How to survive a Polish winter

It’s winter in Poland. I know this because I can’t feel any of my extremities and because every news item I’ve seen in the past month has been about upside down cars in snow drifts. Assuming you live in Poland and plan on making it through to spring without losing significant parts of your anatomy to frostbite I recommend you read the following:

Do not attempt to go anywhere
Stay in. Going out is almost certainly going to hurt. Attempting to travel anywhere is about as sensible as opening a strip club in Tehran. All trains are 17 hours late, all aircraft have been diverted to Bogotá, and buses are largely on fire. Fortunately there is a wealth of indoor entertainment to be had ranging from counting the individual strands of spaghetti in your cupboard to watching old people slip on ice and get eaten by dogs through your window. Fortunately the internet still works at minus 20 so you can spend a great deal of time looking at pictures of countries where the climate doesn’t actively try to kill you.


Remind me again why I live in Poland

If you must go out
Occasionally, going out becomes necessary. The pub isn’t going to come to you no matter how long you wait; at least those are the preliminary findings of my study. If you must wander out into the frosty beyond there are a few things you should know. That white stuff heaped all over the place is not your friend. Pick it up and form it into rough globes to throw at people if you must, but they won’t be happy. There’s nothing funny about snowballs in Poland. You’re definitely going to fall over too. Notice how Polish people shuffle-skate on ice pavements while you carefully plant your feet on what looks like safe ground. It won’t work. Learn to shuffle-skate or embrace the comedy potential of the icy face plant.


Snowballs: not funny even when formed by Asiatic monkeys

Fun with hats
One of the best things about living in Poland is that you get to wear hats. In England the only people who wear hats on a regular basis are teenage hoodlums and old men. Anyone else wearing a hat is either at a wedding or almost certainly homosexual. This is a shame because there’s a lot of entertainment value to be had from hats. In Poland the wearing of hats by normal people is not entirely unknown year round and becomes almost universal during the winter months. It sometimes gets cold enough to justify a hat in England. On the rare occasions when this happens the streets are full of highly self-conscious hat-wearing people peering at each other to see if they look like idiots.

I now have several hats, some with earflaps, and I take great delight in deploying them whenever possible. There’s something strangely liberating about openly using earflaps in a public place. Us Englishmen are not used to such sartorial extravagances.

One more thing about hats; the traditional Polish style winter cap with a peak is unquestionably superior to the modern woolen beanie or bobble hat. The peak is there for a reason: to stop snow getting in your face. The beanie completely fails in this respect. Also, peaked hats make you look a bit like a policeman.

peaked cap

The only sensible hat for Polish winters

Fun with gloves
I never wore gloves in England. Sometimes it is cold enough, but we figure that’s why pockets were invented. There are so many things you can’t do while wearing gloves that you can while your opposable thumbs are merely tucked into convenient apertures in the side of your coat. I’d list them but, now I come to think of it, I suspect they are all smoking related or, in fact, just smoking. Still, gloves are a hassle and are even more prone to getting lost than small children at fairgrounds.

The major problem with pocket use in Poland is the associated risk of death or serious injury. Have you ever tripped over with your hands in your pockets? I have, and I still have the scars. Have you ever tried walking on Polish pavements? Tripping is more or less guaranteed. If you haven’t got your hands readily available for impact management you’ll be lucky to get through a winter without putting in some hospital time. The peak of your hat can also become seriously bent.

Last week I saw an item on the news recommending eating more. It was part of perfectly sensible, if slightly condescending, piece on coping with the cold but I was so astonished I almost choked on my fifth piece of chocolate cake. I must have seen 97 thousand news items recommending that I eat less but this is the first I can remember recommending the opposite. For that fact alone it deserves a place in TV’s hall of fame, assuming there is such a place.


Chocolate cake may be your only hope

Choose your lair with care
Polish domestic heating arrangements come in two forms: warm enough to bake bread or none at all. Oddly, the older and more unattractive your flat is the more likely it is to be toasty in the winter. Those cracked and flaking communist blocks look like recently baked bricks in the infrared. Their residents swelter away the winter months bathed in the piped-in afterglow of local power plants. Meanwhile, in the hip and trendy lofts and apartments of the Old Town, suckers like me are wearing every item of clothing they have and huddling around photographs of sweaty people for warmth.

Walk past one of those communist-era blocks in the middle of winter and you’ll see windows open. Walk past a bohemian trendy kamienice in the center of town and you’ll see blue-lipped urbanites coating themselves in tar in an attempt to preserve their core temperatures. I like my flat. It has interesting nooks, vast sloping white ceilings, and exposed beams with mysterious graffiti. It’s a delight for nine months of the year, but for the other three its the kind of place you can confidently hang sides of beef without fear of decay. Presumably I could live here for 900 years and never die, except that I would have doused myself in flamables by then.

Only another 17 weeks to go…

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30 thoughts on “How to survive a Polish winter

  1. Scatts says:

    I take it you’re a bit chilly then, Jamie!

    You missed the other option – “Go out and embrace it”, which is exactly what we’re doing for a few days during the Ferie Zimowy.

    Go on, get out there and slide around a little.

  2. guest says:

    apropos “Remind me again why I live in Poland”

    is it Haiti ? :D

  3. guest says:

    ps: Like Scatts said go to Zakopane, finally. ha ha.

  4. I love a proper Polish winter. OK, my gas bill will be equivalent of the price of a small family hatchback, but we’re warm and the weather out there beckons me outdoors.

    What to wear: five layers – long johns and thermal vest, corduroy shirt and trousers, cable-knit Aran jumper, US Army M65 field jacket with quilted liner; two pairs of socks (both thick), snow boots (trousers tucked over the tops), thick gloves (though not too thick – I must still be able to operate my camera) and that hat. Fur lined with chin-strap, by Timberland.

    Summer will come. No point lusting pointlessly about warmth. By late April there will be T-shirt weather.

    I much prefer Polish winters (like this one) to British ones; temperatures of +2C to +12C; sleet, rain, drizzle; permanently overcast sky; mud, slush.

    An annual summer-winter-summer temperature range that’s as shapely as a Polish woman’s hourglass figure.

  5. Bartek says:

    Island, I’m almost in stitches (almost makes a big difference), but totally frankly speaking you gave an amusing picture of Polish abnormal winter.

    It’s abnormal, snowfalls are much heavier than in the previous years, we may hit an absolute record of snow cover in Warsaw (70 centimetres from 1979), the latest reports say it’s been the coldest January since 1987 and it was cooler than in 2006.

    I would be prefer a British winter and summers too – their mild climate takes my fancy, unlike Polish minus fifteen or less in winter and sweltering plus thirty in summer.

    I thought if the winter goes by, the heating bills will remind us about it. But a hatchback. I have the temperature of +20C in the house kept by a steering device that turns the stove on and off. One day when the gas bill comes I’ll report it.

    Ooohh, I’ve never put on so many layers. Long johns for no apparent reason are hated by men in Poland and it then Nelly Robita has to intervene in Fakt or somewhere else. I do wear them when it’s very cold (below -10 or -15), having problems with kidneys or knee joints is not what I fancy.

    But five layers? When it was -23 I had three – a T-shirt, a sweater and a thick winter jacket and I broke sweat outside! Everything depends on your body and what you’re used to!

  6. bob says:

    Oh, and don’t try to make snowballs from city snow. You are bound to also acquire some brown substance that was excreted by one of the local four legged animals and that plays havoc with gloves or worse yet your hands.

    The concept of ‘curbing your dog’ is quite well understood in Poland. People almost always make sure the squatting zone is between the curb (where there is one) and the wall of the closest building. This ensures that the unwary will invariably encounter a nice pile sometime during the winter season.

    Beware the first signs of melt. After a hard winter these piles have a tendency to be buried under successive layers of snow. They are uncovered by warm weather and resemble an archeological dig as the weather melts the layers revealing the winter’s deposits which will come to resemble brown land mines – best to call the sappers to assist.

  7. Brad Zimmerman says:

    I more or less agree with Michael: dress up. Though I don’t ever recall needing five layers. T-shirt, sweater or hoodie, outer layer of a fairly wind-proof + water-resistant + warm coat. I happen to use a medium-weight jacket by North Face. Not one of those huge puffy things but heavier than something you’d go running in.

    I don’t often wear two pair of socks unless it is -20C out. Just one thick pair of wool-blend socks and if I’m going to be walking around in loose snow a lot, my Columbia Icefield boots. Doc Martens are pretty slippery in the packed snow so you’ve got to be careful.

    After that it’s a pair of decent gloves and a balaclava if it is damn cold out AND still snowing hard. You can wear the balaclava under another warm hat or something with a brim since they tend to be thin.

    This stuff is winter wear. Just like how you’d remember to bring your sunglasses, hat, flip-flops, sunscreen cream and shorts with you in the summer.

    The first winter I was here, five years ago, I was skiing in the Tatras when it was -20C and while it was cold… it was also fun, though I think I did put on a fourth layer on my upper body and of course the second layer of skiing trousers on my legs. Oh and I’ve also gone camping – in a regular ol’ tent – in the winter, on a snow-covered landscape, when it was around -5C. There’s nothing quite so beautiful as waking up in the morning, in a forest covered by fresh snow-fall.

    Winter, more than any other season, lets you know you are alive. Plus people tend to drive more slowly, kids tend to stay inside and the homeless tend to go into hibernation. Win-win-win! :)

  8. Ah, all you wussies out there. Grzaniec and hot Miód had been invented for a reason! So were the wool tights. Keep your clothes close to the skin and always finish the bath with a cold shower to close the blood vessels. sorted. spartan. pass the makowiec.

  9. wildphelps says:

    One of the greatest things about the Polish winter is what comes after – the Polish spring. The layers come off, the ladies in sundresses reappear, all is right with the world, and God, in His heaven, smiles…

  10. odrzut says:

    5 layers? Maybe if it’s -30 and you’re going to all night trip.

    For me the most important are – warm hat, warm gloves “2 fingers”, not 5, t-shirt, golf and warm jacket with big pockets.

    I found that no matter the temperature it’s never too cold for simple jeans, and yes, I hate long johns, uncomfortable and I detest the times when mother made me wear them in primary school. But that’s personal, so YMMV.

    2 fingers gloves are important – I have ski gloves with 5 fingers that are too thick to fit in my pockets, and in -10 it’s still cold in them after a while. While in gloves made by my grandpa from wool, that are much smaller and fits in my pockets no problem, it is warm, no matter the temperature.

    Having said that – winter lost most of it’s carm when I no longer have Ferie Zimowe nor Sesja. Going to work seeing all that snow is depressing.

  11. island1 says:

    I also like proper winters. I’m just being bad tempered because it’s too cold inside my flat to enjoy going out.

  12. island1 says:

    I’m not sure how to interpret “almost in stitches” but we’ll let that go.

    I’ve noticed long-johns are considered unmanly, which seems odd since most people dress very sensibly in the winter. Wouldn’t stop me wearing mine, if I could find them.

  13. island1 says:

    Ah yes, the Spring brings reveals great delights across the parks and lawns of Poland. Also, never eat yellow snow.

  14. Bartek says:

    I’ve strained my belly muscles while reading the previous post, so being in stitches would have been too painful.

    One of my friends put a photo of himself in long johns on facebook and he got over ten “like”s, all from female human beings.
    The aftermath of not wearing them might be more unmanly…
    Thank God it’s warm enough to leave them in the closet…

  15. […] shares some winter survival tips. Cancel this […]

  16. […] Polandian shares some winter survival tips. […]

  17. Ted Daniels says:

    That hat!? No no no no. Period. Not that hat. Oh *%@% there’s no way to provide an image here, but that hat? Puh-leeze.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Phoenix AZ here. I spent the month of Jan in Poland this year. Wasn’t so bad. If I can wining? If I can handle it, you guys should be fine. It’s the big winter temp here today is 76º F and I had now problem at -19º C earlier in the month.
    cheers, love your website!

  19. Dani from Poland says:

    Today is once again snowing in Poland. I found some article about winter “suprizes” which could happend to You. See for yourself.

    Here photos of cars covered by snow:

    Here video of some car trying to get up on the frozen hill:

  20. Maakinash says:

    Thank you for the advise! I’m from the South of Spain and right now I’m living in Lublin, so I’m getting prepared for the winter which is coming… slowly, but coming… :S

  21. JP says:

    Ooh, Maakinash, how is Lublin? I’ll be there in January to February, which is a pity because I’ll miss the gorgeous spring.

    Also, to the OP, this was a brilliant read.

  22. Expat Pole says:

    As always, the wrong impression is put forward about a country by a person that’s only been there for a little while. Stop your whinging, and if you want to see a bad winter, try living in Canada or Russia.

  23. island1 says:

    As always, a depressingly condescending comment from somebody with no sense of humour or an inability to read properly. I grew up in Canada.

  24. Expat Pole says:

    My mistake Jamie…. You’re hilarious!!!!

  25. island1 says:

    I gave up believing in sarcasm so… hooray!

  26. Name says:

    brakuje jeszcze “kurwa”

  27. True, polish winter exists to tell MEN from boys. But I’ve been spending several summer holidays in Los Angeles and I find summer in California to be even more dreadful than typical polish winter. So what, that everybody (especially girls) is wearing a basic, minimal nuber of clothes if my eyesdrown in sweat and I cannot contemplate the said view. (Besides it’s not worth the effort – the place wasn’t named SILICON Valley without a reason. At least with snow all around everything seems brighter.

  28. There’s yet another option: spend at least part of those three most painful months in a warmer climate. It’s the only real way to cope.

  29. Me says:

    dude are you gay? you just spoke about your poof winter outfit. Get high

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