Travel Notes from Poland: Observations and Reminiscences


The key conclusion of a 5 day nostalgic return visit to Poland is: don’t believe what your cleaning lady tells you. Read on.


Travel Notes from Poland: Observations and Reminiscences

                                             by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.




 Part One:  Warsaw as seen from Mars

Warsaw is hardly an exotic travel destination and so before unleashing the torrent of observations which follow, I am obliged to explain why these remarks gathered over just two and a half days in the city might  differ from what your garden variety tourist has to say. It is all about the Rip Van Winkle syndrome, for lack of a better likeness. 

Once upon a time, I thought I knew Warsaw like the back of my hand.  After all, over the course of six years as a corporate Country Manager for Poland in the 1980s, I visited the city once every couple of months with great regularity.  At this time, foreign businessmen were largely commuters from Europe like myself; foreign tourists were predominantly Americans of Polish descent from Chicago and they tended to arrive in groups. The main tourist attraction was the Old Town, in particular the main square which was largely reconstructed from ashes and catered to the nostalgia of the Polonia diaspora for the Old Country, for themed beer steins, Cepelia folk art carvings and large portions of soul food specialties washed down with Ziwiec on tap, served at Stammtisch tables. The rebuilding of the Warsaw Castle just nearby was an ongoing project still closed to the public; there were occasional announcements in the press about donations to the Castle of period furnishings from this or that friendly country.

In the late 1980s my job responsibilities changed and my Polish travels became infrequent, without ever ceasing completely. My last business trip to Warsaw was back in….about 1992. Communism had fallen, privatization was under way, and the look of Warsaw began to change, though in a halting and still unconvincing manner. 

To my eye, pre-1989 Warsaw was pretty ugly. This is not to blame anyone, merely to confirm the obvious. As we all knew, the city had been devastated in World War II, and in the rush to create new housing and office blocks aesthetics were not the first or even second priority.  What changed initially in the post-Communist era was at the street level. In the main downtown district around the Centrum tram stop,  new private, often Western retailing and eateries sprouted, the level of lighting was turned up, and if you didn’t raise your head to see the still shabby and poorly designed buildings that housed them, you could be enthusiastic about Warsaw.

By contrast, what I found now was a city that has undergone fundamental change to its infrastructure, not merely cosmetic improvements here and there.  This goes down to the roots (a metro) and up to the highest petals (the Chopin International Airport). And in between there has been the emergence both of isolated office and mixed use towers like the Marriott where we spent our first night; and the cluster of administrative buildings just at the edge of the Ghetto district which one might call a Little Manhattan. Consequently the landmark buildings from my own past, like the Stalin-era Palace of Culture or the Forum hotel (now Novotel) buildings are now obscured by other more ambitious constructions.

But all of this is only part of the story.  From my perspective, the soul of the city has moved from its Late Gothic-Renaissance market square to its baroque and 19th century boulevards, the Krakowskie Przedmiesce and Nowy Swiat. This represents a change in emphasis from folk culture to aristocratic values, which can be summed up in one word: elegance. 

I tip my hat in recognition of the magnificent achievement of Warsaw’s city planners over these past 20 years in remaking the Royal Route from the Palace Square to the Aleje Jerozolimskie into a model restoration. Warsaw is by no means the only town in Eastern Europe to have put down granite sidewalks and high value decorative lighting to lend cachet to its premiere shopping district. However, the proportions applied between the widened pedestrian zone and the thoroughfare for vehicular traffic, the very restrained use of street advertising and store signs, the thorough renovation of facades of the manor houses lining the street which extends into their interior courtyards all contribute to an effect of sophistication and homogeneity that is world class.

It all begins, as I say, in the Palace Square and I am delighted to have had the opportunity finally to explore the interiors of the Palace itself and see the fruits of those many years of labors going back into the 1980s. Without wishing to be condescending, I acknowledge my surprise at the very tasteful state rooms and apartments, which rightfully serve as an instruction platform on the nation’s history for Poland’s youth. 

From the 10am opening hour until our departure from the Palace shortly after noon, we must have seen 1,000 or more Polish kids in groups ranging in age from first grade through teenagers being led around the Castle by their classroom teachers.  The ground floor staff of the Castle was already worn down looking after these broods: accepting their over clothes in the cloakroom, distributing the audio guide headsets. And there were still four more hours to go before closing!  But the kids were well behaved and were clearly enjoying their outing.

Poland’s current pro-European Union government can take satisfaction over the current temporary exhibition in the Palace:  on Jagellonian Europe.  What we have here is a thorough and balanced account of the dynastic relations which knit together most of East Central Europe for a couple of hundred years.  All the territories involved now fall within the EU 27.

The shift from folk to aristocratic values that I mentioned above seems also to be reflected in Warsaw’s culinary trends.  After having been bitterly disappointed a couple of years ago in Prague to find that traditional Czech cuisine has been entirely replaced by tourist traps offering gyros, pizzas and microwaved Norwegian frozen salmon, I was surprised and pleased to find that Old Polish Cuisine has gotten a second wind in today’s Warsaw. 

Just as Milano trattorias have long been head and shoulders above their Little Italy second cousins in the US, so the current Polish restaurants we saw in downtown Warsaw are neither folkloric nor fussy but strive to give a light modern touch to the recipes handed down from grandma. The décor was largely in keeping with this sophisticated approach to the food. Prices were perhaps 30% below those of Western European establishments in the same category and were fairly consistent around town. As in Russia, midday special meals at something like 4 euros (16 zlotys) for two courses were posted by even rather serious eateries.

Of course, I had heard well before arrival in Warsaw just how lively a place it had become. By ‘lively’ is meant night life.  However, that side of Warsaw was never lacking even in the bad old days.  Today it is strip joints (gentlemen’s clubs) and jazz bars. Back then it was in every hotel lobby. Also back then there were ‘dancings’ around town, and they seem to have disappeared, much as is the case in another town once famed for street corner dancing bars, Helsinki.

This leads me to another dimension of night life which has clearly taken a turn for the worse in the capital of Capitalist Poland:  high culture.  The glossy magazine on the hotel room desk listing the cultural events made thin reading.  The once exuberant small drama theaters seem to have vaporized. And where in the 1980s there were concerts a-plenty, now you can count the notable coming events in Warsaw’s musical life up to the end of the year on one hand.   

We did get in to see a performance at the Teatr Wielky, the main opera and ballet venue of the city, where we caught a 1960s staging of Verdi’s ‘Nabucco.’ Dated as the production may have been, the house was sold out, and not without reason: the vocalists, all Poles, were splendid, world-class.  Perusing the theater’s calendar, it is obvious that not all the presentations are museum pieces. Indeed, there are a good many joint productions with other European opera houses which bring in the ‘usual suspects’ as stage directors, many of them very good. But the theater management is clearly old fashioned, without any obvious outreach programs which have turned Europe’s major houses into centers of ongoing education for the public at large.

Finally, in closing I offer an observation on the changing demographics of the visitors to Warsaw.  It may be risky to generalize based on an off-season sampling, but here goes.  Both the business class Marriott and the vacationer-oriented Castle Inn where we spent our second night had a very great mix of nationalities.  That very heterogeneity stands out in comparison to the very predictable German businessmen and American tourists of the distant past.  But what particularly caught my attention because it was so unexpected is the presence of Russians in both business and tourist contingents.  Indeed, most menus posted on the streets were printed in Polish, English and….Russian.  The formerly ubiquitous ‘Mann spricht Deutsch’ seems to have replaced by ‘Говорим порусски.’  

No doubt the availability of native Russian speaking staff coming from the former USSR helps to explain this new coddling of Russian guests.  Looking at the countries featured by Western Union and other funds transfer kiosks (Uzbekistan, Georgia) tends to support this hunch.

Part Two:  Travel Notes from ‘la Pologne profonde’

A capital, and a reasonably small one like Warsaw, does not a country make. And so I use this opportunity to share as well some of my notebook scribbling from two days in ‘la Pologne profonde,’ the dark heart of the land, the city of Kielce, situated half-way between Warsaw and Krakow on the Radom rail line.  

During my regular business visits to Poland in the 1980s, I spent most of my time in Warsaw, at meetings with the ministries which, it was hoped, would be our buyers, and with the agencies who represented our interests. Occasionally there were trips to other Polish cities which were sites of factories with which we had or planned some cooperation, such as Bydgoszcz, or to annual trade fairs held in Poznan. However, in parallel I also had my own familial travel once or twice a year down to Kielce, where my widowed and chronically ill mother-in-law lived.  She was looked after by neighbors, who in their retirement remain our friends to this day. 

Lest I be faulted for placing too much trust in what is anecdotal evidence after all, I hasten to point out that my key but not sole interlocutors during the three days my wife and I spent in their apartment are fairly observant, well-traveled and alert notwithstanding their advanced age.  At 80, Zbyszek may be fond of reminiscing about the old times when, as factory director, he headed a Polish delegation of  mining/quarry experts out to Baikal, Khabarovsk and Magadan, but he nonetheless follows closely the policy moves which the Polish government pursues today ‘in its wisdom,’ as he puts it with more than a dollop of irony. Danusia works seasonally as an auditor and knows first-hand what organizational changes have been implemented in older as well as newly formed enterprises not merely in Kielce but in the greater region of southern Poland where she is sent on assignment.

A lesser but still significant reference point was another family friend who in general might be typed as one of life’s bigger losers: a university educated linguist who has been a semi-invalid from her late 20s and who essentially has lived on welfare most of her adult life. We spent several hours chatting with her in her studio apartment on the other side of town.

My last visit to Kielce was perhaps five years ago when my wife and I drove up in a rental car after spending a couple of days in Krakow rediscovering the Wawel Castle and other tourist attractions in the midst of hectic summer crowds. We stayed with our Kielce hosts then as well, and noted a modest degree of prosperity and some slight upgrades to the neighborhood.  Some attention was being paid to repainting facades and the like.

To draw any comparisons, I must go back to the 1980s, when Kielce was associated in my mind with decay: shabby, uncared-for buildings, the stink of pollution in the air from the coal used everywhere for heating and from the large industrial concerns about town. The other associative word which comes to mind is ‘mud.’  Kielce was definitely not the place to sport your wingtips. Somehow there always seemed to be some grime under foot whenever I took a stroll downtown.

To be sure, I was aware that the Kielce region was known for sights that drew in tourists. The Kielce forests were once celebrated by the writer Stefan Zeromski, who hailed from here.  On longer stays, my wife had visited a few of the well-known monasteries set in the nearby hills. But I was more knowledgeable about the industrial side of Kielce, the stone quarries and processing factories, one of which Zbyszek headed. And while the quarries were progressively being shut down after the fall of Communism and were converted into resort lakes, the process was slow.  

My expectations of how we would find Kielce on this visit were influenced by the plaintive comment ‘niema prace’ (no work!) which we heard repeatedly in Brussels from our successive Polish cleaning ladies and their handyman husbands, who all came from provincial Poland. That was why they had left home and sought whatever employment Western Europe had to offer. It had not dawned on me that joblessness and prosperity could be entirely compatible.

However, that is precisely what we found in Kielce on this visit. From Zbyszek’s words, the process of de-industrialization went through to completion in the past five years with all the half-dozen major factories in Kielce shutting their doors, either on their own or following purchase by foreign concerns. These had each employed up to 8,000 workers, meaning they accounted for the lion’s share of jobs in a city which has a population just under 200,000. 

Part of the lost manufacturing jobs has been made up by newly emerging private factories which tend to serve as subcontractors, producers of parts for German and other foreign companies. Automotive parts figure high in the list.  Some other new employment has come from HORECA and the service industry.  In the past several years, Kielce has added a number of new hotels, including an IBIS. The city fathers obviously have done their marketing homework and managed to position Kielce as a venue for specialized international trade fairs, in particular related to sales from the military industrial complex.

The common denominator of the new employment in Kielce is lean and mean management. Most of the recently opened hotels are family-owned and one gal will be receptionist, switchboard operator, breakfast server and room cleaner.  One can safely assume that the new private factories are not burdened with social obligations like the behemoth which built and maintained the apartment houses for staff where my mother-in-law lived.

The net result has been to wring out redundancy and thus to send many of Kielce’s youth off in search of work in Poland’s larger cities if not abroad.  Meanwhile, the resulting savings seem to have gone into considerably greater prosperity for those remaining, not to mention the entrepreneurial class.

You see this on the streets: the enormous increase in the number of cars and the substantial upgrading of their quality since my last visit. You see it in the municipal infrastructure projects, meaning new overpasses, the beautification of the downtown streets. Ulica Sienkiewicza now has been fully gentrified, with magnificent granite sidewalks and restored building facades running the length of a slope that takes you to the monument honoring the local literary genius with its clearly etched name of his master work ‘Quo Vadis?’  The drama theater is alive and well, with announcements of new productions proudly posted on its façade.

 A new multi-function concert hall has been built on the outskirts. The Kielce symphony orchestra that my mother-in-law attended faithfully with subscription tickets still exists and performs here. But that is not all. This is where touring groups like the Moscow City Ballet make their guest appearance in December. It is also where local music lovers can regularly see the HD Live Performances from New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

And there is a new sports stadium seating 15,000 which is so popular that a hotel has been erected on its grounds. Its nighttime lights illumine an entire district.

In a phenomenon Westerners will find very familiar, the downtown streets of historic Kielce have lost retailing to the shopping malls that have grown up at the city’s periphery.  French owned hypermarket chain Leclerc is one of several international companies that anchor these malls, some of which provide free buses linking them to the center of town. The downtown itself is overrun by bank branches, both Polish and foreign (Citibank Handlowy, Deutsche Bank, Credit Agricole, to name a few), although one tradition from the past is flourishing: coffee houses with their array of home-made pastries and ice cream. And, of course, here and there you will find a McDonalds.

Meanwhile the once rancid air has been scrubbed clean. Coal fired heating has been generally replaced by natural gas. You can see just how new all of this is by paying close attention to the chimneys on apartment buildings: the change-over to gas has entailed not only modification to furnaces but also new metallic chimneys due to the higher temperature of exhaust gases.  

And speaking of modernization, one would have to be blind to miss the beautification of what had been dilapidated housing stock all across the city, much of it within the past five years. Exterior walls, balconies are impeccable. Colors have been tweaked:  whole swathes of apartment buildings are now decorated in bright yellow and orange, for example, and the effect is very upbeat.

Indeed, it turns out that those rather ugly buildings from the 1960s and 1970s were made from solid brick and could be converted into structures remarkably similar to typical Austrian or German housing without undue effort.  The conversion extends to the stairwells, the replacement of the windows with still more thermally efficient units.

The switchover to gas heating seems to have been financed by the apartment coops building by building and with the help of bank loans borne by the owners.  With the new consciousness of costs has come the introduction of heat metering at the radiators, and a new frugality.  This may be second nature to Belgians, but in Eastern Europe it is a radical change of mentality and it is all quite fresh.  I am left wondering when this kind of rationality will finally reach Russia, where heat continues to be squandered across all housing grades.  

Recycling has hit popular consciousness in Kielce. The courtyard behind our hosts’ apartment house, like most others in the block, now has a large bin for depositing plastic waste, another for glass. And there are special depositories for donations of used clothing.

At the same time the flip side is a much cruder kind of scavenging being practiced by miscreants. Theft of metals has reached epidemic proportions. Our hosts recounted cases where 10 km of remote electricity cables were rolled up by thieves in one attack.  For my part, I saw the proof of this criminal bent when I visited the nearby town cemetery to pay my respects to my mother-in-law’s grave and saw how bronze crosses have been systematically torn from gravestones by thieves for sale as scrap metal.  This is all the more shocking given the reverence Poles otherwise show for the dead.  Nearly all gravesites had flowers and most had the vases for candles which were lit on All Saints’ eve.

Apart from the petty larceny in graveyards, I had the impression from visiting Kielce that Poland is a tough place to be a common criminal.  Almost every respectable house in Kielce seems to be under the watchful eye of one or another private security company. I am told that there are now more than 50,000 such firms operating across the country. 

On the other hand, judging by the unfinished state of transportation infrastructure projects in the countryside, a usual telltale sign of corruption, white collar crime seems to be doing just fine. Notwithstanding a couple of decades of promises by politicians, the main autobahn which one day will connect Warsaw and Krakow is still a pipe dream.  From our train, we spotted its farthest reach from the Warsaw- end some 30 km out of town; a splendid initiative that peters out amid farms.

The train line that brought us to Kielce is another proof that something is amiss in these big capital projects.  What is, after all, a city half way on the key north-south route of the country, just 150 km from the capital, still takes upwards of 4 hours by Intercity train to reach.  It is not merely that the train crawls along but that it stops in the middle of nowhere several times to catch its breath and….wait its turn at those points where there is only one track!  Meanwhile good money has been invested in some spanking new railcars, probably from Siemens, like the one we took on the trip down. New rolling stock on antiquated track is no way to run a railway.

If I may draw any conclusion from these assorted impressions of a few days in ‘Pologne profonde’ it is that contradictions abound, that the country is very much a work in progress, but that life is much better for the Slightly Above Average Joe there than one might suppose from reading the newspapers back in Brussels or from talking to one’s cleaning lady.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2012




G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback from and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.