Wednesday, January 09, 2008

from Warsaw: soft light

We are sitting at Blikle Café, eating breakfast. An egg in a glass for me. Classic Polish stuff, though in the old way, the soft boiled egg would have been pealed and dumped unceremoniously into a tall glass. None of this delicate poaching in the glass stuff that I see now.

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It is a late breakfast. The Café doesn’t open until 10 – an interesting time to contemplate an eggs and toast beginning.

(Okay, we cheated: in waiting for it to open, we stumbled into the bakery next door and snacked on sweet cheese yeast rolls.)

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In fact, we are not the only ones now sitting down to a full breakfast. Slowly, the place fills. An older gentleman comes in, looks around and approaches Ed. May I have your newspaper? -- he asks. Ed obliges, as well he might since he doesn’t speak Polish and the paper is in Polish (Ed likes to have reading material ever present, even if he cannot read it).

We learn that the man is Swiss, but born in Poland. First time in Poland? He looks at Ed with interest. No, I smile. It’s his second.

The single woman at another table chimes in. He’s a New Yorker? I nod, though by now, Ed has spent far more years in Wisconsin than in his childhood city. But she got it right and she's pleased. Nice day to be outside! Enjoy it.

Polish people are forever curious about people sharing space, even fleetingly, with them.

Second trip for Ed, but the first time in years that my winter days in Warsaw are dappled with sunlight. Throwing back the curtain this morning, I could not believe that I saw this:

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A walk. A long overdue walk. I hadn’t done it last year: too cold, too gray, too wet. But now? Ed, we are in for a hike!

And so we step out for a first real look at my city.

Remember the Square of Three Crosses from last night? With the pudgy looking church? Here’s its cross (one of the three!) against a deep blue sky. Oh yeah. That other tower? The Palace of Culture. Gift of Stalin. No cross on that one.

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We walk along the "Royal Way," toward Old Town. The pudgy church is behind, casting a wicked eye at the building up front (on the left of the photo) -- the former headquarters of the Communist Party. I used to walk this way daily, to classes at the university. I was destined to have a more personal connection to the place then too. But that's another story for another for another forum.

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Oh, the sun, the sun. In spite of near freezing temps, I am not cold. We walk past stalls of flowers -- so common in European cities! Who gets this morning bouquet? An office buddy celebrating a name day? A sweetie back home?

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Further up, we pass the univsersity buildings. Hey, my classes were here! I ran out for tea at nearby cafés more than once. More than a hundred times. None of this Starbucks quick latte stuff. Prolonged, animated tea breaks.

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And finally, the old town. We slip and stumble over the cobbled streets and icy sidewalks (sand just does not have the melting power of salt). And, I am, as usual, enchanted. Not by the beauty of the place, though there is that...

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...I am enchanted by what was reconstructed here, out of rubble, starting just a few years before my birth and well into my childhood. The Royal Castle at the photo's right side? My high school class helped clear the the old bricks and stones to make room for it. The Castle: not old, but looking as it once did, before the Nazis emptied the city of structure and life during the War.

And of children. The children of the war years. The generation just in the shadows of my own.

Ed and I walk into the Museum of Warsaw History. There is a temporary exhibit of photographs and words. Of children, deported from Warsaw to labor camps and transit camps in the last year of the city's destruction, in 1944.

There is nothing I can say here that would adequately convey those stories, their stories. On the website of the Banished Children Project (banwar1944), you'll find more. But let me at least leave you with one tiny image of this unbelievable horror.

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We watch a film on the destruction of Warsaw. I had taken my daughters to this very film ten years ago. I could watch it a thousand times and still, I would not be able to comprehend how Warsaw could be reduced to nothing. And rebuilt with such strength and gusto soon after.

Outside, I am dazzled by the light. If ever I loved the soft play of rays on children's faces, it was now, this afternoon. A group of school kids, meandering across the square, taking a quick look at Syrenka, the mermaid with the shield, the symbol of my city. Who can not smile at this?

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And all day, we encountered granparents, caring for their little ones while parents are at work.

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We pause at a traditional old restaurant where Polish people, older, nonworking people are eating their mid day meal. Ed is thrilled with Polish mushroom soup and I'm happy with my borstch. Warmth from within.

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It's getting late and the sunlight is getting dangerously thin, frail, as if it might disappear behind the trees of city parks.

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We turn back. We catch a tram along the main street, Marszalkowska, the one that zips past the Palace of Culture.

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We get off just steps from where I first lived in Warsaw, in a most unremarkable, tiny apartment, looking out on a tram stop. Around the corner, you can still walk past the markers of what we not so affectionately refer to as Stalinist architecture.

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You're probably noting the graffiti. That's new. I'm noting that even at times of envisioning a utipian society, the mother is depicted as holding her child (similar images are on the remaining pillars, where she is also holding tools of work in her empty arm).

It's just a short stroll to the park. Several parks, in fact. Let me end this for today. A long post. A full day. A gradnmother bending down over her little one, wiping his nose.

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