When, some five years ago, I began writing a book about growing up in postwar Poland, I understood that my story would flip between three focal points: the village where my grandparents lived and where I, too, lived for the first three years of my life, the tiny two room apartment on Nowowjeska Street where I moved to once I left the village, and the significantly larger three room apartment on Aleja Roz, where my dad now lives and where I spent all my adolescent years.
It often surprises people from the States when I tell them that my two Warsaw homes are within a ten minute walk of each other. In effect, daily life for me, you know – the stuff that consists of buying bread and picking up a newspaper or an ice cream cone – spun around a very small set of blocks. And it continues to do so.
The hotel where I always stay now, the exquisitely lovely and extremely well priced Rialto, is, too, maybe a ten minute walk to the Nowowjeska Street apartment and, separately, a ten minute walk to Aleja Roz.
What does it say about this pulsating city – which is now so congested that you can sit in traffic for a long time at rush hour (and we did), and so western-looking that you can easily forget about its postwar years of a more somber existence – that it should keep you so locked and bound to a neighborhood? That each time you come back, you retrace the same old routes and routines, varying almost nothing at all, exploring nothing new, nothing unfamiliar?
Let me run you through our first full day in Warsaw. Long time Ocean readers with good memories will find it a (refreshingly?) familiar set of hours and images. And here’s the other thing – I’ve noticed that the people of the older generation (now my generation) don’t look a whole lot different than they did decades ago. Same style of dress – the wool coats, the hats – still there. Very Polish looking. As I fly through the day in my cords and puffy jacket, with no hat, no leather gloves, no nice purse held tightly in front of me, I think – why do I feel so at home and yet look so out of place?
Plac Konstytucji. The large square with the towering lamps that will remind anyone of the Soviet style architecture.
And if you’re not convinced, look just down the block at these archades.
Just around the corner is our Nowowiejska Street apartment. These were humble times. It is a far cry from the bright yellow farmhouse that I now live in and not only because I decided to keep this first set of photos in a black and white mode.
Okay, let’s refresh ourselves. Onto one of my favorite bakeries. It opened its doors after I already left Poland to live in the States and so when I go there, I feel I should speak English. On this day I faltered – starting in English and finishing in Polish, feeling somewhat embarrassed at the confusion of identities, vowing that I should keep that confusion to myself in the days ahead and thereafter.
You like this world of color? Okay, come down to the metro now and zip underneath Warsaw's blocks with me. The metro, too, is fairly new. And really, when you look around and see the faces of the younger generation (that of my own daughters), you see that it has moved away from where we are in life. Here’s a photo of a mother and daughter. The mother surely is my age. But I am not like her! And most assuredly, I am not even remotely like her quite striking daughter.
We’re off the metro, walking toward the Old Town. Oh, wait. Let’s pause for a moment next to the monument commemorating the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Hundreds of thousands killed, the city destroyed, leaving nothing but rubble. And a defiant spirit in those who survived.
Old Town Square now. With a Christmas Market (and Grzaniec Galicyjski!)
And now the long walk. From the Old Town Square, down this cobbled street (and I do always take this cobbled street when I am here)...
...to the square with the (reconstructed) Royal Palace and the column with the 17th century statue of King Zygmunt – the king who moved the capital of Poland from Krakow to Warsaw.
We dallied so much at various points in our walk so far (admiring this stuff, for example)...
....that the sun is almost setting by the time we reach this edge of Old Town. The colors are always best now, when the light hits the ramparts in such warm tones that you really begin to forget it is the gray month of December.
Let me move the camera away from walls and structures for a bit. People. The older (my age?) women of Warsaw...
(So why does it not feel to me like they are my age?)
Alright. Continuing on the walk: down the Royal Way – Krakowkie Przedmiescie, the street that I associate not with these holiday lights, but with the university – the place where I studied for three years.
And now onto Nowy Swiat. Visitors may think -- oh! What a nice set of neoclassical (early 19th century) buildings! And then they may do a double take: wait, wasn’t Warsaw a mound of rubble after World War II? Indeed. The fact is, this lovely street had evolved (in the early 20th century) into something very non-neoclassical. More like Art Nouveau, they say. But it was, in fact bombed to rubble and when the time came to rebuild, it was decided that it would be easier, cheaper, faster to go back to the neoclassical look. So it’s as if the city took a swing back on the pendulum of architectural progress. But you have to know that Varsovians love Nowy Swiat. And so do I. Always have, always will.
Nowy Swiat has the famous Blikle bakery. It’s 140 years old and it still makes the best damn paczki on the planet (doughnuts filled with rose petal jam and glazed with bits of orange peel).
And now we’re almost at the hotel. Enough for one day. Diane and Ernest I think must be in a post marathon stupor. It was a long walk.
The evening’s not over though. Not by a long shot. We’re having a gathering of all my best Polish friends – some dating back to high school, some to my years at the university. It’s my school cohort and I find it funny, therefore, that everyone at the table is 60 years old (I was two years ahead in school and so I am the young one). Oh, wait, there are two grown daughters of one of my friends and now, for the first time, a grandchild! (I won't comment on Ernest and Diane’s age – that’s their story!)
It’s a wonderful evening of animated conversation, lots of hugs and kisses, reflections and recollections, good food, bottles of wine, endless banter about everything from the state of the economy to health care in America to what’s it like to live with Ed at the farmhouse.
So nothing changes from year to year, right? Right??
Not true. We all change just a tiny bit and, therefore, cumulatively, we change quite a lot. Even if I do seem to stay rooted in the same set of blocks. Year in, year out.