Poles apart: growing up with Warsaw

Warsaw 1978

Our long term memory is a funny beast. I look on many of my childhood events and they appear to be not only distant but also dim; quite literally so. Our holidays seem to have took place if not in black and white then in a washed-out hue while memories of people and places are increasingly becoming frayed at the edges.

Warsaw in 1978

I’m heading to Warsaw next week and am naturally drawn back to the scrambled memories of my first two visits to the city. When our family touched down in Warsaw airport in 1978 it marked a series of firsts. For my parents it was their return to Poland since they were deported as children by the Russians in 1940; the towns and villages of their birth were no longer in Poland and were very much out-of-bounds to them. For us three boys it was our first time on a plane and our first time in another country (although some might have included North Wales as an equally foreign land).

As a wide-eyed nine year old I soaked up my new environment with insatiable curiosity. This was the land of which my parents had spoken since before we could even remember; it was also a place where for once we didn’t have to spell our names and where that strange language that we had learned to speak at home was suddenly commonplace.

I remember the big shops that were almost empty, where shop assistants had rudeness and indifference written into their job descriptions; I remember the queues for bread and having to get up before 6am just to get to the market to buy food; I remember my uncle watching Benny Hill, the most successful UK export and one that was deemed acceptable entertainment by the communist regime; I remember family members taking us to church and then disappearing within 5 minutes, anxious not to be seen by the authorities (being actively religious could seriously damage your career prospects); most of all I remember the men with their carts selling sodówki (fizzy drinks). Many of them only had two glasses and a soda fountain. We’d take it in turns to quench our thirst in the summer heat. Did he even wash the glasses between customers? I don’t remember that.

Back again in 1992

Things had changed when I returned alone in 1992. The communists had gone and a disorderly reorganisation of society was taking place. There was food in the shops now, but very little money around to pay for anything. My cousin took me out to McDonald’s on its second day of operation in central Warsaw; the queue stretched for a couple of blocks and bouncers on the door kept out the undesirables. Anything was available on the streets of Warsaw if you had the money, from Russian military uniforms and hardware to Romanian babies, sold for cash with no questions asked. The National Stadium, abandoned in the 1980s, had now become the largest open-air market in Europe and was a place of great notoriety. Benny Hill was gone too, replaced by Allo, Allo. A comedy based around foreign people speaking poor English in a funny accent was dubbed in Polish and recited by a monotone voice. A recipe for disaster you’d think and yet if you opened your window in a typical appartment block when the show was on, you could hear raucous laughter coming from dozens of homes.

I’ve been back a few times since but am particularly looking forward to seeing the city now that it has been spruced up in preparation for Euro 2012. As I’ll be on a press trip I’ll no doubt be shown just how the city has been transformed. The old stadium has been replaced by one of the world’s newest sporting arenas and new shopping centres, hotels and restaurants are everywhere. It is inevitable however that when I wander through the Warsaw streets part of me will still see the city through the eyes of a 9 year old boy. Will there be enough remnants of the past to trigger those old memories? I guess I’ll soon find out.


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Freelance travel writer

7 Responses to “Poles apart: growing up with Warsaw”

  1. This is so interesting, Andy.

    I have never been to Poland, but I had the chance to visit Prague in 1980 (I wrote a series on that if someone is interested in reading it), when only a few people were adventuring in what once was Tschechoslovakia (I hope I wrote it right) and the city was far from being the tourist attraction it had become later.

    I might be wrong, but I felt like a little touch of nostalgia for what Warsaw was back in 1978. If so, I understand. Because despite all its contradictions and harshness, I will never forget how Prague looked like in 1980.

    February 23, 2012 at 11:10 am
    • Thank you Simon – I remember seeing your Prague posts. Please do add a link as I’m sure others would love to read your memories too. Nostalgia is there, but probably not for how the city looked but for my memories of family events that happened to take place there.
      As for ‘that country’ – it changed its spelling in almost every language! But in English it was Czechoslovakia 🙂

      February 23, 2012 at 3:53 pm
  2. When McDonalds opened in Riga in the early 1990s, it was impossible to get in. And a meal there was a near impossible treat for which too many stars had to align right: school grades,family budget situation, behaviour all included…

    Good old days : )

    February 23, 2012 at 3:13 pm
    • Amazing how times change – now there are probably several in Riga and they don’t have any sort of kudos anymore…. true? Thanks Anna

      February 23, 2012 at 3:54 pm
  3. Lynda #

    So evocative Andy. Childhood memories always bittersweet.

    February 23, 2012 at 3:41 pm
    • Thank you Lynda

      February 23, 2012 at 3:55 pm
  4. How true is that. Although I grew up in Poland I’ve seen the transformation from a different angle. Now it’s great to go back to these ‘breakthrough’ moments to see how the country has grown and developed.

    I’m looking forward to Euro 2012 – not only to watch football, but also to see the event for which the whole country has been preparing for years and for which the nation will be proud of.

    March 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm