Warsaw: Uprising Phoenix
THE END OF ASIA
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It all starts with the research… even before leaving China, the signs are there, the growing dissatisfaction with ‘things,’ the realisation that the honeymoon period has passed, the boredom of knowing what another year of teaching in China will entail…
Meeting a nice smiley woman who once you sign the contract isn’t so nice anymore. Finding your colleagues are every westerner with ego or issues you neither want to meet and that you thought only existed in the most disturbing of psychological movies.
And to top it all off, directors who haven’t the faintest inkling of how to direct. In short a pattern that need not be repeated. After five years’ the time seemed right to reacquaint one’s self with Europe, but where?
Spain, Italy? Both sounded nice, tempting even but wait… there is another key ingredient to the TESOL teachers workplace; for failing to follow your heart in your younger years you shall be condemned to every country in or on the brink of war, corrupt or ruled by a delusional dictator and corrupt. It is nothing short of geographical Russian Roulette!
COULD WARSAW BE THE FUTURE?
That rules out the Mediterranean, besides the ‘normal’ path didn’t interest me. So what is the alternative? Finland seemed to fit but there was no response to my emails and the cold and dark may have proved too much for me. How about Poland? Well, for one it would be different and I always wanted to live somewhere continental, you know… with trams and bells.
All of this seemed spookily fore written as an exhibition by Chinese academics in Guangzhou showcased Warsaw. Just the word itself conjured up other images; being of a certain age and ilk one’s mind immediately turns to… David Bowie – Warszawa (background on the song here).
Now I was going to post the more humorous cartoon version of Bowie’s piece but that would have deflected the seriousness of what I will write about. The irony is that humour is so often the way we deal with dark subject matter. Alternative seems to be the order of the day when discussing the city, who could forget the early choice of name for Joy Division’s brand of doom and gloom.
Then there’s Depeche Mode whose soundscapes occasionally paint pictures of sombre eastern European vistas (I Want You Now for one example) and who only a week after my arrival roll into town as part of their Global Spirit tour. In addition Porcupine Tree’s first live outing was also titled WARSZAWA.
AN ALTERNATIVE/AFFORDABLE BERLIN & THE CHINA OF THE WEST
With so many stereotypical images of white sky, drizzle and depressing music the only way to dispel such imagery and myth is to go and have a look. Sure enough some days are white skied and drizzly but some are hot and sunny.
At present you might regard Warsaw as the new Berlin; affordable, alternative, edgy, in other words still cool and slightly off the beaten path though one suspects not for much longer. Once the expats start rolling in (this has already begun) the house prices will go through the roof and yours truly will have to move on and start again. For now let’s enjoy bathing in the vistas of the new.
The first thing you might notice is that Poland is not too dissimilar from China. The apartments have bars on windows, there are dumplings (Pierogi), the people are reasonably friendly, the trams are both of a time when Poland was still under the rule of Russia and more modern low floor versions slide around town like mechanical swans.
There are differences though, for starters here the women have boobies which when you haven’t seen any for five years is a bit of a shock – even more so that hardly any have escaped the tattoo parlours needle and ink. Don’t get me wrong, the Chinese girls are beautiful but they are not known for their curvature.
The other weird thing with Warsaw is it’s a bit like being thrown into a surround sound porno film; there are girls writhing up against and necking their partners in the lunch queue! And some take this a step further. The other day just after eating I looked up there it was again. This was not a peck on the cheek but full on tongue sandwich!
Maybe a passionate lunch is order of the day in Poland; a case of I’ll have what they’re having, but after the conservatism of the East it will take some getting used to, a bit like the weather; gone are the days of summer ’til November.
CITY OF RUINS
Returning to Bowie and Eno’s sombre homage is not without merit. I am not a fan of military or war, never have been, never will be but seeing the desolation in the film City of Ruins at the Uprising Museum really brought home what the city and country of Poland suffered – purely so the Germans could have more living space is just madness beyond comprehension.
The fact that the Nazi’s listened to Hitler, the fact the gas chambers were built and worse utilised. The fact that it took so long for the outside world to react and defeat such a tyrant and his marching men of evil. Scratch the surface and of course the wounds of the past are there. I mention going to Budapest to a woman who says it is her favourite city and if not for the atrocities of September 1939 and the months and years that followed, Warsaw may have resembled.
Bearing in mind the devastation it is amazing the city survived at all. I ask another contact if there is any animosity toward the Germans now, she says more so the Russians who left their own scars. Both Lufthansa and Aeroflot service the city today which shows some serious resolve and forgiveness on the part of the Poles. The remainders and memories as you may imagine are not forgotten in the citywide tributes to those lost and the bullet holes at Hala Mirowska.
Flipping over that black chapter not just in Poland but all humanity, one of the best things I came across was the Free Speech Memorial to honour the secret publishing movement which existed through some of Poland’s darkest days. Tucked behind the HQ of the modern day Polish Press Agency (PAP) and better still in front of what was the main office of the communist censorship office.
But Poland is not out of the woods entirely, having been sandwiched by horror in the historical sense, this time the enemy emanates from within. At this most peculiar juncture in history the entire world seems to be drowning in wave upon wave of far right hate crimes.
Regarding what I said earlier about the only available countries to a TESOL teacher being corrupt or doing their damnedest to be, Poland is now in a similar position to what Turkey was six years earlier. Politics was the only thing I hadn’t checked when researching Poland.
RETAIL: LOSS AND GAINS
Aside heartache and protest, there are familiar faces here; Costa and Starbucks, H&M but every big move has its casualties. In some ways sad, in others necessary. The whole point of moving is to make things fresh again. Gone are 7-11, Family Mart, which are replaced by the very European grey/green cabins of RUCH (pronounced Roosh) and Zabka, while Saizeriya and UNI QLO are substituted by the Soviet era Mleczny (milk bars) and C&A.
Marks and Spencers is one of the few stores belonging to the familiar category though my contact tells me it will soon close to my disbelief. It’s like losing a friend. When we visit it is plain to see, the empty shelves and racks, the remaining clothes for sale. I insist on having a tea being as it’s a British institution and it will soon be a memory – at least in Warsaw (the way C&A ceased to be in the UK but has continued with no problem in Europe).
The cafe area is dim and grey with no lighting, like Britain even before Brexit was announced and the tea was in too big a paper cup, too hot to hold and needed ridiculous amounts of sugar just to get it tasting quasi-decent. It’s a pity as the prices were surprisingly agreeable and would have made a nice hangout. I can only hope the one in Paris survives.
THE ORIENTAL CONNECTION
On a human level, the faces of the Orient are still here though they belong not to the Chinese so much as their southern neighbours the Vietnamese.
Their yummy dishes, known from my all too brief visit to Hanoi last year, are all the more welcome from the western breads and pancakes I’ve been equally happy to reunite with.
The Mleczny are cheap but can become very crowded at peak times and don’t expect the staff to be happy to see you (the foreign visitor).
Coming back to the music, Warsaw steps up to the plate not just with major bands of the new wave era but the more cultured in regular Chopin performances in town and at Lazienki (the Royal Park). I was lucky to catch Przemek Straczek’s brilliant Orientally imbued jazz fusion at the Chinese Pavilion (same park, different day).
Thankfully the city today is thriving, it is every bit the rising Phoenix and although I look forward to discovering more of it, there’s a part of me that just wants to keep moving. As always stay tuned.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Thanks for reading here. Should anyone be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, please contact me for a FREE Overview PDF. Meanwhile, stay tuned with Kulture Kiosk via The Atlas or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world. Playlist and credits follow…
Warszawa (from Low) – David Bowie
Heroes (live) – Depeche Mode
I Want You Now (from Music from the Masses) – Depeche Mode
Movement (from Three Continents) – Przemek Straczek
Complication (from Three Continents) – Przemek Straczek
More info on Przemek here (Polish and English)