Wednesday, July 06, 2016


Though you could argue that Warsaw has greatly transformed itself since I moved away now more than forty years ago, still, I hold firm to my claim that much more of her essence has stayed the same.

I felt it at the airport as I waited for the bus to take me to my sister's home. I heard it in the conversation on the bus between three student types - they were like the conversations I had here long ago with my student friends and that I never had once I moved to the US (topics, intonations, speed of articulation -- it all would shift radically when I'd talk with American friends).

And this morning, I recognize that Warsaw quintessence in the foods my sister and I see in the stalls that line streets and append themselves to popular walkways (for example by the metro stop) and where people still buy their fresh produce daily. Close to their home. Mostly seasonal fruits and vegetables.


My sister and I step out to pick up some more fruits for breakfast  (I devoured much of her supply last night when I arrived). How can you resist the late season strawberries, the plump raspberries, the black currants, the wild blueberries, gooseberries and sour cherries?  She asks -- do you have wild blueberries in the States? Not in Wisconsin, ever. Just in the freezer section of our grocery store.


Staples of the season. A short growing season, but when it's here, everyone buys, stews, eats...


... and yes, include in that pickles. Virtually every stand has large containers of pickling cucumbers and just to make things easier for you -- packaged salt and spices and bunches of garlic right along side. All you need is the jar and the water.


(We stop at a bakery as well. Again, it's so obviously Polish: perhaps you didn't notice the dense dark  grainy bricks of bread toward the top, but you'll surely note that we really like small rolls of every incarnation.)


Breakfast is at home, back to my standard and much beloved oatmeal, which she readies for me...


Oh, but the taste of the fruit is unforgettable. You could blind taste your way to your homeland just by following the trail of familiar flavors. (With kefir and honey of course. Acacia or buckwheat.)


My sister is having some repair work done in her own apartment, so I leave her to her chores and I set out to meet with Pani Karolina, my brilliant and exquisitely discriminating architect decorator. As you know, I have now a wee apartment in Warsaw. For the past two weeks it has been disassembled, so to speak. Ripped to shreds. Gutted. I will be seeing it in its raw state and more importantly, I will be going over some of the details of the remodeling with her.

I take the metro to my new neighborhood. Ah, there are flags alright! Polish, NATO, and of Warsaw.


The apartment building with my unit is one of the very few in Warsaw that was salvaged after the War's destruction. Pani Karolina says that someday perhaps it will be governed by strict guidelines as to how restoration should proceed, but right now, people live pretty much by their own rules. One reason for this absence of directives is that many (most?) residents in the building are, by their own description, quite poor ("poor as a church mouse!" one neighbor had said). The building is humble, but I like it. Its inhabitants here appear to lead simple, straightforward lives. (You'd see this in the stairwell which is fresh and clean, even as the entrance doors to apartments are all different and in various states of disrepair.) I am, of course, an anomaly. I understand that. Sure, I'm retired, but fact is, I've been on a different boat ever since I left for the U.S. and started to earn an income abroad.

Here's the building. I don't have a balcony, which is a good thing because windows onto the main street would bring in the noise of the traffic. (And by the way, this is the same street that is likely to be used by limousines carrying dignitaries in the the next two days across the river to their NATO meeting place.)


On the ground floor there is a coffee shop and I arrive early to have a cup of caffeine before my meeting with Pani Karolina. I see that there is a new trend in the city: bring your dog to the cafe.


This next lap pooch is yapping madly at everyone out on the street. I'm amused because of course I've just been in a country where there are many dogs in cafes and restaurants, but French dogs are used to the rules of the game: they're quiet and unless you trip over one, you hardly know they're there. Polish dogs are still learning.


Ah, here comes my wonderful and talented Pani Karolina. (She is at the counter.)


She takes out her folders, her computer with links to things that need my thumb up or down, her samples of laminate, stone, fabric and more importantly, she brings to the table her ideas. Even when I initially do not agree with her (which is rare), I usually come around to her way of seeing things. Pani Karolina thinks deeply and carefully about everything. She has been not only my right hand but my entire everything in this project. That I am enjoying immensely its execution is entirely because I find her spirit and calm, cheerful demeanor so completely disarming that I honestly cannot believe my luck in having found her (or having had my sister find her for me).

We make a thousand decisions in those few hours in the coffee shop. Much has been already decided via email, but we clear up such details as bedroom finish, furnishings, lighting fixtures. Plates even. Nearly everything you would need to move into apartment (which I intend to reside in this coming October).

And then we go up to my unit, which I had only seen once and if you recall -- I hated the way it looked then, which was fine because the goal was to buy cheap and ugly and turn it into a thing of great beauty.

Gutted, I tell you. (Here's the leader of the construction team and he, too, is a gem: an honest, calm, wise man who has worked with Pani Karolina on a number of jobs and I can see why she likes him. I like him immediately as well.)


One thing that I had been warned about many times, as Pani Karolina drew and redrew the plans for the apartment, is that it really is tiny. It has a wee bedroom and then a salon which also has to serve as a kitchen. And an entrance hall and a bathroom. All this fits into less than 420 square feet. She figured out early that once you put a double bed into the bedroom, there isn't a great deal of space left.

(Pacing, measuring, thinking through some issues...)


But what helps it immensely is that the apartment has three voluminous windows on two opposing sides and it has very high (prewar) ceilings. And so it is luminous in its tinyness. I was sold on that and I don't think I made a mistake. (And just so you readers across the ocean get some perspective on things in Poland, on the floor below me, in the same space, an older gentleman lives with his grown son. They divided the salon into two rooms. Why? Well, because it worked better that way when they had not two, but seven family members living there in earlier years.)

Last minute decisions...


And then we leave the workmen to their job and we retreat down the block to the ice cream store (which calls itself a traditional ice cream store, which is sort of amusing because I can't really figure out which traditions it wants to identify with).

Pani Karolina orders a sorbet, but I take the creamy melon ice cream because creamy ice cream in Poland is not at all like in America: it's lighter and more delicate and altogether wonderful.


And we're done. The rest of the decisions will be made via email.

I walk around the neighborhood -- my neighborhood -- stopping at another cafe for another cup of coffee. (The place also sells cakes by the slice. The bottom shelf is a nod to other places, but the top shelf has Poland written all over it -- from the meringue tortes to the cheesecake with fruits and jelly.


There are so many of these cafes now and they all seems to be popular and this is the other Warsaw -- the one that isn't necessarily as poor as a church mouse. It has an outward looking younger cohort of people. They're often conferring with others who speak other languages. They seem confident and hopeful.

They say that when you walk the streets of Krakow, where the literary set, the older generation, the older buildings, habits and styles should make you feel like you've entered a stubbornly stogy and entrenched tableau, that doesn't happen because there is a world famous university in the city that is home to some 40,000 students and this adds a youthful defiance that nicely balances the other, older face of the town.

Here, in Warsaw, in the neighborhood of my apartment, I feel the same youthful vibe. The university is just a few blocks away. I think it transforms the area. It mixes it up and what spills out is refreshingly bright and honest.


I walk some more.

Warsaw is not only one thing of course. Let's move away from the university streets that lead up to the Old Town. Once more, the flags, cheerfully fluttering on a day that has had sunshine, downpours and gusts of strong wind.


Not uncommon: a monument to the fallen heroes of The War.


And across the street, two buildings almost collide: the former Communist Party headquarters (to the left) and a new structure that has some commercial aspect to it (to the right).


This leads me right to the Place of Three Crosses. This is the church where I'm told my father's parents were married.


Past an extravagant bakery with an extravagant very Polish meringue cake.


And a very Polish child, eating an ice cream cone on a summer day. Bundled and with a cap. Very Polish!


I end on the Square which often appears on Ocean pages. I lived my childhood half a block away and my adolescence three blocks away. I never felt this was a particularly attractive intersection of city streets, but honestly, everything looks just fine under a blue sky.


And then I ride the metro again to my sister's. We do set out again in the evening, just to run some errands, but I'll end the photo run with those blue skies. You can't improve on that. Well, perhaps I should have taken photos of the foods we eat tonight -- the borscht my sister made for me, the pickles, the fresh fava beans that are only in season for a couple of weeks, the walk we took in the evening, the store we visited with Swedish children's clothes. But in fact, sometimes I am able to put away the camera. I did that on this evening.

Until tomorrow then!