I arrived in Poland from my previous posting in Amman, Jordan, from the desert to a lush green land. The day I arrived it was raining in Warsaw and my hotel room was high up in a tower facing the Central Train Station and the Palace of Science and Culture, an iconic building in Warsaw, a gift of Josef Stalin to Poland, not much loved though and after 1990 there has been continuous discussion about demolishing the large monumental building in the Stalinist style. All I could see through the rain was green everywhere, it made an impression on me because a few hours before I had left dusty Amman behind.
Palac Kultury i Nauki, Warsawa
In 1998 life was still changing fast for Poles and everyone had ideas about becoming rich and starting a business, everything was possible now that the Communist were gone. One funny thing was that I could not find one single former Communist Party member. It appears that no one had ever been a member of the Party despite the fact that Communist ruled Poland from 1945 to 1989 though there were many people whose parents had participated in the Warsaw uprising of 1944 against the Nazi rule. Whatever happened after 1945 was lost in a sort of collective amnesia. I came to understand that the historical period after the end of the Second World War was a painful episode for many Poles. Poland had recovered its independence in 1918 only to lose it again in September 1939 when the Nazis invaded its territory which started the Second World War. Then in 1946 Polish borders shifted yet again West and many were forced to migrate Westward in a social engineering project imposed by Stalin. You can understand why many Poles were wondering when they were going to get rid of the Russians once and for all.
After reading Polish history you can see why Poland is always weary of Russia. Though Poles are Slavs like the Russians, they have been dominated politically by their neighbour to the East for centuries. Polish language is written with Latin characters whereas Russian uses Cyrillic alphabet. Poles are Roman Catholic, Russians are Orthodox Christians. So all those differences made for very uneasy relations for a very long time.
Warsaw is also a culturally rich city and this was a nice change from Amman where the entertainment was playing Bridge, golf or bowling and endless rounds of dinner and cocktail parties with the old Hashemite Princesses and Lebanese Bankers.
Seen from the air the Teatr Wielki Opera Narodowa
the Quadriga on the main facade of the Opera house, installed in 2010 some 180 years after it was planned.
Warsaw has the Teatr Wielki Opera Narodowa (National) and the Opera Kameralna (Chamber), the Narodowe has a full seasons offering each night a program of Opera, ballet or concert. The Opera Kameralna at the time under director Stefan Sutkowski who we knew personally a charming person and we met the company of singers many of them are international stars, like Marta Boberska and Dorota Landowska. He had started a Mozart Festival which is now in its 24th edition. Sutkowski is now 82 and he is retired, he was the creator, founder of the Kameralna from 1961 to 2012. We loved going to the Kameralna because it is a very small theatre housed in a former Protestant Church with a beautiful garden all around. The performances were intimate and absolutely charming. Since 2012 and because of drastic budget cuts from the Polish Government the program of the Opera Kameralna has changed substantially.
Then of course there is the food and Polish food is very varied with many different dishes, salads, meats, paté, deserts of all kinds etc.. In 1998 many restaurants were opening and offering good quality food, some had pretensions and the decor was often over the top. Many old houses that once belonged to Noble families were taken over and restored to their former splendour such as the Sobanski Palace on Ulica Ujadowski near the Canadian Embassy.
Upon my arrival in Poland I was assigned a staff quarter, you do not get to choose where you will live, the employer decides. It was a house in Piaseczno a small town south of Warsaw, my house was near a very big forest famous for a terrible plane crash. At that time Piaseczno was really the end of the world, we were far from everything and Russian criminal gangs still operated in Poland. Meaning that there were shootings and car bombs but within one year of my arrival much of that had disappeared, the Polish Police must have been very effective. I had been offered a much bigger house outside of Warsaw some 40 Km from the City located on the Vistula River, but it really was too far and to isolated and I could not imagine living in such a place. Until 1995 by law we as diplomats had to live in Polish Government flats in the city proper, where in the days of the Cold War the Polish Secret Service could keep and eye and an ear to our doings and goings. Those buildings were horrible, poorly built, cramped and smelly, in other words the finest of Soviet architecture. After 1995 the Polish government abolished these rules and Foreign Diplomats were allowed to live wherever they wanted. Our administrator at the Embassy was a women who loved the far, far suburb and she had gone out and bought all kinds of houses far from the city centre. She did find plenty of old rambling kind of houses with vast gardens in the middle of nowhere. No one at the Office shared her love of the suburb, so her decision quickly became a problem for everyone. I campaigned to be housed within walking distance of the Embassy and within one year, I moved to Saska Kepa a very pleasant and green residential neighbourhood across the Vistula River from the centre of the City. We had a lovely house on Dabrowiecka street with a big garden.
It really was a period of Renaissance for Poland and I am glad I arrived there at that point.