Friday, April 24, 2009

April in Warsaw

Before I left, Ed said to me – you realize you’ll be traveling almost 20 hours to get there?

Oh, I realize it. But mostly I don’t think about it, so that I can take in each hour as it comes. Unless things get tense. Then I fret.

Things got tense on the trip over pretty early in the game. I wanted to save money. And so I bought two separate roundtrips: One from Madison to the east coast and one between the States and Warsaw (via Paris).

Now, I know that’s not a good idea. If something goes wrong with the first leg of the journey, you’re dead meat. The trip will get the hatchet, because the second leg wont honor your first separately booked segment nor any delays thrust upon it. But the price of doing separate itineraries was SO much better, that I took a chance.

Sure enough, my flight from Detroit to DC Dulles was unexpectedly canceled. The only cancellation out of maybe a million flights that day. Oh, the worry! I wont bore you with the desperate scramble that followed. I will say this – to the gentleman who saved me by zipping me on his account to the desired airport in DC – thank you. I will always honor you and your company. (Even as I type away on this Apple -- the competition.)

In all, it was a tedious trip with multiple negotiations, tense agents, crying babies – you know the kind: you get there, but your sanity is severely disturbed.

I did not pause in Paris. Even though flying in during early spring is always so beautiful!


I ignored it and ran for my flight to Warsaw. It’s on this flight that I always get the first blast of my home country. Inevitably, I will right hear the wretched curse words (in meaning, it's somewhere between “bitch” and “whore,” and it's always tossed around by men, to each other. For some reason it always offends me, and I am by no means a lightweigth in terms of curse vocabulary).

And I’ll see the full, bushy mustache on men. And there will be women who will be impeccably dressed. And sweet, precious, adored children. And this is a new one – there will be affluence. A guy carrying a Prada shopping bag to take back home. Designer this, designer that. To me, it just wrecks havoc with all my memories of a very designer-free society. Of course, my countrymen and women should have access to the poshest consumer goods! Of course! Earn more, spend more. And for a small minority, Poland is like that now.

The flight to Warsaw is not full at all. A (French) toddler screams the entire two hours, but by now it just doesn’t matter. I’m tired but I am here. Little small fields outside. We’re landing in Warsaw.


I take a cab from the airport. I push down the window and watch the people go about their daily errands.


And I suddenly understand why Wisconsin springs (or lack thereof) bother me so much. Here, where I grew up, spring is in full swing by now. Shrubs and plants are blooming , the flower ladies are out with their buckets (tin has morphed into plastic). The chestnut trees are on the verge of showing their petals, It’s gorgeous now! How could I not remember??


A woman urges me to go into a flowershop, because what's inside, she says, is even better than the balcony plantings. But I'm transfixed by these: daisies, forget-me-nots, stokrotki -- flowers of a Polish spring.


I’m trying out a new “old” hotel – this one, the Rialto:


It’s beautiful inside and out and it’s four blocks from where I lived as a preschooler and five blocks from where I lived as a highschooler. (If you want to stay here inexpensively, look up their rates on

It’s almost evening when I check in. I’m hungry, tired and sticky, but I set out anyway, just to get that Warsaw stuff into my head, so that I can try to get back the feeling of being of this place.


I pause at a tram stop on Marszalkowska Street. How many times did I jump on and off tram cars here?

On the side streets, I come across the occasional small hut selling the basics that I knew from childhood: sorrel for soup, flowers, pickles, and sauerkraut with grated carrot. And young beet leaves for spring borstch.


Eventually, I make my way to the "lesser" park – Ujazdowski. A handful of steps from my childhood home (I’m saving the gem for Sunday morning). A lot of work went into replanting some of the areas and it looks absolutely gorgeous. Poland does parks better than probably any country in the world. And this is the season to stroll. Hello, willows.


In the past, I’ve rarely eaten out in Warsaw. Friends or family cook for me most every evening I am here and so I actually know very little about the Warsaw restaurant scene. But today I am on my own and I pick an artsy place just at the edge of the park. (Named Artsy Kitchen – or Qchnia Artystyczna, and no, there’s no letter Q in the Polish alphabet; they’re just being clever.)

I picked something from the “Polish dishes” list. I suspected it might be heavy, but for the one meal, it can hardly matter. It's so very good! Potato placki with creamy Polish mushroom sauce.


At the table to my left, three women linger over coffee and gossip. For a minute I am one of them. Meeting for tea. And hours of talk. High school years, university years, spent reviewing everything. From scratch. And starting afresh the next time.


I stroll these very familiar blocks and I teeter between my childhood and the new reality here: there’s plenty of evidence of the old stuff, reestablishing itself in my psyche. Small grocery stores that look like this:


…except now, if you look inside, you see a good assortment of foods and not just candy and canned products.

Or, note this flower lady:


She’s selling bananas. I never saw a banana in Poland the first two dozen years of my life. And here she is, telling me that she sometimes takes photos of her own flowers too. With her cell phone camera.

But it seems to me that things haven't sorted themselves out yet: that people who live here are still straddling different worlds, uncertain where to get off. I get the bill for the restaurant. It’s a usual little sliver of paper printed out from the credit card machine. And I draw a blank – I don’t remember if tip is included in the Polish bill and so I ask. And I am told -- no it’s not. Okay, no big deal, I hesitate to do the math and start to write in what I think must be a nice tip.

The waitress stops me. No no! We don’t use that portion of the bill for tips.
But – there’s a space for it, with the Polish word for “tips”!
Well yes, but we don’t use it. It would be taxed there. People just leave us tips in cash.

Ah. Tips, but no taxes. Poles love eating their cake.

I take the road past the embassies. In front of the Swiss, the pink blooms are magnificent!


And the American – what’s this? A sign on the embassy fence with info on how to obtain a tourist visa. Am I reading it correctly? Make a personal appearance appointment with the counsel… Pay $5 per minute for phone call to make appointment with counsel. Pay $130 for processing your application (no matter what the outcome)…. Fill out this, wait here, do that. You’ve got to be kidding! Why?

When I came off the plane in Warsaw, for the first time in my life, I did not have to go through passport control. If you are coming in from an EU country (in my case France), you don’t need to take out your passport. Refreshingly open, at least in Europe.

...Even as I watch a handful of old men set up signs and distribute leaflets in support of Polish nationalism. They remind me of the sings on Indiana highways that say -- get America out of the UN now! Except here, we've substituted Poland for America, and EU for UN.

It's cool in the evening. I am barely awake as I type this, but it's now or never. Tomorrow is the wedding, followed by dinner with my father. Minutes ago he happily proclaimed over the phone that he has made me that favorite Polish dish of his -- flaczki (a.k.a. -- tripe. Guts).


  1. Thanks for taking us along on your weekend in Poland - I'm having a wonderful time so far!

  2. What a beautiful post. Enjoy the flaczki.

  3. I think not to many people really understand what it really means to go back and see your old stomping grounds at the place where you grew up, not to mention the old country. I think I would be walking like you comparing your child memories to what it is now. I think with Poland being a EU country changes are more noticeable comparing just across the border in Belarus, being the last island of socialism in Europe. However, it’s not your head that wants to go back to see, it’s your heart…

  4. Glad you made it. Have a great time tomorrow. I promise lots of flowers when you return. It was 80 today and I literally watched the blossoms open on my magnolia all afternoon. Weather bad this weekend and sun will return with you hopefully. G'night.

  5. Did I ever tell you that my great-grandfather emigrated from Warsaw to America 100 years ago? I've always wanted to visit to see where he came from. Now I know I will go in spring. :)

    Enjoy your guts (and your family, of course)!

  6. Absolutely great post, Nina. Great stories, great pictures. Thanks for giving me the travel bug again, and enjoy your time "back home." Enjoy the time with your friends and family!

  7. Fascinating to think that these days we think nothing of hopping on a plane to the other side of the world to go to a wedding in a place that you never used to even be able to go to or to leave. The world has certainly changed in the big ways as well as in the small.


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