Riyadh: Sunday 26th August, 2012
I spent much of last week in Warsaw visiting my partner, who works in the Polish Capital.
I had been twice before, in the Autumn and again, in the Winter of last year, and had formed an opinion of Warsaw that it was a sad, city composed of war memorials and lacking a sense of fun.
Clearly it was a successful city, economically, as its rapidly changing skyline showed. Moreover, I was aware of the way, Poland is both young, hard-working and vibrant by European standards. So many Poles have made their way to and found work in Britain over the last decade that, I felt, surely this absence must have denuded Warsaw of some of its youthful and creative energy.
But I had heard from my partner of a different Warsaw; one which only emerges in the Spring. This Warsaw, flowers, as cafe’s restaurants and bars spill out onto the street, where parks fill with the young, where the public spaces become less bleak with the greening and softening caused by the budding trees.
My lassie is not prone to exaggeration. For Warsaw to transform in this way, would be dramatic. I was keen to see this, Warsaw, and was not disappointed.
My first impression, coming from Saudi Arabia, was how benign the temperatures are in Europe. The Sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky, warming the skin and bringing with it a desire to walk, allowing the day to tickle you with its breezes and cool you with the sudden shade of its buildings. There is no similar effect in Riyadh, where the heat causes the skin to contract, as it does when you open an oven door too quickly, and where the dust is raised by a gust, not the spirit.
My second impression, no less vital and beautiful was how young the place was. There was no great demographic shift between January and August, in Poland. I must have passed some of the same people I passed last winter. But now, they were visibly young. Young men were everywhere in knee-length combat shorts and small t-shirts displaying physiques as yet uncluttered by the awkward bulges of excess. The women wore shorts and small tops as well, only they were shorter and smaller, displaying something, I have grown unaccustomed to seeing, naked flesh.
And, in the way of the young, they were tactile, holding hands, or clutching arms. In the parks, and public spaces of which Warsaw is well blessed, courting couples were everywhere, lying in clusters, resting heads on one another’s legs or stomachs, or intimately gathered in private spots secluded by growth, to whisper the sweet nothings that form the opening negotiations of lives spent as one.
Public spaces were transformed, here. The Wistla (Vistula) River, appeared, when viewed last winter, to be a dark, unused pool devoid of the centrality to Warsaw life, which a river normally has to a city; as though the city and river were merely two strangers who happened to be passing by one another.
Now, though the river was a riot of colour. Trees and foliage had formed up to the edge, filling the spaces between the public areas and the water. Viewed from the roof garden of the University of Warsaw Library, the Wistla was suddenly close, pulling together two halves of the wild green park at the heart of this green city.
The University Library itself, was a beautiful example of this marriage between youth and greenery and cityscape. Its sloping superstructure has been inlaid with earth and a wild garden planted. Here and there, the buildings skeleton of steel, glass and concrete emerge to offset the feeling of being in the wild. Here, a steel stair case bridges a glass roof, casting light on the studious below; there, a steel promontory leading to one of those coin operated viewing goggles.
Of course, this was an area dedicated to the advancement of the young, and the young themselves appeared to be engaging in their advancement in a variety of unusual ways. For many, this sunny day was one for study, their mental exertions there to be spied upon from the green glass above. For others, this hot August day was for enjoyment of an altogether more idle sort. I spied one couple splayed on the wild grasses, their books unopened beside them. Another couple, had found a spot of wild seclusion in which to entwine.
In the cool atrium, below, other students gathered for coffee and intense discussion, and others chatter idly in the doorways, while straddling powerful looking mountain bikes.
Summer Warsaw, is a sporty place. Everywhere people are cycling or jogging or dressed in the lycra uniforms of sporting endeavour, clad like a resolution, a promise of efforts to come.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the green modern district in which my partner has a flat. Each evening I would meet her for a beer as she emerged from the subway, and she would recount her day, in the warm evening. It is a family spirited area, with playgrounds and safe communities abounding. The evening brings out young mothers and post work fathers to jog or cycle away the stresses of the day or perhaps their baby weight. Never before had I seen so clearly the social aspects of keeping fit, but here, I would see acquaintances stop their exertions, and chat, each drinking from plastic water bottles before continuing on their way.
And summer Warsaw is a smiley social place, like none I have ever encountered. Wherever I went, I encountered people happy and generous with their happiness, willing to laugh in an uncomplicated, non-judgmental way at my struggles with their language and happy to switch to mine as soon as I had exhausted my capabilities.
Nowhere was this friendliness more plain and striking than in a park we visited on Tuesday evening. As a person of western Europe, public parks are a curious mix of the open and bright and the sinister and dark. They are places of the day time and after dusk we surrender them to the forces of nature. During this time, we know, illicit acts are indulged, and scary malign forces roam freely, waiting to pray on the unsuspecting.
Yet, now, I was walked into a park, teaming with youthful activity. Skateboarders, walkers, cyclists and strollers passed along the lit path with the gentle purposefulness of a high street on a Sunday. Although universally young, there was no hint of aggression or threat to these people who had come to the park on a Tuesday night to enjoy the evening.
We passed a bar, its outdoor seating filled and clusters of people making the most of the warm evening by supping their chosen beverage on the grass. Then, at the centre of the park, another bar, with loud happy music and large plates of simple food being consumed. Beyond this was a large space in which a film was being played on a large screen.
Couples, families and groups sat on blankets and watched in silence as Catherine Zeta Jones lived out a role in a dramatic thriller. I had seen television pictures of outdoor cinema before, but had imagined it to be for the intelligentsia. Groups of scarf wearing intellectuals watching, Woody Allen Classics in Central Park. It had never occurred to me that this might be a popular social alternative on a Tuesday evening, any more than it had ever occurred to me to enter a public park after dark to see for myself.
This contract with the west stuck me all too clearly. I simply cannot imagine such a place existing in Britain, where youths on bicycles after dark are deemed to be up to no good and where any encounter on a dimly lit path would be laced with passive aggression. The idea that such a place could evolve, that such a utopian dream could emerge without the unedifying accompaniment of drug taking, violence or bullying, was anathema to me and all the more beautiful for my being able to see it with my own eyes.
Warsaw, is not regarded as a beautiful city, but it has beautiful elements that westerners such as myself, are drawn to with envy and wonder.
On my last full day, I sat in a hotel overlooking the historic Plac Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego, Warsaw’s largest square and home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. American readers may recall this place from the recent news footage of an aid to Mitt Romney chastising the assembled press corps for disrespecting a place of special significance to Poles.
Backing onto the ornamental park, The Saxon Gardens, this place too, has a profoundly different feel in summer and winter. It is a wide open square which I at first assumed to be in the Communist tradition, but whose history has in many ways been the history of Poland itself and has seen profound changes under the various occupations of the tsarist Russians, Nazis and Communists. Today it has been partially occupied by that most recent imperial coloniser, capitalism, with a luxury hotel to its southern elevation and a shopping centre along its northern. The eastern end of the square is dominated by two civic buildings unremarkable in themselves but presenting sober and respectful facades to the space.
The Grób Nieznanego Żołnierza (Tomb of the unknown Soldier) appears to be only a small part of a once, much larger structure. And, indeed, it did once form a part of the portico of the pałac Saski w Warszawie (Saxon Palace) which stood here until 1944. The occupying Nazis demolished all but the portion housing the memorial in retribution for the Warsaw Uprising.
The tomb has been provided with a continuous military guard (with the exception of the years 1939-1945, during the Nazi Occupation) since its inception in 1923 and the changing of the guard is a ceremonial of special significance to a City, so scarred by its history. Periodically, three soldiers pass under the large concrete Cross at the Eastern Edge of the Square, in immaculate, clipped and brisk uniformity, Their march slows as they reach the memorial itself on the western side, where they relieve the existing guards. The operation is done in the understated and businesslike way of the best army ceremonies, and gives the tourists limited time to get the best shots.
This is Warsaw, for you, business like, and brisk, but on a profoundly human scale, accessible and welcoming, yet proud and deeply in touch with its past.
All too soon it was time to go. I had, once again, seen just enough of Warsaw to feel as though I wanted to get to know it better, to feel it, and it’s vitality, more closely. I was, of course, pleased that my partner had found the magic in this city for herself. To settle in a foreign city by yourself is always difficult. But, I feel, to settle in a city such as Warsaw, as it enters its winter hibernation must be doubly challenging. And so much more rewarding as it emerges from its winter iciness to flower into a vibrant and beautiful home.
The trip back was long, involving a prolonged stay in Heathrow Airport, and a day watching aeroplanes queue up and accelerate along a westerly runway. All the while I thought of the country I had just returned from. Poland faces many challenges. Politically, she is sandwiched between Russia and Germany and watches their friendship with concern which is harder to understand in the west. She has sought to be a constructive member of the EU, and NATO and a host country for the US’s Missile Shield, in order to insulate herself from a resurgent Russia.
Moreover, she has exported many of her young, men and women who have proven themselves to be hard-working, dependable and proud, and she has, in turn, welcomed young people’s from her neighbouring countries to fill the void, and relaxed her citizenship laws for those from Belarus, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, who learn her language and prove willing to become Poles.
And yet, she remains an enigma to most of us Europeans, more easily drawn to the mountainous regions or those with golden sans for developing golden tans. This is a pity. Poland has much to offer us, and if her capital is anything to go by, much to teach us as well.