The author of the book “Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War” (Hurst, 2013) has lived in Warsaw since October 2010.
A writer, journalist and teacher, he is currently working on his second book, this time about the Katanga secession in 1960s Africa. He agreed to discuss his experience of living in WARSAW with us.
Warsaw in your eyes…
History is everything in Warsaw. When you first see the city it’s all concrete and new buildings, nothing older than sixty years. It’s almost a generic European capital. But then you learn about Warsaw’s history – partition, the war, communism – and you begin to see the spirit of the city and its past everywhere you go.
I remember walking past a building covered in graffiti and seeing, among all the tags and Legia slogans, a life-size stencil of a Polish soldier from the Warsaw Rising, when the city launched a doomed attack on its German occupiers in 1944. Just standing there like a ghost.
Warsaw is not beautiful city. It’s a tough city, a hard place. A city you admire rather than love. For Western Europeans it can be a shock to come here and see the gray concrete everywhere, to discover that everything is a new build. Even the Old Town was rebuilt sixty years ago. The soul of Warsaw is not in its architecture. It’s in its people, in the atmosphere.
I like the area around Politechnika. It’s an informal, café culture kind of place with a lot of schools and university buildings. It’s nice to sit in the cafés around Plac Zbawiciela nursing a drink and watching the traffic, watching the people. I try and do some writing there when I get the time. My version of Hemingway in 1920s Paris. Not very close. But the hot chocolate is good.
It is true that Polish women are very attractive. I’m not qualified to tell you if the same applies to Polish men. I find everyone polite and pretty friendly although my Polish friends are always complaining about the rudeness they have to deal with every day. My Polish is not great so maybe I miss the more subtle insults. But people are generally more forgiving than in London or most Western European capitals. Quite a lot speak English and are happy to practice it on you but many officials – policemen, local government types, ticket inspectors – do not, so life can be difficult if you don’t have some Polish.
It is a very different culture. Poles will openly admit to cheating in exams. People in all cultures cheat but I’ve never seen them boast about it the way Poles do. There is a feeling of beating the system.
One of the first places I saw in Warsaw was the Russian market next to the national stadium. It doesn’t exist any more and was on its way out when I visited. In its glory days you could buy AK-47s and fake passports. When I was there it was a Soviet tent city selling Turkish jeans and Chinese shoes and Legia Ultra t-shirts, with Disco Polo CDs blasting loud from every stall. Whenever a policeman appeared half the market sellers hid.
The quality of Polish food is good. The meat, the fruit, the vegetables are fresh and full of flavour. And everyone loves pierogi. I’m not a fan of flaki or anything that combines jelly with meat. Maybe I’m too picky. I certainly eat a lot more healthily than in London.
Start with the Warsaw Rising museum. It’s atmospheric and high-tech. It will help you understand Warsaw and give an insight into the Polish soul. The past is very much alive in Poland. Ghosts are always with you.
Then hit the Palace of Culture, a Soviet skyscraper in the city centre. Warsaw has taller buildings but nothing has the sheer weight of this gift from Stalin. Many Poles would happily see it torn down but it’s like nothing you will see in the West. And if you like old washing-machines and broken vacuum cleaners try the Science museum inside. Otherwise go to the Palace’s viewing platform for the best view in Warsaw. Some Poles say it’s only the best view because you can’t see the Palace of Culture. Make your own mind up.