Relaxation, appreciation for our ancestral roots (Steve and I are both 50% Polish descent), and some great Polish cooking was what our family had in mind when we planned to spend our kid’s Spring Break in Warsaw, Poland. We could never have imagined the reality of arriving in a nation of grieving citizens.
The President and First Lady of Poland were killed, along with scores of members of the Polish government, in a disastrous flight between Warsaw and Smolensk, Russia. You can find the details in the news if you haven’t already heard them. What I want to share with you is what we witnessed and how, in the midst of such sorrow, my family was able to bring back some hope and faith with us to Moscow.
I was proud of the fact that after landing, we took the city bus from the airport to the plaza nearest our hotel. No 40 Zloty fee for us; our bus tickets were a total of 8 Zloty. We clicked along the sidewalk the three city blocks like the seasoned travelers we are. But then at exactly 12 Noon, there was a deafening silence, then cacophony of sirens, church bells, cars honking. It was an entire minute of grieving. Everyone on the street stopped. Bus drivers and cab riders beeped their horns. It was a collective cry of sorrow and pain.
We checked in, and told each hotel worker that we met that we were so sorry for their loss. Even if they only spoke Polish I had the feeling they understood our heartfelt condolences.
Our main goal of this trip quickly morphed into taking it day by day and relaxing as much as possible. Our life in Moscow is very full, for each member of our family individually and for us as a family, too. Anytime we can sleep in and have a buffet breakfast waiting for us is a huge treat. I really got used to the lounge treats at cocktail time. Because this is still considered off-season I found a great deal for us online, and we did indeed take advantage of it.
Our touring the first day seemed as normal as it could be in a nation with black ribbons on all her flags. I enjoyed the Polish National Museum and seeing the single Botticelli painting. There was a display of majolica ceramics that brought back fond memories of our life in Italy. The church artwork was breathtaking. I couldn’t believe so many of the wood sculptures were nearly 600 years old–they rivaled any modern work I’ve seen in any church, anywhere.
At night we tried to go out to dinner but were met by a procession of Poles with lit candles who were walking to the Presidential Palace to pay their respects and be together. It was awe-inspiring to see so many faces, young and old, affluent and perhaps not so much, all joined together to support one another.
And the candles! Candles were everywhere. They were like our votives but with metal lids to protect the flames.
But it wasn’t all about grief. I found joy in the Old City, which was surrounded by pieces of the original city wall. Warsaw was completely devastated by World War II and had to be rebuilt, ground up. The work that was done in the name of a battered yet proud culture is something I’ll never forget.
My biggest disappointment was finding the Chopin Museum closed for the period of mourning. Of course I understand–Chopin is Poland’s favorite son. Even his 200th birthday celebration had to pause to note his nation’s loss. It is supposed to be one of the most modern, innovative museums in all of Europe if not the world. I guess this means I’ll be back!
I left Poland with a profound respect for my heritage, and with tremendous pride in being an American and from a Democratic society. Because the other thing I witnessed was that this was a peaceful albeit unplanned, unexpected transition for a young democracy. Powerful stuff.