A trip down memory lane

I’ve now been living in Poland for nearly 30 years and the scary thought occurs to me that I’ve now spent more of my life here than in the UK. One thing seems clear to me though: the country has changed – and by a great deal

When I first came to Warsaw, the streets were dark at night. There wasn’t much night life, just a few ramshackle pubs, and. as I found out to my own personal cost, the streets were not entirely safe after dark. To get to the outer districts such as Ursynów required a bus. The first metro line opened in the same year I arrived, but it did not run all the way to the centre of the city as it does today, but only from Kabaty forest to pl. Politechnika. Anyone who wanted to get to the centre had to wait until 1998, while the entire line was only finished off with the opening of its final station in Młociny in 2008. The development of the second line, in comparison, seems to have taken place at lightning speed.

In the late 1990s, my uncle came to Warsaw on a business trip and I remember the buildings of the time made quite an impression on him. I remember him commenting, “the architecture is pretty dreadful.” And indeed it was. The first time I went to the city’s Bemowo district, I thought I’d arrived in Legoland. All I could see were square blocks lined up in rows. Though the district still remains not very accessible, it certainly looks different now and finally seems to have its own thriving community. This was also the time when the first modern stores were being opened. Before then, if you wanted to do your shopping, you might have headed to the street market on pl. Defilad, which was just a complete mess of stalls and kiosks with Vietnamese people selling food that tasted the same no matter what you ordered. Or, if you were prepared to get up early, you might have gone to Tysiąclecie stadium, where no football game had been played for god knows how long. It was said to be the largest outdoor market in Europe and everyone who shopped there knew that not all of the goods (if any) were entirely legal. Now it has been replaced by the big red and white National Stadium.

For me, all this made Warsaw new and exciting. But as each new building went up, the city seemed to lose something that made it unique. The only skyscrapers when I first came to Warsaw were the LIM building, otherwise known as the Marriott hotel, and the Palace of Culture and Science, which every taxi driver would refer to as “our present from Stalin”. When I really noticed the changes that were taking place was probably around 2002–2003. Around that time I went back to the UK and spent a year living in London. When I came back I was met by an American friend who commented that everything had changed since I’d been away – and indeed it had. It was as though high-rise office blocks were being built everywhere. I realise that some of the people reading this weren’t even alive at that time, and this makes me think back further. The city has always been changing. Ursynów, which comprises much of its southern part, only came into being in the 1970s. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the city was totally devastated during the Second World War, so its old town isn’t that old at all, even though it was faithfully reconstructed according to the original designs. However, mistakes were made. Huge areas of the city that had survived the war were knocked down to make way for that present from Stalin.

I suppose I shouldn’t get too sentimental. Memory is fallible and we seem to quickly forget all that wasn’t quite so nice. We probably all have rose-tinted memories of the past. One thing I do remember, though, was the absolute determination of Polish people at the time to “catch up with the West.” Thanks to all the development since then, Polish people have grown richer and their quality of life has improved. The streets are safer and Warsaw has become the business capital of the CEE region. Much of this change has been driven by the real estate sector, but investors wouldn’t have come to Poland in the first place if they hadn’t been confident that it was a secure economic environment. And it was this investment that also created such favourable conditions. A few years ago I wrote an Endpiece about how envious I was at having never been invited to MIPIM, where you might actually be reading this text. However, I don’t begrudge the sector for having a knees-up out in France. After all, it’s an important industry that has changed and will continue to change people’s lives.