Since arriving in Warsaw at the beginning of April, I’ve often found myself too distracted to write. Partly, a myriad of bureaucratic matters arose unexpectedly and required near-immediate attention, partly preparation of Scandinavian art lectures I’m giving at Warsaw University. But it’s also partly the fault of Łazienki Park.
I’m a nature person, so I like parks; I’ve spent a lot of time living in cities and hanging out in them. My most intensive recent park time occurred during the pandemic, when I frequented Paris’s Luxembourg Garden – reading, writing, picnicking, people watching, bird listening, and inhaling the delicious and ever-changing scents of growing things. I couldn’t be there enough, I felt, and only appointments, hunger, the need for a bathroom, and closing time dragged me away.
Łazienki (pronounced wha-shen-ki) Park was the residence of Poland’s last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski, whose death in 1795 unleashed the gradual and tragic partitions of Poland among Austria, Prussia, and Russia, which kept Warsaw as the capital of its sector. Following twenty years of reunification (1919-39), the Nazis reduced this magnificent imperial city to a mountain range of rubble before the Russians liberated it in January 1945. Fortunately, the palaces of Łaienki were left only in ruins.
Łazienki is a large park, and there’s an entrance beside the university guesthouse where I’m staying. On weekends, a lumpy old lady with closely cropped, mannish white hair wearing polyester plaid pants and a floral top in non-matching colors sits in the sun all day long hoping to sell small bags of sunflower seeds for 5 zloty ($1.25) in repurposed, not entirely clean, small plastic bags to visitors wanting to feed healthy snacks to the park’s fowl. Sometimes, the same, easily identifiable bags remain on the ledge from my early morning visit until my pre-sunset stroll, despite high attendance numbers. It makes me sad, although I haven’t made any helpful purchases. I should, because I appreciate this honorable, do-something-for-the-money approach to begging. While I’ve never noticed homelessness in Warsaw, the continuing popularity of milk bars (bar mleczny, cafeterias serving terrific home cooking at formerly-government-subsidized prices. Great local experience!) and discount stores attest to the modest income of most Poles. From noon until sunset, people-watching offers the most appealing activity, since the paths, especially near the several museums located in small palaces dotting the property, are choc-a-bloc with families and couples.
I ‘did’ the museums on a wet, chilly day my first week but can’t seem to spend enough time in the park. An extensive, welcoming English park, carefully planned but seemingly natural, envelops several symmetrically planned, flower, fountain, and sculpture-filled gardens that exude a casual vibe that contrasts with the stiff rigidity of such gardens elsewhere. Transport-friendly paths paved with granite cubes resemble those found in Paris (nowadays often asphalted over). They’re usually broader and straighter than the meandering clay footpaths they intersect with at regular intervals. Thick-girded ‘mother’ trees—birch, chestnut, maple—perhaps original, eighteenth-century inhabitants, stand encircled by their slimmer children, when they aren’t planted in alleys that guide your eye and footsteps toward scenic palaces and waterworks. Some of the elderly trees possess such distinctive characteristics that I feel confident about recognizing them should I encounter them in a different context (highly unlikely, I know!). It’s heartening to see that in their infirm old age the trees (as with humans here) receive the (literal) support they require: crutches and thick wires support heavy branches and only essential, life-saving branch amputation is practiced.
Benches (white-painted wood on the fairways, green-and-decorative-wrought-iron ones on the winding paths) placed at regular intervals throughout the park invite moments of tranquility and reflection. As in most English-garden parks, narrow paths, rocky and sometimes partly hidden by bushes, lead to small, pleasant surprises, like a small stone terrace of well-worn, rounded stones with a small pond in the center, where perennial bulb stalks yearn to burst forth. And a bench.
Halfway through the park, a petite, white Neoclassical building with a large, enclosed terrace with broadly spaced umbrella tables houses a cafe, where I’ve taken to stopping for coffee—sometimes an Americano, sometimes a double expresso (since I learned that milk degrades the salubrious effects of coffee, I’ve tried to refrain from the varieties with milk)—in order to prolong my time in the park, to give my tushie relief from bench- and ground-sitting, and to write more comfortably.
What has astonished me as spring blossoms, is the variety of yellow flowers blooming simultaneously: forsythia, daffodils, dandelions, and a handful of groundcover varieties I, the horticulturally challenged, can’t identify. And the diversity of flowering ground cover, in general, is impressive. Tiny, delicate blue, pink, and white flowers resting amongst their own foliage or poking up from various types of ivy and pachysandra blanket the grounds in places where lawns aren’t planted, especially along the banks of ponds and canals.
While birds sing all day long, they warble most energetically as the sun rises. Pigeons, ducks (mallards and another colorful species that get along about as well as Russians and Poles at this moment, that is to say suspiciously and gingerly), a pair of tame swans, scavenging crows, and a cadre of peacocks, including several albinos, chant their singular songs (of joy, of news) with differing volumes depending on which corner of the park one finds oneself. On weekends, adorable red pointy-eared squirrels and the swans compete with palaces, statues, and the ice cream seller for the attention of children and shutterbugs (is that still a concept in the age of digital photography?).
At the far end of the park lies a Chinese folly consisting of a roofed tea terrace, a tiny pagoda, two marble lions, a marble bridge, and lanterns beside a pond favored by the ducks. Lately, it’s attracted birdwatchers with their telephoto lenses due to the birth of ten Mallard ducklings. I’ve been observing the relationship between mother and babies and with the colorful and apparently childless co-habitants. The other day, a duckling propelled itself—almost toppling over in the process—toward a colorful duck of a different species. When the adult splashed aggressively and lashed out at the youngster’s unwanted attention (we’ve all been there), Mother Mallard magically appeared from across the pond, all cannons firing. Quacking furiously, flapping her wings, she pecked at the bothered adult, chasing it around the pond before returning to the youngster and quacking an explanation (I assume) of its breach of etiquette. The babies darted in various directions with their thin little feet furiously paddling almost to the point of lifting them airborne, the next level of duck training for which the fuzzy down balls weren’t yet prepared. Several have learned to catch flying bugs, but most content themselves with tasting the morsels—some apparently tasty others not—that land on the surface of the water; they haven’t yet learned to dive and the really delicious morsels are on the pond floor. Sometimes the ducklings see a prospect and paddle toward it like over-wound mechanical toys, sometimes ingesting, sometimes letting be. Occasionally, Mother Mallard calls her wee ones with a few quacks; sheis in constant motion monitoring to ensure that none of her ten babies have strayed.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what qualities inspire me to have a near-immediate and (thus far) enduring feeling of belonging/contentment in particular places, which seem rather diverse: remote Playa Lagartillo in Costa Rica, the tiny village of Tolg in Sweden, Paris and Antibes, Florence, Warsaw, and in the U.S. Venice Beach, New York, and the countryside of upstate New York. Culture, nature, food, climate, civility all play a role, but is there something intangible, vibrational, energetic? My love-at-first-sight experience (this is my third month-long stay) has inspired a realtor visit, since I can easily envision living in an apartment with a balcony overlooking this park (or one nearby—Poles seem to have a park aesthetic that vibes with my own). Who knows where that might lead? Life truly is a magical mystery tour!