Saturday, July 27, 2013

My First Three Impressions of Warsaw

1) If you can judge a city by the first few people you encounter in it, then Warsaw and I were off to a rocky start indeed. The three customer-service personnel with whom I interacted at Warszawa Centralna train station in search of a city map -- all women past middle age, all looking and acting like they were auditioning for roles as prison wardens in 1950s all-female lock up; so this must be where the moustache-twirling, heavily accented Eastern European evil archetype comes from -- barked at me and practically turned me to stone with withering glares. How dare I interrupt their customer-service work with a customer-service question!

At first, I figured that perhaps it was the language barrier. Judging from my frosty reception and the lack of English being spoken, Warsaw is clearly not a particularly tourist-friendly city, tolerating visitors more than welcoming them. (An Australian friend asked "Wait, where is Warsaw?" when I told him where I am, leading me to think that perhaps the ninth most-populated city in the European Union isn't as high profile globally as I thought.) But looking around, I saw the same sour looks, and heard the same shrieking in Polish. By the time I had my first meal in Warsaw -- a 10zł (roughly US$3.30) kebab sandwich that would be the only good thing worth writing home about those first seven and a half hours in the Polish capital -- I'd yet to see anyone crack a smile. Dear Berliners, I'm so sorry for ever griping about any of you.

2) The architecture around the central rail station is pretty blah -- a few scattered vintage constructions surrounded by glossy, anonymous modernity. Houston (which I imagine to be far more picturesque), you know you've got a problem when the most scenic view of a first afternoon in any new city is the one of the courtyard under your four-star room at the Radisson Blu Sobieski Hotel (no relation to actress Leelee).

I'd read that the old part of the city is the place to see anyway, so I wasn't too surprised by my well-short-of-spectacular visual greeting. Equally unsurprising: my frosty reception at the Radisson, where a hotel employee entered my room without knocking to check the minibar five minutes after my arrival and didn't once apologize or drop what I was by then calling "the Polish attitude" when I scolded him for his insolence. I considered lodging a complaint, but I'd heard enough barking for one day.

3. Apparently, this will be an even cheaper experience than Berlin. A 1.5-liter bottled water set me back a mere 2zł ($.65), but once again, carbonated water is easier to find than still water. (Underscoring the continuing carbonated-water trend, which I'd first noticed in Berlin, one of the two bottles of complimentary water in my hotel room was carbonated, which was a first for me.)

I hope I'm able to spend the entire 150zł (US$51) I withdrew from the ATM in the hotel lobby over the course of my weekend here. I can't imagine that these Polish złoty (PLN) would be of much use anywhere else. It's the only currency that I can remember in all of my travel experiences with cover subjects dating back to well before the pre-photography era, which might suggest that the best of Poland is behind it. If I'm wowed by the old town tomorrow -- and for Warsaw's sake, I hope that I am -- I'll be inclined to agree.
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