I’m back in Warsaw, and it’s wonderful. During Covid I staggered from one health crisis to another, and my wandering days appeared to be over. I might never see Old Town Square in Warsaw again, I thought. And yet here I am, gazing out at a glittering canopy of lights above an ice rink.
The only problem is that I still don’t know why I come or what, exactly, attracts me to this particular city. In Dublin Airport I was chatting to a man from Galway who was also heading for Warsaw, but he didn’t say why and I didn’t want to ask him.
I saw him later on the plane, sitting up near the front, although I can’t distinguish nowadays between Irish and Polish passengers. We all wear the same clothes, listen to the same music in our headphones, and eat the same nuts and chocolate bars during flights.
He was on the bus into the city. At the final bus stop I was lugging my suitcase on to the pavement when he touched my shoulder and wished me luck.
Finally I dared inquire.
“What brings yourself to Poland?”
“Family,” he said simply, and then he disappeared into the bustling throng, on the streets of glittering light.
He had a reason to be here, whereas I had none.
I suppose there are thousands of Polish-Irish families nowadays; love is not curtailed by national boundaries when young people are allowed mingle freely.
Yet I frequently abandon my beloved and my children in wintertime, and take flight to the faraway frosty streets of eastern Europe; and even yet, I can’t say why.
The General says it’s because of religion. He thinks Warsaw is my winterland of Catholic nostalgia. He even assumes that the city might be dull compared to Mullingar, which he describes as the hedonistic capital of Westmeath.
“If you go to Warsaw often enough,” he warned me, “you’ll end up sinking back into your Catholic delusions in old age. I can’t see why you don’t just come to Mullingar. We’ve got plenty of Christmas lights, and you can take it from me that the nightlife is the envy of Paris, so why waste aircraft fuel on trips to the far end of Europe?”
En route to my accommodation I stopped at a Carrefour Express to buy toothpaste and bottled water, and ended up talking with a Ukrainian woman who was working there about life since she fled her homeland.
“There are maybe one and a half million Ukrainians in Poland this winter,” she said.
“And it’s cold at this time of year,” I remarked.
“Yes,” she said, “but in Ukraine it is much colder”.
It had been a long journey from Donegal that morning, and I was hungry, so I found a bistro serving traditional Polish food. I ordered a knuckle of bacon with cabbage, horseradish and mustard, plus a liberal shot of vodka, as I watched the darkening window in the hope of snow.
I was listening to Symphony No 3 by Gorecki, and the voice of the solo soprano made me want to cry as I sat alone at the table with the din of a dozen or more diners around me. With Gorecki’s exquisite music and more vodka I fell into a cocoon of sweet nostalgia for the rest of the evening.
The following day I realised I needed a pair of warm socks and boots to keep the rain and slush off my feet, so I ventured out to TK Maxx.
I stopped for an omelette breakfast in a small cafe where I often wrote columns 10 years ago, and my computer picked up the wifi signal automatically, which made me feel strangely at home.
With good wifi to Westmeath the General appeared on the screen again and chided me for abandoning him and neglecting Mullingar.
“You could have spent a week in the Greville Arms Hotel,” he said.
“The Christmas lights here are amazing,” I said, changing the subject, but he wasn’t impressed.
“For God’s sake,” he retorted, “we have Christmas lights in Mullingar too.”
I agreed. But Warsaw is different. As I walk the streets here I can never forget that this city was razed by Nazi Germany in 1944 and yet now shines in the dark like a beacon of hope. The glow of LED sculptures, and canopies of light above the pavements and around the ice rink, keep reminding me of the astonishing resilience of Europe. Perhaps that is why I’m here.