I spent this last week in Warsaw visiting with Orina, a friend from Lispa. The city was very cold, and would have been dreary had I not been with friends who grew up there, and who wanted to show me their hometown. Warsaw is not what one would call a pretty city – it is flat, and mostly gray, filled with block after block of soviet-style architecture. Broad swathes of the city are actually parks, but in the winter, all one can see is dead grass and dark trampled earth. The trees are leafless, standing motionless, framed one after another against the cool gray sky. Warsaw may seem impenetrable, especially in the dead of winter, but if you know people who live there, they will take you to the many cafes, bars, clubs, and galleries that thrive underneath dark buildings, or behind closed doors on deserted streets. Even on a Friday night, you won’t see many people walking around, but drive around, and suddenly you may spot a bright light, and people huddling over beers in a little candlelit neighborhood bar.
When I first visited Warsaw three years ago, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but overtime, I have come to develop a fondness for the city. I find it perpetually interesting – it is equal parts dark, melancholic, intellectual, and yet at the same time, unpredictable. There is energy in the arts and theater world, and people are doing many things to move the city forward, to make it more colorful and beautiful. A friend of Orina’s does guerilla street art; other people have converted abandoned buildings and things like an empty swimming pool into performance spaces. The photograph above is of two sculptures in the grounds of the Ujazdow Castle. The castle itself houses several contemporary art galleries, but the sculptures were not marked in any way, almost blending in with the trees around them. They made me so happy – if you look closer, it seems, you find the heart of the Polish people in the most unexpected places.
Orina was telling me about the history of the Warsaw Uprising in World War II, when the Polish Home Army sought to liberate Warsaw from German occupation, to recover Polish sovereignty before the entry of the Red Army. The uprising was only expected to last a few days. Instead, it went on for 63 days, ultimately failing. Over 210,000 people ended up being killed, including many young poets, artists, and intellectuals, and about 94 percent of the city’s historical buildings were destroyed – the entire old town area was wiped out. To this day, people still wonder whether the uprising was worth it, given its great material and human costs. My friend said that though yes, the costs were great, she still thought it was worth it, and that she was proud of her people for standing up in that time of history. She said that Polish people may not be very organized in everyday situations, but when there are emergencies, they will definitely come together and fight for what they believe in. For me, the uprising itself is something that exemplifies the very deep, very romantic Polish spirit. And it is this spirit that keeps me returning to Poland, again and again.