Winter Road: Rotterdam to Vilnius

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Moving across the northern coast of Europe in winter, some evil old ghosts rise up from the frost-blasted landscape – but also new art, music, and the first sparks of the new year.

My ship from England lands in Rotterdam at the end of December. I roam around new architecture in the old working sea port. A sweep of new bridges tower over Hotel New York, where thousands of Dutch immigrants once set sail for New York. In World War Two, the Nazis razed Rotterdam. Today, spiky new buildings sprout up, preening over empty streets.

It makes me wonder what will happen to the enclaves of immigrants living on soon-to-be-prime real estate, such as the long road that links my budget hotel to the dramatic new Centraal Station. For now, that road is packed with Asian grocery stores and restaurants: I have the best knock-out spicy ramen I’ve tasted in Europe at Takumi Ramen seated next to a young African man immersed in a soccer game on his phone, happily discussing it with someone far away.

Who knows where he will be, and what this mashed-up city will look like in 2025? I seek shelter from New Year’s Eve Dutch fireworks craze in Dizzy’s Jazz Cafe, a haven of hot Afrobeat, where at midnight a man with long dreds hands out homemade sugared pastries, oliebollen. We stop dancing long enough to grab our drinks and coats, and go outside to watch the sky explode over the rooftops.

In its embrace of old and new migration, Rotterdam feels like New York — but as you move east from the Netherlands, a chill sets in. With the New Year’s bubbles wearing off, I hop a 15-hour series of trains via Berlin to Warsaw. As the trains cross the frost-blasted brown landscape, I step into the toilet to  find vile red antisemitic graffiti: a star of David and a German “F*** you”. I’m Jewish — in fact, I’m now traveling the opposite route to the one taken by my grandparents and mother as they fled the Nazis to London 80 years ago. I’m reliving that past, looking out the window while listening on my headphones to Philippe Sands describe elderly Jewish women, heads shaved, marched naked into Treblinka. Looking around the train at the faces of the cheerful other passengers, I have to wonder: who went into that toilet before me, saw that graffitti, ignored it, maybe silently agreed?

I don’t shake this winter chill in Warsaw: worse, it deepens. On a walking tour of the old Jewish ghetto, an impassioned guide points out how quickly mass detention became normalized in the 1940s. He walks our silent group down the lines of the former ghetto walls, traced in orange bricks on the road: thousands of Warsaw Jews were sent from here to camps, while the rest gradually died of hunger, the last of them killed in the Warsaw Rising. Three million Polish Jews were reduced to thousands. He points out a corridor built through the ghetto, to enable non-Jews to access a hospital in the middle, without having to see their imprisoned neighbors. He points out that while a few, like Irena Sendler, risked their lives to help Jewish kids escape, many ordinary people continued on their daily routines and … just stopped looking up.

What would it take for history to repeat itself? It might not take much, given that in China, nearly a million Uighur Muslims have already been herded into labor camps for brainwashing and the world has largely kept mum, Meanwhile, Poland’s right-wing government has been raising some old fears. In Warsaw’s Old Town, I share a drink with a Polish activist who describes the growing restrictions on civil society, the public targeting of women’s rights and LGBT groups: “I don’t understand why no one speaks out,” she says. Walking through the old town feels incongruously festive after that: it’s roiling with a giant Christmas tree, a crafts market, families eating waffles fluffed up with whipped cream. But voices of the past echo off the cobblestones, and nothing about this cheer feels festive. Time to move on.

The Warsaw Central train station personnel insist there are no trains to Vilnius, but I download tickets from links on Seat 61, wrap up in my big fuzzy scarf and hope for the best on the pre-dawn trains via Bialystok and Kaunas. Navigating through the old Soviet train station buildings, past farmers huddled in their coats, lining up for tickets, and tall fir forests – well what do you know, the train does eventually land in Vilnius.

In a new country, it’s time to find cause for hope, a flare shooting up to light the new year. On the last day of the national holidays, aka Epiphany, powered by local coffee, I hike through the sleet to Uzupis, to look for a smaller epiphany. Uzupis is an independent artistic republic with its own flag, government, currency, constitution. You cross a bridge, get your passport stamped in a bustling gift shop, and voila, you have the right, among other things to make mistakes, the right to idle, the right “to love and take care of the cat”, the right to be happy and to be unhappy, the right to be responsible for your own freedom. In the winter rain, a swing tosses optimistically under the bridge, ribbons fluttering. A faceless mannequin sits before a piano by the river, strings open to the elements.

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Piano music… the Chopin museum back in Warsaw was filled with it, playing from headphones and screens on each floor. A film playing on a loop showed young pianist Kate Liu in a long blue dress, eyes upwards, mouth open, fully inhabiting the rippling moonlit river of a Chopin ballad. The Polish public voted to make this Singaporean-American the winner of a national Chopin contest.

In the film, she elegantly sways, reminding me of the long string of silver birches I saw out the train window as we crossed the border from Poland to Lithuania. Like bronze statues, the trees stretched up, slashes of light against the forest.

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In Rotterdam:

  • Hotel New York – the former headquarters of the Holland America Line, now a hotel and delightful restaurant/café, located at the spot where thousands of Dutch immigrants set sail for “New Amsterdam” (aka New York).
  • Dizzy’s Jazz Café – Live music and cocktails in a club that’s diverse, hip and all class.
  • Takumi Ramen – Outstanding Japanese ramen noodle soup .

 

In Warsaw:

  • Warsaw Rising museum – A great museum that melds oral history with relics, images and reconstructions to bring this powerful part of Polish history to life.
  • Walkatives free walking tour of Jewish Warsaw – daily tours by credentialed tour guides, pay what you will.
  • Chopin Museum – in his old house, including multimedia and recordings; thereare concerts, which are probably worth checking out (I was there during the holidays, so there weren’t any).
  • Restauracja Widokówka – a cozy family-style Polish restaurant in Old Town with excellent spicy borch.
  • Podwale Bar and Books – An old-school cocktail bar with first-class service, impressive whiskey collection, and live music.

 

In Vilnius:

  • Uzupis – This site has a nice self-guided walking tour of the independent republic of Uzupis (downloadable into Google Maps), and other promising tours of street art and more.

 

Book:

 

Music:

 

And tickets:

  • The Man in Seat 61 – Begun as a personal hobby, this site is now an incredible global resource for planning train travel – and as it turns out, more reliable info about travel from Warsaw to Vilnius (at least) than the Polish Intercity train personnel.
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