​​“Sitar Draws Out the Best in Me,” Says
a German: My First Day in Warsaw


The Warsaw Uprising Memorial in Krasinski Square, Warsaw. The author visited the memorial on August 1, 2009, the 65th anniversary of the uprising, and paid his respects to all Poles who sacrificed their lives in their fight against the Nazis. Many more people came to the site on this day and paid their respects by placing flowers and lighting candles on the steps of the memorial. 

July 31, 2009—Friday

I was on my way from the Warsaw international airport to the hostel where I was going to stay. The city bus that I took was filled to capacity. I had to travel standing. Standing next to me were two young men with large suitcases.

“Are you tourists?” I asked them.

“No, we are college students from Uzbekistan,” one of them said. “We just landed here. We are on our way to the University of Warsaw, where we’ll be studying for one year. We are on a student-exchange program.”

“Are you from Tashkent?” I asked them.

“Yes,” both of them said.

I told them about the two people from Tashkent I had met at a fastfood place in Moscow. “I remember them not because of the food they gave me. I do it because of the way they greeted me. They did it with a song from an old Hindi movie.”

“Yes, Hindi movies are very popular in Uzbekistan,” one of them said.

“Especially in the capital,” the other one added.

“Can you also sing Hindi songs?” I asked.

“Yes, but not now,” the first one said.

He almost ended up studying computer science in India, he told me. “In fact, I had been enthusiastically looking forward to doing it,” he added. “At the last moment, the Indian Embassy in Tashkent raised some objections and refused to give me a visa. I was very disappointed.”

“Try again,” I told him. “You will be lucky next time.”

The two Uzbeks had to get off at the next stop, and our conversation ended abruptly.

A few minutes later, the bus arrived at the stop where I had to get off. According to the travel instructions provided by the hostel, it was at walking distance from that stop. Two passersby whom I asked for direction did not speak English. A third person, who spoke a little English, drew the directions on a piece of paper. Another one—shabbily dressed and with a few days’ growth of beard on his face—took a look at the drawing and gestured to me to follow him. I was a little reluctant to accept his offer because he looked suspicious. I didn’t want to be seen in the company of a questionable character on my very first day in a new place. But because the streets were full of people and the day was still young, I decided to follow him. I knew I could back off if he led me into any deserted area.

We walked several blocks, and the self-appointed guide didn’t seem to know where the hostel was. The man who drew the map showing the directions had told me that it was close by. After a few more minutes of aimless walking, I stopped the 'guide' and stood in front of him to ask whether he knew where he was going. When I was greeted with the stench of alcohol and sweat, I realized that he had taken me for a ride.

A man who was passing by looked at the paper in my hand and said that I was well past the hostel. I told the drunk to “get lost”—which I didn’t think he understood—and started walking back. He followed me, demanding payment for his “service.” I shouted at him, but to no avail. He kept pestering me until I placed a two-euro coin in his hand. I watched him walk away.

A young couple who were enjoying the scene smiled at me. “Every city has this kind,” I said. They nodded in agreement.

The warmth and friendliness of the staff at the hostel more than made up for the annoyance caused by the drunken 'guide.' The young woman who completed the checking-in formalities spoke good English. She was a graduate student studying business, and was working part-time at the hostel.

“Do you speak Russian as well as you speak English?” I asked her.

She threw a contemptuous look at me and said, “No. And I don’t want to do it either. I will learn French. I will learn German. I am already taking classes to improve my English. My parents were forced to learn Russian. For that reason alone, I refuse to learn it.”

What a pity! The present generation in Poland detests the Russian language—which is as rich as any other language in the world—simply because of what the Soviet Union (and before that, czarist Russia) had done to their country. Czarist Russia continually tried to keep the Poles subjugated.

Russo-Polish Rivalry

The Russo-Polish rivalry dates back to the early seventeenth century. Poland, at the time, was the dominant partner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; and Russia was ruled by czars. Czarist Russia’s constant meddling in the internal affairs of Poland resulted in the Polish-Muscovite War of 1605–1618. That war ended without any major change in the status quo. But the end of the second conflict between the two, the Russo-Polish War of 1654–1677, marked the beginning of the rise of Russia as a great power in Eastern Europe. Every time Poland got partitioned—the main partitioning occurred in 1772, 1793, and 1795—it resulted in territorial gains for Russia. In fact, from the beginning of the 1654–1677 war, all the way until 1991, the destiny of Poland had been controlled first by czarist Russia and then by the Communist Soviet Union.

Like any people under foreign domination, Poles resented that control. The resentment continues even now, years after Poland ceased to be a Soviet satellite. The words of the young lady at the hostel bear evidence to it.

After a shower and a short nap, I came out of the hostel. I wanted to pick up something to eat. It was already 8:00 p.m., and I was very hungry.

A young man I ran into outside the hostel told me that there was a Chinese restaurant nearby. He insisted on walking with me to show the place. I found out in a few seconds why he insisted: he wanted to talk about India. His friends were traveling around India at the time, and he had been receiving e-mails from them every day about their exciting experiences in India. “I couldn’t join them this time,” he said. “I am surely going there next year.”

I couldn’t help asking, before I said good-bye, “Where did you learn to speak English this well?”

“At college,” he said. “Only my generation does it. My father’s generation spoke only Polish and Russian. We realized what my father’s generation was missing. In my case, I am a computer science major. I have just started working for an IT company. We use English extensively in our office, especially while dealing with various parties around the world.”

When we reached the front of the Chinese restaurant, he wished me a “pleasant stay in Warsaw” and shook hands with me.

I firmly held his hand for a few seconds and said, “Keep up this attitude. You will go far in life. I wish you all the best.”

As I entered the hostel kitchen with the simple Chinese dinner (“Hunan Chicken and Rice”) I had bought, I was greeted with another pleasant surprise: the smell of Indian food.

“Who is into Indian cooking here?” I asked the two young men who were standing at the kitchen stove and stirring their food. They looked 20-something, one slightly younger than the other.

“I am,” the younger one replied.

“Oh, I made a mistake,” I said. “I should have come here before I went out to pick up this Chinese food. I would have found a way of getting invited by you to share your food.”

“We are inviting you now,” he said. “Please come and join us.”

Pointing to a huge fridge in the corner of the kitchen, his friend added, “Keep your Chinese food there. You can eat it tomorrow. We are Germans. We would welcome a certificate from an Indian on the authenticity of our Indian cooking.”

“It’s very kind of you,” I said. “I will join you tomorrow. I am famished right now. I have no patience to wait until you finish your cooking. But when you are done, please come and talk with me. I will wait for you.”

By the time they came and sat at my table, I had finished my food. I also had a couple of beers. So when they opened the wine bottle and invited me to join them, I had to “regretfully” decline. “I will take a rain check,” I told them. “I will more than make up for what I am denying myself today.”

“We’ll take you up on that threat,” the older one said.

“You’ll be sorry.”

“Never,” his friend replied.

“Tell me,” I said, “what got you interested in Indian food?”

Praise for India Gives Me Goose Bumps

“Interest in Indian food came later,” the younger one replied. “It was interest in Indian music that came first. I am a Ravi Shankar fan. The sitar draws out the best in me. You don’t know the wonderful things your country is doing for people like me.”

I could feel that I was getting goose bumps. I tried to be as objective as I could while answering his curious questions about India. My memory was jogged back a few years. In late 2001, I was having food at a Rio de Janeiro restaurant. A total stranger, sitting at a few tables away, came up to me and handed a napkin with “Ravi Shankar, Good” scribbled on it. Though he spoke only a few words of English, he, his girlfriend, and I spent the rest of the evening happily together, thanks to Ravi Shankar.

When I narrated that experience to the two Germans, the younger one said, “I can’t wait to visit your country, man.”

He and his friend were born and brought up at Nuremberg. No sooner had he uttered “Nuremberg” than he added, “I know what is going through your mind. I hope you won’t hold it against us.”

“Are you referring to the Nuremberg trials and the crimes committed by the Nazis that necessitated the trials?” I asked. “I am not that stupid. Nobody should condemn the entire people of a country for what a tyrant did while in power six decades ago. As long as you are not part of that tiny minority in the country that still admires Hitler, nobody will have any problem with you.”

“But many in my country,” he said, “especially those my age, still have some kind of guilt feeling.”

I could sense a touch of guilt in the two young men too. “That’s but natural,” I told them, hoping to help them get rid of that hang-up. “That’s the case with decent human beings in most countries. They can’t help feeling responsible for the atrocities committed in the past by some of their countrymen. They carry the baggage all their lives. But in your case, being natives of Nuremberg should make you proud. The historic trials that sent Nazi criminals to the gallows and jails took place in your hometown. You have every reason to be proud, not ashamed, of your Nuremberg connection.”

Looking at my watch, I added, “I had a long day. It started in the Baltic State of Latvia early this morning. I must try and get some sleep.”

As I was getting ready to leave, both of them stood up and hugged me. “We thank you for the wonderful evening,” the older one said.

“The feeling is mutual,” I told them. “We’ll continue our conversation tomorrow.”

I said to myself, while taking leave of them, “Whoever thought that a country that produced adorable people like these two could also produce a tyrant like Hitler!”

(Published on October 21, 2018. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 19 from the author's book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available online at amazon.com and Xlibris.com, and can be ordered through any Barnes and Noble store. The India edition of the book is available at amazon.in, Flipkart and Pothi.com)

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