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.
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.”
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.