PARIS — Very curious painting hangs in the municipal museum of Poznan, in western Poland. Painted in the last century, it depicts the town hall surrounded by water.
It's not floodwater, though, but canals, as if this central European city had been magically transformed into Venice.
When you see the town hall, however, you understand the artist's flight of fancy. The building is indeed a piece of 16th-century Italian architecture, its arcaded loggias and bell tower the work of Giovanni Battista Quadro, from Lugano in northern Italy.
Poznan's town hall, and the ancient square in which it stands, are a vivid reminder of how firmly Poland sits within Western Europe's cultural tradition.
The Roman Empire did not reach this far, but its influence was felt. And all the great waves of Europe's intellectual history washed over Poland - from the Renaissance and the Reformation to the Age of Enlightenment.
On the balmy Sunday that I spent in Poznan, the city was alive with jesters, mimes, and assorted roaming players, staging street shows as part of a theater festival. The dynamic spirit exuded by the performers and the crowd was the same spirit you might find at Edinburgh or Avignon or any other of the myriad theater festivals that have sprung up around Europe in recent decades.
And the young audiences, dressed in T-shirts, baggy shorts or jeans, and sneakers were indistinguishable from their Western counterparts.
More prosaic, but equally indistinguishable from its Western counterparts, was the German-owned Aral gas station on the highway outside Poznan. The map told me I was in Poland, but my senses told me I was in Germany: the pristine forecourt with new pumps; the air-conditioned shop decorated in restful shades of blue; and the carefully arranged shelves neatly stacked with candy, soft drinks, snacks, and magazines. The public telephone in the corner was even equipped with a pen and notepad for customers' convenience.
European styles and systems may be making inroads into Polish life. But they have by no means eradicated the border between Germany and Poland, marked by the Oder River ever since the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II.
Today, the Oder marks the easternmost point of the European Union - the traditional boundary of Western Europe. And though the residents of the German town of Frankfurt an der Oder - not to be confused with Frankfurt, Europe's futuristic financial center - complain that they live on the neglected margin of their country, they are still better off than their neighbors across the bridge.
For a start, they have functioning municipal services. As I wandered the streets of Slubice, on the Polish side of the river, a stiff wind whipped dust and litter into my face. A few minutes later, on the German side, the same wind found nothing on the streets to blow.
The bridge in between was packed with cars and pedestrians as Poles made the crossing in search of decent quality clothes, shoes, and electronics. Germans trekked to the Polish side to buy cheaper fruit, vegetables, and gasoline.
But if Germans go to Poland to buy what they need, they can shop for fun only in their own country. In Frankfurt an der Oder I came across the first mall of my journey - the first temple to consumerism. It was a small affair by American standards, a modest split-level glass and steel construction. But it offered a cornucopia of home furnishings, clothes, personal-care products, videos, computers, books, jewelry, toys, and other consumer goods.
Even for a small provincial town, this mall had more for sale than you could find in five square blocks in Warsaw.
It is perhaps more surprising because it is a town where unemployment is rampant, and resentment of the more prosperous western Germans is rife. People here don't compare themselves with the Poles; like most everyone else on the route I took, they look westward to judge how they are doing.
And in Frankfurt an der Oder, Thomas Vogel, an English teacher at the local university, confessed to me that a lot of people look west and find their western German cousins "wealthy, arrogant, and insensitive." Mr. Vogel himself is from the west, and he says his eastern neighbors also feel they are stereotyped as backward, racist, and ill-educated.
In this riverbank town, misunderstandings are common, and friendships few between western and eastern Germans.
"It would be a lot easier in some respects if the people here spoke a different language," Vogel rues. "Then I could simply say that they are different."
At breakfast the next morning in a Berlin hotel I encountered a restaurant full of prosperous, healthy-looking retired people, well-dressed and looking forward to a day's sightseeing.
This scene offered a stark contrast to Russia, where the life expectancy for men is just 58 years - and not much more for women. In Poland the life expectancy is a bit higher, though these retirees would probably have been poverty stricken, unable to adapt to the rigors of the free market, and worn out by a lifetime of hard labor.
In Germany, as in most other Western European countries, these elderly people were living a comfortable, active, and normal life, the beneficiaries of the most generous state health-care and pension systems ever devised. Their children and grandchildren will not be so fortunate: These systems cost more than governments can afford anymore. But Western European senior citizens belong to a generation that redefined the state's responsibilities toward its people - a European hallmark, to be sure.
A forgotten landmark
The German government is fulfilling another of its responsibilities on the East-West highway: It is binding the two halves of the country more closely through better roads. On the highway, which is blighted by road construction for almost its entire length, workmen by the thousands are not simply resurfacing, they are doubling the width of the autobahn from one end of the country to the other.
But in the middle, the authorities seem unsure what to do with the reason that better roads were never needed in the old days - the Iron Curtain border post. It sits off to one side of the motorway, near the village of Marienborn.
Now it is a vast expanse of concrete, with weeds pushing through the cracks and a giant shed roof sheltering lane after empty lane of customs and immigration huts. They are all locked now, except one housing a half-hearted exhibition about the past. The stilted goonbox overlooking the complex is empty, the baseball stadium lights never switched on.
Nobody pays the site any attention. The stream of cars and trucks roars by a hundred yards away, and the border post sits gray and barren in the rain.
Not that the next border I came across was any more active, even though it marks the frontier between two sovereign nations.
I was driving out of Aachen, in western Germany, the next morning, and having lost my way onto the autobahn I found myself in a leafy and prosperous suburb of the town. I rounded a gentle bend, and there by a hedge stood a road sign, deep blue with 12 golden stars in a circle (the flag of the European Union), with the words "Belgien 1000m."
Farther down the road stood a similar sign, only it read "Belgique Belgien." That was all there was to tell me I had crossed an international border. And I could have driven all the way to Portugal without being stopped at a border post, now that most European countries have signed the Schengen Convention, which came into force in 1990, in hopes of creating a seamless continent.
It's not just that I didn't see any border police in Western Europe. I saw only one policeman of any description between the German-Polish border and Paris - a German traffic cop helping sort out the mess on an autobahn after an accident.
Eastern Europe, on the other hand, is crawling with policemen, and not just to deal with high crime rates in the post-communist confusion. The constant police presence in Russia, Belarus, and Poland struck me as more of a holdover from these countries' authoritarian pasts.
And the fact that Western Europe has lots of old people and comparatively few policemen is a telling one. It points to a delicate balance between the authorities and individual citizens - to an atmosphere of tolerance, mutual respect, and prosperity that has yet to spread eastward.
Defining Europe by a set of shared values that everyone recognizes does not mean that everyone always lives up to them.
The Spanish government organized clandestine death squads in the 1980s to eliminate Basque separatist leaders; leading French and Italian politicians are routinely caught up in corruption scandals; Britain and Germany are disfigured by rampant racism.
Not to mention the fact that most Europeans do not recognize the Balkans as part of Europe, so as not to deal with the very "un-European" savagery that has torn the former Yugoslavia apart.
But ever since Charlemagne - or Charles the Great - founded the Holy Roman Empire 12 centuries ago, gathering tribes from Spain to Germany, there has been a "Europe." It has been united sometimes by force and sometimes by reason.
Before driving the final stretch of my journey home to Paris, I stopped in Aachen, also known in France as Aix-la-Chapelle. Largely rebuilt since World War II, the town displays all the typical traits of European modernity: pedestrian precincts decorated with potted plants, a wealth of luxury goods in the shop windows, ATMs offering a choice of German deutsche marks, Dutch guilders, or Belgian francs.
But I had come to see an earlier symbol of Europe - the throne on which Charlemagne was crowned. It stands in the shadowy gallery of an octagonal cathedral chapel, a simple unadorned construction hooked together from four slabs of creamy marble.
From this throne at the dawn of European Christendom, Charlemagne issued edicts founding public schools, levying general taxes, and laying the foundations of European civilization. It had taken me 10 days to travel here from Moscow. It has taken Europe more than a millennium to get where it is today.
Previous Articles in the Series
July 28: A Soviet legacy keeps Russia and Belarus from becoming European.
July 30: Changing cuisine across Europe reflects changing attitudes.
July 31: An emerging West European identity is evident in Poland.
Aug. 3: The pristine Bialowieza Forest in Poland offers a glimpse of timeless Europe.
Aug. 4: A drive down highway E-30 shows the East's dependence on the West.
Aug. 6: Europeans tend to think that whatever lies west on the continent is better.
These articles can be found at the Monitor's Web site: www.csmonitor.com