Sunday, December 12, 2010

Berlin -> Krakow

It is as one would imagine it to be: a forested land made gray by winter, then white by snow and now, after a two day thaw – some combination of earthy colors in a Dalmatian-like mosaic. It’s not that in these two days the snow has melted, but it looks hardened and miserable. All that, on display through a window splattered with dirt.

And yet, I can’t take my eyes off of it. Occasionally, we pass a small village, but not very often. Once, a solitary church appeared fleetingly behind the glare from the window.


Another time an abandoned brick factory. Just seconds ago, I saw a small deer with her back to me. Mostly though, it’s pine and birch, growing out of banks of snow.

We are speeding through south eastern Germany, on the way to Krakow in Poland. Though speeding is a relative word. Surely this isn’t the high speed rail of western Europe. But it’s a pleasant, rhythmical movement and though the total trip will last ten hours, I find myself thinking it could go longer and I would not be disappointed. Our train compartment – old fashioned, to be sure – is warm, the window to the world is large.

I note another wee village coming up. The sign tells me it’s Synowa Zarska, Just like that, I know we’re in Poland.

Our second day in Berlin (Saturday) had been far tamer than the first. Europe experienced a partial (and temporary) warming. Two degrees above freezing and continued precipitation meant that there were bouts of rain and gusts of a warmer wind. My daughter needed downtime and I wasn’t in a rush either.

Just after noon, we put aside our various preoccupations and set out for the Alexanderplatz. I think of it as the center of the former East Berlin – the tower defines this part of the city and I remember it vividly from my past visits here.

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Now, it is also the place of Berlin’s major Christmas market.

It’s tough to photograph the market. We’re in a crowd of wet, dark winter coats. We put up our umbrella, we take it down. Up, down, raining, not raining. And still it hardly matters: the place is charming and most everyone is in a spirited mood. Aided by spirits.

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I’m game. I ask for a hot mulled wine. Ours is special! -- the vendor tells me. We add rum for an extra punch! Oh dear.

There are many, many families here now. Of course. For the merry-go-rounds. For the Santa. For the festiveness of the place, the weather notwithstanding.




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Up one alley, down the next. Like strollers on a warm summer day, but without the warmth or the sunshine.

We spend the late afternoon and evening in our own neighborhood – where Mitte turns into Prenzlauer Berg. And whereas the previous day’s neighborhood walk took place in the former West Berlin, this one’s in the Eastern sector. Not that you could tell. In Poland, the change to a market economy seemed to erase fewer of the distinctly Eastern block retail venues. Even now, as I walk away from the center of Warsaw, I come across shops that may have been there in my childhood – they’re not gaudy, nor pricey. Perhaps the shelves are better stocked, but they’re in their own dated league of another era.  But in (East) Berlin, except in the architecture, I see no signs of that past. In the short time we’ve been here, it looks to me as if the stores, the cafes, the restaurants are all now at the level of the West. Not necessarily posh, but of a certain kind. Not the kind that I have memorized from postwar Poland.

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And still, there are the common elements – the familiar forms found, it seems, only in central Europe. Take the small issue of mushrooms. Poland and Germany seem to share a fondness of depicting with great affection the poisonous red mushroom in any number of decorative settings.

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And speaking of mushrooms, there is the matter of food. We go for dinner to a cafĂ©/bar – a place that also serves simple, rib-sticking food – Altes Europa (Old Europe).

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We order a potato soup (served with prunes), a mushroom vegetable soup and a plate of meatballs and potatoes. German food, yes, but if you hadn’t told me, I may have guessed Polish. (Though the carafe of delicious Reisling is unmistakably not Polish.)


Maybe I’m just getting my mind fixed on the days ahead. Getting ready for the very short, but still significant visit home.

And now it is Sunday afternoon. My daughter’s suitcase caught up with us just hours before we left Berlin and even though we’ve been traveling since Tuesday, in many ways it feels like we’re just starting.  We board the train in Berlin...


...and somewhere in that vast forest of birch and pine, we cross a river and with it -- the border between Germany  and Poland. Yes, the villages that appear now are, to me at least, quite obviously Polish.


The train is moving very, very slowly. Stopping at even seemingly empty stations.


And sometimes, for example while sitting at the Wegliniec station (wegel means coal, and we are indeed moving through Silesia – the southwestern coal mining region of Poland), it feels as if we’re really not going to move at all.  A station worker comes up to our car with a big mallet like tool. He tweaks something at the base of our car and steps back. He jots down a word or two, watches...

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The train lurches forward.

My daughter is leafing through some Polish writings. Przepraszam, dzisiaj wyjezdzamy... ("I’m sorry, we’re leaving today..."). Vowels! – she asks. Where are the vowels?! What can I say, we’re a generous people, but we’re stingy with the vowels.

It’s dark now. We still have a way to go. We’ve been visited by one German conductor, one Polish one, a vendor with candies (who is indignant that I hadn’t taught my daughter Polish) and now we have yet another conductor checking our tickets.

How late are we? I ask.
Oh, some 35 minutes now.
Is this train typically this late? I ask, because I deliberately avoided the connection through Warsaw where we would have had to make a quick change for the Krakow train. I never felt that Polish trains can be trusted to run on time.
Oh no! Not at all!
And now I feel guilty for my past assumptions...
We’ve pulled in to Krakow many hours behind schedule! Three just last week! This is fantastic!
I no longer feel guilty for harboring those assumptions.

So long as we get in on time for one Krakow supper. Just one.