One evening last week I passed through the city centre in Warsaw and experienced one of those incredibly surreal feelings. I felt like I was surrounded by glass. Almost like the people I was watching were in fish tanks. I was desperately looking for evidence that the outside world is changing, that it’s evolving and I was sadly disappointed. Instead I was confronted by the fact that very little had changed.
In any centre city anywhere in the world at anytime of day you can find an eclectic mix of the wise, the wonderful and the weird. I personally believe that you can measure a city’s greatness by the number of schizophrenic’s per square kilometre. One thing which is certainly more pronounced in Poland is the fact that you can often see the well off and the poor in plain sight. Another quirk of fate is that here you see people(sometimes quite well dressed) trawling through the bins whilst women in their ray bans and men on their mobiles pass by.
In Warsaw we have a number of eccentric folk who can be found in the same place doing the same thing on the same day every week. My personal favourite is chair man. He is a busker of sorts who is either barking mad or out of his face on amphetamines who stands outside the main metro station drumming on a chair. He has the rhythm of a woodpecker with ADHD. Yet his presence is a reassurance, that some things stay the same. The other night it was the Fat Lady with the labrador. Every Thursday night they sit by the underpass entrance begging. Both the lady and her dog are rather plump, they certainly don’t look hungry, and she is always relatively well dressed. I have no idea what she does the rest of the week but for 7 years(possibly more) she has begged in the same place come ran or shine. Part of me wonders whether she has always been there.
One thing which has changed is the street entertainment. In years gone by their was a group of peruvian indians who would dress up and busk. I have no idea what became of them as I haven’t seen them for an awfully long time. Nowadays it seems their pitch has been taken by an evangelical street church. I like to stop for a few minutes every time they are there as they appear to be barking mad. It seems that their tactic is to pay tramps to give thrilling speeches along the lines of I used to drink everyday. I was an alcoholic. Until Jesus saved me.’ Just once I hope to hear someone shout out a correction ‘No. You used to be an alcoholic, until you stopped drinking.’ I have probably spent 10-15 minutes of my life listening to the street church and I have only ever heard ex-alcoholics speaking. Admittedly Poland does have a major alcohol problem, yet still I am surprised that God apparently spends so much of his time saving alcoholics rather than the millions of starving children in the world.
It delights me that in Warsaw you can find a wide variety of buskers. They vary by age, instrument and talent. They create a wonderful ambience which in moments of introspection allow you to convince yourself that world isn’t such a shitty place. I have seen men in their 70’s performing a number of gypsy love songs in Spanish, I have seen Romanians playing dirges on their accordions, young people playing a diverse range of songs we an acoustic guitar and a cup of spare change. However none of these beat my favourite. There is an old man who first appeared around a year and a half ago. He sits in one underpass and plays a harmonica. A year and a half ago he was awful, and now he is marginally better. The great thing has been actually being able to notice his improvement. He is so much a fixture of my life that I feel like I should name him.
One thing which hasn’t changed in 7 years is the number of people who harass you for spare change or cigarettes. When I smoked I used to consider it a city centre tax levy. Now I don’t I generally get irritable remarks and dirty looks. Last week I was walking from the underground station to the bus station when a man approached me and asked me for a cigarette. Habitually I like to study these people and see if I get any feeling about how genuine these people are. This man had a smartish green jacket, his jeans were in good condition and his trainers were a dirty white. In other words he looked relatively normal. When I told him I don’t smoke, he asked me if I had any spare change without offering any reason why. Just as I reached into my pocket a telephone rang. The man reached into his pocket and I shit you not, pulled out an I-phone. As he answered I walked away, and I didn’t look back.