While this is surely more detail than any of you want, I’m hoping it may be useful for someone somewhere who is making plans to visit Warsaw. I wrote part of it on the dates indicated, and added more later. Much later, I’m afraid; I’ve been sadly inefficient.
I’d like to give a public thank-you to Ania Robertson, Hania Stromberg, Thang Dinh, and Jeff Kallberg for their invaluable help with the Polish segment of our journey.
We had left Albuquerque in the late morning on 10/1, but through the magic of airline time travel, we arrived on 10/2, pretty much without incident. It was a little difficult to get through finding how to get our LOT boarding pass at Toronto, which Continental hadn’t been able to supply when we started, but it all worked out. The LOT plane was a little disconcerting because it was obviously old and frayed around the edges, but it did get us there. The Polish airline food was miles better than the American equivalent, so we immediately believed what we had been told about Polish food being so good. Our dinner included nice crispy potatoes and excellent crusty rolls. (On the way back, United’s pathetically inedible, cardboard-like roll made a sad contrast.) I was able to get a couple of hours of sleep with Ambien, so I was doing fairly well when we reached the ground.
Although I was accustomed to the idea, it still seemed amusing (and a little discomfiting) to land at the Fryderyk Chopin International Airport. Our first challenge was to get the bus into Warsaw. We knew it was bus 175, but we made the mistake of getting on without paying. It turns out that you don’t pay the bus driver as in every other place we’d ever been, you have to get tickets at a ticket booth, and then you validate them with a little machine on the bus. The first of a series of helpful Poles with good English skills explained this to us. I wanted to be legitimate, so we got off at the next stop that had a ticket booth. I had to jump in right away with a few words of Polish in order to buy the tickets, because the woman there was not one of the English speakers. Fortunately, only a few words were required!
Ania had given me a detailed map telling me what to expect on the bus route and how to know when we’d reached our stop. The trouble was that there was construction going on along the road and the bus route had been changed. We were far past the right area when we realized we were lost. We got off the bus to look for a map or, better yet, a taxi. For some reason there was an utter lack of taxis, and we wandered around helplessly for a while, unable to find our location on the very limited map we had with us. Lenore hadn’t been able to sleep on the plane, so she was a mess by that time, with strange red rings around her eyes. I was concerned, most of all, with getting us someplace where she could rest.
Finally we went back to the stop where we’d left the bus, and I did my best to point to our destination on the map and ask the bus driver where we needed to be. He was able to convey to me in German that it was way, way back someplace. We took the next bus in the opposite direction, and I made a correct guess that the stop we wanted was “Centrum.”
After that it was simply a matter of hiking down Nowy Świat to Krakowskie Przedmiescie (say that three times fast), the main street down the middle of Old Town and, this year at least, Chopin Central. Lenore was bothered by the sound the wheels of my rolling suitcase made on the uneven pavement; she’d brought a large backpack, and felt far superior. My case got there just fine, though, thank you very much, and I didn’t have to constantly carry that weight on my back the way she did.
Hotel Harenda could not possibly have been more conveniently located for what we wanted to do. I was so glad to have gotten the recommendation for it from Dr. Jeff. Strangely enough, Ania used to have an office in the same building, which is why she was able to make me a map so easily. The hotel rooms are sort of intertwined with the offices of psychiatrists, lawyers, and educational institutions. Our room was on the second floor, not counting the staircase up to the front door of the hotel, giving us a relatively easy introduction to the immense amount of climbing we’d be doing for the next 19 days.
The room itself had a small sleeping area with a strangely large bathroom. It was old and quaint, with odd padded doors covered with leather-look vinyl. Overall the impression was something like the 1930s. We had asked for twin beds, and in a way we got them, but they were both set into the same frame and could not be separated. Fortunately we didn’t have too much trouble with snoring! Another unusual feature to the bed/s was the set of thick but narrow comforters, barely wide enough for one person. They worked fine, though– and we really needed them, because the temperature was 40 degrees lower than the unseasonable heat we’d left in Albuquerque.
One of my first concerns was to let Bob know that we had arrived safely, and since I had my new netbook with me and the hotel had free WiFi, I wasn’t expecting any problems doing so. Well, we couldn’t get online for anything. We were forced to use the hotel’s one, old, slow computer in the lobby. The only answer I was able to find for the failure of my netbook to connect was that the hotel’s router was on the elderly side and Windows 7 wasn’t compatible with it. Windows strikes again! The only connection we managed to find in the area was, sad to say, the KFC at the other end of the building. We could pick up a weak signal from there while sitting in the coffee shop next door. (We never actually entered the KFC, I hasten to add!) The coffee shop itself also had WiFi, but somehow we could never get their password to work. I suggest that if you are booking a hotel anywhere and WiFi is a priority for you, you should ask lots of questions about the hotel’s system.
I also discovered that the T-Mobile phone and plan I had bought purely because it was one of the very, very few options for service in Europe was, guess what, not working in Europe. During a very expensive half-hour call on the hotel’s phone, I discovered that the problem was that my international service had never been set up, and got that taken care of, which was a surprisingly lengthy process. I had talked with customer service a number of times back in the US, and each time, including the first, at the store when I picked out the phone, I had emphasized the fact that I needed this phone to use in Europe. No one had ever bothered to tell me that I needed to have the service turned on. Word to the wise. After that, I had little trouble with the phone. I used it mostly for cheaper methods of communication, texts and e-mails rather than voice, but T-Mobile still managed to soak me for about $200 for duration of the trip. I could have put in a local SIM card and not paid international rates, but since this cell phone is my business phone, I thought I’d better not put my usual number out of commission.
Jeff had warned us about noise from the bar next door, and he wasn’t kidding. On our first night there, the Saturday, the bass and drums pounded what felt like the whole building till 3 am. We didn’t get a good impression of current European pop music from that or any other experience on the trip. Not only was the music obnoxious in itself and horribly loud, it seemed like the same song over and over. Never the slightest variation in the basic beat or the overall style. Fortunately, this only happens on Saturdays. The hotel staff was apologetic when I asked if they did that on other nights.
On that first evening, we wandered down Krakowskie Przedmiescie to Plac Zamkowy, that is, Castle Square, a broad plaza in front of a big pinkish building that used to be the actual castle but doesn’t look like the image of a castle one might have in one’s mind. It turned out to be a happening place. We encountered a group of drummers sitting on the steps, with an astonishingly skillful and pretty young fire-spinner performing in front of them. Lenore said that this girl was the best she’s ever seen, and she hangs out with advanced hoopers and poi people and the like.
Our first meal in Warsaw was also outstanding. In order to get fed, we had to work past our linguistic trepidation and go into a restaurant and talk with real human beings. We chose a tiny, non-touristy-looking place that was run by a kindly-looking older couple. Fortunately, they had English translations on the chalkboard menu outside, but we still had to speak up to order. Lenore chose pierogi, with a variety of fillings, cabbage, meat, and potato, which came with a side of anemic-looking salad with iceberg lettuce and pale pink tomatoes– this seemed to be usual everywhere, and looked poor but tasted OK. The pierogi dough was nice and light. I had an ecstatically delicious bowl of clear, dazzlingly red barszcz czerwony (borscht, to most of you), with small meat-filled tortellini-type things floating in it. I want more!
I would have liked some coffee at that point, too, but it was late and decaf was nonexistent most everywhere. Caffeine, however, could be found all over the place. Ania had told me that tea was far more popular than coffee in Poland, but it looks like that has changed since she lived in Warsaw. Coffee shops are everywhere, on the order of two to a block.
Lenore hadn’t studied Polish at all, but I had coached her a bit on pronunciation, so she was able to manage a few words when necessary. It turned out to be crucial that I had studied the language. I can’t remotely say that I actually speak Polish, but the little skill that I had was a huge help, and I don’t know how we would have managed without it. Yes, many people did speak English, and the hotel staff certainly had no problem with it, but English was by no means everywhere. We did pass a few Americans and Brits on the streets, and there were a good number of Asians around, but even the majority of the tourists were Polish.
(I realized, at the end of the trip, that no one had stared uncomprehendingly at me or said “Huh?” when I tried to speak to them in either Polish or French. My vocabulary may be tiny, but apparently my pronunciation is understandable.)
Breakfast was included at the Harenda, and was substantial. The breakfast room was decorated in a style we came to see as typical, modern and spare with leather-look chairs and abstract art, with well-designed arrangements of silk orchids on the table. And would you believe an espresso machine, so that we could make fresh, individual cups of coffee? My only complaint was that the scrambled eggs were consistently undercooked, not to the degree that they were inedible, just not as good as they could have been. More pale iceberg lettuce was included each morning, too. (I’d seen salad at breakfast in Tokyo, but never otherwise.) Yet, Ania says that salad is kind of a new thing around there.
Krakowskie Przedmiescie is dotted with churches, more than you’d think the neighborhood could ever need, mostly rococo, with gold-leafed gewgaws everywhere and carved white wooden clouds that look more like some kind of odd cream puffs, in my opinion. (Sorry. Gothic cathedrals for me, please!) The architecture was similar in the whole set of churches, but I noticed with interest that each of the spaces felt different to me. Some felt relaxed and like good places to settle down and pray or meditate, but a couple felt really disturbing. I couldn’t put my finger on any specific reason.
The church that distressed me the most was Holy Cross, one of the tourist spots because it houses Chopin’s heart, which his sister had brought back from Paris in accordance with his wishes. The hearts of some other illustrious citizens were also interred within the pillars of the church. I do find the heart thing a bit creepy in itself, but that wasn’t the problem I experienced there. The place just did not feel good to me. However, since it has been partially destroyed by bombing and rebuilt without as many of the rococo curlicues, I liked it better visually than most of the churches in the area. Perhaps somehow all the national trauma has stuck to it, I don’t know, or perhaps it is only the trauma that has befallen the building itself. I may be offending Poles with these comments, and I don’t wish to do that, but truly, I felt that something was unpleasant there.
Another church that was important on the Chopin Tour was a little further down the street. I don’t think I ever processed the name properly, and I can’t remember it now, but it’s the one where young Fryc played the organ when he was a teenager. I could so easily picture that.
At yet another church down the street, I don’t remember its name, Mass was just finishing up, and a bunch of ladies in folk dresses were carrying baskets of bread down the center aisle, trailing the priest and altar boys. They were followed by a fairly large procession, including a marching band with a dozen or so teenage players in matching red jackets. The whole group proceeded down through the weekend market stalls lining the street to a stage that had been set up at Plac Zamkowy, where there were speeches, songs, and lots more people in colorful costumes. It turned out to be a festival in honor of bread. Well, they do have really excellent bread, so I can’t argue with that idea! The whole thing was a lot like festivals my husband used to take part in as a kid in New Castle, Pennsylvania, except that the band he played with was mainly Italian– his old band even wore similar red jackets, and in fact was called the Red Coat Band.
The commemorative stone benches we’d heard about were scattered along the sidewalk. You press a button and you get a recording of a Chopin piece, while you read something about his life and how the location was connected with him. However, if it’s true that in some places the white stripes of pedestrian crossings had been painted like keyboards, as we had read, none of those were around in Old Town.
We had brought plenty of warm clothes, at least so we thought, but the hood of my jacket snugged over my fabric hat wasn’t doing it for me. I bought an inexpensive scarf in purple, black and silver, blending with the deep plum of my jacket, and tied it over the hood and the hat. That worked well enough for the temperature, but fashion-wise, I felt mortified. “Good grief,” I thought. “I’m the only woman in Warsaw who’s wearing a babushka!” Most of the Poles were going without hats at all, because they simply weren’t cold on this sunny fall day. I consoled myself with the thought that the fringed scarf would add nicely to my collection of hip wraps for belly dancing.
After a cup of excellent coffee with chai-like spices this afternoon, I developed a severe, painful intestinal illness, and was starting to wonder if I was going to get to the sights and events I wanted to see, including the Chopin competition. I had the sense that the illness was infectious, not caused by the coffee or other foods. After doing some acupuncture for myself, gulping herbs, and resting as long as I could, I ventured out to find the Chopin museum at the NIFC (Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina), the National Institute for all things Chopin, which was also within a very reasonable walking distance of the Harenda. I was grateful to be able to make it that far.
Naturally The Man Who Has Everything has to have his own museum too, and it has been designed with every possible technological bell and whistle and is endlessly complicated. In fact, although we are nearing the end of the “Chopin Year,” not all the exhibits are finished. One thing that’s not quite ready is a set of interactive books, which are meant to display different electronic pages of information as you turn their blank physical pages. When I visited, each book contained only one e-page, and the display seemed like a lot of effort for not much effect. However, the technology was impressive in itself.
One high-tech display that I thought was very effective involved an Erard grand (1856, I think) and three books, each containing one piece. If you chose a book and set it on the desk of the piano, a recording of the piece would play, along with a video of the pianist’s hands projected on the wall above the instrument. I enjoyed that one especially and spent a lot of time with it.
The trouble was that there were a great many other audio displays as well, and at any given time a lot of them were blaring at once. The place was a cacophony of battling recordings of music and speech. What could be less appropriate for a museum dedicated to Chopin? Surely he would clap his hands over his ears and run! There were also quite a few displays that included headphones, but they didn’t make up for the headache-inducing sound level. Since I was feeling poorly, it was all the harder to handle.
One of the headphone-based exhibits had to do with those bogus letters to Delfina Potocka, and was naturally of special interest to me. I had to wait for a woman to go through the whole thing in Polish before I could hear it in English; at least I was able to briefly glimpse the original text of that one and only extant (genuine) letter from Delfina to Fryderyk, something I’ve wondered about. The exhibit explained the process researchers had gone through in analyzing Paulina Czernicka’s “copies,” showing the marked-up texts and charts they had used. Surprisingly, it said that there had been no firm conclusion about whether or not the letters are for real. That’s certainly not my understanding. (If you want to know more, I’ve written about this elsewhere and can give you that information.)
In the midst of the Delfina exhibit, there was a blank spot that was supposed to contain a letter case belonging to her, but instead had a card that said the item was out having some kind of conservation work done. My one chance to see an artifact that had actually belonged to the countess, and it was gone.
The display that spoke to me most strongly was another simple everyday item: Chopin’s schedule book from 1848. I would have liked to see the actual pages, but it was only possible to see the cover and the lining– black leather and royal purple cloth. (In case we were wondering whether he really did like purple.)
I had wanted to buy a cast of Chopin’s hand— been wanting one for years. I know they exist, have even seen one close up at a pianist’s house, but I have never found any for sale. I was hoping to find that at the store across from the museum. They had pencils, chocolates, T-shirts, notecards, books, teacups, calendars, and buttons. No hands. Also, just as well, no noses! (I’d seen ceramic effigies of his nose online, but none showed up in real life.) They had plenty of copies of the National Edition of his works, too, and I considered buying the mazurkas, as I’d been meaning to do, but I decided there was no point carrying the book around and getting it bent in my suitcase.
Lenore got the intestinal thing a couple of days after I did, but I was able to treat her right away, and she didn’t have it as severely. While that went on, we were sadly unable to try the interesting-sounding foods that were all around us. I didn’t eat at all for over 24 hours, didn’t dare to try it. We bought bottled water, too, just in case; I didn’t think the hotel’s tap water was dangerous, but I didn’t like the taste, and it seemed better to avoid anything that might be irritating. (Let me state for the record that I do NOT support the sale of unnecessary bottled water in general.) We couldn’t figure out where to find water or groceries, but it turned out that there was a store right next to the hotel, clearly marked “sklep,” a word I knew. It didn’t fit my preconceived image of “grocery store,” and I just didn’t see it at first. Anyway, if you ever have to buy bottled water in Poland, try Kropla Beskidu brand– best-tasting water ever. The niegazowana kind, that is. I wasn’t crazy about any of the sparkling waters, which were very bitter as far as I was concerned.
While I was resting and trying to get myself together, Lenore ventured across the river by tram, looking for a more ordinary neighborhood where average people lived. It was a major challenge, because the weather suddenly took a turn for the worse. The high temperature for the day was in the low 40s, with around 40 mph winds. It was like January in Albuquerque, only with an April windstorm. If I had to be sick and stay in, that seemed like a good day for it.
I never got around to seeing an average neighborhood, but my walk to the Chopin competition that afternoon put me in the midst of rush hour with a bajillion businesslike pedestrians who were striding so quickly I felt I was going to get run over. The cars were easier to avoid than the hordes of people. I wondered if it was the caffeine. As with everything else I was wanting to see, the concert hall was within a decent walking distance of our hotel, even for someone feeling as poorly as I was. Fortunately, by evening the winds had died down considerably.
At the competition they did have models of Chopin’s left hand, but theirs were white plastic and about 2/3 size. Not the real thing. A woman standing next to me looked sadly at them and said, “Mała.” I nodded and made a “teensy” sign with my thumb and index finger. “Very small,” the woman agreed in English. We both nodded and walked away. It seemed senseless to me that someone had bothered to actually sculpt a miniature of his hand when it would have been so simple to make new casts of the original one.
In the lobby on the upper floor of the hall, near the souvenirs, there was another sculpture, a large bust of Chopin that I thought didn’t come out well. It is mostly very accurate in recording the facts of his face, but somehow at the same time it totally fails to look like him. If he had lived another ten years, perhaps he might have looked rather like that, but it’s hard to imagine him so stern and so heavy-featured.
I heard eight first-round contestants, and the sound of those phenomenal players, on ideally excellent pianos, in a hall that showed them to advantage, was incredible. It seemed to me that I had never heard pianos sound so multilayered and rich. I listen to a great deal of piano music, but this was revelatory even for my somewhat jaded ears. I will write more about the competition itself separately.
Eating breakfast felt like a huge accomplishment this morning. I managed a bit of yogurt and some toast. No espresso. Still sadly impossible to try coffee.
Sushi tonight. I had half-joked that I intended to have Japanese food in Warsaw, just because I can generally digest that well, better than heavy, greasy meat dishes. I knew that there was a sushi restaurant here, but I would never have guessed that there are hundreds! It seemed like practically every business that was not a coffee shop was a sushi place. We went to Oto Sushi on Nowy Świat, a few blocks from our hotel, which seemed like it might have been part of a chain. On that block there were “only” two sushi places. The miso soup was a little different from what I’m used to, and Lenore’s Thai chicken soup was not up to her standards, but the vegetarian futo maki was fine. It came with about a quarter cup of pickled ginger—a little odd. Very artistically arranged food, though, and the place was attractive and convincingly Japanese in a properly spare way.
Earlier we had gone to Blikle, a bakery/restaurant/deli sort of place that’s been there since 1869 and is much renowned. Ania had told me that we MUST have a pastry there. We had a very respectable chocolate éclair and some tea, and ended up discussing politics and world history. For some reason I fell into a state of feeling what it was like to live right there under all the oppressive governments of the past, simmering helplessly. It felt like I was sort of sinking down into the archeological layers of the local group memory. Not a really dramatic experience, but interesting. I guess it is pretty much how I feel in America these days too, not specifically because of the present government, but because of the persistent hegemony of huge corporations and ultraconservative forces. Anyway, I could relate.
We passed an office that, like a number of others, had a sign that said “Kancelaria Adwokacka.” I guessed that this was a lawyer’s office. “Yeah,’ lawyer’ always sounds like ‘avocado,’” said Lenore. “Mmm, lawyer….”
One of the last sights we saw in Warsaw was the Salonik Chopinów, the salon of what used to be the Chopins’ home when Fryderyk was a teenager, in the former Lyceum building, now housing the university’s art school. Finding the building, just down the street from the hotel, was quite simple, as it was clearly marked and had one of those singing information benches in front of it. Finding the actual salon was insanely difficult, and was just one example of what seemed to us to be a national tendency to avoid putting up signs. We walked around and around the outside of the building looking for the right entry; there was a sign giving days and hours, but nothing telling us where we should actually go. Finally we went in the only possible door, nowhere near the sign on the outside of the building, where there was a little information booth with an older man sitting in it, and still nothing written. He was able to tell us in English to go up to the second floor. (Doesn’t he get sick of having to tell people this?) On the second floor, we still found ourselves wandering around randomly, with Lenore feeling entranced by the floridly creative atmosphere of the art studios and classrooms.
We soon went down the correct hallway, where at last the room was marked. The woman attending the place, who must have been terribly bored, took our entry fees (only 3 PLN), asked us what language we spoke, and gave us appropriate information sheets. We were left to look around on our own. None of the original furnishings were available, but the room was reconstructed based on a drawing that was done at the time the family lived there. You can see pictures here: http://www.warsawtour.pl/en/tourist-attractions/chopin-family-drawing-room-salonik-chopinow-2521.html You can also see it in that video that was around on YouTube earlier this year promoting Warsaw tourism, the one that had a little boy representing Frycek running around the city, but I don’t know how to find that at the moment.
I was interested particularly in the photos of Fryderyk’s nieces and nephews; we never see anything about how the family continued into the future, which of course it did. I also enjoyed looking out the windows and seeing what the young man must have seen himself. There are very attractive views, including the black and gold gates of the university. Except for the presence of cars and buses, I don’t think the streetscape has changed a whole lot.
On the wall just outside the salon was a painting of the former resident, shirtless, tattooed, and impossibly muscular. Not sure what to think about it, except that it’s clear that his image is constantly being transmogrified into whatever Poles feel they need at the moment.
Next we took a bus out of Old Town to Łazienki Park, named for the fact that it used to contain the royal baths. The park is large and green and peaceful, and it has a substantial body of water in the middle. I was immediately enchanted. Only a few paces inside the park, we encountered the most charming tiny red squirrels one could imagine, and since we virtually never see squirrels in Albuquerque, we especially enjoyed them. They seemed totally unafraid of humans. One little guy with a floppy ear kept coming close up to us. We didn’t have anything edible to give him, but he seemed to keep hoping.
In the middle of the park is a palace, which now houses a restaurant. That’s Lenore with her huge messenger bag.
There is a scenic bridge and a stone stairway that goes down to the water. Flocks of pretty, pure white birds wheeled above us. They were so small and delicate-looking that it took us a while to realize that they were gulls. (Yes, I do realize that the birds in the picture below are pigeons!)
I was also comforted throughout our stay in Warsaw by the presence of a great many crows, a species I feel a strong connection with. They’re common in Albuquerque, and they made me feel more at home.
We looked for the famous statue of Chopin, but although we walked pretty much the length and breadth of the park, we were never able to find it, and eventually we found ourselves too cold and tired to keep looking. As I said, there is often a curious lack of signs in Warsaw, and this was no exception. I have not been impressed with that statue, in terms of artistic value, from what I’ve seen in pictures, but I’m told that the feeling around it is wonderful and that we really missed something worthwhile.
The same lop-eared squirrel greeted us on the way out.
Warsaw had a general air of high energy and cheeriness, an optimistic feeling, not what Lenore and I thought it would be like. At least in the Old Town area, with its touristy, festive atmosphere, there was nothing that suggested the country had struggled out from under communism and oppression so recently. The sense of national PTSD that I’ve often remarked upon also seemed absent, or at least never came to my attention, though again there was that brief experience at Blikle.
Except for the night that I was so ill, I never felt the slightest connection with the man who was the original inspiration for the whole trip. Since I had experienced him so intensely in France on both previous occasions, this was a huge surprise. I had expected that it would be easy to connect with him in places that had been so important in his life. Probably I shouldn’t have been so surprised, though. The extreme degree of concentration on him that’s been going on this year in that area may feel oppressive, and likely embarrassing as well. He may want to stay as far away as possible.
The next morning, the hotel called us a cab to get to the Warszawa Centralna train station, which was a whole lot simpler than our original bus trip into town. We’d been able to find the train schedule online, including the name of the main station in Kraków, and fortunately this first experience of an Eastern European train was not too confusing. I was able to buy the tickets easily with my tiny vocabulary (and a credit card). We’d learned the names for platforms and tracks. There were even reasonable signs directing us. It did appear that we’d inadvertently bought first class tickets– I know I didn’t specify that, and I forgot to ask– or perhaps all the seats were the same. One way or the other, we had a little enclosed section of seats to ourselves, and I didn’t mind a bit. The ride to Kraków was scenic and completely pleasant. It was to be the most comfortable and least stressful leg of our journey.