Here are 10 tips brought to you by a veteran expat living in Poland for a decade. It’s a compilation of real-life experiences that will make you go through winter and Christmas smoothly. I compiled this article having in mind foreigners that will spend their first winter in Wrocław. That’s one of the reasons why there’s almost any reference to snow, luckily. Although some tips can be obvious, I believe that even experienced expats will enjoy cultural facts and stories I’ve shared. Let’s dive in..
Tip nr. 1 – Buy a mask!
A good friend of mine once told me how bad the air in Wroclaw can be during cold days. What made me think deeply about it wasn’t his story nor the detailed description of the smells that stick onto you. It was the tone of his voice. I know that tone from horror movies: his words sounded like the last ones you hear from a helping character, that says something in a whispery way just seconds before he gets devoured by a spooky entity. His words where: “Buy a mask”.
Tip nr. 2 – Get used to being sleepy, even at work.
Your body is slowing down at this time of the year, the city as well. Evenings just have that strange Sunday night feeling. Most plants and animals are hibernating, hell, some theories claim that humans also should do it. So why aren’t you ok with this sleepy feeling? Your managers are prepared for that, they have the data: a virus will ping pong among employees, one-half of your colleagues will need coaching to achieve the numbers and the other half is browsing Glassdoor as soon as they achieve the target. Whatever situation you are in, if you feel sleepy and old, just enjoy the ride, get used to it.
Tip nr. 3 – Take care of your indoor air quality
As winter crawls into our lives, one thing is for sure: we will be spending more time inside our homes. And since we’re talking about staying alive, it’s important to take care of what keeps us alive: the air we breathe.
Back in the times when I was a student, there were countless times when fellow students talked about sleeping issues, dry throat, sore nostrils or having a cough that keeps them awake. I ignored the rumors until I felt it myself. I decided to make some research and ended up discovering that caring about the air at home can even kill. But that’s a different story, that has to do with carbon monoxide produced by old school stoves. For starters, here’s what will be helpful: an air moisturizer, an air purifier, a wet cloth over the heater, plants and opening your window from time to time, never during rush hours.
Tip nr. 4 – Fashion Rule nr.1: It’s OK to be out of fashion a.k.a Onion fashion
We live in the so-called warmest city in Poland. But be aware! Wroclaw can get so chilly at times, that some of us will need layers and layers of clothing to stay warm. This is a normal practice in Poland, its called “Ubieranie na Cebulkę” which can be literally translated to Dressing Like an Onion but for making it a cool new trend, let’s call it “Onion Fashion”. Expat friends of mine mentioned feeling ugly, or being tired of ugly clothes, or being unable to find classy clothes for winter. Don’t feel sad my lads, it’s just the way winter works. It forces you to adapt so fast that you end up becoming an Onion made from 5 layers. One t-shirt, three hoodies that don’t match in size, and an ugly coat.
Tip nr.5 – Fashion Rule nr.2: “Kalesony” your new best friend.
Does using two pairs of pants sound ridiculous? What about using pajamas underneath your jeans? What about putting them inside your socks hoping that they never slide out from underneath? When we’re new at this, we do many improvisations to save our legs from the cold, up to the moment when we find ourselves wearing two pairs of jeans. This turning point in life is called enough is enough. From then on you will start asking people and all roads will lead to the one and only legendary, kalesony.
I was introduced to kalesony near the end of my first winter in Poland. For starters, kalesony are comfortable and warm leggings for men and woman, a great solution for winter, although they’re sometimes impractical. On one hand, you will despise having to remove 2 pairs of pants each time, but on the other hand you will love to feel so warm and thankful for not having to wear snowboarding pants.
Tip nr. 6 – Enjoy Rynek on a Monday night & feel like Midnight in Paris
Like the majority of city centers, Rynek is a very crowded place most of the time. In December, my best walks along Rynek happen on Monday nights. The Christmas fair is closed for a day so the square is almost empty. Working people are at home, probably still tired from their last night out at Casa De La Musica. This is the moment for you to go into action and enjoy a silent walk around the old market.
Rynek on a Monday night is nostalgia, it feels like Midnight in Paris, a Woodie Allen movie. You will enjoy hearing the footsteps of people on the other corner of the road. It’s not the usual noise cocktail. And since we hear fewer sounds, we begin to see and smell more. The first time I did it, I discovered many places I’ve never noticed, including a bar at Nożownicza street so movie-ish and dark that you wouldn’t be surprised to see deceased famous writers having an intense discussion about the amount of Żabkas in Wroclaw.
Tip nr. 7 – Enjoy the Christmas fair, mulled wine and smoked cheese
On your weekly to-do list, Wroclaw’s Christmass fair should be written in bold and underlined with a thick marker. As a rule of thumb, to survive a cold winter in any place I recommend taking small pleasures and over-doing them. Hot chocolate? Two times a day. Series? Binge-watch. Hot shower? Make it longer.
The same applies to any chance you have to leave home and enjoying yourself and for this reason, the Christmas fair is perfect. It’s great to meet new people, old friends, to take your kids for a ride and you try tasty delicacies, from the traditional polish smoked cheese to Spanish churros. Going to any social gathering often times a week is essential for spending a smooth winter, even if you’re there only for a walk.
Tip nr. 8 – Check your vitamin D levels
Let’s face it, the lack of daylight a.k.a shorter days are always a headline topic every time we meet acquaintances. It’s the subject to which most of us agree on, because of our shared pain of having to function normally when our sleep cycle is off-beat.
When we talk about sleep and lack of sunlight, we need to address Vitamin D. If you watch Polish television you will know how big of a deal it is, the bombardment is epic. Not going into details, Vitamin D affects your energy levels, moods, and sleep. The lower the sunlight, the more your body struggles to produce it. Feeling down, grey and sleepy during winter is normal, however, if you’re not taking proper self-care, at some point you might need professional assistance. Especially if you grew up in a warm country: I’ve heard many stories, among others from a Latin American expat that explained to me how “Vitamin D changed her life”.
Another good one is from a friend from northern Africa that discovered she had almost no vitamin D in her body. For weeks, She had felt grey, no apparent reason. After visiting the doctor she discovered that her vitamin D levels were close to zero, which had affected her health in many ways. If you’re already Googling ”Witamina D test Wroclaw” please stop, there’s no urgency for it. Check how your body adapts to the winter and eat the right food. But if you see alarming symptoms then take the necessary action.
Tip nr. 9 – If there’s literally nothing out there, try to be productive.
“Winter means preparation for the next summer.” On a beautiful winter day I tried to convince an expat from Latin America. Unfortunately for her, this sentence was somewhat abstract.
Here’s a fact: aside from the Christmas/Winter industry, most things are in a resting/preparatory phase in this season. We see it in many ways: during the coldest months, nature enters its latent state, businesses are rethinking their strategy for the new quarter, people write down their new year’s resolutions, as a way to anticipate the next seasons. In other words, this is the best time for you to continue your project, learn polish or plan your next vacation. The reason why this is so important is that once the summer starts you will have so many things going on, events, friends calling, great weather, that you will be unable to decline just because you need to write your novel. This is how Poland and many other countries work and it’s a pity that some people don’t realize it due to cultural differences. But some will!
Breaking cultural differences made the same friend approach me the following summer and say: “Next winter I’m locking myself up in my room. To work”.
Tip nr. 10 – Contact your good Polish friend
If you suddenly realized that fewer people are contacting you and you’re wondering why the answer is… WINTER. Your friendships didn’t suddenly come to an end and you’re definitely not falling into oblivion. It’s just the way winter diverts people’s focus to other things.
I strongly suggest that you stay in touch with friends, Polish ones specifically, because they know the best ways to cope with this season. Write something special to them. Although they might not reply immediately, it’s always a very kind thing to do. Kindling these friendships can be the beginning of an unexpected adventure, you could be invited to have the best bigos of your life, or go out to the only opened pizza place in town during Christmas eve. Small things such as their insider’s knowledge will always add fun to your winter.
Write to someone. You might be lucky and receive this: “Nothing much going on, but I have some rum leftover and bigos to finish”
TIP nr. 11 – Tangerines as a snack
Somebody once told me ”Your bedroom smells like Christmas” but I never received an explanation from this person. Eras had gone by until I discovered the story of Baltona, a legendary Polish enterprise. Although they were conducting various import-export activities, what made them stand out for were the big batches of tangerines they delivered to Poland in December, year after year since the ’80s. This was something new and exotic in Poland, and it became so popular, that until nowadays you can use the term “Smell of Christmas” as a metaphor to describe tangerines. As soon as I linked Baltona’s story to my roommate’s love for tangerines, I understood the commentary on my bedroom’s aroma.
To close this post, I want to invite you to enjoy tangerines lavishly, for this is another small pleasure that makes us survive the Polish winter.
Images Sources: CC0/public domain by Flickr