Who Are Wars and Sawa?

December 6, 2008

Wars and Sawa are the legendary characters whom Warsaw took its name from. The legend has so many versions that if we combined them all together we’d come up with twins (one of them a mermaid) in a very insestuous relationship. When seen separately, however, they’re all very proper:

Long time ago, when the Polish countryside was still wild and beautiful, there was a small village on the banks of the Wisła river, inhabited by kind people, who spent all their days occupied with fishing.

One evening, when Wars was collecting his web and fish before going home to retire, he heard a quiet song coming from old willows, the branches of which washed in the river. He sat again and listened. It was a beautiful song. Mysthical. As if not sang by a human being. Wars could not understand the lyrics, but he sensed it was a song about wildness, life, and the beauty of nature. He was mesmerised. So much that he forgot about the world around him.

Suddenly the song stopped. It felt as if a busket of cold water was thrown on his head. Wars realised it was deep night, he had to go back home, across a wild and dangerous forest, to his small house at the end of the village. But anyway, he told himself he would come back the next day. He must hear this song again. And again…

The next evening, when his work was accomplished, Wars sat at the bank of the river and waited.

Suddenly he heard that song. Nearer than the day before. And more beautiful. So beautiful that he had to stand up and go there. Closer to the sound. He must see the owner of the silver voice.

He did not know where he was or how found himself there. Or even what time it was. But finally he saw the singer. It was the most beautiful lady in the world. She had long golden hair, and skin as white as snow. It shined in the moonlight, as did her… fish tail.

When he saw that tail, his first thought was to RUN! But the second one told him to stay.

Unfortunately she heard the rustle of leaves, and disappeared beneath the water.

Wars waited for her every evening, hoping she would come back, but she did not. She must have thought him dangerous.

After several years, when Wars lost all hope and almost forgot his eerie adventure, his ears were reached by the almost forgotten sound. He took his web and hurried to the spot where the song came from. Once more he saw the most beautiful woman in the world. This time he was prepared for her appearance, so he did not move when she exposed her silver tail.
At a convinient moment he caught her into his web. She screamed and cried, trying to escape, but she could not.

Wars took her to his house and began to wonder why actually he caught her. What told him to do that?

Silver tears went down the siren’s face. She looked at him with so much sadness in her blue eyes. “Let me go,” she whispered. “Please, let me go. Why did you do that?”

Wars wondered and wondered, and finally the answer came to him. “Because I love you.”

“If you truly love me, you must let me go. I cannot live without water, without swimming and nature. I will die here, imprisoned.”

“But I cannot live without you.”

“So I will die because you want to have me inside your house? I can come to you and sing every evening, if you want me to. I can defend you and your village so that no harm will come your way. But let me go.”

Wars could not stand her tears anymore. He took her to the river and let her go.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Sawa,” she answered and disappeared in the waters of the Wisła river.

From that day on Sawa sang to Wars and his children, and then their children. And defended them from any danger. Today there is the city of Warsaw in that place, named after the two lovers: WarsSawa.

The city’s coat of arms features a siren with a shield and sword.

The Coat of Arms of Warsaw

The Coat of Arms of Warsaw

Warsaw’s coat of arms includes the order Virtuti Militari, awarded to the city after WWII to honour the bravery of its citizens, and the motto Semper invicta (Always invincible).

For a different and funnier version of the legend, written with expats in mind, go to Warsaw-life.com.


Thaddeus of Warsaw

June 23, 2008

I am from Warsaw. There’s nothing strange about it unless one lives in Poland. I know, it might seem quite a paradox, but trust me, warszawiacy would be wiser to move out.

Steffen Möller, the first German of Rzeczpospolita, included this joke in his repertoire: whenever he tours Poland he prefers to say that he’s German rather than admit to living in Warsaw. “People, they hate you there!” He shrugs.

It would be funny if it weren’t so true. Inhabitants of Warsaw take the unrivalled, unchallenged, and unshaken first place on the Top Hate list of their countrymen.

Deep, dark communism, Mokotów district

I’m born in the local hospital on Madalińskiego street, where the nearby florist must have made their fortune on fathers like mine, who are too hangovered to make it on time. Either from the excitement of my visiting the world, or because Poland has just won one of the qualifying games for a FIFA World Cup. I strongly suspect the latter, but whatever the case, he never drinks.

Hospital, ul. Madalińskiego

Hospital, ul. Madalińskiego

I grow up in the friendly environment of the green Mokotów, surrounded by people who, like my grandparents, survived the war living in Sadyba and, after some strenuous years of inhabiting 10 square meters in six, received the dreamed of apartment near Łazienki park. M-3. M-3 means two rooms and a kitchen. There’s also a hallway and a bathroom, but no living room or anything like that. Two rooms is all the living space one can get. And since it’s Warsaw, the city that died in 1944 and has yet to fully resurrect, those two rooms were meant to be enough for six. My grandpa was courteous enough to die early, but my uncles and aunt all live here with their families for a time. That’s one way to create strong family links. Eventually they all move out, my own father included, and together with my grandma and mum we can lead our happy life, minimizing the usual disputes about who should occupy one of the two rooms exclusively to one a year.

I love Warsaw, I truly do. I don’t care that it’s ugly (I never notice that), chaotic (really?), or whatever. My love is genuine and unconditional. I have my favourite places, memories, and friends. Here is the yard where I first ride a bike, the first roof I investigate, and the lane where I kiss for the first time in my life. Everyone has some local sentiment, I’m no different.

I spend my yearly holidays at my uncle’s family, who moved to a small village in the East. But since they’re Warsaw émigrés, just as their closest neighbours are, I’m still unaware of the great difference that divides me from my countrymen.

Summer, Bieszczady mountains

I’m 15, just as those two friends with whom I go hiking. In the evening, we get our food ready when we’re approached by these nice guys asking if they can join. Sure. We make one common supper, talk about our planned routs, someone plays the guitar. The night blooms. Until someone asks the innocent question,

“Where are you from?”


The uneasy silence is interrupted when someone repeats my city’s name, “Waaarsaaaaw?” Disbelief mixed with dread unmistaken in his voice.

We look at ourselves, genuinely confused, when we hear, “Stolyca,” with the drunkard’s L that would make a Pole pass for an Englishman.*

We briefly wonder whether we should take our toys and make a new fireplace, but finally it appears we’re more curious than discouraged. “Well, yes, Warsaw. Why?”

“You know, nobody likes people from Warsaw”

“No, we don’t.”

“No?,” he’s clearly disappointed. “Warszawiacy are extremely arrogant.”

“Have we behaved arrogantly towards you?”

He must have sensed the sincerity of our puzzlement, and so goes on, “Well, no, you’ve been very nice. Just in general.”

I truly believe that I am the general, so I ask about details. Shortly it appears that our new friends didn’t meet any people from Warsaw before. “Just everybody knows it.”

After our timid suggestion that perhaps they are mistaken as to the general picture they briefly hesitate, but soon their cause has new food. “Kraków really should be the capital of Poland.” (It used to be 400 years ago.)

“Are you from Kraków?”

“No, we’re from Tychy.” (Near Katowice, Upper Silesia) “But Kraków is the only proper capital.”

Not that I care where the capital is, but I am a die hard Pole after all, and I’m not going to surrender when my city is attacked.

“Why not Gniezno?” (a capital of Poland some 900 years ago)

“Why Gniezno?”

“It was first.”

After a longer discussion during which we discover that, indeed, we were taught history from the same books, and consider, but disregard, Biskupin (the eldest settlement in Poland) we’re back at the starting point.

“Kraków is so beautiful. Warsaw is ugly.”

De gustibus non disputandum, so we’re just exposed to some hours of peons on the beauty of Kraków until finally we can call it a night, without giving any hint of an offence taken.

Połoniny, Bieszczady Mountains

Bieszczady mountains don’t seem to be big enough for us, and we meet daily, each time being treated to new, carefully thought out attacks, from ‘Kraków is falling apart while Warsaw builds the Metro’ (the one, unique, and precious line of metro I should add), via the accusatory ‘Your pubs have windows!’ (what a surprise!), to ‘Every Pole pays for Warsaw’ (actually no, it’s exactly the opposite, every warszawiak pays for the rest of the country).

Back in Warsaw I ask people at school whether it has ever happened to them, and receive a resounding positive. They advise me to tell that I’m from Mokotów rather than Warsaw the next time, but this I find absolutely idiotic. I’m not going to be ashamed of my place of living just because my fair countrymen need a common enemy or a common sense.

I keep travelling, and with time I get used to it, although the first conversation repeats itself regularly. In fact, no, I once meet a man from Kraków who prefers Zakopane. I’ll never forget him. It was the pleasantest half an hour spent in a train.

Ten years later, The International Fair, Poznań

I’m working in a publishing company, and my boss (originally from Jelenia Góra) and I set for lunch. She’s young, ambitious, and convinced that a lunch break isn’t for food but for making new businesses. At her urging, we join two clad in suits men at their table. She begins her promotional talk, and they seem sincerely confused. Clearly not the kind of people who could buy an ad. She senses that something is wrong and changes the subject to a more informal one. “Where are you from?” She asks, and after receiving an answer, adds,

“We are from Warsaw“.

It’s the very first time in my life when I feel truly ashamed for being from Warsaw. Or rather, I can honestly hear all of the conceit she puts in the one word. Being from Warsaw doesn’t ennoble for heaven’s sake! It’s just a place.

Later, I meet her friends, with whom I’m to work on some project, and during a long ride from Poznań to Warsaw I’m for the first time acquainted with the term Warszawka (little Warsaw). I might never get any idea what’s its definition, except that from the ride, and the huge traffic jam we’re stuck in, I’m left with an impression that it’s some kind of elite who spends their evenings in the “truly Warsaw style”, mixing with VIPs at all of the very important events.

It’s not the Warsaw I know. My friends return home from work and meet friends, go to a movie, or spend a quiet evening with their family. Things, I believe, ordinary people do. I find all of the posh events tedious. One has to dress up and smile all the time to people one doesn’t care one bit about, but who might provide a good business opportunity. Come on! Get a life!

Thankfully, I don’t work there much longer. In general, at school people from Warsaw were in the majority, and newcomers were integrating quickly. At work it’s different. I’m always one of the few. People come from all over Poland and try to make their new lives. It’s hard. They have no one to leave their kids with, no friends or family around, they have troubles with finding places, and they’re frustrated with the long working hours and then another one or two spent in the traffic (even though there’s the one line of Warsaw Metro that costs Kraków so much). But I must say, they’re normal. I hope to never again meet the representatives of Warszawka whatever their origins.

Sopot, The Pier

The Wooden Pier, Sopot

One day I go to Sopot (a meeting with clients). After the business is over we all go to one of the cosy Sopot pubs for some drinks. When a man from Gdynia asks me the never dying question, I’m surprised. He knows that we came from Warsaw to make the presentation.

“I know, but I’m asking where you’re really from.”

“From Warsaw.”

“And before?”

“I was born in Warsaw.”



“And your parents?”

“Also from Warsaw.”

At my grandparents he agrees that I’m a real warszawianka and ogles me as if I ran away from the Jurassic Park. When the initial shock is over he tells me a story. It appears that he used to work in Warsaw for some time. His then boss told him that warszawiacy are a rare species, almost extinct by now, while all of the others are some przyjezdni (newcomers) only bragging about their Warsaw living place.

It takes me some time to digest the news, especially that my heritage isn’t any different than that of the majority of my friends, but frankly, I don’t know if everyone in my school was a warszawiak through their grandparents, and neither I care nor I think they would. On the other hand, I’ve met that one girl and her two friends, who indeed were mental, but on the whole, the new people living in Warsaw are as normal as any. No way they’d brag about something so silly, especially that they tend to be proud of their Kraków, Toruń, Wrocław or Gdańsk. Maybe only Jelenia Góra doesn’t have enough to offer, although I bet I might be proven wrong. There’s a good chance the people in Jelenia Góra breathed with relief when my ex boss moved to Warsaw.

One day I have this conversation with my friend from Toruń, who is totally fed up with the Warsaw hardness, and showers me with the usual list of complaints. I realize that Warsaw isn’t great, and especially to someone who left everything in order to come here and work, and has a daughter and no time for entertainments. But, on the other hand, would the people in Toruń or Kraków be happy if a couple of million people suddenly moved into their town? Warsaw used to be quite a cosy place. Twenty years ago I needed half an hour to get from Mokotów to Żoliborz by bus. Today it takes me one or two, even tough I have a car. New warszawiacy naturally affect the city in a way they don’t like, without even noticing that they are those who bring the changes. Yet, I don’t hear old warszawiacy complain that the new ones boost the prices of apartments, lower average wages, or take their jobs. On the whole, I think that warszawiacy are the most tolerant people in Poland. They are accustomed to changes, and they adjust to them quickly. Warsaw still is a small city by European standards, and no one will be surprised when it grows even more.

So well, to the proud inhabitants of the rest of Poland – please do realize that people can be from Warsaw as from any other place. To the new warszawiacy, do come and have as much fun as you can get, but please don’t elevate Warsaw to the rank of Louvre. And to the old warszawiacy – don’t you dare make me look like a freaking dinosaur!

Thaddeus of Warsaw by Jane Porter (1776-1850) is one of the earliest examples of the historical novel. It went through a dozen editions, and was such a favourite with these nice people of Pembroke, Kentucky that they named their town for one of the book’s characters. The brave Thaddeus is obviously named for the great Polish-American hero Tadeusz Kościuszko, who, I think, as an ethnic Belarusian, may be as good warszawiak as any.


English isn’t my first language so if you spotted any mistakes and would like to tell me about them, I’ll be very glad to learn.

* Stolica means capital. The drunkard’s L is a way to learn to pronounce the English L that normally is spoken differently by Poles, but drunk people are said to have the perfect one. The exercise is to say “lalunia”.

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