Of all the cities I’ve visited now in Central Europe Warsaw is my favorite—although Budapest holds a special place for obvious reasons. I think this may have a lot to do with the circumstances of my visit rather than something particular about the city, but I left Warsaw feeling far more hopeful about Central Europe than I’ve felt since I started studying the region’s history. I liked its Catholic spirit (we went over All Saints Day, which was a marvelous experience), I liked the open space, I liked the fall colors, I liked the vodka, but mostly, I liked the thoughtful optimism of the people we met.
I went with just one other student from the group who lived in Warsaw in the 90s, and we spent time with a few of her old friends who are now graduate students or young professionals. They certainly knew how to have a good time, but they were also thoughtful young Polish people with international experience and big ideas for Poland’s future. They were awfully proud of being Polish, and their enthusiasm for their country and for Warsaw was infectious.
One of her friends was particularly optimistic. He took us to restaurants where Slavic food was on the menu—and they were great restaurants, packed full of people and serving excellent food—and got totally geeked telling us how Poles are rediscovering their Slavic (i.e. not Western) identity. Every time he heard someone speaking Polish with an immigrant’s accent he’d point it out enthusiastically, taking immigration as a sign of improvement for the country. One of his plans for the future is to advertise in Israel to get Polish Jews who left after the Second World War to come back and reinvest in Poland (although if Antisemitism in Poland is anything like it is in Hungary, this might not be as feasible as he made it seem).
What he wants is economic development that contributes to a positive Polish identity. He doesn’t want development that’s simply been transplanted here from the West, and he doesn’t want Antisemitism or xenophobia or nationalism. I think it’s exactly what Central Europe needs, and it was so exciting to hear it coming from the mouth of someone who could really make it happen, a young Central European.