I have been told that you haven’t truly experienced a Polish milk bar until you’ve been scolded by the surly staff. I may just be fortunate, but I managed it on my first try.
The woman behind the till glared at me as I took my time to try and decipher the sprawling menu up on the wall; Dozens of dishes containing too many Ws and Zs for me to guess what they were. The queue of elderly customers shuffled past, placed their order, and then made their way to a small window where matronly women in 50’s style smocks snatched their receipts and ladled out the food, barking the order back to the waiting diners and slamming the plates on the hatch’s metal base.
Frustrated, the till operator orders me to stand aside and flashes me a laminated menu in English. Most of the dishes have gone by this time of day, the price labels removed from the board to indicate that they have run out. Panicking, I point towards some items at random and take my ticket to the tiny gap in the wall. Within seconds a bowl of red, watery soup and a plate of plump dumplings are thrust towards me.
Milk bars, or bar mleczny in Polish, are a throwback to communist times when fresh food was hard to come by. Most farmers preferred to sell their produce on the black market than to the government for measly prices and so these state-subsidised cafeterias blossomed. Not only were they inexpensive, but they were one of the few places that you were guaranteed to find a hot, nutritious meal – usually meat and potatoes, soups, vegetables, pierogi and as the name suggests, dairy.
Floor to ceiling windows wash the wood-panelled walls and beige surfaces in natural light. The decor, as well as the furniture, looks as though it hasn’t been updated since 1970. Old men clutch their cutlery and shuffle with their plates towards their seats. Many of them are dressed in what a Polish colleague of mine calls ‘communist jumpers’; garishly patterned knitwear in tediously dull colours. Zigzags of browns and navy blues that were probably the height of fashion during Jaruzelski’s rule. Sitting beside them were a group of students, decked in skinny jeans and thick, hipster glasses. Some of them wearing almost identical – but obviously much more expensive and fashionable – sweaters.
Although not much has changed for the bar mleczny in terms of food, service or decor – they are still inexpensive, cafeteria style places with a fast turnover of food and custom – the demographics of their clientele are certainly shifting. As well as the older and poorer customers, students and hip twentysomethings have taken to them with gusto and many Polish people visit for a hearty throwback to classic, homemade cooking. For tourists like me, they’re a perfect place to get a feel for what the country was like before the iron curtain fell.
These aren’t the only places steeped in communist nostalgia. The much-derided Trabant cars still pootle around the city and military transport vans ferry tourists around the main sights, only now painted in colourful pastels rather than bland greys. Many of the communist-era buildings remain too; blocky, brutalist behemoths that have been repurposed rather than torn down, often with a new life that is a far cry from the original uses. The former censorship building is now home to the Polish Press Agency and the old Communist Party headquarters houses Eastern Europe’s first Ferrari dealership, only the red colour of the car on display connecting its past to its present.
“It’s kind of our way of sticking two fingers up to communism.” laughed Jazek, nodding towards the vehicle. We had met outside Cuda na Kiju, a popular bar that has also set up shop in the headquarters, to take a tour of Warsaw’s communist sights. I was taken aback a little by how he spoke of Communism in an almost nostalgic way. He must only be in his mid-late 30’s and too young to remember much of the 80s, but he told stories of his family with a wistful smile spread across his face. All the automotive talk prompted him into a story of how his uncle had waited 8 years to get his hands on a car, gradually working his way up the waiting list. When he finally reached the top, he was shuffled down to the bottom again due to his anti-communist leanings. “It was a Polski Fiat.” He grinned, “Hopefully we will see one driving around at some point. They were incredibly reliable cars. I’d love to have one.”
We passed through Pl. Konstytucji, the constitution square used as a parade ground during the post-war years, as Jazek gave us insight into life under communism; The queues for food and the way people had to barter with tourists for foreign currency in order to buy high-end clothing, the way any anti-communist sentiments had to be hidden in letters in the form of code. Strangely, all of this was said with a slight fondness. It doesn’t seem uncommon for people to speak of the past in this way. Despite 99% of the population being against the ideology even at the height of communism, they have a tendency to remember the good things, particularly the sense of community that it fostered.
In the square, we were now surrounded by huge, blocky buildings. They were purposefully designed to tower over pedestrians and make them feel small and insignificant, just a cog in a huge machine. Most of them were now bars and clothes shops. The things that struck me most though, were the neon sculptures blinking proudly on the corners of the plaza – a billow of smoke puffing up from a restaurant on the corner of Ludwika Waryńskiego and the huge silhouette of a woman batting a volleyball on the corner of Koszykowa – another relic of the previous century.
The first neon sign in Warsaw was lit in 1926. In the inter-war period, there was a proliferation of this kind of sign, resulting in almost 70 illuminating the streets. They were used for everything from private enterprises – such and cafes and bars – public services like metro stations and libraries, or even propaganda One of the most famous was the sign that read “Dozbrójmy Polskę na morzu” (Let’s rearm Poland on the sea). Unfortunately, most failed to survive the Second World War and once communism took hold, advertisements were seen as antagonistic to the communist system. They could only be installed if they were informative or decorative.
After Stalin’s death, the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’ of the 1950s and 60s ushered in time of “neonisation”. Warsaw, still in ruins and shrouded in darkness, was to become the European capital of neons. There was a boom in creativity. Accomplished architects and designers set about creating unique typographies and vast kinetic signs to adorn the rooftops. Soon the city was bathed in a magical neon glow. The advertisements became a symbol of the ‘culturally relaxed’ post-Stalinist Poland.
In 2004, David Hill and his partner Ilona Karwinska were so struck by the remaining neons that they decided to document them. One thing led to another and they even began to acquire old signs, often rusting and in disrepair. The first was from a shop called Berlin, which had sold textiles manufactured in East Germany. The sign was removed and about to be destroyed so Ilona contacted the owners and they agreed to give it to her.
The Berlin sign can now be found, restored to its former glory, in the Neon Museum in Praga. It was this one advertisement that started the collecting process. Ilona found it so hard to see so many of the signs being destroyed that she decided to save as many as possible, eventually amassing enough to open the collection up to the public.
The Neon Museum is one of the Polish capital’s quirkiest and best attractions. It sits across the Vistula River, away from Warsaw’s centre, in the run down and crumbling neighbourhood of Praga. In recent years Praga has seen a creative upturn, with artists and hipsters moving in to transform the area’s tumbledown warehouses and factories into creative spaces. One such is the Soho Factory – a hub of cafe’s, organic markets and restaurants.
As I approach I see an old Trabant parked outside next to huge letters scattered against the facade. Inside, The Berlin sign is one of the first I come across. All around it are the illuminated advertisements for bars, cafes and shops. Many are lit, displaying intricate designs in typically Varsavian typography. They are like works of art. Those yet to be restored are stacked on the floor below, decaying with rust, but just as beautiful as those on display.
At the end of one glowing corridor stands Syrenka on ul. Grójecka, the proud mermaid symbol of the city with an open book, once the sign above a library. Nearby is the iconic ‘Mydła Farby’, an advertisement for a Soap & Paint company.
It’s hard not to fall for these signs, to imagine the way their huge designs must have illuminated the city and added a little glamour to an otherwise brutalist city. Despite them standing disconnected from their original locations in a warehouse, the names of bars and clubs, companies and cafes give a unique insight into the social lives of people living during this time of thawing.
We reached our final stop back in the centre of the city; The Palace of Culture and Science. It’s a building that casts a long shadow – both figuratively and literally – across Warsaw. Originally commissioned by Stalin as a ‘gift from the Soviet people’, this 231-metre tall building is a touchy subject among warszawianies. Approximately 5,000 workers were ferried in from all over Poland and the Soviet states to work on the construction, often for little or no pay, of what most people see as a symbol of Russian dominance. Varsovians still commonly use derogatory nicknames to refer to the palace; Pekin (“Beijing”, because of its abbreviated name PKiN), Stalin’s Birthday Cake or, as Jezek delighted in telling us, Stalin’s Dick. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the building but I can see why it evokes a mixed response. It is a reminder to the population of the worst aspects of a time so many residents of the city actually lived through.
Today it has been converted to contain cinemas, theatres, bars and museums. like in much of the city, it is a monument to the past that has been repurposed to embrace the future and I feel that it perfectly represents this slight retro revival in Warsaw; Remembering the worst of communism while embracing its best properties – including angry milk bar staff.
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43 Jana Pawla II, commercial space 34
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