Blat through the Baltics: Warsaw
It all started last Monday at the Ausländerbehörde.
At approximately 7.30am, in exchange for a stack of meticulously-prepared paperwork, I received something I had long coveted:
A two-year freelance working visa extension.
This led me to where I am now, writing this post while sitting in the front row of a double-decker Polskibus, just about to the cross the border from Poland to Lithuania.
You see, as soon as the visa came through, I set into motion a trip which I’ve had in mind for quite some time. Taking time to travel through the Baltic states.
It’s going to be somewhat of a race against time, with Autumn strengthening its hold as I make my way further north-east, but the beginning has been beautiful.
Berlin was awash in sunlight as I began to hitchhike on Friday. Berlin stayed awash in sunlight as no cars stopped for at least an hour.
And then! A car seemingly headed in the right direction offered a ride.
In what turned out to be completely the wrong direction.
Thus began a mammoth day of rides touching Cottbus, Wroclaw, a former textile factory turned shopping mall in Łódź to pick up a very hungover man’s colleague’s new suit (which was wisely declined since it was made of denim) and finally, Warsaw.
It was night-time when I arrived and at this point it was impossible to miss Warsaw’s impressively-lit elephant in the room — the monumental Palace of Science and Culture.
This colossus was a gift from the Soviet Union to the Polish people and its imposing presence is a point of contention to this day, although its gravitas is somewhat diminished by the massive cinema multiplex sign plastered onto the front.
After a quick beer with an old Berlin friend and a night spent with front row tickets to a symphony of snoring, my second challenge presented itself.
As I met up with Paulina and Marianna, two Polish friends I’d met on previous adventures, it transpired they had acquired copious amounts of this buckwheat and blood sausage for my stay.
The hearty Kaszanka and cooked apple dish turned out to be important, since a comprehensive sightseeing itinerary had been planned on my behalf and so we set off on foot.
From the cafes of ‘hipster square’, along the grand Soviet boulevard of Marszalkowska, under the shadow of the Palace, and past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier we walked.
We tried hard to imagine the city as had it been — about 85% of the city centre was destroyed by the Nazis, mostly in retaliation to Warsaw’s failed 1944 uprising.
It’s particularly hard to imagine in the ‘old town’, that part of downtown Warsaw which was meticulously rebuilt and now hosts the usual crowds of tourists, happily trundling in the cobbled streets between its pastel-coloured facades.
This is, in part, thanks to the Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto Canaletto, whose detailed 18th Century paintings as royal court artist allowed restorers to faithfully recreate this area.
At least to some extent of truth.
My hosts later conspired to show me what Warsaw really would have looked like, and after a drink overlooking bright reflections on the Vistula River, we headed to Praga.
Praga is a neighbourhood that was spared from destruction and is said to be typical of pre-war Warsaw; those who have seen the historical film The Pianist will unwittingly be quite familiar with it.
This grimy and somewhat dodgy area has of late become rather hip, but the roughly maintained buildings stand in stark contrast to the colourful recreations downtown.
Marianna beckoned to follow her into a courtyard, where I was surprised to find a small shrine featuring Mother Mary, crowned with a cord of gaudy LED lights.
These were found to be a reoccurring theme in most courtyards we peeked into, along with the gang-like tags of football hooligans, which prompted us to depart without too much lingering.
Fitting for a Sunday in such a Catholic country, we simply spent the day relaxing in Łazienki Park, attempting to feed tame but evidently spoiled red squirrels and enjoying both the leaves underfoot and the kitschy Romantic architecture of the grounds surrounding Łazienki Palace.
Monday presented a new test. Paying the bills.
Happily, I’ve managed to wrangle my freelance contracts so that I can work remotely, so the fashionably ambient Zagadka cafe not far from the Palace of Science and Culture proved to be a nice office to take care of some outstanding work.
Autumn jacket shopping in the afternoon proved harder, but eventually I succeeded.
Perhaps I should have done this in Germany where they have a dedicated word for ‘a jacket to wear in the in-between seasons’ — Übergangsjacke.
My last day in Warsaw dawned with mild cheese and honey, along with a concerted attempted to tackle the blood sausage between bread, a creation which has now been termed as ‘Kazsankwhiches’.
Once again suitably fortified, I was lucky enough to have an appointment at the National Museum Warsaw where a friend of a friend who works there had volunteered to show me around.
And I really was lucky.
Magda was an earnest teacher perfectly suited to a Polish art ignorant, describing the eccentricities of the artists, and the details an untrained eye would miss, all with infectious enthusiasm.
Looking back, I’m having trouble deciding if my highlight was the epic Battle of Grunwald fresco, the haunting Jewish Woman Selling Oranges, only recently reclaimed from Nazi looting, or perhaps the medieval panel depicting Mary Magdalena clothed in a one-piece suit made of her own hair.
The day drew to a close in Pardon, To Tu, an intellectual cafe and music bar attracting a trendy young crowd. The delicious beers from Ukraine, smatterings of English conversations and international music and literature abounding throughout seems to speak of a city looking outwards, instead of up to the imposing Palace.
But the question is, what did I miss? Do any Warsaw lovers have suggestions for next time?