Poland – a phoenix unaware it is all but risen from the ashes

MY FIRST residence in Warsaw was a tiny room in a dilapidated flat, one of countless such types in the centre of the city. As is the norm there, the room takes turns serving as a lounge and, at night, a bedroom when the sofa-bed wedged between basic furniture, with great grunting and swearing, turns grudgingly into a haven for harried bones.

Getting acquainted with the neighbourhood made me question: is this really Europe? Where are the quaint, narrow streets; the buildings steeped in history and permanence? These streets were huge and the buildings skyscrapers of reflective glass.

A simple history lesson shed some light. Warsaw, the scapegoat of all wars, has been razed to the ground to be bravely rebuilt from the bottom up so often it has never been able to retain buildings older than the 16th century.

From 1655 to 1658 alone it was pillaged by Swedes, Germans and even Transylvanians. What this translates to is an eclectic conglomeration of different architectural styles clashing peacefully – until you add a monstrosity called the Palace of Culture and Science to the mix.

Away from the centre the streets become less haphazardly inhabited and more serene. The long, straight touristy one that changes names twice (from “Nowy Swiat”, meaning New World, to “Krakowskie Przedmiescie”, or Krakow Suburb) is one example.

This brings us to one of the jewels of Warsaw – the old town. The gorgeous and historical marketplace nestling here was originally built in the 13th century. When the Nazis were retreating during the Warsaw Uprising they levelled the old town and left a sea of rubble. Over the last 60 years the square has been painstakingly restored to look cookie-cutter perfect and is now a teeming meeting place of artists, vendors and tourists.

People here are in the same rat race all capitals seem characterised by. You get on or off the bus amid throngs of other beating hearts and the clickety-clack of women’s heels.

In autumn, you continuously subject your body to the stuffiness of sweat and recycled air to the whip of an icy wind as you make for your chosen mode of public transport.

During my first week I sat down at a pricey restaurant on Ulica Nowy Swiat, a tourist’s dream world of shops and amazing-looking women.

Seeing a parade of such perfection, such impeccable dress sense… it was quite a blow to realise that, with my customary short hair and slacks, I could never, ever be as feminine and beautiful as Polish women are.

Tellingly, most expatriates in Poland seem to be men. I joined a Facebook group titled “Saffers in Poland” and went to a rugby match to meet expats and/or visitors like me. Turns out they were all men: most over 35, married to Polish women and with Polish kids – the whole shebang. The few younger ones either came to Poland thanks to a (now ex) Polish girlfriend, or were lured here by Polish women’s legendary beauty.

A self-confessed guy’s girl in SA, I was mystified not to be able to make any good Polish guy friends save for one lonesome creature.

In June last year I was a proud Poland supporter cheering on the red and white team during the European Cup. Warsaw had been a hive of activity with major repairs undertaken all over.

The tournament is long past but Warsaw is now barrelling into the future at a pace few other cities can keep up with. Business is booming and the phoenix is rising, but unfortunately mentalities only seem to be geared towards comparisons with Western Europe. All Europeans except for the Poles are aware of how well Poland is doing.

During difficult times on the streets (I was beaten up by an old woman with an umbrella on my last day in Poland) I would grumpily criticise it’s not new infrastructure Warsaw needs to bring tourists in, but also new mentalities.

And so my job at a Polish pre-school in Warsaw came to an end and I am finally back on the African continent. It seems my parents’ misgivings were unfounded – they were convinced the job I’d landed was a fluke; that I’d be forced into a prostitution ring never to be heard of again.

Now that I’m back home, I miss the efficient, fast and cheap transport system that gave me a wonderful sense of independence; I miss the beautiful golden autumns and the relief of spring when nature slowly comes alive again. I do not miss nine months of winter.

I miss feeling safe on my bicycle, even at 3am. I kind of miss knowing rules and laws are enforced so well (sometimes too well: I was caught with no bus tickets a few times and had to endure the wrath of controllers on power trips; they were ready to cart me off to jail for the night).

I miss my wonderful friends and the amazing bosses who brought me “rosól z kurczaka” (chicken soup) when sick in bed at the beginning of my stay.

I have learnt how to educate, discipline and organise adorable children; I have managed to travel and see more of an unknown country with a harsh past but a rich beauty. I have grown a thicker skin through my experience, and I cannot wait to share what I have learnt with my own country.

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