I have been in a mall in Warsaw for two hours and I haven’t seen a single Asian, either as a shopper or a sales person, which in itself is incredible. All I see are tall white people who are looking at me like I am a goldfish in a fishbowl and I am having a strange feeling about being here.
Why am I even in Warsaw? Poland is in the middle of a cold snap and it is -12 degrees Celsius — the story hogging international news for this week in February 2012. My taxi driver from the airport says -12 is “swimming pool temperature,” that I should have been here a couple of days ago when it was -25, then I can actually complain about the cold.
I’ve come from a three-day coverage in Frankfurt where I do interviews on design trends for the year, where I get lost on the train and two elderly teachers hop out with me at the station to show me how to backtrack to the city (the landscape was getting ghetto).
This is the story of my life. I get onto the wrong train and strangers come to my rescue. Either because I look like I can’t read a map or because I look so pathetically lost. I don’t care why, the point is they always do.
I have never been to Warsaw and I have a journalist friend living here. I cannot think of a better person to show me a city than a journalist because they provide a different perspective — of both the history and the city. I know and feel this of my own, why wouldn’t they of theirs?
On my first day, everything is covered in snow. I arrive early in the afternoon and go to the nearest mall. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction — I have time to kill, I look at my map and the first thing I see a mall.
After Vadim has finished work in his newsroom, we meet up for coffee and cakes and gossip about friends that have stayed being journalists and those who have left the profession. It’s a very tight circle, this group of friends he and I made as journalism fellows five years ago. We laughed and sang through our homesickness in those days of being abroad — he and the others for their families; and me, I couldn’t find a more honest answer than that I missed work, editing and reading other people’s shit and walking up to the news desk to ask what was going to be on the front page the next day.
Years later, Vadim from Gazeta Wyborcza and Yani from Jakarta Post, who by this time are on the management side of their editorial offices, would meet in Moscow for a conference, and Yani would travel to Beijing to see one of our friends, and to Seoul to meet with the kids who were our university guides and were now pursuing their doctorate degrees or doing their own startups in South Korea. Edu’s wedding in Sao Paolo — apart from his transfer to Google Brazil at some point — was the subject of many emails and teasing, but none of us made it to Brazil to see him wed.
* * *
I realize, of course, that Warsaw’s Old Town is actually new. Warsaw was the most bombed city during the Second World War (Manila was second). The war flattened the city and it survived nowhere near the way the Roman ruins did in thousands of years of looting and occupations.
In one world war, Warsaw was decimated, and Poland once again didn’t exist on the map.
And yet today the Royal Castle at the entrance to Warsaw’s Old Town is lovely and grand, largely through people’s memory. It was rebuilt by the Polish who donated the little money and gold they had left after the Nazis took everything away — possessions, artworks, bank accounts, gold teeth and family members. They came together with what they had to rebuild what they had lost — their historical center and their identity.
Years before, we talked a lot about national identity. All eight of us journalists were under colonial rule at one time in our countries’ histories (except for the Russian; Poland at one point was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria). We were all coming from long histories of journalism that started as propaganda by the occupiers and despite that — or probably because of that — had developed a strong sense of revolutionary identity right after.
We wondered if the relevance of print journalism would continue or if we were going to be lost in the changing times where the sharing of unvetted stories would be normal. Needless to say, it was the subject of many debates. Half of us said readers would still care where stories were coming from and half of us said they wouldn’t care about good writing anymore. Guess which half prevailed?
And now, Vadim and I are discussing it in a Slavic bar — only vodka is served here made in Poland and its surrounding countries. And once again I am the only Asian, and one of the very few women around.
He orders bar chow and what the waiter brings out is boiled potatoes with white cheese. I begin to laugh. This is what you eat with drinks? Well, yes. I fear what he would think if he goes to Manila and bar food is actually a full dinner of pork knuckles, sisig and caldereta with a beer in a glass filled with ice. (A German friend is fascinated by how we can eat so much while drinking beer.)
In a pizzeria where we have Polish beers, he talks about a road trip he is taking to Ireland in a few months. Just he and his daughter — his wife would remain in Warsaw — and another friend with his daughter. I begin to understand how our cultures have such strong similarities in the way families are so tightly wound. Months later, after his Ireland trip and I am on my own road trip in France, he would say how he missed Ireland, how he felt that it was his spiritual home of sorts — the very same way I feel about France.
* * *
The subject of struggle seems to be the theme on my trip to Warsaw, the thing I am subconsciously choosing to see in my limited time here. I am heading to the Warsaw Uprising Museum instead of a mall or another “happier” museum. Located in a former tram power station, it shows the visitor life in Poland under Nazi Germany, under the Soviet Union, and towards the end a city in ruins after the city’s “liberation” in 1945.
The museum is all about hardship and remembrance, sadness and loss, one Warsaw landmark after another obliterated in an intentional effort to erase a people and their country.
In the afternoon, I am going to visit Vadim’s newsroom Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading newspaper. The taxi I am riding has a copy of the newspaper and I see his byline. I don’t understand the business story but it is so good to see it.
Gazeta Wyborcza doesn’t look like a newsroom at all; it looks like a swanky but laid-back corporate office with bamboos planted in mini gardens. (“Bamboo is exotic to us,” he says.) How different the two halves of the world live — an their newsrooms.
He gives me a tour around the different sections of the newspaper and the radio station. They even have a proper gym, sauna and a pool (if I remember correctly) and to me, coming from a newsroom without windows or a proper cafeteria (but we have the latest Macs!), this is really cool.
* * *
On the day I am leaving, I have time for one more place to visit. I look at the brochures and see that I can go to Chopin’s House or to the Copernicus Center and Planetarium. I cannot do both; they are far apart.
In my mind, there is no question where I should be heading.
Nicolaus Copernicus formulated a theory of the universe, that the sun was at the center and not the earth. Five hundred years later, Instagram selfies would disprove that — earthlings are the center of their own universe.
It is a weekend and the Copernicus Center is filled with schoolchildren. I am walking outside and looking at the Vistula River and beyond it you can see the National Stadium, which was hosting the UEFA Euro that year along with Ukraine. It looks like a very lonely place outside. Inside, I look at the robots and interactive exhibits waiting for the next planetarium show with my ticket.
Finally I am seated in a chair that tilts and forces me to look up. I adjust the earphones and the English narrative tells me how the universe was born, where I am in this vast world of stars, suns, planets and galaxies. As a kid, I always loved planetariums even if they made me feel small and insignificant. And yet I always thought that surely in this vast world of stars and galaxies, I had my own place.
When the show is over, I go outside to find a taxi. There is not a single one in sight. Everybody here has arrived by car or school bus. I begin walking the snow-covered streets with a bit of panic — I have a hotel room to check out of and a plane to catch.
The Copernicus Center is far from the city center and even if I have the energy to walk I don’t know which direction to take, everything is covered in snow and I forgot my map in my hotel. But somehow, I am beginning to calm down about possibly missing my flight and I am starting to enjoy the empty streets.
Finally, I spot an empty cab and I get in. They all whiz past me — the houses, the buildings and streets, the people walking all hunched against the snow. This is Warsaw in my journalist friend’s eyes, someone who loves its history and its present, from the cabbie at the airport days ago that charged me double to the kind people I had asked directions from when I was lost in the Old Town, to even the way it has remained a homogenous society.
Seeing it now for the last time, it has, inevitably, become the Warsaw in my mind as well.