Friday, December 09, 2011

Poland, now

We are in a cab, crawling through rush hour traffic toward Warsaw Central train station and I notice it – Palac Kultury. The landmark building. Stalin’s 1952 gift. I run through the usual quick spiel on it – the awe-inspiring height (32 stories, but tall stories -- it's the 8th tallest building in all of Europe), the parades that took place on May 1st in front of it, and as I’m rattling this off, I take out my camera, because this is such a symbolic building in Warsaw that it deserves photographic commemoration each first time I come face to face with it during my returns to Poland.

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But if I could have seen the eyes of our young taxi driver, I would have probably spotted an eye-roll. He was born just before the great change toward a market economy took place in Poland and his young adult years have been in the Poland of today – the one which feels to him (and to so many others here) very western. No different than, say, America.

He says as much. Why do Americans make us stand in line and pay big money for a visa to visit their country? He demands to know. It’s, for me, the perennial question. I’m asked this each and every time I come to Poland and I have no answer for it.

It’s a communistic style of thinking, he continues (in Polish). Like we still want to grab something from America. Well, we have America here right now! If I go to America, it’s to see it. To find out if it’s like in the movies. Not to grab! We were such fans of your country, but you’re losing us on this one.

Yes, I know.

I also understand that he does not like it when foreigners think of Poland as the “former communist country.” It’s not that to him and I can tell that he dislikes my references to that communist past.

Contrast this with the conversation we have in the compartment of a train that’s speeding... well, no, not really speeding, more like stalling... from Warsaw to Krakow. With us is a young Polish banker, traveling for a week-end in Krakow. He speak in accented but perfect English. As does his wife, who is, at the moment, reading an Alice Munro book.

What an embarrassment, he says as the train comes to another halt and an announcement is made of a fifteen, maybe twenty minute delay. (He does not know that I am, in fact, Polish. Or from Poland.) Our trains are awful. Outdated. The whole infrastructure is completely inadequate. They’re building roads quickly now, because of next year’s World Soccer Tournament, here, in Poland, but still, it’s a disaster if you compare it to roads and rails in western Europe.

He’s impatient with the Poland of today. He’s got a child who is almost ten. Ah, but you can't have it all, not all at once, I want to say. Look at you! You're so well dressed! Especially as compared with me, slouching in the corner in my baggy sweater and ever faithful curds.

I don’t know why we are having these delays, he continues. It’s not as if the weather is terrible, like last year’s snows. (Oh, do I know about last year’s snows!)
Ernest comments – we’re from Minnesota. We understand snow.
Our banker friend asks -- How is it there when the snows come? How does it affect your public transportation?
We have no public transportation, I blurt out.
No, I mean, the network of public trains or buses that you use to get from one town to another. He thinks he’s not explaining himself well.
We don't have a network of trains or buses that connect towns and villages.  
Well, in Minneapolis, there is the light rail now. Ernest comes to at least the city’s defense. Home pride.
It’s limited. To Minneapolis.
We are a car society, Ernest admits. It's interesting that this fact still shocks people here.

The announcement is made that the train is making up its initial delays. Indeed, each time the train stops the conductor announces that we are catching up for a timely arrival.
Our young banker smiles. This is new, this attention to customer satisfaction. You see more and more of it: well dressed, friendly conductors. Trying to please. Very new.

And so we are in Poland. And what an easy journey it was! Tail wind, announces the captain of the flight from Madison to Detroit. We’ll be in early. Tail wind, announces the captain on the flight from Detroit to Paris. We’ll be in a good twenty minutes early. Tail wind, announces the captain on the flight from Paris to Warsaw (I kid you not). We’ll be in early.  And we do arrive early. Ernest is there waiting.


I have to grin at the comparison with last December’s trip to Poland: snowed in and delayed, often for days, at every single leg of the journey. Not now, not this year. The skies are gray, the air is damp from recent rains. You could see it flying in.


...but it’s not wintery yet.

Even as it can seem cold, especially at the Central train station in Warsaw, where it always feels cold.


I look around. The waiting hall has been cleaned up some, but there isn't a place to sit and besides, it really is miserably chilly. I envy the scouts that I see sprawled on the floor by the stairs – not for the camping they’ll surely be doing, but for the temperature indifference that young people have, that I once had.


We arrive in Krakow.

Sometime on the train, the tiredness of the incredibly long journey overwhelms my friends. Me, on the other hand,  I want so badly to get there already, so that I can walk, and walk some more and take it all in.

We check into the lovely little Hotel Unicus and make plans to meet in the morning. They retire, I head out.


And I take in this beautiful magical city...


...on a full moon night.

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The Christmas Market is going strong... it’s homey and less formal than what you’d see in German cities. I eat a grilled smoked ewe's milk cheese with cranberries...

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... and I pause to eat a supper of cabbage and potatoes, accompanied with hot mulled wine.


The smoky air is pungent and the potatoes have the fragrance of grilled kielbasa.

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The woman behind the counter at the grill stand asks me if it’s getting cold.  
No, I tell her, not really. Above freezing at the moment.  
There’s snow where I come from, she answers. 
And where do you come from? 
The mountains. A small village called Istebna.
Is it pretty?
I’ll have to see it soon.

And you know, someday I’m sure to do that. A random tip from a cabbage and sausage vendor. Sounds good to me.