Crossing into Germany

July 16, 2011

As the train moved west towards Berlin, the land became drier and more vast.  The bogs visible yesterday from the train between Czestochowa and Warsaw were replaced by open fields bordered by pines.  From this faster train, I saw less birch, more oaks and maples, surroundings familiar from central Pennsylvania.  The Oder River between Poland and Germany was no wider than the Schuylkill, and it was strange to think that this river served as a major boundary between two nations for such a long time.  Impossible to think of two mutually hostile peoples facing each other down across a distance no greater than the span of the Falls Bridge in East Falls.

But I think this is part of a misleading historical generalization, fine for propagating stereotypes or selling movies, but a poor substitute for reality.  Today, the maps of eastern Germany and western Poland give each town and city two names, one in each language.  There is Wroclaw/Breslau, Szczecin/Stettin, and more.  And this is how it was for centuries.  Nikolaus Kopernik (Copernicus) spoke German at home, but could get by in Polish, and accepted the local Polish ruler as the sovereign authority.  My grandmother, Margarete Stresemann, spoke German and identified with that culture, but a quick glance at any photo will confirm that she looked far more Polish, or Russian, or something other than what I associate with ethnic German.  My guess is that she understood more than a little Polish to get by in Stettin/Szczecin.  I am sure that a porous frontier is more fun, more vibrant and more filled with ideas than one which is closed off by a wall.  Between Poland and Germany, where citizens of each country do not need a passport or even photo id to cross, the present is returning to the past with excellent results.

Suddenly, a few minutes after the Oder crossing, the signs are in German and I can read them.  The train is now moving much faster, maybe the tracks are in better shape.  I see a highway overpass which looks like any at home, and a small German flag waving amid the cucumbers in a garden fast by the railroad tracks.  After passing a small town with more signs which make sense to me, I see a half-circle of more than a dozen huge power windmills, with massive fan blades turning in the breeze.  We don’t have these in Pennsylvania.


Sunday in Berlin

Sunday, July 17, 2011

(Some of this was written contemporaneously, other parts reconstructed from notes, which explains the changes in tense from present to past.)

Yesterday was good but today was better, although I left my brand new hat in a Lutheran church which I was visiting by chance (beim Zufall). Fortunately I took a weekly service guide on my way out, and plan to write them to mention that I left it. The church sanctuary was incredible.  I took some photos, but they do not begin to do the interior justice.  The conversation started with a woman wanting to know if I planned to post the photos on the Internet for any questionable purpose.  I understood in German, said no, and was then allowed to take as many as I wanted.  It was all very friendly after that, and a member of the congregation explained to me that their church organ was salvaged from a Lutheran church in Massachusetts which was shutting down, and then sent to Hamburg by boat and trucked to Berlin.

The people I spoke with told me the church was about 100 years old, newer than our church in Philadelphia. It is obvious that northern Germany was the center of Lutheran influence, because within one kilometer of this church is another, even larger church and the two come within the same leadership. I saw at least ten other red brick Lutheran churches while riding across the city, each so tall it could barely fit in my camera viewfinder. I had never read “A mighty fortress” in German, and in the original language carved over the church entrance it conveys a more pragmatic message, which goes like this: Ein feste Berg ist unser Gott, ein gute Wehr und Waffen. (in my translation – a tight/tough fortress is our God, a useful shield and weapon).  This is more along the lines of what I need when I get back to the US, better than a “stronghold sure.”

Thanks to my bicycle, I was able to explore the entire city, and the southern part of it, especially Bergmanstrasse, is what I was looking for yesterday.  Bergmanstr. is lined with practical shops – grocery, bicycle, bread, coffee, and of course bier.  The east end of the street goes by a nice park, clean, leafy and no homeless, which today is filled with a flea market selling things you might actually want to buy.  I saw several suits and shirts for very low prices which would be worth getting if I was not getting on a plane tomorrow.  At one end of the park is a combination hotel-restaurant-biergarten.  The location is Marheinecke am Bergmanstr und Friesenstr.  A good place to stay on the next visit.

I wrote most of this while having lunch outside the Biergarten, wondering if there was any chance that the women I spoke with in the Church might pass by so I could ask for my hat back.  Amazingly, they did, and explaining the quandary in German, to them and to my waitress, was a good test of my language abilities.  They knew after a few grammatical blunders (in, not im, etc.) that I was not a native speaker, but my abilities and probably evident determination kept the entire conversations in German.  I told the server that I needed to leave my table for a bit because I had left my hat in the church down the street (that must have sounded a bit off), followed one of the deacon(esses) back to the church, reclaimed my hat, and then had an interesting conversation about the role of women in the Evangelische Kirche.  When I asked if women were Pastors here, she answered emphatically yes, with an expression of mild but friendly insult.

It’s a residential area, far from the huge-scale government buildings and monuments which fill the north part of the City near the Hauptbahnhof.  Bergmanstr. runs east-west, and above the shops at ground level are what seem to be apartments or condos.  The buildings are big, about eight storeys tall, masonry, painted white or pale yellow, grey, or green and in very good condition.  No graffiti.  Several have exterior-facing niches occupied by sculptures of nude (except for their spear) Greek goddesses with German features, suggesting origin in the Wilhelmine era, so maybe these buildings escaped destruction in the war. To me, the sculptures reflect German pragmatism.  Yes, they are incredibly voluptuous and totally exposed, but they preside over a quiet street of people behaving and having an enjoyable day.  The omnipresent bier of Berlin also did not lead to any bad behavior that I saw in two days of almost constant walking and riding on the street.  It all makes me wonder if US puritanism, which would ban or frown on these things, has any efficacy whatsover given the prevailing behavior levels in Philadelphia.

A bicycle is essential to get around this city.  Berlin is huge and walking seems almost hopeless unless one is willing to walk very quickly and for a long time.  Characteristically, I walked a huge distance yesterday, including a jaunt through the entire Tiergarten, starting beyond Technisches Universitat to Winged Victory to the edge of the Reichstag, but I would not recommend this for most.  My hotel is near several Straende, which seem to be the fad of this summer.  Start with a normal outdoor biergarten, truck in several tons of sand, bring in Tiki-torches and umbrellas, and you have a ready made “beach” far from the ocean for beer enjoyment.  I described these to my German tutor, and she had never seen one despite living in Berlin for a few years.  Evidently, they are new.  I went to a Strand late Saturday night after my epic walk, and a half-liter of beer was 6 euros (about $7.50), which is certainly not guenstig.  On my way back to the hotel after one beer, I picked up two large bottles of Berliner Pils for 2 euros each, which was far more to my liking.

Upon returning to the hotel, I watched a fun family movie, a German version of National Treasure which told the story of an unlikely threesome searching for the spear which pierced Christ’s side through many famous destinations of the German-speaking world.  The villian who burns up at the end in an underground sanctuary of the Knights Templar was Juergen Prochnow, and he was an even better Boesemann in his native language.  The film was smarter, historically more challenging than NT, and quite a bit longer.  The subject matter reminded me that Germany was always a center of Christianity, and it remains a big influence on local culture.

I was not surprised, but still pleased to see that after two days in Berlin, my brain started adjusting to German.  I would look at billboards and suddenly understand words which I did not know before, from context and just being there.  I guess this comes from really liking the language and the place.  It was obvious to me that a wakeup call was a “weckruf,” which I asked for and received on my last morning in Berlin.  I would like to come back regularly, and I think my family will enjoy it also.

Warsaw and the Polish Train

I spent July 8-18 in Germany and Poland, on legal business for a client based in Czestochowa.  My notes from Warsaw and the train ride to Czestochowa follow.


I ventured out after checking in and taking a shower.  I had been awake for about 24 hours at that point, but had lots of energy, thrilled to be in Warsaw.  I took a bus from the airport, it was cheap, fast and clean, and I could see more of the city than from the back of a cab.  At about 6 pm, my room was filled with bright sun which looked like three hours earlier in Philadelphia.  My hotel room looked out over a small square with a statute of a statesman, looking over ten skateboarders who were using the stone benches to full advantage.  I did not have a map, and basically followed what looked interesting.  I crossed a park with a sign explaining that large rocks can be found in unexpected places throughout Warsaw.  The sign was in the middle of a rock formation, so I took a photo.

I kept going in a direction which based on the sun seemed east, which I thought would take me to the river Wisla, where I assumed the older part of town would be.  I forgot that in the middle of the summer this far north, the sun sets closer to the north than west.  But the directions did not matter in the end.  I walked through a part of town filled with big buildings, about 6 storeys tall, which had been converted into apartments, or maybe they had always been.  The area was quiet, no stores were open so I could not buy a map.  I passed Chopin Street and then reached a traffic circle where I took a photo of a beautiful Church which came out of nowhere.  I then headed back to the hotel, because I was clearly not going to find Old City without a map, and there were no stores open to buy one.

The hotel had plenty of maps, from which it was readily obvious that Old City was to the northeast, directly opposite from where I had just walked.  The way was simple — stay on one street, Nowy Swiat, until it ended in the circular streets of Old City.  The walk was the most amazing I have ever taken in any city.  There were times when I could do nothing but stop and openly gawk (from the German guck, to look at) what I was seeing.  Ancient buildings lining cobblestone streets, seemingly untouched for five centuries (I later learned that virtually everything had been rebuilt after 1945).  The sun was starting to go down, putting gold light on the old masonry buildings.

Many people were on the street, cheerful but orderly, quiet, and like so much else I saw in Warsaw and Czestochowa, confidently unassuming.  I never felt tense, confused or apologetic for not speaking Polish.  Not wanting to be a pushy American, I began each conversation in German, and if the person was more comfortable in English, then switched over.  I wished for a Polish phrase book, but the people I met were very patient.  I asked at least ten people in German for directions to the Sheraton when I first arrived in Warsaw, but nobody knew where it was.  It was good practice, finally putting German lessons to practical use.

Novy Swiat was lined with places to eat and drink.  At first glance it looked like some places did cakes and coffee, others sold pizza, and others beer, but looking at the glasses on the tables, it was clear that each and every place sold beer, even if sweets were in the window.  My first stop was Bierhalle, where guests on the sidewalk had before them enormous glass Bavarian beer steins, I forgot the German name (“Krug?”), but it was not necessary and I had no problem ordering my own full liter glass of Pils.  I drank while reviewing my map, and then watching the event which had most people’s attention in the well lit backroom, a men’s volleyball game between Poland and Russia.  It looked like the game was going on in a huge hall in Wroclaw, a large city to the southwest pronounced “vroslav,” which really is not far from the German name for the city, Breslau.  After repeating it a few times, it was easy to see how the name could easily go from one language to the next, especially if the speaker was working on a liter of Pils.  The game was broken up by advertisements for other events in the same stadium, including an upcoming freestyle motocross event which looked insanely dangerous.  I asked how Poland was doing, and the terse answer was not very well.

Returning my stein and paying 20 zlotys (a bargain), I resumed my walk up the gentle slope of Novy Swiat.  I still did not feel in the slightest bit tired, and in this the succession of incredible sights must have helped.  A cathedral built in the 1770s, with a sign confirming, with a painting of the same building, that Tintoretto or some other famous Italian had painted in 1778.  I remembered the names from Little Dorrit, proving the educational worth of BBC drama.  A little further up, across the street was a larger church, with a banner devoted to a huge photograph of a gently smiling John Pawel II dominating the middle of the facade.  During the walk, I noted the slight amount and generally poor quality of the street music.  An accordian playing the Four Seasons and Alla Turca, a miked classical guitar playing some new age arpeggios, and that was about it.  It was obvious that my daughters’ band could become huge in this City.  Maybe we should come over next July and stay in the Hotel Bristol, a huge hotel right in the middle of Old City which according to the date inscription had been built in 1899.

As I got further into old city, the streets narrowed and the buildings, still immaculately preserved, got smaller, although still very big by Philly standards.  I rounded a corner and a huge central square, a Piazza, opened up.  A band was setting up equipment on a low-slung stage, and by the banners, it looked like jazz concerts were held here regularly.  I held my camera up to photograph the throngs of people, and thought this was more of a rock crowd (more mental planning for how to bring guitars and amps over by plane).  I did a circuit of the square, and then worked my way back to Nowy Swiat through some back alleys which were not open to cars.  One of the alleys was crossed by an overheard arch with a center window.  I took a picture and then merged back into Nowy Swiat, just down the hill from the banner of Jan Pawel II.  I took the opposite side of the street, passing many more places to have another beer.  I wanted to stop, but really needed a bathroom, and I did not want to start a conversation with an emergency request to use the facilities.  So I headed back down to the hotel and then ventured out again.

A beer garden close to the hotel had caught my eye on my first walk, so I ventured over and ordered a Tyskie for only 5 zl.  I wondered if this means “German,” at least is sounds like Tyskland, the Norwegian word for Germany.  I ordered in German, which seemed to give the owner the impression that I was Russian.  He gave me a beer with a hearty “dos vedania,” which is what the Ukrainian captain says to Dr. Jones in the last installment of the Harrison Ford adventure series.  All eyes by the bar were on the volleyball game, still going on.  I asked in German how Poland was doing, and got back in English “the Russia is stronger.”  Concerned looks all around.

Since volleyball is not an interest, I went to the outdoor tables.  People were talking and laughing in low voices, drinking and smoking.  At my table, the smoke actually smelled good, and I could see a half-moon in the sky, which was still not (it was about 10 pm), completely dark.  After finishing the beer, I went back to the hotel and asked for a ten am wakeup call, thinking I would certainly be awake by then.  However, the next thing which happened was the 10 am wake up call.

I woke up feeling completely rested and went to the Club Room to get some coffee.  My train for Czestochowa left Warsaw Centralna at 12:15 pm.  I had two cups of espresso while checking gmail and there were no messages from home, but a few technical difficulties printing my ticket, which did not get figured out until 11:40.  Fortunately I knew my way back to Centralna, but still ended up running most of the way.  I had put my warmup jacket on, expecting a repeat of the cool temperatures on Saturday.  Instead it was gray and muggy, raining slightly.  Typically, I did not have time to remove the warmup as I ran through the streets, getting to Centralna at 11:55.  I could not find a 12:15 departure on the screens, and eventually asked a younger woman for help.  She spoke English better than German, and took me over to an information booth where she forcefully cut in the line and asked the person at the window what was going on, because her train to Munich was also not showing on the screen.  She got answers, telling me I needed to go to platform 3, and then running off to platform 1.  I thanked her and hurried over to my platform, at this point dripping sweat.

The layout of Centralna was geared for maximum exercise.  It was built in 1972, a time when I suppose the passengers did not have a lot of possessions to take with them on train rides.  After dealing with the main, open ticket floor, the passenger goes down three sets of stairs to a long perpendicular hallway, from which the passenger goes back up two flights of stairs to reach a train.  By the time I reached my platform, I was bathed in sweat.  A few minutes later, the opposite side of the platform lit up with information for my train.  My earlier confusion came from being too early.

How is Centralna different from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia?  Most obvious is the lack of law enforcement.  This is the biggest station in the capital, the equivalent of Union Station in Washington, DC, and I was glad to not see any police officers in the building or around it.  Second, there are none of the long lines of people waiting for a chance to go down (in Centralna it would be up) to the platform where they will wait again.  Instead, people go to the platform when they want to, and the waiting is done in the platform, with no need for someone in a uniform looking at your ticket and allowing you to go there.  Third, places to buy snacks for the trip are sensibly on the platform, and not on the main floor.  In my sweaty rush to the train, stopping for a bottle of water would have seemed risky, and it was perfect to be able to get a bottle of water after getting to the right platform and seeing the sign light up with departure information.


The train to Czestochowa had a Harry Potter set-up, with a narrow vestibule passing by the sides of glassed-in compartments with passengers facing each other from three chairs on each side.  As the train moved south, the city center quickly became suburbs, which in turn became flat green countryside, with orchards, sunflowers and small streams.  Small farms had ducks and huge geese watching the train go by.  Poland looked like Lancaster County with birch trees.

The conductor took tickets, but no food cart (that showed up later).  The other passengers in my compartment are slim and quiet.  Nobody talks, eats or drinks.  Warsaw, with its underground galleries of shops and fast food which pedestrians use to go under (and not through) major street intersections), reminded me of Seoul.  The silence of the train is evidently different.  I take a walk down the vestibule to find that most people in the train are sleeping.  When I went back to the hotel last night at around 10 pm, the generalized Warsaw party seemed to be in the early stages.  The Polish weekend, with most shops closed early on Saturday and Sunday work impossible, is worthy of the name.

There are is no air conditioning in the train, which in any event is not necessary.  Behind each seating place there is a small light, and above that two racks for luggage.  No instructions to emergency exits or evacuation rows.  Each passenger compartment has a functional (as in fully opening) window.  Above the window there is a single fine print warning, in Polish, Russian, French and German.  I focus on nicht hinauslehnen – “don’t lean out.”  It doesn’t say don’t lean out the window because it’s dangerous or have a stick figure drawing of the consequences, because they are obvious.  In the US, these windows would not open due to liability concerns, and on a sunny day like this one, we would be at the mercy of intermittent air conditioning.

We are running at high speed now, and will reach Czestochowa in about 45 minutes.  The ride has gone by very quickly.  The countryside is mainly rural, still looking a lot like Pennsylvania, but flatter and with a lot of birch trees.  Without them and the pines, and after turning up the temperature by about 30 degrees, we could be in Texas.  The three people in my compartment are now each reading.  They have working cell phones but aren’t using them.  They are not eating anything, not even something like the chocolate bar which I have with me.  There are no paper cups, fast food bags, or any sort of trash generated by any occupant of this compartment.  I have not seen anyone on this train but me pounding on a laptop, and I hope this is not annoying.  It is obvious that Poland has far less sources of trash than the US, and this must be one of the reasons why the streets are so clean, that plus the fact that people are better behaved here.

The train has stopped again.  Most buildings in this town are brick or masonry, with large windows and steep roofs as in Germany or Scandinavia.  I have not seen attached houses since Warsaw, and even those were far larger and more solid than Philadelphia rowhouses.  We get underway again and small housing developments can be seen from the train, most of them under construction.  The houses are compact, brick with red orange tile roofs, and arranged in something like circles.  No vinyl siding, no signs advertising the lowest available price, no resemblance to a development as we know it in Pennsylvania.  These houses look like they will be standing for a long time.

The train briefly stops at Radomsko, a small city probably the size of Norristown.  The stations are old, evidently build under communism and allowed to rust since then.  But there are hopeful signs of construction everywhere – an idle cement mixer, piles of block, another half-built house pass by the open train window, from which nobody is leaning out.  Shortly after clearing Radomsko we pass a stream where people are swimming from a small sandy clearing on the banks, their cars pulled off into the shadows of a nearby forest.  More pine trees now and the temperature remains cool.  There are about 15 minutes remaining in this train ride, but I would be fine staying for several more hours.  With a laptop to write with, water and chocolate, I would have no problem taking this train to wherever the journey ends.