Greetings from Warsaw– 2/5/2008
This blog seems a way to be in touch with friends who may be interested in my doings despite our not being in contact often enough — and with strangers who may become closer. For starters, I’m here again in Poland to commune with my Polish fiancee, Joanna Przybylska Mlodzinska, an editor living in Warsaw. She is 53, divorced, childless, and a rare Buddhist in an all-Catholic land. She came to visit me last spring in California, and I am now returning the favor.
As my plane landed in Warsaw after 12 hours en route, cross winds were blowing so strongly that the pilot touched down the wheels briefly but then took off again and circled the airport for another try — a trifle unnerving. But that’s Poland for you.
It’s generally no-nonsense cold here almost every day, and it snowed a few days ago (although apparently not as much as in Nevada City recently) . The wind seems to blow more or less constantly, creeping stealthily into every crevice. There are many parks in the city but all the trees are bare and brown. Winter is a real presence here but I am coping well enough thanks to warm clothes and California attitude.
My impressions of the city’s architecture so far, gained primarily from riding around with Joanna in her car, is a gray-brown mix of utilitarian housing, neoclassical civic monuments, and skyscraper moderne. It definitely has an old-world look but of course tinged everywhere with store signs and street billboards, buses and trolleys covered with advertisements, many in English as well as Polish. Advertising is everywhere, visual blight to the max. Plus vicious urban sprawl that extends endlessly outward into the countryside.
The Stare Miaso (Old Town) is another matter, however. Totally rebuilt after WW2 destruction, this is a breath-taking area of cobbled squares, decorated buildings in medieval style, monuments, castles, museums, shops, restaurants, coffee-houses, and historic sites. Old Europe at its most beautiful. A touristic paradise.
In the square is the Museum of Warsaw, which presents the city’s history from the 13th century to the present, with special emphasis on the devastation of WW2. It’s hard to imagine or appreciate the horror of what happened here, but the photos and survivors’ statements are amazing and intensely moving. Everyone in the world should come here to find out what it means to be human – at its most cruel and most heroic. Warsaw was the most war-devastated city in the world, 85% totally destroyed, and most of the population killed – at least 200,000 people.
Another day I happened upon a memorial at Umschlagplatz commemorating countless numbers of Jewish Poles who were gathered at this spot for deportation to labor and death camps, at the edge of what was the Jewish Ghetto. Next door is a building with a plaque stating it was the first building liberated from the Nazis at the start of the Resistance Uprising. And next door to that is another monument commemorating millions of Christian Poles who were sent to labor camps in Siberia during the war. The entire city of Warsaw is a vast memorial and living tribute to suffering and renewal that Americans and other nationalities can hardly imagine. Being here where these events actually took place is a powerful experience, and I am constantly aware of the interactive layers of history whispering behind these modern facades.
I took a long walk from Old Town to Downtown a few days ago, crossed two bridges of over the river Wisla, and wound up on Alleja Jerozolimskie, the main street, at the same spot where I stayed at a youth hostel forty years ago, across the street from what was once Communist Party Headquarters, a monolithic and forbidding fortress of fear and paranoia. The youth hostel is still there but the building, ironically nicknamed The White House, is now a bank.
I clearly remember how it was then, in the 1965, with few cars, poorly dressed people trodding the avenue with heads down, nothing but cheap junk in the shops, a scarcity of food in the restaurants, and with the scars of war still evident everywhere. Russian soldiers were commonly seen and English speakers seldom encountered (people spoke either Russian or German as a second language). Experiencing the exact same place now is like some weird sort of time travel, and a personal revelation. Today the same street is full of bustling traffic, with autos of every European, American, and Japanese make (no more Russian cars), the sidewalks thronged with well-dressed pedestrians, the stores brimming with goods, and a palpable sense of vitality and hope. Not mention the presence of McDonalds and KFC and multinational corporate presence everywhere. The towering Palace of Culture, built by Stalin in the 1950s, was then by far the tallest building in the city and a despised symbol of Soviet domination. Today it is still a civic landmark but considerably diminished by taller, modern skyscrapers like the Marriot building. And the Soviets are long gone, since Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Movement in 1989, although most Poles still fear that the Russians wish to retake Poland, especially now that Putin is in power in Moscow.
On another, more pleasant topic, every day here I note that today’s young Polish women are amazingly attractive! Although their famous beauty is everywhere evident, it is delightfully hard to get used to. Through Joanna, I have met a number of these women, and am quite impressed. They are beautifully dressed and groomed, very friendly, and generally speak English well. I might add that the young men are likewise attractive: mostly slim, often bearded, intense-looking. I like the look of Poles and I love hearing the language being spoken, because it is both complex and sonorous. I am learning new words every day and beginning to read signs and speak simple sentences. Speaking it is more difficult; the consonant combinations are awesome; it has been said that speaking Polish sounds like biting glass.
Joanna’s apartment, although tiny (about 10 x 15 feet altogether), is attractively appointed, and, as a fourth-floor walk-up, has a pleasant view overlooking a tree-lined street and other nearby apartment houses. It is in a northern suburb called Bielany, with a forested park nearby and not too far from the Wisla River, Poland’s largest. Her flat is amazingly compressed but contains all we need: a kitchenette, bathroom with shower, small washing machine, bookshelves, storage closets, and enough floor space to unfold two foam mats at night. A radiator provides adequate heat but is non-adjustable so if it gets too hot we open a window as appropriate. Just for me, she ordered the installation of cable TV with HBO plus internet service so I am now online in my underwear. When I was last here, there were three grainy b/w channels; now I have about 80 channels including several in English, two in German, one in French, one in Russian.
Late at night, numerous of the junk channels that feature game shows, fashion, shopping, and local programming suddenly switch over to outright pornography. Normally I am in bed here by 10 or 11 pm so I didn’t know this until the other night when I stayed up late hoping to watch the Super Bowl. Despite all these channels, it was not available (at least in Radom, another town where we spent the weekend; perhaps it played in Warsaw, I don’t know). The interesting thing about the porn offerings is that apparently no genitals can be shown but just about anything else goes: breasts and nipples, of course, but also fondling, masturbation, fucking, fellatio, titillation and outrageous exhibitionism of every kind – just as long as no genitals are explicitly displayed. It’s a commentary on the prevailing Catholic mentality, which, because it denies sexuality, channels it instead onto late-night tv screens as a kind of sick reactionism. Joanna says that many Polish married women refuse to have sex with their husbands after they have children, so there is an active trade in prostitution. Some prostitutes park their cars by the road in the suburbs and solicit passing traffic.
So far, Joanna and I are very busy most of the time. We went to one party on my first night, a gathering of some young Buddhists who offered a great spread of bread, cheese, and kielbasi, with beer, wine, vodka, whiskey — plus lots of music, singing, and laughter. The next day we went to visit some friends of Joanna’s and then attended a dramatic reading in the evening. Occasionally we do some odd shopping — like trying to buy a voltage converter so I can run my computer and recharge my camera battery. I have also visited Joanna’s office near downtown at the headquarters of Poland’s primary dramatic magazine: Dialog – located on the grounds of the Polish National Library. Another day we went shopping on a cold wet day to a large outdoor street market, one of many throughout the city. It was quite large, spread over several blocks, with farmers and merchants of every kind, goods spread out from trucks or in small sheds – huge variety and cheap prices, colorful and crowded. We’ve also eaten out a few times. I had a traditional Polish dish called “bigos” – a combination of various shredded meats mixed with sauerkraut and sauce. Quite good but never again, I think. Another night we went to a downtown Indian restaurant that could only serve a total of four people at two tables. Yesterday, driving back from Radom, we stopped at a lovely new dome-shaped restaurant and I had cheese pierogi (dumplings) and salmon. Yum. Also, the beer is great and quite cheap, a dollar for a big half-liter. It’s a good thing I am going to be here awhile because there is so much to see and do. And I have been to her weekly meditation session, met numerous other friends and colleagues, and so on. This evening we will have tea with her ex-husband. I will also be going to her weekly Shambhala meditation group. Later I want to go to a dentist, an optometrist, and a doctor – but so far not time for that. Busy, busy, busy.
Joanna’s mother, who lived in Radom, a good-sized city several hours drive to the south, died a few months ago, leaving Joanna the task of clearing out four decades of possessions and selling the flat there. Joanna and I will probably be going there every weekend until the job is done, and quite a job it is. Her mom’s flat is on the fifth floor, which I went down and back up about 30 times this past weekend, carrying loads of clothes and stuff to be donated or junked. Although there are many thrift stores everywhere, they do not accept donations and most of the stuff cannot be sold easily or at all. So we are throwing out many valuable items that would fetch good prices in America but are effectively worthless here. Joanna found a hospital, an elder care home, and various friends to donate clothes, linens, towels and we loaded and drove them to these places. Her father, deceased many years, also had all his life’s possessions in the flat, including many valuable specialty and collector books (in Polish, of course, with some in Russian), dictionaries in multiple languages, maps, tools, and hobby items such as cameras, models, and collections. There is also a huge collection of family photos, including many antique ones on heavy visiting cards from the 1800s, family crystal ware, silver service, pots and pans, dishware, and on and on. I am going to attempt selling some things on Polish eBay, now that I have internet hookup and my laptop computer here. But there there are so many things, and all will need to be described in Polish, then uploaded, and then mailed if sold. And it’s all in another town, several hours drive away. It’s a huge undertaking, whichever way we try to do it. It reminds me of when I had to dispose of my deceased daughter Jan’s possessions, and I also note how emotional Joanna feels while doing this, just I did then.
Meanwhile, Joanna works four hours per day at her office and then does free-lance editing and proofreading at home for a variety of publishers and magazines, often working nights and weekends to make ends meet. So, my being here is not exactly a vacation, or I could call it a working vacation. In any case, being in Poland is fascinating and tremendously educational, even though only part of our time is available for relaxation and sightseeing. However, Joanna is a charming companion and gracious hostess, while also being a virtual font of linguistic, historical, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual information and conversation. We are comfortable together and I feel at home in her tiny flat. Things are going well but we often feel exhausted at the end of the day because each day is full of activity and stimulation.
Best wishes and love,
The first thin traces of dawn
Illuminate the snow-clad trees
Of Bielany district apartments,
Sets free a cacophany of crows -
Loud, raucus, untamed cries
That inspire the pigeons and dogs
To come awake and also sing,
As early Sunday church-goers
Gamely trod the sodden streets,
Allowing crows to just be caws,
Allowing gods to just be dogs.