Cultural: Small things, part 1

I think a series of talking about "the small things" is appropriate. These are things I've noticed that are a bit different than what I grew up with in the USA.

Cold drinks

This hit home to me when I took Lydia with me to visit a lady. She asked if Lydia would like some apple juice. I said, 'Yes."  She proceeded to open her refrigerator and pulled out a box of UHT apple juice and apologized for it being cold.  I chuckled and said, "That's fine."  

I assured her again Lydia would be fine as she handed the drink to my daughter rather doubtfully. At the time Lydia was probably 4 years old.  Sure enough...Lydia didn't get sick.

The idea is that if you drink cold drinks you will get sick--especially in the winter, but not only in the winter. I've seen moms get upset with their kids for asking for something cold - when it wasn't winter--even in the summer.

It bothers me a little to think that people leave their opened apple juice containers out of the fridge so that their child doesn't drink it cold. Apple juice sours in a day or so. But I've developed enough to be able to not let it bother me too much. I've got other things to think about!

Mine must have had a tough immune system because they never got sick because of drinking cold drinks.  I understand the idea - that drinking something cold lowers your body core temperature and that lowers resistance to bacteria.

As times change and Poland becomes more influenced by the USA, more people are drinking cold drinks - if not ice cold. Sometimes you can get ice in your McDonalds drink in cold weather - though most of the time, no.  Our local KFC now offers a drink machine and included is an ice dispenser, which works most of the time. Thankfully the drinks are cold so even if the ice dispenser isn't working you can still have a cold/cool drink. 

Most of the time grocery stores have refrigerated display cases with things like Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola, but through the winter they leave them turned off while still displaying the drinks.  

The most popular drink is still hot tea.  Usually sweetened with sugar. Yes, even when it is almost 100 F degrees outside--especially among the older generation.

Shoes in the house

After living here all this time, when I see people with shoes on in their house, sitting on furniture, for example, it looks strange.  Yes. we take off our shoes when we come in the house and put on slippers.  

I actually wear out more slippers in a year than I do regular shoes.

It totally makes sense to me.  It is more comfortable as well as keeps more dirt out of the house, theoretically, anyway.  Now when you start wearing your slippers outside because you don't want to change into your outside shoes...well, then it's really just a matter of semantics.

But here are some Polish slippers!

They are warm and beautiful!

I hope this little tiny glimpse into life here has educated somewhat.

Have a great day.

Cultural: Small things, part 2


Saying "hello"

One of the hardest ones for me "to get" when I was first here was not saying hello to people when you saw them on the street - basically walking along ignoring people you meet (that you don't know) whether or not you make eye contact.

Culturally, Polish people don't say hello outside of a building. So this is a talking bubble with "hello" in a bunch of different languages, including polish 

As a southerner, this just felt wrong.



Any of those words described how I felt when I walked along the street near our house and either refused to look people in the eye or just ignored them as I walked past.

After attempting to say a polite "hello" to a few people as I  met them on the sidewalk and having no one respond I realized very quickly that "It's not done that way here."  After a couple of very strange looks that said, "Do I know you?" I got the point.

OK.  I got that down.  You don't say "hello" to people you don't already know. They just think you're weird.

Then, I noticed when I walked into a small store, a doctor's office, or the post office, when people walked through the door they announced, "Hello" to everyone as the stepped into the room. People who were already inside muttered, "Hello" in response. 

I know, I know. I'm not supposed to get irritated...I'm the guest here. But I did.

It frustrated me.

Polish Culture is as confusing as a baby wearing a hat with polish colors

The same person, outside on the sidewalk thinks I'm the strange one if I make eye contact and say "hello".  What changes by walking 10 feet further, opening a door and walking inside the post office or a small store?

Polish culture embraces sectioning off emotions to their respective locations. Picture of the two-faced man 

It seemed so "two faced".

And it seemed that way to me for a long time. It wasn't until I was at our church, after the service one day when I was telling an older man about this phenomenon that I thought was weird when he explained it to me.

The Polish tradition originated with the communist regime. Shopper buying products in store.

He told me that during communist times, when you walked into a small store, you, the customer ALWAYS spoke nicely to the owner of the little store. You said, "Hello" and asked how he/she was doing.  Why? Well, because this owner had the goods.

He had the "stuff" and only a limited amount of it. If he didn't like you or think you were being polite to him, he wouldn't sell you bread, or cheese, or a blouse, or whatever.

And if he didn't sell it to you, you didn't have any.  It was quite simple.

"Aha! Now I understand!"  I exclaimed to him.  

Finally understanding this facet of polish culture. Light bulb turned on!

Finally understanding this facet of polish culture. Light bulb turned on!

So, the tradition of being extra polite when you walk through the door of a small store continues, even though the free market is in full swing here and the store owners no longer have that kind of control over the customers' lives like they apparently used to.

Once I understood the reasoning behind this seemingly inconsistent "friendliness" - it was better for me. At least it FINALLY made sense. Now when people walk through the door of a small shop and announce "Hello", I know why they are doing it. 

I'm still not very Polish though. I don't even mutter "hello" back most of the time.



We are in Hawaii right now. It's "aloha" to everyone all the time. These are a warm and friendly people.


I'm from the Chicago area and coming down South I had the opposite problem you had... I was always taken aback at strangers smiling or saying hello to me. Up North it's usually pretty suspicious. Maybe it is a cold weather/warm weather cultural thing? :)

             Becky Petersen

             It might be. I've wondered about that. When we were in Kenya, people were very warm and friendly and spoke to strangers without a problem.


Wow...being from Atlanta, I am an always say hello person and then there is the wave as you go by in the car. Here, we don't give eye contact to street people or people we think are dangerous or could be dangerous.

             Becky Petersen

              I totally get that.

Dorothe 't Hart

 It shows how the things that happened in the past can have a lot of influence in a country for a long time


Cultural: Small things, part 3


I had two of them while in Poland and three before we came (total - 5).  So, I was kind of an experienced, though of course, there are women who are far more experienced than I ever was. However...


We were told that holding the baby by bending him/her in the middle would cause spinal damage. Sorry kids.  

Polish Culture Invoves the holding of babies. Since they fear bending the spine, a picture of scoliosis

They lay them flat in a buggy type stroller and the kids just lie there-- (mine hated being "flat" like that - they wanted to see)! Their babies seem to be more passive than any of mine were.


Oh, and those buggy type strollers - when I was looking they cost about $300-$500 each.  I was in shock as to how expensive they were. At that time, I didn't know how to find a used one.  Everyone figured we Americans were "rich" anyway, so no one offered to give us an old one.  We went without.  But here's a picture of a typical one.   Big tires help go through all types of terrain. 

Baby stroller used in Polish culture.
Baby sleeping in a baby carrier, like those in Polish Culture

The wrap babies up like a cocoon.  Many babies look like they would suffer heat stroke - as they seem to keep them in many more layers than I ever did - even when it is warm outside.  When going into a person's house or apartment who has a newborn, you must be prepared to be quite warm. They think it must be  It is the rare young mother who thinks differently.



When going outside in the sun, often they have a cute umbrella attached to the stroller. 

Lady pushing a baby stoller in poland
Polish woman pushing baby cart in Poland

Often moms take their babies for afternoon walks. It is the American equivalent of putting the baby in a car seat and driving around - as it seems to be the baby's nap time.  (This does have the positive effect of letting the mom get exercise and out of the house - but this is difficult to do if it is child number. 2 or 3 - not so hard with number 1)

When Mike held our babies in a typical "football hold", they were very concerned. We assured them it was very safe.

Petersen baby being held on stomach opposed to Polish culture.
The words "lactose intolerance" because Becky is lactose intolerant, but polish culture is high in lactose

When I was in the hospital with my fifth child, my first meal after Daniel was born was milk soup, hot watered down cocoa - tasted more like hot milk than anything resembling chocolate, white cheese which is farmer's cheese, and some not really soft bread.  No veggies, no juice, nothing like that. It was pretty awful since I hate hot milk and I am lactose intolerant. I had missed breakfast (labor) and 'dinner' since I delivered just at the time when they served it.

But I  won't complain. My husband brought me some good stuff to help round out the hospital's diet - plus I wasn't there very long. And in 1997 it only cost $12 for the delivery and a 2 day stay. For that price, I could provide my own diapers, medicine, needles, and food.

not so smiling face

People felt very free to tell me what I was doing wrong with my babies.  It was humorous since they were numbers 4 and 5 - not 1 and 2.  Come to think of it, it wasn't always humorous! 

The birth rate in Poland is less than 2 per couple, so our 5 was an anomaly.  Many figured we were "really religious" - in fact, Mike was told this at his Polish class when I after our fourth child was born.  

Polish kids are spread out from age

Many Polish couples seem to have one child, then wait 5 or even 10 years and then have a second child.  It has more to do with economics than anything else, I think.

I also think mothers think it will be easier if their older child is in kindergarten before having a second one.

So, there you know at least a few things about babies in Poland.



Becky, we were in a government city office in Warsaw yesterday and I saw a young couple with 2 babies in strollers. It was funny for a Polish couple. The man seemed to help the woman a lot. They wrapped the one baby girl in this large like sleeping bag looking thing with like wool inside and zipped it up. She looked extremely warm. Then they covered the stroller, baby and all with plastic because it was raining outside.

        Becky Petersen

       Yes, we actually have a lot of couples here in our town who have 3 children somewhat close together. But traditionally, they are well spaced!

Cathie Lanier

Becky, I love reading your Polish culture stories. Keep them coming ! Thanks!



Kathy Reed

It's so interesting to hear of other cultures and how they do their version....I'm sure you were experienced enough for yr children...especially how to take care of love hearing about all of yr experiences and Poland cultural...I'm a history lover...I love reading sources about other countries and their way of life...thank you day you should write a book of yr life in Poland....from day 1 on....I'd buy it for sure....hope you get to sew today...I'm on pinwheels...making two throws w them...have a happy day!! Prayers for Mike in his travels ....

Elaine D.

Really interesting. Thanks Becky.

Cultural: Small things, part 4

Driving/driver's license


Polish cars have stick-shifts

Most cars here are stick shift - most do not have automatic transmissions.


They are diligently working on making what we in the USA called freeways (or toll roads/expressways) or in Germany-- autobahn.  They still do not have such a road that goes around Warsaw, the capital city.  They have told us we are going to have a ring road by 2020, or somewhere around there.

Polish driving. it's crazy

Part of it is done - but unfortunately, the side of the city where we live is the side where it isn't finished.  So for us to get to the other side of Warsaw in order to head to Germany, we have to go right through the middle of the city in order to head west on the part of the autobahn that is finished.


Many parts of Poland now do have good roads, however we desperately need many more.

Empty road in Poland

Because most places do not have 4 lane roads, people tend to make their own "passing lanes" even when they don't really exist.  It is considered polite to pull far over to the right side of the lane of a two lane road if you see people behind you who want to pass. This way, if the cars on the other side do it as well, you create an empty passing lane" in the middle of the road.  It works. It really does if the shoulders are wide enough.


In order to get your driver's license here, you have to take a paid course--there are many companies or schools that you can enroll with. There are no such laws that allow a regular person with a driver's license to teach another or let them practice without paying per hour to practice.  Learners drive a special car with an "L" on the top.

I was told, it used to be a corrupt system where you could pay enough to guarantee that you would pass (hopefully that has changed). I knew a couple of young people who tried 5 times to pass their driving part in downtown Warsaw.  It was to the examiner's benefit to flunk potential drivers since people pay each time they take the test.  They eventually tried in a different city and passed the first time with no bribe to the examiner. (This was many years ago.)  

Polish driving training cars

Also, until recently, once you had a license, it never expired.


Car wash before Christmas. It's a Polish tradition.

It is tradition to wash your car before a major holiday like Christmas or Easter.  It is kind of reminiscent of gas shortages in the US from when I was young - the cars often line up in long lines as most people seem to use a car wash and don't seem to wash them at home.


While full sized pickups are common in many parts of the USA, they are rare here.  It's not that they are banned. They just aren't here. It is one of those things we notice whenever we go back to the states. For example, in Alaska, last time we were there, it seems like it was about 50/50 pickups to other types of vehicles.


American trucks aren't used in Eurpoe

(Most vehicles here are more economical than a typical pickup--fuel is more expensive here than in the USA.)

And you know more than you used to know about driving, cars/vehicles and licenses in Poland!

Have a great day!



Here in the U.S we consider a stitch shift an anti theft device hahahaha! Nobody under the age of 40 knows how to drive them much less start one, this car has TWO gas pedals hahahahaha!!

Patricia Westbrook

I understand about the truck factor in Poland and most of Europe. When I lived in Germany and traveled throughout Europe, you could usually spot the Americans stationed overseas. Lots of them shipped over their big trucks - stood out like a sore thumb and that's really not what you want to do overseas. You need to blend in for security reasons. They didn't listen to all the security briefs :-D

Cathie Lanier

Becky, information would probably be found in places such as a library, church, school, government building, that type of thing. Places where past records of people are kept. I would need to give you details such as names or possible names, date of birth, etc. You would give them that information and the would see what they have. It may or may not cost for them to look it up. I would need to mail you the information because they may want my signature and my relationship to the people whose records I want. You would possibly have to interpret. There might also be a charge for them to look up records which I would pay you for.

Cathie Lanier

Thanks so much for sharing, Becky! These stories about Poland's ways makes me feel closer to the great grandparents I never knew. I noticed the name Poznan on the driver education car. That's exactly where my relatives were from ! Becky, would it be at all possible for you to see if there is information/records on my people there ? Maybe we could do a trade, like a quilt top in exchange for your help with my genealogical work ? Please think about this and let me know. It would mean so much and help me out a lot. My great grandfather came from Lithuania. I think his would be harder, but I'm taking one of them at a time. Please think about this and let me know. I know you are a super busy person, Becky, so I will understand if you are not interested. I have nothing to lose by asking. Thanks, again !

         Becky Petersen

          I'll have to see what I can do. I'd have no idea how to find out this information.

Dale McMasters

Really interesting! I've read each of your posts about the differences and they hold my interest all the way through. Thanks for sharing this because I'm pretty sure I'll not ever be traveling outside of the USA and so will only know of this if someone shares it with me. Again, thanks!

       Becky Petersen

        You're welcome! Glad I can help you get a feel for "outside the USA". The USA is so large, you can spend your life travelling it and see glimpses of almost all cultures from around the globe.

Cultural: Small things, part 5



Europe restroom sign

First of all, they aren't called "restrooms" here - you call them "toilets".  When I first came, I cringed every time my husband said let's look for a toilet--he had spent a year in Australia where this is the normal term.   The sign for them in public areas is the British term "WC" which stands for "water closet".


European restroom in the forrest

When we first came, there were almost no free public toilets. You inevitably had to pay a little bit just to use the toilet.  At these public toilets, just outside the door, or just inside, depends, there is a lady (usually) standing there, taking your money and handing you a couple sheets of toilet paper! (YES!)  I was really taken back the first time that happened.

Also when we first arrived, they often used signs that looked like this to signify toilets. 


Polish restroom sign

That's fine...but which is which?   They don't put the words under the signs.  I had the hardest time remembering which was which.  I tried to have it make sense, thinking that the triangle represented hips of a woman.  Alas. No.  FINALLY, I figured out a memory thing that helped me - both the word "WOMEN" and "KOBIETY" have an "O" in it.  So, O = women's bathroom.


Signs in Poland. Circle means woman. Triangle means man.

OK. Whew.

Got the public toilet thing down,


I saw bathroom signs that said, "Pań" (with an accent mark over the n) and "Panów".  Wow. When you are new to Polish and the language - which is which?

The word "pani" is woman and the word "pan" is man. I didn't know enough Polish to know and then remember once told, which was which. I usually ended up just watching to see who went in where.  (To answer your question - "Panow" - men, so pań is women).

Recently a man here in Poland mentioned that he was surprised with a woman inside the bathroom, near the urinals, collecting money and handing out TP.    I suppose that is less creepy than a man collecting money in the women's bathroom, which is what I ran into one time at the Warsaw ZOO, many years ago.


toilette in Poland

As to bathrooms in your house, typically the toilet is in a separate space than the shower/sink. At least that is how they used to be, but honestly, I'm not sure if newer homes are like this.  We built our home in a typical American style, because it takes more space to create a separate little room for your toilet instead of just putting it in the bathroom - American style.

Separating the toilet means that a bathroom is exactly that - a place for a bath/shower, whereas the toilet is just that - a toilet.

The toilets are all low flow, and are a couple of different styles.

The first place we lived upon arrival in Poland had a toilet like this. It was scary.  No water at all until you flush. Apparently it's a German style toilet.


german toilette

We don't have this kind in our own home..we have a regular low flow type that looks like this:

Petersen's toilette in Poland


You flush by pushing the button at the top.


(All images taken from google images.)

Oh yes...the malls all have free public toilets. You still run into places where you have to pay, but they aren't everywhere anymore.  There are  many restaurants that let you use theirs, but it isn't unusual to have to buy something in order to use their toilet.  I don't hold that against, them by the way. There were times when people would come and use their toilets, and then take extra toilet paper for the road - and it was a major cost for the restaurant (like McDonalds).

I hope you have a new appreciation for your bathrooms, for free public bathrooms and for simply knowing which bathroom to go into when you are in public!



But, these are all way better than the squatty potties of Egypt and the no seat outhouses in Moldova.

Elaine D.

You would think the salary they have to pay the bathroom attendant would cover a little extra toilet paper if they would let you get your own from the roll! But I guess with people stealing toilet paper from restaurants, it sounds like TP must be at a premium over there! Interesting.

       Becky Petersen

        Elaine...Yes, people would walk off with the whole roll - to go.

Dorothe 't Hart

I remember the German Style toilets from living in Holland. We did not have one, but some people did and when my children visited Holland for the first time they were pretty disgusted by this and made jokes about it!

       Becky Petersen

        They are pretty awful.
Becky PetersenComment