Six ordinary objects that define Polish life

1. The Meat Tenderiser
Every Polish kitchen has a worn and bloodstained meat tenderiser readily to hand. The visitor should not be alarmed, it is not there to facilitate the casual battery of foreigners, the tenderiser is a legitimate and vital tool in the preparation of kotlet schabowy (those delicious flat bits of pork fried in egg and breadcrumbs). Kotlet schabowy is only slightly less common than salt in the Polish diet. It is impossible to spend more than a day in Poland without being required to eat one. If it looks like you might be about to leave Poland without having eaten a kotlet schabowy the police will take you to a compulsory kotlet camp where you will remain until you have succumbed to their crispy, meaty charms.

A virgin meat tenderizer lacking the normal 30-year aggregation of pork blood and gristle.

Using a meat tenderiser effectively requires years of training and Polish genes. The act of whacking a lump of raw meat with a studded hammer is so enormously satisfying that the amateur is prone to bludgeon away with ever increasing glee until the meat is little more than a reddish film and much of his kitchen has been reduced to a splintered ruin. I’ve been through that many Ikea kitchen units this way.

2. The Sofa Bed
The foreign visitor to a Polish flat will be struck by the fact that there are no bedrooms. This can cause considerable anxiety, especially if you have been invited to stay the night. Do not be alarmed, Poles do sleep and they do have beds, they are just heavily disguised as sofas. It is, in fact, almost impossible to find a sofa in Poland that isn’t also a bed. I think there’s one from the Bronze Age or something in the National Museum.

The classic Polish sofa bed in traditional god-awful colours.

Polish sofa beds differ from the sofa beds common in the West primarily in that they are less likely to sever fingers when being deployed. They do, however, share the characteristic of being about as comfortable as dentistry carried out with a brick. Sleeping on a Polish sofa bed is similar to settling down on a small range of granite hillocks. There is usually a crumb-filled valley in the centre into which sleeping partners are irresistibly and uncomfortably drawn. This goes a long way to explaining why every Polish person you meet has a back complaint and a crumb phobia.

Polish sofa beds are gradually going out of fashion and are often to be seen dumped, broken and slashed, in dingy courtyards like the victims of gangland slayings.

There is no mercy for ex- sofa beds

3. The Gap Under the Bath
The gap under the bath is one of Poland’s leading contributions to civilisation. I’m talking about fitted baths here—the boxed in ones. In every British bathroom I’ve been in the vertical side of the bath enclosure comes down to the floor, in Polish bathrooms there’s a 4- to 5-centimetre gap at the bottom. Why is it there? So you can stand closer to the bath. Whenever you need to bend over a British bath—to clean it or to mix your gin brew for example—you have to splay your feet awkwardly or risk repeatedly stubbing your toes. The Polish gap under the bath allows you to slide your feet underneath, allowing for a much more balanced and comfortable stance.

Whoever invented this deserves the Nobel Prize for Cunningness. I can only assume it occurred to somebody who spent a lot of time washing clothes in the bath (still a common activity) or a Christmas carp enthusiast.

Also works for dogs

4. The dangling socket
Every Polish home, no matter how recently it was built or renovated, has at least one electrical socket that dangles from the wall in a manner that looks potentially deadly. Electrical arrangements in Poland scare the bejeezus out of me generally—why aren’t all plugs earthed, why do you get alarming blue flashes whenever you plug things in, are sockets next to showers really a good idea? I once had a landlord who was an electrician. On one occasion I overheard his daughter complaining that he had installed underfloor heating in her bedroom that actually set fire to the floor, to which he responded by cursing the inadequacy of wiring sold by Russians. I lived in total darkness, too afraid to touch a light switch, for six months.

That’s not going to be good for anybody, is it?

In the UK, sockets are secured to the wall with screws. In Poland they seem to be held lightly in place by inadequate clippy things and sheer willpower. Tug a plug out too enthusiastically and suddenly all kinds of electrical guts you prefer not to think about are dangling around in full view. Once they are out, they will never go back in, not matter how often you shove at them with the end of a broom like a great big girl.

5. Multi-option windows
Given the inadequacy of Polish socket technology it is surprising to discover that this country has the best windows in the world. I’m talking about those fabulous double-glazed units with the handle that twists to three positions:

1. Locked, to protect against dangerous disease-bearing winds and foreign neighbours;
2. Open, inwards of course;
3. Kind of open and leaning backwards. This is the one that freaks out foreigners. The first time you discover it you experience a heart-stopping moment in which you’re convinced the whole thing is falling out of the frame. It’s a classic living-in-Poland rite of passage.

I have no idea how Poland managed to get it’s hands on such cool windows. They have a Scandinavian feel to me, which may or may not be confirmed by looking for the manufacturer’s label if I can even be bothered.

6. The World’s Worst Art
I don’t know if anybody else has noticed this, but Poland has the world’s worst amateur painters. Visit any Polish family home and, somewhere, you will find a smeary abomination on canvas created by somebody’s aunt or nephew or criminally-insane first cousin. They grip your attention in the same way that a capsizing super-tanker does. Meanwhile, your brain attempts to escape through you ears.

Or simply line your rooms with decaying leaves for the same effect.

It’s not so much the poor technique and the inexplicably banal subjects, it’s the hopelessly gloomy colour palette that gets me. Most of them look as if they have been painted underwater using pond mud and occasional rotting banana skin highlights. I keep meaning to go to the National Gallery to see if this is a universal Polish style, but I’m going to have to wait until there is plentiful bright sunshine and multiple stimulants on hand in case I need to be snapped out of a potentially terminal muted-colour psychosis.

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79 thoughts on “Six ordinary objects that define Polish life

  1. guest says:

    You haven’t visited the (re-opened) Sukiennice museum yet ?

    There is this Reytan guy lying on the floor and other weird Polish guys with huge mustaches. ;)

  2. bob says:

    Good ones Jamie

    Have you run into what I call the ‘Shelf Toilet’ yet? The one with the flat landing pad the size of an aircraft carrier that contains an ounce of water.

    And the fact that in any given house there is no rhyme or reason to what position the light switches use to turn on/off the lights – some up = on, others down-on

  3. John says:

    haha, so true:
    1- I’ve never beaten a piece of meat myself, but here in Poland the hammer is essential
    2- I always feel as if I am the only person in this country with a real bed. I don’t like to stay over in other peoples places here because they put you on such a horribly uncomfortable sofa
    3- Haven’t noticed this because I never take a bad.
    4- All but one socket in my flat are not attached to the wall anymore. I thought this was because the walls in my apartment are made of sand (19th century building), but apparently this is a more general problem
    5- See point 4: I live in a 19th century building. My windows are old (those double wooden windows with single glass that is not completely straight.
    6- I was in the new national museum in Krakow, and that is OK. What is in most peoples houses would put Bob Ross to shame…

  4. John says:

    bad = bath of course… And I do shower!

  5. richardlith says:

    Every thing you mentioned describes life in Lithuania, Latvia, and I am told Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus. Must be something to do with the old Commonwealth.
    Luckily, the art in my flat is actually quite good, as it was done by a cousin who is in fact one of the leading professional artists in the country, or so he says.

  6. Pistefka says:

    Another classic mystery is- why do the saucepans have tiny handles made out of metal? Is there a law against using an insulating material on a saucepan handle, and having it long enough to hold comfortably?
    Please note that the English term “oven glove” is so-called because they are used to hold casserole dishes, baking trays and other things that get hot IN THE OVEN. Saucepans and pots should never require the use of oven gloves. Note that the Polish for oven glove makes no mention of the word oven.

    I should also make my customary observation that just about all of the points mentioned also hold true for Romania and Hungary, but I was beaten to it by richarlith. I would also imagine some of them are true for Austria as well – especially the first one about Wiener Schnitzel …ooops i meant kotlet schabowy.

    Irecently had anew wall sockets put in, and they haven’t come out of the wall yet, but I fully expect that they will at some point, and that the electrician will have no idea what the problem is when I complain about it.

    Oh, another thing – the random placing of red/blue spots on hot and cold water taps. And the random use of a bell symbol on door bells and light switches…

  7. Pistefka says:

    I wonder when the first metacomplaining reply will be posted? The ones that say “if you are always complaining about Poland, why don’t you just go home?” or “Our electric sockets may be lethal, but at least we don’t have binge-drinking chavettes.”
    Bet you 5 forint to 5 zloty there will be one…

  8. Ewa says:

    We may have antique metal handles, but at least we don’t have kidney pudding…

    ;)

  9. Polka-abroad says:

    You do have a point… I’m currently staying in the UK at someone else’s flat and one day I started rummaging the cupboard for a meat tenderiser… Imagine my horror when it turned out there was none! Had to tenderize the kotlet with my bare hands!

  10. Ewa says:

    Poor thing! Apologies… :)

  11. mm says:

    in terms of section 1, the matter is simple: in Poland, most people buy fresh meat, not a lie for weeks in a supermarket. so do not be surprised that such a device is popular. Poland is generally a much better and healthier food than in the UK

  12. airam says:

    You missed that very important bit of every Polish kid’s education – ‘when you pull a plug from the socket, hold the socket with one hand and pull the plug with the other…gently, GENTLY!’.

  13. Name says:

    Empty vodka bottles do a good job too :D

  14. island1 says:

    I’ve tried a couple of times (and the underground museum), but the queues are huge. I’ll get there eventually.

  15. island1 says:

    The Germanic shelf-toilet seems to be going out of fashion thankfully.

    I don’t know about light switches, I hire students to turn lights on and off for me rather than risk electrocution.

  16. island1 says:

    I will add these to my rapidly growing list of candidates for “Six more ordinary things…” Though I do like to include some positive things.

  17. island1 says:

    No bet.

    See my previous reply.

  18. island1 says:

    I’m afraid the Polish-food-is-fresh-and-better myth needs to be debunked. Everybody shops in supermarkets these days, just like everywhere else in Europe. They’re not building dozens of them every month just because they’re bored.

  19. Skibum says:

    Ahh, so the meat is flattened with a tenderiser, I’d better stop calling it ‘Roadkill’ then.

  20. trixu says:

    Love your story. I’ve been in UK for last 4 years and believe me I just never noticed those things before. You’ve mad my day.

    Thanks x

  21. Walker says:

    “Oh, another thing – the random placing of red/blue spots on hot and cold water taps. And the random use of a bell symbol on door bells and light switches…”

    At least “we, here” don’t have separate taps, right? :P

  22. You complain about Poland, but if you ask any foreigner living in UK they will find many things to complain about UK too. :) For example, why on Earth one would put fluffy carpets in the kitchen and the bathroom; it is not hygienic. Opening a bank account takes a week and one needs to bring multiple documents (from the landlord, from the employer, etc…) and then they will tell you that they don’t accept these. Read “A year in the Merde” by Stephen Clarke. The best thing that in that book the author was complaing about the French, which very the similar things foreigners in the UK complain about.

  23. No offence, but in my family house we always was pots and pans with insulated handles. And the first time I saw pots and pans without the insulated handles was in UK. And I was told that these are “the proper ones” by a proud English person :)

  24. John says:

    You only notice these oddities if you are a foreigner. When you grew up with the strange things in a country you think everything is completely normal. Now that I have been living in Poland for a while I notice that I start to see strange habits in my native country which were completely normal to me before…

  25. bob says:

    We have an industrial strength tenderizer I found in the US (Jamie can I send you a photo to post?) Besides using for ‘schabowy’ just banging it on the cutting board once gets both cats scrambling to the kitchen thinking it is time for fresh meat – a very good tool!

    What I use also in terms of the electrical receptacles is a Euro/UK adapter plug – it stays in the receptacle and the Polish plugs slip in and out easily vs the constant wrestling as everyone has noted. (Helps the guests from the UK as well)

  26. Jay says:

    We actually own a purpose only sofa. It even has space on the underside for storage. It took us a few weeks to find it, it was the only one available from the many stores we went to. It was also the only one in a color that didn’t make our eyes bleed and didn’t belong in the 70’s.

    As a junkfood enthusiast, I can not get over the obsession with ketchup. They have everything with ketchup. Cheetos with ketchup? Really?

  27. june says:

    Holy crap, I do have two “just” sofas. Am I still polish?

  28. daa says:

    it`s a bit difficult to have proper beds (or bedrooms) when everything in 50m2 flats has to be so multi-functional. recently in some article on GW it was said that Poles spend a lot on maintaining their homes yet they are the smallest in the UE (homes, not the Poles). like if nobody had known.

    here in the UK the mystery of windows that don`t open or open outwards is still beyond me. i love to pay the cleaner boys every 3,5 weeks, of course. and what`s with those awful carpets everywhere? and the doors that are too narrow to have a nice sofa coming through them? I`m not gonna go on about the separate taps – the master invention;)

  29. Mirek says:

    Jamie you made me cry. The best piece about Poland I read in ages! the coolest thing is that being Polish you have no idea how akward some things may appear :) I though everyone in the world had meet tenderizer… Please continue this article with new observations, it’s a treat!

  30. Outsider says:

    LMAO! :-D

    I grew up in Poland but even as a child I could never understand the appeal of beating your meat every day before dinner…

    On the subject of bathtubs, it beggars belief how attached Poles are to those things. Even in the tiniest bathroom, no self-respecting Pole will ever think of installing a shower stall. Where but in a bathtub would he bathe his dog, hang his clothes to dry, put his carp on death row and, most importantly, place the mandatory antique gas water heater with a little hole you can see flames through?

  31. Lilo says:

    I love my gas water heater – at least I can take hour-long showers if I want to. I didn’t know one could “run out of” hot water until I visited friends in the UK who had antique boilers!

  32. Kuba says:

    June,

    Looks like you no longer can claim to be Polish.
    Such is life.

  33. Outsider says:

    I’ve nothing against these devices per se, but having a seemingly barely contained, roaring gas fire inches from my head (when sitting down) or my ass (when standing up) scares the bejesus out of me. Water + fire + electricity + naked body = perfectly reasonable arrangement in Poland, it would seem.

  34. Bartek says:

    Jamie, at first I couldn’t make out what you were getting at, but now it’s all cleared up and I even find it hilarious…

    1. I don’t know what’s so peculiar in meat tenderisers, but at least I’ve learnt a new English word

    2. I have a sofa bed and find it very comfortable. This piece of furniture can serve many purposes, maybe this is why it’s so popular

    3. I can’t recall seeing the gap, there isn’t any under mine.

    4. And I don’t recall seeing a dangling socket in anyone’s private house or flat. But there are plenty in buildings of state-owned institutions or in cheaper guesthouses. No host = no one to fix it.

    5. They’re very practical

    6. My parents have a similar example of Polish art, it’s one of their wedding gifts, so it has a sentimental value for them :)

    359 people like it??? Alright, I gave you a like, but how come 358 other folks followed suit?

  35. Leafnode says:

    Yeah, that kind of a water heater scared the hell out of me when I was a child and my grandma had one. Now I’m living in that flat, and I’ve replaced that heater with a modern version of this – it’s perfectly safe, doesn’t have a tiny window showing the flame, starts the fire automatically (older ones had so-called “candle” which was being used to start the full flame), and… I got used to it ;) In my case I could use electric one, but their usage is much more expensive. About “Water + fire + electricity + naked body” – I have no problem with having water at my dispense with a fire nearby my naked body, and electricity is far away from the bathtub ;)

    About shower stalls – I don’t know if you’re aware of that, but in some bathroom dimensions shower cabin would take much more space than a nice bathtub. But yeah, I get the idea – my wife said that we have to have a bathtub and that was that ;)

  36. Name says:

    I am disappointed not to find “grzałka” on the list!

  37. Jakub says:

    The fire window in these water heaters is to put on Your cigarette if there’s no source of flame anywhere. Also, smoking in the WC is something usual I believe.
    I had such a heater in my parents’ house and when I went downstairs to the guests’ WC, I always lighted my cigarette there. One day, the heater had been replaced by a modern one, and there was a tiny glass window (the previous one had an open window) dividing the fire from the outside. Mechanically I wanted to light my cigarette and big was my surprise. Simple story, but true ;)

  38. Gaja says:

    You got the point. I’m Pole, and I don’t agree with Bartek. We even changed those sockets, but new ones came out of the walls anyway. It’s Fate. And it costed me years of backache until I discoverd I can sleep in a bad, not sofa. ;) It’s so true…

  39. FIRANKI! You forgot FIRANKI! :))))) Awesome. F*kn awesome :) I’m crying. And laughing. Simultaneously.

  40. ronnie says:

    down = on is a proper way, at least that’s what i assumed before moving to the north. after four years i still can’t figure out why is it upside down here

  41. scatts says:

    Is that hat part of a ladybird outfit?

  42. Robson says:

    Brilliant, 5 out of 6 matched my current housing :)

    Gap under the bath is useful also for bathing babies, you know :)

    Cheers,
    R.

  43. Maciej says:

    I would add one more typical Polish thing, which is: “reversed water” :). There is a 50% of chances that red tap gives cold water and blue hot. Oh yea!

  44. You’ve forgotten the styrofoam. It is on every building wall!

  45. There are no much mustaches:

  46. sadly, you are wrong – down must be (according to polish law) off, because it is much more easy to turn it off when you are electrocuted.

  47. inny says:

    Thankfully, new pots made by foreign companies have isolated hadles

  48. inny says:

    In UK they don’t have good vodka:(

  49. They built them only because they don’t have to pay taxes from them.
    The supermarkets are in-and-around big cities, because in big cities taxes are to big to have cheap “mięsny” store.
    I heard that some people in Warsaw come even fifty kilometers to good “mięsny” (vegetables fields are in almost every districts of Warsaw)

  50. grzałka is R.I.P. this times;(

  51. […] do sie­bie, pol­sko­ści i reszty świata :) Zwłasz­cza je­den z ostat­nich wpi­sów o „6 zwy­kłych nie­zwy­kłych rze­czach de­fi­niu­ją­cych nasz styl życia”. No ka­man co jest dziw­nego w So­fie? Bez tego nie wi­dzę wręcz nor­mal­nego […]

  52. u said that poland is weird? so, maybe we should say something about uk. for us , things u remind here are normal, for u, strange. the same way as thing u use in uk sometimes can be weird for people from poland. I hope that u noticed that poland is poor country when we talking about uk, so we can’t put 10 bedrooms with 10 beds and 3 sofas to our house, because it cost too much money and we haven’t big houses at all. most of polish people livin in flats, 2in1 sofas are the best way to not waste so much places. the meat tenderiser? ok.. if u would eat something what livin’ own, ok. i wouldnt. so my mom always buy FRESH meat and made lunch. look at polish people especially girls. now look atpeople in the uk. mcdonalds do something with u, most of uk and usa people are FAT. the prettiest girls in uk are from.. poland :) yes, thats true. so, at the end – i really dont know why people from uk are SO FAT , SO UGLY and they always think that they’re THE BEST . sorry 4 my english but am try to learn it :)

  53. Leafnode says:

    I was expecting that kind of a comment :/ Whole Poland says sorry for this. ( ;) )

  54. Grze$ko says:

    Actually the tłuczek is available in Australia as an indispensable kitchen utensil.
    I do not own one, but after this post I may go and get a miniature golden one and wear it around my neck.

  55. Usually these gaps are usefull to have possibility to reach pipes when something went wrong, check where is the leak or similar. But to be honest I have never met this type of gaps in any polish flats

  56. Guest says:

    The meat tenderizer is very practical. I was born in Poland but grew up in the US. Considering that Crate & Barrel (a major US home goods chain) carries meat tenderizers, they must also be used by non Poles. My meat tenderizer is metal so it can be thoroughly disinfected in the dishwasher. I also use it to mash avocados when I make guacamole.

    Regarding sofa beds, they are also common in certain places in the US, most notably Manhattan. Apartments are small, expensive, and older and require creative multi-purpose rooms to make them livable.

    Each country has it’s own peculiarities.

  57. Tony says:

    “sorry 4 my english but am try to learn it :)”

    Looks like it’s time for you to try harder. Can you put together a coherent sentence in ANY language?

  58. Tony says:

    “so my mom always buy FRESH meat and made lunch.”

    Hey tough guy, got any plans to move out of mommy’s house one day?

  59. Skibum says:

    To open a basic UK bank account takes about 5 minutes!!!

  60. Name says:

    ATTENTION ALL TŁUCZEK LOVERS!!
    Here’s one from London, yes the one on THE island!!!
    (Admittedly it is used by a French person, but still)

    PS.
    I did not spend the whole night searching for it, I swear it was just a complete coincidence.

  61. island1 says:

    We believe you.

    BTW, I didn’t mean to give the impression that meat tenderizers are unique to Poland, they’re certainly not. You’ll probably find one somewhere at the back of a drawer in most well-equipped British kitchens—they’re just not in daily use.

  62. Name says:

    “they’re just not in daily use.” and that’s a blinking SHAME! A day without a schabowy is a day wasted. I guess the obsessive catholicism can be explained by fear of switching to one of the other “majors”, both of which would deprive the nation of schabowy. Think about it…
    “Schabowego naszego powszedniego…”

  63. Name says:

    Troll much Tony?

  64. Name says:

    Awwww…let me guess, you must be the previous poster’s mother? That’s so sweet!

  65. Agnieszka says:

    Hi,

    loved your post about the 6 ordinary objects.

    May I add one to your future list of 6 more objects?

    The dreadful carpet-beating frames (trzepaki) that adorn the urban landscape and people who are still using them, as if there were no decent vacuum cleaners available. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!

    Keep up the good work!

    regards,
    Agnieszka

  66. Name says:

    As much as I hate to disappoint you, I am not.
    It just seems that the mysterious “Tony” pops up now and then to attack without bringing anything to the discussion.
    His level of wit and aggression would suggest he’s about 13 years old, struggling with his hormonal imbalance resulting bad acne and the fact that the world just doesn’t understand him.

  67. levi says:

    Douchebag.

    On constructive note I always find it amusing than on many pedestrian crossings there are writings “LOOK RIGHT” do British people have to be reminded to dress properly ? (or maybe wear makeup in case of women)

  68. I am crying with laughter on the list and the comments! Having moved away from the UK my Polish partner explained all the things that are wrong/different in UK which could make an even bigger list! But lets not talk about socket voltage, windows and taps! LOL! Guys keep up the good work.

  69. Name says:

    Hey Levi-

    Speaking of women who wear too much makeup, your mother left her underpants in my car last night. Can you find out if she wants them back? Thanks!

  70. Agnieszka says:

    I mean brilliant that comment on “look right” :-)

  71. RedKoala says:

    That’s class!
    Didn’t read comments yet, so I hope I won’t duplicate anyone.
    I would add meblościanka to the list. It’s a press that takes the whole (and usually the longest) wall in the room.
    Completely pointless, but still loads of people think you need to have one.
    In my mum’s house there is even one in a hall(!)

  72. PL LOVE says:

    Very good article ! I didn’t know that “meat tederizer” is so special !!!! Anyway, I laughed a lot, keep me updated with what’s wrong in my country ha ha ha

    btw:
    Schabowy is the best food in the world !!!! If in PL around May, order “Schabowy z młodymi ziemniaczkami i kapustą” in the good restaurant – literally NOTHING could be compared to this ! No spaghetti, no gyros, no pizza ! ;)))

  73. Clint says:

    Spending a good part of my childhood in the Netherlands in the eighties and nineties, I must say a lot of things here in Poland remind me of that country during that time period. Back in those days it was also very common to see meat tenderizers in kitchens, before it became common to buy prepackaged, ready-made “kotelletten” and “schnitzels” in the supermarket. The unearthed sockets and bad art are also very similar. Windows not though, in those days in the Netherlands most houses still had single glass…

    One thing which misses this list in my opinion are hand showers. In pretty much every country I’ve lived one can stand upright in the shower, instead of having to sit down in the bathtub and take a shower by holding the shower-head in the right hand…

  74. bb says:

    … without a shower curtain, thus spending 5 minutes after every 10-minute shower cleaning up.

  75. p says:

    you all are simply mean,when you dont like it here,then go back where you came from. ps. to you tony, fu*k you, you must have 13 years to write such wicked things.

  76. aneta says:

    so superficial…if people have tiny flats they don’t have bedrooms but I don’t remember being to a flat without one. I have a shower and a bedroom and have seen a lot of British bathrooms….so don’t be so cheeky. cheers;)

  77. guest says:

    This Reytan “guy” is a very important person in the Polish history, so maybe this is the fault of your ignorance that You don’t understand this painting and also the others… I think it was a waste of time for You and just don’t visit the museums and galleries next time.

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