Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Milk Bars in Poland

Back in communist times in Poland, where everyone was suppose to share everything and no one was to be presumed better or worse than anyone else, things were actually pretty bleak.  All this system accomplished was to make almost everyone poor.  The government, in all their wisdom, wanted the working class (oh, sorry, there were no "classes" of people) to be able to enjoy a meal out just like the family next door.  In order for this to happen they created these subsidized cafeteria style restaurants called bar mleczny or milk bars in English.

While Poland is no longer a communist country, this tradition stayed on and today these type of places are found all over the country.  Rick Steves mentioned in his guidebook (click on words bar mleczny above) that it is a fun cultural adventure so we hunted one down in Warsaw.

We really didn't know what to expect when we walked in.  We had tried to go to a different one but it was late in the day and they didn't have much food left, so we opted to try again at a later time.  The first one had a menu posted outside in English, but the only one inside was back to Polish.  The guy behind the counter, however spoke English so we would have been fine.

So we go to the one in Warsaw linked above.  This is all we were greeted with as far as a menu is concerned.   Well, we could have order a Coca-Cola safely!  (If you click on the picture you can see a larger version of the photo, if you would like your hand at deciphering it.)

The Menu at the Milk Bar Warsaw

I walked up to the counter and ask the lady (who seemed like she had been at this job since her teen years and was now getting ready to retire) if she spoke English.  She gave a quick shake of her head indicating no and then just looked at me.   I just looked back smiling stupidly not knowing what to do next.  She finally pointed to some very worn papers in very worn plastic covers.

English menus (and French, but who needs that?)!  Why didn't she just start with that??  The translations aren't the best, but that is what makes it fun.

English Menu at the Milk Bar Warsaw

Funny story.  There were people using the menus so we had to wait.  But we had actually met those people the day before at one of the art museums in Warsaw.  They were sitting in the cafe looking at a book and we overhead them say, "San Antonio, Texas".

What??  We know where that is!

They were actually from the Netherlands, so of course knew English.  So we butted in and asked them why they mentioned San Antonio.  They were wondering if it was near Houston since they knew where that was.  Um, if you consider a 3 hour drive close, then yes.  If you are from Texas then you consider a 3 hour drive not that bad.  

Something like that happened in London, too.  We went on the London Eye and in our little pod were several other people.  We were in that pod around 30 minutes so you see those same people over and over for long enough to remember them.  Later that day we ran into one of the couples that were in the pod with us.  Talk about random!

English Menu2 at the Milk Bar Warsaw

After looking at the menus, Frankie and I knew what we wanted and were ready to point to the items.  
I go first and the very first item I point to the cashier said, "Nie", followed by many other words I didn't know.  But I knew  They didn't have what I wanted.  So she starts pointing to things they do have and I have to make a snap decision.  I don't make snap decisions very well.  But I handled it and Frankie gave her his order as well.

Let me explain the set-up of this particular milk bar to you.  You give your order to the cashier.  You can't see her in the picture below, but she is sitting in front of the lady with the gray coat.  You pay for your order and then take the piece of paper that your order is written down on to the window where the man is hunched over.

Cashier and Food Pick Up at Milk Bar Warsaw

Behind that window there are more women who seem they have been at this job for a very long time as well.  They take your ticket and in a very fast turn around start slapping plates of food down on the counter while yelling out the Polish.

I have no idea what the words are in Polish for what we ordered so I just stood there looking at her.  She got a little cranky because no one was picking up the food quick enough and proceeded to yell the order louder while giving me the stare down.   

I think it dawned on her that I had no clue.  She took my ticket so remembered what I looked like.  She just pointed to me, then pointed to the food.

Oh, hey!  That must be ours!

We had our food and had already paid so the rest should be downhill from here, right?  Maybe not.

Some of that meat is chicken and some of it is pork.  After trying both neither of us could tell which was which.  It didn't taste bad at all, but shouldn't we have been able to tell the difference??

We also had some rolls, mashed potatoes, pickled red cabbage, and carrots with cream.  I ordered the carrots with cream, not really fully understanding what I would be getting.  I thought maybe the cream would be sweet which would taste good with the sweetness of carrots.  But it wasn't.  It was cream.  Plain cream. Think yogurt. I have never had that combination and will probably never have it again.  It was plain cream....

Meal at Milk Bar Warsaw

The only other thing we got that I didn't mention above was the mushroom soup.  That wasn't my first choice and not something I would normally order.  Boy I am glad they were out of tomato soup!  This was one of the BEST soups I have ever had!  I still haven't found a recipe to match it, so if you know of any, send them my way!

Mushroom Soup at Milk Bar Warsaw

When I went to grab a bottle of water from the glass cooler all I could find was the carbonated water.  I have trouble drinking carbonated beverages from bottles; it tends to make me sick.  So I needed a cup to pour the water in.  

I don't speak Polish.  The workers don't speak English.  

I decided to let Google Translate come to the rescue.  I have the app on my phone and downloaded Polish before we left so that I could use it without data or wifi.  I took a screen shot of my phone for you.

English to Polish for a cup of water at the Milk Bar Warsaw

I can only assume that the Polish is what I wanted it to say.  I walked up to the window where they received the orders and pushed them back out and showed them my phone.  

One lady read it and just started laughing.  


I think she had tears in her eyes from laughing so hard.

Another came over and read it, smiled with a little laugh, said something to me in Polish, realized I didn't understand, said something to the laughing lady in Polish, and then went to the back.  

She came back with a cup full of tap water.

Cup of Water at Milk Bar Warsaw

That worked for me!  I didn't really want the bubbly water anyways.  I walked away with my prized possession with the one lady still chuckling in the background.  I really have no idea what was so funny.  All I did was show her the phone and then stood there grinning and shrugging my shoulders.  

Once I sat down I heard the lady call out, so I turned around and they had an empty cup for me.  So Google did translate it correctly!!  I shook my head no and point to the cup of water they gave me and just said, "OK."

OK is one of those universal words, thankfully!

We finished eating and then watched others to see what to do with our dishes.  We had to take them to the washing window.  That took me back to my elementary lunchroom!  When they say cafeteria style, they mean it!

This ends my saga of the milk bar and it also brings a close to my posts on Poland.  I hope you have enjoyed reading them.

Our next trip is coming up soon.  We decided to try our hand at an Asian country and Singapore seemed like a gentle introduction.

I hope you will come back to read those posts.

Until then!