Last week I visited Warsaw, staying at the Sheraton on Bolesława Prusa. A good hotel with plenty of marble. One evening I took a short walk north past the Charles de Gaulle statue onto a street named Nowy Swiat. Here can be found many restaurants and bars, probably frequented by the wealthy along with ex-patriots. After an excellent Indian at the Bhuda restaurant I took coffee at the Cafe Colombia while listening to an elderly American explaining to a couple young Poles how he admired the Russians because they had launched a military attack on a Russian cargo ship which had been commandeered by Sudanese pirates. “They picked on the wrong country!” he exclaimed many times.
On the aeroplane I had chatted to a Pole who had picked strawberries in Kent one summer in his youth. Sleeping in tents they had travelled from farm to farm. Now he was a business man travelling throughout Europe but he thought that perhaps he had enjoyed strawberry picking more.
The Russians will discuss World War 2 at the drop of a hat and he told me that when Hitler’s attention turned from attacking the UK to invading Russia this had been because the Russians had been massing an army on Germany’s eastern border. Proof of this, he said, were the thousands of Russian troops taken prisoner in the first few months.
This had never occurred to me. Like many Brits my knowledge of Eastern Europe during World War 2 is scanty and I had been taught that Hitler was a bit unstable and had invaded Russia merely because he wanted to take over the world. Of course this is Rubbish. With Great Britain at bay Hitler had turned his attention to a pre-emptive strike which, he must have hoped, would disable Russia.
Walking back from Nowy Swiat as the light faded I thought that Warsaw is in fact a great place to live. The public transport seems excellent and the buildings, though often blocky, are interesting and nature seems hell bent on tacking back the city with trees and grass growing everywhere. Almost as ubiquitous as the grass are the statues. I remarked on this to a Pole and was told cynically that the Russians love their statues. I got the impression that the former communist regime would throw up a statue at every intersection and I guess that after a while they must have run out of anything relevant and started building monuments to every petty bureaucrat. No offence intended to Charles de Gaulle who I’m sure played a great part in the history of Nowy Swiat.
I liked the mixture of the old and the new. The modern trams contrasting with those from the old soviet era; though noisy and drafty they have charm from having been designed before the obsession with efficiency ironed out every crease of character. I was reminded of the old open backed Route Master buses in London and how they rattled and shook.
Warsaw appears to have embraced capitalism and commercialism for it’s promise of a better future. It seems a city with a destination firmly in mind. Though not yet as rampantly commercialised as London, in some ways it is more advanced with taxis having TV screens in the headrest to beam advertising at the helpless passenger.
Unlike London, Warsaw has not yet choked on the obsession with materialism and the false individualism of choice.
Once the old trams are gone they will be missed.