Thursday, November 29, 2012


August 30, 2012

WROCLAW, POLAND – There’s nothing quite like living on an island, especially one in the heart of a city. You feel isolated but not alone, apart but connected. You’re never more than a few steps from water, and never more than a few steps from the mainland. Add to that the fairy-tale beauty of a Medieval town, and Camelot weather with bracing rain by night and warm sun by day, and it’s as close to paradise as you can get.

That’s just where I’ve been living for the last month, on tiny Sand Island in Wroclaw ("VROT-swof") in southwest Poland, teaching English at the University of Lower Silesia. The island is one of many carved out by the Oder River, which bisects the city and, as a major north-south trade route in the early Middle Ages, was the reason for its foundation.

My apartment is right across the bridge from Ostrow Tumski ("Thumb Island"), a broad peninsula that was once itself an island and has been the seat of Catholic ecclesiastical power since the ninth century. Every morning I awake to the distant chime of monastery bells.

The only pain I’ve felt since getting here is occasionally pinching myself to be sure I’m really awake.

From a place like this it’s hard to hold your interest in American presidential politics; living in the shadow of a thousand years of history tends to make the trivial even moreso. So I’ve largely ignored it all, and it really doesn’t matter anyway; when I return to the States in October, the thoughtless bombast will be just about the same as when I left in July.

The Republican convention stirred some interest here, not for the profoundest of reasons. Last week a local news channel contacted me at the school, seeking an American to compare Mrs. Romney with Mrs. Obama. "I saw Mrs. Romney’s speech," the reporter told me. "I especially liked her red dress." Feeling unqualified to speak on current or putative First Ladies and their fashions, I suggested he find someone else.

Local news is the same wherever you go.

Poles, at least judging from those I’ve met so far, are not particularly interested in American politics. My students, all professionals with a working command of English, told me they admire the two-party system because the ideological positions are more clearly evident than in their parliamentary system with multiple parties and a confusing array of ideas, or lack thereof. If Poland is to improve, they say, it will be in spite of their politicians, not because of them. It’s education, particularly in technology and business, that will open the doors to success and prosperity, and eventually raise the standard of living to parity with the rest of Europe. But that appears to be a long way off. Quality job opportunities are still wanting, wages are low and prices high, the social safety net is fraying. Young people are leaving Poland in droves to seek their fortunes in other countries in the European Union – 200,000 last year, one student told me.

But for a tourist like me, life is fine. The Polish currency, the zloty, is relatively weak against the dollar, and accommodations, food, and transportation are most affordable. The people are almost all unfailingly cheerful, and here in this university town, almost all young adults speak enough English to help you out.

Poland’s look to the West is a two-edged sword. In Wroclaw, as in other major cities, Western (and Far- and Middle-Eastern) capital has built countless shopping malls, those icons of affluence, and they are perpetually filled with shoppers and window-shoppers. It’s an amazing contrast to the conditions I found when I visited Poland years ago under the Communist regime, where the stores were drab and the shelves were bare. But in the glitz of value-pricing and value-meals, values less tangible may be waning.

Before I left, a friend of mine, who emigrated from Wroclaw to the U.S. in the 1970's and occasionally returns to visit his family here, tried to prepare me for the New Poland. "Under Communism," he told me, "the stores were empty but the people were full. Now the stores are full but the people are empty."

I’ve not found that to be exactly true. The churches are still well-attended, couples young and old stroll leisurely through the parks holding hands, friends spend hours in the cafes talking seriously, iPhones disabled. And there are bookstores, lots of them.

How long this will last is impossible to tell.

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