Łódź (pronounced ‘Woodj,’ and spelled ‘Lodz’ hereafter because I am lazy) is not an international tourist town. This became apparent the moment I stepped off the plane into an eerily empty airport. (I later determined that, at the moment, the airport only operates flights to and from Munich—one round trip per day, six days per week.) It manifests itself in other ways, too: even in supposed tourist attractions like museums, most of the signs are untranslated, and few residents above the age of 40 speak any languages except Polish and a little Russian.
My hosts (the parents of my former Polish au pair) were well over 40. I speak neither Polish nor Russian.
We muddled through with the help of a snazzy speech-to-text-to-text-to-speech translation app, which worked surprisingly well (even if I accidentally said my grandmother was raised by crocodiles). We sometimes managed to get human help too, though that could result in fun language optimization games. (‘Oh, your English isn’t very good? But you speak Italian? Well, I speak Italian too, but I’m not sure whether my Italian is better than your English. Let’s see…’)
Of course, word-for-word translation was not necessary for me to understand Polish hospitality. In every house I entered, regardless of my connection to the owners (or lack thereof) and the size of the house, I was steered to a dining room seat, handed a glass of sparkling water (after I refused the offer of coffee or tea), and pressed to eat a piece of homemade cake. Everyone seemed terrified of not being sufficiently accommodating during my visit. If I so much as lifted a plate to take it into the kitchen, it was snatched from my hand with what I assume were reassurances that it would be taken care of. If I mentioned I might want to go into Warsaw, the neighbor’s aunt’s friend was called for advice on good English-language tours. I felt very well taken care of, if occasionally a tad smothered.
At home in Lodz
I stayed with Harina and Marek Lewandowscy in the Widzew district of Lodz. Their son Piotrek and his wife Magda, along with their adorable two-year-old Nina, would stop by from time to time as well. Piotrek and Magda both speak English, so this proved very helpful. Magda liked to talk politics, which I found very interesting. She (understandably) expressed a lot of concern about the current situation with Russia. If Russia decides to bomb Poland, Lodz is apparently a particularly at-risk location, as it contains a major Polish military base.
The most important member of the family, at least in his own opinion, was Lucky. He made friends with me immediately and was unabashed about approaching me at all hours of the day and night and demanding that I play with him.
Most families in Lodz live in large blocks of flats from the Communist era. Unusually, the Lewandowscy family has a large, detached house.
It is a gorgeous house, both inside and out, though it’s a bit far from the center of town—about half an hour by car. (Lodz is a driving town: although there’s a decent public transit network, almost everyone seems to have a car. Because petrol is so expensive, many of the cars run on propane gas.) Not only are the rooms nice, but the house also has a garden full of delicious fruits and vegetables. On my first day in Lodz, my announcement of my intention to go for a walk around the neighborhood was somehow misinterpreted, and I ended up being dragged out into the garden instead, where the plum tree was shaken and the raspberry bush plucked, and I was encouraged to eat the (literal) fruits of this labor. (Not that I’m complaining!) On later days, I discovered fresh cucumbers and red currants as well.
When I finally got around to that walk in the neighborhood, I stumbled upon a huge plot set aside for gardening, with each house in the area owning a gardening hut and a few beds. (Why don’t we have more gardens like that in the U.S.? It’s clearly a delicious idea.) My walk also revealed a field with two striped red-and-white towers, which completely puzzled me.
When I found an English speaker to ask, I learned that they are water-heating towers connected to the local generator. Rather than each house having a water heater (as is normal in Portland), in Lodz water is heated centrally and transported to individual homes via pressurized pipes.
Although, as I stated before, Lodz does not cater to tourists (there are tons of hotels, but they’re primarily for business conferences—centrally located as the city is, it’s a popular place for Polish companies to hold events), it is nonetheless a good place to be a tourist. One advantage is the prices: compared to the rest of Europe, Lodz is wonderfully cheap. You can get a good meal at a nice restaurant for 16 zl. (approximately four Euros). Museum admission for students is about 5 zl. The bus to Warsaw is only 18 zl. each way. Also, there are quite a few exciting tourist attractions, if you accept that you might not be able to read the signs. These were my favorites.
Piotrkowska street. This is the most famous street in Lodz. It’s 3.1 miles long, and most of it is pedestrians-only. While a lot of Lodz is in rather bad shape (the old Jewish ghetto is a terrifying site, especially when you realize that people still live there), Piotrkowska street is mostly very clean and quaint. Many of the houses were built in the 19th century by rich industrialists, and they now contain expensive flats (on the upper floors) and high-end restaurants or shops (on the ground floors). Because this is the main tourist drag (to the extent that such a thing exists in Lodz), it’s also where all the statues and plaques related to famous inhabitants are. I fun posing with statues.
All around Lodz are murals by international street artists. My favorites were the murals that seemed like a part of the building and showed people engaged in activities in painted-on ‘windows.’
There are lots of other styles of murals in the city as well. In fact, there’s an excellent online gallery where you can see them without travelling all the way to Lodz.
I also discovered, on a side street just off of Piotrkowska, a restaurant with a very curious name.
None of my Lodz friends I asked had heard of Fiddler on the Roof, but the decor, the picture on the menu, and the fact that the restaurant specializes in Jewish cuisine all seem to indicate that the founder most definitely had.
Piotrkowska street has been popular for years, but my friends insisted that the current trendy place is OFF Piotrkowska, a grungy block of converted factories that now host hip restaurants like Insekt (which serves exactly what you’d expect).
We stopped for a bite to eat, but we picked more traditional fare.
Manufaktura. I keep mentioning rich industrialists. The richest of all was Izrael Poznanski. He built a textile manufacturing empire so large, it was its own town, with factories, a church, a school, a hospital, worker apartments, and his palace. Those buildings have been restored and converted into the social center of Lodz. Manufaktura has everything: art museums, history museums, a cinema, a huge shopping mall, restaurants, bars, a sand beach (summer) or skating rink (winter), a laser tag arena, an indoor climbing gym, a hotel, and probably even more buildings I didn’t notice. My favorite thing was the museum of the history and city of Lodz, which is housed in Poznanski’s palace. Many of the rooms are still decorated and furnished as they were in Poznanski’s time.
The exhibition inside was mostly only labelled in Polish, so I wasn’t always sure what I was seeing. There was a gallery of artwork by Polish masters, and another gallery of contemporary Polish art. There were also rooms devoted to famous citizens of Lodz. An entire (large) room was filled with medals, decorations, and honorary doctorates awarded to the pianist Arthur Rubinstein. I was very impressed.
Industrial district. This is a misleading name, as pretty much all of Lodz could be called an ‘industrial district,’ but I’m particularly referring to Tymienieckiego street between the Herbst palace and Piotrokowska street. It’s a fascinating architectural walk, as beautifully restored red brick buildings filled with upscale apartments and shops sit right next to the crumbling, overgrown remains of other factories. Also, near the end of the walk, there are several interesting sights: the ‘white factory’ (the one factory not made of red brick), a ‘museum of wooden buildings’ (an open-air display of, well, wooden buildings), and a gorgeous church.
We ate two meals a day: one around 10.30am, and one around 4.30pm. The brunch-like meal usually consisted of a salad, bread, cheese, potato salad, and cake. The dinner-like meal generally included a soup, a vegetable, potatoes, and meat.
The cakes I ate in Lodz had three or four layers: shortbread crust, fruit, meringue, and (optional) crumbs. This is a good way to make cake and should be replicated in other countries. Plums are the best fruit for this purpose.
Herring and pickles are excellent additions to potato salad, which I usually do not particularly like.
One evening, the normal dinner was replaced by thick, apple-filled pancakes, served sprinkled with sugar. I have no clue why this is a dinner food, but it is wonderful.
At an ice cream shop in the Manufaktura complex, I ordered a sorbet mimosa (though they didn’t call it that)—sparkling wine poured over four scoops of various flavors of fruit sorbet. I doubt this is a distinctively Polish invention, but it was the first time I had tried it, and it’s definitely an improvement on the traditional mimosa.
Other foods the Polish have right include a challah-like bread (eaten all days of the week, not just on Shabbat!) and ‘krowka’ candies (literally, cows), which taste like caramel but have the consistency of fudge and therefore do not get obnoxiously stuck in your teeth.
I definitely left Lodz weighing more than when I arrived: