The Mermaid of Warsaw
On friendship and place
Hello and welcome to the 19th issue of Place! When looking for a new place to move to or visit, we can be driven by the expectations of what we will find there. The anticipation of museum visits, trying new foods and taking meandering walks fills our imagination, as we picture ourselves occupying a day in the life of someone else. Whether we’re seeking a change in perspective, some soul searching, or just a fun break, our time spent in another place can play out in our mind long before we arrive, an invented world looking for a reality to land in. When Place editor Kylee Pedersen set out to take a new job in Warsaw a few years ago, she pictured herself coming away with a new understanding of the city’s history and culture. What she didn’t expect however, was to meet someone who would reimagine her entire experience of the Polish capital for her.
At Place, we believe that the experiences, sensations and conversations we have as we move about the world stay with us, stacking up as the years go by, forming who we are and the way we view the world. Do you have a letter to share? Send it to us at email@example.com. If you are interested in writing for Place you can find our inaugural pitch guide here. If you’re the social type, follow us on Twitter (@place_letter) where you can share your favourite pieces and Instagram (@placenewsletter) for a visual feast. Yours, The Place editorial team.
The Mermaid of Warsaw
I met Tanya on the front steps of my office in Warsaw, on a cold day in early January, the darkness of the previous night still hiding behind corners. I startled her as I walked up the stairs where she was scanning her key card to get in. “I’m Tatiana,” she said quickly once inside, the snow on our leather boots melting quickly on the black and white tiled floor of the cavernous foyer. “But please call me Tanya.”
The office of the political organization we worked for was small — Tanya sat across the room from me, the space between us woefully large. I glanced at her from the corner of my eye from time to time. She always looked focused and had impossibly good posture, her light brown hair cut sensibly short. She wore a lot of light pink, usually high neck sweaters and blouses. Her boots were old but clean. She spoke in a rush, but softly, like she was speaking to a child.
One day Tanya came to my desk and asked if I wanted a coffee. I said yes right away. We turned left from the door of our office building on Ujazdowskie Street and left again on Wilcza. She led us. After that, we walked together everyday.
The first few times we circled the blocks around our office, stopping at the Caffe Nero near my apartment. Tanya always got a cappuccino. She taught me how to properly pronounce Dziękuję Ci (thank you) and przepraszam (excuse me). We began to walk slower, lingering in front of the shops on Mokotowska street. We stopped to look at the menu at the Georgian restaurant; Tanya explained what khachapuri was, bubbling cheese filled bread with a cracked egg in the center. We peered through the window at the cobbler who made patterned women’s pumps and flats with big bows. Our breath fogged up the glass outside Lukullus Bakery, as we looked at exquisite cakes and donuts. “Which one would you get?” Tanya asked me. We always stayed outside. The streets were the territory we charted together.
Eventually we stopped going to Caffe Nero altogether, and began sitting down for coffee at a cafe called Przegryź. You had to heave aside a heavy red velvet curtain after you opened the door, which stopped the cold wind from blowing in. It was a busy but quiet place, with a low energy that hugged the floor and stayed chiefly inside its walls. From the street, it barely looked like it existed. Tanya and I sat in a booth by the cashier. I would listen to her talk as I sucked the hard candy given to us with our coffee, the white plastic wrapping left crumpled between us. She did most of the talking. Tanya contained multitudes.
As the season warmed, our friendship settled into an easy ebb and flow. The windows in the city's grey buildings began to show reflections of a true sky, one without the vaulted ceiling of clouds. The faint sun burned off the smoke that drifted into the streets from fires in the countryside. In March, the first crocuses bloomed. Tanya suggested that we take our coffee to Łazienki Park to see them. “We can feed the squirrels,” she said assuredly, taking out a paper packet of peanuts from her mauve down coat. I had never thought to watch the squirrels, with Tanya I saw them for the first time.
Spending time with Tanya was to be submerged in the current moment, the physical world around us, a space she had made me feel was just for the two of us. She pointed things out; I was a willing observer. She would say things like “I want to show you something,” and divert our daily walk to see a new storefront, or a hidden view into a nicely landscaped backyard. She noticed things that changed, she had soft but reliable opinions of when something looked in disarray, or when it was simply charming. I trusted her deeply. She rarely talked about herself – I only found out months into our friendship that she had a daughter, which is why she never came to office drinks after work.
I wanted to know more about her, but I didn’t want to ask her to spend time with me on the weekend, for fear she would think me oblivious to the responsibilities of motherhood. I was alone in the city. I had taken a job and moved across the ocean on a whim. I was grieving the still-recent loss of my father, and my body was reacting to the trauma strangely. I had constant headaches, felt nauseous all the time, I broke out across my face in angry red bumps. Tanya was one of the only friends I had, and I didn’t want to scare her away. I was hopelessly cautious around her, more so than I had ever been around anyone in my then-fragile state. I slowly asked her questions over coffee, sneaking them into our flurried gossip about the people we worked with.
Tanya was Ukrainian, and had come to Warsaw with her family as a child, because her father was offered a job. She told me about her memories of waiting in line for food outside the grocery store, about her mother asking neighbours and friends to spare some yeast for bread. About the excitement of going to a milk bar every once and a while for something to eat that wasn’t made in their own home. I told her I found Polish people to be standoffish, and she told me not to blame them. “They spent years not being able to trust anyone, not even members of their family,” she spoke to me, hushed as always. “Even now, it's hard to know.” She smiled at the server as she walked by.
She never spoke of her husband. Once, he picked Tanya and I up to drive us somewhere, I can’t remember where. I never saw his face from the backseat. I met her daughter, Sonja, and she became a seamless addition to our world, a natural extension to our coupling. The three of us went to Stockholm together, explored the old town, took a ferry ride around the islands. Tanya wanted to go to the ABBA museum but we ran out of time. I pushed Sonja in her stroller as she slept. She rarely cried, and when she did Tanya got down to her level, looked her in the eyes, and whispered melodic sentences in Ukrainian to her. I listened and felt soothed.
One sunny Saturday in May we went to the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art together, Tanya brought Sonja. The inaugural exhibit was about the interpreted meanings of the mermaid – which has decorated Warsaw's coat of arms since the early 18th century – and how the nebulous mythology around the creature speaks to the city’s character.
Various representations of the mermaid were displayed, from its origins as a deceitful bird-woman, to its surrealist expressions of the complexities of human nature. The connotations were myriad, but one thing remained constant throughout: The mermaid was a hybrid, a combination of human and animal, a universal symbol for boundless potential, rebirth and change.
“The [siren] has the strength to redefine herself time and time again, and rise to any challenge...always ready to mobilize, she allows life’s current to slowly pass her by,” a line on one blank white wall read.
The mermaid was a place where the different identities of the city met, where a loose-knit community found some reflection of selfhood. Mermaids were everywhere in Warsaw: a Pablo Picasso drawing on a housing development covered up in 1953, a famous sculpture of a mermaid with a sword in the old town, in graffiti underneath bridges. It was the name of a feminist-activist collective that staged protests against restricted labour rights, the unofficial patron for the Legia Warszawa soccer team, whose fans held bloody riots and in some instances had yelled anti-Semitic chants and harassed migrants.
I looked at my friend, as she observed the otherworldly drawings of Polish artist Aleksandra Waliszewska, holding Sonja’s hand. To me, Tanya was the city. She was its buildings, its pastries, it's quiet parks in winter. She pulsated with myths and stories. Her person remains nebulous in my mind. If I went through a rebirth during my time in Warsaw, if it taught me what grief felt like, what joy could be in the midst of true loss, it was because of Tanya. In my mind, her and the city are inseparable; when people go there to visit and tell me of its coldess I agree, but then I ask them if they saw the squirrels, if they noticed the way the tops of the buildings became pink at sunset.
Tanya is not on social media and I have no pictures of her. Like rediscovered old stories of the siren, I often feel as though our time together was a fantasy. We spoke not of our pasts or our futures, we never planned to be apart. When the day came, we said goodbye and I watched her leave. Her back to the sun, her gait quick and assured.
I found a photo of two older women looking at some pictures together—I took it that day at the exhibit. I remember seeing them there, watching them speak in quiet tones to one another, reading each other's movements. Even now I feel their friendship reverberate across the cold waters of the Vistula, a tide that flows to the center of my heart.
- Kylee Pedersen is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She writes about the natural world, travel and food among other things.
Ideas of outdoor living,
A glimpse inside an Orlando motel,
And a memoir from Berlin.
As always, thanks for reading. We’ll see you next Friday!