Property 30 – Historic Centre of Warsaw
I first met Captain Clingy in Warsaw and he blighted my life for around two weeks afterwards.
Time has mercifully obliterated my memory of his name. He will always be Captain Clingy to me. I do remember that he was a Hong Kong native who had been studying in Sweden. We we met as we were sharing the same hostel room in Warsaw. It was a balmy summer that year, but even the delightful weather and weirdness of Poland’s capital couldn’t make up for the utter blood-boiling horror of Clingy’s company.
He wasn’t a bad person of course. He was kind and was probably good to his mother. His main personality defect, as should be obvious, was that he simply couldn’t stand to do anything on his own. I had mentioned to him in passing that I was planning to spend the day wandering around central Warsaw, and he invited himself along. So far, so normal.
His closeness soon started to really bother me. Perhaps it was a Hong Kong thing, but his sense of personal space tended towards the intimate. I’d stop to look at something and he’d bang into me, he was walking so close. I’d turn around to get something out of my bag and nearly knock him over. This was annoying, but I decided to make the best of it. After all, this was a brand new city for me, surely I could learn something interesting here despite the company.
Poland, Germany and Russia have, shall we say, a complicated history. Much of what is now Poland was under varying degrees of foreign control since the 18th century. Warsaw was one of the main battlegrounds of the Second World War, although you couldn’t tell when I was there. The invasion of Poland by the Nazis was the act which goaded Britain and France into war, and one of the Nazis’ first acts was to try to stamp out any memory of Polish statehood. Despite the formal deletion of the Polish state under Nazi control, Polish nationalism was a thorn in the side of the Nazis, which they sought to eliminate with their usual thoroughness.
A rebellion against Nazi control in 1944 saw almost the entire old town razed to the ground. The rubble was further pounded into dust by Soviet invasion forces headed west. The result was that less than 15% of the original town survived the war. The historic centre of Warsaw has very little that is original about it. The entire thing was reconstructed in the post-war era.
It feels a little bit like a Disneyfied version of a Central European city. All the cute buildings are there, there are squares and trees and the whole place is low-rise. But knowing that it’s fake made it difficult for me to get comfortable. Rebuilding Warsaw is an unusual choice for the Soviet-controlled government – they left large parts of East Germany in rubble until 1989. Although that may have been because it was Germany and they were trying to make a point.
As a piece of world heritage, I do have my questions. UNESCO seems to acknowledge the weirdness of awarding world heritage status to something built in the 1960s by skirting around questions of continuity and consistency. They nominate Warsaw as a shining beacon of Enlightenment values. I suppose that negates issues of authenticity, but at the cost of being a bit disingenuous. I guess I can agree with the logic of rebuilding the site as a rejection of the Nazis and their inhumanity. But is central Warsaw the site to make that point?
The other issue is one that is true of most World Heritage sites – their nomination effectively freezes them in time and unmoors them from normal use. This is not such a big issue in places such as the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, which have not been used for their intended purpose in over 4000 years. However in Warsaw, as in many other European cities that have a historic old town, the site can cease to be a living place and become petrified. Venice is the logical extreme of this – few native Venetians live there any more as it has become a kind of open-air museum. Historic Warsaw is probably unique – it’s become frozen in time after being destroyed and then put back together again.
In the end I wasn’t able to sit and think about it very long because Captain Clingy kept following me around like a bad smell. I’d be looking at a building and he’d be peering over my shoulder and asking me what I was so interested in. He did nothing alone and nothing autonomously. He practically needed me to hold his hand while he went to the toilet. Conversation was limited to him telling me an elaborate story about buying a fish in Sweden and cooking with the fat for weeks afterwards.
I am a fairly independent person by nature, but also reasonably polite and non-confrontational. I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell him to fuck off. Unfortunately he couldn’t quite bring himself to take my unsubtle hints. His input wasn’t outright stupid or insulting, but he watched me like a hawk for my reaction after speaking. Perhaps he was afraid that I would abandon him.
Making small talk on the way back to the hotel I told him my plans for onward travel after Warsaw. It was against my better judgement, because shockingly enough, they coincided with his plans. Much as I tried to wiggle out of it he seemed insistent on following me wherever I went.
So we went to Lithuania together.