Friday, 31 July 2015

Things I didn't know about Warsaw

I didn't know much about Warsaw before I arrived. In the video library inside my brain there rolled archival footage of the Warsaw Uprising and  tv coverage of Lech Walesa at the Gdansk shipyard riots. Memories of Life magazine photos of blocks and blocks of concrete Socialist Realist apartments and stooped old women in headscarves clutching meagre purchases. I imagined meals of cabbage and borscht accompanied by copious amounts of beer. In post communist Poland, I expected the addition of some poorly built disaster capitalist skyscrapers and angry street art.

The real Warsaw is not what I expected.

The taxi driver played classical music as we drove in from the airport. Wandering the streets that evening we discovered Warsaw's cafe culture. We listened to buskers playing violins and walked down wide sidewalks. We ate gourmet dinners featuring new and unusual twists on classic dishes. Saw pastel buildings ranging from the medieval to the baroque in Warsaw's old town. Used a fully modernized public transit system with brand new bullet trains from one city to the next. 

We stayed in an Airbnb advertised as "elegant apartment in central Warsaw." Housed in an old Soviet-style apartment complex surrounding a central courtyard, Maria's place was the last word in elegance with tasteful pale grey walls, a modern Euopean kitchen with hidden appliances, white antiques and glittery chandeliers, futuristic bathroom fixtures and high end bedding. Around the corner on the upscale Nowy Siwat Stret, Vincent's served delicate pastries and excellent coffee. The next door Bierhalle was a microbrewery.

Chopin is from Warsaw. So is Marie Curie. Copernicus and Peter Gzowski were Polish.

The spirit of Warsaw impressed me. Although I knew of the Warsaw Uprising, I did not know that 200,000 civilians died. I did not know the Old Town had been pummelled to near oblivion by the Germans afterwards. Himmler said "This city must be obliterated from the face of the earth." 

After the war, residents restored every building to its former glory based on memory, old paintings and historic photos. The royal palace however was left in ruins as the Soviets overtook Poland. Its meticulous restoration did not begin until the 1970s but today it is complete- and filled with original works of art that were saved in Canada of all places!

There is so much I didn't know about Warsaw. It's a surprising place-a world class city. It's alive and full of hope. Put it on your bucket list!

Monday, 6 July 2015

for the stars in your eyes

When I was a kid, we had Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ farm an hour’s drive away from our house. We would arrive back home late at night. My three siblings feigned sleep in order to enjoy the luxury of having my dad carry them into the house and tuck them in. No matter the hour, I waited for my own form of luxury, remaining in the car for my dad to come and get me and together we would look up at the sky. Overlooking fields and foothills,our house was at the very edge of town. There were no streetlights. The sky was velvet dark yet it sparkled with a million stars. He, pointing out constellations and recalling the myths that went with them. Me, basking in those few stolen moments when it was just me and my dad standing in the darkness, reveling in the wonders of the night sky.

One of my dad's photos,1957.
I blame my dad for my love of the sky. During the day we looked for shapes in the clouds. In the city once he told me to look up at a skyscraper- I reeled, disoriented as the fast moving clouds made me feel the building was falling towards me. Stormy summer nights, we watched the lightening as my mom paced around telling us how much she hated thunderstorms. When I was eight, he gave me a book about the sky, inscribed in his perfect handwriting "for the stars in your eyes."

Over the years, I’ve watched stars dance over farm fields. Seen shooting stars that made me question if I had really seen them flash by. Whistled to the aurora borealis in the far North. Rowed out on a mountain lake to watch a meteor shower. I've been shocked into speechlessness under brilliant stars shining down on a snow-covered Himalayan mountainside.

Sometimes the sky seems to reach out to you with its countless points of light. Sometimes you feel you will lose yourself in its wide open lifeless unreachable spaces. I know something about it scares people. Maybe it reminds us of the empty spaces inside ourselves as Robert Frost described in his poem Desert Spaces,

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Its enormity is humbling.  For each star is at the centre of its own solar system and each solar system has its own planets and satellites, all so far away you could never reach them and more stars beyond that and your place in it is as tiny as the universe is infinite. Maybe it is just that inexplicable space that led early man to describe it in terms of gods and legends.

Every night for the past few nights, my son has searched the sky in vain for the stars. Here at the cabin, we are just at the edge of the Jasper Dark Sky Preserve. The stars should be spectacular. But it’s early July and the dark sky is not to be seen, as the stars compete with the setting sun and the rising moon.

I wish the night was darker so we could see the stars.  I doubt I would be able to find Orion's Belt and relate the legend of Cassiopeia. But maybe, just maybe, we can find our own place in the vastness.