Saturday, 6 October 2012

Warsaw Comes Alive In Its New Age

 WARSAW What a difference a year makes! When I last visited the capital of Poland, it seemed stricken with a case of terminal grungies, beginning with the Central Station itself. Today, chic little portable boutiques have displaced the former Third World-looking lean-tos as the new entrepreneurs flex their economic muscles.

The Poles have ratcheted up the fast-food revolution too, with ubiquitous HAMBURGERY stands. But the logo protectors of Ronald McDonald would go ballistic at the ballsy way fast foodsters have rung variations on Big Macishness.

I especially relished the McRonalds stop devised out of a recycled bus. Faster food, right? (I’m smacking my lips to report that the McKielbasa I consumed there would pass muster at the best of Philly street stands, where the best street food in our country is dispensed. Right?)

Not that the Old Warsaw doesn’t linger on and even occasionally prevail. Intent on visiting the former Baltic Republics, I skittered about from LOT, the Polish airline, to Orbis, the official travel agency, to Intourist, which presumes to still run (ruin?) things as of yore, such as demanding that you get a transit visa ($27, please!—almost twice the train ticket) because the tracks between Warsaw and Vilnius, Lithuania, dip through Belarus. Check before you go, though, for these regs seem to change by the hour.

When I’m talking about the Amtrickiness of night trains in Eastern Europe, I can’t help but recall the nightmare of my trip the night before between Vienna and Warsaw’s South Station. (I’d spent a hard day in Vienna Hoovering the rich museum fare as soon as I got in from Zurich. Just lollygagging by foot is a splendid way to spend a day, especially the Pharaoh art exhibition at the Kunstlerhaus, a marvelous schnitzel in the open-air restaurant in front of the architecture school, and a late-afternoon coffee in Otto Wagner’s incredible bit of Secessionism that began as a subway station.)

For the sleeper, as usual, you give the steward your passport, and he stays up all night to deal with border guards. I should have known something was fishy when the steward refused to take my proffered passport on the Vienna-Warsaw run.

I was rudely, not to say crudely, dragged out of my sack no fewer than six times between 12:40 a.m. and 3:40 a.m.: by Austrian passport control, Czech passport and customs (twice each, entering and leaving their country) and Polish passport control. If they’ve set out to ruin the sleeping-car business between Vienna and Warsaw, they’ve found the formula, all right.

I’d come to Warsaw to see a highly-touted collection of 19th- and 20th-Century Polish paintings assembled by a tennis star and his wife at the National Museum. The couple are national heroes—deservedly so for their good eyes and zealous gatherings. The zlotys he picked up on the pro circuit have surely added to the nation’s patrimony.

But the curator apologized for not being able to give me a catalog of her show, and the “education director” (who, I noted, was first and foremost a world-class classical archaeologist!) could only supply me with a few black-and-white glossies. (No budgets for hip PR departments.)

So there’s extreme fiscal austerity in the cultural sector, but also an honesty and enthusiasm that may more than compensate. It’s a pity they don’t have more resources, because we need to learn about the art of Eastern Europe, about which most of us are terminally ignorant. Perhaps some EC multinationals will start circulating such national treasures internationally—like the modernist masterpieces of the Lodz Museum, recently on display in Lyons.

Everyone seems to agree that downtown Warsaw is a hundred times improved visually, but not all Poles are optimistic about these superficial improvements. For example, the dazzling thirtysomething who owns NATO—a surplus army store, kitty-korner from the gross Palace of Culture, that peddles the uniforms of all the retreating armies of Europe—kept warning me how dangerous the neighborhood (central downtown) had become.

Incidentally, the guy next to me at breakfast this morning is a Peace Corpsman from Atlanta who’s trying to set up a Chamber of Commerce in a small Polish town of 12,000—where the biggest business is the manufacture of those portable boutiques which have so improved the looks of the Central Business District.

The Marriott ($225 a night) is a maelstrom of Americans on the prowl for good business deals. One guy was showing a Japanese company how to manufacture the front glass for TV tubes with Corning equipment. On the other side of me at breakfast sat a Boeing test pilot training LOT crews to fly the 737. Everybody is after an honest zloty, including that knockout on the elevator who was a Hong Kong banker working out of Berlin.

And the cultural life is boogeying with Americanisms. Before hopping on that dreadful train to Vilnius, I stopped by the Akwarium (so called because everyone passing in the street ogles through its big plate glass windows at the jazz patrons eating) to see what they meant by their June Jazz Fest.

Partly, it meant a visit by the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, jazz great Joe Pass. Because the Russkis trapped me into five hours of folderolling for the transit visa, I wasn’t able to hop the 422 bus line, at one end of which is the fabulous Poster Museum in Wilanow and at the other the succulent Caricature Museum.

Next time—but not by train.

From Welcomat: After Dark, January 6, 1993

No comments: