Tuesday, March 18, 2014

a day in Warsaw

My friend gave me a book last night. It's about Warsaw (title: Get Your Head Around the City) and I let it be my guide today. Let's look together to see what the new Warsaw is all about. From the perspective of that generation that would never call itself "post-war." More like "post-communism."

First -- a place for breakfast. The book shuns the popular Old Town cafes that line the street just a few steps from where I'm staying. Those are locked in an older tradition. The new spots are tucked in blocks you'd never think to explore. So, good bye to the neoclassical-styled buildings that line this segment of the Royal Route for now.


I cut across to Marszalkowska Street. And I notice now how the traffic patterns -- auto and pedestrian alike -- have changed since I was a kid. Most anyone would say that this is the defining street of the city. This is where you'll find the Palace of Culture:


But, note those buildings cropping up toward the rear. The city now extends itself along the east-west corridor as well. Marszalkowska fizzles as you move away from the hub here. As you head south, the traffic lessens and the streets empty out. None of the fashionable boutiques/hotels are on the southern end. That shift, to me, is palpable. The blocks close to where I once lived -- once the real heart of the city now seem strangely forlorn.


But I continue onto this last stretch of Marszalkowska. Here, in an obscure building (one I know because an old friend once lived here), at the heels of an old church, there is a new cafe where they say coffee matters. They named it the Ministry of Coffee.


I'm in the thick of the new center of the Warsaw hipster culture. Laid-back, edgy, arty, at once sophisticated and preferring off-theater, off-art, the less known, less followed. I enter the cafe. It has simple lines. Sleek but comfortable. I select a raspberry jam croissant and a "good" cappuccino.


The place starts to fill. Young. it feels young. Twenties young. Confident young. These people have choices. They also have iPhones and Apple computers. Is being a hipster synonymous with being well off?


And since I am in my old neighborhood and soon standing before my old high school, I think back to those years where no one had anything. True, parents may have worried about the lack of quality foods, quality washing machines, cars, clothes, but we didn't care. We lived with the freedom of not caring about money. At all. Because it couldn't buy anything we needed or wanted. It was an unusual time to be reaching adulthood: everything that was important was personal. Friends, lovers, school. Family for some. Nature. Walks. Hikes. Music, art. Very long conversations. I think that about wraps it up. Nothing else mattered. At all.

This generation is different. Later, as I spend a long while over a cup of coffee with my closest of all my Polish friends, I listen to her talk about the worries, the stresses facing kids today. Raised by harried and hassled parents, chasing something else now: financial success. Too little time for family, for friends, for all that was solid and easy for us.

I walk on. My book tells me that a building facing Plac Unii Lubelskiej (just a block away from my high school) is called The Iron. The description points out the resemblance to the Flatiron in Manhattan. Which came first?


I walk now past the place of birth of a famous Polish poet -- Krzysztof Baczynski. Born in 1921, died during the Warsaw Uprising. That would be 1944. He was a few years older than my father, but his history reads like my father's history: pulmonary illness at a young age. Attended Batory Lycee. Joined the Gray Legion -- a youth movement that worked to sabotage the occupation of Poland. But my father lived. Baczynski died. Only because he gave his poems to a friend living outside Warsaw, did they survive the war and the almost complete destruction of the city.

You, my silent sadness,
the sadness of small stars,
I sought you, called you forth,
took you in my arms... 
(Baczynski, 1942, translated by Kurczaba))

I abandon my guidebook for a while. I know these blocks too well. Let me walk along favorite routes and, too, pick up lunch at a funky eatery friends showed me some years back. It does have a fatal flaw -- it's not too far from the American Embassy and, too, the Warsaw Sheraton. I hear more English inside than Polish. Still, I have a good meal that has so many beet components to it that I think surely I've paid homage to this root vegetable that I used to hate, but now love -- a vegetable that is almost more Polish than cabbage or a potato.  So, beet soup, beet pickles to nibble on and baked goat cheese on a bed of arugula and... beets.


And would you believe it! I've written pages and pages without once mentioning the weather! Even as it is the windiest of days -- so blustery that the clouds come and go faster than it takes to cross the street.


I'm in the Old Town neighborhood again. It's late afternoon and my friend and I meet at Blikle Pastry Shop for our coffee. That's a Polish institution: known for high quality baked goods. Paczki. Honey cakes and poppyseed cakes. Cheesecake. It's right on the Royal Way. You've seen this street before. You'll see it again. I never tire of photographing it -- the colors change with the time of day and with the change in atmospheric conditions. Which today are a constant ebb and flow of clouds.


And even though my friend and I saw each other (at the dinner at her house) just a day ago, this is the time to talk. For a long, long time.


And now I'm calm again. We walk out into the violent wind, but it doesn't feel cold. It feels spring-like, as if it's wiping clean an old slate of stale weather. We head north along the Royal Route.


All the way to the Royal Square of Old Town.


And here, she turns toward her homeward path and I turn toward mine and this is the way it is: at some point, we go our separate ways.

I want to show you a monument that I pass right about now: it's of Nike, dedicated to the Heroes of Warsaw who died  between 1939 and 1945. It stands now at the main artery that links the eastern side of Warsaw across the river with the central western side.


It's a familiar monument to all of us who grew up here. I never fail to pause when I see it. East - West, South - North. Divisions that once mattered. Do they still?

And now I'm back along the Royal Route and the sun is long gone, even as the buildings retain the warm tones of the late day...


I pause at home, but not for long. I still need dinner and I'm with my friend's guide book again, walking down to the district by the river -- another corner of central Warsaw that often escapes those who visit the city. There's a botega here called, of all things, BTW. That's about as "new Poland" as it gets. I order a salad with rolled chicken thighs and it's good, very good, new Poland good. No cream sauce, just a few potatoes with a lighter, yogurt dressing.


You never tire of drawing these kinds of comparisons. Old, new. Recent, traditional. Funky western, seeped in memory.

I walk up the hill through an empty park. It's safe at night on the streets of Warsaw. May it always remain that way.

I eat a slice of poppyseed cake at home. Covered with raisins and orange rind.