Monday, 20 May 2013

Warsaw: Stranded

Warsaw's Palace of Culture, around dawn

What to do in a city when you've nowhere to go? This question, with its whiff of the flâneur, has preoccupied many a modern titan, from Virginia Woolf to Julie Delpy, sun-kissed in the 1990s. The answer, offered freely enough, amounts to the injunction: wander (or more tepidly: wander and daydream). It helps, of course, if you're in Paris, where you might feel less of a burk craning your neck at the perceived poetic dimensions of some ragged washing line. Elsewhere, the lack of Second Empire uniformity (which gives Paris that endlessly reproducible fantasy charm) necessitates a certain selectiveness. This is perhaps why in Prague, Paris's jumbled, motley cousin, most flâneurs prefer the cover of night: better to soften the city's ragged inconsistencies beneath plumes of darkness and mist. While, for Baudelaire, the flâneur represented a uniquely modern self-erasure, a oneness with the crowd and the life of the city, the noční chodec (night walker) of Prague is a faceless silhouette banished to suburban anonymity. Warsaw, on the other hand, has no firm tradition of either, so the question posed here is more prosaic, more poetically deflating: What to do in a city when you don't really want to be there? If, for Walter Benjamin, Paris was the city of the 19th century, then Warsaw is either the city of some dimly distant future not yet worth registering, or the city of some missed historic opportunity.

Well, why wouldn't you want to be in the city? Exasperated, the flâneur assumes the lure of the city is universal. The question remains: which city? In this sense Benjamin was right: in the imagination of the 19th century the city was always Paris. The special relationship between Napoleon and Polish Republicanism (the result: the Duchy of Warsaw and a Polish mistress) ended with the General's hasty retreat (from both). No doubt the French Revolution lived on in the minds of subject Poles. In even their fantasies of national liberation, the point of reference was Paris. The Polish question even won the heart of Karl Marx, otherwise pretty chauvinist on the question of 'unhistorical peoples', swiftly binding the matter of Polish democracy to his youthful sympathies with Republican Jacobinism and its battle with the ancien régimes of Europe. While Polish liberation became the unifying glue - "a matter of honor for all the democrats of Europe"1 in Marx's words - of left-national and revolutionary democratic movements, it is not entirely clear how many of Europe's democrats fancied the actual journey there.

Warsaw, after all, is not a capital in the sense that Paris is. Few places are, of course. It's not even the most famous city in Poland, nor really the seat of culture (though it did become the inheritor of the legacy of the collapsed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). Warsaw is not so much a destination as a passing-place between East and West. This is not intended as an insult: for all its oddness, it still has the power to fascinate. It has also become, by remarkable historical accident, Poland's most fun city. Quite an achievement for a city that literally stood in ruins after the Second World War.

Nonetheless, Warsaw's first post-revolutionary role, in the years immediately after 1989, was as a stopping point for eastern European Roma on their way to Germany. As dictators fell all across the continent the mood of the so called 'persecuted majorities' in countries from Romania to Yugoslavia turned decidedly sour. Slightly later, the American writer Isabel Fonseca wrote:

Thousands of Gypsies occupied the station that winter and into the summer of 1990; the waiting room was still a waiting room - one with laundry-festooned radiators. (In recent years Warsaw has only ever been a stopover on the journey west. You are still likely to see washing in any public toilet - tiny tights and long, graying tube socks: whole families pegged on a moveable line).2

Poland has all too often been the setting for and a participant in forced human migration on massive scales: the deportation of intellectuals and nationalist Poles during the first Soviet occupation; the utter destruction of Polish Jewry by the Nazis; the organised deportation and murder of another two million non-Jewish Poles; the flight and expulsion of 12 million Germans from restored Polish territory following the War.3 Poland remains home to one of Europe's most rabid far right street movements, which manages to mobilize thousands for violent marches every year on Independence Day.4 Can it be helped, then, that a modern capital capable of representing not only the homogeneous state that Poland became under the Communists, but one capable of supporting new arrivals, new diversifications, is only just emerging?

Being in Warsaw and not really wanting to be: not, perhaps, so uncommon. And for many, the circumstances have been less auspicious. Foolishly we'd embarked on a train journey which included that most delicate of operations: a closely-timed transfer. In this case our train from Kraków arrived at Warsaw Zachodnia five minutes before the departure of the last train back to Bydgoszcz. Travelling by train in Poland is in itself a risky undertaking. The tickets, which in my memory are almost A4-sized, are criss-crossed with endless indecipherable codes, the secret language of a vast regulatory bureaucracy, communicating quietly and contradictorily with itself. One code, even if properly understood, might, in the eyes of some particularly truculent inspector, be undermined by some other baffling string of numbers and letters. Polish rail combines this obsessive pedantry with a vaguely superstitious attitude to the trains themselves. While petty officialdom frets endlessly over the precise structure of passenger codes, trains are treated like wild things, free to come and go as they please. I imagine them roaming the vast Polish flats, directing themselves towards stations only out of boredom or hunger. Their actual presence is somehow magical, baffling even, for the hapless staff, who treat them rather like clumsy but dangerous animals, huffing breathlessly at the garden gate.

All bags and confusion we bundled off the train-beast, scrambling along the cracked platform in search of a sign of our next ride. The last light of day was slipping rapidly behind a distant high-rise. Most Polish train stations don't bother with platform signs, preferring instead indecipherable loudspeaker announcements. As we surveyed the other platforms, marching pointlessly up and down the length of the station like some frantic version of boot camp, one such announcement began. My girlfriend made out the time (which we knew) and the destination (equally unhelpful). Neither of us caught the platform number. Confusion turned to panic. Could it be that the train would arrive on time? Early, even? On one of the distant platforms on the other side of the station? Several trains were now visible - one clearly local (municipal colours; modern; small), the others less distinguishable in the gloom.

We ran under a corrugated iron shelter and down into the station underpass. Lurid yellow; the smell of old piss. An office at the far end. A woman in uniform was, just barely, visible inside. We ran up to her window and managed, between breaths, to ask where we could find our train. She, heavy-set and rouged, looked lazily up. One eye half closed, presenting a stale looking blotch of mascara, haughtily unimpressed. She took a defensive breath - less than a sigh, but indicating that she hadn't planned on speaking this evening. Certainly not to anyone less than fluent in Polish. Repeating the question, however, seemed to provoke her interest. She shouted some numbers, voice smudged by the old, scuffed plastic window which was her defence from the outside world.

We ran to the appropriate spot. No, both trains were approaching different platforms. We ran back and asked again. This, predictably, flummoxed her. She - this was unprecedented - stepped out of her office. Hand steadying her hat, she jogged heavily to the stairs, went up, came back. The train was now late. Maybe it would be there soon, she reported. The two suspect trains pulled into the station and hissed noisily. Next, a throng of people. I started shouting, frantically, 'To Bydgoszcz?' A few shaking heads. Even the station steward was now panicking, if only because of our evident excitement. We separated, running desperately up to the platforms. The trains had closed their doors. No guards to be seen. And then, as I dropped my bag, about to start banging on windows, they left, in opposite directions.

We never did figure out where the train was supposed to be. By the time we got back to the underpass the station steward had returned to her office. Any sign that she had been flustered by the turn of events was gone. Impassive, she directed us to the coach station, stating baldly there were no more trains tonight. But we knew already that there were no buses left either. So in desperation we walked back up to the platforms and waited, squatting on our bags (there were no seats), attempting to come up with a plan.

There was one train left to arrive, heading into Warsaw Central (Warszawa Centralna), which, with its indoor hall, was at least slightly more hospitable than our present location. As we waited, it started raining. Never the world's happiest traveller, I despaired. Siobhan managed to laugh off this final insult. This struck me, in my misery, as a kind of warped gallows humour. Though I can blow some mishaps out of proportion, my misery seemed entirely appropriate. Not so for her. I ranted about the terrifying contingency of travel; about our dependence on vast forces beyond our control. Suddenly a train journey had become a metaphor for existential powerlessness. Ten minutes of this (in retrospect, understandably) annoyed her. Quietly, we boarded the last train.

Alighting at the main station, where crowds of weary travellers passed us on their way home, we were left to face the grim reality alone: What to do in a city when you don't want to be there? What, specifically, to do in this city? There was no train to Bydgoszcz until eight in the morning. So, since there wasn't much else to do, we went and sat with the other late arrivals, baffled foreigners, and homeless people, in the grand hall. We bought sandwiches and bottles of Coke in the hope this would pass a decent amount of time. I planned to take one bite of sandwich every five minutes and see if it would last forty-five. Only when finished would I open the Coke. Siobhan, more comfortable with the idea of the empty time ahead, sat on her bag and read. In imitation I opened my book, but failed actually to read a word. The dead hours stretched out before me in a terrifying, flood-lit eternity. Sleep was impossible.

Eventually I decided to interrupt Siobhan. We had probably waited half an hour. Between us we decided to walk to an all-night bar. There was one near Warsaw's colossal Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki), a gift (hard to refuse, as others have observed) from Stalin himself. This squatting imitation of the Empire State Building now contained actually no Science and no Culture, just a very long elevator ride to the top. We slipped past its enormous feet, the only wanderers in a vast, deserted panorama. The trees stood as still as the grim statues of sturdy soldiers that surrounded the palace. The surrounding mishmash of department stores, hotels and modern skyscrapers, all ululating surfaces and shimmering glass, retreated into the darkness. There are parts of Warsaw that heave with people, even late at night, but this evidently was not one. A figure shuffling in the dark felt ominous.

Turning off the main square we found a sanctuary of sorts: in the bar the only requirement was that you stayed awake and continued drinking, which was ultimately cheaper than finding a hotel room. As the night progressed, those arriving got at first drunker, then more sober. As it was getting light the first few revellers to order breakfast arrived, sitting lazily alongside those who were on their next cocktail. Outside the bouncer - our guardian - warded off any danger with a sternly upheld palm.

We walked back to the station at dawn, an orangey hue just filling the sky, visible between forking towers. Buses packed with morning commuters slid past, juddering at traffic lights. (The average Polish working day still starts at seven.) The peculiar, alien landscape of nocturnal Warsaw had been replaced by the familiar bustle of any awakening capital city. Walking to the central station, amid all this calming anonymity, swallowed up by the vast flood of the city, you could - if you squinted your eyes, perhaps - almost imagine it was Paris. Finally having somewhere to go, it seemed I didn't mind being in Warsaw after all.

1Marx, 'Communism, Revolution, and a Free Poland, available here:
2Fonseca, Bury Me Standing, 198
3For an honest account of all of these, see: Snyder, Bloodlands
4A decent account of the re-emergence of Polish far right activism can be found here:


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this - and the rest of your excellent blog. With flaneurism in mind, you may like to read my review of 'Prague Palimpsest' here: Thanks also for following The Prague Vitruvius on Twitter. Maybe meet up some time for a coffee/pivo?

    1. Hi Alex. Sorry for the tardy reply, I hadn't noticed your message. Just read the review. Puts me in mind of Ripellino's Magic Prague. On a related note, do you know where I can get hold of some translations of Nezval? I also have to say I find the Prague Story project a fascinating bit of geekery and am very much enjoying the fruits of its labour! Pivo absolutely.

  2. Hi Alex. Sorry for the tardy reply, I hadn't noticed your message. Just read the review. Puts me in mind of Ripellino's Magic Prague. On a related note, do you know where I can get hold of some translations of Nezval? I also have to say I find the Prague Story project a fascinating bit of geekery and am very much enjoying the fruits of its labour! Pivo absolutely.

    1. Hi Adam. Good. For Nezval translation, you shd get in touch with Stephen Delbos. His collection From a Terrace in Prague has a handful, I think. For drink, pls email me from this page