This last week I have spent in Warsaw, Poland. It’s an interesting city, quite beautiful, particularly the old town, with lots of parks all over and many great museums for those who are interested in such activities.

Warsaw is a strange mix of modern, fast developing, urban life and old communistic stagnation. You’ll see it all over the city, the juxtapositions between old and new times. Like the new Hard Rock Café next to the Palace of Culture & Science which is a typical building of the Stalin-era – pompous and massive. It was actually a «present» from Stalin to the Polish people, but it was hated by the regular man and woman. It soon gathered a whole string of nicknames from Stalin’s Palace to Russian Wedding Cake. The one that stuck in most minds was the Elephant in Lacy Underwear – a reference both to the building’s size and to the fussy sculptures that frills the parapets.

Today the whole area is changing. Around the old elephant the new City with glass, steel and concrete skyscrapers are shooting up. It’s how Warsaw is. Again and again you are confronted with this juxtaposition. Like how people behave. You still find the old attitude mixed with a more western oriented attitude. When entering some of the restaurants or shops or offices you sometimes feel like you have entered into hostile territory. Those who are suppose to service you, act like you are bothering them with you mere presence. But then again in other places you are met by the friendliest staff in the world. It’s a leftover from when East-European countries were the Eastern Block, when they were part of the Warsaw Pact. In those days people would mind their own business and look away, otherwise they would risk getting arrested or even worse. I have witnessed it myself from travels before the fall of communism in Europe. People would treat you like an enemy in public, but as soon as you got to know them privately, they were the most passionate and friendliest people you could think of. What you encounter in Warsaw today is a reminiscence of that era. And it seems to be a generation divider. The elder people seem to still hold on to the old attitude, while the younger generation who didn’t experience the suppression of communism, are more outspoken and interacting.

For me Warsaw is a magnificent city, with a great history that is still unfolding. And for any photographer it’s an inspiring place. So much to shoot anywhere you turn you head.


74 thoughts on “Transition

  1. I like the juxtaposition of the guitar and the building, the similarities in the shapes work well. With communism a fading memory for many, and something before the time of younger generations, is there any retro-nostalgia for the communist monstrosities such as The Palace of Culture & Science? Or does the Poles hated of the Russians prevent this?

    1. It’s really hard to answer on the behalf of the Poles. But I would believe that the majority of the population still doesn’t have much positive feelings for the old Soviet communistic imperialism. I certainly haven’t seen or felt any retro-nostalgia, but maybe one day?

  2. Polish culture, art, literature and people are always interesting for me. They are so nice people and we have a little village whose residents are all Polish… even it is called a Polish village… I wish to travel to Poland one day… Thank you so much dear Otto, this is amazing photograph, love, nia

  3. What a nice picture!
    It’s so ironic that the Polish have the same soviet service mentality still ingrained in parts. I myself only have experience with Russians there, but it’s true, they don’t have any service mentality. There is a Russian supermarket in Berlin that doesn’t employ any Russians, because they are just too unfriendly to the customers. Interestingly also in my favourite café the Café Chagall, which serves mostly Russian food, the staff is often rather unfriendly. I think it has something to do that they believe that only crazy people smile at strangers.

    1. It’s quite astonishing how that old soviet mentality have been spreading to their former allies. Even in Cuba, where people aren’t really like this, you can encounter the same attitude – although less now than 10-15 years ago.

  4. Your post is very timely. My son was in Warsaw this past week as well with a group and now they’re in Israel. I’ve never been to Poland and am anxious to hear hear his impressions of Warsaw. I can imagine that it takes generations for some wounds to heal and for some attitudes to change. I like the juxtaposition of the new and the old in your image.

  5. Often I notice that visitors to my site come from Poland. I wonder who they are and what appeals to them. Yet, to my knowledge, none have subscribed. They visit, but who are they? Thank you for your insight.

    1. I don’t if it answers your question about Polish visitors. It might just been coincidental, though, that they don’t subscribe…

  6. Brilliant shot to display what you are writing about. “An elephant in lacy underwear” is quite a name for a building. There is no guesswork as to how they feel about it, it is right up front in what they call it. It is unlikely I will ever see Warsaw myself so I appreciate this look through your eyes.

    1. Your are right, the name of the building says it all, doesn’t it? I am glad you enjoyed the visit through my eyes – shot as it is, at least here on the blog.

  7. The photograph conjures everything that embodies the life of a city, especially its architecture and politics. Coupled with your commentary, the visitor receives a sense of the complexity of Warsaw with its past and ever-changing present. Thanks, it’s a “telling” image, Sally

  8. Quite often a picture can be worth a thousand words and your photo is just that Otto. The old and the new, ancient and modern, looking inward and outward and accepting change. A great capture.

  9. A ‘picture perfect’ moment to delight in and food for the brain on a place one usually does not think about unless it calls you there for work, vacation or relationship connections.
    Thanks, I needed your tour…:)

  10. Sounds like it could be any vibrant city if you just changed the names around. Doesn’t make it any less magical though. However, I can’t think of many that have buildings nicknamed Elephant in Lacy Underwear, that’s a winner IMO!

    1. Yes, it could be any city. At the same time every city has its own characteristics, its own rhythm and it’s own mentality. Elephant in Lacy Underwear is quite a name, isn’t it?

  11. 🙂 I am Polish and personally I don’t like Warsaw and think there more interesting and beautiful Cities in Poland. True is that architecture-wise this place is really mixed up and in some way very unique 🙂 First time when I went there I was actually very surprised and found it very funny when I saw a modern glassy sky scraper build between old post communistic buildings. What the architect or whoever it was who approved the project to mixed up the two such a remote and different eras together, I have no clue. I know myself that the communism left a huge imprint on the whole country and people mentality and attitude which can be experienced on daily basis and the country still differs from the western part of Europe but in the next few generations it will change for sure. Hopefully for better 😉

    BTW great photo 😉 Like the way you showed the two different cultures 😀 Well done!

    1. It’s great to have a comment from one who actually knows the country and its capital. Yes, I am sure it will take some time before the Polish people can rid themselves of the soviet imposed, cultural mentality. But I am sure it will be for the better. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  12. Jeg liker ditt bilde, og det er interessant å lese hvordan du opplever byen og folket!
    De fleste polakker jeg kjenner ønsker “kultur palasset” jevnet med jorden…

    Første gang jeg besøkte Warszawa var i 1964, da var jeg to år : ) Mye har endret seg siden den gang! Warszawa var min fars by fram til våren 1944… Begge foreldrene døde under krigen og han ble som 15 år gammel sent på arbeidsleir til nord Finland. I 1945 kom han til Norge og møtte den store kjærligheten! : )
    I neste uke reiser jeg til Warszawa, til gamlebyen, som var hans nærområde… Gleder meg, bare jeg og mitt kamera! ; )

    Takk for hyggelig kommentar på mitt bilde! Jeg setter stor pris på det!

    Ønsker deg gode dager! : )

    1. Jeg har forstått at de fleste polakkene ønsker “kulturpalasset” jevnet med jorden. En spennende bakgrunn du har – noe som gjør det ekstra spennende å reise til Polen. God reise. Ta noen spennende bilder da! Og takk for kommentaren.

  13. Interesting photo and interesting words, complementary each other. I like the colors in your photo. I have been in Poland just a couple of time around ten years ago because of my work and beside that I had only opportunity to visit Warsaw and Krakow (not sure about spelling, sorry) and found the second more interesting and pleasant. For sure the past had a big influence on the people behaviour. And even the architecture, the colors of the building can influence the people living in these places.

    1. Yes, building and the surroundings influence people – as people influence the people through their culture and social behaviour. Unfortunately I won’t be able to visit Krakow this time, but I understand it’s a real lovely city.

  14. Jesus, what is it with hard Rock Cafes? I have never seen there appeal and perhaps deep down I resent their presence whenever I come across one. Well OK not ‘perhaps’ … I do resent them. A bit like those franchise Irish pubs with their faux atmosphere. Love the desription of the ‘elephant in lacy underwear’ I can see that. 🙂

    1. I agree with you. I don’t like all the McDonalds and KFCs that pops up everywhere too. Unfortunately that seems what people want. And in so doing lose their own identity and culture.

  15. Jesus, what is it with hard Rock Cafes? I have never seen there appeal and perhaps deep down I resent their presence whenever I come across one. Well OK not ‘perhaps’ … I do resent them. A bit like those franchise Irish pubs with their faux atmosphere. Love the description of the ‘elephant in lacy underwear’ I can see that. 🙂

  16. Yes, Otto – that feeling of being treated with distrust. I was in East Germany during 1966 – even went into East Berlin. The way you described the response is exactly what we experienced. It was very difficult for me to know I was a threat to people. My talking to them could create consequences that I could not imagine. Actually, we smuggled in some fresh coffee and nylon stockings for a family who were friends of our Canadian friends. We had no idea how much of a risk that was – to us and to them.

    1. Unfortunately the old Eastern European regimes had a almost unbelievable grip on the people. Hopefully things will turn to the better now.

      1. Absolutely, I find your article giving very good observation!
        The way people treat each other is very often point of irritation,
        not only to visitors.
        But I must say that fortunately there are also a lot of exceptions to it!!!!
        For so far I know most people in Poland hate “elephant” 😉
        It’s a symbol of control and so immense like the system was.
        sometimes I’m afraid that nowadays in hidden way still
        the church is having huge grip on people and somehow keeping
        them from development but thats very personal observation
        from the point of a not believer…
        Look next time what kind of buildings churches are it chocks
        mee each time when I’m there.
        There is a nice piece written by Richard Kapuscinski about changes
        in modern global time, for so far I know it only in Polish, maybe it is possible to find it
        in Italian because he gave there a lot of colleges. I will look it up and translate.

        Stil one more grip of money is also unbelievable…..and money and distrust is a very difficult one

  17. Given the history of the Polish people it must not be easy to trust others until a comfort level is established. How difficult for a country to emerge out of a conflicted past and into a future where most people would prefer to move forward without looking back. I’m sure each generation has a different perspective, too. It would be fascinating to visit Poland before it is more fully ‘westernized’ with more of the giant guitar motifs! I can easily see why you’d love to photograph there, Otto. It must have been a wonderful trip! Debra

    1. That’s always the cases with countries that suddenly becomes more open. It’s fascinating to visit the old culture still being part of the community before it fades away. But at the same time it’s good with the often positive development that follows opening up a country – even if it becomes more “westernized”.

  18. Warsaw must be a really beautiful place, as you described its beauty so beautifully with your words and picture. Your picture always looks unique, I always find looking each picture you post something is there as your signature creativity; but as I do not have enough knowledge about the technicality of photography; so I am not able to describe with words.
    Thanks a lot Otto, for making us part of the trip. 🙂

  19. Warsaw is one of the great old cities I’ve always wanted to visit, and I learned a lot from your post. Are there any pre-Second World War buildings still standing?
    I’m not surprised that the older generation still feel scared. It’s not easy to cast off those dark years when they lived with so much suspicion and fear.

    Congratulations Otto, your photo is brilliant.

    1. I am sure that there are some pre-Second World War buildings lefts somewhere. But the Germans pretty much bombed and laid the whole city in ruins. The old part of the city had to be complete restored afterwards. Thanks for your nice words.

  20. Thanks for this analysis, Otto. It just goes to show what a systemic evil Stalinist Communism was that there is so much lingering distrust. It will take another generation for the people to breathe freely.

  21. Siempre he escuchado que Varsovia es preciosa, ahora después leerte más ganas me han entrado de visitarla, me encantaría poder estar viajando continuamente y fotografiando lo que veo, pero claro es un sueño, solo eso, ¡la foto es preciosa!, gracias de nuevo por compartir tus experiencias, muchos besos Münchow

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