The last leg of our tour of Germany takes us east. So far east that on a clear day you can see the Golden Gate Bridge.
Our destination is Görlitz, the easternmost town in all Germany. So far east is Görlitz that half the town now lies in Poland. It is quicker and easier to fly over the border and then work back westwards than it is to get there by road or rail. I am glad that it works out this way: Poland gets a bad press from conservatives and liberals alike but no account of an “exit from Brexit” would be complete without it.
I land in Wrocław and spend the evening walking round what has to be the most German looking city scene I have visited so far. It’s a frosty night and there is a Christmas market in front of the gingerbread town hall. You feel that you could be in Germany because for much of the city’s history this is exactly where it was.
A phoenix from the flames which was heavily damaged after a three-month siege at the end of World War Two, it emerged from the conflict not just with a facelift but with a new identity. Before 1945 the city was known as Breslau and nine out of ten inhabitants were German.
Now it has a new name and the language on the street is punctuated with devoiced consonants, nasal vowels, alveolar trills, digraphs and a case system which includes the instrumental and the vocative. To an outsider, the logic behind Polish orthography and grammar is hard to fathom. I mean, what other language puts an accent through the letter “l”? You don’t need to spend long in Poland to know that it’s a hard one to call.
I walk round the brightly coloured town houses of the city centre for an hour or so, passing restaurants where international cuisine is served up to fresh-faced young Polish cosmopolites by equally young Polish waiters. You can always tell that you’re in the former communist bloc when the waitress in the Indian is blonde, blue-eyed and wearing a sari. So piffling is the scale of immigration here that they can’t even get enough foreigners to staff the restaurants.
And yet the subject is still a big issue. So often defamed by the British right with such phrases as “influx”, “undercutting”, “benefits tourism” and “plumbers”, the Poles have hardly done their reputation any favours by appointing a far-right populist government. Controversially, they have refused to accept a single one of the quota of asylum seekers allocated to them by the EU.
In the culinary stakes at least, they are missing out. Having had some truly awful experiences after eating Chinese food further east in Lithuania I play it safe and opt for Polish piergogi dumplings. I am proud to announce that I manage two helpings. Rising from the table bloated from carbohydates and suspiciously strong beer I take the only sensible option and stagger down the road to my guesthouse.
There is a note on the door when I get there: “Gone out. Back Sunday. Please leave the money on the bedside table.”
I do as they request, tickled by the irony that the German stereotype of the Poles is that they are untrustworthy cleptomaniacs. Yet another sign that you’re in what used to be called the east is that people still trust each other in a way that those of us from further west find difficult to comprehend. I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.
Artur, who gets the seat next to me on the morning train, agrees with my analysis that Poles have been gravely misrepresented. An IT technician who divides his spare time between studying for a second degree in Communications Management and watching his beloved Dunfermline Athletic on the internet, his dream is to one day go to Scotland and watch the men from Fife play live, preferably against his second team, Aberdeen. He has no desire to emmigrate to Dunfermline and I praise his wisdom in this regard.
History, he says, is to blame for much of Poland’s perceived stubbornness. Sandwiched between unreliable allies in the west and envious Orthodox cousins to the east, Poles have always been forced to watch their backs. To nations further west, a couple of thousand Muslims in a nation of 39 million would be a drop in the ocean. Many Poles however, Artur says, see this as the thin end of the wedge.
He does not count himself among them. He is no fan of the new government, who plan to extend degree courses such as his from five years to seven. I am curious as to why and ask him.
“They need the money I think. Now, about the Renfrewshire Derby…”
I assure him that St. Mirren against Greenock Morton is unlikely to ever sell out of tickets. He gets off about an hour later at one of the many stops on route which seem to consist of nothing more than a sign, a platform and the endless expanse of Silesian forest. I am sorry to see him go.
An hour or so later it is my turn to get of at the shell of a building which represents the last station in Poland and the train rolls over the Neisse viaduct into Germany. Görlitz as was. The Neisse river, chosen in 1945 as Germany’s new eastern frontier, cuts the town in half. The west bank is still called Görlitz, the easternmost town in Germany. We are on the east bank in Zgorzelec, which quite frankly could be anywhere in Poland.
You don’t have to linger long on the footbridge which links the two in order to work out who got the best of the deal. Görlitz, with its fine cobbled streets, market squares, bell towers and cosy inns has a good claim to being the most beautiful town in Germany. If you don’t believe me then check it out for yourself: It was used as a film location in Inglorious Basterds, The Reader and The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s Saturday afternoon, the Christmas markets are in full swing and groups of middle-aged ladies in matching Santa hats sway from stand to stand. Windows glow with ambience and good cheer from within.
Zgorzelec on the other hand, which still houses the city’s original concert hall, could desparately do with a lick of paint. The only cameras pointed at Zgorzelec are in front of the bewilderingly large number of cash machines for travellers picking up Zloty before driving through. Some seventy years after the split, there is still no discernable centre to it. There is little in the way of buzz along the two half-occupied shopping streets, except perhaps for the excited throng around the cigarette shops which line the riverside.
Görlitz’s path to stardom was never easy. As you can possibly imagine, partitioning the city was hugely inconvenient and in this respect the western side got the raw deal. As the first port of call for German refugees fleeing westwards over the river it quickly became the most overpopulated city in Germany.
Had it not been for a chronic shortage of cash on the part of the government of the German Democratic Republic, the charming rennaissance old town might well have been torn down to make way for the same sort of prefabricated appartment blocks seen in other cities around the former East Germany. The Poles by contrast, who had plenty of money for this kind of architecture, made it a central feature of the town planning on their side.
Times are still tough. The unemployment rate in Görlitz is around twelve per cent, down from the twenty-five per cent when I first visited fifteen years ago but about to rise again. Plans have been announced to shut the local power station down, shedding nearly a thousand jobs in the process.
As in Poland, the populist right are flavour of the month: Alternatives For Germany polled around a third of the votes in the last election, among the very highest in the country. As in Poland, people who were forced to switch from one type of economy very quickly are now being asked to switch yet again. There are only enough call centre jobs to go round.
For a while Zgorzelec actually had a lower unemployment rate than its neighbour but these days it’s stubbornly high. I’m struck by the fact that despite its proximity to the border nobody speaks German. I eat at a local greasy spoon cafe down a set of stairs off the main street, the nearest I can find to nightlife in the centre of town. When she realises that I speak no Polish, the lady behind the counter pushes a well-worn menu card in my direction. My pierogi are on the table in two minutes flat.
My neighbour at the next table speaks excellent German and is keen to practice. A former German teacher, he taught himself logistics management and now earns his money in logistics while moonlighting as a teacher on the side. I ask if I’m right in thinking that nobody here is interested in learning the language.
“There’s not much call for it round here”, he says. “Anyone who can speak German crossed the bridge a long time ago.”
Border towns either cash in on their unique status or they end up being ignored by disinterested punters heading through on the way to somewhere more glamorous. In the case of Görlitz-Zgorzelec it’s the latter — and it’s either Wrocław or Dresden that people want to see. Nice part of the world though this is, it is small and far away.
I’m struck by the fact that the two towns have the same Christmas lights as I head down to the river in search of entertainment. They do a lot together these days; despite the differences between them the emphasis is on working together. Town plans on either side of the river show both sets of streets. The two submitted a joint bid to become a European Culture Capital but failed where Wrocław suceeded. There is only so much imagination that the EU can handle I guess.
What confuses me most is the footbridge on which I’m standing. It wasn’t here when last I came and it has thrown my orientation off balance totally. Back then I had to walk across the road bridge and I had to show my passport. Now there are two bridges and tonight the two sides feel like they are one place, even if it is a place apart.
I stand on the bridge for a while, one foot in each country, enjoying the silence. On a cold night like tonight it’s a perfect misanthropist’s heaven. I need to move before I freeze to death and so toss a Zloty into the air to decide where to have a nightcap. Heads for Germany, tails for Poland. I am secretly glad when it comes down tails: I feel that I could go another portion of pierogi.
I trudge back up the hill past empty shopfronts and sporadically distributed clusters of beer and vodka bottles until I find another place open. Though I fear that if I shut the door too firmly then the building will fall down, and though the waitress speaks no German or English, my twenty-four hours in Poland have given me a sufficiently thorough grasp of alveolar flaps and verbal aspects to master the words piwo and pierogi. I also incur the sympathy of the town drunk who, in the spirit of Polish moonlighting, also doubles up as the village idiot.
As a meeting of the minds it works well. As with most who ply this particular trade in continental Europe, his English is excellent. With dark beer on tap, strength known only unto its maker and possibly not even him — and with a roaring fire in the background, I resolve to visit Poland more often. It’s a couple of hours before I stagger out, giving my companion a high five and a hug but I must be firm. Tomorrow I must get up early and catch the first train west.
“Tomorrow”, he says “what is tomorrow really?” I’ve found over the years that the philosophical stage of any evening’s revelling is the best time to quit, but as I make my way back to the hotel I realise that out here in no man’s land he has made a valid point.
The cold air clears the mind and as I look out towards the river I begin to understand.
Looking at the two towns on either side, I realise that tomorrow is nothing but an arbitary line through the dark night.