Eleven Days Across Poland, 1990
Tom and I had been bicycling
in the Soviet Union for a month when we reached the half-mile traffic jam
that signalled the Polish border. Buses, trucks and cars were stacked
up or abandoned, people were milling around or squatting in circles at
the side of the road. We pedalled through slowly and presented ourselves
to a Russian soldier guarding the gate. He waved us away with a twitch
of his semi-automatic. We had two days left on our visas and it looked
like we might be spending them here.
Since 1989, the USSR-Poland border has been the East-West frontier, the new uncrossable line, and you'd better not be in a hurry. We got lucky. An older officer, amused by our bikes and strange outfits, led us through customs and didn't search anything. In ten minutes we were in Poland. Poland is between the USSR and Germany--historically, politically, economically and geographically; in a week and a half we'd span those borders, finishing our ride in Berlin.
Nine miles on, in the city of Przemysl, Tom walked into a hotel and walked out again holding a key. This in itself was remarkable: seven weeks of bureaucratic hassles in the Soviet Union (arguing to get into hotels and restaurants, explaining ourselves to small-town police) made Poland look very good. But I'd also been here before, in 1987. Poland then was a lot like the Soviet Union is now; today the contrast is stark. Przemysl had coffeeshops. With coffee. There was beer. Four different cathedrals were overflowing with worshippers, sturdy old couples with canes, teenagers shuffling around the doors. The restaurants had choices and nice waitresses, like the one who served us that night. "I study English lessons," she said proudly. "Good eat, beautiful boys. Sit down please." We had pork cutlets with cheese and onions, and four Pepsis. 75,000 zloty ($8) for dinner was cheap, though five to ten times what the Soviet Union had cost us.
We're paying more for things but we feel, These people deserve it. Unlike East Germany, Poland has no rich relative to pull it out of the economic swamps of communism. But, unlike the USSR, Poland does have the physical and cultural integrity to withstand the upheavals wrought by the shift to democracy and a market economy. There is no guarantee that the changes will hold, or even that they are for the best.
In Jaroslaw, twenty miles into the next morning, our task is to change money. In 1987, the exchange-rate was 250 zloty to the dollar, four times that on the black market. Now, there is no artificial "official" rate, no mandatory exchange for tourists, and instead of the black market, there are legal moneychanging shops called "kantors," that convert anyone's zloty to dollars and vice-versa. Incredible inflation has resulted (the zloty was approaching 10,000 to 1), but by it, Poland has already accomplished something unthinkable in the Soviet Union: it has money that is worth something.
The offices that are the site of this economic miracle are strangely slip-shod, like candy shops or two-machine video arcades. The kantor in Jaroslaw was a bare storefront with a blow-up of a five-dollar bill in the window. We changed $100 with a dyed blonde chewing gum behind a plank-counter.
Outside Debica, at the hardest point in that cold-rain headwind day, we pulled into the draft of a tractor trailing a cartload of pigs. Riding faster with less effort, we enjoyed the curious looks of the pigs for two or three miles until they turned down some dirt slaughterhouse road.
The next day we reached Tarnow, a city built on a hill 50 miles east of Krakow. The center of town had that jumbled, discontinous look old places have, cities born around walking paths. Cathedral spires disappear behind curlicued row-houses as we twist up the cobblestones, spiraling in towards the medieval town square.
We lean our bikes against the windows of a milkbar nearby and go in for coffee and rolls. At the table in front of us are two drunks, one worse than the other at nine in the morning. There is a stunned silence as they look us head to toe, trying to make sense of our Goretex jackets and Polypropylene tights. We ignore their questions until Do you understand?, in Russian, catches our attention.
Despite the clear logic of our appearance (we could have been from Mars, but certainly not Russia), one drunk decides we must be Russian. He gets beligerant, standing and pointing and, reverting to his native tongue, begins haranguing us with decades of Soviet crimes, though I didn't catch much besides "Gorbachev." Soon a typical tough restaurant martiarch comes to our aid, grabbing the guy by the lapels and working him over to the door while scolding him for being drunk so early. A couple of other A.M.-drunks lower their heads towards their plates.
Entering Krakow was like going back in time. Riding through the ancient gates and the huge Old Town, I was also returning to one of my favorite places, a magic city, an Old Europe you can't find in the post-war West.
My last time here, I'd come from the north, from Warsaw, the present capital. Warsaw was reduced to gravel by the Germans in 1944 (while Stalin's army waited on the opposite bank of the Vistula). It is a somber city, a city of ghosts and sadness, a memorial in concrete. Warsaw's old Market Square was painstakingly restored: the nation's first project after the war, even before feeding the people. The Square is perfect, yet artificial.
Krakow, the ancient capital, is real, and always has been. Untouched by the bombing, this 1000-year-old city is filled with castles and churches, artists and students, restaurants and galleries, all with a restless vitality that is at once old-world and urban-modern. At first glance, Krakow's Old Town seemed full of tourists. But this is the off-season and the flocks of fashionable young people cutting angles on the largest medieval market square in Europe are not Parisians, Berliners or Brits. They are Poles.
"It it one of our traits, that we live impossibly. We do not have the money to spend on these clothes, yet, you see, somehow we do it." These words from Dorothe, a drama student working in a gallery. Is it like the square in Warsaw, taking care of appearances first? "Perhaps. People want to look as though they are part of 'what's happening,' part of the New Rich." While we talk, an elegant couple spends two million zloty on handmade jewelry: their money is real enough. Dorothe sighs as she counts it, "This much, for me, is three months' work."
The changes of the past two years are clearly dividing this country. Gaps are growing between intellectuals and the uneducated, between city people and peasants (and these are peasants in the oldest sense of the word: medieval, Breugelian, horse-and-carriage dirt-track, wood-shack peasants), between the nouveau riche and everyone else. Most Poles can't afford the hotels we were paying $15 a night for; many shops and cafes are for the rich who own such establishments or the foreigners fast discovering Central Europe.
Meals in the countryside had cost us a dollar or two; now it's possible to spend twenty or thirty at new and fashionable restaurants all over Krakow. Clothing, furniture, record and electronics stores are suddenly everywhere. One shop on the square sells ski equipment, neon colors catching your eye through glass that, at another angle, reflects 11th-Century cathedral spires. I asked Marta, a gallery owner, if she was afraid of tourists taking over her city. "No. I am afraid that I will not be able to buy food in the Old Town."
After two days in Krakow, a long day's ride through low hills and forests led us to Czestochowa, Poland's religious heart and the home of the Black Madonna, the country's holiest icon. An otherwise undistinguished city, Czestochowa is surrounded by concrete housing blocks and a huge steelworks, employer of 30,000, belching the most eyecatching shade of pink smoke as we rode into of town.
Czestochowa's long main avenue ends at the grounds of the Jasna Gora Monastery, and from anywhere along its length you can see the towering spire of the fortified complex of churches. The Black Madonna was brought here from Jerusalem in 1384. "This could be the most sacred place you'll ever visit," my guidebook avers.
Indeed, the icon is a big draw, and the John-Paul II Pilgrim Home behind the monestary is enjoying good times. It's no longer the cheap and humble lodging our guidebook describes. They're constructing new wings left and right, and wanted $40 for a room. Cheap and humble we found at a spartan dormitory adjoining the Monastery. Run by nuns, it was filled with screeching schoolchildren away from home for the first time. Together we were up at dawn to join worshippers huddling in blankets, crowding the courtyard outside the small church, waiting in half-light to chant and kneel before the altar of golden candles surrounding the painted Madonna.
From there to the German border, good roads, sunny riding, and a series of beautiful old towns--Opole, Brzeg, Olawa, Wroclaw, Zielona Gora. Wroclaw, the biggest city in the region of Lower Silesia, is the kind of town that would, were it in Western Europe, be rank with tourists. Balanced in a precious, ingenuous state, it is, like much of Poland, undiscovered, alive, distinct.
Wroclaw--German Breslaw until 1945--is a pastiche of styles, German and Polish, Bauhaus boxes down the block from university buildings built in the 1700s. Expensive new restaurants look out over cafes on the square, where there's also pizza and a wine-bar named after Bacchus. Tight alleyways branch from the square to brick-cellar coffeehouses and bright art galleries.
Tom and I found Pod Kalamburem, a beautiful little bar designed to the hilt, Art Nouveau: painted ceilings, brass railings, curved steel and carved glass between booths. An actor's hang-out with good-looking kids holding cups of tea or nursing two-dollar bottled beers from Holland. We joined a couple of local students. Maryja, overweight with a dry, straight smile, spoke English. Did she frequent this place? "Only when I have money."
She was surprised to hear I liked the new Poland. "For me, things are worse. Before we had money, but there was nothing to buy. Now the stores are full, but it is worse because all I can do is look." I asked her about the dozens of Mercedes we'd seen since entering Poland. "Have you looked inside? The outside is OK, but inside they are old. And listen--the motors? Kaput. You know where these cars come from? Stolen. From Germany, Holland, Denmark. A big ring of thieves knew how to do this, thousands of cars disappeared. This is where they are."
The next day we met Mariusz and Alicja who run Entropia, Wroclaw's only non-commercial gallery. In their mid-thirties, they look like doctoral candidates. This is a hard time for artists, they said, "A time of uprooting." But it is good for Art, a kick in the pants: "Art is no longer incompetent." Walking to their apartment for dinner, leading us through side streets and courtyards, they spoke of new fears: Capitalism, which they think will dilute their national identity; and the Church, which, despite its role opposing communism, they think is too powerful and conservative. Off the main avenues, following their route, a path trod for centuries, we're seeing a different city--a city as it looked years ago, when this was a growing town with a market near a river, with big trees and now, rising in front of us, a Cathedral, looming dark, huge beyond all human scale.
During a restaurant break near the end of a 95-mile day to Zielona Gora, Tom studies his Polish phrasebook. Suddenly, he starts reading it aloud, like a script--Baedeker meets Beckett in tourist-hell: "Do you understand me? Please help me. I left my wallet in the station. I forgot my keys. I have lost my friends. I have missed my plane. I cannot find my hotel. I do not remember the street. What am I to do? It is not my fault. Go away! Help! Fire! Thieves!" Our laughter is manic and uncontrolled, a response to all we've seen, a physical release triggered by exhaustion and our third cup of Turkish coffee.
Slubice is the Polish border town. Across the Oder River is Frankfurt, in what was East Germany. There is a huge market in Slubice--Germans buying American cigarettes, blue jeans and cassettes cheap from their Polish neighbors. The market grew spontaneously on the border-bridge, and had to move to a long field near the woods when no one could get across. A steady stream of German shoppers passes through a perfunctory customs, moneychangers hang out openly, and there are even shuttlebuses. We had our last Polish meal in Slubice (chicken, Pepsi and fries in a red and pink baroque place with picnic benches) and then biked across the bridge to Germany.
A German tourist office just past the bridge is closed, but a hotel pricelist on the door--$80 to $150 for a room--tells us "East" Germany is long gone. Wandering around a city we can no longer afford, worrying about the cost of eating, admiring German products, getting hassled at the bank--suddenly we feel very Polish, something we could only understand here. Already Tom feels I'm being rude to people and already I'm blaming him for not standing up to the lady who overcharges us for breakfast. There is a new tension here, and between us as well, and it will only be relieved where we are back on the our bikes, back on the road, riding.
Two days to Berlin, and the Grateful Dead are playing the night we arrive.