Saturday, June 13, 2009


The Palace of Culture: Stalin's gift to Warsaw. Workers Unite (in your opposition to scary architecture)!

So I spent the morning roaming around Warsaw, birthplace of my buddy Chopin (well, a stone's throw from here). I checked into my room and availed myself of the hotel's fantabulous massive breakfast buffet and, map in hand, headed off on foot. As I suspected would be the case, I was pretty quickly sore from the eight-plus miles I walked yesterday in Cologne (added to several ten-mile days in NY a couple days back), so after three hours I was about done. But that was still enough time to give me a feel for things (still, one hates to miss an opportunity to explore a new place).

The Vistula. Not much riverfront presence.

A much better use of water: the fountain in Saski Park.

This is an interesting place with a turbulent history. In the past century it has played host to a brutal occupation by Nazi Germany followed by several decades of communist rule. Probably a direct result of this last fact, WAW is supposed to rank as one of Europe's most unattractive cities, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Certainly it's a far cry from the meticulous order of Germany generally or the vitality of Cologne specifically. Everything seems gray or tending that way, and roads and sidewalks are tired and a bit crumbly. But it could be far worse: the neglect seems maybe one of wanting funds rather than disinterest. Trash is mostly picked up, and public squares and parks are suffering from long grass and some weeds but not from trash. The one exception to this seems to be broken glass; it's everywhere, on sidewalks and in public squares, mostly from thrown bottles. I don't remember seeing a single piece of broken glass in Germany, so I wonder what the deal is here for there to be so much of it. It seems like the residue of some late night hooliganism, but who knows?

A Bad Photography tradition: the view from my hotel room window.

Our hotel is in a newer part of town, so I decided to head for the historic "old town," which is a good 40 minute walk away. There seems be some religious holiday going on today, so all the churches were open and most businesses were closed. But this enabled me to poke my head inside the churches as I went. I reached the far side of old town at the Vistula, and walked back along the river to the first bridge and went across. Another big church over there, and a couple interesting old buildings. Then back across a more modern suspension bridge, and up the hill toward the hotel again.

Sparkling new Old Town.

Our hotel is across the street from a pretty extensive high-end shopping mall. I don't mean to overplay the whole Soviet bloc vibe of WAW, but there's a kernel of truth in the association; and this hip shopping mall here is anomalous with its expensive architecture and construction, expensive stores, Western vendors. Whereas CGN has extensive regions of high-end shopping, WAW seems a poorer, less-touristy place, and the snooty mall is clearly not where the typical citizen shops. The mall is connected to one of WAW's primary rail station, the Warsaw Centralna Station, which runs below ground in the intervening space between our hotel on one side and the mall on the other. Six or eight lanes of road traffic plus a large transport terminal lay atop the station, which then seems like a gigantic subway station. The whole business is dimly-lit and not very clean, and even when new I imagine it had a dirty concrete aspect (It's striking to me how many buildings here are clad in concrete-colored stucco--that is, not colored at all except what the building materials yield). Dark hallways that connect the various entries with the station complex are lined with NY Chinatown-style booths and vendors, and during the harsh Polish winter this place must have an odd feeling.

On the left: train station. The Chernobyl-like melted structure to the center-right is the mall.

As in the other European cities I've visited, WAW seems to have a much more extensive public transportation system than anywhere in the US (except maybe NYC). Buses are everywhere, painted several different color schemes, which makes me think there are several service providers, and everyone seems to ride them. Car traffic does not seem as extensive as in CGN. There are also several types of what look like Soviet-era above-ground trains, and, at least by the hotel, underground trains as well (though I don't remember seeing subway stops on my trek to old town). Taxicabs are still Mercedes variety mostly, with the occasional Skoda or VW.

Lenin's Chariot: the Trabant!

Looking at the little guide book from the hotel as I had my breakfast, I was surprised to learn how extensively Warsaw was decimated in WWII. I knew that it was harshly treated at the hands of the German occupiers, but it seems that the city's residents, in a kind of retaliatory self-immolation, tore the place apart brick-by-brick in an attempt to get the Nazis to abandon the city. So virtually everything one sees today postdates the war--since nothing survived it--including the "old town," which is a faithful reconstruction of what was originally there. I don't mean to judge--god knows I could not presume to know how a city leveled by aggressive warfare should cope--but I can't figure out what to think of this reconstruction. The simple fact that nothing that appears old is actually old kind of saps my interest, in the same way as I dislike vinyl siding or decorative shutters on the outside of a house. The war was a fact, as was the destruction of this city; it looks much like it used to, apparently, but it's a simulation, like Paris on the Vegas strip or a Disney castle. CGN makes for an interesting contrast, its war damage having been replaced with mostly present-day architecture, with a few small regions strategically reconstructed. In some cases, the surviving old is joined daringly to the very modern (like the Lindt Chocolate Museum).

All this raises questions about what it is for a culture to endure. Is the culture and legacy of a place just a function of its buildings and artifacts? Surely it's a matter of the endurance of its people. And yet it's exactly because people are so transient--individually we don't last very long--that the culture's materiƩl is used to mark the continuing line. So when a brutal occupier decimates our buildings and our stuff, what of us remains? Just what exists in memory, what is passed down from parent to child, I guess. Still, I cannot shake this feeling that WAW is a fairly young city trying to connect with a past that is irretrievably gone. (But OK, after three hours I don't know shit.)

Some old stuff survives.

Poland is officially part of Europe, but they have not adopted the Euro (which to me sounds like "She's an American but she's not a citizen"). So I'm gradually collecting a bunch of foreign currencies that will molder in my bag until the next time I make this trip. The Polish zloti is worth about 1/3 of a dollar, so whatever is left from my withdrawal of 100 zloti will not amount to much. I still have some Euros left from CGN, but I'm back there in a week or so. Different currencies will prevail, of course, in China and Kazakhstan. I guess one could always just swipe a card and leave the exchange up to Visa.

(Across the Vistula from downtown, this building is clearly older than 45 years. So, are we seeing remnants of war damage? Or is it just falling apart?)

Which reminds me of another thing. A high proportion of MD-11 pilots seem to carry an iPhone, and many (especially the captains) have an international plan. They say they keep their calling to a minimum, mostly just to check in or to arrange a time to Skype, and it costs them about $35 or $40 a month for the privilege. It also enables family members to dial your familiar number and reach you, wherever you are. For my part, I find it really sucks to be suddenly deprived of all my iPhone resources. How quickly one becomes accustomed to having the map & GPS functions, and email checking, etc. I have Skype on the computer, but I'm learning that a fair number of our hotels do not have free wifi. I also have Skype on the iPhone (though I've not used it yet), but it requires a strong--and free--wifi signal to use it. So communications are an issue. Susan and I are used to talking four or five times a day, and to suddenly not be able to talk at all for a couple days, well, requires an adjustment. With an on-the-road lifestyle like this, one's cell phone is the thing that enables one to feel almost as though one is not really gone; to be deprived of that feels old school.

Next up: Shanghai.

No comments: