My trip to Eastern Europe really made me regret not paying more attention in high school history classes. The end of the Cold War was even a current event when I was in high school- one that I was largely oblivious to. I do remember being afraid of Russia in elementary school, but I think that was because they were often portrayed as villains on Wonder Woman. In many European cities, you can feel the history through the beautiful architecture. Not so much the case in Warsaw. I didn’t realize that over 85% of the city center was destroyed in WWII. The Soviet Union liberated Poland from the occupation by German forces in 1944 and then took over and installed a Communist government, which ruled until 1990. One neighborhood in the city center, Old Town, was meticulously rebuilt after the war to look like it did in the 1800s. Walking through Old Town, now a UNESCO site, is pretty wild. It looks like it was built over 200 years ago when in fact it was built in the 1950’s-and the Royal Palace wasn’t completed until the 1980s! This is a very small part of Warsaw, one that you aren’t likely to spend much time in as a student, other than to show visiting friends and family the town. The rest of the city has a drab architecture that reminds me of the public housing projects in my hometown of Chicago. In most areas, Warsaw lacks the European charm I find in so many other cities. Air pollution is also a problem, as Poland is the most polluted country in the EU. Smog is a huge issue in the winter, primarily due to the heavy reliance on coal throughout the country. Smog levels were an issue when I visited. I was fighting the last few days of a cold so I was especially sensitive to it. Most of the city smelled a bit like cigarette smoke due to the smog and I could feel the effects of watery eyes and headaches.
Of course, Warsaw has many positive qualities as well. One is that there is rapid economic development throughout the city. Tremendous numbers of international companies are moving to Warsaw and English speaking employees-even with just basic Polish skills- are in high demand. The cost of living is incredibly low in Warsaw. I rarely made a purchase, including meals out, for more than $10 and student meals and accommodations are even more affordable. Included in that low cost of living is the affordable tuition the schools offer, many of which are highly reputable. Warsaw is a very walkable city with a good and easy-to-understand public transportation center. I was there in January, which is the coldest month. I grew up in Chicago, so when I think of difficult winter weather, I think of a cold that is painful and numbing. Warsaw was cold (in the 20s or so), but not unbearable. With good winter wear, it was only the smog-not the weather-that made walking around outside unpleasant.