Viva Warszawa by Steffen Moeller

Quite by accident, Steffen Möller has found himself one of the most famous contemporary Germans in Poland. He moved there in the mid-1990s for no particularly profound reasons — looking for work, looking for things to be slightly different, looking into a society that was changing rapidly, looking at a place that was at once nearby and distant — and fell into a role in the long-running soap opera “M jak Milosc” (L for Love).

He was cast as the unassuming German next door, and appeared in seven seasons of the show. He did not become a household name, but most definitely a familiar face for a large segment of the Polish population. (The show has run since the year 2000, and as of the end of May this year, 1377 episodes had been broadcast. By some measures, it is the most-watched drama on Polish television.) It was quite a change from the anonymous language teacher he was when he first came to Poland, but it does not seem to have affected the affable persona he shows in Viva Warszawa, his third book and his second about Poland.

As the title implies, the book is a very fond look at Warsaw, where he has lived for most of his time in Poland. Roughly speaking, he alternates between historical bits and chapters about particular areas or themes, with those largely based on his personal experience with the city. In contrast to many people born and raised in Poland, he not only loves the country, he quite likes it as well. After roughly two decades there, at the time of publication, he has seen considerable change and relates the continuities along with the new developments, helping the book live up to its subtitle Polen für Fortgeschrittene (Poland for Advanced Learners). For example, when he first moved to Warsaw, bicycling in the city was considered strange, dangerous, and possibly suicidal. Having biked from the city center into the countryside and then back again at the end of a two-week tour across northern Poland in 1997, I can attest to two of those three. In recent years, however, bike lanes have been added to the streets, and bike-sharing schemes have gained significant numbers of riders. Public attitudes have changed as well.

Möller is a genial companion as he ranges across the city, and lightly back and forth in time. He does not shy away from the many difficult issues in German-Polish relations, but he always addresses them in the context of specific people, and is generally optimistic about present and future. As with Viva Polonia, the book’s short sections and breezy tone make it fun to read. He wears his learning lightly, showing why he likes Warsaw so much, and inviting readers to join him in pleasure and exploration. Viva Warszawa!

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