They don’t ask you “business or pleasure?” in passport control. I thought they would. Maybe they ask in other places that aren’t Warsaw. It’s not what comes to mind when you brainstorm vacation destinations. Business then. 

It’s a pretty city on the day I fly in. Cerulean skies. Trees dripping gold, orange, and sienna. I thought it would be colder. Gloomier. More like “eastern Europe.”

The hotel is a hip, gray rectangle on a corner surrounded by other hip, modern hotels. A steady flow of brisk professionals in stylish but typical coats stride up and down the sidewalks. They are like stock images. 

This is a stock-image city. Sharp. Neutral. Orderly. 

It is so different from the quaint, warren-like streets of Florence, Italy, or the fairy-tale feel of York, England. It is different even from the international patchwork of Toronto or the circuit board of L.A. 

“Business,” I would have said if the customs officer had asked me. But I have free time to see the sights. 

So, I walk in Warsaw and try to find a door in the slick glass and cement into what it really is. 

Google Maps is a funny thing. It has this sort of bullheaded, dogged commitment to the “fastest route,” a commitment that tramples over logic and sometimes physics. it prompts me to turn down what is obviously an alley. On one side, there’s a parking structure. On the other, red brick. 

The bricks are thinner than modern bricks, the mortar crumbling out of the seams. The high rise towering above me appears to have been nested in the ruins of an older building, possibly built on the same footprint. 

Now I notice similar ruins all over. In the corporate heart of Warsaw, skyscrapers flank vacant lots grown over like mini meadows. Here and there a brick or stone wall of what appears to be an apartment building or an old row of shops is visible. Old windows are filled in with bricks. 

It’s as if the modern city of Warsaw has been installed, like dentures, in the red brick gums of the old city. 

It makes sense. Poland has been vassal to one regime and empire after another, eras punctuated by wars. Warsaw has been bombarded until there was essentially nothing left. But it surprises me that they’ve kept the bones of the old city.

There are essentially two theories about what we should do with old stuff: restoration and preservation. Restoration seeks to return old buildings or objects to their original condition.

Preservation simply stabilizes and protects a historic building or object in the state in which it was found. There are arguments for both. I think choosing the right philosophy depends a great deal on the thing you’re preserving or restoring. 

For example, Drayton Hall. 

Drayton Hall is a stately classical manor in Charleston, South Carolina. A regal, columned edifice standing in the middle of a lush lawn.

It’s an intentional kind of quiet outside and empty inside. Paint the color of green copper patina flakes from intricate molding. Marble fireplaces stand cold. Drayton Hall is being preserved, not restored. 

Drayton Hall was home to people who enslaved people. Precise records kept by generations of landowners show massive wealth accrued at the cost of generations of human lives. 

To restore Drayton Hall would be to replicate grandeur and beauty bought with atrocity and suffering, to glorify wealth while ignoring how it was obtained. It is right that it should decay slowly, a declaration that antebellum luxury was maintained by an evil economy and cannot exist without it. You cannot delight in the romance of Scarlet O’Hara without delighting in horrific suffering. We cannot unravel the history of places or ourselves and select only the threads we like. Time is a tangled thing. 

And as I wait to cross the street in Warsaw, images from the dawn of summer at Drayton Hall return in Warsaw’s autumn. On the street corner, I notice, beneath my feet, a metal plaque. It says simply: “Here stood the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto.” I am overcome with a sense of temporal vertigo and grief as I see two cities bound together. 

I wonder if Warsaw has left the grizzled fragments as an act of preservation, an acknowledgment that we cannot build over the stones and stories that, however horrific, make up our present. 

It is odd, though, when museums are your idea of a “good time” and vacations are educational endeavors. Given the nature of history, you find yourself partaking in tourism built on a moral obligation to know the grim truth. It’s important but not fun. But to skip over the terrible history of a place feels akin to vacationing at a luxury resort in a nation wracked by poverty—curating an artificial, comfortable experience for yourself makes you kind of an ass, doesn’t it? 

Maybe there is a third kind of travel that isn’t only selfishly concerned with business or pleasure, something more human, more welcoming of the grief and joy of more people than just ourselves. I hope so.


Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons user Adrian Grycuk (CC BY-SA 3.0 PL)

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