Recently, I was speaking at the English Writing Festival which took place at the American Bookstore in The Hague. It was an amazing experience and I was lucky to meet many writers who worked in the various genres: flash fiction, short stories, memoir, poetry, and blogging (that’s me!)
To my huge and very pleasant surprise, I didn’t get my typical speaker’s blackout and managed to make the audience laugh, engage and ask questions. After the event, I had the chance to talk to people who had questions about blogging.
But as I was getting ready to leave, something wonderful happened.
A man reached out to me and said: “You said you’re Polish. Which part of Poland are you from, exactly?”
“Warsaw,” I said, and then, alluding to Polish people who had trouble difficulties explaining their little hometown to foreigners added, “That’s easy.”
“Yes, it is. Everyone knows where Warsaw is. We’ve been to Poland, especially to Lower Silesia, to Katowice.”
“Really?” I asked, my curiosity suddenly spiked. Katowice is not really the place where tourists usually go.
“Yes. I read a blog post where people wrote about Katowice and they wrote ‘We need to get out of here!”. So I thought, ‘Wow! I need to go there!’”
“He is right”, I thought.
How often do we avoid or even scorn certain cities or countries because they’re “ugly”?
I hear this about Warsaw all the time. People often tell me: “Oh yes, Warsaw. I’ve been there but it’s grey and ugly and people are always in a hurry there. I didn’t like it. Kraków is so much prettier.”
And the comment cuts straight into my heart. What I hear is this: “I am not interested in learning about your city. I don’t want to get to know her because it doesn’t look according to my expectations.”
And it’s all fine, of course. I understand that when we go on vacation, we want to be in a beautiful, relaxing environment, surrounded by majestic buildings and monuments. Ugly cities on the other hand, are often jarring, frustrating, off putting.
But when we look down on ugly cities, we ignore all the history that they represent. After all, there is a reason why Warsaw looks the way it does. It was almost totally destroyed during WWII and the Old Town was re-build from scratch by the city’s own inhabitants. After that, grey and ugly buildings were erected all over the town.
Some cities like Amsterdam or Paris are very easy to love. They require no work on your part, and no wonder: beauty is everywhere you look. Others, on the other hand, need you to get to know them before they show you their charms.
I’ve lived in beautiful cities: Hamburg, where met my husband, is stunning. Bremen, where I studied, is particularly spectacular. I spent a month in Nancy, France learning French, and each house was a sight to behold.
And I’ve lived in my share of ugly cities, too. Warsaw, my hometown is one of them. Winnipeg, Canada, is another one. Winnipeg, also jokingly called Winterpeg, is mostly a concrete town in the middle of nowhere. Objectively speaking, it’s ugly. But I had plenty of amazing experiences there.
It was the first time I actually really lived with my then boyfriend, now husband. We’d lived together before but most of the time, at least at the beginning, we had a long-distance relationship. But then he moved to Canada to pursue a PhD program, so I moved to Canada as well. For the first time, I lived so far away from home and had to find a job in a rather short amount of time. And I did it!
And we found Winnipeg has a lot to offer: we saw “Phantom of the Opera”. We experienced Shakespeare plays outdoors, on the banks of the Assiniboine River. We ate delicious food from various cultures in exclusive restaurants. Yes, the city is ugly and the winters are damn cold, but does it mean that I can’t love and cherish it?
Besides, if you scratch deep enough, you’ll find plenty of ugliness in even the most beautiful cities. Every city has crime, alcohol problems, violence, and death. That’s because we are humans and humans can be ugly.
In ugly cities, you walk around with your eyes wide open. Maybe you don’t feel as safe as you would surround by beauty. But you’re also probably starved for beauty and look for it wherever you can. And that’s how you find out that that that old, desolate place has a café which serves the best coffee in town. Or that that joint which looks closed and sad during the day turns into a magical nightclub after the sun goes down. Or that there’s a museum with an amazing art exhibition where you’d never have thought a museum could be.
And after a while, you’ll know. You’ll know where you can go and buy the best books. You’ll meet wonderful, helpful, intelligent people to have conversations with. They’ll show you around and introduce you to their ugly city’s greatest charms- and rest assured that there will be many.
To be completely honest with you, I wouldn’t go and see Warsaw if I hadn’t been born there. I wouldn’t have gone to Winnipeg if my then-boyfriend wasn’t living there. But I am glad I did.
Because if you turn your nose up at ugly cities, you’re not just missing out on a possibly important history lesson or experiences you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
If cities are like women, ugly cities are women of a very special kind. They’ve been through so much. They’re not pleasant to look at. But if you take the time to talk to them, amazing things will happen.
And if you’ll look close enough, you’ll still see the light in her eyes and the beauty in her smile. Just sit down with her and listen. Because first she’ll show you her scars and black eyes, and all the broken pieces of herself. But then she’ll tell you her stories, and when she does, listen to her. Because the stories she’ll tell you will be one of a kind.