A Brief Description of Six Places in Warsaw

Stare Miasto

After being almost entirely and intentionally destroyed by the Nazis in response to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Old Town of Warsaw has been reconstructed. To an untrained eye like mine, it cannot be distinguished from the well-maintained old town of say, Prague, which managed to come out of the war comparatively unscathed.

The people of Warsaw are proud of their Old Town: every time they catch me wandering into an outer district they seem confused and point me back in the direction of it. Stare Miasto! Stare Miasto!

This pride is more than understandable. The history of their city (and their country) is a never-ending story of occupation and destruction. So rebuilding an entire part of the city that has disappeared and claiming back the right to one’s own past is a form of resistance and admirable stubbornness. It’s the very same stubbornness that I’ve seen in the faces along the country roads that lead to Warsaw. 

In the old town, next to a small side street where a black carriage horse is sleeping, a hat seller waves me over. He smiles and reveals one long, yellow tooth. He tries to sell me a fur hat. They are beautiful, but I already have one at home in Canada, I tell him. He doesn’t understand English, so he takes my hand and leads me over to his neighbour, a young woman selling magnets. She translates for us. Canadians are some of my best customers, he says. Much better than the Spanish.

The Spanish generally don’t have a great need for fur hats, no?  He considers this for a moment, shrugs, and pulls out his identification card. He points to his birth year: 1935. Then he pulls a calculator out of his pocket and punches in his age: 87. Wow, I say. He passes me the calculator and I punch in my age. Wow, he says. Then he takes his age, and minuses my age from it. We both marvel at the number. We stand, grinning at each other and not saying a word. Then we shake hands and part ways.

Muranów

Muranów was once home to the Jewish ghetto. 460,000 people lived there. 390,000 of them were murdered. 460,000 minus 390,000 leaves 70,000. Nowadays in Muranów there are some Soviet-era apartment blocks, unassuming parks, and small restaurants. I takes me a good half an hour to find the synagogue (the only remaining pre-war synagogue in Warsaw) but I finally find it tucked in between a parking lot and some new glass buildings.  Nobody is around, and the synagogue is locked. The only person that I’m able to find is the old owner of the kosher grocery store. He wakes up when the door jingles open and greets me in Hebrew, Polish, and English. He reminds me that it’s Rosh Hashanah. Then he nods off again. His eyes are tiny and distant behind a pair of the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen.

Krochmalna Street

“We reached Krochmalna Street and the stench I recalled from my childhood struck me first— a blend of burned oil, rotten fruit, and chimney smoke. Everything was the same— the cobblestone pavement, the steep gutter, the balconies hung with wash. We passed a factory with wire-latticed windows and a blind wall with a wooden gate I never saw open in all my youth. Every house here was bound up with memories. No. 5 contained a yeshiva in which I had studied for a term. There was a ritual bath in the courtyard, where matrons came in the evening to immerse themselves. I used to see them emerge clean and flushed. Someone told me that this building had been home of Rabbi Itche Meir Alter. In my time the yeshiva had been a part of the Grodzisk house of prayer. It’s beadle was a drunk. When he had a drop too much, he told tales of saints, dybbuks, half-mad squires and sorcerers. He ate one meal a day and always (except on the Sabbath) stale bread crumbled into borscht…”

(An excerpt from ‘Shosha’ by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated from the Yiddish by Joseph Singer.)

Krochmalna Street has not been rebuilt. How could it? In order for something to be rebuilt its inhabitants need to say: we survived, we remained, we want to fill this place again. But in this case, the people are gone and so is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Krochmalna Street. At one end of the street there’s a tiny, dirty patch of grass (apparently a park) named after the author. At the other end, the only remaining old building stands with boarded-up windows. Between these two ends, modern buildings have popped up beside ones from the fifties and sixties which are starting to turn grey. I find this street unbearably sad and move along.

Hala Mirowska

In the marketplace next to Hala Mirowska, vendors sell plums, raspberries, massive bunches of dill, mushrooms fresh from the forests, dried, fragrant fish and pastries. It’s so crowded that it takes an hour for me to move from one end to the other. Despite this, it’s quiet. Everyone seems to speak softly. (Or perhaps I’m only remembering it like that.) The sun shines in its mild autumn way, and everyone seems to be in a good mood. The vendors are nimble, curt. They do not need to shout or advertise their goods. They have built up reputations for themselves which long line-ups at each stand attest to. Plums which are mouldy or otherwise unacceptable roll about on the ground and are stepped on, releasing a wonderful smell.

An old man steps out of this jostling, whispering mass of people and comes towards me. He is wearing an old black leather jacket and a black beret. His eyes are sharp and full of good humour. He stops before me, bows deeply, says, Welcome to Warsaw, and then continues on his way. It feels as though the city itself has sent me it’s greetings.

Praga

I somehow manage (don’t ask me how) to get some address mixed up and accidentally end up in a cellar where a metal band from Mumbai are playing. The band and the crowd are so likeable that I end up staying for awhile. I’m not at all dressed for the occasion (a beret, hiking shoes, and red lipstick) but everyone is forgiving. Warsaw, you’re incredible, they say between songs. You all have so much energy. We’ve never seen anything like this!

It turns out that they are only the opening act, and that a band from Budapest are the real stars of the evening. They open the evening with a song called “Holocaust.” Let us make sure that it never happens again! They say before they begin. To my untrained (and very sensitive) ears, it sounds like one long, sustained scream, and I have to be honest, it’s one the most articulate things I’ve ever heard on the subject.

I take the tram back to the Soviet-era walk-up that I’m renting in the suburbs. I brush my teeth in the tiny kitchen. My neck is stiff, my face is irritated (by being whipped by some long hair), and my ears are ringing, but I’m happy.

Przy Bażantarni Park

On Sunday, the same day as Rosh Hashanah, Warsaw celebrates the Patron Saint of Warsaw, Saint Wladyslaw from Gielniowo. On top of that, the Warsaw Marathon is happening, and many major streets are closed. Despite this, I somehow manage to get to the Przy Bażantarni Park in the Natolin district, where there is a kind of fair. The air there is filled with the smell of sausages, candy, fried potatoes and Polish music. There is a makeshift dance floor, and it is full with the very old (who know all the words and mouth along) and the very young (who know neither the steps nor the words). As the afternoon goes on, they are joined by mothers, fathers, and even a group of teenaged girls, who giggle nervously.

As with many parts of Warsaw, Natolin is full of hurriedly (and notoriously badly) built grey apartment blocks that loom around and press in on the park, but as with the other districts, they seem to shrink next to the people of Warsaw, who are warm, stylish, and unpretentious. (I like them very much.)

A trumpeter from one of the bands that are playing sees me standing off to the side, tapping my foot along to the music. He asks me if I’d like to dance. I say yes, and we go spinning around the stage to the music of the Warsaw-Lublin Brass Band. He patiently teaches me some of the traditional dances (which are making a comeback among young Polish people) including the so-called “small waltz.” It’s not like the Viennese Waltz, he says. You have to move your feet very quickly and very little. Imagine you’re dancing in a little box.

A waltz perfect for the tiny kitchens of those grey apartments, I think to myself.

The kitchen of my Soviet-era apartment.
Stare Miasto.
Krochmalna Street

 

Wziąchowo Wielkie

If you ask for “a small breakfast” at the hotel in Wziąchowo Wielkie you will find the following waiting downstairs for you on the table:

Fried eggs with fresh dill, sausages, ten slices of bread, a roll, ten cubes of butter, one bowl of strawberry jam, one bowl of cottage cheese, one bowl of mustard, one plate of vegetables, an assortment of cold meats and cheeses, one glass of juice, one jug of milk, one thermos of coffee and one thermos of black tea.

A cat stares from the door of the dining room. Every time you look back, a new one has taken its place. At intervals of five minutes, the Ukrainian cook, dressed in black, comes out of the kitchen wringing her white hands and smiling expectantly. You thank her every time and turn back to the task at hand: making the food disappear as not to hurt her feelings. If only the cats could come a little nearer so that you could slip them a sausage! But they are well trained, it seems. So you resort to slipping things in your coat pocket.

The owner enters. He is sixty or so, tall, handsome, carries himself like a Polish aristocrat. He tells you the history of the place: how it was a manor of some nobility, a spa, a school during the communist times, a ruin, and now his hotel. Have you enjoyed your stay? He asks (in perfect high German). Oh, you live in Bavaria? He has a friend, an old guest of his, some Von-Somebody who also lives in Bavaria and happens to be turning 100 this week. He really ought to visit one of these days…

After you’ve drunk your coffee and eaten what you can, you can take a stroll (only strolling, not walking, is appropriate here) around the large pond.  Only, every time you come to a bridge you find that it has collapsed. The grass is long, the elegant white benches are rotting, and tiny green frogs hop out of the gazebo when you come near. Nonetheless, it is charming here—  straight out of a Chekhov story. The sun shines mildly. The huge linden trees shake their leaves. A cat jumps up on your lap. In the nearby pine woods, people are walking along sandy roads in search of mushrooms. It is a perfect day. The news of Putin calling up hundreds of thousands of more soldiers seems as if it were happening in some other, far away world. But near the back door, the cook and her teenage son have their heads together and are whispering, and it’s clear that it’s happening here, in this one.

 

The Elbe

I cross the Elbe on a little wooden bridge so narrow that before I drive across I get out to take a look if the car will fit. For all it’s historical significance, here it resembles a common little creek, brown and a little swollen from all the rain.

I swear something feels different on the other side of the Elbe. Grey geese pick through the mud next to abandoned factories. Many of the houses are made from dark, horizontal wooden beams with white chinking. Roofs seem larger and droop farther towards the ground. Rather than oak and apple trees, rowans line the narrow streets, and in the dusk they look like so many red matches.

I stay overnight at the Hotel Alpský in a bare yellow room. The television is broken, perhaps for the best. I go to bed early. Cold air from the Carpathians blows in and I sleep well for the first time on the journey.

When I wake up, I notice for the first time that there’s a picture hanging over my head. At first I think it’s a scene from the American West: a well, a dusty shack, a desert with a few bare telephone poles. When I look closer, however, I realise it’s a picture of the source of the Elbe. When I look it up on a map, I discover it’s only a few kilometres away, and that there’s a road leading there directly from the Alpský which continues on to the Polish border. Perfect.

Only, ten minutes in I almost run over some Czech tourists and realise that I’m driving on a hiking trail. So I turn around and take the regular old pass to Poland and skip the source of the Elbe. Some things are better when they keep a little of their mystery about them.

 

The Crypt of St. George’s

In St. George’s Basilica in Prague there exists a statue of death unlike any I’ve ever seen: a small, green figure, with a hood of many sumptuous folds, standing alone in the crypt, set off to the side like something in storage. His intestines peek out under emaciated ribs, his eyes are hollow as cups, and a snake-like root or root-like snake comes out of the floor and winds it way up to his knee. 

As I gaze at him, it seems to me as if this entire basilica (Prague’s oldest) has only been built to house this strange, anonymous statue of death, though I know from the brochure that it holds the remains of an important saint and other objects of higher value.  

“If,” writes Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert, “in the white basilica of St George fire broke out, God forbid, its walls after the flames would be rose coloured… the fiery heat would make the limestone blush.” When I read these lines later in a small bookstore in Malá Strana, I picture (yes, God forbid!) fire burning down everything except this little green statue, which appears indestructible and brand new next to the peeling wall paintings and delicate reliefs.

I leave. Outside the castle and tucked into a corner near the British Embassy, a hundred bouquets of flowers are strewn in the street for Queen Elizabeth. I’d like to get closer and pay my respects but a television reporter is nearby, wobbling over the cobblestones in high heels and waiting to interview anyone who comes too close. She grins at me. Her mouth is full of menacing, brilliant white teeth.

P.S. For those confused, I decided after my failed attempt to sightsee on the first evening, that I would go for a walk in the morning before I left.

 

An Evening in Prague

Although I didn’t plan to stop in Prague, I did. And since it has World Heritage status and that’s, well, sort of the raison d’être of this road trip, I thought I’d go take a look. I arrived in the evening, and walked in the direction of the old town.

But as I stood on one of the many bridges over the Vlatava, considering where to begin, there came a sheet of rain so powerful and unexpected that I thought it was the foam of the Vlatava itself. I watched as everyone ran to their homes. The streets became empty and blue. The rain was orange, like the roofs, the facades, and the street-lamps. 

Consequently, I couldn’t see a thing. So as far as World Heritage goes, I have nothing to report. What I can tell you, however,  is that there is a little restaurant on Na Bojišti street that serves roast duck with caraway seeds, bread dumplings and soft red cabbage that tastes wonderful when you’ve just come in from the rain. And down the street, there is a hotel, the Tivoli, which has seen better days but is nonetheless bright and warm. There you can sit in bed and watch Czech television dramas until sleep finally comes.

A very welcome glass of Grog. Whatever that is.

Mushrooms

My hosts in Běleč, M and A, are crazy about collecting mushrooms. Day in and day out, all they think about are mushrooms. Every spare inch of their house is filled with mushrooms laid out in various stages of cleaning or drying. The green of the Billiard table is barely visible beneath all the mushrooms: chanterelles, oyster, porcini. A baking sheet is propped up precariously between the wood stove and the chairs, so that you have to tip toe everywhere. The cats are shooed off whenever they come too near.

When I meet A out in the forest in her red raincoat, she smiles like a child caught doing something it shouldn’t.

‘I promised I’d be quick today,’ she tells me.

‘Why do you have to be quick?’ I ask.  

‘We’ll, because yesterday I was out in the forest for six hours. Today I said I’d be back after two hours.’

She can’t help herself. Even as we talk, her eyes move over the ground. She knows exactly where to look.  Hřib Smrkový like the roots of silver birches, Liška Obecná prefer ditches. There is no need to be stingy with insider information, there’s more than enough to go around.

Like all addicts, she is quick to point out anyone who’s got it worse. She tells me about cars that she sees which are positively sagging with mushrooms. Cars so full that their driver is no longer visible. She holds each mushroom to my nose so I can smell it’s delicate perfume.

When I wake up in the morning, the wood stove in the corner of my room has gone out, and sun shines into the room through the small window. Beyond the fields, tall, red pines bend cheerfully with every gust of wind. The clouds move by quickly. Rain falls for a few minutes at a time, then stops again. When I go downstairs, I find a bowl of mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and butter on the table.

I make breakfast, drink a cup of coffee and walk down to the old Jewish cemetery. Ancient graves with Hebrew letters stick out of the ground like a mouth of crooked teeth. Many trees have grown into and around the graves. On the edges of the cemetery, near the low walls, wild strawberries grow. Between the graves, mushrooms.

Leaving

I leave a few weeks later than I planned, just as the weather takes a turn for the worse.

In Munich, driving rain. As I head east, it clears, but remains grey. Every car on the Autobahn overtakes me. Even the starlings, in their nervous way, are faster than me.

Near Wallersdorf, brown foals stand placidly next to bare fields of purple earth. In Deggendorf, every other store stands empty. No one is out. I head up the mountain toward the Czech border, through Regen and Zwiesel. I’d like to park somewhere and take one last look down at Germany, but there’s too much fog, it’s impossible to see anything.

Želená Ruda is the Czech border town. There are hand painted signs advertising cigarettes. There are two gas stations and two casinos. There are four nail salons and wood smoke rising from tiny brown houses. To the left and right of the street, shacks are propped up, haphazardly, like theatre sets. Outside of them walls of glittering Christmas ornaments bird houses and woven baskets dangle. From the road, it’s impossible to see into the shacks but given the amount of stuff out on the street, it’s easy to imagine that inside they are empty. Their owners sit outside, as immobile as their wares, wrapped from head to toe against the damp cold.

I drive through Harmanice, past wet fields ringed with birches. The birches here are straighter, prettier (it seems to me), and farther along in their change of colour. I follow a winding road that traces the black, narrow Otava river. I drive through Střelské Hoštice, Předotice, Zvíkovské Podhradi. Towns pass by in an instant and are gone forever. Apple trees heavy with fruit line the roads. Apples roll into the street and under my tires.

I stop to eat in Jistebnice. It’s evening now, and the town is pitch black, except for the blue glow of a bank machine, and the tiny yellow windows of a tavern. A group of teenagers lean against a wall near my car. One of them sees my foreign license plate, and asks with a smile, what the hell I’m doing in Jistebnice. I’m on vacation, I say. He looks confused and shakes his head apologetically. Sorry, he says, my English very few. I ask him what he recommends at the tavern and he tells me to get the fish.

The tavern is a small room with six tables and an unlit fireplace in the corner. Five tables are full. People shout and laugh. Children swing between the tables and run behind the bar. I sit down at the sixth table and order a small beer and fish. The waitress laughs and tenderly tells me that at this tavern they serve only fish, so I’ll have to be more specific. She passes a menu, all in Czech, and patiently tries to translate it for me.  I order fried trout with potato salad and mayonnaise, eat quickly and leave. Voices and laughter follow me out into the street, then the door swings shut and they are gone. The teenagers have left and the night is cold and quiet. I drive through the dark, and turn on the radio to keep from nodding off. The sky is as black as the Otava. No moon, no stars.

 

 

By Way of Introduction

‘The joyful anticipation before a journey is always outweighed by the irritation of actually going,’ writes Joseph Roth, but for once I have to disagree. The weeks before I’m due to leave for a trip, I feel nothing short of domestic bliss. Neighbours who once petty are suddenly charming, chores which once seemed tiresome are suddenly effortless, my belongings, normally forgotten about, seem suddenly precious. Familiarity, modesty and comfort become virtues as alluring as any garden variety vice.

There is so much to do. We forgot to take the winter tires off the car. I need to order a road atlas. Oh, and go down into the cellar and dust off my tent. What about a language guide? A backpack for my camera?  And my sleeping medication, or will it be fine? Should the shoes I bring along be elegant or practical? Perhaps I’ll bring one pair of each, and another two pairs just to be safe. Will it be warm? Will I go swimming? What if there is a cold snap?

All of this to distract, perhaps, from the fact that leaving on a journey is a terrifying thing. So much could go sideways. Or go wonderfully. But if it goes wonderfully then we probably have to change our minds about something or other and that is about as uncomfortable as things going sideways.

There is absolutely nothing to be done. Preparations will continue to be made. The car will get new tires. The tent has a hole in it, but it can be patched up. And I’ll do well to remember the words of the editor who published Roth’s tirade: ‘We assure our readers that in spite of everything he says… our author spends very little time at home.’

That all being said, I’ll take the liberty of adjusting Roth’s words for my own purposes: The irritating anticipation before a journey is always outweighed by the joy of actually going.