Almost midnight and I'm sitting in a bed big enough for five, wrapped in an almost crunchy perfect white bathrobe, smoking dutch dutyfree camels, listening to other people's cisterns fill, and missing snarl more than ever. Perhaps just because it will be three whole days we are apart. It's too long to go without a kiss or a conspiratorial snicker.
I like hotels. I like the pristine sheets and the obscenely unecessary origmai folds on the end of the roll of loo paper. I like the perfect white towels, and the ugly marble bathrooms. I like the arcane geometry of placement for the asthrays, the notepaper, and the room service menu. I love hotel breakfasts (with the bowls of fruit, and the choice of seven types of breadroll, and the weird muesli that looks like it was stolen from a craft shop). I like knowing that I will never have to hoover the acres of carpet. Of course, staying in a hotel on business is not the same as the depraved luxury of a dirty weekend with my beloved, but, it's got a welcome sterility to the comfort that makes me glad to return to the chaos of home.
Warsaw, on first glance, is not an attractive city. On second glance it's slightly worse. 70 per cent of the main city wiped out, flattened, during the second world war. After the uprising in 1944, there was a systematic destruction. For the parts that weren't bombed, Hitler gave special orders that the rest was to be dynamited. Nearly all of the old town was destroyed. The castle was left as rubble.
Nearly all the rebuilding was 50s and 60s soviet architecture. Not the solid, stolid, grandiose people's temples but the workaday slabs of housing and industry. It is blandly ugly. Space-filling, population enclosing, low-level, misery-inducing ugliness.
The Old Town, though, was a different project. From the 50s onwards, it was carefully rebuilt, exactly as it had been before. A whole generation of craftsmen was trained up in the old methods, and a facsimile was created not from drawings and architectural blueprints, but from the series of paintings that Canaletto had made many years before. It's pretty, but it's strangely hollow. It's more like legoland than a living, breathing place, and the strains of russian buskers and posy sellers doesn't take off the unreal edge. The reconstructed castle, though, the pride and joy of the tourist board, was wrapped in scaffolding and advertisments.
I walked slowly, wary of the faux-aged cobblestones, talking about ASCII art film, and the antics of eastern european hackers with a charmingly precise Polish colleague who looked like he had escaped from a Walt Stilman movie. We had dinner in a traditional restaurant, with an unpronouncable name, drinking spiced apple vodka cocktails and hitting pauses as the conversations circulated around in English, Dutch and Polish. I picked at the layers of almonds on my fish, and tried hard not to listen to the sagging singers in the corner who wandered from pillar to pillar and droned out such local classics as 'knocking on heaven's door' and 'feeling groovy'. I fear that i will have many evenings like this, making polite conversation about local health care and incomes and media, and poking at my plate for traces of meat, whilst longing to wander off and explore in cities i've never visited before.
A final drink was suggested, accepted, and I felt that I couuld not bow out without rudeness. So, after more slow walking around the edges of the memory of a lovely city, we ended up at a gruesome disco filled with blonded babes wiggling their sprayed on lace-shirted chests at burly men in dark shirts, to the cheerful strains of george michael remixed with a europop dance thump running underneath. Three colleagues looked gleeful, snapping their fingers and loosening their ties. Walt Stilman's boy looked pained, and offered me cigarette after cigarette as he mimed complaints and mugged horror-struck looks at me. The longlimbed waitresses purred and wiggled around the men, rubbing smilingly against them as they passed, then crashed into me, shoving me out of their path. I was an annoyance who was merely invisible, female and unglamourous. The local journalist filled up with layers of embarrassment.
Half an hour later, when I pleaded tiredness from the stream of interviews and meetings that had filled the day, I tumbled out onto the street. The journo followed me out, helping me with a cab, and explaining that this was not a typical club. No, most people here liked proper techno, real dance music, and were...younger. He nodded decisively and shook me by the hand very formally.
I've never seen quite so many adverts in one city. Almost every inch is filled with logos downtown: on huge hoardings, plastered up the side of skyscrapers, propped in the gaps that remain. The beige tower block hotel (allegedly popular with the russian mafia despite, or perhaps because of, the brown swirly interiors) has a monumental Pepsi logo ascending its side, and a vast mobile phone logo on the front that dwarfs the hotel's own sign.
But that first evening, we (myself, and three work collegaues) spent the evening in the sort of all-american bar that can only exist outside america--every inch of wall space was filled with faux memorabilia of a dozen styles of music that should, could, never sit side by side in a thoughful environment (mingus next to the bangles next to springsteen, presided over by a skeleton harley made of flattened coke cans). The menu was no less diverse or awkward - cajun meets italian bumping into chinese on a pacific street corner (and being doused in local beer batter).
But you punch 7 holes in your tram ticket and admire the cultural palace that outvoted the potential city metro system (the russians offered a choice of just one of the as a gift to the people of warsaw) as you lurch from side to side and boggle at the proliferation of mobile phones, marks + spencers and lopsidedly shiny towers housing management consultants and speculate on the future fate of the miners.