Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wednesday in Warsaw

I end this day with a long visit with my father.

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He talks in spurts, as if there is too much that needs to be said to answer any question completely and so he must abandon any attempt to do so.

And this is a trip of questions for me. When I started work on my book on growing up in postwar Poland, I thought I knew what simple story needed to be told. But writing is not static and over the years, I saw that the better story is the one that is at least in one small part a response (or a new set of questions raised) to what others, outsiders, are writing about Poland. I don't have great scholarly wisdoms to offer about the history of that period and in fact I offer only a child's perspective (it is a story of childhood after all) but history had it that I should live in the thick of a great European drama. What I write about life then is one truth, my truth, to be thrown into the pot of truths and half truths and no truths at all that are forever simmering out there.

Thinking about this makes for a restless night. Finishing yesterday's post means, too, that much of my morning is shot. That's okay. If I can't think about it carefully (here on Ocean), isn't the value of what I see and hear lessened?

Morning. Breakfast and a pause as to what's next. But it's not a serious deliberation. I know what's to fill the remaining light hours: I have for years now wanted to walk to Praga. That's Warsaw's east bank, left bank, rough side, bohemian, edgy, up-and-coming (but definitely hasn't come yet) district. And it is also Warsaw's brick and mortar older part of town: Praga is where the Soviets stayed put as the Germans bombed Warsaw to pieces in a final confrontation during the uprising in 1944. Bombs leveled the core of the city, but Praga, the small enclave across the river was mostly spared. My father and his parents (luck would have it) found shelter in Praga in the final years of the war. It saved my father's (and his parents') life to be there. He has always said that luck in life so often placed him in the right place at the right time (even as Praga is left rather than right bank-ish and I don't use the word in any political fashion.)

The walk is lo-o-o-ong! And I don't do it right. I need to cross the Vistula River, but the lead up to the bridge is l-o-o-o-ng too and I feel for a good while that it's just me and the cars out there. And buses. And mud splattered sidewalks and a strong wish that I should get to the other side already.

And here's the thing: the weather has turned from 'oh, that is just so pretty' to 'oh, it is foggy and freezing.' The air is so heavy with cold moisture that it traps every particle of spent fuel inside. There is a perpetual whiff of something burning in the air.

Finally: the crossing over the Vistula River…

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Then on to Saska Kempa,  the southern edge of Praga, where, in the back streets, the lesser embassies (of countries that don't command long visa lines) sit behind closed gates and on the main boulevards locals move around slowly, agedly, pulling grocery carts behind them.

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I have some small goals. One is to see the new-ish monument to Agnieszka Osiecka. I've always liked Agnieszka Osiecka. She was a late twentieth century poet and a writer and she was part of my adolescent fabric of artistic souls who somehow (though I no longer fully remember or understand why) 'spoke to me.' So here she sits now, in the blocks where she once lived.

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And here are some of the older blocks of this maybe not so edgy but definitely interesting part of the city.

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'Rajstopy' means women's tights; 'cukiernia truskawka' means strawberry pastry shop


Alright.  I switch directions and walk north, through the lovely (but not anywhere near as splendid as Lazienki) park Skaryszewski…

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moms and grandmothers with buggies

…where a dancer dances away under a canopy of snow.


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And now I'm out of the park and searching for what is said to be the oldest building in Praga, but I find that just a shell  remains. It's being gutted and reworked into a museum of Praga history. That's alright -- there's plenty that feels old here. Old in the sense that time has passed and it has not been gentle.

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the painted sign reads: carpets laundered

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dried mushrooms, walnuts, garlic

And finally I am on what is reputed to be the most interesting street of Praga, but I only give it a few blocks. I'm ready to turn back. I've been out in the foggy cold for hours now and I still want to hike all the way back (though via a different bridge, more pedestrian friendly). A warming up pause is in order.  I look around for the "trendy cafes" that are "starting to appear" in Praga. I see only one cafe and it looks faded and old, which is more fitting for this part of town anyway. You can just barely see the faded letters on the building. 'Stara Praga.' The Old Praga. I go inside.

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It's lovely! Old, yes, but with a startling display of  modernity in the art. Most importantly, it's comfortable and warm and I order their specialty -- hot spiced wine and though I can't quite finish it (too sweet!) it still does the trick: my insides are heating up!

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Okay, past the onion domes of the old Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene…

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…and past another park and home to our city zoo.

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The zoo.  My memories are suddenly so vivid: the zoo had a bear pit that looked out over the busy street. How busy is the street? It is the main artery connecting Warsaw with the northeast. I know it well. When we were teens and my dad finally had a car, we drove this way to get to my grandparents' house in the village (in the northeast of Poland). We would look with great curiosity to see if we could spot those poor brown bears that were on full display for all people heading out to the villages and cities on the eastern border or even beyond, to the Soviet Union.

Thankfully, I see no bears today and perhaps some animal rights groups have pushed the bears further inside, away from the fumes, the klaxons, the stares of curious travelers. I saw instead lovely scenes of mothers -- one with a very young child, and then another, with a somewhat older child.

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And now I cross the bridge again, the kinder bridge, the one that looks out on Warsaw's best skyline -- which would look a lot better had there not been this soupy, freezing fog…

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But I'm on my familiar bank now, the bank where I spent 99.9% of my Warsaw days (and that may be an understatement).

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The Castle Square, coming at it from the river

Familiar everything. Including the bakeries. (If you're a Pole, you'll know what every one of those cakes is. From the gingerbread, to the poppy seed and walnut rolls.)

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And then it's dark and time for a supper and I have a friend meet me right here at the B&B, where I eat a delicious pumpkin soup followed by a fresh and honest salad. The salad is with beets, the soup is with slivers of cucumber. Because we are in Poland.

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As you know, my evening ends with my father.

Late at night I leave his home, his street, which was once also my home and my street and I always thought I liked it then, but now I'm not so sure, because I have to admit this -- it was when I was living here that I decided to leave Poland and move in as au pair with a family in New York.