Photos: The new University of Warsaw Library and its magnificent rooftop garden. A great place to stroll and reflect, and a wonderful place for photography. Photo slideshow below.
I spent three years in Poland in the mid-1990s chasing a wildly romantic dream that involved making this country, which I’d left when I was a year old, my new home.
When it didn’t work, I felt heartbroken on numerous levels: the career I’d dreamed up for myself in Poland hadn’t materialized; a lovely boy who I’d met one starry night in my birthplace of Łódź was indeed lovely, just not for me. And I had no idea what to do with myself next. The defeat I felt at the time seemed insurmountable: I’d tried and failed, spectacularly.
Back in the States, I found new dreams, new happinesses. And eventually, was able to reflect on those days not as a series of defeats, but as experiences that fundamentally helped shaped my identity today: an individual able to understand the two very different nations that are both my homelands.
Last month, I traveled to Warsaw for the first time since those days.
I’d been back to Poland before, but not spent any time in Warsaw, where I’d lived, worked, and tried to make my Polish Dream happen more than a decade ago.
In my memories, Warsaw was always very gray and very cold, filled with concrete buildings, bleak skies, drafty trains, buses, rooms where one never quite got the chill out.
I used to say that I could feel all the destruction and pain of Warsaw – the city had been razed completely after horrible, bloody World War II battles where so many of Poland’s best and brightest died. The city had been rebuilt in true communist fashion: quickly, cheaply, with no thought of aesthetics or true sense of community.
My first evening in Warsaw this May, I wandered through the city for hours re-discovering places I’d walked before, and places I’d never seen.
It wasn’t a homecoming. It felt more like seeing an old friend after years and years had passed. A friend that you’d fallen out with, and didn’t think about much anymore, and didn’t remember too fondly. But then discovering that your memories don’t match who that friend is now. And also – crucially – discovering how much you yourself have changed. How much you’ve grown, learned, experienced, and how now – after all these years, you can look onto what’s in front of you right now and what happened back then and see that really, all is as it should be and should always have been.
It was dusk when I stood in front of Chopin’s monument in the Lazienki Gardens. The park, about to close, was almost empty. We stood there – Chopin and I – moody summer clouds over our heads; thinking and reminiscing and feeling – above all – at peace.
I spent the next days in Warsaw getting reacquainted with the city, and becoming enchanted by this sprawling metropolis that’s been through much.
There’s an unwritten rivalry between Warsovians and Krakovians, and I’d always sided with the latter. Krakow is easy to love. It’s gorgeous, with fantastic ancient bits and wonderful modern places; there’s a castle (with a legend of a dragon!) and cozy, underground beer and wine halls. It wasn’t destroyed during the war, and that sense of authenticity, that you’re stepping among history, is palpable.
But Warsaw – well, that grayness that I experienced in the 1990s is, of course, still there. Characterless apartment buildings – bloki – built after the war still house countless thousands. But I also experienced a new Warsaw: A green, tree-lined Warsaw; a Warsaw with beautiful outdoor Chopin concerts in the Lazienki Gardens; a Warsaw with amazing state-of-the-art museums like the 1944 Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Chopin Museum; a Warsaw where the bustling Nowy Swiat street is filled with folks of all ages day and night, who sit at outdoor cafes sipping cocktails and chatting away.
So now I have completely new memories of the city: Memories of taking a long walk with friends by the Wisla River past a huge new fountain and beautiful new gardens of the Warsaw Castle and into little neighborhoods that tourists rarely venture into but that are charming as can be; memories of a city that continues to transform itself as it moves forward; of a city that has survived.
I took thousands of photos while there; many for work, but some for me. And a specific set of photos for CR: the wondrous University of Warsaw Library with its exquisite rooftop garden, which encapsulates for me so perfectly the new Warsaw: innovative, charming, cosmopolitan. Because a stroll through the beautiful rooftop garden is a fantastic way to pause, and reflect on what was, what is, and what is yet to come. Take a look!