I'm sitting in a little wine-and-coffee bar in Warsaw, listening to Polish conversations burble all about me, drinking Rioja, and talking with Zbigniew Rytel, a local TV journalist and a friend of a friend. The space is packed, and the two of us are penned around a small, wobbly table. Zbigniew is telling me why many Poles support the Iraqi war. After kicking the Socialist habit 15 years ago, he says, his countrymen are disinclined to agree with anything perceived as left-leaning.
I'm trying to listen, but table after table of impossibly attractive people is distracting me. This isn't what I was expecting from Warsaw. I thought that I would encounter a gray, grim place still nursing a post-Communist hangover. But no, the Polish capital is offering ribald menus, beautiful faces, and a Monday night hotter than any weekend. Earlier in the evening Zbigniew and I ate at Sense, an Asian fusion restaurant co-owned by a local actress. It too was jammed elbow-to-elbow, with twentysomething professionals downing fruity martinis and wasabi-encrusted steaks. The menu at Sense listed appetizers as FOREPLAY, entrées under HARD-CORE, and desserts as HAPPY ENDINGS. ("It isn't exactly the old country anymore," Zbigniew says.) Welcome to the post-post-Communist world, once home to the Socialist Party, now home to socializing and parties.
The country has reason to play. Like the neighboring Czech Republic and Hungary, it is celebrating two auspicious occasions in 2004: the 15th anniversary of the end of Communism, and, this month, its induction into the European Union. I'm here because I want to see these countries' distinctive personalities before prices and attitudes change with the currency. Much has already been transformed: drab Soviet-era blocks now sparkle with color, poor restaurant service has been replaced by white-glove niceties, and state-run hovels have been leveled to make room for rising design hotels. In this moment caught between fast-moving epochs, I'm curious about what has changed—and what hasn't—since Communism ended, so I've devised a five-day trek through Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.
Less than 20 years ago, there was an air of mystery and menace about Eastern Europe. Any Soviet-allied country had a repellently fascinating allure, like an evil empire straight out of a James Bond movie. But in 1989the threat, if not the intrigue, suddenly imploded. The Velvet Revolution transformed Czechoslovakia; Hungary dismantled its border fence with Austria; Poland's General Wojciech Jaruzelski stepped down soon after the country elected its first non-Communist prime minister. Russia stood alone, and a once-closed society began to open its doors to the world.
It's late, but Zbigniew says he wants to show me one more place: Klubokawiarnia, an underground club in the literal sense. We walk down an alley off a deserted street, find the unlabeled door, pass the bald, scowling doorman, and descend two flights of stairs to the subterranean space. The crowd—young, tattooed, and hipper-than-thou—are all smoking American Spirits and nodding their heads to trip-hop. Zbigniew motions to the surging dance floor. "I was twenty-seven in 1989," he says. "We worried about ideology and surviving. My son is eighteen; his generation is concerned with being rich and happy. And, of course, with looking cool."
I spend the next day wandering around, viewing Warsaw's design eccentricities. Because it was systematically razed by the Nazis in revenge for the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the city is an architectural hodgepodge, some neighborhoods rebuilt in the old style, others erected hastily using leftovers. But many relics of the Communist regime still stand, such as the 42-story Palace of Culture and Science, which rises from the center of town like a massive sentry tower. An all-too-representative example of dull Socialist architecture, this "gift" from Stalin was completed in 1955. Today it's generally abhorred, and the huge neon m&s sign sitting on its lower façade doesn't help much. I begin to feel hemmed in and return to my hotel, eager to plot my route for the trip ahead.
By 7:30 the next morning, I'm on the road for the 320-mile drive to Prague. I've been told by friends to expect an eight-hour trip—long for the relatively short distance. I soon see why. The EU's inductees are expected to improve their infrastructures, but the Poles have much work to do. The two-lane roads are narrow and packed with semitrucks and impatient motorists. Overtaking slower vehicles while swerving into oncoming traffic is the rule, and you must slice crisply back into the right lane among other autos pulling the same maneuver. I've attended several race car-driving schools, and the art of sudden acceleration and heavy braking that I learned there is not out of place on these roads.
Happily, I'm driving a Volkswagen Touran, a four-door people mover with a gutsy four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. The size of one's engine establishes hierarchical rank on these two-lane roads, with Audis and BMW's bullying the weaker autos. My favorite cars are the Communist-era Polski Fiats, cartoonish chest-high econoboxes that take up half a lane. They hug the very edge of the road, the better to allow everyone else to pass. The countryside is flat and modest, as if afraid to call attention to itself. Only spindly, leafless trees break up the horizon, arranged in rows of living fences. Brick farmhouses slump on the edges of fields; in the villages one-story houses hunch together in uneven heights, like schoolchildren on class-picture day. The towns have names like Meszcze and Ostrzeszów, consonants sloughed atop consonants.
The light in the morning and late afternoon is spectral, blurring the edges of buildings. I imagine that this is a land outside of regular time, on break from the fast-moving worlds of technology and media. It doesn't seem so far-fetched: at one point I pass a stoic-faced farmer turning his earth behind an iron plow drawn by a swaybacked old nag. I wave, but he gives no response. I stop for a late lunch at Bar Kubus, one of Poland's innumerable roadside eateries, and order one of the only two things that I can read on the Magic Marker-scrawled menu: pierogi. (The other item I recognize is a hamburger.) The regulars pay me no mind, nor is the cashier perturbed by my fumbled order. The euro may be coming, but another visitor passing through matters less than not at all.
I have my car insurance and documents ready as I approach the checkpoint between Poland and the Czech Republic. At the border—which is somewhat akin to a large carport with shacks at either end—the guard simply glances at my passport and waves me on to the former Czechoslovakia. This side, of course, looks the same: small towns, poor roads, a line in the mental sand. But then, some 20 miles from Prague, the road wondrously fans out into an enormous freeway. I've pushed the VW to 100 miles an hour and am still getting passed.
I was last in Prague in the summer of 1990 as a backpacker. I'd taken up the offer of a self-styled entrepreneur at the train station who was renting out his apartment in an old Soviet-era building for $6 a night. I clearly remember the carcass of a cat, desiccated and mangy, lying crumpled near the front entrance. That nobody had removed it was a testament to the lack of civic pride at the time. Things have definitely changed—the Prague that rises into view from the highway is more Vegas than Vilnius. New skyscrapers arch their shiny glass backs into the air, vying for the attention usually given to Prague's 100 spires. The feeling of dissociation is complete when I pull up in front of the Hotel Josef's glass façade, near Josefov, the old Jewish Quarter. Designed by Czech native Eva Jiricna, it is all sleek surfaces and hard lines, the lobby a study in urban cool. No dead cats here.