One Day in Warsaw

One Day in Warsaw

December 23, 2002


PROLOGUE.  I booked my flight home for the holidays on LOT Polish Airlines, Kyiv to New York with a 7 ½ hour layover in Warsaw, Poland.  I was at the office Friday night before my flight copying the Warsaw pages out of my Let’s Go Eastern Europe book, when my boss, Nina, looked at what I had copied. I expected her to make a comment that I shouldn’t be using the copier for personal use.  Instead she said, “are you going to Warsaw?  My son and daughter-in-law live in Warsaw! And I have been trying to figure out how to get a package to them!   You could take it to them.”  Normally I would have simply accepted this as the duty of an American travelling to and from Ukraine—if you can find a sure-fire way to get packages from Ukraine to another country, you take advantage of it. However, I saw this as a fair-trade situation when Nina told me on Saturday that her son and daughter-in-law would meet me at the airport, and take me in their car around the city.


ARRIVAL.  I arrived at the Warsaw International Airport at 9:00 am. I had expected the airport to be like Ukrainan airports—namely, that it would take an hour to get through passport control and customs.  Instead it took all of 10 minutes.  I barely had time to get out the “Igor and Monika” sign Nina had prepared for me when Igor and Monika spotted me.


We sat down at a café.  We had coffee and juice while we discussed possible plans for the day, but I noticed that there were slices of pizza and donuts that could have come from Western Europe or the United States.  We dropped off my backpack at a left-luggage facility and headed outside. It was about -10 C (14 F) and the frost on the trees was thick and beautiful.


THE CAR RIDE.  Monika (who speaks very good English; Igor only knows the word “hungry”) explained that we would be riding around town in Igor’s work truck, and he was a little embarrassed about that. I said it was fine as long as I had a seat.  (The last time I was offered a ride in a van it entailed sitting in the back on a crate; I declined that offer.)  What Monika didn’t mention is that all three of us would be sitting in the cab.  Actually, four of us—Monika and Igor’s dog, Jacko, was in the car.  Monika called it a French poodle but it was actually a boxer. 


Monika explained to me in a roundabout way that Jacko has a gas problem.   I don’t remember her exact words, but I know the meaning was clear without her having to tell me that “Jacko” was short for “Jacuzzi”.  She was highly amused by the situation; I started thinking it would be okay to sit in the airport for a few hours in the afternoon. 


ŁAZIENKI PARK.  Our first stop was at what Monika described as the biggest park in the city, a kind of Central Park.  We got out of the car; Monika was carrying a bag of pistachios I had brought them from Nina.  She saw a squirrel, and started calling it with the word “basha”.  The squirrel took the nut and ran into a tree, and we could watch it eat the nut.  I took a picture. I don’t know why.


We walked on and fed more squirrels until we got to a monument. It turned out it was a just a monument to a horserace.  We walked on further and found an amphitheater where Monika said there are concerts in the summer. The stage is reportedly surrounded by water, but all we could see was snow and ice.  Up ahead was a palace (not the official royal palace, but a palace nonetheless).  We chose not to walk on because it was very cold out and the palace was closed. (It turns out many things are closed on Mondays). 


STARE MIASTO.  We drove back to their apartment so that Monika could drop off Jacko.  Then we took a tram to Stare Miasto (Old Town). The trams are very much like Ukrainian trams, except they don’t look 40 years old.  More like 10.


The Old Town Square was truly beautiful. On the right was the Royal Castle (painted in a nice deep coral color as the Kremlin, with a nice gold clock to match).  There was a large Christmas tree in front that was donated by the candy company Ferrero (makers of Nutella among other confections).  The buildings in the town square were in multiple colors, painstakingly restored or reconstructed. 


Slightly to the left of the Royal Castle was a large monument (according to Let’s Go, a monument to King Zygmunt III Waza.  It was a replacement for the original that was destroyed in World War II.  Igor pointed out that on the side of the Royal Palace were sections of columns lying horizontally. These were portions of the original monument that were placed there as a memorial. 


Monika asked if I was hungry and if I liked fast food. That was how I was led to try the Polish fast food snack zapiekanniki (?)¸ a long piece of bread topped with melted cheese, onions, and ketchup for 3 zloty (less than 1 dollar).  It wasn’t bad. 


After our snack, we walked further into the old town quarter. We found more cobblestoned streets with amazing buildings. Monika pointed out that in olden days, merchants and businesspeople had paintings on the exterior of the houses to indicate what their work was. For example, a building with a picture of a painter on the outside was probably the home of a painter. 


We saw a fortress built for World War II, and then went into an antique shop so that Monika and Igor could buy Christmas gifts.  From there we backtracked to a second square, and went inside a restaurant.  Monika and Igor each had a Polish beer called “EB”. I tasted it and wanted to bring a bottle home.  But I had already ordered café au lait (very good) and a mushroom soup with homemade noodles.  The noodles were just okay, but the rich mushroom broth and sour cream were excellent. 


THE MUSEUM OF CULTURE AND THE BUTTERFLY MUSEUM.  Igor was sent home to fix up the house while Monika and I continued our tour.  We tried to get into the Royal Castle museum, but it was closed.  Instead we got on the Metro. Again, it was like the Soviet metro system (similar cars and seating arrangements and subway map) but about 20 years newer.  We got off one stop and walked along the shops until we got to the Ministry of Culture, a Gothic-looking building that was a gift from the Soviet Union to Poland.  I had thought the big tower on top looked familiar (it was reminiscent of both Kharkiv and Moscow). 


As we walked up, we noticed there was a skating rink in front, part of the “Palace of Youth” program at the ministry. I thought that was cool.


We went around the corner and saw a giant butterfly decoration on the building. Monika explained that here there was a museum with live butterflies in it, and that one new butterfly hatches from its cocoon every hour.  But Monika said it would take an hour and a half to see it, and we only had 45 minutes. But I thought it was worth a shot, if it wasn’t too much money. 


With student discounts, the price per ticket was 10 zloty (about $2.50).  We got in, and it was only one room with a net. Many of the butterflies and other insects in the room were dead and mounted. But there were a few butterflies that were flying free around the room, or perched on nets and plates of food. So it was still kind of cool, but Monika insisted that it was not worth 10 zloty. She commented that in America, tours of the Statue of Liberty are only $2-3 because they want everyone to go. In Warsaw, all the museums cost 15 or 20 zloty.  Even with a student discount it is prohibitively expensive.  Monika seemed to have a negative view of Poland and a positive view of America which was in my opinion unwarranted, but I’m not sure I got that message through.


Anyway, the price of the ticket at least included a ride to the 30th floor, which had an observation deck.  Monika said the view is better at night.  I thought it wasn’t bad in the daytime, except for the thick layer of smog.  Monika didn’t think it was smog, but I’m an L.A. girl—I know smog when I see it. And I hadn’t seen smog like that in L.A. even in 10 years.  In fact, I didn’t know too much about meteorology but I began to wonder if I was seeing an inversion layer. 


I didn’t make it to the Warsaw Ghetto as I’d originally planned.  Monika and Igor didn’t know where it was.  And from what I can tell from the guidebooks, there isn’t that much left to see.  But I got a glimpse of the beauty and day to day life of Warsaw.