You enter the EU and you realize that this is a gated community. Man, was I wrong about Russia and Ukraine being European. I’ve just forgotten how high our standards are. But now I’m in, I’m unconditionally legal. I could stay as long as I want, get work, build a house and import as much German sausage as I wanted. Still, I’m an alien. And I like that.
It all starts with a perfectly paved road, which I didn’t have much since I left Moscow. Soon there is a cycle lane next to it, that leads into the city center. Lights. Lights, everywhere. Everything is illuminated. Street lamps, shop displays. It just feels like I entered a shopping mall two days before Christmas. Everything is just a little bit too perfect.
I stay one night in Przemysl. That’s right, you cannot pronounce that. Don’t worry, not even if you tried. I thought after China, things are going to be pronounceable, but I was wrong. Funny enough my room mate in the hostel is Lin Sin, who is Chinese and studies Polish. He shows me how to pronounce it. I try a few times and then ask, if he can instead teach me Chinese.
The next day is cold, but it has stopped raining. I pass Lancut and after countless little hills I finally reach Rzeszow, where Elzbieta my warmshower host is waiting for me. Elzbieta has traveled a lot and besides Polish, Spanish and English also speaks German fluently. I don’t know if it is because of this fact, but I feel pretty much understood. I like a critical view on traveling mixed with the will to do it anyway.
I took the picture above to show you something. No actually I want you to look at it and ask yourself, if you see anything special.
Now you see me
Here is what I see: There is this button you can press to switch the light for pedestrians to green. Then there is a zebra crossing. Left of it, there is a cycle lane. The cycle lane has its own traffic light in the shape of a bicycle. The border stones are lowered for the bicycles. On the other side of the street there is a public trash bin. It is empty. There is no trash laying next to it. And if you look closely, behind the black car on the right side you can see a „rent-a-bicycle“ station. If you cross the intersection, there is a no-standing sign for cars. I love it! And people actually do what the sign tells them. It’s great. I never thought I would one day love no-standing signs. And what you can’t see is the sound of the traffic light telling
blind peoplepeople with smartphones when the light turns green.
I loved the wild dirt tracks of central asia, but I also appreciate this. It’s two extremes, both with their own pros and cons.
Another day of ups and down and I arrive in Debica, where Marcim is my warmshower host. He likes to cook and has a funny dog. I like the Polish people, especially when they speak English or German.
Two more days and some muddy tracks and I finally arrive in Krakow. It’s obviously beautiful, but also the first city in Europe with a massive tourist industry. Old town consists of souvenir shops, horse carriages, bars, pubs, restaurants, cafes, hotels, hostels, chocolateries and „bad boys“, who invite you into strip clubs. My room mate is a woman from Taiwan. While I’m more of a writer, she is an illustrator and sketches whenever she can.
After two nights in Krakow I continue. The days have become very short. In Ukraine sun set at 6 pm. Now it sets at 4 pm, since I entered another time zone and a few days ago we additionally switched to winter time.
Soon I arrive in Oswiecim, better known for its German name: Auschwitz. I visit the two concentration camps. Some people take selfies in front of the execution wall. Couples pose under the „Arbeit macht frei“ sign. I’m confused, but the same evening I meet a young man from South Korea and ask him about his opinion. He says: „That’s human history“. In general I get the impression, that those who have been affected of course want to commemorate, but everybody else, just wants to move on. For them it’s just another Ankor Wat. Just another must-see on the Lonely Planet recommended Europe-in-ten-days tour. Another stop-over on the way to Krakow.
I’d like to write a bit about World War 2, because at this point I think I have seen many places, that were affected and many different points of view. I grew up with the silencing guilt of the Germans. I saw the heroic Hollywood movies of the US. I have seen the bunkers in Normandy and the endless soldier cemeteries in the Netherlands with countless „unknown soldier“ stones. In Japan I have seen the silent grief of a city that has been bombed out of existence. In central Asia I have seen memorials for those who have been sent to war. In Russia I crossed the grounds of tank battles. And when you see the memorials in Russia you can feel the painful scream of a nation that has survived, and nothing but that. In many towns there is still a flame burning day and night for the fallen soldiers of World War 2.
I know what the history books tell, but honestly I have no idea, how all of this could possibly happen and I think nobody will ever find out. But when you walk around in all these places today, you understand that they might be peaceful now just because of their past.
Because those many people didn’t die for an ideology, nor for a leader. They didn’t die for their country, nor for their honor. Not for pride, victory and not for freedom. If you ask me, they died because we needed an answer. When you pass a memorial it quietly asks: Was it worth it?
And the silence makes you find the answer yourself.
In Oswiecim I finally see the first Eurovelo sign. It’s raining when I leave and it doesn’t stop the whole day. I approach the border area. And then I almost miss it:
I think this is one of the most meaningful images of this journey. The little oval sign on the right says CESKA REPUBLIKA. That’s what is left of European borders. If you read this blog and you are not from Europe, I think this is very special. I even think tourists should cross one of these borders by foot. Because I know no other place in the world where you find countries that just abolished their borders. There is not even a barrier gate. Not even a line on the ground. It’s just this small sign. So insignificant, that it is even smaller than the sign of a village. I often tried to show a different view than the media usually portrays. So here you can see that in spite of all the bad news about the EU and its troubles it is still very united.
And then I leave Poland. I have only spend 6 days in this country. You see, countries are getting smaller. I liked being back in the EU and having the luxury of bicycle lanes. The Polish people I met were warm and welcoming. Some told me the roads haven’t always been like that and that this is an effort of the EU. The last time I was in Poland is already 20 years ago and I remember a totally different country. Poland today for me was often more modern than Germany. I really enjoyed seeing how everything has changed and how the EU has become such an extraordinary beautiful and well managed place to live. I wouldn’t hesitate a second to live in Krakow or any other city in Poland. There is nothing I would miss except my language.
By entering the EU I also got the feeling that being a cyclist with big panniers on the bicycle is nothing special any more. People no longer ask me where I’m from. They just assume I’m another cyclist on the Eurovelo. Nothing special. That’s good, because that’s what I have to get used to again. I’m no longer Matt Damon, nor am I a blonde monkey in a cage. Poland was already a neighboring country of Germany. However, for me there is one more country to cross.
Good-bye Poland. Thanks for opening the door.