Friday, July 29, 2011

Hello from Warsaw!

More precisely, from my hotel lobby.  High speed internet is something crazy like $50/day here, but they've got (not particularly speedy) free wi-fi in the lobby.  I anticipate spending my evenings (and possibly mornings) right here in this chair.  (And you may not get Poland pictures until the next city, as I'm told we have free high-speed there.)

After exchanging a few text messsages with my sister, who had just arrived at Heathrow from New York, we managed to meet up with her (in one of the many little airport restaurants) before heading off to Warsaw.  My folks, who have taken this particular tour before, have an opinion of Poland which, er, suggests there might be a basis in fact to all of those Polish jokes we used to laugh at in Elementary school.  So, when our flight was twenty minutes late, my folks exchanged a glance and said "Poland" -- as if that explained it all.

(Can't say I've experienced much that gives credence to that stereotype -- with the possible exception of the safe in my hotel room, which is located on a shelf at the tippy top of my closet.  I can barely reach it when I stand on the edge of the closet itself, and I have no way of looking inside it (to make sure I didn't leave anything) without bringing a chair over and standing on it.  There is a very long shoehorn sitting on the closet shelf beside the safe -- it may well have been provided so you can sweep your stuff out of the back of the safe.)

So, we made it to Warsaw (Chopin Airport), cleared passport control, were safely reunited with our luggage (hooray!), found an ATM, found our ride to the hotel, and checked in.  With the time we killed at Heathrow, the time we spent in flight (and waiting to take off), and the one hour time change, it was pushing 7:00 by the time we got to our rooms.

My sister (who, as previously mentioned, was still pretty much in transit from New York) was wiped out, so she just crashed, leaving me and my folks to dinner.  We took a little stroll down the "old" part of the city, had dinner at a little outdoor cafe (which conveniently offered English translations in its menus), and ... that's about it.  Our waitress spoke English, which was a definite plus.  She said she didn't speak it very well, but considering that it would take me a week or so to learn how to say "I don't speak Polish very well" in Polish, we were all pretty impressed.

We also felt crazy ignorant.  My folks made conversation with her, asking what she'd studied at university (besides English).  She said she'd studied Polish literature, so my mother asked who some famous Polish authors were we might have heard of.  She started off with a Polish poet.  When we gave her blank stares, she said, "She won Nobel Prize."  This didn't make our stares any less blank, though -- just made us think, "yeah, perhaps we should have at least recognized the name."  She went through about a half dozen other Polish writers, and couldn't get a glimmer of recognition with any of them.  In what was clearly (if you'll forgive the pun) a Hail Mary pass, she suggested John Paul II, pointing out that he wrote some books (as well as, you know, being Pope).  It was a stretch, granted, but we were all able to say, "Oh yes!  Of course!" so that we didn't look like complete idiots.

Initial impressions of Warsaw:  Looks like Europe.  (Yes, I know.)  But, I mean, it has that same old-buildings-next-to-new-buildings thing which you don't get in America because we don't have buildings that are hundreds of years old.  (Although, the Nazis burned the hell out of the place, so a lot of the buildings that look hundreds of years old are simply recreations.)  Also:  they've got that whole former Soviet oppression thing going on (remember Solidarity and all that?) so there are relics of former Soviet domination scattered about.

It is (I think) Friday night.  Walking back from the restaurant, we walked through an open plaza or square, where some woman was playing the fiddle and (a little further down) some dude was dancing with fire.  The hotel itself is located next to the Presidential Palace.  This afternoon, we passed some guy exercising the equivalent of his First Amendment rights in front of a small gathering.  (We asked our hotel doorman what he was saying; doorman said, "He's talking politics.")  This evening, there was a (slightly larger) gathering in front of the Presidential Palace, apparently mourning the previous President's death.  (That's what we think, anyway.  We didn't understand a word they were saying, but there were Polish flags, people speaking ritualized speech, and I saw someone holding a rosary -- so it's a reasonable guess.)

Our official tour doesn't begin until tomorrow night; our unofficial tour commences tomorrow morning (when some highly-rated dude on TripAdvisor is giving us a tour of "the real Warsaw.")

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