Monday, August 15, 2011

What about Warsaw?

I really liked Warsaw until I saw Krakow. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

I spent four days in Warsaw meeting interesting people and walking, walking, walking. It's a huge city, or at least compared to Vík, it is. I felt like I was the star of one of those movies where a caveman is thawed out and forced into mainstream society and gets totally freaked out. All of the traffic noise seemed amplified, and streets seemed endless. I was overwhelmed.
For all of the expansiveness of the city, I felt really safe, and was impressed by how clean the streets are. It was enjoyable to just wander around and get completely lost, except for the heat, which has been slowly killing me. A young Swiss guy named Vivian joined me on a day-long search for the Uprising Musuem, which came highly recommended. I'd never heard anything about it, so I expected it was some kind of uplifting story about freedom fighters, and was looking forward to seeing it. Given Poland's history, I should have known better, but until we finally found the place, I was blissfully unaware of what a metaphor for Warsaw it is.
In case you are just as clueless as I was, the Uprising Museum is basically a Holocaust museum. It's beautiful and obvious that a lot of money was poured into making it immaculate. And it's also immensely popular. There were tourists everywhere, shoulder to shoulder waiting to buy tickets, waiting to get in, and waiting to be able to see anything inside.
Again, I was hoping for something uplifting, so when I stepped into the entrance to find a dimly lit room with recreations of anti-Nazi graffiti on bombed out walls, my spirits immediately fell. In the first room, there is a huge black wall that is the most terrifying piece of artwork I have ever encountered. From within, speakers rattle the entire museum with the bass-y sound of a steady heartbeat. You can feel it inside your own body. It's that powerful. Along the wall are bullet holes, where smaller speakers play recorded sounds from the time of the uprising. You have to put your ear up to the holes to hear them, and so you get the cold sensation of the metal against your skin, the throbbing of the heart, and then a faint sound of something like singing or gunfire, or some other street sounds, which vanishes as soon as you step away.
It's the creepiest thing I've ever experienced, and the sound of it is inescapable throughout the entire visit in the museum. I suppose that means it's a great piece of art, because it really affected me, but I've never been so scared when trying to learn about history. I actually had to leave prematurely.
I won't go into the details of the exhibit. It's similar to any other WWII museum you've been to, so I don't really have to describe the things that are in there. Perhaps more powerful because it's actually in Warsaw where it happened, and fingering zlotys in your pocket and hearing only Polish while you walk through makes it that much more intense. It was a bit too real for me, is what I'm trying to say.
One thing I will mention is my complete inability to understand why people are so rude in a place like this. Every single WWII museum I've ever been to has been full of visitors who push, shove, and otherwise completely ignore everyone else. I would think that when someone goes to a place to see how horrible people can be to each other, that it would at least inspire them to say "excuse me" before knocking someone else out of the way to look at some old shoes or something. I just don't get it.
Anyway, it's an interesting place if you can handle it, which I couldn't.

I mentioned before that this museum was a metaphor for Warsaw because of this beating heart sculpture. It's a city that cannot escape the oppressive weight of history. You can walk down some streets and see bullet holes in the buildings. Resistance graffiti from the war is still freshly applied with spray paint. People like to talk about the war and how it still affects daily life. Every description of every building begins with "this was damaged during the war..." It's strange, and everything is a reminder of a horrible even that happened not too long ago. People from other parts of Poland describe Warsaw as "grey".
Don't get me wrong. Warsaw is a cool place with a lot going on. I felt good while I was there and didn't feel in a hurry to leave. But as soon as I left, there was a mood shift.

I bought a train ticket for Friday and realized on Saturday that the date on the ticket said Wednesday for some reason. I wasn't too worried about it, but was prepared to have to pay again once I was aboard. As it turns out, the ticket never left my pocket because no one checked it. I didn't even see anyone around who remotely looked like they worked for the train station. Trains in Poland are notoriously late, so about twenty minutes past it's scheduled arrival time, a huge mob of people rushed the cars and started packing themselves in. I thought that since it was Friday, there were more people than usual, but from what I hear, it's always like that. There are first class seats which cost more, and the second class appeared to be standing in the hallway. There is a corridor along one side of each car about 2.5 feet wide where everyone was crowded into. There was barely room for people to pass through, and when they did, everyone else gets crushed against the walls. Luckily there are windows, so people station themselves there to get fresh air. I got the end of one, thankfully, because it was so hot, I might have passed out without it. I'm really short, and sitting down was even a problem for me. The men next to me didn't even bother trying, and stood for the four hour trip. But people didn't seem bothered by any of this. I guess it's normal, but to me it seemed downright dangerous. Almost everyone in the isle was chatting and laughing, sharing food and earphones, and a girl beside me even made a little friendship bracelet and studied for her drivers test. A group of young men sang songs in Polish the entire time, and the lyrics must have been at least mildly amusing because everyone kept chuckling and shaking their heads, even when they repeated the same songs over again.

I suppose it was a good experience. It seems a bit strange to complain about a train ride from Warsaw to Krakow, but I was really relieved to get off and see the colorful marketplaces and generous green spaces bustling with people just next to the station. Krakow is totally different from Warsaw, and it was like stepping out of a black and white movie and into technicolor. Such a beautiful relief!

I'll post about Krakow next :-)

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