aidric. All in all, a very relaxed city in general. Quite surprising.

The United States


July 23rd, 2008

Oh my goodness those potato pancakes with the mushroom sauce look so gooooooood! My tummy is a rumblin'…

The United States


July 25th, 2008

I could so easily live for days on those big street pretzels. Add some mustard and I was happy as could be. Stocked up on a bunch for our night train out of Krakow.

Wish I still knew former Apollo people working in Prague, I know I could have hooked you up with a very central, swanky apartment for at least a few days. I'll see who's left where in Europe and maybe call in a favour. No promises yet though.

Note: Comments are open to everyone. To reduce spam and reward regular contributors, only submissions from first-time commenters and/or those containing hyperlinks are moderated, and will appear after approval. Hateful or off-topic remarks are subject to pruning. Your e-mail address will never be publicly disclosed or abused.