Shades of Grey – City Column

City Column



For those who live in Florence, Lisbon or Stockholm, travelling is always a bit of a letdown. Every city is uglier than your own. Better to live in Rotterdam, or Warsaw, if only to avoid disappointment.

Like Rotterdam, Warsaw was destroyed by Germany during the Second World War. Late in the war, in 1944, in retaliation for an uprising. But while the Dutch rushed to rebuild Rotterdam immediately after the war, sometimes with unfortunate results (the Lijnbaan), the Polish took a different approach. They reconstructed the Stare Miasto, the historic city centre, stone by stone, rebuilding both a castle and a cathedral. Maybe that’s why Polish builders are unfazed by your own modest remodelling plans.

That war…it took place in black and white, it was old hat, even for a native of Rotterdam. As a boy I had little interest in Zadkine’s statue, the stories or the rickety old films. It seemed like ancient history to me. And although most people think l was born in 1978, it was 1968 (a good year: Feyenoord won the championship for the fourth year in a row, and Hey Jude was at the top of the charts). 23 years after the war.

And 23 years ago today it was 1991 and I was student, travelling a little, working, playing, getting together with friends. Now that I think about it, my life hasn’t changed much. Unlike that of some of my contemporaries in Zagreb. They were fighting a war in 1991. What I mean to say is, it seems like yesterday.

Warsaw, on a drizzly Tuesday morning in October. It doesn’t get much greyer. An small, empty hop-on, hop-off train chugs across the market square in Stare Miasto. The area is protected by Unesco, but there is faint whiff of Disneyland. A few hundred metres away, one skyscraper after another is under construction, but the greatest proof of Polish resilience is that historic center. Its age: three times 23.