Ode to the Osiedle

by Nathan James Thomas

As Poland races ahead into a new era of prosperity and political power, an expat contemplates the osiedle—the communist-era housing estates where time seems to stand still. 

AirBNB check-ins are getting ridiculous. The quest to find the keys led to us schlepping with suitcases around the leaf-covered concrete surrounding the Lego-block housing estates that strafe the center of Warsaw. Known as osiedles to the Poles and “Commy blocks” to the glib, these communist-era housing estates can be found from Moscow to Tbilisi, though the quality varies wildly. In Poland, they are generally pretty good, especially in the bigger cities. In Warsaw, they provide an almost quaint contrast with the modern glass skyscrapers that jut up like knives stabbed out of the city streets. 

My wife and I were staying in part of one that promised a face-to-face view of Warsaw’s infamous Palace of Culture, but first we had to find the entrance. After much circling back and scowling at Google Maps, we made it into a cool, yellow concrete entrance hall and found not just one but several dozen key boxes hooked onto the iron bars above the staircase. Which one was ours? As I fumbled with the AirBNB app to try and find some information, my wife went through each one by one, trying the code until the 15th or 16th lockbox opened, and we were in. Indian exchange students, mascara-wearing partygoers, and elderly ladies with cast-iron haircuts shuffled by as we waited for the elevator. Inside the small chamber, we encountered a curious handwritten sign, which, with help from my wife, I will roughly translate as follows:

Ladies and gentlemen.

Floors 12 and 13 are occupied by narcomaniacs [drug addicts]. Foil is burned almost daily. Syringes, beer cans.

Please report these people to the management at [Phone no. Xxxxxx].

Thank you in advance

Narcomaniacs notwithstanding, osiedles, in my experience, give an overall vibe of nostalgic wholesomeness rather than social derangement. While Poles of my wife’s generation who grew up in a free, capitalist country, harbor no romantic illusions about the Communist past, there’s something about these living blocks that seems strangely reassuring.

Two and half hours west of Warsaw, Poznan is less than half the size of the capital and has the kind of edgy, competitive relationship with it as Manchester does with London. Walk in any direction outwards from the medieval town square and, after a brief interlude of rivers and shrubland, you’ll soon once again find yourself in the land of osiedles. The names alone are a source of delight, evoking camaraderie and patriotism, often with the communist undertones from the PRL years barely scrubbed out. Here are a few from Rataje, a living area of apartment complexes that house almost 100,000 people on the outskirts of Poznan: Enlightenment Estate, Millennium Estate (named not for the year 2000, but for the previous millennium—Poland was baptized in 966), White Eagle Estate, World War II Heroes Estate, Zodiac Estate.

And some contain mysteries.

One, past the malls and rivers somewhere beyond Poznan, is surrounded by a train track that cuts through a dense belt of forest. We speculated if the tracks were live, hesitating before walking along the inviting, shady tunnel of trees. We decided it was too risky, and walked alongside the tracks on a great highway, peaking through the trees as the cars screamed by. Through a gap in the forest, a boy appeared, walking confidently along the tracks, stick in hand, no fear of trains. And yet, the yellow warning signs at the intersection still hint at their presence.

Many of these clusters of apartment blocks contain a small, one-story scattering of shops, a commercial center or centrum handlowy. Sometimes, there are statues of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, the former wooden and somber, the latter painted in vibrant blues. In one, there is a high-quality Indonesian restaurant. In another, shaded by concrete, a bar. We arrived one afternoon, and the owner was absent, so the regulars grabbed beer for us out of the fridge.

10 years ago I stayed in one of these housing blocks for some weeks. I remember the yellow outer walls and the small store where I tried to buy ham and milk. The apartment was owned by someone who knew someone, and it was on the ground floor. People who lived here overheard me speaking English, and I became a source of gossip in the neighborhood. Residents would strafe by the window, hoping to sight this English-speaking foreigner who had wound up here, of all places. “Why Poland?” people would ask me whenever I told them where I was from. “New Zealand and you came here?”

Today, foreigners are common. Erasmus students from Spain. Businessmen from China. Workers from Latin America. Bakers from Georgia. And of course, the ubiquitous Ukranians. A New Zealand diplomat in Warsaw told me there are probably 95 fellow New Zealanders living here in Poland today. Hardly a crowd, but hearing English is no longer a cause for intrigue, at least in the big cities. Poland is changing, fast. While my friends in New Zealand and the UK often still seem to perceive at as a post-communist backwater (before they visit), this perception is out of date. Poland stands beside France and Germany as a leading EU power. The economy is roaring. People are migrating here from Italy and Spain. The prime minister, Donald Tusk, says that by 2030, Poland will be wealthier than the United Kingdom.

And yet, the osiedles remain. Frozen in time? Not quite. But they are slouching towards the future, not running. And this slowness is strangely reassuring. They are calming places to walk. Walking through one now, there’s the grandma sitting on the bench, hands folded in her lap. This one is painted with a stark mural of the ‘56 uprising, and the artist has made the fighter’s hand grip the side of the tower. Here, a playground sits between the apartment blocks, and a child kicks his ball to his dad, who returns it between puffs on his cigarette. On the next bench, two men sit sipping Bison Beers, arms and faces stained maroon from time and exposure, knobby fingers fumbling now with the beer cap, now with a cigarette, now with a lighter.

These buildings were not made to be beautiful—that was considered bourgeois, unnecessary, and corrupting—but beauty has found them. In the small garden lovingly ornamented with gnomes, in the posters on the windows, in the colors, those faded yellows and strange greens and occasionally bright oranges. On our many long walks in Poznan, my wife and I always ended up pushing deeper and deeper into those osiedles, always finding something to marvel at, something worth stopping and breathing in. And then when we got bored or tired, we’d call an Uber… back to the modern center, the craft beer bars and Japanese restaurants, and the many good things about a confident Poland entering the new world.

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