Monday, November 12, 2012

Independence Day

November 11th is Poland's Independence Day, celebrating the reversal of the three partitions of Poland and the return of the Polish State.  It started as a beautiful fall day.  The air was warm, the last of the golden fall was fading, and I ran a 10K.
Early afternoon, I decided to head to the center.  Upon arriving (and exiting the metro) I found the entire center shut down, and battalions upon battalions of riot police cordoning off Aleje Jerozolimskie and the Palac Kultury i Nauki.  There were fleets of police vans and police armored personal carriers with white "gun" turrets on top (I actually think they were non-lethal guns, probably shooting pepper spray or something).  There was a march, a protest, apparently, and things were looking to get hairy.  There were people carrying Polish flags, but also flags I hadn't seen before, and one or two that were most definitely white power neo-nazi type.  I whipped out my cellphone and snapped a few pictures of the police spectacle and went about my business.

Police van after police van driving around.

A wall of riot police marching down Marszalkowska.

The riot police coming into towards Rondo Dmowskiego.

Being in the northern latitudes, the sun sets pretty early in Poland this late in the year.  As the beautiful fall day faded into what would be a fair autumn night, blaring sirens, firecrackers, and loud speakers would fill the air.
I made way down Chmielna, and everything seemed normal.  Parents were strolling down, pushing strollers, couples walked arm-in-arm and went into the many cafes, and bohemes clustered around each other in their shabby clothes.  I exited Chmielna and came on the Nowy Swiat, right as a troop of riot police led a long line of chanting anti-facists.  The protesters waved flags, held banners, and chanted after some lady yelling over a loudspeaker.  They were protesting another protest that was evidently held by fascists.  They started blasting some dance music towards the end of it.  The line of protesters and police (most of whom looked bored) continued on their angry, yelling way, and I headed down to Rondo de Gaulle'a.

I waited at Rondo de Gaulle'a for a bus or tram, or anything to carry me on my way.  Nothing came.  People stood patiently for a bus that never appeared, and the majority of the traffic on the road were police cars flashing their lights.  The sun dipped down below the horizon.  After waiting around and not knowing what the hell was going on (I didn't have any foreknowledge of these marches and protests), I decided to go back to Centrum and go to the metro.
That didn't quite work out as planned.  I found that Aleje Jerozolimskie cordoned off and guarded by barriers and riot police.  The police were letting in people who lived on the street, but everyone else was not allowed.  Saying "Shit!" to myself, I hooked a left (south) and hoped to go around another way.  I hadn't put much thought in walking down the Politechnika, so, I just walked around some side streets and tried to cut back to Marszalkowska…  …and right into a situation that seemed like it was about to explode.  There were explosions (firecrackers, flares, and tear gas).  There were yet more lines of police, and many sketchy looking folks wearing face masks and scarfs.  The ground had some broken glass, as well as shattered paving stones, and the air was thick with tear gas. Someone was angrily yelling over a microphone, and I didn't know if it was someone from the police telling the crowd to disperse, or someone in the march making an angry speech to his followers.  It turned out that it was the latter.  There were also a crapload of people recording everything on their smartphones.  The patriotic music was turned on, and many people standing around starting singing in angry, croaking voices.  The police line made a move and closed in on part of the crowd, so I took it as high time to skedaddle and get out.  I again turned south, and then tried cutting in back to Marszalkowska.

Police barricading a side street.

I walked into a situation very similar to the last one I had left.  Though, I did find the source of the voice endlessly ranting over the loudspeaker (it seemed to becoming from some truck or float or whatnot.  Here, photographers of all sorts were shooting pictures.  There were press photographers wearing ballistic helmets, face masks, and vests that said PRESS on them.  The police stood, blocking off Marszalkowska, but also any side streets.  I finally whipped out my big camera and started taking pictures.  It was more of the same, people shouting, waving flags, menacing the walls of police, etc.  I took pictures until my camera's battery died.  Having enough of the commotion (also, the police started clearing Marszalkowska and started marching down the street), I decided just to walk all the way to Politechnika.  I strode down to Plac Konstitucji, easily leaving the big angry mess behind…

Where paving stones had been dug up to be thrown.

Über-nationalists clamoring around an open bus or truck of some sort,  which was blasting noise.

The police blocking off any way to get in or out.

Damage done by hooligans.

The police clearing the way down Marszalkowski.

Shattered paving stones that had been heaved.

The police clear the way down the street.

And I walked into another goddamn demonstration!  People waving flags, loudspeakers, people yelling and chanting, not so much police though.  Oh, all the kebab places were doing killer business too.  Seriously, I'm talking huge crowds standing outside them (and it was only 5 PM).  I cleared Plac Konstitucji, not even bothering to slow down or care what these people were angry about, and made it to Politechnika.  I loitered around and asked if the buses were coming.  Someone said, yes, one had been by, but they were coming very rarely.  I waited (the roads were empty and silent) and just as I was about to carry on, on comes a full regiment of riot police at the head of some march.  This one had motorcyclists, two armored hussars on horses, and elderly folk dressed as Home Army combatants.  Then, there came the people waving flags, yelling, causing a ruckus.  I vacated the area as quickly as I could, and made my way to Plac Na Rozdrozu.

Would you believe me if I told you there there was another demonstration there?  Because there was.  People waving flags (Polish and otherwise), praying, some loudspeakers blaring some man ranting.  Not even bothering to check this one out, I simply continued on my way and finally cleared all the rabble.

So… my afternoon turned out to not be what I thought it was going to be.  One question (still hasn't been answered) that was hanging around was: why is everyone so angry?  It's supposed to be a joyous holiday of coming together and celebrating all things Polish (at least, that's my ignorant, backwards view of it).

You can read more about what was going on here.  I highly suggested, if simply to see the picture of some poor schmuck about to get his shit fucked up by the police.  Seriously.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Another All Saints' Day

All Saint's Day, better known to those in North America as The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) (it's the Mexican influence.  It's like Cinco de Mayo, a well-known party day in the US, but a minor holiday in the Mexican state of Puebla), is a solemn, sad holiday were people go to visit the graves of their deceased loved ones.  They go and place special candles (znicz) as well as flowers (usually chrysanthemums) on the graves and clean up the area around the grave itself and say prayers for the dead.  The churches (usually inside the cemeteries themselves) are packed and there are on-going masses starting a few moments after the previous one ends.  National holiday (a day off from work) and most people travel back home to be with their families.
This year, I was in the Bródno Cemetery, in northeast Warsaw.  Cemeteries in Poland are not like the almost-golf courses of burial in the US.  The graves are more tomblike and grander, rather than the massive lawns spotted with headstones.  The cemeteries are also massive, sprawling areas, usually forested.  Most cemeteries have a small chapel (or two) inside where the funerals are held.

Ones who are buried recently usually sport a greater number of flowers and candles.  Older graves (going back 100+ years) are sometimes left uncleaned and unadorned.

People cleaning and decorating the graves.
Since there is such a massive influx of people to get into the cemeteries, the lines forming can become long, cramped, pushy affairs lasting many hours.  I heard of a five-hour wait to get into one cemetery.  Outside the cemeteries, sellers peddle flowers and candles, as well as taffy (panska skorka) and sweet puffed rice balls (szyszka (pine cones)), as well as sweet mini-bagels (obwarzanki).  Bródno Cemetery has a 'notorious' distinction amongst cemeteries in Warsaw, in that it's the only one with a mini-fair outside its walls.  There are grills, candy stands, hawkers selling gloves, hats, earrings, panflute CDs.  Inside, it's restricted to the taffy, rice balls, and obwarzanki.
On the way out, it too an hour of plodding long inch-by-inch to go about 200 yards.  So crammed were the people, that the police made a human divider for traffic (for one side going one direction, and the other another).  Tempers flared.

Main thoroughfares in the cemetery we clogged, but there was enough space for people to branch out.  The road leading to the entrance of the cemetery was another story…
It usually ends with families going home and having a big dinner together.  Sometimes they reminisce about those that have passed away.  Overall it's a very solemn and sad holiday.  Traditions are changing and many people did party the night before on Halloween.  They have license to party even harder because November 1st is a free day (no school and no work).  Not that there hasn't been backlash against Halloween.  There is a small campaign to banish it, as it is un-Polish.

Adoration of The Virgin.