The Milky Bar Experience
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.
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).
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.
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.