To Jest Polska

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Warsaw, Poland – December 2008

The Old City of Warsaw is, in fact, a meticulous reproduction of what had existed before the Nazis bombed it to dust in World War II. It is so perfect that it feels like a Hollywood movie set. It is late afternoon and night has fallen. My husband and I drop our luggage in our hotel room, which is next to the Royal Palace, and head outside to check out the lights.

“I am impressed,” my husband says for the second time since he’s been in Poland.

I am impressed that he’s impressed. In the ten years we’ve been together, the most gushing praise that I’ve heard him utter is, “It’s not bad at all.” I smile as I think of the people who told us that we were crazy to move from the South Pacific to Eastern Europe.

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We make a quick lap around the Christmas market, but the vicious wind drives us into a warm and festive restaurant. We were supposed to arrive much earlier, but our train from Poznan was delayed. Polish trains are always late, so I’d automatically added an hour or so onto our journey time. However, this time another train had derailed ahead of us, so we were diverted through Łódź. A three hour trip turned into seven. The train moved at a crawl through the flat gray countryside. Businessmen paced up and down the train corridor, ties off, shirts unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up to reveal forearms as big as my calves. They growled into phones and muttered, To jest Polska, over and over.  My heart sunk as I realized that I wouldn’t be able to visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum before we returned to Poznan tomorrow afternoon. The train halted briefly next to an enormous garbage dump outside of Łódź. Everyone broke into loud laughter. The young woman sitting across from us unfurled her palm, “Welcome to Poland.”

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The next morning we bundle up and brace ourselves against the wind. On the square in front of the Palace, a few retro tanks and police cars are parked and old film footage flashes across a large video screen. It’s a commemoration of the day that martial law was declared in Poland. We grit our teeth against the painful cold, which has penetrated our gloves and pant legs. It feels like thousands of tiny needles stabbing into our bones. We take a few photos, and then scurry down the narrow streets to the Christmas market.

It’s Saturday, but few people are about. Heat emanates from the little stalls. Steam rises from cauldrons of mulled wine. The food is a sight to behold: mounds of smalec – lard cooked with spices; garlands of kiełbasa; huge wheels of cheese. A plate of hot bigos for my husband, poppyseed roll and piernik for me. We drink and eat until the cold fades to a dull ache and our shivering becomes a funny little dance. To jest Polska.

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46 thoughts on “To Jest Polska

  1. I ‘did Warsaw’ a couple of years before – it was a business trip which usually meant not taking a camera so thanks for the photographic reminders – I had forgotten how strangely pristine the old town was. In a similar rush the only extra-curricular stuff I did was to go up the Palace of Culture and Science…which it wasn’t. Business trips of course were always “hellish hard work, the natives unfriendly and the food dire” – it was never wise to let the troops back home think you were having a good time 🙂

    • I saw the Palace of Culture and Science from the outside, but didn’t get any good photos of it. I got the feeling that it was more interesting on the outside than the inside.

  2. Wonderful images-one of my dreams is to go to Warsawm in particular to the museum, as well as Krakow at Christmas time and to see the szopka/nativity competition-my mother’s family came from there to America. Seeing your pictures makes me want to go even more-

    • I hope you get to go one day. Then I can see some of your cool photos of it. 🙂 Krakow is great. Some of my mother’s family lives in that region, though they’re originally of Slovak origin.

  3. beautiful! I would love to visit it. And trains running late – that is so typical for Eastern Europe and Mediterranean countries. If ever in Croatia, do not take a train to commute from point A to B; only go by train if you want to enjoy the scenery. 😉

    • Yes, it’s true about trains in this part of Europe, but Poland is particularly bad. In 4 years, I only took one train in Hungary that was more than 15 minutes late and it was because of a flood. The train to Zagreb was really late because of rail construction. Like you said, trains are for enjoying scenery.

  4. I’ve read several of your posts now which appeared in my newsfeed. And I must say – I love your writing style. Have you ever thought of writing a novel? Or writing stories for travel magazines? Your talent shouldn’t go unnoticed. I love literature, have read a lot, and I think I can tell a good writer from a bad one.

    • Thanks so much for the compliments on my writing. Actually, my first novel was published in 2006 by a Canadian small press. I’m working on a full length memoir at the moment. Hopefully I can sell it to a larger publisher this time.

      • What’s the name of your novel? I love your way of writing about your travels. I learn something about the country, and at the same time it’s like a piece of literature. And as to the compliments, they were sincerely meant. Is English your first language?

        • Thank you. I didn’t feel accepted into travel writing social networks or literary writer cliques, so I decided to create my own little travel-memoir-literature corner here on WordPress. Yes, English is my first language. My novel is called Blue. It’s quite a bit grittier and more explicit than the writing I post here. There’s more about it (links to reviews and excerpt) on my “Published Work” page. Thanks for asking.

  5. Trains are always a tragedy, also in Italy! I always see kind of “tragicomic” scenes…Love your writing, with few words you can describe a city. The shots are just perfect and i can really imagine me in Warsaw. Big Hugs. Cris

    • Hi Doris – I was very happy and grateful to be off the island (New Caledonia), so it was not difficult to adapt to Europe. The first couple of winters in Poland were physically hard, because it was so dark. As the years pass, I love Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe, even more.

  6. I really love your writing style, and how you describe everything. I live in a tropical island and I could almost feel the cold atmosphere you were describing in Poland. Really great post! 🙂

  7. To jest Polska – this is Poland. Three words that say so much – mean so much! There is a familiarity about that phrase, an unspoken understanding when the words are exchanged. It takes in history culture norms, language to create a location in a time sequence. Fascinating.

    Have I even mentioned that your photos are truly spectacular? They are…

    • Every place I’ve lived, I’ve picked up little catchphrases and expressions. You can learn a lot about a culture by the things people say when they’re annoyed/excited/upset. Thanks for the compliments on my photos. So many of the older ones (like these) were taken with a basic camera so I’ve relied on photo editing to add some drama.

  8. What a treat to finally be able to make way to this post and reminisce, especially this time of year with tomorrow being Wigilia (mmm, Kutia). Warszawa was not a city I immediately fell in love with; its tragedy is steeped in the veneer of the city that was rebuilt, as you say. It’s so much easier to fall for Krakow (or Prague). But like the Poles themselves, there is a beautiful heart within that somber grey exterior, beneath the social-realism that was forced upon the country as Stalin tried to steal its soul. It endured and, indeed, the country is now thriving. I did love my three years in that city, in that country, and while I may not literally send my heart back as did Chopin, part of my heart will always be there … and Central Europe, Poland and Warsaw and its people will always be a huge part of my life. Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia, Julie.

    ~ Dale

    • Poland is a tough place to get used to, especially for those of us from “smileyhappy” countries. But there is a charm hidden underneath the intimidating mask. Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia to you too, Dale!

      P.S. You should have seen the line to buy fresh carp from the pop up carp stand here in Bratislava yesterday! Did you ever try that Wigilia dish? Most Poles that I’ve spoken to don’t like it, but I thought it was good. Anyway, it looks like it’s a strong Slovak tradition as well.

      • (smiles) Yes, I did have a very Polish Wigilia one year when I had the fortune of being invited to join a Polish family in their celebration. We had the full 13 courses, including carp in aspic. I remember having a conversation with the grandfather of the family who asked if we ate such a thing in Canada. I replied, that “No, in Canada, we don’t eat carp though it lives in our many waters.” He asked why and I told him that we have the impression it is a bottom-feeding fish and that it tastes like ‘mud.’ When I asked why he liked it so much himself, he said “Because it is tastes earthy.” One of the best examples I have ever lived about culture changing perspective…. (Hmmm, I’m trying to remember if I recounted that same story in my series on my Polish dog, “Ben.” Will be interesting to hear your stories of the New Years Eve in Slovakia to compare….)

  9. Christmas night holy aside worries and sorrows. Open your heart and gets a touch of blessing that flows over the world tonight!

    Whether this year’s holidays will fill your heart with joy, confidence, hope and love. And Santa will bring the most desired and unexpected gifts and those close to you.
    Merry Christmas

  10. Once again I am in awe of the tradition of building and architecture. I try to save up a few of your posts to read all at once and it always surprises me how many you’ve slipped in while I wasn’t paying attention.

  11. I always seem to land in the middle of a good story! Just minutes ago I was in Auckland 🙂 I have the strong impression that your life has been very interesting, Julie.

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