I. Ale Piwa.
I am a card carrying member of CAMRA, The Campaign for Real Ale and as such I like a decent drop of ale, I can’t deny it, a fact borne out by my burgeoning beer-belly. I like real ale served from a hand-pump but this is noticeably hard to come by in Poland, I won’t say you can’t find it but the vast majority of beer is what we would call keg beer. In the UK, keg ale is by and large, like the lager, a nasty, fizzy affair bereft of taste and so it was with some trepidation that I ventured into a Polish bar for the first time.
It was a warm summer evening, my flight had landed a few hours beforehand and I was out, walking the streets of Warsaw, a stranger in a strange land. I had done a small amount of research on bars in Warsaw and one of the bars that I found was called The British Bulldog, I made a resolute decision not to visit it. I strode out along al. Jerozolimskie and suddenly there it was, The British Bulldog. It was a warm evening, I had been travelling for some time, I was thirsty and there were no other bars in sight. I went in…
There were two British ales on tap, a few more in bottles and three varieties of Grimbergen. Nothing wrong with Grimbergen but it’s Belgian, not Polish and I wanted to find some good Polish beer, or at least find if there was any good Polish beer. Closer inspection did reveal a tap offering “Polish Beer”, I don’t remember the brand but it was from one of the big breweries. Later that evening I sat at the hotel bar and drank Żywiec, it was cold and fizzy and didn’t have much taste; not a great introduction to Polish beer then. I didn’t know it at the time but just around the block is a bar called “Piw Paw” where you can choose from over 90 beers on tap and even more in bottles.
My Polish beer revelation came sometime later in Łódź in a bar called Chmielowa Dolina; one of those unassuming places that you could easily walk past without realising it was a bar. Inside there were six or seven taps and a vast selection of bottled beers to choose from. I was with friends, one of who insisted on buying me a beer and came back from the bar with a bottle of something called Crazy Mike; it was delicious, robustly hopped, about 9% abv. Mind you, that was from a bottle, I also tried beers from the taps and they were just as good.
My favourite Polish beer of the moment is a brew from Kraków called Atak Chmielu (Hop Attack), it is, as its name suggests, rather hoppy, not as much as Crazy Mike but very nice nevertheless and only 6.1% abv. Now there’s a thing, in the UK a best bitter or premium ale, the sort you’d get in a pub, is usually around 4.5% to 5.5% abv, In Poland they seem to start at around 5% abv and go up. Tasty they may be but handle with care…
So, having drunk a little beer, the need for a pee arose.
II. Am I a circle or a triangle?
Are you a circle or a triangle? This may become important depending on whether a No. 1 or a No. 2 is required.
A few times now I’ve sat in a bar in Poland, after a few beers, desperately trying to remember if I’m a circle or a triangle. The more benign toilet doors have a silhouette of a trouser wearing man or a skirt wearing woman on the door, then there are the ones with Męskie or Damski which is fairly easy to work out and then there are the ones with a circle or an inverted triangle on the door and most confusingly a circle and an inverted triangle on the door.
In Poland, bisexual toilets are rife, maybe in other countries too but I can only speak of my experience in Poland. More often than not the toilet contains cubicles for both women and men; well, yes, of course it does but I mean together in the same room. Some of these cubicles are exclusively for women, some are exclusively for men and some are for either. To your average sexually neurotic Brit, this is somewhat of a minefield; bogs with blokes and birds? How very exotic and, well, foreign.
Picture the scene, you’ve had your fill of tasty Polish food and beer and you need a tinkle but you feel a No. 2 coming on; better to be safe rather than sorry. There are two cubicles in the toilet, one has a triangle on the door, and the other has a circle and a triangle on the door. You have done your research and you know, or are at least fairly sure that you are a triangle so you could use either cubicle but being British and uptight about these things, you don’t want part of that bisexual toilet malarkey so you march confidently up to the door with the lone triangle on it. You swing the door closed behind you, instinctively moving your hand to where you suppose the door lock is and turn the lock in one accomplished move.
You grope about for the light switch only to find that there isn’t one. You can’t go back out straight away; somebody may have seen you going in. It’s another Brit thing, suppose somebody saw you going in? What will people think? They’ll think that you are a bit stupid if you come straight back out again.
You resign yourself to doing your business in the dark, how bad can it be? Surely your eyes will become accustomed to the darkness. Then you have a brainwave and pull your smartphone from your pocket. By the light of the phone screen you see that there’s only a urinal and a hand basin. Sheepishly you open the door and get into the queue for the cubicle with the circle and the triangle on the door.
A man walks past you into the cubicle that you have just vacated, casually tapping on the light switch which is located on the wall just next to the cubicle door. Lesson learned; the light switch is on the outside.
I’ll just add that this didn’t happen to me, exactly, but something vaguely similar did in a public toilet in Łazienki Park.
III. ’Twas Brillig, and the slithy toves…
So far, my favourite bar in all of Poland is a little place in Warsaw called JaBeerWocky, well, OK, it’s a close call with Chmielowa Dolina. JaBeerWocky is fairly new; when I first visited Warsaw in 2014 it wasn’t there. They have 17 taps two of which are hand-pumps and they serve an ever changing selection of beer from Poland and other European countries. A while back they had an Estonian Beer event and featured several beers from the Tallinn based Põhjala Brewery. As luck would have it I was in town that weekend so I just had to go along. The place was crowded and rightly so, the beer on offer was rather splendid, especially a certain brew called Öö, an Imperial Baltic Porter. It was dark, delicious and very alcoholic and with such a snappy name too.
The majority of the clientele in JaBeerWocky seemed to be people in their twenties to forties; young professionals. It’s very difficult to classify people like this but that’s the impression that I got. Being in my late fifties I was bucking the trend but I don’t think anyone noticed.
One evening after a few beers in JaBeerWocky I went for a stroll around PKiN, the Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki). Earlier in the day I’d met a friend who lives in Warsaw and she treated me to lunch. This particular friend like to keep a low profile and I jokingly call her Tajemnicza Kobieta z Warszawy (Mysterious Woman from Warsaw). TKzW and I had eaten an inordinate amount of Golonka, a pork knuckle dish which is very tasty, and then gone for a walk which included climbing up to the Observation Terrace at the top of St Anne’s Bell Tower, just next door to the Royal Palace in the Old Town. After our walk TKzW insisted on driving me back to my hotel. We bade each other farewell and I went up to my room. It was early yet so I came back down and went to JaBeerWocky, quelle surprise!
When I left JaBeerWocky it was dark and I was well lubricated; walking around PKiN I espied a small wooden shack, booth, shed, call it what you will, it was a bar; Bar Pod Iglicą. I went in and surveying the contents of the large fridge stocked with bottles, helped myself to a bottle of Dębowe and took it to the counter where I paid for it and the woman behind the counter very helpfully took the top off of the bottle for me; a glass was not proffered. I went and sat at one of the empty tables.
The clientele in this bar was very different to that in JaBeerWocky. No designer clothes, goatee beards, ponytails and topknots here, this was the real working man’s Warsaw kind of bar I thought. I sat for a while, sipping from my bottle and people watching. I fell to wondering who these people were, where they had been, where they were going. Then I remembered that I had to fly home the next day so I left the empty bottle on the counter and went back to the hotel, stopping only to have a pee in some shrubbery in the grounds of PKiN .
No confusion about whose toilet that was.