Thursday, March 20, 2014

Warsaw and beyond

Each time I come to Warsaw, I encounter something that surprises me. A new block of buildings, beautiful bathrooms in hotels and private homes, efficiently programmed public buses -- on and on. Change here, while not as rapid as, say, in China, is still very much in the air.

Of the things that do not surprise me, what stands out is the explosion of independent coffee houses. The cafe culture in Warsaw has always been good. Families lived in cramped housing. Often you would take your social life outside. Long walks if the weather is good, but as you know, the weather often is not good. Cafes thrived. I spent many hours engaged in conversations with friends in the smokey, still air of Warsaw cafes. (Tea was then the drink of choice.)

In the last handful of years, there have been so many exciting new additions to the cafe scene that I really am quite overwhelmed. I would say that cafe life here is not only better than anywhere in the States, but -- hold your breath for this one -- it's better than in Paris. Sure, there are more cafes in Paris. But in Warsaw, quality makes up for quantity (and quantity isn't so bad either).

You may remember in my first set of days in Warsaw, I tried several new places that were just wonderful: one small, one larger, each unique, with a twist, encouraging you to stay. And yesterday I discovered the fantastic Ministry of Coffee. This morning I found (through my new funky guidebook) a place just around the corner from my apartment: a cafe-bookstore called (in translation) Upheaval in the World. It's affiliated with the Institute of Reportage and the Center for Nonfiction Culture. If I lived in Warsaw, I would spend days here.

The space is all about the world of nonfiction. Their motto comes from the renowned historian, journalist, photographer, traveler --  Kapuscinski:  everyone knows very little about everything.


I didn't come with a laptop, but I see that in most of these places, there'll always be a few people clicking away. Sometimes in discussion with another person who will also be refering to something on the Internet. The cafes are always very wired and I use them to check my iPhone email throughout the day.

I have breakfast here and I decide to get back on something resembling normality: coffee and yogurt with fruit and granola. Well, and carrot cake. It was a free slice, so I took it.


In many ways, I'm the outlier at these places. The crowd is 99% young -- my daughters' ages. Twenties and thirties.

And there's a reason for it: these people are the champions of the new Poland. The creative force behind modernity. The artists, writers, designers. You can tell that these are their meeting places.

Missing are the people my age.

And never, never have I come across people even older than me, even though, ostensibly, they have the time to frequent these rather upscale cafes.

When I met my friend for coffee yesterday, we both reflected on certain privileges of our generation. And we agreed on this: it's the generation before us that got screwed in Poland. My father's generation (I mention my father rather than my mom as she spent her youth in the States). Their childhood -- in prewar Poland -- came at a time of economic instability. And then came the war. Complete destruction of everything. You either lost what you had or you moved further from ever having anything again. War took it all.

Except hope. After the war, they lived on hope. The West is so smug about the failure of "communism" (if you want to call it that) in the Eastern block, but in the early postwar years, I don't think "failure" was in the minds of those who survived.

They built for us, the children born to them, the schools that made us bookish, the hospitals that kept us alive and then, damn it, they got the knocks and punches: from the West, from the East and worst -- from inside their own ranks. And so again, for that generation, there was a feeling of loss.

And when the market economy and the EU stepped in to run the show now, it was too late for those just upwards of my age. Their income would not grow. They would watch the stores pop up, the borders open, yet they, the ones who suffered from all the upheavals, they would, for the most part, be the outsiders, gawking at it from behind the barricade of their age.

Screwed, I tell you. They lived through the worst of times.

After breakfast, I ride the metro to the end of the line in the north. A school group comes on, bright coats and packs flashing colors that were hard to come by after the war (I don't know why: something about the dyes not being very good).


To these kids, there is only the Poland they encounter now. Everything else belongs to the textbook. Maybe their lives will be calmer than those of their parents and grandparents. It's perhaps a cliche, but nonetheless such a true one: I belong to the transition. They are the new Poland.


At the last metro stop, just at the edge of the city, my university friend (the one I hadn't seen for forty years) is waiting for me. He and his wife had spent some years in the States and they commented how forests in America don't smell the same as the ones in Poland. I agreed. And so on their invitation, I am now visiting a village that is really sort of a suburb except that it's not, because suburbs are not a Polish concept -- anyway, I visit this hamlet where actually several of my friends now live. They have beautiful homes and lovely lives and art figures prominently in their everyday (we studied economics together. Who knew that they were sculptors at the side!) and it is all rather reassuring. They made the profitable choices. It reminds me of a kid jump rope song that I learned in New York: tenement for rent, inquire within, when I jump out, you jump in. In my generation, for everyone who succeeded, there are plenty of those who did not.

They live at the edge of a vast national park -- Puszcza Kampinowska. It's a forest -- a beautiful forest, like the forests of my childhood, with mushroom clumps growing, I'm sure, after a rainfall and with tall tall birches pushing toward the sky, in competition with the pines. Only in Poland have I seen birches this tall.


We walk the trails -- the three who live in the area and me, the interloper now, the one who is only here for this one last day before heading out tomorrow.


For lunch, they invite me to a local pierogi place (with the unPolish name of Lemon Tree). I follow their lead and order the ones with the meat, with beet-toned dough and bits of lard on top. This is the real deal. This is an aspect of old Poland that few want to let go of.


And then I leave them to their lives. As I get a lift to the metro line I ask the friend who spent some years in the States (he worked for the World Bank) if they ever considered staying there. Briefly, he tells me. But after all, at the end of the day, what would you have there? A house, a yard...

Funny, that's exactly how I view their lives here: they came back to a (very lovely) house and a yard.

It's at this point that I feel so Midwestern-Wisconsinite that I almost want to hide. My farmette is only the pretext for a life that I love so much back home.

And now I am in Warsaw again and everything conspires to mix up the old and the new for me at every turn, every step. Here's an intersection that says it all: prewar, post-war, recent -- they all, right now, coexist. But for how long?


I keep walking. Oh! I'm passing a street named after the poet Baczynski -- remember him from yesterday?


A block later, the street is named after Winnie the Pooh!


Yes, Warsaw had learned how to mix up the metaphors, the symbols, all scrambled in a bizarre way and yet... so very familiar.

It's five. I have a tiny bit of time left. It appears that my apartment is steps away from the Chopin Museum.


It's a new museum -- supported by EU funds. Interactive. You could spend hours playing with the technology at the various stations. I'm overwhelmed. It's too much. You can't just walk through. Here you'll find a segment on his childhood, in another spot -- on his first folk inspired Mazurka compositions, then a segment on the women in his life (from mother, to George Sand), I mean, it just goes on and on and there is music for you to listen to at each point and it's just too much for me right now. With the Polonaise pounding in my head, I leave.

But I didn't fully let go. I signed up for a seminar scheduled for later that evening on "the Myths and Realities of Chopin's Life." And, too, I noted another seminar at the cafe bookstore for even later tonight  -- on Photography and the Widow. I want to go to that as well.

What am I thinking???

I have a taxi coming at 4:30 a.m. and a bag to pack and a supper to eat somewhere... There's no time for seminars today!

My friends suggested a place where I can have a great borstch. I peer inside. Very nice. Folk art throughout, Traditional dishes.

But maybe that ought not be my end point? I had a traditional lunch. Let me try something new. I dig out my funky guide book. There's a place just a few blocks away called Dog or Bitch. It's a cafe (daytime) bar (evenings) and it offers some foods -- waffles pieces, with cheese, with egg, with this, with that.

I find it. A touch hidden, in a courtyard. When I asked for directions, no one had heard of it and even the street name provoked puzzled frowns. But I find it. (Their symbol reminds you a little of Target, no?)


I go inside. My immediate reaction is  -- eh, this isn't me. Too modern. Everyone is in black (guests and servers).


But wait, I'm in black too. I hesitate. A server asks me if I need help with something. I respond in Polish (I swear it was in Polish! At least I think it was in Polish!) -- I'm just looking around. There is a dog themed art gallery. Of kitchy stuff. He leaves me to my devices. I look.

What the hell, I decide to sit down.

I'm given a menu. Or at least I am given a tablet and on it there is a menu and it takes the server three separate times to get me on board with flipping through the various drinks and nibbles on the tablet. In the end, I can't quite get myself to order their proposed "winter" coctails (they'll start a spring menu as ingredients start to pour in from the next season). Too potent. I have an early flight. I can't drink heavy stuff the night before. So I ask for something lighter, wine based. I give a hint -- maybe along the lines of an Aperol Spritz?

He fires up a drink. He tastes, he adds from this bottle, from the next, he stirs, he shakes and he trims it with white stuff that I swear looks like (ugh!) whipped cream.


It is outstanding.

What's that white stuff? -- I ask. It definitely is not whipped cream (thank God).
Oh, a bit of vodka and simple syrup and lime, turned into foam.

I order food, too. Polish themed: their waffle comes with three additions: goat cheese, beets (!) and garlic emulsion.


And he mixes another drink -- again based on wine, but with bitters and with Polish this and Polish that and ground violets sprinkled on top. Phenomenal.


But here's the thing: we're speaking English. How did that happen?! Did they respond to me in English? Or did I forget myself and ask something in that language? Woah.... I want to be home alright.

I chat with the bartender for a while. Easy to do this: the place is not crowded. First question -- is it hard to get Poles to appreciate your creations? (In my mind, Poles don't savor alcoholic beverages; they down them).
He admits that it is. He says London has the greatest mixology bars right now (followed by New York). Poland is only coming around to considering it. But he is optimistic! Here he is, a young man born in the old textile (once upon a time) city of Lodz, creating amazing drinks in Dog and Bitch. I mean, you have to marvel. And, too, his English is excellent. I almost want to tell him to slow down -- he talks too fast for my aging sensibilities.
Where did you learn English? -- I ask.
Well of course. Where my sister is right now, speaking Swedish, or maybe English, certainly not Polish, or maybe?

He encourages me to try another, but I've reached my limit. I tell him I'll send all my friends to this place. He's thinking American friends. I'm thinking -- well, no one actually. My daughters and their friends. Except, they're in the Midwest.

I walk home. Past the street of all streets...


And as it happens, past the Institute of Reportage, where the seminar on photographing widows is taking place. I peer in.


A guy steps out, probably for a cigarette.
Go in, he urges, go in! They just started!
No no. Gotta go...

At the apartment, I squeeze everything, everything (including my mom's china tea set) into my little suitcase.

I can't believe that in just a handful of hours, I'll be home.