Falling in love with Warsaw, yet again

 

We met three years ago. Back then, I had little information about it. I knew it was the capital of Poland and that I might enjoy it because I’ve always had a thing for Eastern Europe. I also knew the following: that there’s a neat Book Institute in Cracow and they do a great job in terms of book promotion, I thought Lech Wałęsa was cool but under no circumstances as cool as Havel, I had heard of Podolski and Kloze and I also knew that the Pope (back then, John Paul the Second) was Polish. I had read Miłosz and Kołakowski and had written a pretty coherent and original text about the mechanisms that lead to the fall of communism in the former Soviet Bloc. The Polish Institute in Bucharest had awarded me with a Polish language summer course at the University of Warsaw, and I expected it to be a fun experience, much in the same way as the Japanese course had been back in high school. Fun and useless, with no outstanding long term results.

At the end of the month spent in Warsaw, I cried as if there was no tomorrow. I had become numb, overwhelmed with sadness, almost as if something had fundamentally changed inside of me. Well, it pretty much had. Part of me was still there, in all those places that had felt more “at home” than any of my previous homes. I’d start speaking Polish in front of the mirror while adding the final touches to my make up, and with no exception my eyes filled up with tears and I had to start all over. I even had butterflies in my stomach when trying to pronounce more than three consonants in a row. Warsaw was no longer something to be talked about in neutral terms. I had lost my head over a city that, at first sight, had nothing more to offer than some grey buildings and the still visible traumas of a past it’s only now coming to terms with. It was almost impossible to explain what had happened during my Polish summer. I had taken part in a language course and was capable of uttering some words in a Slavic language, I had met some nice people, wasted my nights just as I had done with all the other previous summer schools in my life.

And there I was, back in Bucharest, with my graduation paper waiting to be written, a job that required my presence and a life that one way or another I had to go on with. I took up Polish classes at Instytut Polski, didn’t miss one exhibition of Polish artists, started reading Gazeta Wyborcza without making much sense of it, watched all of Wajda movies. I needed something to hang on to. Something that could make the brutal break up with my city less brutal. A few months later, I spent a week in Łódź at a seminar on history – it had a very long and pompous name and I couldn’t care less about it. I was thrilled to be going back to Poland, I was able to say “black coffee, no sugar”, “Źubrówka and apple juice”, “oranges apples and a pack of Marlboro lights”, “I learnt Polish three months ago at the University of Warsaw”. That’s when I discovered it only takes this little to be utterly happy. From Łódź I travelled to Warsaw and before flying back home I went out on a date with my city. We only had two hours, so I wandered the streets aimlessly, it was snowing and it smelled like Christmas, and I envied each and every one of the passers by. I stopped for coffee at the pub in the Palace of Culture and Science – the hideous building which was offered as a gift to the city by Stalin himself, I went to see the University and I kept asking unnecessary questions in the street, just for the sake of hearing the answers in Polish. It had become obvious I needed more than a month, more than a few words. It was time to pack up and move to Poland. This only happened a bit later, after having spent another year at the University, this time in the Polish Philology department. And even though my scholarship didn’t take me to Warsaw right away, it still felt better knowing we were closer. So I went back, to pay it a quick visit and refresh our vows. There were no words left to say: my love story had been turned into a city brand. Well, maybe not exactly mine, but I’d just rather have it that way since it’s such a great match. A bunch of smart guys in advertising had come up with a campaign that had taken over the city. It was everywhere, on billboards, buses, leaflets, sidewalks, bikes ad t-shirts: Zakochaj się w Warszawie means Fall in love with Warsaw. For me it was too late, I was already head over feet, but I couldn’t agree more. How can you not fall in love with Warsaw?

A few months later, another campaign. This time not in Warsaw, but in ten other big Polish cities (Katowice, my home for the year, included). The idea was simple and powerful. Each city has something in common with the capital, so let’s try to see what makes them similar, be it the market, the old town, a bridge or just one of the streets.

It took me another few months to understand why the city is in such a desperate need for PR. Because in Poland no one really likes Warsaw, except for its inhabitants (and me). As it happens when you are so madly in love, you care very little about what other people have to say. But when the same two arguments kept occurring over and over again, it was impossible to pay no heed.

In the opinion of those playing for the other team, Warsaw is to blame for two things.

One: its people are superficial, shallow and selfish. This is the place for la crème de la crème, where everybody is obsessed with work and money, where you just can’t keep up with the rhythm of the city and where you’ll most likely lose your head. And your sanity. Every single time, I read between the lines of this argument some kind of jealousy and a certain lack of courage – none of the people talking about the city in this way had a first hand experience with Warsaw. And I somehow don’t fall for the story of “a cousin who has a friend whose brother was a really nice guy, but then left to Warsaw and now he’s a mess”. The city gives you endless options to choose from. Mix, match and create your very own Warsaw. Then fall in love with it.

Two: it has no history. I’m perplexed every single time I hear this, and it’s happened quite often. Sure, if history means a lovely old town, castles and enormous squares which look good in pictures, maybe Warsaw isn’t the best example. Try Cracow, it might just do the trick. The history of Warsaw is somewhere else, in its atrocious deconstruction and fabulous reconstruction, which are still visible, still there, in your face. But you’d have to dare look the Second World War and the Holocaust in the eyes while taking a walk on Nowy Świat, the street where almost every building reminds of a historical event, of writers and artists who lived (or died) there, moving on to the river banks and discovering Praga, the only neighborhood that was still partly standing after the bombing, nowadays an increasingly popular and hip spot for the art scene. Then move on to see what’s left of the ghetto and of the Jewish cemetery. By the way, the palm tree that grows right in the middle of Rondo Charles de Gaulle is not an attempt at creating a tropical climate in Warsaw, but an artistic installation belonging to Joanna Rajkowska, and it’s called Greetings from the Alley of Jerusalem. A few blocks away, Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego gives you the full story of the Warsaw Uprising, those 63 days at the end of which there was no Warsaw anymore. And yet, here it is, reborn from ashes (this is not a metaphor), ready to seduce you, if only given the chance.