Dear boys & girls!
I've got so much to rant about right now that I can't possibly get all of it down in a single e-mail, sitting at this computer at the Oki Doki Hostel in Warszawa. The last two hours alone could probably take up an entire e-mail - in fact, I may as well start precisely with that.
A couple of hours ago, my turbo-charged stomach started rumbling for dinner once again, even though it was only about 3 o'clock in the afternoon (although you have to understand, it gets dark at like 4 o'clock here, so my body clock has become kinda confused). I thought I may as well continue my sampling of central European kebabs and see what Warsaw has to offer, particularly as I'd often heard Dom talk about the quality of Warszawa's kebaby. So I dragged Paul to a kebab joint near our hostel; a pretty small, dumpy-looking place that nevertheless had the longest queues I've seen in Poland since Communism. I figured that to attract so many hooligans and their girlfriends it has to be pretty good, so I lined up, zloty in gloved hand, and ordered a "super kebab" for Paul and myself. And I have to say, it was absolutely super: a world apart from the stale meat and watery white sauce that I encountered in Vienna and Budapest. This kebab was the freshest kebab I've ever had, and even had a bit of a Polish touch to it, thanks to the inclusion of Polish ogorkie (pickled cucumbers). It was so good that despite its massive size I contemplated lining up and ordering another one, when suddenly a homeless-looking man came over and asked me if I wanted to play chess. At first I thought I hadn't heard right - my Polish isn't as good as it used to be - but yes, this man actually wanted to play chess, right there on one of the outdoor tables at this take-away kebab joint. Very well, I thought: we shall play chess. He got out a crumby little chess board and we proceeded to arrange our pieces, when suddenly he put down a ten zloty note and declared that the winner would have to pay the loser ten zloty. I knew then that I was going to get my arse kicked - this was obviously how he made his money - but I thought, what the Hell, I've never played chess with a complete stranger before. So we played, and at one point it looked like I was actually going to win - the guy was starting to get pretty stressed, and already I was double-checking in my head how to say "keep the money" in Polish. But eventually he got me, and then promptly insisted on playing Paul as well, who had been silently observing the match with glazed eyes. Not to embarrass Paul, but the guy beat him in just four moves - it was probably the quickest ten zloty he's ever made, lol. He still wanted to keep playing after that but I told him we had to leave, and so we walked off back to our hostel, twenty zloty down but with our first random encounter for Poland.
And that, for me, is the biggest difference so far between Budapest and Warsaw. True, Warsaw isn't immensely elegant either, although I guess you'd have to expect that of a city that ceased to exist in 1944 and was rebuilt almost entirely under Communism. (Even so, the city has more architectural coherence than Budapest, and even looks quite glitzy at night.) But the biggest difference isn't in the streets or the sights of the city, but in the people: the Poles are far more animated than the glum, oh-so-serious Magyars. Earlier today for example, while walking through a Warsaw supermarket, I found myself giggling at the snippets of conversation that I was hearing, such as a skinhead who was yelling into his mobile: "What?! What the Hell are you talking about?? I've been drunk a hundred times before, and all of a sudden you have a problem with it!?!"
What's really blown me away though are the females here. Half of them, no shit, look like models - if they ever came to Australia they'd be appearing on billboards and Clearasil ads in no time. The amount of quality here is honestly unbelievable. I've always joked that the guys in Poland don't know how lucky they are, but now I say it dead seriously. You could fall in love ten times just walking down the street.
Anyway, basically I'm very happy to be in Warszawa - I was tingling with anticipation the moment our train entered Poland, to suddenly hear Polish voices all around me and listen to their random conversations. Budapest was good, but it just lacked lustre somehow.... the city inspired lethargy rather than enthusiasm, and as a result me and Paul didn't even get to try the Turkish baths I'd been looking forward to so much (although discovering that a number of them are gay joints kinda dampened my enthusiasm).
It's also nice to be back in a hostel, I have to say. Our apartment in Budapest was in the middle of what looked like a crackhouse, and right next door to what looked like a brothel (at least, me and Paul ASSUMED it was a brothel, since all the windows were painted over and there was a big "EROTIKA" sign hanging over the door). The fridge there didn't work (we had to keep our beer cold by leaving it on the doorstep), and there were almost no utensils to do the cooking with - not that that bothered me much, since cooking (together with almost everything else) was Paul's responsibility. The only good thing was that we had some privacy - the problem I had with Wombat's was that you had to share a room with people who didn't like the fact that you left socks and underpants all over the place. When Henny (the Hungarian statue girl) first walked into our room, she immediately called out "Who is this disgusting boy!?" and kicked my pile of possessions like it was roadkill. (Admittingly, if you saw what the pile looked like, you'd probably want to kick it too.)
Anyway, I've had enough of typing for now - it's difficult typing such a long e-mail when your fingers are still frozen from the cold. By the way, I apologize for the size of my previous e-mail - I didn't realize the photos took up so much space, but hopefully most of you managed to get it open. For those who have shit computers (such as myself), I'll send a non-photo version of the e-mail later.
For now, stay well and do wydzenia!
Dzien dobry panstwo!
Well, it's Sunday night here in Warsaw and everything's pretty quiet. Paul's inside the hostel bar at the moment, talking to some typical hostel people (you know the type: trendy clothes, no hobbies or interests except drinking and spending money) and here I am, sitting at the computer, feeling pretty exhausted after an entire day of sight-seeing. I have to say, I've been pleasantly surprised at what this post-war city has to offer. Far from being a Soviet Realist shithole, Warsaw is actually a unique fusion of the modern and the old: one of the main streets (Nowy Swiat) even has a distinctly cosmopolitan ambience reminsicent of Melbourne, due mainly to the fact that it's lined almost entirely with coffee houses.
Anyway, today started pretty late for me: I got up at about 11 (which meant I missed out on breakfast yet again), so the first thing we had to do was get me something to eat. However, as we walked towards the Old Town (where there are plenty of cafes and eateries), I heard the sound of military drums and realized that there was some kind of ceremony taking place at Pilsudski Square, where Warsaw has its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We hurried over to it just in time to witness a short service honouring some WW2 veterans, and I have to say that it was very impressive and actually quite emotional. The 15-minute display ended in a typically grandiose fashion: all of a sudden the loudspeakers surrounding the square blared out the Warszawianka, a sprightly Polish marching song, and a battalion of young soldiers marched through the square, boots clomping and bayonets in hand.
After this spirited patriotic performance we continued our walk to the Old Town, and basically spent the entire day walking around and pointing out the things we'd missed the night before - partly because it was dark, partly because we were drunk. I'm happy to announce also that Warsaw can now claim not only the best kebab I've ever had, but also the best hot chocolate: I ordered one in an Old Town coffee shop and it was so rich and chocolatey that I couldn't resist getting another one, then got all jittery after the sugar. On our way back to the hostel, we (or rather I) did some shopping: I bought some nice proper gloves, an awesome grey jacket that makes me look like a Polish border guard, and a techno music CD, since I left all of my CDs at home.
Finally, we were back at Dabrowskiego Square (where our hostel is), so I had some dinner (Paul, as usual, wasn't hungry) and now here we are, chilling out at the Oki Doki hostel. I can actually hear Paul's husky voice from inside the bar: the only words I can pick up at the moment are "Yeah", "Northern Territory" and "Russia", which makes me wonder what the Hell he's talking about... you can never tell with ol' Paw, that's for sure.
Anyway, I'm not sure what else to say really.... basically Warsaw is, contrary to what I expected, quite a cool and remarkably clean city. There's also less beggars here than in other European capitals: I've only been approached twice so far, the second time being today, when we were taking a break from our tour of the Old Town. I was lining up to buy some chocolate when the guy in front of me suddenly turns around and asks me, in barely decipherable Polish, "Do you barrack for Legia Warszawa?" I had to ask him twice to repeat his question; his voice was so slurry that it sounded like he was humming. When I finally understood him I explained that I was a tourist and didn't follow the local soccer; dismayed, he then asked me for two zloty so that he could get some vodka (even though he'd clearly had quite enough for the moment). I figured there was no point in arguing with him, so I reached into my pocket and gave him a two zloty coin, at which he broke into a big dopey smile and started referring to me as his "kolega" (friend), and repeatedly shaking my hand. He even suggested that I join him for a drink at some pub down the road, but believe it or not I declined and ate some chocolate next to a statue instead.
So yeah, that's Poland for you: great hot chocolate, honest drunks, and also black-booted, aggressive-looking policemen with machine guns (no shit, they walk around with the biggest guns I've ever seen, like a war's about to break out). Anyway, what I'm gonna do now is try to send out some photos that I've taken of the city. I've received quite a few complaints that my photo attachments don't work (apparently they come out as jibberish for some reason) and I'm guessing this is because I've been attaching too many, so what I'll do from now on is send out a multiple number of e-mails with only three or four attachments each. Hopefully this'll fix the problem; if it doesn't please let me know and, if possible, be helpful and include a solution as well.
By the way, I hope you're all enjoying the heat back home - next time you're sitting out in the sun, sipping pineapple juice and admiring the puffy white clouds in the sky, spare a thought for me and Paw.... I haven't even SEEN the sun for about five fucken days now. And still no goddamn snow!! Very, very disappointing.
I've just come back from a night in the Old Town, and despite feeling pretty sick and dizzy after all those vodka shots I have to write this because I feel I've discovered the Essence of Poland. You see, I was sitting at a bar, talking to some working-class Poms about Communism in eastern Europe, when I noticed an archetypally Polish guy hunched over at the bar, obviously drunk. I noticed from his slurred Polish that he WAS in fact quite drunk, and this was confirmed when the barman told him: "I'm sick of you ordering vodka after vodka then acting like a dick." However, what I admired so much was the fact that the barman did not kick this guy out, as any barman in Melbourne would have done (Hell, I've been kicked out a number of times just for temporarily forgetting how to walk).... instead, the barman - who was himself mildly pissed, as became evident when he dropped an entire bottle of Belvedere vodka on to the floor - humoured the drunken bastard by telling him jokes, and serving him lemonade instead of vodka. And I smiled to myself and thought, "God bless the Poles." And that, my Australian friends, ends tonight's e-mail. Tomorrow I may write something that actually makes sense, after I take several Panadols and stick my finger into an electric socket.... Paul is already in bed, no doubt drooling onto his pillow and dreaming about never-ending vegetable fields. Kisses and hugs to some of you, and heartfelt handshakes for the rest.
Well, it's 1:51 AM here in Warsaw and I can't get to sleep, which doesn't surprise me since I can never get to sleep in these bloody hostels.... so, I may as well send you that "proper" reply I promised earlier!
[ . . . . . ]
Anyway, enough about my stupid dreams. Regarding your arrival in Finland, believe me I feel your pain! Dragging luggage around when you're tired is just about the worst thing in the world (maybe even worse than listening to people snore in a hostel), and what you described is exactly how I would describe me and Paul's arrival in Warsaw. The fact that we even MADE it to the train is amazing: somehow, after half an hour of panicking, swearing, running and sweating, we jumped on the train literally a minute before it took off, and even THEN I had to go through all my %^&*ing luggage to find my train ticket, while some arsehole watched me closely like I was criminal.
As for the Sisu: yes, I'm afraid you've got me hopelessly addicted! Or DID, at any rate.... even though I rationed what was left in the box it's been almost a week since I had my last one, and although I've tried going back to chewing gum that minty flavour just doesn't do it for me anymore :-/ So yes, you'll definitely have to send me some from up North! I can't be bothered looking up my grandparents' address at the moment (that's where I'll be in about two weeks), but I'll e-mail it to you later when my brain's functioning a little better.
Anyway, I think I better head to bed now, I'm crapping on almost as much as Paul :P Hope you're feeling better after your journey and seriously, don't let your return get you down too much.... Paul said you sounded a bit sad in your reply to his e-mail; I don't know if he's just misreading something but I can imagine it must be difficult going back to Uni, and nagging parents, and all that crap after such a nice holiday. No doubt I'll be feeling the same when I get back to Australia (I can feel it every time I even THINK about my return), with my mother yelling into one ear and my dad telling me to "get a proper job" in the other.... but what can you do, except start planning for the next holiday I guess!
Anyway, time for more strange dreams for me.... take it easy.
As usual, so much to say, so little time. We're actually at an Internet cafe at Warsaw Central Station at the moment; the reason I've been writing so much is coz we have free Internet at the hostel, but today there have been people on it all day and eventually I ran out of patience, and decided I'd rather pay than wait any longer to check my e-mails. Thanks to all those who have written by the way, and sorry if I haven't replied to you yet.... as I said, with so much culture-absorbing and sight-seeing to do there's very little time for anything else!
Anyway, the unofficial theme of yesterday's sight-seeing was "churches": Catholic Poland abounds in churches/cathedrals, and Warszawa is no exception. Most of them are very beautiful, on par with anything I've seen in Vienna or Budapest, but what's truly special about the churches here is their very reverential, old-school atmosphere - while the churches in Vienna and Budapest feel simply like tourist attractions, the churches here are still very much authentic places of worship, inevitably occupied by at least two dozen people kneeling with their heads bowed, deep in prayer. The ambience is very solemn and awe-inspiring, and the church walls often serve as a detailed guide to Polish history, commemorating famous leaders and religious figures as well as the tragedies of WW2 (usually the Warsaw Uprising or Katyn massacre). In fact, walking around Warsaw, it's virtually impossible to escape WW2. As well as the countless monuments dedicated to Polish soldiers and individual heroes, there are plaques all around the city citing "Polish blood was spilt here by Hitlerowcy [Hitler troops]", signifying an execution spot, often of over a hundred people. Most moving of all was the Warsaw Uprising Museum in the Old Town, which me and Paul visited today. Part of the museum is a general history of Warsaw, but the entire second half of the building is dedicated to the 1944 Powstanie Warszawskie (Warsaw Uprising), one of the most heroic but also doomed-to-failure chapters in WW2's history. The exhibition is comprised mainly of black-&-white photos with captions, as well as a small collection of guns, helmets and other relics used during the Uprising, plus a short documentary film, beginning with footage of pre-war Warsaw (a very beautiful, quite Parisian-looking city), and then relating its occupation by and eventual destruction at the hands of the Nazis. Following the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising (the aim of which was to liberate Warsaw in cooperation with the Soviets, who subsequently did nothing to assist the Poles), Hitler ordered the complete annihilation of the city "as an example to the rest of Europe", and his order was carried out with true German efficiency, as the retreating Nazis systematically dynamited block after block of centuries-old architecture. It was an amazing feeling when we stepped out of the Museum onto the Old Town Market Square, and compared its colourful, present-day charm with the utterly harrowing scene that existed there in 1944: nothing but bullet-riddled pillars and ruined shells of buildings, stretching back as far as the eye could see. Because the reconstruction of the Old Town aimed to preserve as much prewar architecture as possible - even if this meant a mere doorway or wall ornamentation - you can occasionally see authentic wartime damage on parts of certain buildings; a reminder of the city's troubled past.
Anyway, onto a more light-hearted subject now: namely, last night. Last night, me and Paw headed out to a karaoke bar near Warsaw University, which he frequented with his bro last time he was in Warsaw. The place has a very laid-back student ambience but was pretty quiet that evening, probably because it was Monday. Anyway, at one point it was Paul's turn to order a round, so I taught him how to pronounce "wodka z lemonjadom" (vodka lemonade) when the big guy next to me hears me, introduces himself as Barek and starts chatting away. We talked for ages about everything from Polish girls ("the best in the world" he declared) to sport in Australia, when suddenly the guy proposed that we play some table soccer with his friends (I'm not sure what the proper name for it is in English, but hopefully you know what I'm talking about). This was heaps of fun, especially as we got more and more drunk and started becoming quite hyped up about it. Barek himself was getting mighty pissed indeed and seemed to be falling in love with me - not literally, but he constantly talked to me like I was his closest friend. When "last drinks" were announced and the pub's closure was imminent, he suggested (or rather, informed me) that we were going to another pub down the road for more drinks, even though another group of Polish guys and girls were imploring me and Paul to join them at a nearby club. I opted for the pub (partly because Barek was so set on me joining him), and since by now we'd all had quite a bit to drink we ordered a taxi, even though this other pub was only a few minutes away by foot. Me, Paul and Barek got in, then his two other friends - Piotrek and Janusz - ran out and tried to cram themselves into the taxi as well. The taxi driver told them to get out; they argued back, telling him "don't stress old man"; he then cracked the shits and started yelling at the whole lot of us. Barek gently told his friends to get another taxi, then added, in full seriousness, "Ey, bring a girl for me can you?" I turned around and shouted after them, "And two more for me and Pawel!" The taxi driver then skidded off violently in typical Polish fashion, shaking his head at our immaturity, but nevertheless answering my questions about the various statues and buildings that we passed along the way.
Unfortunately, the second pub was boring as Hell: there was hardly anyone there, so we spent some time playing darts then just sat around killing more brain cells. By now I was getting a bit of a headache: partly from all the vodka and beer, partly because speaking Polish was becoming increasingly difficult after so much alcohol. Barek himself could do no more than mumble, shake my hand and clink my glass by this point, and his friend Janusz - a funny bastard, with an archetypal smart-arse face - kept forgetting that Paul couldn't speak Polish and regularly engaged him in conversation, with Paul staring anxiously back at him, unable to understand a word he was saying. So I spent much of the rest of the night serving as a translator, and was pretty pleased with how well I did. Being the "wealthy" tourists, we'd shouted these guys several beers as well as the taxi ride, so by 1 AM we were completely out of money, not to mention extremely tired, so I announced that it was time for us to leave. Barek looked like I'd just told him his favourite pet had died, then kept asking me "Mateusz, are you sure you'll be OK? You sure you don't want us to walk you back?" Of course I told him no and five minutes later me and Paw were walking back along Krakowskie Przedmiescie, with Paul pointing out that I was limping, God knows for what reason.... I must've banged my knee at some point coz it's pretty bruised now.
Today we were meant to go for a tour around Lazienki Palace, which used to be the king's summer residence and is a beautiful set of buildings that, miraculously, survived the destruction of Warsaw (the furthest the Nazis got was drilling holes into its walls to insert sticks of dynamite). However, because we (OK, I) woke up so late, and spent so long eating lunch and admiring the waitresses, we contented ourselves with just walking around the New and Old Town again. I have to admit, even though Warsaw can now claim, as I've already mentioned, the best kebab and hot chocolate I've ever had, it can also claim the worst hamburger and the worst Santa Claus. The hamburger was a hamburger only in name - I have no idea how you'd actually describe the thing we got - and as for the Santa Claus.... well, me and Paul burst out laughing when we saw him. To say it was a pot-bellied, red-nosed slob in an ill-fitting Santa suit doesn't do justice to how funny he looked. Actually, we saw a fair few typical Polish characters today. Where we went for lunch, the Lech Walesa-like chef greeted us like we were old friends, beer in hand, obviously mildly inebriated (he nevertheless made some fine piorogy). Also, in the Old Town Market Square was the weirdest busker I've ever come across: it was a guy, dressed from head to toe in a scary black robe (like the Grim Reaper, or those guys from Scream), standing completely still. I threw in a coin to see if he'd do anything, and the moment I did, he banged the stick he was holding against the ground three times, then rang a bell he was holding in his other hand. Weird.
Anyway, since we're at an Internet cafe I better get going now, coz I haven't actually got much money with me.... I was going to send out a whole lot of photos but I guess they'll have to wait. We're off to Kazimierz Dolny (a little mountain town) tomorrow for two nights, so I probably won't have any Internet access then, and after that we're off to Gdansk, Poland's biggest Baltic city and home to my maternal grandad. Keep me updated with what's going on back in Oz and I'll be sure to write again in a few days' time.
P.S. The beer in Poland is EXCELLENT (far better than what I drank in Austria or Hungary), and $2 for a big half-litre glass! Unbelievable.
Considered a Stalinist monstrosity by some, the Palac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science) is nevertheless impossible to ignore, as it's located right in the centre of Warsaw and, at 234 metres high, towers above most of the city's other buildings.
Another photo of the Palace, taken from the shopping strip depicted in the photo below.
Warsaw's city centre now resembles that of any Western metropolis: full of skyscrapers, neon lights and fast-moving traffic. (And I do mean fast-moving; attempting to cross this road was always inviting a quick death.)
Futuristic for its time, Warszawa Centralna (Warsaw Central Station) is probably the city's most striking testament to the ugliness of Socialist Realist construction.
The military ceremony me and Paul witnessed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
One corner of Pilsudski Square, with the ever-present backdrop of the Palace of Culture and Science.
The Barbakan (Barbican), part of the city's medieval fortifications. It's built on a bridge under which there used to be a moat.
The start of the Old Town and Royal Route. To the left is the column of King Zygmunt III, to the right the Royal Castle where he, together with many other monarchs, once resided.
Statue of Adam Mickiewicz (19th-century poet) along Krakowskie Przedmiescie, part of the "Royal Route" leading from the Royal Castle to Wilanow Palace.
Nowy Swiat (New World), Warsaw's trendiest street.
Przy Dunaju - looks nice enough, but it's the most evil fast food outlet in Warsaw. Just ask Paul.
And this is, despite its appearance, the BEST fast food outlet in Warsaw. There's always a queue of locals here, which means it's not as fast as the McDonalds across the road - but, at roughly $3 for the most mouth-watering kebab you've ever had, who's complaining?
Plac Dabrowskiego (Dabrowski Square), a pleasant little park directly opposite the Oki Doki Hostel.