Friday, 1 October 2010

Warsaw On Two Million Zlotys A Day

Arriving in Warsaw can be a terminally depressing experience. Central Station is in the midst of the most Godawful infrastructure fiddling I’ve ever experienced in a major metropolis. It’s labyrinth upon labyrinth getting from the station to your hotel.
I chickened out when I took the wrong exit on the underground passageway and immediately checked into the $135-a-night Holiday Inn across from the station. It’s easy to decide to become the Duke de Visa in such turbulent surroundings.

So I bought a map for 15,000 zlotys (you soon feel like a millionaire with your almost 10,000 zlotys per U.S. dollar—my room came to a cool 1,300,000!), copies of the English language weeklies Warsaw Voice and The Insider to plot my moves. The language is so opaque that you stare numbly at place names without comprehending anything.

I decided after a few hours of wheel-spinning to buck up my spirits by visiting the American Embassy. Good move—although almost fatal when I asked a guy in the street which way to the USA.

He said he was driving that way. In a beat up Trabbie, it turned out. He ripped the fender off the car to the left of him backing out of the parking lot, set off that poor bloke’s burglar alarm, and lurched off in a series of near misses as he “eased” into the suicidal flow of traffic.

At the embassy, a bright young grad of Ann Arbor showed me how to get to the foreign journalists’ press center and kicked in his favorite jazz venue and the stores that sell Polish jazz. Dale Prince lives up to his last name: Assiduous in his pursuit of fluency in the difficult indigenous language, eager to watch the devolution from Communism’s command economy to the puzzling ambiguities of the marketplace, he’s the kind of diplomat you dream that America is repped by throughout the world. But guess it isn’t (not often enough, anyway).

Interpress not only let you type but has a cheap, tasty menu. Borscht soup and shish-kebob today for $4. Surprisingly few speak English, compared with other press centers I’ve visited internationally. Lots of Russian. Although I don’t hear it spoken anywhere. Glad to be almost rid of them, I guess.

Ambling back to the hotel (Warsaw hasn’t heard of a straight street, at least in the Centrum), I espied a Max Ernst poster in front of a museumish-looking building, so I sneaked up the steps even though I’d been told all museums are closed Mondays.

Good move. They were in the final stages of getting prepped for an opening that night of a German exchange show on the caricaturists of the Weimar Republic. My meat and potatoes, on the Kraut Kick that I’ve relished for the past five years. Before you could say Georg Grosz, Nina Cognac had blessed me with the catalog, two photos and two invitations to the 8:30 p.m. opening.

I survived the long Teutonic opening speeches (darkened into deepest Polish by lively translators!) to drink perhaps more than my share of Bulgarian white wine—called “Sophia”—and canap├ęs I had to swallow hard to do away with. The crowd was lively—a mix of mad artists, cultural reps and poor students after the free treats.

The show added a few more elements to my fast-filling-in picture of 20th-Century German art, especially the new-to-me woodcut artist Gerd Arntz, implacably proletarian without being boring or mendacious about it—as in his illustration of the high price of bourgeois play above-ground resting on the bitter work below in “Oben und Unten” (1931). I like him.

Nazism drove Artnz into Holland, where he did an illustrator’s dogsbody’s work, having no exhibition of his own for 43 years. It was as good to meet him as it was to palaver with the Poles and (sponsoring) Germans.

And it was a puzzle finding my way back to the hotel in the dark. The only positive thing you can say about the totally ugly Palace of Culture the Soviet wished on the Poles is that you can’t get lost downtown if you keep an eye peeled for it. It is mercifully (if slowly) being covered with advertisements.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 8, 1991

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