After spending time getting acquainted with my Polish “home base” of Chojna, getting acquainted and acclimatized to the way of life in this economically advancing Eastern-European country, and gaining infinitely deeper appreciation for the ancestry of parts of my family and the Polish people in general… it was time to start branching out to explore the surrounding area. We took the train ride back from Chojna to Szczecin – the largest city in the area (Poland’s 7th-largest city, with a population of a bit over 400,000).
Szczecin is fascinating because a simple scan from left to right with your eyes gives you a split-second snapshot of a country (and a people) who are advancing from a very challenging history. You see the ancient thousand-year-old castle from the era of Prussian dukes; the equally ancient Cathedral having the WWII-inflicted damage restored; the Soviet-era monotone apartment blocks; and the bustling downtown with a smattering of skyscrapers and a brand new shopping mall. You see streetscapes where sections of buildings have crumbling mortar, next to neighbours who have spruced things up with gleaming fresh paint.
Szczecin is most notable as one of Poland’s major Baltic Sea ports. The city is home to the most elite naval academy in Poland (pretty beautiful school building). Of particular note, the shipyard in Szczecin was the second major centre of the Solidarity movement among the shipbuilders’ trade union… along with Gdansk, where Lech Walesa co-founded the Soviet Bloc’s first independent trade union, leading to the fall of Communism in Poland.
The evidence of the challenging rise to prosperity after Communism is seen throughout Szczecin. Near the immense city park is a very grand city hall, and a neighbourhood where the city’s wealthy people live (nice indeed!). Closer downtown, we explored the modern shopping mall and enjoyed some KFC.
Progress, tradition, economic struggle and triumph: A cross-mixed taste of it all in Szczecin… in one swoop a taste of the dramatic history and present that define Poland.
But most important of all, before we left the city – I got to taste REAL (non-Nescafe) coffee for a change and the most delicious Paczki (Polish jam-filled donut) I’ve ever eaten. Rose jam! Mmmmm.
After relaxing a bit following our Szczecin exploration, I was ready for my next Polish “road trip.” And it really was more of a road trip: Maryla and I went on an organized bus tour from Chojna to the the historic town of Potsdam – a suburb of Berlin, Germany.
Potsdam actually predates the main city of Berlin – it is famous because it was the home of the historical Prussian King Frederick the Great. Now that’s history for you, and continued my constant state of wonder towards the immense history that unfolded at every turn throughout Europe. Our tour stopped at the residence of Frederick the Great: the sprawling Park Sanssouci that features not one, but two palaces (Frederick sure knew how to live large). Palace Sanssouci is the original from which the park derives its name – quite a beautiful building with major gardens and even a dedicated church nearby.
But, I suppose, that palace simply wasn’t enough: nearby a newer and larger palace was built: Neues Palace (literally translated to New Palace), constructed to commemorate the end of the Seven Year war when Prussia took control of Germany from Austria.
Now, at this point, I need to pause from describing Potsdam to tell you about the organized bus tour itself. Or, should I say, “disorganized” bus tour. Maryla and I were flabbergasted by the whole experience. First, the bus was late arriving and then delayed itself even more AFTER it had picked us up by stopping to fill up with gas. Arriving at Park Sanssouci, we got in trouble from guards who were telling the driver he parked illegally – but, most alarming of all… that is when we learned that the driver and tour organizer didn’t speak German! Imagine, a tour to a German town and your guide can’t even speak German. Things reached a tipping point when we arrived at the “New Palace.” For one, admission was extra to the cost of the bus tour! Second, after we had all paid admission we learned that the audio-tours were only in English and German. Our tour guides and fellow tourists only spoke Polish. Believe it or not, I was asked to pick up the English audio-guide and make my best attempt at translating into Polish for our group. Needless to say my Polish isn’t good enough to translate historical and architectural facts on the fly – but at least I tried.
Maryla and I concluded that we would never again take an organized bus tour. And for me, I realized by this point that I had truly evolved into a traveler… and that there’s a big difference between being a traveler and a tourist. Travelers can do touristy things; but they’re also resourceful and can make it on their own.
After the grounds of Sanssouci, we stopped at another famous palace in Potsdam: Cecilienhof. While a nice palace architecturally, Cecilienhof Palace is famous for the history that unfolded inside… it is where the Potsdam Conference took place after WWII, where the victorious Allies decided on the terms of Germany’s surrender.
Soviet Union (Joseph Stalin), the United Kingdom (Winston Churchill), and the United States (Harry Truman) met to decide the fate of Europe… how the occupied territories would be split up. While leading towards truce between the Allies, in many ways this conference shaped the modern history of the world to a significant extent… almost as significant at WWII itself. By the end of WWII, tensions between the US and Soviet Union were growing and the Cold War would grow from that point on. The power and influence of the Soviet Union was unfolding. Through the conference, parts of Europe were essentially handed to Communist control: fates of Eastern Europe sealed with a few signatures.
Many Polish people view the Potsdam Conference as the moment when the Allies sold Poland to Russia. Eastern Europe was devastated in the ensuing years – rather than gain freedom and prosperity after grueling WWII… further oppression and economic demise unfolded. Most Polish people eye the Russians with as much (and, surprisingly sometimes even more) disgust than the Germans who invaded their country in the first place.
Concluding our bus tour, we went from Cecilienhof Palace to the newer part of Potsdam. And there, the results of the decision made at the Potsdam Conference were acutely visible. Potsdam became part of East Germany – and the Communists came in, leaving behind row upon row of monotone apartment blocks and factories.
An dramatic history with unfortunate results that are still being felt today. And, through seeing the place where literally a few people decided the fates of millions through signing an agreement: it became painfully clear to me how political decisions can have huge implications on individual people for generations.