Saturday, July 01, 2017

weekend in Warsaw

I'll say this right away: to me, Warsaw never looked more beautiful than it did today. Well, let me qualify it somewhat: I know that when I was a young girl and the parks burst forth with spring, I did not think anything could match the city's beauty then. But today, my perspective runs outside Warsaw's gorgeous parks: I walked much of the city streets and pathways and they sparkled with a buoyancy and liveliness and yes, freshness that was just enchanting!

This, despite the fact that parts of the city felt more empty than I would expect on a Saturday morning. I asked my friend about this. Yesterday's metro ride, too, felt less crowded at rush hour. Am I wrong?

I think she looked at me with what has to be a pitying glance - as in: how quickly you've forgotten, you, living in the land of no vacations: it's July. Warsaw doesn't entirely close down for two months in the summer, but like Paris, it does empty out considerably.

But oh, is it lovely on a brilliant summer day! And here, too, I have to remind myself that it's the first time I am in Warsaw in my own place during the warm, summer months. The apartment renovation was finished just in time for my October arrival last year. Since then, I've returned in December, January and March and each time it was cold out there! Today is different.

I did not plan to eat breakfast at home. My lovely friend promised she'd pack a morning meal for us for a picnic by the river. Still, I did manage a pre-breakfast snack of blueberries and raspberries (with Polish raspberry flower honey). I cannot pass this by!


And immediately after, I meet my sweet sweet friend and we make our way toward Wisla. (Here she comes, with her picnic basket!)


I'd heard that the riverfront had been transformed into a place meant for long strolls -- with wide walkways, sitting places, fountains -- all done with an artistic touch that I very much associate with this city: modern, but in place with what is there, in the background -- which is a city of many epochs and many faces.

We start our walk by the mermaid -- the symbol of Warsaw.


And we head north, along the newly constructed pedestrian path -- with bench-sized steps leading toward the water. (That's the new Copernicus Science Center -- with exhibitions, a planetarium and, too, many workshops and hands on activities for children.)


The packed breakfast is delicious and deliberately very Polish: the best brown bread, with white cheese and cucumbers, kefir to drink, all followed by cookies and fruits.


This moment by the river will stand out for me for sure. Unlike in Paris (another city that attempts to revamp the spaces along the city's river, especially for the summer season), Warsaw has space along the Wisla and so the opportunity to make something special of this strip of land is great. (Fountains that form a mini splash pad!)


Too, the main riverside arteries run a bit of a distance from the river itself and so the noise of city traffic is not ever present (as it is in Paris).


Warsaw does borrow an idea straight from Paris: a sandy beach, and in this city it has the wicker sitting baskets I remember so well from my childhood vacation by the Baltic Sea!


It's not entirely completed yet -- there are segments of the long promenade still under construction, but the part that is actually very close to my apartment is just splendid!

We finish our meal, but not our walk. My friend leads me away from the river and toward the city...


(A view that you would not find in the US: a nun hanging the laundry on the roof of the Ursuline Sisters Assembly...)


... up the winding cobbled road (so quiet today!)...


....toward the university and the Royal Way.


We pause for coffee at Telimena Cafe. The sparrows are onto the cakes and cookies served here. They demand their share and more often than not they get it.


And again we veer off along side streets...


... and hidden parks. I see many a felled limb. My friend tells me that storms raged through Warsaw on Thursday, causing more damage than the city has seen for a long time. Yes, our meteorological events are more fierce now. No one can recall winds that strong here.

As you know, the city was completely rebuilt after the war. Almost nothing was left of prewar construction. But in some places, hollowed shells of buildings remained standing. My apartment is in such a building -- dating back to the early twentieth century. But nearly always, the signs of war were erased in the makeover. Plaques and bits of brick sometimes remind the passerby of what stood there before the war. We passed several today, including ones that preserved just a bit of the wall that cordoned off the Jewish Ghetto.

I think the only building that preserved the standing fragment of its bombed and bullet ridden facade is this one --- it was, before World War II, the Bank of Poland and even earlier, when Poland was under partition, it housed the Russian Imperial Bank.


And now my friend and I part ways.

I take my time returning to my apartment. Slowly, circuitously, passing Theater Square -- with the imposing Grand Theater and National Opera (completely destroyed during the war and reopened only in 1965, when I was already 12 years old)...


I think, too, about more recent events in Poland. In my lifetime, the fact that the city lifted itself from rubble was something of a miracle. And it seems that this was its fate -- to be as it was in the decades after the war: wondrously raised into a magnificence that was seemingly impossible to achieve (especially given Poland's scant resources then) and yet - here it was.


But by the time I was a teenager (in the 60s), you could not help but notice that somehow the magnificence had faded and though we remained fiercely loyal to our city, noting its parks, always its parks which never succumbed, never faded, you could not help but notice that great swaths of drabness had crept over the city.

If ever you doubt the power of capital investment, you need only look at Warsaw now: that investment and especially funds from the EU have transformed this place. And so indeed, Warsaw has never been more beautiful than it is right now.

Walking back now, from the Royal Palace Square...


... again past the university -- my university for the first 2.5 years of studies.

Here's a display of Nobel Laureates who had some connection to the University of Warsaw -- five of them actually graduated from here. You'll have guessed that Marie Sklodowska Curie would be among them (though she was not actually a graduate from here), but did you know that the list also includes the poet Czeslaw Milosz? And the PM of Israel, Menachem Begin? And the epic writer Sienkiewicz? And the economist Hurwicz? And the physicist Rotblat?


I walk now along Nowy Swiat, blissfully closed off to even bus and taxi traffic today...


... and I go to the flower seller that is closest to my home. (Note the braided hair of these two sisters: I never understood why theirs is called a French braid, since I have never seen it in France and I've seen it all my life in the hair of Polish girls.)


There's much to choose from -- I settle on childhood favorites: forget-me-nots and sweet peas. The vendor stands with her flowers year round (yes, outside, yes, even in the winter) and she is touched that I always come back to her. Why wouldn't I -- she takes great care with each flower. The finished little bouquet is just lovely!


As I make my way down to Tamka Street, I pass a wee park behind the University School of Music. They have a weekly noon event of music and art in progress right now. Kids are making collages to the notes of Chopin played on a baby grand.


Finally, I walk down the stairs and past the gold duck again. Remember the story of the gold duck?


And now I am back at my apartment building (at the street level, it's home to a lovely little cafe with hip looking young young people).


Up the stairs, into my apartment, where I gently place the bouquet of flowers in a glass filled with cool water.


Late afternoon. The weather turns iffy and it will remain thus for the next 24 hours. I set out in the direction of the parks, though I have no expectation of exploring them. It's a destination, as I wait to hear from my sister about the arrivals of her two sons.

(Look at that sky! It only gets worse as the day progresses!)


Between my sister, her sons and myself, we span the globe, living in four different countries. It really is very rare that we're all in one place at the same time, but miraculously, we hit the jackpot this weekend. But their flights are delayed and so I kill a little time by stepping into the lesser park.

How many times in your life does a Warsaw person say -- meet you at the park? How many times have I said it?

With your young friend...


With your older chum...


With your lover...


The park is called  Ujazdowski and it's the smaller of the royal parks, but one that is intimately familiar to me, if only because I always lived very very close to it.  Here, this gate opens up to the lovely little street where I lived during my adolescence (in an apartment where my father's girlfriend continues to live now, but that's a whole other family saga that properly belongs in a novel of deception and intrigue -- certainly not Ocean stuff!)


I get a text message that one nephew has arrived and the other is on his way and so I leave the park and turn toward the city again.

What's this?!


An announcement and an invitation! Trump is coming to town and the governing bodies here are proud as anything, boasting on this poster that this will be "pierwsze publiczne wystapienie prezydenta w Europe" (the first public appearance of the president in Europe). They're trying to draw a crowd. Will they succeed? I wont stick around to find out. Luckily I'm leaving three days prior to Trump's arrival.

I pass many, many ice cream places today and I finally take out my camera to record this very common sight: people eating cones as they walk the blocks of the city.


And one more city photo before I hop on the metro -- of the block where I lived when I moved from the village to Warsaw as a three year old (ours was the second apartment building to the right of the noisy street; the apartment itself was a tiny one bedroom flat, with a gas water heater that terrified me the whole time we lived there, but apartments were hard to come by and I think we considered ourselves to be lucky to have it).


A few metro stops and I am in my sister's neighborhood. We eat dinner at a very good Indian place -- first with just her and my younger nephew -- the one who twice took care of the farmette while Ed and I went away...


Eventually to be joined by his brother. Here are the two young men...


And finally, here are the three of them: they lived as a threesome as the boys were growing up and it's fantastic to see them now, healthy and happy.


I take the metro back to my neighborhood, but I get off at a stop just beyond my apartment. I'm by the river again...


I'm told that on a warm summer evening, it's crowded as anything here: it's a beautiful communal space for walking, eating, enjoying the evening sky. But of course, today there is the threat of rain. I hurry home.

Just one more stop: in my block there is an ice cream store. Yes, one of thousands in the city, but this one is my special ice cream store and for the first time in a very long time, I buy myself a Warsaw ice cream cone.


Cream flavor, they call it. One I would have had many many times as a kid, especially when my true favorite -- raspberry flavor -- was not available.