Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Poland  ,
Thursday, November 15, 2007

Claude - now in Ghana volunteer teaching for a month - is taking all the dates up to the 15th, with my entries coming in the second half of the month - this stops the little map going crazy. We rejoin Dec 8th!

* * *

November 6th

Both our alarm clocks fail on the morning of our Athens departure, and we head to the airport wondering if its a "sign" of imminent doom. It only turned out to be a sign that we could sleep in, with Claude's flight to Ghana delayed just enough (3 hours) that she will miss her connecting flight from London. Nice work B.A.

I had only minor dramas trying to explain the e-ticket concept to the man at check-in who insisted I needed more bits of paper. When confronted with my confirmation number he merely looked perplexed, and my pointing vigorously at the computer next to him yielded only disdain.  

Arriving in Warsaw is akin to being clubbed with a frozen fish. We got off on the tarmac due to airport renovations, and the cold was like nothing I have ever experienced. This would prove to be the real sign.  

Warsaw is newly modern and efficient. The new airport works smoothly and the transfer into town is cheap and immediate - all good signs that things work and you're in for an easy stay. Derelict buildings are at least very derelict, clearly for sale and new stuff is emerging to bring the city back to life. There is at every inch the feeling of a rapidly emerging modern city built on its old Stalinist skeleton.   

The skull of that skeleton is the Palace of Culture, a building that was a gift from Stalin and which is identical in design to the Seven Sisters in Moscow (seven iterations of the design spaced around that city). In our time in Moscow a few years ago I nearly coerced us all to stay in one - which would have been a huge mistake as it was out in the 'burbs - and the one Sister we visited had seen better days and appeared abandoned. In contrast, Warsaw's has been renovated and while it is still a dark insidious presence - seemingly glaring at you while you are in most parts of the city - as you get closer it seems merely mildly grumpy at its new status. I managed to pass it a few times every day and never get a good photo. Kudos to me.  

The central theme of my Warsaw memories will be simply of being colder than I have ever been in my life. I am wearing far more than the locals - two shirts, newly acquired very thick and high necked jumper, beanie, fleece, by now ubiquitous Sportsgirl mittens - and it feels like I am walking around nude. I have looked at a clothing upgrade but nothing seemed to be on offer that would offer the quantum leap of warmth I clearly need.  

I used to see pictures of Poles walking down grey, wintry, icy streets and I had adopted that as my visualisation of life in a communist state. Its not, its simply life in a very bloody cold state. You could be making a million a year tax free in Warsaw but would still walk the town bent double from the biting wind, head bowed avoiding the driving horizontal sleet, silently wishing you were dead.  

So it was fortunate that this was the city in which I was seeking to get a visa for Belarus - one of the last true outposts of communism. Your experience starts right at their embassy here where they make you queue outside the security gate and wait (two hours in my case) next to a busy road, in two degree temperatures with an amazing windchill as well. It even snowed again just to make the experience complete. Of course, you can see into the consular section where there is a bank style lobby with more than adequate room for everyone to wait inside. No toasty warmth for you, foreigner.  

What is equally perplexing is that none of my fellow queuers - mostly aged 50 plus interestingly - found anything all that odd in the situation. I even got the distinct impression that a couple weren't even going anywhere, they just liked the punishingly pointless queuing exercise as a reminiscence about the good old days.  

The consulate was vague about answering any of my questions: specifically whether that as a UK citizen I should be able to enter without a visa invitation letter, as is widely written. The lady serving me instead asked if I had made a hotel booking (no, not without a visa) and she cocked her head and opined "Strange. You don't seem like a tourist. You seem like nosy American". I guess that's the Bielorussian version of 'Where the bloody hell are ya?' 

Plans for Belarus are on hold as I met a very cool young eastern Ukrainian traveller in Warsaw who is heading there himself. He was getting around in a t-shirt, but was a little pensive about Minsk because 'right now its really cold there'. This has caused plans to be readjusted. Claude's decision to go to 35 degree but toilet free Ghana increasingly seems like genius.   

My time with Porel (attempt at spelling his Ukrainian name with our characters) was contrasted with a new low in meeting ignorant Australian fellow tourists. Porel was always careful to speak English, even with other Russian speakers around the hostel, noting "people in eastern Europe do not react well to just overhearing Russian spoken, given the last 60 years." I had never thought of that issue of your mother tongue being physically offensive in adjoining countries... and English as a language of the West and integration is still disdained in Russia and the Ukraine. Really insightful and well read, time with Porel was eye opening.

Dining in Warsaw is quite a highlight with flavoursome stews and dishes served in 1960's era workers' cafeterias. In this setting was a man speaking convoluted Australian English to a lady who was in no mood to hear it and walked off rather than serve him. I helped him out with a couple of translations (about 5 essential food words I had quickly learned so as to avoid starving) and then found I had a new best friend. Sitting amidst the (rebuilt, but you can hardly tell) 14th century Old Town he expressed his amazement that Hitler had built all this to house the Jews way back hundreds of years ago - and wasn't it odd eh that he didn't include a statue of himself in there, just some 1300s dude. How do you explain that WWII is a twentieth century occurrence? Do you bother? Public education, maybe it really is time to give it more. 

The museums of Warsaw are excellently funded but alternately overwhelming and chronologically jumpy. The Warsaw Rising Museum - recording the largely self equipped August 1 1944 operation by the local residents against the occupying Nazis - had amazing elements and some great insights, but it was telling that a few people (all from different countries) sat around that night noticing that we hadn't really emerged any the wiser. The museum is so consumed with art and effects its hard to follow a narrative.

Warsaw was the city most destroyed in WWII - as after the uprising Hitler gave the order that nothing remained and the city was systematically dynamited and burned, block by block, until the war's end. The history it tells is very personal and I leave feeling that the memorials that we saw in Berlin (which at the time we interpreted as very open and forthright about Germany's role) fall short in not commemorating the many individual personal stories that the Poles capture very tellingly.  

I have fond memories of Warsaw. I will happily come again IN JUNE sometime.
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