even more Magris

(But why? well, a twisting story, like the river itself. I got to Magris through an exhibition we saw with MC in Barcelona already seven years ago (!!!) – it was one of those strange exhibitions on a city and an author – in that case it was about Trieste and Magris. We were so intrigued, so taken in, that we bought several books by Magris, in Spanish and Catalan then and later in Italian, like my edition of Danubio. And we were engrossed by the idea of visiting Trieste and a bit of Istria and that amazing (now) border region – something we could finally do for a few days in 2015.

Three years after that, I was in Warsaw for a few days with Roman and Wanda, and during that visit full of conversations, of exchanges, of walks, of visits to galleries and museums, of mathematics and art, somehow I felt immersed in another side of the same world described by Magris. I mentioned him, I mentioned his books – and oddly enough, Roman and Wanda hadn’t read him. Oddly but fortunately, and synchronically: right after talking about him, I saw on a stall of the bookshop of a museum the words Dunaj and Magris. I immediately gave it to them, knowing it would help continue many conversations.)

Danube is not an easy book to read. At least in my case: it meanders, it makes me pause, it makes me remember and write, it makes me dream and continue long-forgotten conversations, some from decades ago. The book in itself changes quickly enough that it is not really an essay – although many parts could constitute many excellent essays, it is not a story – although it is full of short stories, it is not gossip of course – although it contains a delightful dose of insider gossip, it is not a travelogue – although in a way the whole book presents itself as a huge travelogue.

Roman mentioned he had been reading the Hungarian part of Danubio these past days – exactly at the time of that very short but very intense visit to Hungary, to Budapest. Reading it now myself, it has been like reliving (through unrealized possibilities) many aspects of my own visit. I cannot quite explain it. An example: I took a photograph of a “random station” where the train stopped for a few seconds. Then it turned out that that name (Mosonmagyaróvár) is prominent in Magris’s book – for an intense paragraph. Many other parts of Danubio read like a priori/a posteriori representations of what my eyes, what my camera (whose memory is greater than mine – for I would have forgotten a name like Mosonmagyaróvár were it not for the fact my lens, my camera recorded it, and then I saw it in Magris’s book) registered!

Every now and then, you reach a paragraph like this one:

«Delle ottocento famiglie giunte col patriarca, ora restano sessanta o settanta. Un viaggio è sempre anche una spedizione di salvataggio, la documentazione e la raccolta di qualcosa che sta estinguendosi e fra poco sparirà, l’ultimo approdo a un’isola che le acque stanno sommergendo.»

(“Of the eight hundred families arrived with the patriarch, now sixty or seventy remain. A trip is always a kind of saving expedition; the documentation and the collection of something on the way to extinction that will soon disappear, the last landing on an island that is sinking in the waters.”)

How true. Any time we travel we are in some sense visiting a place that is disappearing, sinking in the waters.

The Magdalena River, near Honda

Warsaw: a perennial box of surprises?

I did expect some grimness – and there is, of course, plenty of it. Consider the area around the Palace of Culture and Science, and the huge empty space around the building itself.

I also expected interesting cemeteries, having read Rutu Modan’s The Property and also having seen many interesting photographs by Roman and Wanda taken on November 1st. The visit to Cmentarz Powązkowski (Powązki Cemetery) on my first day there, a Sunday, was great. Those Polish red lanterns by the tombs, next to elaborate and lovingly kept altars.

It was unfortunately impossible to visit the Jewish Cemetery – it was closed to the public during the Passover holiday.

What I did not expect was the dimension of the parks – they are enormous, with old trees and plenty of water (apparently diverted from the Vistula River in the 17th Century by some Italian architects – or Polish architects with Italian training – for the Royal Palaces), their playfulness, their utter “Romanticism” (for lack of a better word; although of course they predate the idea of Romanticism itself by more than a century). Among the most beautiful urban parks I have ever seen, anywhere. The Royal parks of Warsaw, south of the center, are marvelous public spaces.

What I also did not necessarily expect was the good quality of food. This is something new. For decades, food in Poland had a particularly bad reputation. Even in 2009, when I was in Poland (not in Warsaw), food was ok – there were some good things but nothing prepared me for this explosion of fresh ingredients, of interesting and clever preparations, for the way food is presented. What was more surprising to me was how good “normal daily food” seemed to be, at least in the area where I stayed (a rather well-to-do part of the city, yes). The way they prepared their daily lunches seemed naturally good, not pretentious at all.

An area I did expect – from having read plenty of material about the post-WWII reconstruction – was a well-redone Old City. It is there, indeed – surprisingly well-done. One may enter from a tram station through an automatic staircase. That in itself is a bit surprising and announcing the fact that the Old City is made in the 1950’s based on etchings and paintings from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – with the original building techniques and materials.

Another big surprise was the area of the old buildings of the University. There I could not really know whether they are old or reconstructed — very-well — but I was very positively surprised by those buildings, public spaces, auditoriums. I cannot really place why at some point they almost seemed too well-kept, too renovated for a public university. Certainly in much better shape than most public universities (in New York, in Paris, in Barcelona, in Bogotá, in Buenos Aires, in Jerusalem)… Is this something new in Warsaw? Or is it something specific to Poland, the way people seem to keep in excellent shape those buildings? I felt surprised… in a positive way, but there is something unexplained there (to me).

And then again, recent history. And the ghetto, the ghetto’s absence. Now residential buildings from the 1950s or 60s, wide avenues where the lively (and dense, and ragbag) ghetto used to be. Wide boulevards where there must have been cobblers, klezmer musicians, small shops of all kinds of bric-à-brac, a whole life that completely disappeared.

That was very painful, when in a smooth tramway (the smoothness and easiness of Warsaw’s public transit system was yet another very good thing) we glided through the wide boulevards – empty on Sunday – and Roman told me “here was the ghetto”. I asked, “what do you mean, here?”. He said, “here”. I felt pain to see the nothingness that has replaced it. I fell silent for a while. As the smooth tramway ride left the area I realized how suffocating it is to go through a nothingness where between 1939 and 1943 a brutal, utter disaster happened.

I asked Roman whether something like the Berlin “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine) – those little pieces of pavement where the names of people who lived there and were killed or deported to the camps are engraved, sticking out a bit to make people “stumble” and remember – had been done there, in the Warsaw ghetto. He said “no… but maybe it should be done”.

At the Cmentarz Powązkowski

Those amazing parks of Warsaw

Eating in Warsaw (café food, not fancy places)

Stairway to… the Old City

The University of Warsaw (older area)

Wide boulevards – not quite the ghetto area, but this is roughly how it looks now…


about a building

It is perhaps easy to hate Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Looming tall from almost anywhere in a city that until recently didn’t seem to have many high rises, the 237 meter tower seems to assert from afar a crushing presence, a strong remnant of the Cold War – a somewhat ambiguous presence: yes, very Russian, very Soviet Russian, very Lomonosov-like. Yet also very New York-like, although a very heavy set, a very weighed down Empire State (the difference is not that significant: the Warsaw building is more than half the height of the Empire State if measured to its mast, something interesting to remember – and more than 60% the official height of the Empire State). But it is also much wider, and unlike the New York building, set into the middle of an enormous plaza that seems to have been empty of other tall buildings until recently.


To open space for this, Wanda told me they tore down many blocks of what looked like a typical Central/Eastern European capital, of which only this remains.


So there you are, a huge parking lot or space for cars (or pedestrians or military parades or now those terrible Polish November 11 fascist demonstrations) – the photograph only shows a fragment of the empty space that used to be a European City Center and was torn down by Stalin as part of his gift to the city of Warsaw.

P4023316 The building has an interesting history. Erected in 1955, at the height of the early stages of the Cold War, it was an assertion of Stalinist power in an emblematic city. More interesting to me perhaps are the stories Roman and Wanda told me: how Roman used to go to the Math Department (or Math Institute) that was for some time in some high floor of the tower, how he used to go as a kid or young student to the Muzeum Techniki, on one of the side facades of the building, and see a lot of interesting exhibitions there (I didn’t ask more details)… P4023345
or how Wanda used to go swimming in a public pool on the sports side of the building as she needed credit for Physical Education during her university-level Art studies. Or how excellent jazz (Miles Davis, etc.) was played there in the enormous Sala Kongresowa – where for sure important Congresses of the Party were also held… or even how the only strip club – the only official one – was also in a restaurant and bar in the building, Restauracja Kongresowa – open only to high officials of the Party or associates open to the public; at least those who had the money to pay for it.

The sides of the building have many stern statues of workers, teachers, reading the Big Canon, some of them with generic “European” features, but some of them also with Asian or African features (also generic) – perhaps to symbolize the friendship of peoples. Of course, also athletes – modestly covered (this is not Ancient Greece, nor even Poland of the 17th Century where Renaissance style statues – but the “modest” cover is sometimes quite revealing), all of them (the teacher, the reader, the worker, the athlete) with very squarish bodies.

And slowly, while walking around the building and hearing the stories, I start to like it somehow. Not the looming towering figure, perhaps, but the idea of having a building half the height of the Empire State and perhaps much wider, all devoted to music, to mathematics, to science museums, to sports, for sure to many other things along those lines (yes, and also to Party reunions and official meetings and perhaps truly horrific people also).

These days, we only seem to see that massive construction in malls, commercial venues, corporate buildings, banks, Met Life things, hotels. Even sports venues seem to be done in a very different way (of course we have huge “arenas” – often named for some company – for professional sport spectacles). Devoting a whole palace of that size to something like “culture” (whatever its intended meaning) seems more remote today than ever – especially culture including mathematics, art, science and sports (doing sports as opposed to watching them). I could understand why Roman seemed to like the Palace of Culture and Science, or some aspects of it. I would also like a building where you can listen to Miles Davis, go to an advanced seminar in Mathematical Logic, see Art and Science Museum exhibitions and go swimming or perhaps doing some judo.

But I can also understand Wanda’s dislike with the wasted City Center. After the “regime change” (1989), the whole area seems to be on a parade of newer buildings that try to overshadow the Palace of Culture:


Right in front, a Liebeskind building (left in the photo), some banks and other corporations – everything very new – remotely reminiscent of some New York areas (Bryant Park, without the playfulness). Corporate Europe standing in front of Communist Europe as if defying and saying “see, you lost!” yet those new buildings feel somewhat insecure, somewhat contrived, somewhat insubstantial in front of the Pałac Kultury i Nauki.

P4023306 On the South Western side of the Pałac, from the 1980s, a Marriott. Yes, a Marriott. Apparently the first tower to start to defy the Pałac Kultury i Nauki‘s preeminence, this building made before the change in the economy is really puzzling – it now looks as some kind of prescient gesture to the times that would come to Poland (and the world) after the change: a building that would seem taken directly from Omaha, Nebraska (or Anytown, Anycountry really), stands across large empty space – filled with cars. And a Marriott hotel, with all its cheesiness and all its crassness. This building is difficult to understand. I don’t really know what this building may have meant as a space to Varsovians in the 1980s, during the Martial Law years, after Solidarność.

All in all, this collection of buildings, centered on the Pałac Kultury and showing older Central European buildings, then the Pałac itself at the center of things, then the Marriott (and an interesting Train Station of which I have no photographs), and then the Corporate New Poland buildings… and perhaps next some new things that are not yet built – all of that is a fascinating architectural complex, with slices and layers of European history there in front of your eyes.