Warsaw Packed

Warsaw Packed

In October, the air in Warsaw is cold.  Broad concrete sidewalks and large, drab Soviet-era constructions refract that chill, always present in spite of waning autumn sunshine.  But there is color that warms the streets in bursts: the golden, meaty glow of 24-hour Turkish doner kebab stands; the fluorescent charge of rooftop corporate logos that read Marriott, Orange, and Marks & Spencer; the multi-hued hum of nightclub signs hawking boobs and booze.  This weekend, with nighttime temperatures in the lower 40s, I was tempted to drop by one of these clubs for a little post-Cold War action and see how the Poles party.  With the Polish economy on fire and a future as bright as the Coca-Cola sign overlooking downtown, Warsaw is already overcoming its woeful history with vigor and style.

Warsaw’s story is a tragic one, full of conquest and destruction: after rounding up the Jews into Europe’s largest ghetto, the goddamned Nazis razed 80% of the city in quashing an uprising of the oppressed Poles, with over two million killed under Hitler’s grand plan for the virtual eradication of Poland and its people.  Once solidly under Soviet influence, the Russians imposed on the city Europe’s then-tallest building, the 757-foot-high Palace of Culture and Science, an ornate but foreboding skyscraper that reigned in solitude over the Polish capital for three decades. But sleek, modern towers in blue-tinted glass and corporate marquis now vie for air supremacy and a colorful, completely rebuilt Old City vibrantly outshines the functional but dour residential and office blocks built during the Cold War.  Almost no flat surface is spared from advertising pasteboard, not even the Palace of Culture and Science itself, as Warsaw proudly asserts her devotion to capitalism.

A brief weekend in the city certainly isn’t enough time to get to know the people, but I found the Poles to be polite (my presence elicited a few looks of interest, but hardly any stares in an overwhelmingly white—pale—city) and quiet, but helpful when asked and generally very fluent in English, which was good since I didn’t understand a word of Polish.  Not a word. A trip to a party or two gave a glimpse of Polish rhythm (they kept up pretty good with Rihanna) and the women are attractive and stylish (read: hot), high-heeled boots being the ladies’ footwear of choice.  Clothes, I found to be inexpensive.  Food, not so much.  I did, however, snag a 50-euro-a-night rate at the four-star Mercure Warszawa Grand via Momondo.com only two nights before the trip (no, they did not pay me to say that).

As Poland marches toward further integration with the European Union—they still use the złoty, not the Euro—prices will go up, but so too will the number of visitors, who come to experience this accessible bit of the former Communist Bloc (or, literally, Warsaw Pact), or to take in a bit of history about Nazi occupation and Polish resistance or research composer and favorite son Fryderyk Chopin at the city’s inexpensive but excellent museums.  Warsaw will also lose a bit of its Wild West feel, that air of anything-goes recklessness and conspicuous consumption that accompanies the first throes of unbridled capitalism in a society that hasn’t had it for very long; now is the time to go, before Starbucks, KFC, and Subway complete their conquest.

Meanwhile, even the city’s youngins are staking their claim on the de facto anthem of worldwide youth culture, hip hop (I mean, we don’t really break dance no mo’, but we applaud the effort).

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  1. I too use Momondo a lot for flights. They usually do a really good job. As for the break dancing…you are right I would applaud the effort and abs. 🙂 Enjoy your down time and Congrats!

  2. I spent a surprisingly excellent few days in Warsaw some time back, when I wasn’t sobbing about the “goddamned Nazis” herding my recent ancestors into the ghetto and slaughtering them. Old Jewish men who seemed to spend their afternoons hanging around the memorial gave me roses, which I then left on the memorial, and then cried some more and then, had the best yogurt I’ve ever had anywhere. That was unexpected. Warsaw seemed like a city a person could grown to like rather in spite of themselves and the friendliness of the people there had a lot to do with it.

    • Pam: I would agree about Warsaw growing on you. I didn’t have many expectations, but I was definitely surprised by the friendliness and how widespread English is. And I had absolutely no idea about how much people in Poland suffered during WW2: Jews, Poles, the one or two Africans they could find; it was sickening. I mean, we’re educated about it, but war crimes remain especially abstract until you’re in a place and can see where atrocities were committed. About to watch a documentary on the German society’s complicity in Hitler’s rise. Deep.

        • Sorry, it wasn’t a documentary, it was a movie about Hitler’s last days called Der Untergang. It was the German Historical Museum that had an exhibit on the German people’s complicity in the rise of Hitler, called “Hitler und die Deutschen.”

      • Hello Fly brother, I just returned from Central and Eastern Europe (Amsterdam, Budapest, Hungary, Slovakia, Krakow, Poland & St. Petersburg, Russia. I loved all of the above EXCEPT for Russia. The people were cold as in residuals of the Cold War, abrupt, unfriendly and most did not speak English, or at least that’s what they claimed. The US Dollars are worthless abroad, every country want their own money. Three of them had not conformed to Euros yet.
        My point is that I knew a great deal about the Nazi’s Jewish extermination/concentration camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau, Poland. I went to both of them while in Krakow, Poland.It is one thing to read and see it on TV, but more interesting to actually see how the Nazi’s under Hitler’s rule operated the camps, gas chambers, and the inhuman treatment of Jews across Europe. I also visited Schindler’s Factory Museum and In Amsterdam, I visited the Anne Frank Haus(spelling in Dutch). and I visited the Hermitage Museum in St. P, Russia (the one good thing there for me). I was pick pocketed in Russia for my casio slim camera which had over 130 pictures from the above countries.
        Yes, brother, the Jews have a powerful history, one that they never let you forget…However, they were still able to regroup and maintain their culture, language, religion, communities, UNLIKE our African, African-American ancestors even until today.
        Beautiful people in Poland, very few Jews left there, most have gone abroad to US (New York) etc.
        I posted your link on my blog too!

  3. Long time lurker. Just wanted to say I like your blog. I would never have put Poland on my list of places to visit, but now you’ve got me curious. Have you ever been to Prague?

    • Michael: Thanks for commenting, man. Honestly, Poland wasn’t on my list either until one of my boys said, “Let’s ride over to Warsaw.” I was like, “word.” Definitely surprising! Haven’t been to Prague yet, but I’ve heard good things.

  4. The next time you are in Paris, please contact Ricki Stevenson, (if you have not already) for a full day of African diaspora in Paris. Most of them areAfrican American stories, including the life of Henry “Box” Brown when he visited. Her email is <blackparisdiva@yahoo.com. As a reference for her historical tours, I forwarded to her a book on Americans living in Paris from 1830 into the early 20th century. It's entitled The Greater Journey by David McCullough.

    Happy travels


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