Racism is the most pressing problem for any non-Caucasian visitor and run-down residential areas are brimming over with steel toe-capped, neo-Nazi skinheads whose idea of a good Saturday night is bumping into an African exchange student with a Polish girlfriend.
White skin is by no means a guarantee of safe passage, though, and they will also happily oblige with any annoyingly rich or blatantly non-Polish tourist they happen to come across so it’s best to avoid train stations, underpasses and other dodgy areas after dark. Football matches are like skinhead conventions so, unless you want to be the focal point of an organised riot between opposing fans, give them a miss too. The quality of football is rubbish anyway.
Aside from this small matter, Poland is not too dangerous on the general scale of things. You can enjoy the dizzying high of the tap water without any long-term side effects (apart from in some mountainous areas where it contains arsenic), the cuisine is a matter of national pride so no problems there and crime is nowhere near as bad as in other parts of Europe.
However, alcohol is an irrefutable part of the Polish experience for many visitors and, just as any old Quasimodo lookalike can magically mutate into a potential spouse in the course of a few shots, things change considerably during a night out. For example, the locals will make it look easy but staggering around town can be hazardous in the extreme. Random cracks and potholes in roads combine admirably with ridiculously uneven paving slabs to resemble the aftermath of a particularly savage earthquake and, needless to say, delicate western ankles don’t fare well in such terrain.
Pass through that minefield and you will encounter the far more serious challenge of actually crossing a road. Traffic lights are by no means standard at pedestrian crossings, nor it would seem are the comforting white stripes, and believing that drivers will be competent and considerate enough to see you and stop is a hard skill to master. A short prayer beforehand is a popular strategy and might explain why Poles are so religious but, even if it takes 10mins, it is definitely advisable to wait and let someone else do the stepping. Nuns and women with young children stand the best chance.
Indeed, anything to do with cars or driving should be given a major side swerve (pun intended). The traffic and road conditions are problematic enough but Polish drivers really seal the deal. Ok, they aren’t quite on the suicidal maniac levels of Greece or Turkey but there are plenty of blind pensioners to contend with and any guy in a half-decent car will want to show everyone just how big his manhood is with an illegal manoevre or two. Accidents happen and, coupled with the fact that many vehicles are as roadworthy as wheelbarrows, it just isn’t worth the risk.
In some ways, the arrival of winter puts an end to these problems. The snow is much easier to walk on and cars are forced to slow down but give it a few days and any kind of movement becomes seriously precarious. Only the most frequented of areas get sanded/gritted and in many suburbs there’s a better chance of coming across yetis than council workers. It’s also bloody cold (SuwaÅ‚ki holds the record low of -30°C!) so invest in some longjohns, put on one layer for every finger that you’d like to keep and, whatever you do, don’t try the old tongue-to-lamppost experiment.