Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Monday (October 1st), I visited Szczecin, Poland, a Polish city roughly 140 kilometers from Berlin. Formerly the German city of Stitten up until World War 2, the city was heavily damaged during the war, with some estimates saying 2/3 of the city was destroyed. But even today, some 70 years later, the city resiliently bears sings and influences of its Pomeranian and Hanseatic past. As Poland's seventh-largest city, it is well off of the tourist circuit, and lacks many of the attractions found in other Slavic darling cities, such as Prague and Krakow. The city, central to Berlin, Hamburg, and Scandinavia, has immense potential, and its stock of stately, Middle Age buildings beat those of many, larger and wealthier cities.
I found Szczecin to be one of those little-traveled, exotic places where the allure of being a mysterious foreign still exists. For example, when asking for directions or help, you see a little sparkle in peoples' eyes and a genuine desire to accommodate and please. At a café on the Pope John Paul II boulevard, I asked the young, attractive waitress for directions to the city's Pomeranian castle. Although I already pin-pointed its location on my iPhone, the waitress excused herself and quickly returned with a printed-out map, fashioned with a crudely-drawn walking route to the castle. The city was easily the most-homogeneous that I have visited, meaning any tourist, much less a tall, camera-totting, dreadlocked black guy from Los Angeles, would easily stick out. Conversing was surprisingly easy, seeing how pretty much every fresh-faced kid who grew up after the fall of Communism speaks decent, speakable English. Oh, how I wish I could say the same about foreign language comprehension among native-born Americans.
Despite the fact that Poland is a huge recipient of European Union development aid and assistance, much of the city's architecture is crumbling, and where it is not crumbling, it is coated in a grey-colored grime, the result of zero investment or maintenance upkeep for several decades. This has not gone unnoticed: many Germans joke that when driving from Germany to Poland, color entirely disappears, and everything turns grey upon crossing the Polish border. The fact that the city utilizes the older, Communist-era trams retired by Berlin really accentuates the "trapped in time" effect. Quite literally, with the exception of the commieblock buildings ringing the city's fringe, many parts look as if they have not been touched since World War 2. Coming from the US, where cities are horizontal, and distances are much larger, it is surreal to be able to hop on a train, or drive 1.5 hours on the autobahn, and find yourself in an entirely different, Slavic-dominated world, where the societal culture, customs, and rules are all different. Time and money permitting, next up on the Slavic tour/"Ost" tour are Poznań and Prague.