Above: Memorial to Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Jewish Combat Organization, who was killed during the Jewish Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
Our first whole day in Warsaw came on Thursday, July 9. In my recollection, it was muggy but cloudy, with my photos showing almost no blue in the sky. It must have rained overnight, because there were oily puddles filling the potholes in the street.
After another forgettable breakfast, the group sightseeing began. Our guide Bozena was stylish and helpful. These days, refashioned as an American, she’s a new age marketing wizard in Irvine, California. Not bad for a university gal from Lublin.
At first glance, Warsaw was not a picturesque city in the usual postcard sense. Most of it had been flattened during World War II, and the socialist-model rebuild had been gray and utilitarian, although the main square in the “old” town was famously restored “exactly” as it was before the war, based primarily on old paintings and drawings, many of which depicted buildings that never actually stood.
Still, even among the monotonous blocks of residential high-rises and dull commercial structures, there were trees, flower beds and throngs out walking, with many more trams and buses than private automobiles.
As usual, my memory is hazy, but as the day wore on, I can recall my mood gradually souring. After a promising start, the tour program was getting boring, and I began worrying that another tightly regimented day would somehow preclude the purchase of overnight train tickets for Prague, where Barrie and I would be traveling together by ourselves at the conclusion of the Warsaw segment.
This was irrational of me, even if my default setting while traveling had evolved to where I always tried to do housekeeping first, before fun and games. There would be ample time for tickets, and yet I chose to be publicly grumpy.
While our tour leader Kim Wiesener didn’t know me very well at this early stage of our friendship, he knew exactly what to say (paraphrased):
“Roger, rather than make everyone else miserable, why not go do whatever the (expletive deleted) you need to do, and meet us back at the hotel?”
I stalked away heatedly in the direction the bus had come, so as to reach wherever I was going from wherever we currently were located, and my pace slowed as it dawned on me that I had no idea about the whereabouts of either one.
Not only that, but I had no map – and map vending machines typically didn’t exist in Western Europe, much less in the Communist Bloc.
A few days later in Prague, Barrie would nonchalantly demonstrate the perfectly effective way out of any such pickle, applicable anywhere in the world, but especially in inexpensive places like Warsaw Pact member states.
If one possessed a hotel card with an address, as we did, all you needed to do was show it to a taxi driver, along with a five dollar bill (American), and he’d spirit you damn near anywhere within a two-hour radius of the city center.
Unfortunately, then as now, stubbornness is my most troublesome default setting. I placed myself in a fix, and would resolve it. As for landmarks, we’d seen the Stalinist-era downtown “skyscraper” called the Palace of Culture upon arrival by train the night before.
|Borrowed image of the Palace of Culture, 1980s-vintage.
In fact, the local joke went like this:
Q. Where do you get the best view of downtown Warsaw?
A: From the Palace of Culture, because then the Palace of Culture isn’t part of the view.
If I could find the Palace of Culture, the train station would be right there … but maddeningly, the Soviet Wedding Cake as yet remained out of sight from my vantage point.
Looking at a public transport schedule posted at a nearby bus stop, there was a reference to Pałac Kultury. This sounded right, so I walked along the bus route until a street sign pointed toward Centrum.
Eventually I could see the ugly building itself. The train station was roughly adjacent, and after some time in the queue, I was able to buy the tickets. While there, I got a map.
By the time I found the right bridge and crossed the Vistula River, I’d spent a couple hours either walking or standing in line.
It was hot and humid, in the middle of the afternoon. I remember cutting through a neighborhood to get to the hotel, but at some point I heard male voices — and more importantly, the clink of glasses touching.
It was a pub of some sort. All I could fathom with any degree of certainty was that there was a building shaded by street trees, filled with men dressed mostly in work clothing, though a few wore suits – and they all were throwing back golden-colored draft beers in gorgeous fat mugs.
I was more thirsty than intimidated, and it was clear that Poles liked Americans. Entering the front door, I saw a serving counter and walked straight to it. No English was spoken, but a transaction was negotiated … once, and then a second time. I’d like to report that something novel and revealing came of it.
Nothing did, but at the same time, no one hassled me. I drank my beers in peace just like everyone else, and quickly found the hotel.
Later when I resolved to take Barrie there, I couldn’t find the pub, and neither could Bozena. No one seemed to know what I was talking about, but I swear it was real.
… and downtown Warsaw churches. I’m unsure why this seemed important at the time.