"It's interesting how we use the land, you see", continued Loco, my host at Vilnius who is a seafarer working as a salvage man when ships sink anywhere in the world, and a farmer who loves driving combine harvesters when he isn't out into the seas. "When you are in the Baltics, you would see these farms on both sides of the road, and the farmers will cultivate maybe just a circular portion at the center of the land they have. All the corners will be left untouched. It's like f*** it, I don't care. I have enough. It works in these countries that literally have just about 6 million people combined who don't need too much grains." For a man whose three generations have been sailors, his cussing is remarkably non-existent; maybe his German origins make him a polite and engaging conversationalist. His entire sense of orientation revolves around the seas though: what's there when one drives south from the Baltic Sea towards the Mediterranean Sea, or how the world changes when one goes west towards the Atlantic Ocean, or, even more peculiarly during a board-game we were playing about identifying countries from their flags, his hint was - this country is between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Talking more about the land use, he continues - "once you get into Poland from here, you will see that the fields on both sides still have some corners untouched, but it ain't as careless as the Baltics. The Poles utilize the land better than here. And if you were to drive west into my country, you will see how every square inch of a German farm is used. Germany is tough, you can't eat if you have no money, it's as simple as that. At least in Lithuania, you won't go hungry. And my dear friend, go to Netherlands to see how they use their land! I think if it was permitted, those guys would grow crops even in the tiny spaces between the sidewalk and the fields and chop off all the trees there!"
Riding into Poland from Lithuania, I immediately notice the lack of smoothness of roads; the bus ride gets noticeably bumpy and one can feel the vibrations that were non-existent up north. The onboard WiFi service stops working, and I need to put a lid on the free cup of hot chocolate I take from the vending machine - it might spill otherwise. On a closer scrutiny of the farms, I do notice what Loco said about the fields: the human settlements in the Polish countryside start to appear more frequently, and there is somewhat ominous air of impoverishment hung all over, especially noticeable when one is traveling from the Baltics. The landscape itself is pretty flat and seems devoid of emotions, and by the time my bus is in the suburbs of Warsaw, traffic jams start appearing and reduce the speed to a crawl, further prolonging the 8 hour journey from Vilnius.
My first impressions of Warsaw are that of any massive city with concrete, coal-tar, and crowd. After much struggle, I manage to find the local bus stop from where I need to get another ride to the old town. Unlike Lithuania, where English speakers aren't as difficult to find, Poland is almost exclusively Polish, the language that probably hosts the hardest tongue twisters in the world of languages and everything from street names to last names of people are impossible to pronounce correctly. Lack of an area map even at the Warsaw Central station coupled with my non-existent local language skills made me spend an hour walking all around the station to find the correct bus stop. Twenty minutes later, I was in the old town - a small and crowded quarter by the Vistula river in the north-eastern part of the city.
The old town is filled to the brink with tourists, and it felt almost repulsive to be here: an old town that seems rather a recent urban concoction of wide roads, however cobbled, arcades, manicured gardens, a few statues, and buildings that seem desperately attempting to belong to historic Europe one sees on postcards. Roaming around amidst the hordes of people, salesmen, Romanian gypsies seeking alms, and vehicles that never stop for pedestrians, Warsaw's old town made me feel almost similar to what one experiences in China Towns in the US or Little India in Singapore: a sense of superfluity, something artificial and decidedly fake; a town desperately trying to belong, and a motley of visitors equally trying hard to justify that they are in Europe mostly by drinking what could be the cheapest alcohol in the sub-continent. I wasn't surprised to learn later that almost the entire city was razed to the ground during the second world war, and what we see today in the old town are all buildings that have been rebuilt over the last 50 years (many as recently as in the last decade) just the way they were in the past. The fact hit me hard, as if it were almost vulgar; something as disgraceful as recreating a dead man's body using a plastic mold, and displaying it to the world as a story of death, tragedy, and resilience of the descendants. I am sure the intentions must have been right, and several visitors love Warsaw just for its rather hip old town, but to me, it was a rather nauseating realization.
Poland is one of the countries that bore the brunt of wartime destruction. In fact, it was oppressed much before the war started: the flourishing land of its glorious kings which was one of the first countries to declare democracy as early as 16th century was 2 centuries later cut up into three by the Prussians, Austrians, and Russians, and ceased to exist on the world map for almost 120 years. The first world war gave the Poles an opportunity to declare themselves as a country once again in 1918, but the Nazi forces soon unleashed a reign of horror on Poles, and particularly their Jews, that has been well documented. Warsaw was the epicenter of the assault, and most of its cultural symbols were targeted and decimated. What remains today is not much: a few remains of old walls (on top of which the reconstructions happened), two or three statues that were spared probably because the Nazis thought they could use their copper later for making weapons, and some pictures from the old, prosperous Warsaw that the underground resistance managed to save. I had a chance to flip through "Yesterday's Warsaw", a coffee table book with a curated collection of pre-war photographs of Warsaw by Andrzej Sołtan that I found in a local eatery. Sipping on their Żurek, the traditional meaty soup, and snacking on Pierogi, boiled Polish dumplings filled with meat, the pictures in the book seemed more endearing and authentic than the actual old town.
Amongst the few notable people that stand out through various memorabilia dedicated to them throughout town are the first female Nobel laureate Marie Curie - the genius who escaped to France to study science against all odds and ended up inventing radioactivity and polonium, an element she named after her homeland. The city also dedicates lots of space to Frédéric Chopin, the legendary composer and virtuoso pianist who, like most gifted musicians, ended up having several scandalous affairs, drank too much, and died young. The best Warsaw has to offer probably lies outside of the old town. I met a local friend online who took me out of the old town to the library of Warsaw University - a library that consists of one of the largest botanical gardens on the roof and might just be the prettiest library in the world. We also went to grab a couple of beers from the makeshift summertime pubs besides the Vistula river. This is where I saw the jubilant local students enthused with energy and cries of "Pólska!" - Poland's football team is playing against Germany tonight in the 2016 UEFA European Championship making the environment electric. And this is where I am quietly told: locals hate the old town; too many tourists, too much noise, and there is hardly anything good about it.
My next destination in Poland is somewhat better: Krakow, a town which apparently has a friendly rivalry with Warsaw, and which used to be the original capital of Poland. Krakow survived the wartime destruction, and is the starkest reminder of World War II brutalities through its museums, and the Auschwitz concentration camp nearby. The deadly history is presented to visitors in its full force through preserved ghetto corners, and several objects and documents from the deadly era. The Krakow old town itself is so old that its 11th century buildings, some of which are still preserved, have seen remodeling from various periods - gothic, baroque, renaissance, and a tour guide pointed out patterns from each era in the same church, a field that I do not particularly understand.
I think visiting the twin cities of Warsaw and Krakow doesn't do justice to Poland. To appreciate the country, maybe one needs to at least visit the mountains of Tatras at Zakopane in the south, and the Baltic coast at Gdańsk in the north. Meanwhile, visiting the cities leaves a lasting impact on one's thoughts about humans and war. How do humans achieve such powerful cohesion and form large collective, often destructive, masses? How can human brains, the most advanced biological machines on the planet, get shaped through speeches, molded through propaganda, and made to act through persuasion as well as coercion? How do we, each of which are such fantastic individuals with unique thoughts and conscience, develop a collective thinking of abstract ideas such as nation, patriotism, purity of blood, etc. at all?