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A panorama of modern Warsaw, Poland
A panorama of modern Warsaw, Poland
Gregory Szymanik

A decade after Poland became part of the European Union, Gazeta Wyborcza sent a reporter on a train from Warsaw to Berlin to take stock of the transformation among Polish passengers.

WARSAW — “There are only two vivid and well-maintained places in my native Wloclawek (a city in northern Poland with a population over 100,000): the curia and the mall,” says a passenger named Karolina. “That says a lot about the Polish transformation. The revolution devoured its children.”

But she says that when she visits friends in bigger cities, she discovers that what happened in her hometown is not necessarily the rule.

“I left Poland at the age of 23, after earning my diploma in history of art,” she says. “I went to London, where I met my future husband and the father of my two children. But London is like the Wild West. It’s a city for people who want to live for themselves. We then moved to Berlin. With its light socialism, it is a good place to live with a family. There are, however, a few things there that annoy me, like a very clear societal division between Germans and immigrants. You can see it in the kindergartens: Some are frequented only by immigrants, whereas others have only blond and blue-eyed students.”

Gacek

Another passenger, a welder named Gacek, works in Germany. “In 2003, when the war in Iraq broke out, I got hired in the States,” he says. “I don’t need the opening of borders to get a job.”

He says that Poland has changed so much over the last 10 years that there “there is nothing Polish left.” He complains that everything comes from the West.

“My boss is German,” he says. “To be honest, I would not change him for a Polish one. Poles abroad are not good to other Poles. They cheat on money, rush on work. The only thing that my German boss tells me is ‘slower, slower.’”

Gosia

When Gosia was in high school, she heard about the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt (Oder), and she had to study German very hard to earn admission.

“Forty percent of students are foreigners, the majority Polish,” she says. “Unfortunately, the division between Germans and Poles is very clear. It was only after the last student meeting in Lithuania that the limits broke and I felt for the first time that I was European. What I mean by that is that I was not worried about being Polish.”

She says that after she graduates, she hopes to work in EU administration.

Waldek

Waldek recalls hosting a German guest not long ago. “Together with him and my father, we had a great time,” he recalls. “We laughed, we drank. At some point, the German man invited me and my dad to visit him in Berlin. To which my father replied, ‘If I ever come to Berlin, it will be in a tank.’”

Waldek explains that his father is from the generation that remembers the war, and he still lives with a kind of grief that makes it difficult for them to embrace being Europeans.

“The new generation is just the opposite,” Waldek says. “My parents-in-law know something about it. One of their daughters studied abroad and met a Spanish guy. The second one met his friend, and the two girls married the two Spaniards. One girl lives in Munich. Her son speaks with me in Polish, with his father in Spanish, and German in school. That is how you make a European.”

His mother-in-law says that if somebody had told her 30 years ago that she would fly to Germany to visit her Spanish son-in-law, she would have hit him on the head. “That is how everything has changed.”

Wlodek

A truck driver named Wlodek, originally from Ukraine, is frustrated with Polish people. “Are you not stupid, you Poles, to complain so much?” he says. “Seriously, if you are not stupid, then what is it? I have been traveling from Ukraine to your country since the 1980s. Finally, four years ago, I moved to Poland. I can see how things are.”

Wlodek travels all over Europe and says he no difference between Paris and Warsaw. “You think I exaggerate?”

He says he moved to Poland when his daughter was in elementary school. “I wanted her to have a better start. She was afraid in the beginning, but now she does not want to go back. Don’t be stupid, then. Think a little about whether it’s appropriate to complain when there are people who come to your country in search of a better life.”


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