How I learnt important life lessons in Poland

In November 2011, I had to travel to Warsaw, Poland for a work meeting. I decided to take a few extra days to spend the weekend in Krakow and then go to Warsaw on Monday for the meeting.

At that time, I was living in Amsterdam and working at a women’s rights NGO. I left Amsterdam anxious and in a bit of a bad mood – these work meetings were sometimes a bit annoying, I didn’t know if I would be able to get around, if there are signs in English… And I hate airports – the security checks, the lines, the waiting… But as soon as I landed at Warsaw Chopin airport, my annoyance started subsiding. I quickly figured out which bus to take to the train station and how to buy a bus ticket. So that went fine.

I was especially amused by the Polish language – as a Slavic language it’s both close enough to my native Bulgarian to be able to understand certain words but also distant enough to misunderstand others. One of the first bus stops after the airport was called “Zwirki i Wigury”, which made me laugh because in Bulgarian this sounds like “Blowjobs and shapes”. Funny street name… I also noticed the date written on the display in the bus – it was 4 listopad. Listopad means “leaf fall” and is the name for November in Polish and other Slavic languages. In Bulgarian, we use the Latin name November, while “leaf fall” is simply a natural phenomenon. That made me laugh too.  

The November landscape

By the time I reached the train station, my worries and fears were replaced by entertainment and curiosity. I had just enough time to buy my ticket to Krakow and get a zapiekanka (which sounds understandable and funny too). The train to Krakow was full and I had to stand in the corridor for the entire trip. An uncomfortable four-hour train ride is another thing that would normally ruin my day but not this time. I spent my time looking outside the window – it was sunny and the listopad colours of the Polish landscape were captivating. I normally don’t like or even notice autumn but that day I just couldn’t get enough of the combination of yellow, red, and green that the train was passing by.


I arrived in Krakow and headed for the main square. My Couchsurf host, Robert, had told me to meet there. It was around 5pm and getting dark and cold and Robert was running late but I was enjoying the square. It was cute, clean, and well maintained, with cafés, restaurants, churches, street artists and small stalls selling goods – fairly typical for the main square of a European city. I kept marvelling at my good mood – normally, several hours of air travel, several hours of train travel, and two hours of waiting for someone in the cold would’ve brought me to the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yet I was still feeling completely calm and happy. Very unexpected! 

Krakow main square

Robert finally arrived and we headed off to his place. He was around my age, small and skinny, very chatty, and gay (well, I found him in a gay group on Couchsurf). He told me he had been to Bulgaria and that, in fact, his first boyfriend had been Bulgarian – a certain Danny. As he kept telling me more about Danny, like where he was born and what he was studying, I realised I knew him. Not only did I know Danny, but he had been my boyfriend too, and in the same year when he was Robert’s!

There’s a word in Bulgarian – badjanak – whose primary meaning is “brother-in-law”, specifically, the relationship between the husbands of two sisters. In slang, it’s used to indicate two men who have slept with the same woman and, of course, in the gay world, it means two men who have slept with the same man. What were the odds that on my first trip to Krakow, Poland, the first guy a meet, is my badjanak? I wondered what point the universe was trying to make: that the (gay) world is too small or that I am too… experienced (to put it this way)? Perhaps a little of both but still… unexpected and funny. Anyway, the evening with Robert went by quickly – we drank, laughed, talked a lot, and … gained more experience… On the next evening, he took me to a gay bar where we met two of his lesbian friends.

I didn’t do any touristy stuff in Krakow. I mostly walked around, enjoying the unusually warm listopad days and laughing with the Polish language. Pope John Paul II used to live in Krakow and there were boulevards, squares and what not named after him. His name in Polish is Jan Pawel but when you decline it in the genitive case (as in “boulevard of John Paul”) it becomes Jana Pawla, which in Bulgarian would be a woman’s name (like Joan Paula in English). It reminded me how in my early 20s, with some of my friends, we used to address each other in feminine gender and make our names sound female – it’s like calling a John – Joan, a Victor – Victoria, or a Michael – Michelle. I wondered if John Paul’s buddies from the seminary called him Jana Pawla…

Anyway, Krakow is a beautiful city, and you should visit it someday! 

A monument of Pope John Paul II in Krakow


On Monday, I took the train back to Warsaw to attend my work meeting. Warsaw reminded me a bit of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria – dirty, noisy, crowded, and chaotic. But also, somehow worse than Sofia – it had been largely destroyed during World War II and then “rebuilt” by the communists. So in the city centre you can see classical buildings, Stalinist buildings, modern glass business buildings and shopping malls, and ugly 20-storey communist apartment complexes – all next to each other in a grotesque architectural orgy! Still, this is not a comment on the city or it’s people but rather on its tragic history. I was thinking more about Solidarność and Lech Wałęsa who spurred the democratic changes in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and of Copernicus, Marie Curie, and Chopin, whose monuments were all over the city (as was, again, Joan Paula’s). Like in many other European cities, there’s also a very cute Old Town.

My work meeting ended on Thursday, but I had reserved one free day in Warsaw for sightseeing, so my flight to Amsterdam was on Saturday morning. On Friday evening, I was going to stay with another guy from Couchsurf, Pawel.

Warsaw Old Town

I spent most of Friday exploring the city and in the afternoon, I started slowly walking towards Constitution Square where I was supposed to meet Pawel at 6 pm. I knew it was Independence Day, Poland’s national holiday, and for some reason, I though there might be celebrations and fun things to do.

It turned out there was a nationalistic march happening precisely on and around Constitution square. But to make matters worse, there was also an anarchists’ counter-march to protest against the nationalists around the same time and place. So as I was walking around looking curiously at everything like a tourist, there were suddenly nationalists dressed in black running around breaking cars and shop windows, and riot police chasing them, arresting them… (here’s a news report of that day because the pictures I took of those scenes don’t do them justice). I wondered if I would get beaten up by Polish nationalists for no reason. Luckily, I found shelter in a nearby café and waited there until my host came to pick me up. 

Pawel finally came and introduced himself as Paul. We had to get away from the mayhem around us, so we walked straight to his car and then drove to his house, which was on the outskirts of Warsaw. Pawel was in his early twenties, also gay, very handsome and well-groomed but it quickly became clear that we didn’t have much in common and we were struggling to hold a conversation. Back at his place he turned on the TV and watched news reports of the nationalist march and clashes with the police, which seemed almost like Poland was in a civil war. I was playing with my iPad and waiting for time to go to bed.

A couple of hours later, Pawel decided to go to a party with his boyfriend but told me that his brother and his brother’s girlfriend are sleeping in their room upstairs and will probably wake up soon. When they did wake up, the evening suddenly improved. Pawel and his brother were fraternal twins and his brother’s name was, unsurprisingly, Piotr (or Peter, in English, so they were Peter and Paul). Piotr was straight and not as sexy and well-groomed as Pawel but was much more interesting. When I told him I live in Amsterdam, he immediately took out some weed and we spent the evening smoking, talking, and laughing. I learnt an important life lesson that night: I can have a lot more fun with the average-looking straight twin than with the sexy gay twin!

On the next morning, I took my flight back to Amsterdam and thus ended my week of unexpectedly pleasant Poland trip, which taught me important life lessons.

If you want to share a queer story related to travel – or anything else – send it to me to [email protected].