Saturday, October 27, 2007

Logbook: Warsaw Weekend

Warsawweekend1I was up and moving pretty early on Friday morning, and with a fond "See you later!" to my good friends at my fabulous little hotel I walked the few blocks to the train station to catch my ride to Warsaw. As is my custom, I was there with about a half hour to spare before scheduled departure time, which turned out to be a really good thing. Taking another look at my ticket I finally noticed that what I thought was a "26" -- as in "26.10.2007" -- was actually a poorly printed "25". That's right, after going through all the effort to get my ticket in advance so I wouldn't have to scramble the morning of my departure, I had misread the date and my ticket was for Thursday, not Friday. By now you must certainly realize that this is just "one of those things" that happens every day on The Voyage and that I look on them simply as opportunities for "unexpected exploration." So, into the mob at the ticket counter I went, negotiated as best I could a replacement ticket and went to the platform. The Gdynia train station is functional not elegant -- though the grass growing among the tracks is a nice touch -- and the rolling stock is much the same. At some point, the infrastructure of the country is going to have to be upgraded, but for now although the trains are old and slow, they work well enough and pretty reliably -- if not fashionably -- get you where you want to go. In my case, the train delivered me to Warsaw a little over six hours later.

Warsawweekend2_2Arriving in Warsaw's central train station is not the cheeriest of experiences, owing to the dark, dirty condition of it's dismal bare concrete design. This lack of aesthetic is something I am becoming very aware of in Poland, and I attribute it to the generally low expectations of a nation that has historically been poor, badly treated by conquering forces and focused more on surviving than thriving. In this context, it is no wonder that things are "functional not elegant." So, it was with some surprise that I emerged from the underground station and first viewed the building shown here, with its rather obvious excess of ornamentation. I later learned that it is the "cultural center" -- comprised of museums, concert halls, etc. -- and was built by the Soviets during their occupation -- er... time of governance -- to express to the Poles that "We're really not such bad people!" It is a fairly unique structure in the cityscape, with the majority of other buildings being in the typical Soviet-Era, rough concrete, no-frills style. There are now also a few steel and glass buildings in Warsaw, so the combination of styles can be a little perplexing to a visitor. Undaunted, I made my way a few blocks to my hotel, then did my usual routine of checking in, dumping my gear and hitting the streets. After an hour or so of working my way amid dense throngs, dingy streets and chaotic commercial concourses I was pretty "full" so I called it a day. At this point in The Voyage my stamina for exploring strange lands and people is pretty high, but pacing myself remains an important factor.

Warsawweekend3Yesterday morning I got up early and decided to increase my "exploration efficiency" by taking a half-day tour of the city. It was well worth it, not only because it was very informative in a short time but also because it was an easy way to get around a fairly large area and because I met a few interesting folks (including a young man from Tallinn, Estonia who has offered to be a resource for me when I get there in another week or so!) On the tour we visited many of the city's most popular attractions, including the central park with its many monuments -- especially a beautiful one to Chopin that you can see in the Photos -- and historical buildings, the "Ghetto Uprising" memorial, the old fortress walls and "The World's Youngest Old Town." This last point brings up something that I was unable to completely figure out: We were told that except for a couple of buildings, Warsaw was completely destroyed in WWII, yet there are many, many "historical" buildings and monuments. I think I understand that many of these were rebuilt in their "original" form after the War, but I'm not sure. For certain, though, the "Old Town" was completely rebuilt in traditional style which does, in fact, make it "The World's Youngest Old Town." To my taste, it is a little cliche, overdone and touristy, but every major city has to have its attractions, right? Also on the tour, I got an even better sense of how Poland -- as I mentioned above -- is a country that has really been poorly treated in history. For centuries, invading forces have conquered the territory, subjugated the people and re-written their history. The cities have repeatedly been destroyed, historical heros have been re-cast as evil villains and -- perhaps most ironic of all -- even their "liberators" often became their "enslavers." Imagine how you might feel if you survived the almost complete destruction of your country and economy during WWII, only to find yourself a disdained stepchild of Soviet Communism. Bummer! As I learn more and more about Polish history, I have a growing appreciation for the inherent spirit of the Poles and an even stronger sense of enthusiasm for what their future may have in store. Even if many Polish people are not particularly optimistic about their country, themselves and their future, I am.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around, checking things out, finding some travel info for the Baltics and getting my train ticket -- for the right day! -- going forward. I called it an early night with the intention of sleeping in and having a "relaxed city Sunday." As you may have already guessed by my use of the word "intention" it didn't quite work out that way. Through the window I had left open all day, a large number of aggressive mosquitos got into my room -- presumably from the garden three floors down, but quite surprisingly given the cold temperature of the season. Either way, I woke up after only an hour of sleep with a number of stinging bites and spent most of the night tracking down and killing the beasts. (It was a haunting reprise of another really bad night you may recall I had way back in Zocalo, Mexico City!) The net result is that I got very little sleep and am pretty groggy today, so my "relaxed city Sunday" has been a little more like a day of "recovery." It's all good, though, and my Warsaw weekend has been satisfactory. I can't say I really like the city -- you know I don't particularly like large cities anyway -- but I'm glad to have visited briefly and gotten the gist of it.

I've kept the window closed all day in an effort to keep the mosquito beasts at bay and I hope to get a good night's sleep before my early morning start on an all day train ride to Vilnius, Lithuania. Stay tuned to find out what happens!

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