April 5th, 2007 07:11 EST
American Girl in a Foreign Land
Apart from being a proud, second-year student of Georgia Southern University and a volunteer at the local animal center, Kristin Marzec is a typical 19-year old girl. She passionately listens to Lionel Richie`s songs, skims through fashion magazines and trembles at the thought of the bathroom scale. When I meet her, she is a volcano of energy. Her eyes, constantly glittering with enthusiasm, perfectly match a wide grin which seldom disappears from her round, rosy face. Although of medium height and figure, making her presence visible seems to come quite naturally to Kristin. Besides, she is an American in a European country.
Kristin is also very lucky. Whereas being dressed only in a light shirt, denim pants and a pair of flimsy sandals is perfectly appropriate in the mild climate of Georgia, in the middle of Polish winter it may be, if not dangerous, then certainly risky. Despite the fact that only a week before her arrival the temperatures plunged to the lowest this year, Kristin stands pat on her choice. It will be fine, don`t worry, " she says, flashing her contagious smile. Surprisingly, it is fine. As if ashamed by Kristin`s unabashed optimism, the dense, made of clouds curtain gracefully parts, letting the sunlight flood the runaway while the intercontinental plane is landing at the tiny Szczecin Airport in northwestern Poland. On the day of her arrival, the airport thermometer registered 15 Centigrades " the number and name as mysterious for Kristin as 61 Fahrenheit would be for an average European " which only proves that recent weather forecasts about cold winter can be chucked in a trash can. This year`s March is very merciful for Kristin.
Actually, March is the reason of Kristin`s visit to Poland. I was 16 or 17 when my mum told me what my last name meant, " she recollects with a touch of tenderness in her voice. From one word to another it turns out that one of Kristin`s great grandfathers lived in Poland. During World War II his son smuggled Jews from the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Poland to neutral but friendly Sweden. There he met a Norwegian woman whom he married and with who he had three sons " one of them was Kristin`s father. Later the family moved to California, apparently to forget the cold days and freezing nights of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Kristin`s last name " Marzec " means March in Polish, and according to an old Polish adage it is the craziest and most unpredictable month in the entire year. Just like Kristin. From her first contact with me by email to buying tickets and arriving in the old country passed less than five weeks. It happened that I had the spring break, so I thought: why not? " she says. When asked if the prospect of being in a country that most people associate with anti-Semitism and Catholic bigotry has not frightened her, Kristin only smiles. Soon, the smile yields to a diabolical smirk, as half aloud she orders me to under no circumstances tell her father that she is in Poland.
While her mum, who is also of Scandinavian descent, supports Kristin`s trip whole-heartedly, Mr Freddy Marzec is more reserved. He still thinks you have this Communist regime and people are being beaten on the streets every day, " Kristin excuses her dad. But for 17 years it has no longer been true. In 1989 Poland along with other Central European countries broke away from the Soviet domination and chose the straight path to democracy. If joining Nato and the European Union have been the visible marks of the new times, it has been slow, day-to-day reshaping of the country that has the biggest impact on its present condition. The Szczecin Airport where Kristin`s plane lands is Poland in miniature. For many years it had been a secret, military airport, the kind of place that nobody could find on official maps. Several years of the free market, however, were enough for local authorities to smell big money and turn the dubious socialist relic into a thriving example of capitalism. Facts speak for themselves: in 2006, the Polish airline market was the fastest growing in Europe, being the second in the world, with the Chinese invariably reigning the first place. Even though the main reason of this boost is extensive Polish immigration to Great Britain, Sweden or Holland, where gifted workers can earn three times as much as at home, there is also the growing number of those Poles who choose airplanes as the fastest meaning of transport to go on holidays. As I`m waiting for Kristin, the cozy airport starts to throng with multinational tourists: Poles, Germans, Italians, Vietnamese. They head for Dublin, Berlin, Ankara, Warsaw; some to work, some to relax, but they all are tangible proof that Poland has opened for the outside world. Cafes, restaurants and kiosks, which have replaced military barracks, are flooded with colorful people, usually wearing I love Poland " t-shirts bought in the nearby souvenir shop. The only place that seems desolate is the chapel " placed in the gloomy corner of the airport reminds that however liberal and capitalistic Poland has become, religion still plays an important role in the life of every Pole.
Some things have not changed either. When Kristin and other passengers from her flight get to the immigration control, they are welcomed by a couple of burly officers dressed like anti terrorists and armed well enough to make Rambo blush. It`s their old mentality of the communism times, " explains one Polish expatriate now living in Canada who is visiting her old friends. She is partly right: although the airport is situated in a picturesque vicinity of Szczecin, hedged in by slim pine trees, billboards scattered around the area inform that one mustn`t take any pictures. " In case one shows open contempt for the warnings, there is a number of security guards, often retired policemen, parading up and down in their oversize black uniforms. Militia, " Kristin calls them. The official policy states that these special precautions are aimed at fighting terrorism (which has become the national paranoia after the Madrid and London bombings), but somehow it is hard to believe that a provincial airport the size of a medium bus stop could be a serious target for Al Queda thugs.
As I`m showing Kristin to my car, she is unable to hide her agitation. Reading between wows " and ohs, " which proceed almost every word that Kristin finds time to pronounce, I manage to understand the reason of this surprising excitement. Wow...so this is Poland, " she makes a pause to take a deep breath and goes on. You know, during our intermediate landing in Warsaw, I felt like I was witnessing history...WW II, the Nazis, your capital ruined...the Holocaust... " she stops. Not only for Kristin does Poland seem to be a prisoner of her tragic history, and no PR tricks will change it any time soon. Hardly is it more visible than in Szczecin. The city, as well as most of Polish western territory, belonged to Germany before the Second World War. Even after over half a century, such German names as Stettin, Breslau or Danzig are more popular than their Polish equivalents: Szczecin, Wroclaw and Gdansk. When I talk with Kristin, I figure out why: for Americans and all non-Slavic speakers it is almost impossible to pronounce Gdansk without breaking their tongues. What? Can you repeat it once again? " becomes the most frequent question any time Polish words are mentioned. As if it wasn`t enough for the exhausted tourist, the road from the airport to the hotel turns out to be an old concrete-slabbed German highway, built in the 1930s by Hitler`s order but being still in use 70 years later. It is fun to watch as Kristin jumps up and down in the car seat, clutching her safety belt and rolling her eyes in disbelief. But there are some positives, too. As the dusk is gathering, the remaining rays of the sun crown the by roadside trees with a magical gleam. Oh! It reminds me of Georgia, " exclaims Kristin in surprise. But such a nature trail is gradually passing away. Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, it has been experiencing an unheard of before boom in the housing market combined with steady economic growth and low inflation. Building sites pop up everywhere " from big cities to post socialist kolkhozes " and rapidly transform the face of the country. What the government perceives as a great success, for some people is the national tragedy. Only a month ago a group of ecologists from all over Europe effectively blocked the highway construction, with the European Commission warning Polish officials to either resign from the highway or risk losing millions of euros of subsidies. But as the sun disappears lazily over the horizon, one can`t help but forget about strained Polish-EU relations and enjoy the picturesque suburbs of Szczecin.
When we reach the hotel, it`s already dark. It is Saturday and several minutes pass until we can find a parking space anywhere near. To get to the hotel, we have to slalom among a column of cars, most of them with German license plates " sons and daughters of those who inhabited Szczecin 60 years ago - but there are also some from Lithuania, Holland and the Czech Republic. The hotel service is, too, multinational. Do you have a reservation? " inquires a young-looking receptionist with a noticeable French accent. Kristin shows her American passport, I pay with my Polish credit card, everything to the accompaniment of the German-speaking crowd nearby. Is this still Poland? " asks Kristin with that kind of facial expression that I`m not sure if she`s joking or being deadly serious.
Walking down the streets of Szczecin on the next day, makes me even more stamped for an answer. Like every woman, Kristin`s eyes instinctively trace colorful shop windows; what she finds the most alluring, however, is not the glamor of boots or suits freshly imported from Italy, but the surprising familiarity of the shopping centers. The best prices, " Sales, " Extra bonus offers " lure passersby in flawless English, with glossy posters of half-naked American icons like Paris Hilton and Beyonce advertising everything from a toothpaste to the latest Victoria`s Secret lingerie. Kristin cannot hide her shock when, as we are waiting for the green light to cross the road, we are being bombarded by a multitude of fu**s " and sh**s " from a group of teenagers dressed like gangsta rapers. When bags are finally full and wallets empty, it is useful to dine in one of many fine restaurants offering the best international cuisine. But those who would like to try regional specialties are doomed to bitter disappointment. Where will I taste some Polish food? " asks Kristin, catching me off guard. Although tourists as well as natives can choose from a plentiful of French, Chinese or Italian bars, with Turkish kebabs (unlike their American version, they are served not on a stick but in a grilled, crusty roll) dominating the city`s landscape, it takes a lot of effort and stumble to find the sole Polish restaurant in Szczecin. Closed, " reads the notice on the doors.
If there is one thing that decides about the peculiar character of Polish cities and towns, it must be their exquisite architecture. Everything is sooo old here! " says Kristin while we are touring Szczecin`s nineteenth-century tenements. They remind me of France, " she adds. Built in the baroque, ornamental style and recently renovated, they create a strange mosaic of vibrant colors ranging from blue to red to orange. But there is also, literally, the darker side of the city. Every now and again we come across a gray, peeling building with broken windows concealed by faded curtains " a stark reminder that Szczecin is not Paris (although the both cities are built according to the same plan) and that to bridge economic and cultural chasms between Poland and Western Europe may take, if not decades, then certainly many years. Nothing supports this opinion better than a cluster of beggars occupying the stairs to the Dominican church where Kristin and I hope to find consolation at a Sunday mass. In more and more financially segregated Poland, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, church remains one of the few institutions to offer the same kind of service to all people, regardless their economic status. And people use it willingly. Unlike the amount of national income (according to the latest statistics, in the EU of 27 countries Poland`s GDP outruns only Romanian and Bulgarian), the number of people declaring themselves Catholics and attending Sunday mass " 97% and 85% respectively " consolidates Poland as an unbeatable leader on the continent. In fact, Kristin and I must sweat our way until we can squeeze into two free places in a rear bench.
Within the coming days, Kristin is trying to get used to living in the country of her great grandfather. Whereas she confronts the language barrier with a great ambition, adjusting to the local strict eating schedule -- breakfast, dinner, supper -- creates somewhat of a problem. On the long list of no-way " things, tea and cabbage hold the first place. Poles are not Brits, but just like the Islanders, they tend to drink tea at any occasion - whether breakfast, dessert or supper, a teapot is a must on the table of every respected housewife. For the ice-cold juice-lover Kristin the idea of three cups of herbs every day sounds almost sacrilegious, but nevertheless if my great grandfather could do it, I can do it, too. " The cabbage, on the other hand, along with potatoes and cucumbers, is an inherent part of Polish life. From Turkish kebabs to American hot-dogs to British fish and cheaps " the cabbage (green, red, white, spring, pickled, raw) has got its way not only to traditional Polish food, but also altered foreign specialties. Just like Cinderella had to separate peas from beans to please her evil stepmother, now Kristin engages herself in a tedious work of plucking cabbage pieces from her food, supposedly hoping that nobody has noticed it.
But she is wrong. Poles are an inquisitive nation and their curious eyes will miss nothing. As we are wandering the streets, we can feel the probing looks from numerous sidewalk users; usually they turn out to be an old lady, wrapped in a winter coat despite the heat, who can`t really grasp how one can be in Poland and at the same time be happy. For the natives, these two characteristics are seemingly contradictory. But the crucial test of Kristin`s Polishness " comes unexpected. It is the middle of the working day and Szczecin`s center thrives with people hurrying from, or to work. We catch this approaching human wave and let it push us forward until the red light stops all the motion. The Don`t walk " guy is hardly a Moses, but like the Prophet made the Red Sea move and helped the Israelites walk across, also here the tidal wave of busy people is halted and cars are allowed their free pass. Oh, I`m getting claustrophobic! " shouts Kristin when the crowd approaches her closer and closer. What for an average Pole is a normal, safe distance, for Kristin appears to be an unbearable torture. The situation repeats in a supermarket as squeezed in a line, Kristin feels the metal bars of a basket slowly pinching her from behind. Some impatient granny, " I`m forced to explain when confronted with Kristin`s desperate looks. Clash of civilization in a Central European edition.
As all good things, also Kristin`s visit comes to an end. It is Saturday again, and " again " the cozy Szczecin airport open its wings to greet us. Only the weather does not resemble that from the previous weekend: the sun is nowhere to be seen and the heavy rain reminds that March still has some surprises in store. Kristin tunes to the dense atmosphere of the morning, with her usually happy eyes being moist today. I really like Poland and I`m sure I`ll visit it again, " she says. Although she hasn`t traced any of her Polish relatives " Marzec is too popular a name to search through without preparations " Kristin is going back home with a better knowledge of the country of her great grandfather. I watch her going to the immigration control " and she`s doing this like a professional traveler; even the meeting with the militia " has no effect on her any more. As Kristin is disappearing around the corner, she turns back and sends me her radiant smile. For a moment it seems like from the iron ocean of clouds the sun surfaces. But large drops of rain keep hammering against the wall of glass and the thermometer coldly reminds that winter hasn`t said her last word. Marzec has left Poland, March will stay here for another two weeks.