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Cabbage, Pork, Kitsch 8 January 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Christmas, Happiness, Life, Travelling, Travels.
Tags: , , , , ,

Growing up in Western Europe, I was never really aware of what else was available on the continent. I mainly travelled to see countries for a reason, such as seeing family, going on a study abroad for High School, or on shopping trips to avoid insane prices. I have rarely been on a tourist trip of Europe.

Consequently, I had never been to Central or Eastern Europe. I had never ventured further east than Berlin, and that was in 2008, long after the wall fell. My mother had been east of the Iron Curtain when she was young, and raved about the countries and the peoples. But growing up during the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent large influxes of workers coming from the east during the summer months to earn as much over a summer picking strawberries as they did working normal jobs over the whole year, I was left with an image in my head of all these countries being cold, poor, and grey. I imagined bitter cold, long food stamp lines and miserable living.

Warsaw, however, has made a tremendous effort to dispel these notions over the weekend that we spent there. It is clearly a city on the way up – with a lifestyle becoming pretty similar to other small, Western European cities. It reminded me of Oslo in many ways. Don’t get me wrong, it was still cold! But it was not as poor or as grey as I had imagined it to be.

We stayed with friends who showed us around and took us to the unseen parts of Warsaw (the best way to see any city!), including a sampling of the the local foods (cabbage, sausage, hunks of meat, gluhwein, dumplings and more meat). And they showed us the sights.

It is a city with a gut-wrenching past which still permeates everyday life. I only vaguely remember my European history, and had to be reminded of all the atrocities that Warsaw has lived through, and it is hard to imagine where you would even start putting your life back together at the end of or at the midst of all that. Between the country being split up several times, then given away from one empire to the next, to a large part of the city serving as a ghetto during the Second World War where the Jewish population was first locked up, then murdered, to the Warsaw uprising resulting in the complete destruction of the city at the hands of the Nazis while their supposed saviours and allies, the Red Army, watched on from the other side of the river, to the Cold War. Where do you start to rebuild after all that?

Our friends took us to the place where the last remaining part of the ghetto wall is still standing. It is only about 10 metres long, and used to be part of the southern-most end of the wall. It now has a school yard next to it, and a plaque has been mounted which shows the city plan and the outline of the ghetto. Its location is harrowing, as it fully brings home how central the ghetto was. It was not an outlying suburb that was set aside for this purpose – it was a large part of central Warsaw. The actual remainder of the wall is surreal and underwhelming, as it is only about 2.5 metres tall. Standing back from it, you can clearly see the buildings surrounding the area, and if you had lived in one of the buildings inside the ghetto, you could have easily seen life outside go by from a second or third storey window. The fact that this is the wall that encircled and entrapped so many people, is unfathomable.

We went across the river Vistula to Praga, where the old Brodno Jewish cemetery is. It was entirely destroyed during the Second World War, and now, the grave stones (called Macewas) are basically piled up in large heaps. Macewas made from precious materials such as marble were sent off to Germany to be used for building projects. Sadly, there are few Jewish families remaining in Warsaw, so there is no one left to care for the cemetery, or to fight for restoration or commemoration. When we were there, snow covered the ground, and the birch and fir trees that have grown in the cemetery since the war added to the desolate and lonely feel of the place.

We went to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which tells the history of the uprising in 1944 against the Nazis. The Poles knew that the Soviet Red Army were closing in, so they staged an uprising, in the belief that victory would only take a couple of days. Instead, it lasted for almost two months before the Poles had to surrender. The Nazis subsequently set about systematically tearing down the remaining city block by block, destroying more than 85% of the buildings.

Yet after the war, even though the entire city was rubble, somehow, the Warsawians picked up the pieces, and rebuilt the city, brick by brick. Literally. Using old photographs and paintings, they reconstructed the city as it was. And they managed to rebuild the city to be believable, quaint, beautiful and historic. To think that at the old market square, where we enjoyed the Christmas market stalls and the surrounding buildings, have actually all but one (one miraculously remained standing) been rebuilt since 1945 is hard to understand.

The tenacity of such a feat is beyond me, yet it seems to be reflected in the Poles; they are serious, somewhat hardened people, and they give off the impression that they are not people that give up easily. And, if I were to generalise grossly after only being in the city for three days, they seem inflexible, stern, worn and tired, not overly friendly to foreigners in general, but they are reliable and earnest, hard-working and aiming for a better life. At every turn, there is a nation moving forward, yet the past is evident everywhere. Great sadness can be read in the people’s faces, as they struggle onwards.

Modernity has now come with shops, malls, cafes and coffee shops littering the city, which was to great benefit for us, as we needed regular rewarming beverages (including potent gluhwein, hot chocolate, coffee, tea, you name it) to prevent us from freezing to the bone. The locals also subscribe to this outlook, with one of my favourite moments being had in a cafe at the base of the Cultural Palace where, while drinking gluhwein, I noticed that the two young men at the table next to us had two cups of tea, two shots of Vodka and one other unidentified alcoholic beverage, which they casually knocked back before slinging their hunting rifles back over their shoulders and strolling out into the cold rugged up and looking like they were heading off to hunt.

After so much history and sadness, we also tried to fit in something a little more lighthearted. On our last day, we went to a second hand market out in the suburbs which I absolutely loved. It was a second hand goods paradise: old clocks, silverware, toys, books, military memorabilia, kitsch and rubbish. I am so glad I do not live in Poland, or I would have bought so much stuff! In particular, I fell in love with a little old rocking horse made of wood, precariously placed on top of a pile of snow, ready to be sold off. It was a gorgeous piece which would never have fit comfortably in my luggage.

So, after a lovely rest and seeing our first snowfall bucket down over Warsaw, we were ready to face our Christmas holiday head on, collars turned up against the cold.


1. Sylwia - 8 January 2011

Such a nice post!

I hope next time you’ll visit Warsaw in summer. It’s very hot for a change. 🙂

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