Friday, December 21, 2007

not pronounced like it looks

The symbol of Warsaw is Syrena, the mermaid, which I think is kind of odd for an city that isn't anywhere near the ocean. But I suppose there's no reasons a mermaid can't travel inland, especially if she's the sword-wielding kind. No one in their right mind would say no to her.

People tend to dismiss visiting Warsaw, even Poles. The general consensus seems to be, eh, don't bother. Bombed to bits during WWII, it lacks the classic charm of Krakow, and I think it's often written as just a big modern city. But it was on my way north, so I decided to check it out for a day. The weather was freezing. There's a street named after Winnie the Pooh. I sniffed out, literally, a delicious donut; I turned down a street, took a whiff, and decided I had to find and eat whatever it was I was smelling, which I found at a little bakery serving stuff onto the street from a window. I like how Europe has designed pastries to be as easy-access as possible; you don't even need to bother opening a door. I also got the first and only to-go cup of coffee I've had this entire trip. I've grown so accustomed to sitting in a café, it felt wrong, sipping a cappuccino through the plastic lid. Plus there's that pesky business with wasted paper cups. I haven't really noticed all that many places offering coffee to go, or maybe I just tend to stay away from the cafés that do. It felt very American, and suddenly I noticed lots of people walking around with paper cups.

Fueled by coffee and donut, I spent my day in Warsaw just wandering around, starting with the reconstructed Old Town.

In the afternoon I went to the Muzeum Techniki to warm up and check out the collections of old stuff, including cars and motorcycles, telephones throughout the ages, eyebrow-raising medical equipment, and incredibly complex printing presses with more moveable parts than really seems necessary. Whoever had to repair these must have wanted to kill themselves repeatedly.

Traveling by train in Poland can be problematic for two reasons. The first is that train platforms aren't sign-posted very well. There's most likely one sign in the middle of a very long platform, and if you're at the end of the train, good luck seeing it. Arriving at Warszawa Centralna, I had to ask someone to make sure it was the correct stop. The second is that conflicting timetables were posted all over the station. I took a day trip to Łódź, and got to the station at 6:56 in the morning, well in time to catch the 7:20 train. Except, I found out that it didn't leave until 7:55. The upside is that during the wait I found the butteriest, melt-in-your-mouth flaky pastry from one of the many train station snack shops, and the downside was I had a really short day in Łódź, because the train took over two hours to get there, instead of the one hour I was expecting. Łódź, pronounced woodge, was a premier industrial center in the nineteenth century, churning out textiles. It all fell apart in the twentieth century, although it became the temporary capital after WWII, since Warsaw was so gutted. My kind of pretty, it's streets are lined with buildings that were beautiful a century ago, but are now run down, crumbling, and dirty. Unfortunately, I planned my short visit rather poorly; Łódź's points of interest are quite spread out, and I ran out of time to see all that I wanted. The History of Łódź Museum, other than the gorgeous neo-Baroque building it lives in, was a waste of time and nine złoty, since most of the rooms had been devoted to possibly the most hideous exhibition of paintings I've ever seen. It was some sort of claptrap about painting with light, and my brain has obviously been at work to repress the memory. Imagine amateur blending in Photoshop of moody photographs, incongruously placed next to recreations of famous paintings, and you'll get the idea. Even browsing through Arthur Rubinstein memorabilia wasn't enough to salvage the visit. At least the museum is right next to another of Łódź's main sights, which just happens to be a shopping mall.

The actual shopping isn't anything special, being the same or equivalent stores that are found in any American mall, but the complex is housed in what was a series of nineteenth century textile factories. Production continued, in one manner or another, until the end of the 20th century. The complex was refurbished at the beginning of this century, including restoring some of the buildings with the original red brick, and it is now a sleek miniature city with convenient free toilets. You know, this European tradition of paying for toilets used to really bug me, but I'm cool with it now, because I've realized that it means clean toilets, especially in train stations. In America you run the risk of catching a disease just by walking through the door. Still, nothing like finding one for free. Anyway, that was slightly off-topic. Despite its facelift and new debonair appearance, Manufaktura still looks cool, starting with the front gate, which I think is the original.

I did spend some time wandering around the indoor mall, mostly because it was warm and toasty. Afterwards I decided to see the Radogoszcz Prison, another factory complex that became a Nazi-run prison in WWII, and is today a museum. A bit of a haul from Manufaktura, I arrived to find it closed, a message that was conveyed to me by a guard with a mouthful of teeth that looked like they had been run over by a tractor pointing to a sign in Polish on the door. Nuts. It was getting late enough that the sun was starting to set. I was interested in exploring the historic Litzmannstadt Ghetto, but it's really huge and probably takes at least a day in itself to tour. I looked through the pamphlets I picked up at the tourist office, and decided to try and find some more old factories, but by the time I got back to city center, it was dark, and my feet and legs were tired. I'm wearing out faster these days. I realized the other day that I've worn the soles off part of the heels of my shoes, and all that remains is the squishy rubber insides. I managed to trek out to one more factory, which was sort of a wasted trip, since it sort of blended into the night sky. The day was over and it was time to trod back to the train station. I regret having not made it to the Central Museum of Textiles and the White Factory that it's housed in. Shoulda gone there first. I will next time.

I haven't been sleeping too well recently. It's not necessarily a bad thing, because it doesn't usually affect me too much during the day, more just an observation. Busy brain syndrome. My mind keeps chugging after my eyes close, but eventually something flickers that maybe requires more conscious thought and I wake up. I thought for sure after Łódź I'd sack out, but nooo, got a drunk guy in the dorm who fell asleep semi-propped up and started snoring. It woke up another guy in the dorm before me, and he wasn't taking it to well. We made a half-hearted attempt to get the drunkard situated in such a way to stop the snoring, which is a good indication of how unconscious he was. I had his feet (thankfully, still booted) and the sensitive guy grabbed his shoulders and he still didn't wake up. Moving him was about as easy as single-handedly carrying a queen-sized mattress up a spiral staircase. If anything, we put him in a more uncomfortable position, and I hope he woke up aching the next day. I dug out my earplugs, which managed to muffle the snores enough to fall asleep again, but I heard the sensitive guy make at least two more valiant attempts to get him to turn over. He was a real charmer, he was. Not only drunk and snoring, but also sleep-cursing and sleep-farting. I should have bought a beer at the hostel bar and poured it into his rucksack. I saw him leaving the next day, but I was on my way out as well, catching the train to Gdańsk.

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