With the Insider celebrating its 250th outing, we look back at the changes the city’s undergone… By Stuart Dowell
“How long have you been here?” is a standard gambit when quizzing a foreigner here. “Over 20 years now,” I reply as befits the facts. The ball is often lobbed back with “You must have seen a lot of changes then”. Well 20 years is a very long time, so let’s think about what’s new, what’s disappeared, what’s the same and what’s better.
The money is new. They were using the old and the new money at the same time back in the 1990s. It meant it was easier to cheat a naïve newcomer by slipping in a few old notes in your change of new money. Perhaps they needed it more than me.
Drinkable tap water is an important new change caused by major investment after Poland joined the EU. Before that, alerts would often be broadcast on the radio warning inhabitants about high toxicity levels in the water. Long queues would form at the Oligocene wells that had sprung up around the city in the 1980s.
Along with the improvement in the housing stock, bathrooms have changed. Maybe not extinct but certainly less frequent are toilets with baffling inspection ledges, or ‘lay-and-display’ as we used to call them. Perhaps designed by a corpophiliac, a weak flush would leave your unmentionables still sitting proudly, but a strong gush would cause a minor tsunami and the need for another shower.
Also pretty much deceased due to the unstoppable march of Big Retail are curious shop combinations. If you wanted to rent a VHS video and also browse undergarments for plus-size ladies, there was a shop for it on Jana Pawła. If you needed a baby’s christening outfit and also a bag of dog biscuits, a small store on Solec was the place to go. “Know you customers” is what the marketing people always say, after all.
What hasn’t changed? The ladies of Pigalik still waiting under the lamplight to offer comfort to those with modest wallets. And the Palace of Culture still floats in its sea of concrete unchanged and impervious to the regularly published plans to solve the problem of what to finally do with this unwanted yet stubborn gift.
Best of all though are the things that have always been here but are now even better. Łazienki Park has never looked so good; its historical treasures gleam in an oasis of manicured greenery that is the equal of any city park in Europe. Old Town keeps raising its game, and the unveiling of the refurbished Dekert side of the market square and the reopening of the Museum of Warsaw at the end of May this year is just the latest improvement. Let’s hope the next 20 years will be just as fascinating!