Friday, 2 December 2016

Travel Memories to Cherish

Dawn in the Old City (Stare Miasto)
Having complained at length about my trip trauma, I will now report on some of the happiest aspects. These include Warsaw itself and my weekend with beautiful Polish Pretend Daughter.

When I arrived in Warsaw with the airport bus, it was past midnight, cold and snowing a little. Behind me was the massive Palace of Culture and Science which Varsovians don't like because it reminds them of the Russians, who built it "for" them. I love it, however, as it is such a cool piece of Art Deco. To the right was the 1913 Polonia Palace Hotel, for which I made a beeline.

Warsaw has any number of smart hotels. The most famous is the 1901-built Hotel Bristol, but I wanted the shortest walk possible, so I booked a room and breakfast at the  Polonia Palace through a "top deals" website. This is a very pretty hotel, with a palm court and marble staircases, baroque hallways, ballrooms named after major centres of Polish migration (including Toronto) and spacious, comfortable bedrooms.

I slept very well and appeared at the dining-room door the next morning. My room number was checked against a list, which I found amusing.  A slender young waitress showed me to a small table with views of the snowy streets and asked if I would like coffee or tea. She brought my coffee in a silver jug, and after I had a restorative gulp, I noticed that breakfast was a self-serve, all-you-can-eat affair. I chose a mix of Polish and British+style foods, and, unsurprisingly, the Polish components were better.

As I ate breakfast and made notes in my journal, I looked out the curtained windows at the streets. They were not at all Art Nouveau like the Polonia but definitely 21st century. Snow sleeted down on glum-looking men in winter hats; their shoulders were hunched up against the wind. I reflected that I might be eating breakfast in a hitherto undiscovered dining-room in Toronto's King Edward Hotel, a matter for rejoicing. One of the things I love about Warsaw is that it reminds me of Toronto when I was a child and thought "downtown" exciting and glamorous.

Critics will tell you that Warsaw is a mess of Stalinist architecture and the post-communist building boom, with ever-stranger skyscrapers sprouting here, there and everywhere. I like that about Warsaw. It feels lively and boastful instead of soulless and opportunist, like Toronto's Yonge Street concrete alley stretching from from Sheppard Avenue to Steeles Avenue and (sadly) beyond. Ugh.

So before the Eye Incident, whenever I walked anywhere, I would think "Toronto but better" and feel gleeful. Generally I was walking to a café because the guest refectories of monastic foundations never have proper coffee but coffee-flavoured granules. (Suddenly I had an image of Christ as a guest in a Warsaw monastic foundation, drinking instant coffee all by Himself in the guest refectory.) There were several memorials on the way to multiple massacres of Poles by Germans and Communists, so I had ample reminders to pray for the victims along the way.

Poles are brilliant at typography, book design, poster-making and window-dressing, so the bookstores of Warsaw are irresistible. I didn't mean to buy anything--especially not books because I have a collection of Polish books I haven't even tried to read--but in the end I threw out clothes just to make room in my carry-on for books. Two must-see bookshops are Księgarnia Naukowa im. Bolesława Prusa (Bolesław Prus Scholarly Bookstore) on Ulica (street) Krakowskie Przedmieście Street and Bęc  ("Boing!") at  Ulica Mokotowska, 65.

Bęc is a tiny but glorious architectural bookshop and very hipster. Personally I love all hipster stuff (boo to the haters) except tattoos. Warsaw abounds in hipster joints: coffees with excellent coffee, hamburger joints with craft beer... Hipster Alley is probably Ulica Chmielna and environs. Relax Cafe and Bar is around the corner at Ulica Złota, 8a. Delicious coffee and free wi-fi.

Both the Palace of Culture and Science and Ulica Chmielna have cinemas, and this time instead of attempting the theatre, I went to Polish films. In my two weeks in Poland I saw three films in the theatres and three films over Netflix at Polish Pretend Daughter's House.  The cinema films were Wołyń, Jestem Mordercą (I am the Murderer) and Ostatnia Rodzina (The Last Family).

The first two were terrific, but the last one tested my patience to the utmost. Wołyń is a historical epic about the "ethnic-cleansing" of eastern Poland by Soviets, Nazis and (most viciously) Ukrainian nationalists,  and it is not for the faint of heart.* Jestem Mordercą is half a police procedural and half a morality tale about how good men go bad. Ostatnia Rodzina is not a comedy (as I hoped), but a film spanning almost 40 years (1970s to 2010s) in the life of a painter and his family. The men are awful in their selfish ways, and the Polish Mother (a crucial cultural trope) as long-suffering as usual.

As this is turning into quite a long post, I will save my adventures with Polish Pretend Daughter for later. I will mention, however, that I stayed in her big bedroom and she gave me her bed and slept on a pullout couch. This was very moving, not less so because another young Polish hostess--this one in much more cramped London conditions--also gave up her bed to me. All my Polish friends believe strongly in the proverb "A guest in the home is God in the home." The word "guest" is crucial, however, in a country that has been invaded by foreigners a gazillion times.

*One of the chants at the Independence March was "Bandera was Hitler's whore." I was speaking to someone almost my age last night about Wołyń, and she mentioned that her mother had fled her eastern Polish village with her family one morning and it was burnt down by Ukrainians that night. There is now not a trace of this village. "Not all Ukrainians were like that," she added. The film makes that clear, too.

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