Last week I was in Warsaw, Poland, for the second time in my life. The first time was twenty five years ago. From that first visit, my memories are of a pretty bleak place. That was the late 1970´s, and the city that Hitler had ordered destroyed as the Nazi army retreated had been rebuilt. But it was mostly a stark socialist architecture. And, to be fair, it was January. I was approached constantly on the street “Changement privat? Change money? Geldwechsel?” People looking for western currency were far bolder than their socialist brothers in (east) Berlin. Things felt kind of desparate.
Still, I have fond memories. I was there to be the best man in Keith and Bozena´s wedding. The formalities took place in the Wedding Palace. I was delayed by a detoured bus route, and almost missed the wedding, which would have meant it would not have happened. My signature was required as a witness. We had a great feast afterward in a restaurant in the old town that had been meticulously rebuilt. The restaurant was called “Crocodile”. I participated in six toasts before I realized that I could fill my glass from the other bottle at my place setting. That one had water, not vodka.
I vaguely remembered Stalin´s gift to the people of Poland, the House of Culture and Science. A maybe forty story monument of a building in the heart of the city. Only a little bit pretty, it was mostly powerful. A statement of the might of the Soviet Union to the socialist sister state. It remains today, but seems to me to actually have aged better than I would have imagined. It helps that it no longer dominates the skyline. Several skyscrapers share the skyline, and where there are no skyscrapers, there are cranes, building new structures. Construction is everywhere in Warsaw. I took a long walk around Stalin´s building. There are many allegorical statues, and I was struck that the men in these statues are pretty to the extreme. Not unmasculine, but strikingly pretty. The women, by contrast, seemed to have been roughly cast, and maybe even unfinished. As if the men had been hewn of marble, and the women of sandstone, and then left to age for a half century.The women had not weathered well. Or maybe they were just drafts, with none of the fine detail of the men. Or, maybe they were meant to represent the rough peasant woman. Still, it seemed to me to be a particularly, sexist, gay aesthetic, one in which male beauty was highly refined, on artists and scholars as well as on shirtless workers in overalls from farms and the mines. Women seemed an afterthought.
I remember only one statue that represented someone older. A man, maybe a professor. Clearly, this 1954 structure was about tomorrow.
Last week, I managed to wander all over through the halls on the inside, no one asking me where I was going. Had anyone asked, I would have said, “Just curious to see the interior.” It seemed unusual that I could wander down these vast halls, no one around. It felt like there were guards missing. Now there were just a few workers taking down the aftermath of the big party from the European AIDS Conference that had been in the building two nights before. They did not seem to care that I was nosing around.
I got around to the south side of the building, and went in where the movie theaters are. I wondered, have these always been movie theaters? Maybe so. But this was clearly a different time. A recent film, about the last days of socialism in East Berlin, “Goodbye Lenin”, was showing. Outside on a tablet carried by one of the young male statues, Lenin´s name was flanked by Marx and Engels. Stalin´s name was not there. Even if it was at some point erased, he was not absent. The whole place chants: Josef! Josef! On celluloid, back inside the theater, Lenin´s bronze head is carried off through the air. I loved both the irony, and the sumptuous interior of the movie lobby.
As in Berlin, in Warsaw I was reminded of the possibility of great change happening. And happening pretty fast. It was hopeful to be reminded of this. This is the scale of change that I hope for in America in 2003. I left Minneapolis in August of 2003 with things feeling pretty bleak. As bleak as I could remember in my fifty years. The powers that be in DC seemed hell bent on war as the answer, and civil liberties and unmet social and environmental needs as the domestic casualties. Meanwhile, in St. Paul, the governor of Minnesota was working to reduce the social contract to roads. May the ideals we wished for, for those on the other side of the iron curtain, return to rule America and Minnesota. Or was it only capitalism we were wishing for? Being in Warsaw gave me hope that people can turn things around.
I asked my young host if he knew of the Crocodile. He had not been born twenty five years ago. He said he had not heard of it, but that maybe it had been up on the next square. I thought not. It seemed to me it was near where we were, so I asked an older man who drove horse and buggy for tourists. He pointed to the restaurant which my young host hád just said was nice, traditional, and a bit expensive.