Our guest author Simon, a British expat living in Munich, describes what 21st-century Warsaw feels like to him, after his latest trip to Poland’s capital.
Is Warsaw the new Berlin? So claimed one local I talked to during my weekend in the Polish capital. It didn’t sound like the first time this idea had been voiced. Lots of people are moving into the capital, they tell me. It’s a city made up of large numbers of immigrants, not just a substantial number from abroad, but from other parts of Poland as well. So the population is young. Couple this with the high vacancy rates and a lot of construction work, and you have the sort of vibe that is not dissimilar to the mood 350 miles further west in the capital of Germany.
To the uninformed tourist there are many visible similarities. Like Berlin, Warsaw lies on land as flat as a pancake. Scan the horizon, and there is not a hill in sight. Like Berlin, and far more so, it was destroyed in the last war and still bears the scars. The city centre seems jumbled and unfocused; residential and industrial buildings on empty streets sit behind bustling shopping centres and grand representative edifices. Although the old town was painstakingly reconstructed, it does not form the focal point, even of the centre of town, but sits a little way off, out on a limb. In between the two parts of the city, there are large areas of empty space or parkland, which all looked fairly barren in the late spring snow.
The winters in Warsaw are pretty terrible by all accounts. In fact everyone we talked to agreed that the weather in Warsaw was not its greatest attraction. Russian winter winds blow in from the Northeast and summers can be marred by extended periods of rain. One American resident complained of there being no more than four days in a year when you can go out without a jacket at night.
So what was it that was making everybody in this town so cheery the whole time? It’s a dirty old place, but there’s nothing grim about the people, who seemed full of smiles and laughter.
Maybe it’s the cost of living, which at least to Western European eyes, looks fairly cheap. At the end of a more than decent Polish dinner with two friends I generously offered to pay for everybody. Imagine the smile on my face when I discovered this gesture was going to cost me less than 50€! Later that same evening, we were invited to drinks in a beautiful old flat with at least 150 square metres, occupied only by one young Swedish girl. Life here is cheap.
And it’s fun. There’s something about the ramshackle that is just more alluring than the well-ordered and you are unlikely to feel that more strongly than on a weekend trip from Munich to Warsaw. Warsaw is ramshackle indeed, and many of the bars we visited were sat in old warehouses or flats, with interiors cobbled together out of bits of Soviet memorabilia. These industrial dives felt relaxed and artistic, like the brain child of students, not capitalists. They had the sort of atmospheres you want to linger in, sprawl out in, watch people in, get a bit too drunk in.
We spent our last night in the city in an area called Praga. We headed out there partly on a recommendation and partly because we wanted to see the one part of Warsaw that is more than 60 years old. The bar we ended up in was, once again, located in an old warehouse and was hosting a youth dance, Poland style, with a strange mix of disco hits and swing, all sung in Polish and accompanied by Jive-like partner dancing. Partner dancing sure looks charming in an old redbrick brewery with amber lighting, even to Polish disco music. The crowd was fun to watch. All the guys building up the courage to ask a girl to dance, the girls looking either delighted with it all, scornful or resigned, and a few shy-looking couples clinging to each other awkwardly in the middle of the dance floor. I guess this is what going to the disco used to be like.
Perhaps it’s the relatively recent arrival of hypermodernity that gives the town its charm. Again like Berlin, history is very recent here. Most of the people and places were shaped by a way of life that looks and feels much more archaic than it actually is. But Warsaw is really growing and changing now. The economy is relatively buoyant, and there are a lot of smart cars on the streets. It feels like the city is emerging from the sorrows of the twentieth century into a period that is optimistic, prosperous, and cheerful. Let’s hope so, because you’ve only got to visit the ‘Warsaw Uprising Museum’ to know that this is one town that definitely deserves some good times.