People had warned us that Warsaw is ugly. That was clear on the train ride from the airport to the central city. Weedy, dug-up, empty fields. Graffiti covering the railway stations. We were lit up from jet lag and caffeine, watching it all slowly slip by.
My husband and I had landed at 11 a.m. after 15 hours of travel, including a mad rush through customs at Charles de Gaulle. The first thing we did in Warsaw was buy coffee. The second was wait for our luggage for 40 minutes before we were told by a representative of Delta that our bags had “missed the flight.” (I imagined our suitcases hanging out at the bar, drinking and ignoring their final boarding call.) They would be delivered to our hotel at 6 p.m. Maybe. Depending on whether they made the next plane.
The train arrived at Centralna railway station, and we followed the crowd through a dank underground mall featuring shoe stores, discount purse stands and McDonald’s. Upstairs, we walked outside and heat hit us like a wind.
It had been 70 degrees when we left Minneapolis, but it was nearing 90 in Warsaw. We were in jeans and boots, our shorts and sandals in suitcases circling Paris.
We trudged to our hotel through the concrete city. Streets, buildings, bridges. This was a city razed to the ground in the 1940s and rebuilt by the Soviets. We’d known that. But it’s something else to see it, an entire landscape like a gulag with windows built for sniper rifles. Punctuating the cement were modern metal skyscrapers much like the ones we left back home.
Our hotel, the Radisson Blu Sobieski, looked like some architect’s protest against all the gray; it was round and splashed with color: pink, blue, yellow and green. We presented ourselves sheepishly at the front desk. We were exhausted and sweaty.
But the clerk greeted us warmly. She offered us water infused with orange and upgraded our rooms. “You are here only two days?” she asked fretfully. “I mark map so you see all our lovely things.”
And she did. The Rising Museum, the Science Center, Old Town. “There is a free concert tomorrow, 4 o’clock,” she said briskly, making X’s on her map. “Is in this park.”
About our suitcases, she shrugged. “Happens once, twice a day,” she said, flapping one hand. “They lose coming to Warsaw. Don’t worry. They find. We bring to your room.”
A ‘piano-moving place’
We peeked at the room, left our carry-ons, then set off on foot. It had grown hotter since the last time we were out. We walked back toward the train station and a hexagonal mall that looked like a spaceship that came to share Calvin Klein with the Poles. Outside, members of the Policja clustered in groups of two or three, men with berets and semi-automatic rifles slung across their chests.
Before I could stop him, my husband walked up to one and stood looking like a child. “Przepraszam, English?” he asked. I took a breath, imagining the man would club him with the butt of his gun. Instead the officer grinned. “Leetle bit,” he said — a phrase we would hear repeatedly in the next few days, usually followed by fluent conversation.
The man directed us to a store where we could get a Polish SIM card for our phone (14 zlotys — about $3.50) and we continued, using GPS, toward the river. But now, the sun was beating down. My socks were soaked through. Halfway there, I turned to John, swaying. “Do you suppose we could rest for a few minutes?”
We were on a quiet street in front of a church that a sign informed us (in Polish and English) had been rebuilt entirely in the 1950s with as many of the original stones as parishioners could find among the rubble. “There’s a little restaurant,” John said, pointing down a curving street. “Do you want to stop for a beer?”
So we went down the broken sidewalk, past the graffiti-marked courtyard and into a grotto — cooler only because it was underground — with mismatched antique tables and chairs. Each wall of Antrakt Cafe & Gallery had artwork arranged by a different theme: One side was dogs wearing hats and riding carousels; another featured only semi-naked women.
The young man behind the counter warned us about his faulty English, which was near perfect, and asked us where we were from. We told the story about our long flight and no sleep. We did not tell him that we were only passing through on our way to the beautiful places, Krakow and Budapest, that everyone had said, “Don’t stay in Warsaw.”
He laughed and sympathized with our luggage crisis, waving us to a table and bringing glasses of ice-cold beer. There was a large one for John, a smaller one for me.
But after a few sips, John looked around at the quaint surroundings. “Credit cards? You take credit?” He was reaching into his pocket to count out our few Polish coins and make sure we had enough. The young man shook his head.
“Stop! Sit! You are tired. There is ATM close. We work out, after you drink.”
Sometime during our weekend in Warsaw, John called it “the piano-moving place.” As in: You could turn to just about anyone on the street, man or woman, and say, “Would you help me move this piano?” and they’d say (after telling you about their “leetle bit” of English), “Sure, where do you want it?”
Everyone was massive. When we returned to the hotel, we boarded an elevator with two other couples. The women — both with the physique of shot putters; one silver-haired, one blonde — spoke in low, deep voices. Either could have carried me on her shoulders across town.
Our luggage still had not arrived, so we washed as best we could and headed to a Turkish grill, Balbinka Kebab, just down the street. Seating was outdoors on long tables under twinkling lights; we each had another beer. The night had begun to cool, and by the time we received our enormous platters of spicy meat, rice, cabbage, eggplant and yogurt, the breeze was pleasant. Our waiter brought two beakers of sweet tea with the bill: 56 zlotys, or $14.56.
Around 10 o’clock — after we’d given up on ever changing our clothes — the concierge knocked at our door. He had the shaved head, hulking frame and grim frown of a hit man. But he clapped his hands like a magician and showed us our suitcases. We showered and slept like dead people that night.
The next morning, we put on blessedly fresh clothes and went to a coffee shop, where I asked the barista (who, of course, spoke “a leetle” English) for a coffee with cream. She made me an enormous Americano with at least five shots of espresso, then shook a canister and topped it with about three-quarters of a cup of whipped cream. I started to say no, but she looked so pleased with her creation. So I said, “Dziekuje,” tipped her and left.
The heat had broken overnight and it was a comfortable walk to Old Town, but once there, we were disappointed with what we found. There is no actual “old town” in Warsaw; what’s there was rebuilt, partly from the rubble of bombed-out buildings but mostly from new stucco in rainbow colors.
The area is a tourist-luring bit of Disneyland with tchotchke shops, overpriced pastry shops and locals dressed in furry character suits — Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh — hugging children and posing for cameras. Beggars featuring crutches and funny plaid vests lined the streets. This was the only place in Warsaw where we saw other Americans. We wandered down two streets and left.
The Rising Museum
By late morning, we had circled back to the Warsaw Rising Museum. This is a newish brick building off a cobblestone courtyard. A cafe offers snacks and little patio tables across from the entrance. But inside, there is an ominous, irregular heartbeat playing in a deep echoing bass. The crash of artillery breaks out periodically. Lights flash.
The Rising Museum (called the Uprising Museum in the west) tells the story of Warsaw’s failed stand against the Nazis in 1944, the destruction of the city and subsequent occupation by the Soviets. The museum is organized like a Faulkner story, spiraling from event to event, backtracking and filling in. Nothing is clear; nothing is linear. Because nothing was.
The Rising was essentially a populist battle. Political leadership had fled to London. This is a story of Polish people hiding their Jewish neighbors despite extraordinary risk; Catholic priests sacrificing themselves to save others; 10-year-old boys scurrying through sewers, delivering messages to help the war.
It’s a monument to how we all wish we were.
Perhaps, we decided as we headed for Lazienki Park a few hours later, this is why the people of Warsaw were as we found them today. Around 200,000 Polish civilians died during the Rising. The city’s jagged, ugly, bombed-out edges are still evident, stark and rather beautiful. Those descendants who remain have a survivor’s body type, but also the stolid calm of people who bow their heads and see things through.
It took us longer than we’d planned to wind our way through Lazienki, Warsaw’s largest park. We found the concert only by following the distant sound of music. But finally we arrived at a pond with a pianist and a violinist playing a nocturne on a dais above a crowd of at least a thousand people, spread out on the grass.
Although we were late, families moved aside and cleared a space for us to sit. The ground was cool and mossy, the crowd silent except for a plump-elbowed toddler who babbled quietly in Polish nearby. For the next half-hour, we did not move.
Ann Bauer is a Minneapolis-based writer and author of several novels.