Notes from Poland

My grandfather David and his brothers grew up in the small city of Ostrowiec. They emigrated to the USA in 1938, and as far as I know, none of the family have set foot in Poland since. Until now; this academic year, my sister Dara is living in Warsaw on a Fulbright scholarship to study Polish theater and its relationship to the Greek chorus. Pam and I went to visit her over the winter holidays, continuing a family tradition of her studying abroad and me visiting. Here are highlights and selected photos. Full photo album, as usual, on Flickr.

Dara found us a hotel with all the modern conveniences and English-speaking staff in downtown Warsaw. This was nice, because it’s the first time (as an adult) I’ve been to a country where I understood not one word of the local language upon arrival, and we lost most of the first few days in-country recovering from Airplane Crud (a phenomenon not entirely unlike Con Crud); I’m glad I didn’t have to negotiate room service in Polish with my brain operating at less than 50%. We did manage to get out to the Palace of Culture and Science which was only a few blocks away, and to a luncheon party with some of Dara’s friends from the Fulbright program. When we were feeling a little better, we walked through the reconstructed Old Town (Warsaw was quite literally razed to the ground by the Germans during WWII, but the Poles rebuilt as much as they could manage after the war, working from photo and art references) and visited the castle of Stanisław II August Poniatowski, the last king of Poland (1764–1795), which is right in the middle of the old town. It currently houses two of the three Rembrandt paintings in Poland, and an exhibition on Stanisław August’s life.

My sister Dara, in front of an apartment complex in Warsaw Obligatory Tourist Photo: Me and Dara with the Pałac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science), built in the fifties by the Soviets. Me and Pam in front of the Church of the Holiest Saviour, after which Plac Zbawiciela (Saviour Square) is named. Fun fact: during the postwar reconstruction of Warsaw, the Communists deliberately arranged for new buildings further north on the Marszałkowska to block the view of this church.

We got better just in time to go to Michałowice, where other friends of Dara’s—specifically, the Szumski family, the principals of Teatr Cinema—invited us to their house party for New Year’s Eve. This was quite a journey from Warsaw, beginning with five hours on the train to Wrocław. Wrocław survived the Nazis’ hatred of all things Polish almost unscathed, because it was part of Germany during the war (they called it Breslau). It has sprawled a bit since then, and I saw some of the Soviet-era slab apartment blocks on the way out, but its old downtown is still full of gingerbread townhouses and elaborate civic architecture. We were trying to conserve our energy for the house party, so we crashed in a hostel and didn’t do very much in Wrocław the following day, just walked around a bit and took photos.

Rathaus in Wrocław central square Ever wonder why gingerbread houses look like that? This is why.

The next hop on the journey was a two-hour bus ride to Jelenia Góra, which is in the mountains west of Wrocław, almost to the border with the Czech Republic. The son of our host, and five of his buddies, picked us up from the bus stop in their van, and drove us even farther into the mountains, to the Szumski house in the small town of Michałowice. It was what you might call a country mansion, with several floors and lots of space for guest rooms on the third floor; they were putting at least ten other people up, besides us. It’s full of art, made by them or their friends.

The house party itself was fairly low-key. Dara and Pam and I had a game of pool (it is a family tradition that whenever Dara and I are in the same city, we must play a game of pool somewhere, even though both of us are terrible at it). There was a jam circle for awhile. There was lots and lots of food. We had an interesting conversation with a fellow who’s been a doctor in Poland for many years and is now moving his practice to Denmark. We went to bed pretty much immediately after midnight, being still tired and not quite well yet. Pam suggested getting up at nine to celebrate midnight-in-the-USA, but we didn’t actually manage it. I did get some nice pictures of the countryside the following day, before being driven back down the hill to Jelenia Góra to catch the bus back to Wrocław.

Guest room at Teatr Cinema, with art and the back of Dara’s head. Art on second floor landing of Teatr Cinema. Jam session at Teatr Cinema. View downhill from Teatr Cinema with log pile, mountains, and snow.

In Wrocław the following day, we did more walking, out to Cathedral Island. This was once in fact an island but has since been thoroughly merged with the north bank of the Oder. It used to be under the Catholic Church’s exclusive jurisdiction, and still houses the official Wrocław cathedral and the archbishop’s residence, plus at least two more large basilicas. Then we got the train back to Warsaw, which was mildly entertaining because—quite by accident—we were sitting in the carriage reserved for families with small children.

View from a bridge over the River Oder, looking toward Cathedral Island (it’s not an island anymore). Pam and Dara with river and church.

Still feeling a little under the weather, we scrubbed prior plans to visit Krakow and/or Gdansk, and just did a bunch of sight-seeing in Warsaw. We visited the Old Town again, and the other palace of Stanisław II August, which is on an artificial lake in Łazienki Park. As palaces go, this is more of a large house, except that it’s crammed full of art and classically inspired statuary. The park itself is huge and has lots of other stuff in it, but it was raining, so we stuck to the palace.

Warsaw Old Town—reconstructed buildings. The decorations painted on the plaster may have been actual stonework pre-war. Organ grinder (with parrot!) and a fountain-statue of the armed mermaid of Warsaw. University of Warsaw main library. I don’t know what the pink thing is. Łazienki Park: enormous statue of Chopin being eaten by a monster. Left: Chopin Museum. Right: Soviet Realist monstrosity. Middle: Chopin-themed mural. Warsaw has lots of these black-and-gray birds; I believe they are hooded crows. Łazienki Palace inner rotunda. Stanisław II really liked his statuary inspired by Greek myth. This is Hercules supported by a centaur and Cerberus. Me and Pam in Łazienki Palace.

We also got to see the new staging of the great Polish national opera, Halka, written in 1848 by librettist Wlodzimierz Wolski and composer Stanisław Moniuszko, using traditional Polish musical styles (mazurkas, for instance). The music is inspired; the plot, unfortunately, was pretty threadbare in 1848 and is downright embarrassing today. It’s not good when you spend much of the second half thinking now would be a great time for Granny Weatherwax to turn up and scold some sense into everyone. The new staging was very modern, with minimal set design (except, bizarrely, at the very end), mostly modern costuming, and an initial filmed sequence. As Dara’s mentor in Warsaw (a longtime theater critic) said, this might have worked if they hadn’t then gone on to play the piece 100% straight. But they did, and it all fell rather flat. Curiously, one of the characters was acted by one person and sung by another. I’m not much of an opera buff, so I don’t know if this is common.

Warsaw has several interesting historical museums. We visited the biographical museum of Fryderyk Chopin and the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. Chopin spent most of his adult life in France, but he grew up in Warsaw, and is still very fondly remembered here; they named the airport after him, even. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as much a museum of his music as I would have liked, and the presentation of his life was interesting but felt a little bereft of historical context. Probably I would have appreciated it better if I’d grown up in Poland and gotten their take on history in high school.

Speaking of historical context skimped on in a USAnian education, the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising is packed full of it. Summarizing extremely: in the summer of 1944, the Red Army was advancing toward Warsaw, and the Polish resistance decided it would be a good time to rise up against the occupying German forces. They did this partly because they figured the Red Army would back them up, but also because they were afraid Stalin wanted to conquer Poland or at least set up a puppet government; this would have been harder if it was the Polish native resistance that liberated the capital. The resistance was initially quite successful, but the Red Army only made one half-assed attempt to cross the Vistula, which was repulsed. After that, they sat on the east bank and waited while the Germans first put down the resistance, then burned the city to the ground by way of vengeance. Then they moved in and pushed the Germans out. And Stalin got his vassal state, just like the Poles had feared.

Neon sign of someone throwing a ball off the side of a building; seen from the taxi leaving town.

I’ll close with this image, a neon sign in Plac Konstytucji, photographed out the window of the taxi taking us back to the airport to return to the USA. There are lots of these neon signs in Warsaw; they were erected in the 1960s, and are now considered part of the city’s cultural heritage. Quoting this article by David Crowley for the Neon Muzeum:

When the Eastern Bloc tried to cast off the dark shadow of Stalin, much attention was given to the appearance of Warsaw. How could it be brought back to life? For some, the answer lay in neon. Stolica, a popular magazine, led the campaign to neonise Warsaw: Marszalkowska Residential District – with its monumental sculptural ornaments and classical colonnades – would shake off its dreary atmosphere with advertising, lighting and neon. These are the elements which in the evening hours lend great liveliness and diversity to a city.

Responses to “Notes from Poland”

  1. Simon

    Interesting… I’m planning a trip to Poland (among others) later this year, so it’s good to read your report opinion, and look over the photos.

    I’m curious - was lack of Polish language a much of a problem? While I want to learn the basics before I go (it’s polite, if nothing else), it would be one of at least five languages I’d need on the trip, so I can’t put really devote as much effort to it as I’d like…

    1. Zack Weinberg

      I can’t say for sure; my sister handled nearly all interaction with railway ticket offices and the like, and she’s pretty good at Polish for how long she’s been there (about six months so far). I didn’t have any trouble ordering food in restaurants, but that’s not terribly hard even when all you can do is point at the menu.

      I have the impression that English is a pretty common second language for native Poles in the big cities.

      1. Simon

        It must be nice to be good at languages… I managed to learn a passable amount of spanish for a trip to Peru a few years ago, but that was still a struggle…

  2. Dara Weinberg

    Zack, this is a great great great great writeup. Thanks for sharing it–it’s really wonderful to have this record of the trip in narrative form. I’m so glad you guys came. It meant a lot to me, as you know. :) And Simon, pretty much everyone under 30 in Poland speaks English very well, and you’ll have no trouble whatsoever at hostels, restaurants, museums, arts places, etc. in Warsaw, Kraków and Wrocław; your only issue will be with the train stations, actually, where many train station employees either don’t speak or don’t want to speak English. If you can get a (young) Polish person in the line to help you, that’s a good bet–otherwise, you want to have everything written down on a piece of paper so you can point to it. I can give more recommendations if you’re coming!