In October, the air in Warsaw is cold. Broad concrete sidewalks and large, drab Soviet-era constructions refract that chill, always present in spite of waning autumn sunshine. But there is color that warms the streets in bursts: the golden, meaty glow of 24-hour Turkish doner kebab stands; the fluorescent charge of rooftop corporate logos that read Marriott, Orange, and Marks & Spencer; the multi-hued hum of nightclub signs hawking boobs and booze. This weekend, with nighttime temperatures in the lower 40s, I was tempted to drop by one of these clubs for a little post-Cold War action and see how the Poles party. With the Polish economy on fire and a future as bright as the Coca-Cola sign overlooking downtown, Warsaw is already overcoming its woeful history with vigor and style.
Warsaw’s story is a tragic one, full of conquest and destruction: after rounding up the Jews into Europe’s largest ghetto, the goddamned Nazis razed 80% of the city in quashing an uprising of the oppressed Poles, with over two million killed under Hitler’s grand plan for the virtual eradication of Poland and its people. Once solidly under Soviet influence, the Russians imposed on the city Europe’s then-tallest building, the 757-foot-high Palace of Culture and Science, an ornate but foreboding skyscraper that reigned in solitude over the Polish capital for three decades. But sleek, modern towers in blue-tinted glass and corporate marquis now vie for air supremacy and a colorful, completely rebuilt Old City vibrantly outshines the functional but dour residential and office blocks built during the Cold War. Almost no flat surface is spared from advertising pasteboard, not even the Palace of Culture and Science itself, as Warsaw proudly asserts her devotion to capitalism.
A brief weekend in the city certainly isn’t enough time to get to know the people, but I found the Poles to be polite (my presence elicited a few looks of interest, but hardly any stares in an overwhelmingly white—pale—city) and quiet, but helpful when asked and generally very fluent in English, which was good since I didn’t understand a word of Polish. Not a word. A trip to a party or two gave a glimpse of Polish rhythm (they kept up pretty good with Rihanna) and the women are attractive and stylish (read: hot), high-heeled boots being the ladies’ footwear of choice. Clothes, I found to be inexpensive. Food, not so much. I did, however, snag a 50-euro-a-night rate at the four-star Mercure Warszawa Grand via Momondo.com only two nights before the trip (no, they did not pay me to say that).
As Poland marches toward further integration with the European Union—they still use the złoty, not the Euro—prices will go up, but so too will the number of visitors, who come to experience this accessible bit of the former Communist Bloc (or, literally, Warsaw Pact), or to take in a bit of history about Nazi occupation and Polish resistance or research composer and favorite son Fryderyk Chopin at the city’s inexpensive but excellent museums. Warsaw will also lose a bit of its Wild West feel, that air of anything-goes recklessness and conspicuous consumption that accompanies the first throes of unbridled capitalism in a society that hasn’t had it for very long; now is the time to go, before Starbucks, KFC, and Subway complete their conquest.
Meanwhile, even the city’s youngins are staking their claim on the de facto anthem of worldwide youth culture, hip hop (I mean, we don’t really break dance no mo’, but we applaud the effort).