Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Jewish Ghosts

Old pictures presented a bustling market, creating a mirage in the square in front of me, not identifiable with today. Jewish ghosts lined the marketplace, congregating, gossiping, haggling, debating. Small sparrows flew in circles around the synagogue off in the distance, with giant lamps hanging over the doors. We wanted to step inside, but it was closed at the time. Usually, the synagogue is open to tourists, and there is a museum across the street. Around the corner, there are two Jewish restaurants. Around 40,000 tourists visit Tykocin each year.

The synagogue was one of the most imposing buildings in the town. It lies on the main road and has a wonderfully simplistic yet thought-provoking design. There is a certain charm about the synagogues in Poland, because for the most part this country is populated with churches. The churches can be monotonous because they carry similar grandiose styles, bent on making you awestruck by their magnificence. Sometimes you can come across some ill-advised 20th century construction that surprises your senses, usually not in the best way. The churches are especially monotonous because they represent the same thing. A perspective. When you experience 98% of the same perspective spiritually, and as an extension aesthetically, it can become too commonplace, and less eye-opening. The synagogues on the other hand provide a highly distinct alternative to the ubiquitous church, and they are a testimony to the pre-war amalgam prevalent across Poland. This is something that you must think about while visiting a place like Poland. Understanding the path to a homogenous present sheds light on the deeper reasoning and identities that currently exist, and allows you to fully grasp the consequences of the past. The Tykocin synagogue is a beautiful representation of difference, with its bulging roof and oversized windows. It casts shadows on the buildings around it, but not in an attempt to dominate, rather with the intention of providing importance. I am quite disappointed we didn’t have the chance to enter, because the interior is supposedly a wonderful example of synagogue artwork, with painted walls of verses from the Torah, and a decorated Bimah taking its place in the center of the room.

The Jewish community arrived to Poland in the 13th century. From then on the Jewish people started developing special relationships with the landlords of the realm. When Jews were being persecuted in other parts of Europe during the 15th century; notably Spain, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, and Germany; Polish nobles welcomed them in. Independent privileges were given to them, and districts were developed where Jewish life was able to flourish. Up until the mid-17th century, a symbiotic relationship occurred, where both communities profited from working with the other. Then the Khmenetsky revolt happened. It was the first major atrocity perpetrated against Jews in Poland. Life for the Jews was never the same, and a prevailing anti-Semitism culminated in the most organized mass murder in the history of mankind, perpetrated by the Nazis during WWII. Just before the war, the Jewish population in Poland stood at around 10%, but that shot way up when you entered the cities, where the average percentage of the Jewish population was around 33%, and sometimes even up to 42% as in Lviv and 45% as in Vilnius.

Today the Jewish community is having somewhat of a revival. The Kazimierz district in Krakow is one of its most flourishing tourist destinations, and through this conduit of appreciation other facets of Jewish life are reappearing. The Museum of Jewish History, known more colloquially as Polin, was recently opened in Warsaw and has an incredible permanent exhibition of the long and complicated relationship that the perennial European “outsider” has had on Polish soil. Learning that history is vital for Poland’s future. It is necessary to have perspective outside of your own, and to understand that all agendas are relevant, because they are the agenda of another human being. Of course, in the vitriolic muck of an agenda of someone like Trump, you can understand that it is an attempt to feed a sociopathic ego, but this is an individualistic agenda at its core, and it will not catch on as a movement or a way of life. What I am talking about is an agenda nurtured by a group, or a culture, or a religion, or a community. Tolerance is the most important virtue in today’s world, and understanding cultural agendas outside of your own is the path towards this. Poland’s insistence to continuing promulgating a myopic view of Polish catholic martyrdom for the development of the nation is driving Poland and Poles towards isolation, and boosting tension both at home and abroad. In fact, Poland’s diverse path is its needed future.

Visiting three faiths, besides the major catholic one, was like visiting relics of a resplendent past, revealing the heterogeneity of Poland’s history. It’s a special experience in country that is hot-headed over issues of reviving Europe’s Christianity and being the protectors of its heritage. One can overlook Poland’s historical diversity, but if you are able to be informed, then it’s vital that you at least contemplate about the significant impact that these ghosts haunting the market place in Tykocin have had on contemporary Poland.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Eastern Pilgrimage

Podlaskie is a mystical place. By some it’s considered the backwater of Poland, but it can also be considered one of the most beautiful regions. When fog blankets the damp geography an alien and spiritual world reveals itself, causing a stir in one’s poetic soul.  It can capture the imagination and spark an alluring rustic wonder. All along the border with Belarus in Podlaskie there are Eastern Orthodox communities. We were driving along that border, heading to one of the garrisons of Polish Catholic nationalism, Białystok. But before that, we made our way to an Eastern Orthodox site. The holiest Eastern Orthodox site in Poland.

I have experience with Eastern Orthodoxy from living in Georgia and Russia. It’s frustrating sometimes to keep track of the stifling conservativeness these churches represent in their respective countries. The Georgian church has been criticized for using violence and intimidation against alternative groups, like the LGBT community, and the Russian church is known for being too connected to politics in a system that needs a lot of reconstruction. Polish-Ukrainian-Belarussian Eastern Orthodoxy on the other hand has provided me a different dimension. The religious community is typically rural, and less strict in their practices. Whereas in Tbilisi, most Georgians would make the sign of the cross when passing a church, on the other hand rural Orthodox Christians living in Poland are less likely to do so.

The holy site of Grabarka Hill is a pilgrimage, and when you arrive you are struck by the jumble of uncoordinated crosses that seem to hold some spirit of the organic randomness prevalent in the aesthetic of Eastern Orthodoxy. Looking at the protruding randomness sprouting from the hill, I came to the understanding that some people walked great distances with these crosses, which can get to a decent size of a few meters tall. Legend has it that this hill helped prevent a cholera epidemic, and that’s where its sacredness comes from. A resident was told in a dream to go to the top of Grabarka Hill with a cross, which he did so after the advice of his priest, and from that moment those that drank the water were cured, and the cholera epidemic vanished.

Crosses from pilgrimages to Grabarka Hill
Photo taken by the author 

Orthodox churches always have the thick smell of incense. The scent pushes you into a deep comfort, and makes you appreciate your immediate spiritual existence. We walked inside and admired the icons around all the walls. It’s a small site, and not terribly interesting if you are not overtly religious, but it does put some interesting perspective on the communities that live on this border. I remember kayaking along the Bug river, which acts as the border between Belarus and Poland for a while, and hearing about Orthodox and Catholic Churches that were for communities that lived on the other side of the border. A catholic church directly on the other side in Belarus and vice versa an Eastern Orthodox church in Poland. It’s an inter-exchange of people across a border mostly distinguished by guard towers and patrols, giving it a stronger feeling of a frontier rather than a border. Here the exchange of distinct identities still exists in Poland, and it runs all along the border. The farther west you go, the more homogeneous Poland becomes, and even though you can find relics of a heterogeneous past, you will not find heterogeneous company. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Polish Islam

It felt like it was taking forever. The surroundings reminded me of the drives on rural Whidbey Island back in Washington state. Heavily wooded, straight and tedious. I had the role of driving for the first time after over a year hiatus, and it was reminding me how much I didn’t miss it. The town of Supraśl was the only major highlight on the road, and another indication we were no longer in the heart of Polish Catholicism, being the location of one of only six Eastern Orthodox Monasteries in Poland. 45 kilometers east of Białystok, we took a right in Krynki, and suddenly the way got more exciting. A small undulating road brought us closer to the heart of Islam in Poland. The Tatar village of Kruszyniany.

The village is nestled between a forest of oaks and pines, and the defining feature is the green Mosque, built with elements of Christian architecture, making it one of the most interesting combinations of sacred architecture in Poland. Imagine a small Romanesque church with two towers, except instead of a pale stone exterior, the outside is painted green, and the apexes of the towers have a crescent moon rather than a cross. The structure is wooden, and the current one dates from the 18th century, built over a pre-existing Mosque. Currently the village is home to only about 160 people, and not all of them are Tatar. Right now, there is estimated to be somewhere around 2,000 Polish Tatars, and almost 15,000 Tatars in the region, if you include Lithuania and Belarus. Historically, at its peak, the population of the Tatar community numbered around 200,000. That was about 500 years ago and it included territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which pushes the Polish border much farther east than the current one. 

The speaker in the Mosque
Photo taken by the author
While we were there, the village was flooded with Polish tourist. Encumbering buses ejected their passengers onto the gravel in front of the Mosque, where they congregated, waiting to snap a selfie in front of the green edifice. We snuggled up with a group entering the Mosque, and made our way inside, taking off our shoes and feeling the softness of the rugs beneath our feet. Sitting down, we listened to a lecture by a humorous Polish Tatar about the history of his community in Poland. His features subtly held some Asiatic essence, hinting at his ancestry from the Central Asian steppe. According to him, the Tatars were given land, and allowed to marry the local woman, in return for protecting the frontier region and fighting in military campaigns. This village really felt like a frontier region. The border to Belarus is less than 6 kilometers away, and felt malleable and undefined, being without any strong geographical distinction. Adding to that feeling was the categorical split between western oriented Poland and eastern oriented Belarus.

After listening to his tale, we took our time to look around the quaint wooden interior. The air was deep and refreshing, and the walls were festooned with frames of tapestries, in them depicting the Kaaba in Mecca, and proclaiming that “There is no god but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet” in Arabic script. We followed the group of Polish tourists, who seemed humbled by the experience of diversity in their homeland, towards the graveyard that lay at the end of the gravel road. Graveyards always hold some sort of key to history. They are the public records that reveal, without a doubt, the existence of a pre-established community. Though it has been tried, deliberately destroying them to erase that history is not so easy. Many times the remains are able to make a comeback through renovation or reconstruction. The Nazi’s tried to destroy the signs of a Jewish past, but you can still find many Jewish cemeteries throughout Poland, attesting to the existence of the substantial Jewish communities that once populated the land. Furthermore, look at the cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów at Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine, revealing the Polish past of that city. I even wrote about the German’s buried in Nidzica, in the northern Mazury region of today’s Poland, revealing its historic connection to East Prussia. Every cemetery reveals parts of an undeniable past, and simultaneously they play a part in reminding us about our inexorable transient future.

The Muslim tombstones of Kruszyniany could be characterized in different categories. Some of them were very similar to the black stones you would find in a typical Polish cemetery, but lacking the cross, and instead having the inscription of Allah, or some other Arabic writing, or just the crescent and star engraved on the stone. Others would be written in Cyrillic, attesting to the time that the Russians ruled this land from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. And others would have a more distinct character, different from anything I’ve seen in Poland or Russia, made from little stones and being half the size of the regular tombstones.  

For over 500 years Tatars have been burying their dead on this land. We were witnessing their existence in a country that, at the current moment, is having such a hard time acknowledging the good qualities of other identities besides their own martyred Catholic one. It’s a threat to stability and cooperation that Polish Catholic nationalism is rising and attempting to bury the beautiful mosaic that once was the frontier lands of Mitteleuropa, but it’s comforting to see many groups, like the tourists visiting Kruszyniany, are making an attempt to discover the layers of Poland’s diverse past.

Inside the Mosque
Photo taken by Kasia Kaczmarska

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Teutonic Poland

I was standing in the hall of a moving train, watching the Mazovian plain wisp by. Intermittently a red pine forests would obscure my view, and then, in the blink of the eye, it would go back to the long yellow grain fields. In Mazovia there’s not much variation in the landscape, but you can tell you’ve entered Mazury when that changes. The terrain starts to softly undulate and the energy begins to localize in the towns between the hills.

A friend of mine was leaving for his home back in Sweden. He spent 2 years in Poland, and at this point he felt like he hadn’t dropped anchor here, so he bought a new flat back in Stockholm and started contemplating his next step. As a going away present, his colleagues asked him if he would like to visit anywhere. He said, “castles with sword fighting.” They searched the internet and found the Teutonic castle at Nidzica. After hearing about it, I decided to join him for the day, because I too wanted to see castles and knights.

Poland has an astounding amount of Teutonic heritage. Nearly all of the well-preserved castles associated with the brotherhood are located within the Polish borders, with a few exceptions in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to the north. One of the most profound battles in European and world history happened between the Kingdom of Poland and the Teutonic Order in 1410. Called the Battle of Grunwald by the Poles and the Battle of Tannenberg by the Germans, the Teutonic loss was a humiliation that simmered in European politics for centuries and even influenced German propaganda in WW1 as well as the ideology of Hitler and consequently the German extermination tactics in Poland in WW2 through ‘Operation Tannenberg.

All of the Teutonic castles in Poland are located in the north, in a region known as Mazury, more commonly called the Lake District. It’s an area that is traditionally considered the most underdeveloped part of Poland. Historically Mazury belonged to East Prussia, but this region of the Prussian empire was broken in two after Germany’s loss in WW2, and subsequently divided between the newly established communist People’s Republic of Poland, and the burgeoning Soviet Union. Suddenly, Poland had control over land it had never had direct control over before. Left behind in this stunning yet undeveloped region was the legacy of the Teutonic Order in the form of many gothic red brick castles.

Arriving in Nidzica, we were immediately greeted by the most communist brutalist train station I’ve seen so far in Poland. It was an eerie cement structure with a seemingly permanently closed cashier. Passing through the inside gave you a dusty chill down the spine. Exiting onto the street side there was an old red brick building that signified that we were now in former East Prussia. We caught site of a tourist information sign, and started to head off in that direction. Each sign turned us around another corner and pulled us towards the center of the small town of 15,000 inhabitants. In minutes we were passing through the main square where they were setting up a stage for a local summer concert. It’s amazing, when you’re living in Warsaw, you assume that there is no other activity going on anywhere around in Poland.

Another sign for the tourist office now pointed us around the castle, which we saw the towers of when we first entered the square. We thought it was best to get some information on our return train as well as other ideas on what we could do around Nidzica before we dived between the castle walls. We walked around the castle and found a sign pointing us back towards the castle. We walked up the hill and found another sign pointing us directly into the castle. Finally we realized that the tourist information office was situated in the middle of the castle courtyard.

We were greeted between the walls by costumed knights and medieval village folk, and an Egyptian snake charmer carrying a 10 foot yellow python. The Egyptian man asked us in Polish whether we would like to hold it for 15 PLN or not. In the center of the courtyard a number of the costumed villagers were dancing and singing, and on the other side of the courtyard we took a seat on a raised wooden pavilion and watched the show.

My friend and I ordered a couple of beers, and we started to talk. He told me the story about his Swedish origins, and about how was actually part German. His grandfather came from Germany and eventually set up a business in Sweden where he collected and sold hardened moose droppings to eccentric German tourists. Soon after, we were invited inside the museum by the helpful tourist information clerk.

We walked around the castle for a while and admired the shockingly sadistic medieval weapons and torture devices. The castle was not heavily guarded so we got into parts that were apparently closed to normal tourists. We stumbled upon a darkened room at the top of the castle filled with preset checkerboards that seemed ready for a tournament to begin soon. Laying on a table was the grand prize, an authentic forged sword.

Just outside the castle walls another kind of tournament was taking place. Knights in unique and different armors were hacking at each other with more real swords, and referees were deciding who hacked best. We watched as new knights would enter the ring to challenge the winner, but we couldn’t understand the scoring standards. The knights would bash each other with the sword, and the referees would yell stop when they saw fit, and then point to who they thought was the winner. Some moments seemed downright dangerous as the referee stood less than a meter away from a swinging sword that would easily lodge itself an inch deep into his face. The event was enthralling and especially with the dramatic music from the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars the Phantom Menace playing over a PA system.

My friend explained that these kind of events never gain so much attraction back in Sweden, especially from the older population, and that’s one thing he liked about Poland. Poles love to get involved with reenactments and they take them seriously. From the knights of the middle age to the soldiers in WW1, you can find a lot of dedicated Polish enthusiasts.

As the day went on we enjoyed our time in the small town, a carefree breath of fresh air away from the troubles of the big city. Around the courtyard were some pictures hanging, about the Russian and German soldiers in Nidzica during WW1, and I noticed in one of them a cemetery that had been built for the fallen during those battles. It was easy to guess the location of it in the picture, and we were curious, so we made our way to see if it still existed. On our way there we realized that if we continued we probably wouldn’t have enough time to catch our train, so we turned away from it and instead headed towards the station.

While on the way back we came across another cemetery, the town cemetery, and decided to take a quick look. The first graves I saw all had German names. All the Germans were expelled when this land became Polish, so I assumed that they came back here just to be buried. I looked at one of them, his name was Bernard Ludwig Otello, and he was born in 1897. He had lived in Nidzica, it was called Neidenburg when he was living there, for 48 years before being forced to go somewhere else. He died in 1985, a good 40 years after he left. It’s hard to imagine being expelled from your land after almost 50 years of memories.  The German graves highlighted the German past, and revealed that this Polish land is close to the hearts of more than just its current inhabitants. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

“Excuse me, does the mister have a cigarette?”

The clouds have been covering Warsaw for the past few days, and the mood is starting to resemble that of my hometown back in the States. There are grey skies and lush green foliage, and it’s a stark oppressing contrast that keeps every conversation from getting overly exciting. People constantly say they are in forgetful and woeful moods, and everybody seems to be distracting themselves in order to make it through to the sunny days to come.

I want to take this moment to think about something peculiar about the Polish language, something that sets it apart from most other languages, and something that you encounter early on while learning it. It plays a distinct role in the character of the Polish language, and maybe even the character of the nation and people itself. It’s really worth a quick look at, and if anybody were to do some tests on the psychology of language, I’m sure this would play an important role in the understanding of the Polish soul. I’m talking about the formal language that is used when addressing a stranger or elder. The polite language. A form of language that we have lost in American English, probably due to our affinity for equality and our innate resentment of being controlled or manipulated.

You can find this concept in most other languages, addressing somebody as sir or madam, or in French as monsieur or mademoiselle, and usually it is accompanied by a certain structure that implies a distance from the one you are addressing. In French you use the 2nd person plural, for instance, “Excusez-moi monsieur, avez-vous une cigarette?” Although, today you don’t find many young French people using the terms monsieur or mademoiselle, and same goes for sir and madam. In Russian you address strangers with vy (вы), which is the 2nd person plural, for instance, “Izvinitye, vy znayete kak idti v biblioteku?” (Excuse me, do you know how to get to the library?) This structure extends to most other languages in the Indo-European family with a few exceptions.

Most of these exceptions don’t even use their version of polite speech anymore (Italian, Spanish, Lithuanian) but there is one that uses it profusely, and that is Polish. The exception is that, instead of using the 2nd person plural, they will use the 3rd person singular. So in English the sentence would sound something like this, “Excuse me, does the mister have a cigarette?” And yes, you are saying that to the person who you want the cigarette from. In Polish it looks like this, “Przepraszam, czy ma pan papierosa?” Pan means sir or mister, and Pani is the female equivalent. The title of the great poetic epic, “Pan Tadeusz,” by Adam Mickiewicz, actually translates to “Sir Thaddeus,” even though you will usually find it under its original Polish title. To dissect the previous phrase a little further, “ma” means “he/she has,” but translates here as “you have,” whereas the usual polite form in other languages would be “macie” in Polish, which really means “you have.”

Lithuanian used to operate with a similar construction, and this is probably due to the close historical ties that these two countries have had to each other, but due to Russian influence and the Soviet Union, nowadays it’s version of this is used very rarely. That’s not the case in Poland though. Everybody uses this formal method of addressing.

“Would the miss like anything else?”

“Does this mister have sliced gouda cheese?”

“Does the mister know if there are any more tickets for tomorrow’s show?”

It’s quite a strange world to live in where you cannot address anybody directly, and this is why I say that maybe it has some affect on the social consciousness of Poles.

There is a high level of civility in Poland, and they are often times very sensitive people. The elderly are well respected and get quite offended if you don’t address them properly. They are proud of their history, and this language is historical language, coming from the once great nobility that ruled the Polish plains. It’s also harder to connect to a Pole as a real close friend, and in my opinion this kind of language could have something to do with it.

Besides the rambunctious hooligans that walk the street during a Legia football match, Poland is an incredibly polite country. As a foreigner, and especially an American, this kind of speaking takes some getting used to, but as you start to notice it, you realize that there is something very dignified about it that can momentarily transport you to other epochs of courtship and knighthood in the past. It’s a good idea to traverse some of Warsaw’s bazaars, and you’ll notice how this level of politeness really brings Polish people together in their appreciation for treating each other with respect.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any opinions or knowledge about this subject, please let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

100 Years Later

We were standing between two countries, yet not really in no man’s land. On one side were the mountainous Slovak lands, and on the other were the low river-plains of Poland. We had just exited the undergrowth of a Beskid Niski forest onto a paved road, and were now taking a mental breather, looking at the dual existence of the countries signs, before we would reenter the foliage and continue on the other side of the road.  

The Beskid Niski Mountains are a low lying sub-range of the greater Beskid Mountains that stretch from the corner of the Czech Republic, along the Polish-Slovakian border, and into Ukraine. This greater Beskid range then evolves into the much greater Carpathians which inhabit a large chunk of central and eastern Europe. It’s the mountain range where, because of Bram Stoker, bloodcurdling screams could be heard from Dracula’s castle while he bit the necks of his innocent victims. Luckily we weren’t anywhere near Transylvania.

Our hike was taking us through Gorlice county, where, 100 years ago from that day, a great offensive was being produced on the Eastern Front of World War 1. The group that organized this war-themed hike was named Studenckie Koło Przewodników Beskidzkich or SKPB.

As a group of about 25 of us trampled through the unseen path, following our well-trained guides, I looked at the backpack in front of me, and it started to transform into a ragged rucksack being carried by a Hungarian soldier, with clanking metal pots hanging off of it and a bayoneted rifle being held, poking out languidly towards the ground on the left side of the soldier, and our guides morphed into the commanders dragging us to the battlefields through the uncharted thick forests, where we would most likely fall victim to another bayonet and breath our last breath.

100 years ago the Gorlice-Tarnów offensive was taking place exactly in these mountains. This great offensive came after depressing futile attempts by the Austro-Hungarians to push the Russians back towards Ukraine. The commanders of the Austro-Hungarian armies had needlessly thrown many young soldiers into extreme mountain climates during the height of winter with little thought, causing many helpless and painful deaths. But, as winter dissipated, and conditions became easier to deal with, the Germans joined the Austro-Hungarians on the Eastern Front, and on May 2nd, 1915, began pushing the Russians back through Gorlice county.

On May 2nd, 2015, our group stopped in front of two mass graves hidden behind some trees. They were quadrilateral stone structures with bulky half-meter orthodox crosses, symbolizing that they were Russian soldiers. There were two stone plaques commemorating them, but it read in German, “Fallen in the field of honor, 150 Russian soldiers.” Lying beneath us were almost 300 Russian skeletons (the other plaque stated 130 Russian soldiers), but above ground the stone structure had been built by the Austro-Hungarians. At every cemetery we stopped at this would be the case. Most of them were mixed with Austrian, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Slovakian, German, and Russian soldiers, but all them were built by the Austro-Hungarians, and this concept of indiscriminately honoring soldiers during war, regardless of if they were the enemy or not, was beautifully enchanting.

The cemetaries in the region we were hiking had all been designed by a Slovak architect named Dušan Jurkovič. In designing them he took inspiration from the folk art of the surrounding Łemko people, who were the majority of the inhabitants of this area in 1915. Construction of these cemeteries began during the offensive, and most of them finally finished in 1918. The multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire that produced them no longer existed. For the next three quarters of a century the Łemkos were relocated under communist Poland, so the area became depopulated, and the cemeteries fell into dilapidation. In the late 80s old cemeteries began to be rediscovered in forests that had grown over them, and throughout the 90s restoration projects took place that brought their existences back to reputable and honorable standards. Now they exist as hauntingly contemplative monuments.

We started in Grab, which sat isolated on a soft grassy hillside. There was a wooden structure built in the style of an old Slavic pagan temple. There was something eerie and mystifying about the shape, as though it was a long lost memory of the past. The headstones were wooden crosses, and here there was a mix of Russian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers. Next were the Russian mass graves at Ożenna, and then through the thick beech forests towards the former village of Czarne. This valley had once been populated by Łemko families, and even one gypsy family, but during communist times after the Second World War the population was moved to Soviet Ukraine and North-West Poland, and now there is only small clues that an entire community once lived there. We moved north towards Krzywa, and after a cold night, Kasia and I decided to split from the group, and head to the valley over, where we were in touch with a group from Warsaw that owned an old Łemko cottage in the village of Nowica.

On the road to Nowica, before hitting the Magura Małastowska pass, we were able to spot a little salamander that was famous in this region. It’s black and yellow and named the fire salamander. They are slow moving, and very poor at hiding, and we found one with its head buried in a crack in an old stump every few meters. The path we were on was incredibly scenic and the mist caused by the weather made our way mystical and imaginative. At the pass we reached the last cemetery that we would see on this trip. Between the spruce and silver firs the headstones of Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians and Austrians protruded from the ground. Here there was even one Jewish headstone, also carved from wood; the only one we saw at any of the cemeteries. We took a moment to think about the consequences of this brutal opening to the 20th century, and how these cemeteries have changed this landscape forever, and then we moved on towards Nowica. On the paved road we climbed up over the hill and as we were climbing we noticed a dead salamander on the road, squished by a car. A few meters later another one laid crushed with its guts exposed, and then another one and another one. Kasia began to shake, and she grabbed my arm and closed her eyes. As we passed another dead salamander I was reminded of the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of young men who were not prepared to face the modern environment that was developing quickly before them. 

WW1 Cemetery in Southern Poland

Monday, March 9, 2015

Exploring Warsaw's New Metro Line

I set out to see the newly opened second metro line going east-west across Warsaw. The end of the line on the west side was only a six minute bus ride from my apartment in Wola, and began on Plac Daszyńskiego. The new line opened to the public on March 8th after a long delay. Originally said to be opened at the onset of the December holidays, mysterious reasons kept pushing the opening back. Recently though there was a stronger push to get it up and running, because one of the bridges crossing the Wisła caught fire, diverting and clogging a lot of central traffic. At the time of this incident I was staying in Wesoła in the far east of the city, and was unaffected by this sudden change. I took the suburban train which brought me straight to the center over a different bridge, but a friend of mine living much closer in Saska Kępa, one bus stop away from the bridge, said that after the bridge caught fire her commute skyrocketed from 30 minutes to two hours, because she had to circumvent the old route during high traffic. Initially officials were horrifyingly saying that the bridge wouldn't be reopened for a few years, maybe in 2017 or 2018, but more recently the Warsaw municipality has said that they hope to reopen it by fall of this year. That's a welcome relief for a lot of residents from the districts surrounding Łazienkowski Bridge.

With this backdrop the second metro line was to be hurriedly opened to ease the stress in the pressurizing center. The bus dropped me off at Plac Daszyńskiego and I peered around. From here I could see the skyscrapers of the city center. The ones that stood out were the imposing Złota 44 apartment complex, and Stalin's gift to Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science. Towering nearby was the Warsaw Spire currently under construction and revealing its skeletal insides. In order to soften this eyesore the tower is adorned with neon lights that spell out "Kocham Warszawę" (I love Warsaw). A few meters away was the entrance to the metro line, a strong red glass frame in the shape of an "M." I walked towards it and entered the first station.

The new metro line has a color theme, and at this first station I tried to think of the possible decisions for each color. Plac Daszyńskiego was red, but nothing was jumping to mind what that might symbolize. I already knew from pictures that Nowy Świat-Uniwersytet was purple, and I felt that was a good choice for a university stop, because purple was inherently a creative color, but the red remained a mystery. Later I realized that Plac Daszyńskiego was the stop for the Warsaw Uprising museum, and that the red could possibly be connected to this as a patriotic symbol, or even a color of the blood spilled by Warsaw's most praised heroes.

Waiting for the train to come I noted the cleanliness of the station, and the 90's pop-art style that reminded me a little of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." I also got a vague impression that I was standing in a contemporary art museum, and that next I would be looking at a Keith Haring exhibit. There was no time of arrival and I kept peeking up the tracks looking for the lights of the next train. Suddenly all the lights of the station flickered then went off for a brief moment, then back on, then off again. This happened five times, and a few people laughed, amused by the apparent ineptitude. The train finally arrived, and everyone boarded. I wondered if there would be any more shortcomings at the other stations.


Next was Rondo ONZ, the business center of Warsaw. The station is a calming and slick white, and I think the real connection with the color is the chic looking entrances around the roundabout. The colors here have a connection to modernity, technology, capitalism's love of glass, and the sleek and minimalist tastes of the nouveau riche. The entrances are airy and give off a sense of speed, and they really complement the business buildings surrounding them. Before this area was a little bit tedious to get to, like most of the stops on the new line, but now it's impressively easy, and it's not hard to imagine that this will have a profound effect on the businesses that operate along the line.

I went down again and took the train to the next stop, Świętokrzyska, which means Holy Cross in Polish. The station is yellow with hues of orange, and it's the station where you can switch to the first metro line, "conveniently," according to the recorded English voice with a slight Polish accent that played on the train before arriving to the station. The change was definitely convenient, and this new found convenience made me giddy. Although, the first line looks like a washed-up relic compared to the new line, and going through the lackluster purple and yellow frames into the old line is somewhat of a buzzkill.

I stepped outside for a look around, and immediately felt pity for the ugly first line. The entrance ways are grossly unattractive and have the look of an abandoned project. From afar they look more like entrances to gritty underground bazaars you could find in Central Asia or the Caucasus (Station Square in Tbilisi comes to mind). Compared to the thick and jagged highlighter-yellow "Ms", these ghost-white and faded-blue ancient arcs looked unfortunate and out of place. Luckily, I only found two of them at this intersecting station, while there were at least four new entrances.

I descended back inside the pristine new line and headed towards the station I had seen most in pictures, the university stop. I got off and found that the purple was not overwhelming, and thought that this was evidence of good planning. Nowy Świat-Uniwersytet, is also a portal to Warsaw's past, being situated at one of the most historic streets in the city. It wasn't overly difficult to get to before, but now the psychological effect that exiting the metro into this beautiful area has is lovely. After being destroyed in 1944, Warsaw had to build itself from scratch. The planners wanted to retain some of its original identity, but for the most part the city on the west bank of the Wisła lacked an old European look, that is until you reach Nowy Świat, where they worked meticulously to recreate its 19th century charm (although I would have loved to see it restored to its early 20th century art nouveau style). Suddenly you're among the neoclassical and baroque style architecture you find all across Europe, and exiting the confident purple frames onto the street, you get a real sense that you're really in Europe. Standing on the corner of Nowy Świat and Świętokrzyska streets, I felt a seismic shift in Warsaw. Suddenly the focus was taken away from its old communist center, and brought to balance between its contemporary progress and its proud historic past.

The next station was the Centrum Nauki Kopernik (Copernicus Science Center). As I exited the train I noticed a slight difference in style. The ceiling had changed from perforated plastic to solid sky blue. They were still doing some maintenance on the escalator. There was an old woman who couldn't speak, but wanted her picture taken. She made a beeping noise, much like beaker from sesame street, to people who passed by, and showed them at what angle she wanted the picture taken, pointing wildly and beeping at the same time. After she stopped two or three people she decided to leave, and I could hear her beeping all the way up the working escalator. I followed her and was drenched in light. The station kind of reminded me of the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Parts of the escalator were exposed and you could examine its insides, and the sky-blue atmosphere gave the sensation of the altruism of science. Its situated near not only the Copernicus Science Center, but also five minutes by walking to one of the nicest academic institutions in the city, the BUW, or Warsaw University Library.

Two of the entrances don't have the thick glass "Ms" overhead, and I felt this a nice thought, in order to keep the feeling of openness at the station. I believe it's also probably because one of the exits brings you right to the bank of the Wisła, and a big glass structure would look out of place and ugly next to the slow moving grey calm of the river. I was ecstatic about this location, and started pondering my future excursions to the riverside.

At this point I sat down in the station and thought about the 930 meter long passage underneath the Wisła. Just above me would be the slow moving water of Poland's beating heart. Just two days before only the handful of construction workers had been able to pass underneath the historic river. Now for the first time in history everyone who bought a ticket would be able to do it.

We reached the other side of the river and exited into the largest of the seven stations. Stadion Narodowy was spacious and grass-field green. Its open space and tall ceilings were a welcome sight after the cramped enclosing space of the rest of the underground. The large pillars between the platforms are curious blossoms of concrete, and across the tracks you can see the preparation for additional metro lines still in their rudimentary stages. The exit emerged onto a desolate looking spot just on the other side of the train tracks that separate it from the main parking lot for the stadium. I thought that maybe it wasn't a good stop to get off if you feel like getting a bite to eat, but on the contrary I realized that just around the corner began one of the main roads in Praga Północ, Targowa street. Two minutes of walking and you could find almost anything you were looking for, be it a cafe or some kebab, a clothes store or some furniture.

I descended back into the green cavern, and boarded the train to the last stop on the line. The Polish accented English speaker made it clear that this was the terminus, and that everybody should leave the train. Dworzec Wileński station drops you off in the heart of Praga Północ, and next to one of my favorite buildings in Warsaw, the Polish Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene. It's a building that shows the beauty of Russian religious architecture, and you can admire it without having to go to Russia.

Praga is a different city in itself, historically somewhat disconnected from the more traditional center. It was the least destroyed part of the city during the war and it has an authenticity about it that makes it quite endearing. One of the best features about the district are little icons that populate many of the courtyards, many festooned with bright flowers. Finished with the line, I decided to take the rest of the day walking around the district, and I found at least five beautiful courtyard icons. Nearby was the famous Ząbkowska street, the heart of Praga Północ. A street that used to be a synonym for crime and destitution, but is now one of the trendiest places in Warsaw. It's said by many that hipster artist have been flocking to this area for the past few years, especially since its cleanup and renovation at the turn of the millennium.

On this street I found a cafe and bistro named Galeria Sztuki (Gallery of Art). I ate an excellent turkey dish with boiled potatoes, an artisan salad, and cream of leek soup for 18 PLN. As I was drinking my coffee in the rustic feeling cafe I looked out the window and marveled at how simple it was for me to get to this point. The seven stations take about 12 minutes to traverse, add another six minutes for a bus ride from my apartment, and I could be at a spot, that traditionally took me 40 plus minutes to get to, in less than 20 minutes. Warsaw is opening up now, and the possibilities are multiplying. This is an exciting time to be a Varsovian.