Tuesday, October 25, 2016

the Apartment


Most of you will remember why it is that this last spring, I found myself to be the proud owner of an old and small apartment in Warsaw: my father had died and my sister and I inherited a rustic country cottage in Poland that was under his ownership. She artfully sold it and in February of this year I had a decision to make: pay the high Polish tax on the inheritance, buy a single car garage space outside Paris (that's a joke, though the truth is, the amount was only large enough to afford that in my beloved France), or purchase property in Poland. I chose the latter.

I thought I knew how to go about buying real estate. The average middle class American will have owned his or her home sometime in the course of his or her life. At 63 years, I had bought and sold five primary residences. I thought I had learned from the mistakes I made and that I was savvy enough to embark on this Polish adventure with some degree of real estate smarts.

Of course I was wrong.

It's been about twenty years since Poland reverted to market capitalism, but of course, transfers of property are a complicated matter and most Poles did not own their residences until recently. I studied the market carefully, but I did not understand any of it until I made several offers to purchase and regretted every single one of them. Thankfully, they all fell through.

Until this wee apartment showed up. Right in the center of Warsaw.

The building is nearly 100 years old, which says so much about everything! You'll know that Warsaw was a rubble after World War II, What little was left standing was a skeleton of its former self. My particular apartment building isn't at all glorious or noteworthy. Currently, on the outside, it looks dismal in a sort of prewar modern fashion.

(Looking at it this evening. My unit doesn't have a balcony -- the apartment is tucked to the side, away from the busy street.)


So why did I pick this unit? For one thing, it was cheap. At less than 500 square feet, it had been home to a family of four, but recently the owners had moved out, renting it to students who attended the near by university and academy of music.

It was a mess! When I saw photos online, it was painted a bright, putrid pink, but that was the least of its problems. The main room was a kitchen and living room and dining space all in one and since it was tiny, you were overwhelmed by the sheer ugliness of the entirety. The bathroom -- don't get me started!

So the plan was to offer far less than the asking price, to wait patiently until the students moved out and then to gut the whole place and start afresh.

Most people who oversee remodeling operations are overwhelmed by the enormity of the job, but I had the fantastic help of a young and smart Polish architect and designer -- Pani Karolina. You could say that I did the whole remodel online. She made proposals, I made decisions. Sometimes she didn't like my decisions. Usually I went with her judgment. I don't think I will regret it one bit.


My flights to Warsaw were easy and pleasant. I landed in a very wet Poland just before noon and as always, my sister was at the airport, ready to ride the bus with me and open the door to my new place.

Who knew that 420 square feet could look so beautiful?!

(I swing open the door and peer inside. The smell of freshness greets me.)



There were so many challenges to the remodel, but the biggest one was to make the larger of the two rooms look welcoming and not just like a kitchen with a couch. I asked Pani Karolina to make it luminous and bright. It's all of that and then some.



Yes, really, it looks splendid!

Another huge challenge was to hide and soundproof the ugly plumbing pipes that ran through the tiny bathroom. And to make the space look bright and modern. Pani Karolina did this beautifully.


And finally, there is the bedroom -- skinny and long and irregularly shaped. Barely wide enough to fit a bed. We went back and forth on everything here -- from the bed cover to the lighting. Again, she was a master of disguising flaws, weird shapes, tight spaces.


There are loads of personal touches -- mine and hers. A blanket for the couch from Islay that I consulted with her about and finally purchased. The framed photos of farmette flowers which bring together my two worlds so well (you can see them above, grouped over an antique chest of drawers which Pani Karolina had buffed up, stained and painted).

I've seen many photos and reviewed progress reports, but being here in person just took my breath away.

I'll not bother you with more details now. They'll be as much a backdrop to my Warsaw stories as the farmette is to my Wisconsin life.

And the Rest

Today was, predictably, a blur of activity. I met with Pani Karolina.


I did a quick run to the grocery store. My sister had already stocked my cupboard and fridge with favorites: herring, sauerkraut, cheese, oatmeal, kefir, honey. I just needed milk and fruit.

(The man at the fruit stand told me -- these are the last Polish berries of the year...)


And in the late afternoon, I met up with my wonderful friends from the U.S. -- Barbara and Shmuel (they're staying at an Airbnb just a five minutes stroll from my place). So I guess you could say that the first tea I brewed here was for people who traveled a hell of a long way to drink it!


We went out in search of a bakery (you know you're in a Polish bread and cake shop when you see these babkas...)


Next -- a search for a vegetarian supper.  There are a number of such spots around this area as we're close to the university. The place we settled on is called Fit and Green -- it's good enough for a quick meal. (I had a mushroom and buckwheat burger and an endive salad.)


It would be wonderful to stay up late and just luxuriate in the coolness of being in this brand new space, but I'm after three long flights and early tomorrow, my friends and I are heading out to Krakow.

A deep breath of air from the freshest smelling apartment in all of Warsaw. And a good night to all of you!