Postcard from a semi-detached Warsaw

EYEWITNESS

Scenes from a state of emergency
It’s the first week of the state of epidemic emergency and an eerie atmosphere has settled over my suburb in Warsaw. There’s a strange sense of normality in the air. Is this the calm before the storm?

At zero hour on Sunday morning, Poland officially entered a state of epidemic emergency as per the order announced by Prime Minister Morawiecki on the previous Friday evening. All restaurants, bars, cafés and stores selling non-essential goods were ordered shut. Bans were also placed on public gatherings and religious services with more than 50 people in attendance. The national borders were closed to foreign nationals without residence permits. This came after schools, cinemas and museums had closed their doors earlier in the week. 

That’s why I was a little reluctant to drag myself out of bed on Sunday morning and take my border collie for her morning walk around my neighbourhood – or what I called at the time, the State of Epidemic Emergency Zone. And sure enough, the streets were empty, save for one other dog owner. But then again, it’s not an uncommon sight on a Sunday morning.

But by the time I had swapped my dog’s leash for my daughter’s pram and ventured out for a midday stroll, I was presented with a completely different proposition. First a jogger passed by, then a father and son on bicycles. I was given a fright by the squeal of kids playing in a nearby backyard. Other parents – no, whole families – were walking their prams towards the park. At the park, more kids were kicking around the football. More joggers ran laps, overtaking elderly walkers. The sun was out, not a speck of cloud – or smog haze – in the deep blue of the early spring sky. The forsythia shrubs had begun to bloom. 

When I smelt sizzling kiełbasa wafting from a backyard, I had to stop. This was just too much. A BBQ on the first day of the state of epidemic emergency? Really?

I stood in the middle of the road, held in half awe and half confusion, suffering from a type of discord between the senses and the intellect. The stress and the uncertainty of the past week were still firmly embedded in the subconscious. All the questions at the back of our minds: will I have a job to go to on Monday? Will my business have customers? What to do with the kids and the mortgage? And yet my eyes, ears and nose processed completely different information. And so I did the one and only thing I could manage at the time and gave a goofy smile to my daughter.

William Burke is an Australian journalist and author based in Warsaw. In 2010, he brought the WWII-rescue story of Albert Göring to the world in his book ‘Thirty Four’ and the BBC documentary ‘Goering’s Last Secret’. He is currently managing editor of Poland Today.

The atmosphere had changed by Monday – but only slightly. My social media feed showed deserted streets in downtown Warsaw. The trams and busses were trundling by with noticeably lighter loads. My usual online pharmacy had put a temporary freeze on online orders and another outlet had restricted purchases to one item per order. A new sign had been placed on the entrance to my local store, declaring that only five people were allowed in at a time. Inside, customers and staff wore gloves. The next day, a new sign appeared requesting that customers only pay by card. No big deal. Poland is overwhelmingly a cashless society where 90% of transactions are carried out by card and 80% of which are contactless. So I just tapped my phone on the terminal and escaped for the fresh air outside.

Outside, the scenes were similar to Sunday, except the adults minding the kids had grown older. Poland’s trusty army of babcie and dziadkowie (grandmothers and grandfathers) had answered the call to look after their school-less grandchildren while their parents tried to hold down their jobs and pay the mortgage. The sky was once again unblemished, only a sole aeroplane flew overhead – no doubt due to the fact LOT Polish Airlines had cancelled all international flights, except for flights for Poles returning home as part of the airline’s #LotdoDomu programme

But there was still activity on the ground. The morning traffic was lower than usual, although it was obvious that there were still some people commuting to work, fixing their ties and make-up at the lights. Courier vans zipped in and out laden with online purchases. The sound of construction still echoed through my neighbourhood. Not quite heavy construction, but residential work still seems to be taking place. The ‘outside economy’ seems to be trundling along. 

On Thursday, I spotted the first Polish flag in my neighbourhood, proudly flying from a tyre repair workshop as if in defiance to the virus outbreak.

A whole other story may be playing out in other areas around Poland. Indeed, the news reports show long lines of cars at the road borders and queues snaking around hospitals. But as an eyewitness account, I can only faithfully report what I can see and you won’t catch me leaving my little suburban island. After all, self-isolation is what the doctor ordered.

March 25, 2020
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Written by: William Burke

William Burke is an Australian journalist and author based in Warsaw. In 2010, he brought the WWII-rescue story of Albert Göring to the world in his book ‘Thirty Four’ and the BBC documentary ‘Goering’s Last Secret’. He is currently managing editor of Poland Today.