Sleeper service from Prague to Warsaw in a dark, old Polish wagon lit, with tiny two-person compartments, no restaurant car and no other service, a little downtrodden. At least they’ve had time since the 90’s to put in proper toilets that don’t flush onto the tracks. Each compartment had a pair of plastic wrapped towels and soap, and two Kriss croissants for breakfast.
We brought a sack of beers from the station and enjoyed watching the fading light, then slept, on the theory that darkness is the best time to roll through towns inflicted by the Soviet love of cement.
Pawel and Marcin are IT specialists in their twenties from Wroclaw. Pawel has a baby on the way and Marcin’s wife calls him constantly. Both are, if not sanguine, at least relatively calm about Ukraine. Neither believes Poland would ever come to blows with Russia. Pawel in particular acknowledges the Russian population in Krim (Crimea).
Kasia, 34, is a geneticist in Posnan. She professes disinterest in Ukrainian affairs but believes it’s not the first time and won’t be the last that Russia acts revanchist. She cites Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
Russell, 56, an American entrepreneur and founder of a company that stains masonry and concrete, is skeptical that the information we get in the west is any less propaganda than the Russian side of the story.
General opinion on the Russian aggression ranges from studied indifference through resigned acceptance to denial. The prevailing idea in both Prague and Warsaw might be, “Krim has a lot of Russians and Russia is big and powerful and if they take Krim, what are you gonna do?” Which makes my fulmination about the end of the Post Cold War era positively hyperbolic. Here we Americans go again, trying to run the world.
In July 1944 the Red Army marched up to the river that runs through Warsaw, the Vistula. They stopped on the east bank and exhorted the Poles to rise up and essentially do the fighting against the Nazis for them.
“People of the capital! To arms! Strike at the Germans! May your million strong population become a million soldiers, who will drive out the German invaders and win freedom,” broadcast Soviet radio.
Knowing that from books is rather different than visualizing it, standing 36 floors above town and looking out beyond the Old Town and across the river. Let alone living it.
It was our second trip to Poland in nine months (Gdansk last summer) but my first stay in Warsaw since my friend Steve and I travelled from Moscow to Berlin by train in the immediate post-Soviet days. In that interregnum most of the everyday commerce was done from kiosks on the sidewalk, because it took some time to sort out ownership of the big Soviet era stores in the buildings.
Today is rather different, with a smattering of high-rise buildings, fleets of red and yellow trams and matching flexible buses everywhere. They’ve cleaned up the grubby old train station. Stalin’s “gift from the Soviet people,” the Palace of Culture, is still here, as fearsome as ever.
Still with Communist bits, though.
All the important words: “Uwaga” means “Attention” in Polish and sounds African tribal, or maybe Japanese. And “hiccups” is “czkawka.” Sort of pronounced “chi-kup-kuh.” One more – a fine Polish dark beer called Ksiazece. Which is pronounced vaguely like “shown-zhan-tsa.”