Saturday, July 30, 2011

Warsaw -- the Day Before the Tour

(Man, I'm tired.  Probably has something to do with going off on a tour at 9:00 a.m.  I'm not ready for 9:00 a.m. Pacific time, much less Central European.)

Because we have a traditional tour of Warsaw tomorrow, I booked us a more "off the beaten path" tour.  In fact, that's what they call it:  Adventure Warsaw does an "Off the Beaten Path" trip.  We didn’t exactly do that tour – my folks were with me and there was no way that they were going to climb in and out of the old-school Communist-era van. Instead, the company set up their “private angel” tour for us, which covered everything on the “Off the Beaten Path” tour (except the lunch, the vodka, and the van) from the convenience of a Honda Civic. And we got the guide all to ourselves (which meant that, when my father needed to stop in a pharmacy to pick up a band-aid, we had our very own translator at the ready). (Actually, they needed two translators – our guide was going from Polish to English, and I was going from English to American, as my parents were asking for a “bandage,” when what they really wanted was a “plaster.”)

The tour was very interesting, and it was supported by a couple of interesting visual aids – an aerial view of Warsaw before WWII, and a view of it after. The guide had said that 85% of Warsaw had been destroyed (between the German invasion, the ghetto uprising, and the Warsaw Uprising), and the pictures certainly supported this. Where once there had stood a lovely European city, there was mostly rubble. Which ended up clearing the way for the subsequent Communist government to build all sorts of communist buildings. The result is – as I’d remarked last night – the occasional really gorgeous old-school building, some less well-preserved buildings (some heavily marked by gunfire), many ugly communist-style buildings of the 1950s (often with “People’s” or “Workers’” in the title) some restorations and the rare piece of shiny (often glass) new architecture.

Our guide, Rafal, really knew his stuff, and was pretty accommodating in terms of showing us whatever we wanted to see. But the one thing that sorta weirded me out was that he – in what seemed to be a totally natural manner – talked about “Jews” and “Poles” as two mutually exclusive categories. Don’t get me wrong; Rafal went out of his way to distance himself from any anti-Semetic thoughts, and seemed disappointed that there’s still a lot of distrust between Jews and Poles – but that’s the way he put it, "Jews" and "Poles," as though there are no Polish Jews.

Well, to be sure, they were damn near wiped out in the Second World War (Pre-war, Warsaw had 450 synogogues; now, it has 1) – but he used the Jew/Pole distinction even when he was talking about the pre-war time period, when there definitely were Polish Jews. He spoke of how some of the Poles helped the Jews, especially with hiding Jewish children with Polish families – and while I found that to be a genuinely cool thing, I still sorta cringed inwardly about the language. It probably would not have been difficult (or inaccurate) to have said that there were Catholics in Poland who helped the Jews, but that’s just not the way Rafal has been wired to think. Interesting.

Perhaps the most interesting thing he said, though, is something that he used to pretty much open the trip: he is a member of the first generation in 200 years that isn’t fighting against someone – whether it was Russians, Germans, or a puppet Communist government – Poles haven’t been entirely free to develop their own national identity (and the course of their country) for centuries, and the current generation is really just starting. Communism fell in 1989. To put this in personal perspective, I was in Law School in 1989. I like to think I’ve accomplished a reasonable amount of stuff since then, but I honestly can’t expect an entire nation to have come into its own in that period.

Which is why I ultimately cut Rafal some slack on the Jew/Pole thing. Because, as he pointed out, he had to learn a lot of the real history of Warsaw himself – because schools weren’t allowed to teach the truth about the Warsaw Uprising when the Soviets were pulling the strings.  I was pretty much dealing with a guy who represents the future of Warsaw. Hell, he started his own tour business (and ended up very highly rated at TripAdvisor), teaching the history that he wasn’t taught, and showing visitors the story of the city through its architecture. He’s honest about the problems facing a work force emerging from a communist system (in which everyone had a job, but few people actually worked), and he, for one, seems to have grabbed onto capitalism with a pretty firm grip. Overall, I was impressed by him, and figured that the city has a real shot if the rest of his generation is a lot like him.

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