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The Language

How to pronounce 'szczesliwy'?
In English - 'happy'. Which is what you'll feel if you remember and use a few simple Polish words. Poles fully appreciate (and seem in fact humbly proud of) how difficult their language is, so any effort on your part will be duly noted.

The most important word in Polish is thank you: "jen koo ja". That's 'jen' as in jennifer, 'koo' as in kitchy-kitchy and 'ja' as in a German yes.

The second most important word is please: "prosze". Or, 'pro' as in not amateur, and 'shuh' as in huh? with an s. Please, like other Polish words, does double duty as 'you're welcome' which also comes in handy.

After that, it's a cinch! Seriously, unlike English, Polish is pronounced phonetically. Once you understand where to break the word, and that the second-to-last syllable is always stressed, you'll do okay by keeping the following in mind. One note: if the word looks nothing like it sounds, put it down to some uniquely Polish characters not included here. The Polish alphabet escapes the impenetrability of the Cyrillic, but it does have its own surprises. If confused, just look it up in a good dictionary. Or, if that doesn't do it, take some lessons.

Starting with something simple

Yes: Tak (as in tick-'tock')
No: Nie (closest I come is the sound you make when you're little and teasing your brother, but with more whine to it: 'nyeh'-nyeh-na-na-na) OK: Dobrze ('dough' plus a 'b' then 'shuh') Excuse me: Przepraszam (mighty handy word for the crowded trams and streets but difficult to pronounce because it includes that oh-so-not-English combo - 'p' merges into 'shey' followed by 'pra' and 'shem'; try saying that three times when you're sober)
What: Co (often used like an English 'what??' and pronounced 'tso')
Where: Gdzie (always a useful travelling word - 'guh' and 'jay')
When: Kiedy (because you might want to know when something starts - 'key yeh dey')
Who: Kto (as in not me, I didn't do it - 'k' and 'toe')
Why: Dlaczego (useful for children so you can get tired of a new word - 'dlah' and 'che' and 'go')
How: Jak (just like 'tock' but with a 'y')

For politeness shake

Poles are big on greetings. If you remember anything, remember how to say 'good day'. You can even say it at night - it has such universality here.
Good day: Dzien dobry ('jean' and 'dough' plus 'bree' like the cheese)
Hi: Czesc (use this one on friends only: 'chay sh ch' but run it all together as one sound)
Bye: Czesc (works like 'aloha', making informal comings and goings easy)
Good bye: Do widzenia ('dough' and 'wid zen ya' comes close enough)

Guess what: I'm a turist

The most practical phrases for a foreigner are the obvious: can anyone talk to me in my own language? Because you could simply and most effectively ask that in your own tongue, we'll try other useful phrases for those curious enough to branch out linguistically.
I don't speak Polish: Nie mowie po polsku (as if it weren't obvious enough from your pronunciation, but try it anyway - 'nie' as above, 'movie' then 'po' as in really poor, and 'pole sku')
I don't understand: Nie rozumiem (pull this one out when an inquiring Pole hasn't figured out that you aren't a native - 'nie' we know by now and 'row zoo me m' works for the operative word)
Please write that down: Prosze to napisac
(when you 'nie rozumiem' but want to, stumble out 'prosze' as above then 'toe' which means it, and end with 'nah pee sach' which means write)
Help me please: Prosze mi pomoc (for those unexpected tourist emergencies - note the 'prosze' making yet another appearance, 'mi' is just like 'me' in English in sound and meaning and the 'po moats' functions as the HELP signal)

What I am eating?

Since you really don't want to miss out on a good Polish meal or two, these words will help you through a possibly incomprehensible menu.

Drinks: Napoje
Vodka: Wodka (a no-brainer)
Beer: Piwo
Tea: Herbata
Coffee: Kawa
Juice: Sok
Water: Woda

Menu Items

Soups: Zupy
Appetizers: Przekaski
Entrees: Dania drugie
Vegetarian Dishes: Potrawy jarskie
Side dishes: Dodatki
Desserts: Desery

Given the importance of meat, here are some possible pronunciations.
Sausage: Kielbasa (another easy one, but say it with a Polish twist - 'keel' as in over, which you might if you have too many, and 'baa' as in black sheep, and 'sah' as in ma with an s)
Beef: Wolowe (another favorite, 'vogue' without the final g sound, then 'woa' as in hey, stop, and 'veh' to finish off)
Veal: Cielecina ('chee' plus 'len' as in lenny but shorter, and then 'cheen uh')
Pork: Wieprzowe (if you haven't gotten the picture yet, Poles love meat - 'vee eh' and that lovely tongue twisting combo 'prz' as above, then finish with a flourish 'oh veh')
Liver: Watrobka (to be honest, this one's included because so many people don't like it - 'von' and 'trub' and 'ka' will just about cover it)
Fish: Ryby (just say 'rib' and 'eh' like what was that you said?)
Chicken: Kurczak (roll your 'r' when you order this fave, kind of like ordering a 'coors' without the 's' and then adding 'chalk' without the 'l'; don't try this at home)

How many piwos have I had?
Since I'm assuming you'll buy a phrase book, I'm only going to count to ten here. That skill seems to fool most people into thinking you know the language.

0: zero
1: jeden
2: dwa
3: trzy
4: cztery
5: piec
6: szesc
7: siedem
8: osiem
9: dziewiec
10: dziesiec

And yet another useful number thing:
how much? "Ile to kosztuje?" comes out as 'ill eh' then 'toe' followed up with 'caut' as in caution without the un, and 'too yuh'.

What's today?

Always good to know just when something is happening, especially if you catch sight of a poster ad displaying an interesting event.
Monday: Poniedzialek
Tuesday: Wtorek
Wednesday: Sroda
Thursday: Czwartek
Friday: Piatek
Saturday: Sobota
Sunday: Niedziela

In case of a fire,
head for the wyjscie!
Entrance: wejscie
Exit: wyjscie
Open: otwarte
Closed: zamkniete


Is there a doctor in that country?
If you find yourself in desperate need of medical attention, try an embassy clinic or private establishment first (see list to the right for Warsaw). You've got a greater chance that someone will speak your language, and the service and the conditions will (probably) be better. Most of the hospitals and clinics listed to the right can scare up someone who will speak either English, German, French or Spanish.
If you do try one of the local offerings, call 911 first and they'll direct you to the hospital which is on-call. If you're habituated to western medicine, note that they do things a little differently around here. A favorite rejoinder in Poland is 'but you didn't ask', so if you want information, expect to ask for it. A second rule of thumb is 'cash up front'. Poland's restaurants may be credit-card friendly, but some of its hospitals are not. Remember to get receipts. Most insurance companies will not reimburse you without them. Maybe you know this already.

I can manage myself
If you don't need a doctor, but simply some drugs, find an 'apteka'. They're marked with a green cross on a white background, and if you cannot locate someone who understands you, show them your empty pill bottle with a painful grimace.
Poles are also big on nonwestern meds, so you can find a number of apteka which also supply homeopathic and other complementary medicines.


Cash rules
Think "cash" when coming to Poland. You can survive on other forms of payment (credit cards, traveller's checks) but not without some effort in major cities and even more so in smaller towns.

When you exchange your currency for that of Poland - the zloty ('zwa-tee') - expect to get bills that look like those bills.

Denominations under 10 zl. come as coins: 5, 2, or 1 zl. Mark the difference between the 5 and the 2 zl. pieces; more than one naive traveller has used one while thinking it the other. Denominations below 1 zl. are called grosze ('grow-sha'; 1 zl. = 100 gr.) and come in 6 flavours: 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 gr.

How to get cold, hard cash
To exchange money, you've got a number of options: banks, hotels, exchange kiosk, or the border. If you choose to do it at the border, you can exchange an unlimited amount of most currencies but beware that not all border crossings supply this service and when they do, the rates tend to be poor.

If you decide to wait until you arrive in a city, a kantor(exchange kiosk) is your best bet: a cash-only enterprise, these privately-run exchanges don't charge a fee, don't require any paperwork, are located just about everywhere, and tend to offer the best rates.

The exceptions are those open 24 hours which you can find at the expected places: the airport or the train station. Otherwise, most offer an average of 3 PLN (plus a few grosze) for 1 USD and do so from 9-18 during the week, and 9-13 on Saturdays. Kantors in the larger cities accept any currency, but expect them to refuse anything but USD or DM in the smaller towns and to give a slightly worse rate (point being: get your zloties in a big town). Other than kantors, you can exchange money at the bank or in the larger hotels. The hotels, while convenient, tend to offer the worst rates of all, and won't help nonguests. Banks offer a better rate (although still worse than the kantors) and take a slice off the top (a percentage plus a minimum charge, which can add up if you're exchanging a fair amount of hard-earned money). Unless you need money fast, stick to kantors.

What if I run out of cash

Fortunately, you can now extract money from your own bank or credit account using the ATMs or cash stations now dotting the streets of the major cities in Poland. You'll know you're near one when you see a blue Bankomat sign; these machines won't spit out most major credit cards -- just look for the matching sticker. The exchange rate is favourable, and the convenience is noteworthy. If your card is not set up to automatically generate cash, you can obtain a cash advance in the larger cities or a wire transfer through Western Union.

Credit cards

While cash is easier, credit cards are safer and more establishments decorate their doors with the logos of VISA, American Express, Diner's Club, MasterCard, and Eurocard than ever before. Even those without such displays might accept cards, so ask.

You can use your card to get tickets for an event, reserve or pay for your hotel or your rental car and the gas that goes in it, or dinner at that fine restaurant, or gifts from that huge shopping center. While grocery stores now also accept credit cards, we wouldn't advise it. One astonished visitor waited in line for over 20 minutes while novice cashiers attempted to complete a minor transaction.
Many hotels, restaurants, shops, travel agencies and fuel stations accept major credit cards (American Express, Diners Club, Eurocard / MasterCard, Visa). The number of cash disposing machines (bankomat) is rising but it could be a problem to find one in smaller towns. It's better to take some cash when leaving big towns. There is no such problem in Czestohowa. Bankomats can be found in banks, supermarkets or office buildings and at the streets. They only handle Eurocard/Mastercard, Visa or Diners Club.
The most popular credit card in Poland is Visa.
Credit card operator (EC./MC., Visa & others) is:
Centrum Kart i Czekow (CKC)
PL 02-344 Warsaw, ul. Czestochowska 4a
ph: +48 (0-22) / 6584017
fax +48 (0-22) / 6584016

American Express cardholders can contact:

American Express Office
Warszawa, ul. Krakowskie Przedmiescie 11
ph: +48 (0-22) / 635 20 02
fax +48 (0-22) / 635 75 56

Traveller's check

If cash and credit cards do not appeal to you, then traveller's checks and Eurocheques are another option. Traveller's checks can be exchanged at the larger hotels (for a commission and for guests only) or the Banks Pekao, PKO or NBP. Banks tend to make you pay for the experience: not only do you have to stand in line, fill out paperwork, supply your passport and often the receipt proving you purchased your traveller's checks, but they will skim 1-3% off the top for the pleasure.
If paying for the pleasure does not appeal to you, the American Express office will do it for free without fuss and at a good rate. AmX has an office in Warsaw and Krakow, but elsewhere you're at the mercy of the banks.

If you've got Eurocheques, you can also look out for the 'EC' sticker on a bank or major post office window where you can get up to 500 PLN at a shot. Other establishments (restaurants) occasionally take traveller's checks, but expect this only in the larger cities and at a poor rate of exchange.

That'll be 1 million please!

In 1995, Poland re-denominated its currency and did away with some increasingly embarrassing zeros. What was once worth 10,000 zl. became worth 1 zl. and is now differentiated by the tag PLN. While the old currency (PLZ) is no longer legal tender, old habits die hard: occasionally expect to hear prices quoted in the old denominations (you'll get a figure in the millions, but don't panic: just divide by 10,000).