1. Poland is a country that it would never have occurred to us to visit without the Alzheimer Europe conference to draw us there, and one that does not offer a great deal of what normally motivates tourists to travel – not “world-class” museums, cathedrals, castles, architecture, cuisine, wildlife, etc. The language is more difficult than romance languages, direct flights from US cities are almost non-existent; on almost any version of a Life List of places to visit, it would have a hard time cracking the time 30. And yet for experiencing the sense of “other” that is one of the most rewarding joys of travel, it holds its own with far more storied destinations.
2. We can hardly claim to “know” Warsaw after six days, with more than half our time devoted to the conference and most of the rest of it to activities related to the conference (speaking at the university, visiting a nursing home and day care facility). And yet it is in doing the sorts of things that tourists rarely do that we can discover the strongest sense of “place.” One outcome was meeting Karisa, a teaching physician who was our driver to the nursing home, and with whom we somehow formed a connection sufficient to spend the afternoon with her on our final day, meeting in Wilanow to see the poster museum (hardly a major tourist draw), walk the grounds of the summer palace, and chat in a café, forming a friendship that will likely last.
We barely touched upon the few “must do” things that tourists typically do in Warsaw – we spent perhaps 50 minutes in Old Town, and we never saw New Town or the Royal Way. This may prove hard to explain to the few people we know who have been to Warsaw. But we became reasonably accomplished at navigating the bus system , wandered the streets of the Centrum district where our hotel was, and managed to stumble across wonderful dining experiences that were not to be found in any guide book, or even on the web. Among them:
3. The tiny, basement level Georgian restaurant where we ate on our second night. No English was spoken by the hostess/waitress, who we figured out likely owns and runs the place with her father, who does the cooking. We were served a heaping platter of lamb, eggplant stuffed with more lamb, tasty appetizers and drank Georgian wine (who knew there was such a thing?). And on our last night, while looking for a restaurant we never found, we stumbled into a charming place that served one of the most memorable meals we have ever eaten, including desserts that (we were informed) are considered by local folks to be the finest in the city.
4. Who would ever expect to become genuinely fond of a conference hotel? We ate dinner twice in their restaurant (three kinds of pierogies, all very tasty). As best we can recall, it was the first time we have spent six consecutive nights in the same hotel, and we were well taken care of. We came to know the staff in both bar and restaurant a bit (I was introduced to a vodka infused with “bison grass” that I wish we could get in the states). The hotel catered the coffee breaks during the conference with delightful pastries, provided very good lunches, and:
5. Our breakfasts were free and extraordinarily good – much food from which to choose, fancy espresso machines, and I finally found a juice – black current – that I enjoy with breakfast. Our room was of modest size, but very well equipped, with two desk chairs and two reading chairs, and had free Internet (once we purchased an Ethernet adapter for our MacBook Air). Given all these extras, our room was 6. Surprisingly affordable, as was all of Warsaw. We took $100 US in zlotys and hard a hard time spending it, something that conference delegates from other countries also noted. An excellent dinner for two with a decent wine runs maybe sixty dollars, bus tickets are about a dollar, a fine vodka three or four bucks. We have not calculated our total costs yet, but it is fair to say that, ignoring airfare, the week cost about half what we would have spent in major Western European cities.
7. Pretty much the only Polish word we learned to say more or less correctly (other than “yes” and “no”) was “thank you.” That and a smile will pretty much get you by most anywhere. Except maybe France.
8. Being in Poland brought back many of our childhood memories of the “Iron Curtain,” and our sense that behind that curtain there was nothing but a grey blanket of misery. Certainly there is much to remind a visitor of the horror and tragedy that has marked Polish history, particularly 20th century history, first with the German destruction and occupation, then with the Soviet oppression. But human beings in general and Poles in particular are remarkably resilient, and Warsaw is very much a modern European city (although still playing catch-up in a few respects) with an economy that is healthy by the standards of Greece, Ireland, Spain, etc. We saw many young professionals on the streets, well-dressed and gabbing into cell phones on their way to and from work. Likely the rural areas are a different story, but we had no sense whatsoever of Poland being backwards or Western Europe’s “poor relation.”
9. Our room looked out onto the “Centrum Rondo,” which utterly fascinated us. First, picture a four-lane roundabout in the very center of a major city, with all the drivers seeming to know what lane to be in. Now run trams through the roundabout in both north/south and east/west directions, with the traffic signals somehow taking them into account. Then imagine a world underneath the roundabout with dozens of shops (including some sort of brothel that “members” appear to have keys for) and 18 (my best guess/count) sets of stairs leading up and down. Only in our last two days did we succeed in surfacing where we wanted to on the first attempt. You want urban? Warsaw’s got it.
10. We discovered once more, (as we did this past summer in England) how much we enjoy being anywhere in Europe. We envy the friends we met at the conference their ability to travel just a few hundred miles and be in another country with its own language and culture, and how at ease they are in moving between them. Most everyone but us was fluent in two or three languages and can get by in several others. It is not that Europeans cannot be provincial, but they need to work harder at it. If our budget permitted it, three trips to Europe per year would feel just about right. Sadly, it does not. Next year’s Alzheimer Europe Conference will be in Vienna, where I have heard the pastries are pretty good. Barring the sudden death of a rich uncle (and neither of us has an uncle, rich or otherwise), it is hard to imagine attending. Hard, but not completely unthinkable. And finally:
11. We enjoyed all of our new European friends. But Italians still have the most fun.