“What are you waiting for, a written invitation?”
This was a common phrase said in our household growing up as a way to hurry us along. We’d take our time getting ready, take our time at the pool, take our time eating. And Dad would always be punctual, left waiting for us to rush out at the very last minute as he hollered a gentle reminder to speed along, “What are you waiting for, a written invitation?”
In India last December, many of the travelers I spent Christmas with were from Europe, particularly The Netherlands and surrounding countries. When we parted ways, many of us expressed our desires to meet up again with invitations to each person’s home. Invitations were given in handfuls to different countries where the travelers lived, including one friend’s flat in Warsaw, Poland.
At the time, Poland seemed very foreign. I’d only recently met one other person from Warsaw and knew little about the country except what I could gather from her scattered memories. Upon returning to work after Christmas with an invitation to visit the city, I soon found out that a coworker was also from Warsaw. She and the friend I’d met while in India spent the next few months painting a more rich image in my mind of a city which had rebuilt itself from war’s destruction a half century ago. They told me how it now offers a rich culture with replicated buildings built upon the rubble and how the city’s regrowth has also left it covered in many other simple structures built more out of necessity rather than for aesthetics.
Through their stories, I was drawn to explore the city and decided to take up my friend’s original invitation to visit Warsaw. Unlike in my childhood meanderings which prompted Dad’s calls, I couldn’t take my time as much in accepting this invitation as my friend was about to move to the U.K. So there I went: just weeks before his big move, I boarded a train to Warsaw.
Arriving mid-morning, I had a few hours to spend before finding him at our designated meeting point. Various conversations with locals on the train and in the station encouraged me to visit Old Town, said to be the most beautiful area in the city. After securing my rucksack in a train station locker, I knew which direction to travel and headed that way. Soon I came upon a street lined with shops and cafes, and I filled an empty stomach with what I originally assumed was yogurt and fruits. Polish was a new – foreign – language to me, and the small carton of yogurt turned out to instead be a thinned version of sour cream. Still it was something, so I found a small park just off this main street and sat down to a lunch of sour cream, a plum, banana, and personal-sized loaf of bread. Not a traditional meal but it was filling and I knew that dinner would be much more impressive once my friend could offer insight into the new language and flavors in an area not so focused on tourism.
After lunch, I continued on the street I thought to be part of the old town which everyone had pointed me toward. Assumptions were poorly made that day, as I found out this main street was not at all part of Old Town: It was merely a street. But a delightful street it was! I carried on looking at shops and purposefully got lost as I left the brick road for others, finding buildings meticulously painted in colorful graffiti, parks filled with gleeful children accompanied by their relaxed parents, and spent time enjoying conversations with multiple shop owners happy to practice English with a native speaker.
After an afternoon spent wandering, my friend and I met at the spot we’d agreed on and he led me to the real Old Town. An open square surrounded by buildings meticulously crafted as replicates of pre-war times, the area seemed at first glance to be original and truly historical. Closer examination showed otherwise. Facades were left unfinished, showing outlines of what should be and fill-in-the-blank spaces to be completed when time would allow. Architects had carefully rebuilt the spaces using photographs from long ago, and they had done a fine job in duplicating what once was, though more work was needed in order to return the area back to its original appearance. Still, it is a gorgeous place to take an evening stroll accompanied by tourists and locals alike. We spent time looking around and there he began his journey as an adopted tour guide for the next few days, leading me to other parts of the city and filling my mind with histories of the city, country, and world as we went.
After a dinner much more traditional than the earlier day’s meal, we called it a night. So far, Warsaw seemed to be exactly as described: history rebuilt into modernity where locals strived to maintain the city’s original charm and observe the heroes whom had once graced their land. The following days further proved this to be true, and brought with them more unexpected attributes as well.
Beyond that, we explored the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the University of Warsaw’s extravagant greenhouse-like Library, and several times walked past Joseph Stalin’s personal gift to the Polish Nation: Poland’s tallest building, The Palace of Culture and Science. We stopped for a meal at a classic Georgian restaurant after he shared tales of his recent travels to the Eastern European country, and another day had a meal of Ukrainian borsch to prepare me for the next country on my list. A favorite find was the riverside pop up bars and cafes serving specialty cocktails. We’d had a busy few days touring the city and found comfort in two of the various lounge chairs placed on the river sands, enjoying a mojito in the blinding sun. We let the sun soak in to our faces and found it as the perfect place to take a cat nap. It felt more like we were sitting on a small town beach than in the center of Poland’s capital city.
Before and after my visit to Warsaw I’d met many others who found it as an unfavorable place to visit, especially in comparison to other Polish cities such as Krakow and Gdansk. Their experiences overall were not unpleasant, but not anything special to talk about. Many have claimed it to be a “been there, done that” city. Maybe like me, they left the train station, found a cup of sour cream (not yogurt!) and maybe even mistook a traditional street as Old Town, thus missing one of the city’s best boroughs. More realistically, I attribute their lackluster trips to the limited views they were exposed to, and attribute my pleasantries to the time spent with a friend I thought I may never see again when saying goodbye in India, having him act as personal tour and history guide, and consistently keeping an open mind and open eyes.
Knowing someone in the city might make for an entirely different experience than hitting the streets solo, but it is a great place to explore either way. What are you waiting for, a written invitation?