Monday, October 26, 2009

(Don't Go Back To) Warsaw

Grey, grim, dank, drizzly, dark and unfriendly.

Welcome to Warsaw.

You can see why it's not on the tourist trail. While fairytale Krakow boasts ancient buildings and pretty Bruge-style canals and market squares, Warsaw can offer little in the same vain.

It's a sprawling, snarling brute of a city, a place where shopkeepers either ignore you or glare at you, people shout at you in underpasses which sell raw meat and have row after row of garish sex shops, it rains nons-stop, jackbooted police are everywhere, shops are either western 'concept' high-tech stores or Cold War half-empty shells, and nothing much seems to have moved on. It could have been 1992.

Yes, there's a small 'old town', and it was more or less untouched by progress and not so bad for all that, and that was the place to go for food and entertainment. We didn't dare go into the city centre, it was far too frightening. The old town was much like the one in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where Benny Hill had a toymaking workshop. I expected the child catcher to round the corner in horse and cart at any moment and frankly I wouldn't have been that surprised.

What one taxi driver told us was like 'Oxford Street' was more like Buxton high street shops wise - and I'm being kind. Some pretty buildings like the Parliament (I believe), the Bristol Hotel and the university, and lots of lovely old churches, but this street was kind of it. There was was nothing much on it except mini-supermarkets and coffee shops. There was a new interestingly-designed shopping centre, full of things like Zara and Sisley, tailored for the local market and quite empty considering. I don't think the money is there.

People look down at heel. You still see women furtively selling their produces in between parked cars. The city is full of drunks shouting racial abuse at black people - right in their faces - and the staring squads are everywhere. I thought China and Japan were bad for this, but you ain't seen nothing until you've walked the streets of Warsaw. I'm not sure why - just because we're not wearing mismatched clothes does that make us freaks?

Our hotel was a lovely, lavishly recreated 1930s art deco boutique number, not far from the centre. A great as it was, it also boasted a superb view of ropey old hookers who jumped into passing cars in between freezing to death, chain-smoking and seeing off skanky looking on-foot punters. It was quite fascinating.

It's clearly a country in crisis. It's not like Prague or Budapest or Berlin, who manage to combine pretty and/or modern and have swept away most of the old Cold War feel they once had and moved on. Warsaw is dominated by a gigantic Empire State building clone, the Palace of Culture, a gift from Stalin to the Polish people, and a constant reminder that Big Brother was watching from Mother Russia. You still get that feeling now.

Much as I romanticise the pre-Wall-coming-down Eastern Bloc, here you can imagine how oppressive and frightening and damaging and depressing it actually was. No wonder Poles made a beeline for Britain as soon as they could. Taxi drivers all said that the news they get there is just propaganda, things aren't changing as quickly as they should and that they rely on the BBC World Service to find out what's really going on in Poland. I was quite shocked.

Most food was slathered in melted cheese and lardons, and I feel I've eaten my body weight in lard. One restaurant we went to both my courses were served in frying pans. Portions are not small. I can feel my arteries hardening as I write.

Still, despite all that we had quite a nice time. It's certainly an experience, but not one I would repeat in a hurry. And I take it all back about flavoured vodka - the walnut one was dark black and smelled of Christmas.

But I'm glad to be home.


Ishouldbeworking said...

Bloody hell. I went to Moscow and Leningrad (as was) exactly twenty years ago and though things were pretty grim, they still weren't as dismal as what you've just described. Sounds like an East-meets-West Dystopia.

Presumably there was no infrastructure there strong enough to support the change from totalitarian Communism to free-for-all capitalism, so it's just sunk somewhere in the middle. A market economy where there's nothing to buy and no money to buy it with. Sounds ripe for the far right to move in on. How bloody awful.

Cocktails said...

Very interesting. Your description probably helps explain why there are so many Polish people over here. You can't really blame them can you?

Five-Centres said...

I thought the same ISBW, it's only a matter of time before the far right take a hold.

We remarked on that too, Cocktails. They can't get out quick enough.