Perfectly Polish Poznań, Sans Sleep
In some parts of the world, sleeping in public is a felony. It’s true.
Odd as that sounds, I should know: I’ve come dangerously close to being handed a hefty fine or being brought to a police precinct for that very thing.
For some reason, dubious encounters with Eastern European law enforcement and I seem to go hand-in-hand. Case in point: I am yet to visit a country that was formerly occupied by the Soviet Union and not been accosted by the police for something.
The latest incident that could have burned a hole in my pocket: sleeping at a bus stop. That’s right.
OK, so maybe I had it coming. After all, I had been awake for more than 24 hours straight thanks to an all-night party the day before in Berlin (a recap of which can be found here). And I had made the decision to keep my eyes open during the bus ride to Poland, mainly because I’d never seen the country before. And I had made the mistake of refusing to book a hotel room.
Still, don’t you think such treatment is a little harsh? Then again, harshness is a trait the Polish city of Poznań has had more than its share of throughout its history.
To the uninitiated, Poznań is a lot of things: quiescent, pulsating, developing, still struggling to rebuild from the ravages of war. While those are all true to a certain degree, they are also patently false to an equal measure.
What’s more true is this: one’s expectations of Poznań are likely to be determined by what they have previously heard about Poland. I had none, mainly because of all the countries I’ve studied and met people from, I knew about as much about Poland as I did Timor-Leste. In other words: not a whole lot.
I sure learned quickly, though.
A gray curtain greeted us as the bus pulled into main station. For much of its history, Poznań, one of the oldest cities in Poland, had played a significant role in the country, especially when it came to trade – in the 16th century it was a major center for the fur and leather trade. Later, its proximity to Germany proper prompted Hitler to order the soldiers stationed there during World War II to defend it to the death against invading Soviet forces; the resulting devastation in the brutal battle that followed left more than 55 percent of the city destroyed.
Today, however, Poznań serves as a microcosm of Poland’s resurgence. Construction peppers the city like sesame seeds on a bun as it does in most of emerging Eastern Europe, but here there seems to be a real achievement, a real sense of purpose.
And why shouldn’t there be? The Euro 2012 football (soccer) tournament helped turn the world’s gaze to Poland, and Poznań delivered marvelously: Stadion Miejski (Municipal Stadium) underwent a complete reconstruction that allowed it to accommodate gargantuan crowds in comfort, and bloggers from Belfast to Beijing raved about the understated amenities of the cozy Stary Browar (Old Brewery). Students have returned to bolster the enrollment at local universities, reversing the effects of a profound brain drain that continued into the 1990s. And, despite slowing somewhat of late, the economy of Poland remains one of the most robust in Europe, partially due to the fact the country does not use the euro (the currency of Poland is the złoty — have fun pronouncing it properly). Poznań has, in turn, seen the economic benefits — a new central train station that’s currently under construction serving as among the best proof.
Exiting the moist warmness of the bus and exchanging it for the moist briskness of 11 a.m. on a Saturday at a latitude equivalent to British Columbia, I looked around. To be honest, there wasn’t a whole lot to look at in the middle of a long-distance bus terminal other than large vehicles that use large amounts of CO2 and lots — and lots — of asphalt.
I headed out, with no particular direction in mind. I had deliberately done absolutely zero research on what there was to see or do in Poznań. But there was a reason for what seemed like travel suicide, especially when I didn’t understand a word of Polish: authenticity. I wanted to really experience a city — and a country — without any preconceived notions. I wanted to see what locals see, go where locals go, do what locals do.
That and I didn’t want to feel disappointed having missed something. I had only a few hours before my flight back to Germany, anyway. Mission: quite possible — hopefully.
With no clue where I was going, I headed to my favorite spot in every city, no matter the size: the nearest coffee shop. Wandering through the rainy mist, past a large park and several historic buildings which predate America, I found myself in the Cocorico Cafe, where a quick coffee could help me gather my senses enough to figure out my plan of attack for the day.
The plain surroundings — more reminiscent of a Starbucks than the eclectic atmosphere I was used to at independent coffee shops — somehow fit with the blank slate that was my expectations for the day. Walking up to the counter and ordering my go-to favorite (small white chocolate mocha, nothing extra), the dark-haired barista produced the frothing concoction — complete with a little plate — in a few moments with a regularity revealing years of experience.
I decided to pounce on the opportunity to dispel the doldrums.
“As you can probably tell, I’m not from Poland,” I began.
“Where are you from?” the barista interrupted in an inquisitive tone that indicated foreigners weren’t common here.
“Well I live in Germany these days,” I replied, “but I was born in the States.”
“America! I’ve always wanted to go there. Barack Obama, he’s a very good president, no?”
“Yeah, he’s pretty cool.” Other than with my best friend, politics wasn’t really something I talked about.
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