A pre-war aphorism asserted that when a passenger of a Paris-Moscow train alights by mistake in Warsaw, he considers himself already arrived in Moscow; travelling the other way, he thinks he is in Paris. Yet the very need to assert that Warsaw has more in common with Paris than with Moscow is older. The largest, most elegant and most modern hotel of fin-de-siècle Warsaw was called, unavoidably, the “Europejski” (The European), usually called, plainly, “Europe”. After Poland regained its independence in 1918, the drive to cleanse Warsaw of the remnants of Russian architecture was motivated in part by this same need to align with the west. The term “Europe-isation of space” appeared in the speeches of the President of Warsaw, Stefan Starzyński, in the 1930s as much as in those of the party general secretaries in the 1950s. It was a capacious term: it could mean combating street trade or hooliganism, elimination of wooden architecture, promoting pavement washing, decorating balconies with flowers etc. In Stalinist Poland, the word “Europe” meant, in the colloquial parlance, much more than the geographical name for the continent. It was the term for a particularly elegant and worldly gesture, custom or event.

– Upon leave-taking he gave me flowers, and drove me home.
– Europe!
– Gentlemen, I propose that we create our own periodical, a periodical for Polish writers and intellectuals.
– Europe!

Thus, the periodical for Polish writers and intellectuals created in the late 1950s was christened “Europa” – but was closed by the party before the first issue saw the light of day. In the intellectual isolation of those times, various marks of prosperity, though illusory, served as an ersatz of Europe; like the multitude of neon signs decorating Warsaw in the sixties, advertising goods as evanescent as their glow. After 1989, freshly capitalist Warsaw was enchanted by the myth of a “return to Europe”. The word “euro” appeared in the names of the first chain of private supermarkets, Euro Shop, as well as other enterprises: Mini Europa delicatessen, Eurodental clinics. The Decade Stadium open-air market, overrun by traders hailing from three continents, was called – the irony of it! – Jarmark Europa, the Europe Fair. Even now, with Poland a member of the European Union, the persistent complex Warsaw has of “not being European enough” is the motor not only of a brisk trade in stylish clothing, but of many truly noble initiatives.